Shattered Engagements

Posted in Broader Middle East , Israel / Palestine , United States | 04-Jun-08 | Author: Barry Rubin| Source: GLORIA Center

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama.

Engagement doesn't always produce marriage. In the U.S.-Iran case, diplomatic engagements have been repeatedly disastrous. Yet many think the idea of engagement was just invented and never tried.[1]

  1. President John Kennedy pressed Iran for democratic reforms in the early 1960s.. The Shah responded with his White Revolution which horrified traditionalists and moved them to active opposition. One of them was named Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
  2. President Richard Nixon urged Iran in the early 1970s, under the Nixon Doctrine, to become a regional power since America was overextended in Vietnam. The Shah embarked on a huge arms-buying campaign and close alliance stirring more opposition and fiscal strain, contributing to unrest.
  3. In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter pushed Iran to ease restrictions. The result was Islamist revolution. Next, Carter urged the Shah not to repress the uprising, helping bring his downfall.
  4. After the 1979 revolution, Carter engaged the new regime to show Khomeini that America was his friend. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, today advising Barack Obama, met Iranian leaders. Tehran interpreted this engagement as an effort to subvert or co-opt the revolution, so Iranians seized the U.S. embassy and took everyone there hostage.
  5. The Reagan administration secretly engaged Iran in the mid-1980s to help free U.S. hostages of its terrorism. Result: a policy debacle and free military equipment for Iran.
  6. In recent years there was a long engagement in which European states negotiated for themselves and America to get Tehran to stop its nuclear weapons' drive. Iran gained four years to develop nukes; the West got nothing.

The history of U.S. engagement with the PLO and Syria is similar. The Oslo era (1992-2000) was engagement as disaster, establishing a PLO regime indifferent to its people's welfare, increasing radicalism and violence, with no gain for peace. Aside from the worsened security problem, Israel's international image was badly damaged by concessions made and risks taken. America's making the PLO a client brought it no gratitude or strategic gain.[2]

Similarly, Syria used the 1991-2000 engagement era to survive its USSR superpower sponsor's collapse while doing everything it wanted: dominating Lebanon, sponsoring terrorism, and sabotaging peace. U.S. secretaries of state visited Damascus numerous times and achieved nothing, a process that continued up to 2004. Syria first helped Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, then sponsored terrorists who disrupted Iraq and killed Americans.[3]

There have, of course, been successful engagements--but not with Iran, Syria, or the PLO. The most successful was Egypt's turnaround by Nixon and Kissinger. A partial success was changing Libya's behavior. In those two cases, American power, not compassion, achieved success. Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi and Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat ("America holds 99 percent of the cards") knew they were weak and needed to stop America from hitting them hard.

Engagements, of course, have effects other than direct success. One is to buy time for someone. But who? If one party subverts other states, builds nuclear weapons, demoralizes the other's allies, and sponsors terrorism during talks while the other side...just talks, the first side benefits far more.

Second, if one side gets the other to make concessions to prove good faith and keep talks going, that side benefits. Keeping engagement going becomes an end in itself as the weaker side uses a diplomatic version of asymmetric warfare to make gains.

Finally, while using talks to deescalate tensions apparently benefits everyone, matters are not so simple. By talking, a stronger side can throw away its leverage. The weaker side does not have to back down to avoid confrontation.

So engagement, without pressure or threat, benefits the weaker side. If the stronger side is eager to reach agreement, the weaker side has more leverage. The advantage is transferred from the strongest side to the most intransigent one. Here, Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah have the upper hand.

Senator Obama doesn't understand these points. To see how alien a normal liberal concept of foreign policy is for him, note what he could have said:

"America must be strong to protect its interests, values, and friends against ruthless adversaries. But if America is strong, it can also be flexible. Let us engage countries and leaders by telling them clearly our demands and goals. Once Iran understands the United States will counter its threats of genocide against Israel, involvement in terrorism against Americans, and threats to our interests it may back down. If Iran gives up its extremism, we are ready to offer friendship. But if Iran remains extremist we will quickly abandon engagement and never hesitate to respond appropriately."

This way, a leader shows he knows how to use both carrots and sticks. But Obama has never said anything like this. He has no concept of toughness as a necessary element in flexibility, or of deterrence as a precondition to conciliation. Nor does he indicate that he would be steadfast if engagement failed. He defines no U.S. preconditions for meeting or conditions for agreement. He offers to hear Iran's grievances but says nothing about American grievances.

Radical Islamists interpret this strategy as weakness of which they will take full advantage. That's why Iran, Syria, and Hamas favor Obama. Thus spoke Lebanese cleric Muhammad Abu al-Qat on Hizballah's al-Manar television on May 10: "The American empire will very soon collapse....This won't happen as a result of war....An American Gorbachev will surface in America, and he will destroy this empire.[4]

Islamists and radicals want Obama because they understandably expect him to play into their hands. By the same token, more moderate Arab regimes and observers are horrified.

Obama is so scary and is accused of appeasement not because he wants to meet enemies in person but because he doesn't want to meet them in struggle. He doesn't know how international politics work through power, threats, deterrence, self-interest, and credibility. He doesn't comprehend that totalitarian ideologies cannot be moderated by apology or weakness.

Whatever you think of Senator John McCain, he understands these basic concepts. That's why he's a centrist who can be trusted to protect American national interests. Whatever you think of Senator Hillary Clinton, she understands these basic concepts. That's why she's a liberal who can be trusted to protect American national interests. And that's why Obama is both a dangerously naïve amateur and a leftist posing as a liberal.

1 [On Points 1-4, see Barry Rubin, Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran, (Oxford, 1980; Viking-Penguin, 1981)], [On Point 5, see Barry Rubin, Cauldron of Turmoil: America in the Middle East, (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1992.) available for free at]. See also Barry Rubin, "Lessons from Iran," in Alexander T. J. Lennon and Camille Eiss, Reshaping Rogue States: Preemption, Regime Change, and U.S. Policy toward Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, (Boston: MIT Press, 2004), pp. 141-156, and "Regime Change and Iran: A Case Study," Washington Quarterly, 2003.

2 On U.S. policy and the PLO, see Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin, Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography Oxford University Press 2003; paperback, 2005. British/Commonwealth edition: Continuum 2003. Australian edition: Allan & Unwin. Italian edition: Mondadori, 2004; Hebrew edition, Yediot Aharnot, 2005; Turkish edition, Aykiri Yayincilik, 2005.

3 On U.S. policy and Syria, see Barry Rubin, The Truth About Syria, Palgrave-MacMillan (2007); paperback, 2008.


Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online.

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