Obama’s Readiness to Talk To America’s Enemies

By Gordon Campbell


Almost every other day, the US presidential race – and the place the Iraq war plays within it – manages to leave the rest of the world looking on amazed at the way the world’s only superpower conducts its rites of succession. Not to mention at the Republican acceptance of eternal war in Iraq. Earlier today, John McCain was being reported to the effect that “it’s not too important” how long the US stays in Iraq, so long as it gets [American] casualties down.

Uh-huh. Meanwhile, General David Petraeus has quietly announced that Iraq’s elections, scheduled for October 1st , probably won’t happen at that time. Apparently, things are going so swimmingly the US now needs to ensure the looming Iraqi election debacle does not take place before US voters go to the polls in their own elections.

This paralysed stance – which envisages an intolerable but indefinite US military role in Iraq, even as it pours derision on all of the alternatives – is becoming a recurring feature of the foreign policy exchanges between the candidates. Last week

John McCain slammed Barrack Obama once again for the statement, made several months ago, that Obama was willing to talk without pre-conditions to America’s enemies, if such talks would be in the country’s best interests. “Americans ought to be concerned.” McCain said, “about the judgment of a presidential candidate who says he’s ready to talk, in person and without conditions, with tyrants from Havana to Pyongyang…”

Oh really ? The video of Obama’s original statement is worth checking out in full, if only to contrast Obama’s position with the weaselly comments made straight afterwards, by Hillary Clinton.

Essentially, Obama was saying that, as President, he would be ready, willing and able to enter into dialogue to resolve disputes, without demanding prior concessions. Meaning : he would be ready to talk to Iran for example, about winding back that country’s nuclear programme without demanding as a pre-condition that it agree to wind back its nuclear programme.

Effective regional diplomacy in the Middle East, Obama explained, necessitated the US talking to Iran and Syria, if only about Iraq : “Because if Iraq collapses, they’re going to have responsibilities.” He could have added that both countries are already meeting some of those responsibilities – now that huge numbers of Iraqi Sunni refugees have fled to Damascus, in the wake of ethnic cleansing campaigns conducted across Iraq, by Shia militias.

Leave it to the pundits though, to ponder whether what Obama said was sheer common sense, or hopeless naïvete. The more bizarre point is that while Obama was being criticised for his willingness to have a dialogue with Iran, where was the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. America’s ally and alleged best hope for pulling the country back into shape?

Right. He was in Teheran, holding cordial diplomatic talks with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In other words, he was doing – presumably with the White House’s fore-knowledge and blessing – exactly what the Republican candidate has been attacking Obama for proposing!

Furthermore al-Maliki and Khamenei were finding much to agree upon, within the normal constraints of diplomatic nicety. Not all that surprising, since for the last 30 years, Iran has been financially and diplomatically backing the al-Dawa party that al-Maliki leads. And the focus of attention at this month’s talks? The draft security agreement that the US is currently pressuring al-Maliki and his colleagues to sign. The bulk of the Iraqi Parliament seems in no mood to do anything of the sort. The widespread Iraqi opposition to this ‘ state of forces’ agreement is also being backed to the hilt by Iraq’s most revered cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

It was Sistani, you may recall, who successfully forced the US into allowing elections to be held in 2005, rather than let the Americans hand-pick people to run the country. Sistani is now demanding a nationwide referendum on the agreement. While much of al-Maliki’s trip to Teheran may have been a pre-election posture of independence, his need to do so only underlines just how explosive the sovereignty issues (which are at the core of the US/Iraqi pact) really are.

The draft pact does seem a pretty outrageous deal. For one thing, it allows the US to maintain some 58 bases on Iraqi soil beyond 2008. It would also effectively allow the US to define what is an aggression upon Iraq, and what is democracy inside Iraq. On Monday, the McClatchy news service reported the furore in these terms :

“Iraqi lawmakers say the United States is demanding 58 bases as part of a proposed “status of forces” agreement that will allow U.S. troops to remain in the country indefinitely.

