Bring On the Foreign Policy Debate

Senior Fellow
John R. Bolton
President Bush's speech to Israel's Knesset, where he equated "negotiat[ing] with the terrorists and radicals" to "the false comfort of appeasement," drew harsh criticism from Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders. They apparently thought the president was talking about them, and perhaps he was.

Wittingly or not, the president may well have created a defining moment in the 2008 campaign. And Mr. Obama stepped right into the vortex by saying he was willing to debate John McCain on national security "any time, any place." Mr. McCain should accept that challenge today.

In today's world of weapons of mass destruction, time is a precious asset, one almost invariably on the side of the would-be proliferators.

The Obama view of negotiations as the alpha and the omega of U.S. foreign policy highlights a fundamental conceptual divide between the major parties and their putative presidential nominees. This divide also opened in 2004, when John Kerry insisted that our foreign policy pass a "global test" to be considered legitimate.

At first glance, the idea of sitting down with adversaries seems hard to quarrel with. In our daily lives, we meet with competitors, opponents and unpleasant people all the time. Mr. Obama hopes to characterize the debate about international negotiations as one between his reasonableness and the hard-line attitude of a group of unilateralist GOP cowboys.

The real debate is radically different. On one side are those who believe that negotiations should be used to resolve international disputes 99% of the time. That is where I am, and where I think Mr. McCain is. On the other side are those like Mr. Obama, who apparently want to use negotiations 100% of the time. It is the 100%-ers who suffer from an obsession that is naïve and dangerous.

Negotiation is not a policy. It is a technique. Saying that one favors negotiation with, say, Iran, has no more intellectual content than saying one favors using a spoon. For what? Under what circumstances? With what objectives? On these specifics, Mr. Obama has been consistently sketchy.

Like all human activity, negotiation has costs and benefits. If only benefits were involved, then it would be hard to quarrel with the "what can we lose?" mantra one hears so often. In fact, the costs and potential downsides are real, and not to be ignored.

When the U.S. negotiates with "terrorists and radicals," it gives them legitimacy, a precious and tangible political asset. Thus, even Mr. Obama criticized former President Jimmy Carter for his recent meetings with Hamas leaders. Meeting with leaders of state sponsors of terrorism such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong Il is also a mistake. State sponsors use others as surrogates, but they are just as much terrorists as those who actually carry out the dastardly acts. Legitimacy and international acceptability are qualities terrorists crave, and should therefore not be conferred casually, if at all.

Moreover, negotiations--especially those "without precondition" as Mr. Obama has specifically advocated--consume time, another precious asset that terrorists and rogue leaders prize. Here, President Bush's reference to Hitler was particularly apt: While the diplomats of European democracies played with their umbrellas, the Nazis were rearming and expanding their industrial power.

In today's world of weapons of mass destruction, time is again a precious asset, one almost invariably on the side of the would-be proliferators. Time allows them to perfect the complex science and technology necessary to sustain nuclear weapons and missile programs, and provides far greater opportunity for concealing their activities from our ability to detect and, if necessary, destroy them.

Iran has conclusively proven how to use negotiations to this end. After five years of negotiations with the Europeans, with the Bush administration's approbation throughout, the only result is that Iran is five years closer to having nuclear weapons. North Korea has also used the Six-Party Talks to gain time, testing its first nuclear weapon in 2006, all the while cloning its Yongbyon reactor in the Syrian desert.

Finally, negotiations entail opportunity costs, consuming scarce presidential time and attention. Those resources cannot be applied everywhere, and engaging in true discussions, as opposed to political charades, does divert time and attention from other priorities. No better example can be found than the Bush administration's pursuit of the Annapolis Process between Arabs and Israelis, which has gone and will go nowhere. While Annapolis has been burning up U.S. time and effort, Lebanon has been burning, as Hezbollah strengthens its position there. This is an opportunity cost for the U.S., and a tragedy for the people of Lebanon.

President Bush is not running this November, no matter how hard Mr. Obama wishes it were so. Mr. McCain will have the chance to set out his own views on when and where diplomacy is appropriate, and where more fortitude is required. In any event, from the American voter's perspective, this debate on the role of negotiations in foreign policy will be critically, perhaps mortally, important. Bring it on.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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