President Obama’s foreign team, headed by Secretary of State Clinton, is so far running on a single buzz word: “engagement.” The concept does not quite add up to real policy - let alone an Obama Doctrine - but engaging with enemies, competitors, allies and friends is the organizing principle around which the new president’s foreign policy is conducted.
Washington is now either engaged or plans to engage with Iran, North Korea, Syria, the Palestinians in Gaza and the most backwards organs of the United Nations, to name but a few entities that were either ignored or publicly snubbed by former President Bush. Mr. Obama and his team also promise to deal more amicably than Mr. Bush did with Western European allies, as well as with Russia, China, Pakistan and Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose concerns are now sure to resonate louder in Washington.
The jury is out on all this engagement activity, with the exception of one clear failure: a vain attempt to mollify United Nations human rights organs and try to stop them from promoting anti-Israeli and anti-American agenda. Ever since the new Human Rights Council announced its intention last year to convene a follow-up to its predecessor’s 2001 conference on racism in South Africa, diplomats the world over were wondering about America’s reaction: would it join Geneva’s April gathering known as Durban II, or boycott it? In its final year in power the Bush administration decided to defer a decision, leaving it for the next administration to make.
And so, last month Washington sent a delegation to Geneva to try to change a proposed Durban II outcome document, which included demands for slavery reparations, calls to muzzle speech to avoid offending Muslims, and numerous references to Israel as a racist country. The American overture did not go very far. Even the most dedicated internationalists in Mr. Obama’s inner circle quickly realized that the Geneva fix was in, and announced that unless the document fundamentally changes, they will steer clear of Durban II.
Could such clearly futile exercise have been avoided? The State Department could have consulted with the foreign ministries in Canada and Israel, which had already announced their withdrawal from Durban II. Our diplomats could have also coordinated their position with colleagues in Britain, the Netherlands or the Czech Republic, who had planned to withdraw as well. Or best of all: the new diplomatic wiz-kids brought in by Mr. Obama could have turned for advice to their outgoing counterparts in the Bush administration, assuring continuity in American policy despite promises of “change” to everything.
But no. Even after the clear failure of their attempt to fit in with the Geneva crowd, American diplomats at the U.N. continue to send fresh feelers, asking colleagues about the wisdom of joining the Human Rights Council or the International Criminal Court - two bodies shunned by the Bush administration.
Outside the United Nations, as well, engagement proponents run wild. Mr. Obama sent his Russian counterpart, President Medvedev, a letter offering a deal that would entail scrapping America’s proposed missile shield deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic, in return for Russian help in pressuring Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Beijing she would not be so upset about human rights violations if China cooperates on economic issues. New diplomatic channels to Syria were opened to try to lure the Assad regime out of Iran’s influence. And, most ominously, direct engagement with Iran remains high on Washington’s agenda.
The results of this diplomatic hyperactivity are inconclusive, but the emerging pattern is not promising. America’s quid is yielding very little pro quo. Russia welcomed the intention to “review” the missile shield program, but promised little in return - and no change in its Iran policies. Syria was delighted it was back on America’s negotiation radar screen, but made clear that its relations with Iran and proxy terror groups, Hezbollah, Hamas, are off the table. And while Mr. Obama publicly pursues his goal of negotiating with Iran without preconditions, the Tehran mullahs are amassing conditions for him to meet before talks can begin.
Mr. Obama is reportedly a great poker player but, as the Durban II case showed, his administration is “engaging” like a player who ups the ante - even goes all in - before he has a chance to even examine his own cards, let alone look around the table for other players’ “tell,” the signals they betray that may raise doubts about their public statements.
The good news: Mr. Obama and some on his team seem like quick learners. Most significantly, Ms. Clinton is reported to have told an Arab colleague during a conference in Egypt over the weekend that she was “skeptical” that talks with Iran could yield real positive results. Ms. Clinton, of course, had raised similar doubts during her failed presidential campaign last year. But now she serves as the top foreign policy maker under Mr. Obama.
Let’s hope her skepticism prevails in internal battles over other presidential advisers who are so eager to negotiate that they forget that engagement, which could be a fine policy tool, must not be used for its own sake. The object is to further America’s goals.
Benny Avni is a U.N.-based columnist.