Leading members of the two ruling Shiite parties said the Iraqi government rejected this proposal along with another U.S. demand that would have effectively handed over to the United States the power to determine if a hostile act from another country is aggression against Iraq. Lawmakers said they fear this power would drag Iraq into a war between the United States and Iran….

Other conditions sought by the United States include control over Iraqi air space up to 30,000 feet and immunity from prosecution for U.S. troops and private military contractors. The agreement would run indefinitely but be subject to cancellation with two years notice from either side, lawmakers said…”

Obama responded to this news by saying that any security agreement would have to be submitted to Congress for prior approval, and he would reject any wording that awarded the US permanent bases in Iraq. McCain did not respond to several requests for comment.

So, which approach seems more likely to be fruitful in future ? Talking to one’s enemies without pre-conditions, or not talking to them, except from a position of dominance? This isn’t merely a theoretical question anymore, or a popularity contest between naivete and experience held in presidential campaign cyberspace. Real life consequences are already occurring on the ground, and they are leaving the US marginalized. In recent months, as the New York Times pointed out last week, three long frozen conflicts in the Middle East have begun to make progress, and none of the key negotiations have involved the United States.

“Israel and Hamas may be inching toward a cease-fire that would end attacks by both sides and, perhaps, loosen the siege imposed on the impoverished Gaza Strip. The factions in Lebanon, after a long period of institutional paralysis and a near civil war, have reached a tentative political agreement. And eight years after their last negotiations, Israel and Syria have announced the resumption of indirect peace talks….

The Gaza deal is being brokered by Egypt. Qatar mediated the Lebanese accord. Turkey is shepherding the Israeli-Syrian contacts. All three countries are close allies of the United States. Under normal circumstances, they would be loath to act on vital regional matters without America’s consent.

Yet in these cases they seem to have ignored Washington’s preferences. The negotiations either involved parties with whom the United States refuses to talk, initiated a process the United States opposes, or produced an outcome harmful to its preferred local allies…”

John McCain and daughter Meghan McCain on the campaign trail


What this suggests is that the old way, the Bush/McCain way, of the US rattling its military might and waving its cheque book – unerringly, on the side of the factions least likely to prevail – is just about finished. Even America’ s allies in the region now seem willing to go it alone diplomatically, given the calibre of the current leadership in the White House.

“By acting as they did, Egypt, Qatar and Turkey gave the true measure of America’s dwindling credibility and leverage after American debacles in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. They are willing to take matters into their own hands and overlook American ambivalence about their doing so.

Intent on isolating its foes, the United States has instead ended up marginalizing itself. In one case after another, the Bush administration has wagered on the losing party or on a lost cause.

Israel wants to deal with Hamas because it — not America’s Palestinian partners — possesses what Israel most wants: the ability to end the violence and to release Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas. Israel has come around to dealing with Syria because Damascus — not America’s so-called moderate Arab allies — holds the crucial cards: Syria has a clear strategy of alliance with Iran; it supports the more powerful forces on the ground in Lebanon; and it provides refuge to opposition and Islamist forces in Palestine.

Likewise, America’s Lebanese friends had to give in to Hezbollah’s demands once it became clear that the support of the United States could not undo their country’s balance of power….The United States has cut itself off from the region on the dubious assumption that it can somehow maximize pressure on its foes by withholding contact, choosing to flaunt its might in the most primitive and costly of ways.

It has pushed its local allies toward civil wars — arming Fatah against Hamas; financing some Lebanese forces against Hezbollah — they could not, and did not, win. And it has failed to understand that its partners could achieve more in alliance than in conflict with their opposition.”

Exactly, Which, among other things, only underlines how finely in tune Obama’s approach really is – both instinctively and intellectually – with America’s reduced stature in the world. Obviously, the US still remains an immensely powerful force for good and for evil. Yet it has been diminished by the Bush presidency in ways that only a less confrontational approach can hope to heal.

Talking may not like seem much, but it is a start. If Ronald Reagan could talk to the Soviets and Richard Nixon to the Chinese – both without prior demands for capitulation – then surely a President Obama can, and should, be talking to the Iranians. Everyone else seems to be.