As a candidate, Barack Obama promised to negotiate with adversaries, but his administration has refused to talk to either North Korea or Iran. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, during her recent visit to the demilitarized zone in Korea, emphasized that the United States will not negotiate with North Korea until it gives up its nuclear weapons program. Administration officials have said the same about Iran: no discussions until Tehran abandons its nuclear program and ends the enrichment of uranium. The administration’s motto seems to be “no negotiation without capitulation.” That’s a formula for avoiding the bargaining table.
Perhaps the White House finds it more useful politically to have enemies than to negotiate. Especially with the likes of ‘dear leader’ Kim Jong-il and holocaust denying Ahmadinejad—characters right out of villain school in central casting. Bashing ‘bad guys’ is good politics, especially for a first term Democratic administration that wants to convey an image of toughness and guard against being seen as pusillanimous.
U.S. political leaders seem to believe that negotiation is a sign of weakness, and that strength comes from flexing military muscles. They ignore the many examples—Nixon going to China, Carter hosting Begin and Sadat, Reagan negotiating with the ‘evil empire’—when diplomacy achieved triumphs for global security. Tough guys can be good negotiators. That’s the way to show real strength.