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Clinton and Obama on Iran – Diplomacy 101

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subtlety? that's the other guy's problem

subtlety? that's the other guy's problem

To say that the Obama administration is all over the place on Iran is an understatement.

During the campaign, President Obama assured us that he would work hard to start a dialogue with Iran. His view remains, apparently at least, that engagement is the best way to deal with Tehran, their sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas, and most importantly the thorny issue of their nuclear ambitions.

Take today’s diplomatic shuffle on Iran. During her flight from Ramallah to Brussels after meeting Mahmoud Abbas, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made the mistake of holding court with the press during which she gave Tehran a piece of her mind with rhetoric that was straight from W’s dusty old “axis of evil” playbook. HRC suggested that Iran seeks to “intimidate as far as they think their voice can reach.” She went on to say “It is clear that Iran intends to interfere with the internal affairs of all of these people and try to continue their efforts to fund terrorism, whether it’s Hezbollah or Hamas or other proxies.”  Yeah, Hil, we’ve heard this about fifty thousand times before.

During the same in-flight interview, probably after a whisper from an advisor, she remembered that she was working for Obama, not still campaigning against him, and went on to reassure the press corps that the President was in fact still seeking to engage Iran in a dialogue, “but wanted to make sure it’s constructive”.

First Hilary lambasts the Iranians then she wants our negotiations with them to be constructive.  Uhh.  Okay, what’s the best way to put this? 

Let’s start with the dictionary definition of the word “diplomacy”.

According to Merriam-Webster diplomacy is defined as…

1 : the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations
2 : skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility (my italics)

Hilary Clinton’s a giant of an American in many, many ways, but as a diplomat, she’s still got those training wheels very firmly on. If you’re looking to change the way you deal with a hostile nation, you don’t trot out the combative and misguided spiel the last guys used, because that’s guaranteed to make your negotiating partner, the Iranians in this case, very mad. Maybe it’s too much to ask of America’s chief diplomat, but could a little diplomacy be in order?  Sadly, it seems to be a lost art in Washington. Here’s why.

Firstly, we seem to have have developed a tendency (learned over the past few Republican administrations) that diplomacy is the same thing as policy. It isn’t. Diplomacy is a means of achieving policy.

Secondly, we’ve forgotten the art of the back-channel. Remember the days when the Presidents of the US and ye olde Soviet Union would take long walks through the winter woods to talk about nukes with just a couple of frigid translators to keep them company? Well, we need to get those days back, because far too much diplomacy is played out in public, and not enough behind closed doors. Public diplomacy has too much baggage. Diplomats from democratic states become accountable at home for what they say around the table, leaving one hand tied behind their backs when they’re in negotiations with autocratic countries where democracy, a free press and public accountability are not things on the worry list. More communiques, less chit-chat.

Thirdly, for years now, thanks partly to the Neo-cons, we’ve confused diplomacy with honesty. They’re actually two sides of the same coin. Honesty is something you employ with your friends, whereas diplomacy is something that’s more useful with your enemies. In short, Hilary Clinton would be great dealing with the Israelis or Europeans, who need a little straight talk. But the Iranians? Not so good.

Fourthly, we seem to have forgotten that golden rule. Don’t arouse hostility. Negotiations don’t tend to go very far when you begin them by slapping the other guy’s face with a Neo-conservative gauntlet. But that’s exactly what Hilary just did.  She aroused hostility. A whole darn planeload of it. To Tehran, her rhetoric is an outrageous affront that naturally must be trumped by even more outlandish rhetoric, for example, Israel is a “cancerous tumor”, and Obama is just a Bush retread, etc etc. This stuff is just posturing that’s not worth the hot air it rode in on. And so the confusing standoff goes on, and all that engagement talk? More hot air. Iran likes it that way. They don’t want to talk, at least not until after they get their nukes, when the price for their compliance rises by at least two orders of magnitude.

Fifthly, we stopped doing our homework. The art and practice of conducting negotiations means knowing who you’re dealing with. Iranians are very hospitable and polite, and respond to hospitality and politeness with even more hospitality and politeness. It’s just who they are. We’ve tried the axis of evil concept and that got us nowhere. So why not go with something different. Let them think they’ve ground us down. Why not gush endlessly about how much we’re looking forward to opening up trade with the great nation of Iran, how much we admire its people, and marvel at its ancient civilization. Why not thank the Iranians profusely for their help in stopping cross-border arms supplies to the Sadrists in Iraq (even though they did diddly squat), or for the gracious way they worked so closely with humanitarian teams from the West when overcoming this or that earthquake. Iranians love a compliment or ten. If we hold out the hand of friendship, they simply won’t be able to help being nice back. Why? Because a vast swathe of the Iranian public doesn’t hate America, because they want the world to think they’re just fabulous, and because their trading partners in Europe, who have been asking us to play nice for years, will expect Tehran to respond in kind.

Sure they might still blab on about Israel being a carbuncle on the face on an ancient babylonian whore, but it’s a sure thing that the insults against President and the US would come to a swift halt.

And then we could actually make some progress towards actually engaging with Tehran, and dealing with the very real dangers that they pose to world peace.

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