With one-sixth of the Obama administration's term of office complete, last week it revealed its profound commitment to an unprecedented policy of eschewing the exercise of great-power diplomacy -- and indeed of being willing to consciously accept humiliation -- in the hope of gaining future advantage from talking with hostile but weaker nations.
Following up on his campaign commitment to unconditional diplomatic talks, the president -- in dealings last week with Iran and North Korea through his government -- yielded previously asserted conditions for negotiations as a price his administration is willing to pay for talks with those nations.
Earlier in the year, the president set Sept. 30 as a deadline for Iran to suspend its nuclear program in return for substantial talks with the United States -- or face tougher economic sanctions. Also, the president previously sent personal letters to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in hopes of direct, private engagement.
On Sept. 8, Iran responded that talks are possible, but only on various general international issues; the country's nuclear program would continue.
The U.S. government then announced that Iran had achieved a "possible breakout capacity" to develop bomb-grade materiel from its enrichment of uranium -- quickly, if it chose to do so.
"We have serious concerns that Iran is deliberately attempting, at a minimum, to preserve a nuclear weapons option," said Glyn Davies, U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The administration continued to hold out the threat of U.N. sanctions, although Russia and China would need to support or not oppose such measures in the United Nations.
Nonetheless, the administration defied expectations by taking up the offer to negotiate directly with Iran. Then Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, briefly raised expectations, saying he would not rule out discussing the nuclear issue "should the conditions be right."
Parallel to these considerations, in July, our president entered into negotiations with Russia to possibly give up anti-missile defenses (against Iranian missiles) in Poland and the Czech Republic as part of a proposed "reset" of U.S.-Russia relations. This followed a private letter from the American president to the Russian president suggesting we would get rid of anti-missile missiles in exchange for Russia's supporting sanctions against Iran for its nuclear development. This private letter was ridiculed publicly and rejected by Russians.
Last week, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Russia would not support any intensification of sanctions on Iran. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin added for emphasis that Moscow has "no grounds to doubt" Iran's claim that its nuclear program is purely peaceful and that "any use of force, delivering any kind of strike, won't help, won't solve the problem. On the contrary, it will hurt the entire region. As for sanctions, they won't bring the desired effect."
Finally, after Washington accepted that offer of face-to-face negotiations with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and after Mottaki raised expectations of nuclear discussion, Ahmadinejad then asserted (via a conversation with a British diplomat) that "from the Iranian nation's viewpoint, the nuclear case is closed." He went on to say, "Having peaceful nuclear technology is Iran's lawful and definite right, and Iranians will not negotiate with anyone over their undeniable rights."
U.S. officials gamely said that expectations of a breakthrough were "extremely low" but that Washington was ready to test whether Iran was genuinely interested in dialogue. It added, "If Iran is willing to enter into serious negotiations, then they will find a willing participant in the U.S. and the other countries."
So for eight months, the administration has reiterated its ultimatum that either Iran must agree to direct talks on its nuclear program by Sept. 30 or we will get economic sanctions from the U.N. -- during which eight months we have been dangling before Russia offers of rescission of our anti-missile commitments to Poland and the Czech Republic in exchange for Russian cooperation with sanctions (and general nuclear disarmament).
Then last week, in perhaps coordinated succession, Russia refused to support sanctions; Iran offered to talk maybe about nukes; we accepted talks; Iran then refused to talk nuclear issues; and we nonetheless continue to agree to talk under whatever terms are offered by the fraudulently re-elected murderer of his own people and aspiring Jewish genocidist, Ahmadinejad. For the greatest nation on earth to accept such impertinent treatment by so vile a despot is a profound lesson in humility.
But North Korean developments last week showed that the administration's Iranian policy is no fluke. The North Koreans have long wanted direct talks with the U.S. on the wide-ranging subject of their nuclear ambitions. Until last week, the U.S. long insisted that it would speak directly to North Korea only if that nation already had agreed to rejoin the six-party talks, and then any one-on-one contact would be limited to pushing Pyongyang back into multilateral negotiations over its atomic projects.
But last week, first Pyongyang declared that it is close to being able to enrich uranium, a development that would give North Korea a potential second means of building nuclear weapons. Then, no longer surprisingly, a State Department spokesman announced we would abandon the six-party-first requirement and meet one-on-one with Pyongyang negotiators. "We are prepared for a bilateral talk, if that will help advance the six-party process," he said.
Since our founding, the United States has protected its sovereignty and national interests through the practice of a proud and defiant diplomacy (backed up by ample martial capacity) -- admittedly at the price of fairly constant warfare. Now we are entering a new and great experiment: practicing diplomacy with a humility almost worthy of the Prince of Peace. We shall see whether such methods work in this world.