Former Bush State Department Official: We Should Talk to Our Enemies

Oct 27, 2008 11:10am

Nicholas Burns, the former undersecretary of state for political affairs, until his retirement in April, writes in Newsweek about the McCain-Obama debate over talking to enemies of the U.S.

"One of the sharpest and most telling differences on foreign policy between Barack Obama and John McCain is whether the United States should talk to difficult and disreputable leaders, like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez," writes the former highest-ranking American career diplomat. "In each of the three presidential debates, McCain belittled Obama as naive for arguing that America should be willing to negotiate with such adversaries. In the vice presidential debate, Sarah Palin went even further, accusing Obama of ‘bad judgment … that is dangerous’ …

"Are McCain and Palin correct that America should stonewall its foes? I lived this issue for 27 years as a career diplomat, serving both Republican and Democratic administrations. Maybe that’s why I’ve been struggling to find the real wisdom and logic in this Republican assault against Obama. I’ll bet that a poll of senior diplomats who have served presidents from Carter to Bush would reveal an overwhelming majority who agree with the following position: of course we should talk to difficult adversaries — when it is in our interest and at a time of our choosing.

"The more challenging and pertinent question, especially for the McCain-Palin ticket, is the reverse: Is it really smart to declare we will never talk to such leaders? Is it really in our long-term national interest to shut ourselves off from one of the most important and powerful states in the Middle East — Iran — or one of our major suppliers of oil, Venezuela? … it is crude, simplistic and wrong to charge that negotiations reflect weakness or appeasement. More often than not, they are evidence of a strong and self-confident country …

"I’m not saying the next president should sit down immediately with Ahmadinejad. We should initiate contact at a lower level to investigate whether it’s worth putting the president’s prestige on the line. We should leave the threat of military action on the table to give us greater leverage as we talk to the Iranian government. And ultimately, we’d want other countries with influence — like Russia and China — to sit on our side of the table in order to bring maximum pressure to bear against Tehran. But the United States hasn’t had a meaningful set of talks with Iran, on all the critical issues that separate us, in 30 years, since the Khomeini revolution. To illustrate how far we have isolated ourselves, think about this: I served as the Bush administration’s point person on Iran for three years but was never permitted to meet an Iranian. To her immense credit, Secretary Rice arranged for my successor to participate in a multilateral meeting with Iranian officials this past summer. That is a good first step, but the next American president should initiate a more sustained discussion with senior Iranians …"

- jpt

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