So, Talk Is Not Enough

Conn Carroll /

It’s not going to be as easy as Obama thought.

As candidate, he received kudos for saying that “strong presidents and strong countries … talk to their adversaries,” implying that the Bush Administration did not even try. He promised he would sit down with Iran, for example, to settle our differences over its nuclear weapons program. He would talk to Russia to resolve our differences over missile defenses in Europe. All that was needed was for the U.S. to “rediscover the power of our diplomacy” and stop treating those who hate the U.S., well, as rogues.

Well, he hasn’t been in office very long, and already, his ‘new’ strategy of diplomacy and talking to rogues is faltering.

As the Washington Post reported yesterday, “Iranian leaders said Wednesday that President Obama follows the ‘crooked ways’ of his predecessor, repeated earlier warnings that Iranian missiles could reach Israel and reiterated that the Holocaust was ‘a lie.’”

On Tuesday, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said, he is willing to talk, but “[h]aggling’” is “not productive….If the Obama administration showed ‘common sense’ in proposing a ‘common shield against all types of threats’ and reconsidered its plans of a missile defence system which could target Russia, Moscow would be prepared to negotiate.”

So much for hoping for change just because the White House changed hands. The Obama administration’s plan to differentiate itself from Bush’s isn’t fooling many friends or enemies. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was speaking for the first time about the Obama administration. So his saying that Obama is already on “the wrong path,” and that America’s continued support for Israel is a “cancerous tumor” did not fall on deaf ears. He added insult to injury when he said the policies of “the new American president, who came to office with the slogan of bringing change in the policies of the Bush administration,” were underwriting “state terrorism, injustice, oppression and a 22-day-long massacre of hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children.” Khamenei went on to deny the Holocaust and express uncompromising support for such “resistance movements” as Hezbollah and Hamas.

For Russia, the fact that the White House hand delivered a secret letter from President Obama a month ago to President Medvedev was also rebuffed. The letter hinted that if Russia cooperated with the U.S. in halting Tehran’s atomic aspirations, then the U.S. would walk back from its plans to field missile defenses in Europe. Medvedev, who acknowledged getting the note, roundly rejected any such linkages.

Taken together, these signals should give the new team in Washington pause. Improving U.S.–Russian relations and better behavior by Tehran is desirable, but talk is never enough with rogues who sense weakness on their opponent’s part. As many American leaders have found out, you need hard military strength backing up your soft power strategies to get our adversaries’ attention—let alone to get them to want to talk.