All Presidents Engage With Tyrants

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"All Presidents Engage With Tyrants"

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I’m normally a James Traub fan, so I was taken aback by his recent article on the Obama administration’s policy of engagement and the alleged deep ethical compromises that it’s entailed. The piece has a kind of goofy, not-sure-if-this-is-naive-or-cynical air about it that I normally associate with unsigned editorials in the Washington Post or The New Republic. Eric Martin has a good lengthy response, but I think this right here is the key issue:

The short rebuttal is that Obama, like every single President that preceded him, is likely willing to trade away values that are extolled rhetorically in exchange for “geostrategic wins.” This is how it has always been. Treating it as a new development is ahistorical at best.

Further, how curious to fret about mere diplomatic engagement with Iran’s regime – which Traub includes under the rubric, “worst tyrants” – when we not only engage on a diplomatic level with brutal, oppressive, undemocratic regimes in the region like Pakistan (until recently, a military dictatorship), Saudi Arabia (monarchy), Jordan (monarchy), Egypt (de facto hereditary dictatorship), etc., but we often lavish those same despotic regimes with generous aid packages, including top-of-the-line military equipment.

In other words, though you commonly here that we shouldn’t engage diplomatically with Iran because it’s a brutal dictatorship you never here anyone argue that we should follow a consistent policy of refusing the engage with brutal dictatorships as a general matter. It would be interesting, as a hypothetical, to try to speculate about what would happen if we started giving the Iran/Cuba/Burma treatment to the entire Arab League, China, Russia, etc. but obviously nobody has any intention of doing that. So it’s just not true that anyone is proposing some new departure in US foreign policy where we compromise our values by engaging with even the most brutal tyrants in order to achieve geopolitical objectives.


It’s also always worth asking how sharp the tradeoffs really are. Personally speaking, I’m prone to fits of self-righteousness. And one of the nice things about being a blogger and not depending at all on interviews or access is that I can tell everyone exactly what I think about them. But it’s not at all clear that my ability to become self-righteous and indignant about, say, Bart Stupak actually accomplishes anything in terms of getting Stupak to do the right thing. And there’s something of the same dynamic in international affairs. I think it’s important for someone to be out there, speaking truth to power, delivering real talk about human rights to the government of China. But is it important that that person be the President of the United States? If Obama stood up at a bilateral press event with Hu Jintao and said “you know what, you’re a bad person and an evil dictator—you’re scum and I’m not going to shake your hand or pose for photos with you” would that actually improve the state of human rights in China? What, really, is traded away by refusing to do that?

My view is that we ought to try to shift into a more neutral gear. We should be doing less in the way of trying to isolate places like Cuba, but also trying to do more to disentangle ourselves from places like Saudi Arabia in terms of giving the impression that we’re “propping up” these regimes or that they’re our puppets.

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