Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Obama's engagement policy isn't naive politics

Business Times - 20 Aug 2009

Obama's engagement policy isn't naive politics


ONE of the central themes of presidential candidate Barack Obama was his willingness to engage with foreign governments whose policies ran contrary to American interests and values.

Mr Obama's suggestion that he would be willing to start a dialogue - and perhaps even meet the ayatollahs in Teheran, the Ba'athists in Damascus or members of the antiquated communist regimes in Pyongyang and Havana - ignited a lot of criticism among his political rivals who portrayed him as 'inexperienced' and 'naïve' - not to mention his depiction as a Chamberlain-like 'appeaser'.

But Mr Obama dismissed those charges, rejected the axiom promoted by then president George W Bush - that US diplomatic engagement with so-called 'rogue regimes', including the members of the 'Axis of Evil', amounted to providing legitimacy to these 'bad guys' who should be isolated, punished and eventually removed from power.

Instead, he insisted that talking directly with, say, North Korea could advance US interests by helping to communicate US concerns and perhaps even create a basis for detente and cooperation. After all, the US diplomatic opening to communist China during the presidency of Richard Nixon in the midst of the Cold War helped strengthen American leverage over its global rival, the Soviet Union. A similar opening to, say, Iran could make it possible for Washington to improve its strategic position in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why not give diplomacy a chance before taking the neoconservative-favoured road to war?

And despite the vicious attacks on Mr Obama's diplomatic agenda, the Democratic presidential candidate got elected and won a clear political mandate to take his own road towards engagement. After six months in office, President Obama continues walking on that road - with mixed results. There are some signs of detente in the relationship between Washington and Damascus, which could help detach Syria from its partnership with Iran and the Hezbollah and encourage the restarting of peace talks between the Syrians and the Israelis. There have also been some indications that Cuba and the US are starting to take baby steps in the direction of economic and diplomatic engagement which could create the conditions for the gradual lifting of the US embargo on Havana.

But when it comes to the two major geo-strategic and nuclear crisis points - Iran and North Korea - US overtures have been impeded by the domestic political uncertainty facing these two regimes: the post-election upheaval in Teheran and the expected transition in power in Pyongyang.

Some observers in Washington maintain that they are 'cautiously optimistic' that former president Bill Clinton's recent trip to North Korea - during which he met their leader Kim Jong Il and helped win the release of two jailed American journalists - could provide a certain momentum for a renewed dialogue with the communist hermits on the Korean peninsula.

Indeed, a similar type of informal and personal US diplomacy could lead to engagement with another reclusive regime in Asia, after US Senator Jim Webb from Virginia, a Democrat lawmaker with close ties to Mr Obama, met with both Myanmar's top leader, General Than Shwe, and with Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy figure who has been under house arrest since the 1990 election. Mr Webb succeeded in getting the release of John Yettaw, an American who had been jailed for swimming across a lake to Ms Suu Kyi's villa in May.

Mr Webb's visit and the release of Mr Yettaw could open the door for more comprehensive talks with America, leading to the lifting of US sanctions as part of a deal and could involve moves towards democratic reform in the country as well as guarantees that the regime wasn't trying to develop nuclear military capability.

Obama administration officials have stressed that, not unlike Mr Clinton's trip to North Korea, Mr Webb did not go to Myanmar as an official envoy. The senator told reporters in Bangkok that the issue of US sanctions was not raised during his talks with Gen Shwe. But Mr Webb, who heads the Senate's Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs and who is a Vietnam War veteran, expressed his hope that the government of Myanmar would eventually allow Ms Suu Kyi to participate in the political process, and that the US could respond to the 'gestures' offered by Myanmar and 'begin laying a foundation of goodwill and confidence-building so that we may be able to have a better situation in the future'.

At a time when the US is trying to strengthen its military presence and economic ties in a region where China's influence seems to be growing, talking with Myanmar would demonstrate that President Obama's engagement policy isn't naive. Indeed, it does make a lot of geo-strategic and geo-economic sense.

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