Bush’s Bizarro World

May 19, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the National Interest (Online) May 19, 2008.

President Bush’s speech to the Israeli Knesset, in which he charged that people who advocate negotiating with “terrorists and radicals” are the equivalent of craven Western leaders who sought to appease Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s, has created a political firestorm. Critics immediately accused Bush of smearing Barack Obama, who had previously indicated that he was willing to open a dialogue with such countries as Iran and Syria. More broadly, liberals asserted that Bush was smearing anyone who supported talking to repressive regimes as weak‐​kneed appeasers.

Those criticisms are justified. Bush’s comments were a cheap shot, and as much as the White House and Republican leaders assert that they were not directed at Obama, it is doubtful if even Laura Bush believes that denial. The invocation of the shopworn “appeasement” slur, however, is not the most‐​troubling aspect of Bush’s argument. There are three other, even‐​more‐​serious problems with his reasoning.

First, the president equates merely talking to adversaries with appeasement. But appeasement implies far more than just dialogue. It requires the willingness to make far‐​reaching and (by implication, at least) utterly unwise concessions. There is no evidence that Obama or other advocates of dialogue with repressive regimes are necessarily prepared to make such concessions.

It is extremely worrisome if the president believes that it is improper even to talk to adversaries. That would rule out diplomacy as a meaningful component of foreign policy. It is no challenge at all to negotiate with friendly, democratic countries like Australia or Denmark. But we don’t have the luxury of engaging only with friends. The real challenge for diplomacy is negotiating with, and getting results from, prickly or odious regimes—in many cases, regimes that we wish did not exist.

Second, President Bush appears to violate his own rule against negotiating with terrorists and radicals. After all, the president and his supporters cite the agreement with Libya to end that country’s nuclear program as one of the administration’s major foreign‐​policy successes. Yet Libya was a prominent sponsor of terrorism—a record that impelled the United States to bomb Tripoli and other targets during the Reagan years. According to the president’s own criteria, the United States should not have been negotiating with the Libyan regime. If we had not done so, however, the world might today be confronting yet another nuclear‐​proliferation crisis, in addition to those involving Iran and North Korea.

And Libya is not the only radical or terrorist adversary with whom the United States has sat down at the bargaining table during Bush’s years in the Oval Office. Washington is also a participant in the six‐​party talks with North Korea. Yet Pyongyang has clearly been guilty of committing terrorist acts, and the North Korean regime remains on the State Department’s list of states that sponsor terrorism.

The president can’t have it both ways. If it is improper to negotiate with radicals and terrorists, then the administration should apologize for its policies regarding Libya and North Korea. Conversely, if it is okay to engage those governments, then it should certainly be acceptable for Bush’s political opponents to advocate doing the same regarding such countries as Iran and Syria.

Finally, Bush’s linkage of “terrorists and radicals” like political conjoined twins shows sloppy thinking, and it certainly obscures more than it illuminates. Such a blanket category conflates two difficult but different foreign‐​policy challenges facing the United States. It probably would be pointless to open a dialogue with terrorist nonstate actors like al‐​Qaeda. But negotiating with important countries, however repulsive we might find their regimes, is another matter entirely. Whether we like it or not, Iran is a crucial player in the Persian Gulf region—and, indeed, in the entire Middle East. There will be no progress on an array of troublesome issues without Iran’s involvement and cooperation. Syria may be a lesser power, but it too is an actor that cannot be ignored.

Conflating such disparate issues as those posed by nonstate terrorism and adversarial states is as shortsighted as the blunder U.S. policymakers committed during much of the cold war, when they failed to understand the divisions in the ranks of international communism. That policy blindness made Washington slow to exploit the Sino‐​Soviet split, and it led to the absurd assumption that the communist regime in North Vietnam was a mere puppet of Moscow or Beijing. We paid dearly for such myopia.

By the same token, Iran’s Shia fundamentalism, Syria’s Baathist socialism, and al‐ Qaeda’s violent Sunni extremism are not merely parts of one amorphous Islamic Threat. President Bush needs to sharpen his thinking, and he needs to move beyond simplistic, emotionally toxic allegations about appeasement. The American people deserve better.

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