Gerson: How Does This Engagement Thing Work?

It seems that Michael Gerson is trying really hard to miss the larger picture when it comes to President Obama’s engagement strategy, which Gerson claims “is on its deathbed.” Pointing to Obama’s failure — a full six months after taking office — to cause North Korea and Iran to completely surrender their nuclear aspirations, throw open their facilities to international inspections, and apply for U.S. statehood, Gerson proceeds directly to autopsy, writing that “the problem is not engagement itself — which was, after all, attempted in various forms by the previous administration.”

The difficulty is that the Obama foreign policy team has often argued that the reason for tension and conflict with nations such as North Korea and Iran is a lack of adequate American engagement — which is absurd, and which has raised absurdly high expectations. […]

Fists remain clenched. This is not because some magical diplomatic words remain unspoken. It is because of the nature of oppressive regimes themselves.

Such regimes are often internally preoccupied. Precisely because they lack genuine legitimacy, they spend large amounts of time and effort maintaining their fragile authority, consolidating power and managing undemocratic transitions. North Korea confronts a succession crisis. Iran deals with growing dissent and clerical division. Both tend to make calculations based on internal power struggles, not some rational calculation of their external image and interests. They are so inwardly focused that they do not have, as Clinton said, “any capacity” to respond to engagement. It is questionable in these cases whether we currently have any serious negotiating partners at all.

While it’s pretty funny to read Gerson blaming Obama for raising “absurdly high expectations” after he’s just failed him for not transforming the world in six months, there are actually some serious problems here.


The first is this idea, which is becoming more common on the right, that the Bush administration already tried engagement, and it didn’t work, so we shouldn’t expect it to work now. I responded to AEI’s Michael Rubin on this point in an exchange about Iran on the LA Times website, noting that, while the claim is “perhaps true if one simply tallies up the number of contacts and communications between the two governments, I think it does some injustice to the sort of good-faith attempt to change the U.S.-Iran relationship that many of us in the “pro-engagement crowd” would like to see undertaken. The nature of the engagement and the larger foreign policy context within which that engagement occurs are important.”

Engagement involves more than just an offer to talk — it requires a range of signals to indicate that one is serious about reaching an accord. Given Bush’s addiction to tough-guy posturing, it’s no mystery why the Iranians didn’t take his offers of engagement, such as they were, very seriously.

Another problem has to do with treating North Korea and Iran the same. While both are regimes that pose huge challenges to the United States, the similarity pretty much ends there. All oppressive regimes are not oppressive in the same way. While Iran is certainly oppressive, life in Iran is nothing like that in North Korea, for whom “Orwellian” would represent a kind of glasnost. As we’ve seen over the last month and a half, political speech exists and public opinion is registered in Iran in a way that is unimaginable in North Korea.

And that brings us to the most important point that Gerson misses in regard to the “growing dissent and clerical division” that he recognizes is occurring in Iran. While we shouldn’t pretend that the Iranian elections were a referendum on Obama, I do think it’s fair to see the elections as something a referendum on greater Iranian engagement with the United States and the world. In this respect, Obama’s clear message of reconciliation played a significant part in Iran’s internal politics, empowering reformers seeking an end to Iran’s international isolation and undercutting hardline propaganda about the Great Satan. This represented an enormous threat to Iran’s conservatives, who responded accordingly.

While the Iranian regime’s ensuing crackdown and continuing refusal to reciprocate to U.S. offers are obviously not optimal outcomes, it’s incorrect to simply present this as a failure of engagement. As Secretary of State Clinton’s described in her July 15 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, engagement is not only aimed at problematic regimes, but also to the international community. Leading with diplomacy, Clinton said, “advances our interests and puts us in a better position to lead with our other partners.”

We cannot be afraid or unwilling to engage. Yet some suggest that this is a sign of naiveté or acquiescence to these countries’ repression of their own people. I believe that is wrong. As long as engagement might advance our interests and our values, it is unwise to take it off the table. Negotiations can provide insight into regimes’ calculations and the possibility — even if it seems remote — that a regime will eventually alter its behavior in exchange for the benefits of acceptance into the international community. Libya is one such example. Exhausting the option for dialogue is also more likely to make our partners more willing to exert pressure should persuasion fail. […]

Neither the President nor I have any illusions that dialogue with the Islamic Republic will guarantee success of any kind, and the prospects have certainly shifted in the weeks following the election. But we also understand the importance of offering to engage Iran and giving its leaders a clear choice: whether to join the international community as a responsible member or to continue down a path to further isolation.

In other words, what Gerson identifies as “the paradox of the Obama doctrine” — that “by attempting to engage North Korea and Iran so visibly, Obama is… building the case for confrontation” — is actually one element of the strategy. By showing a genuine willingness to exhaust diplomatic options and making clear to the international community who the recalcitrant parties are in each case, the U.S. can generate greater international resolve to deal with the problematic regimes like Iran and North Korea.