Monday, October 27, 2008

On Keeping Friends Close, and Enemies Closer

Over the weekend, two old hands from the State Department made a case why we should talk to our enemies. Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns was the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (“P”), the Department of State’s third ranking official and the highest-ranking American career diplomat, until his retirement this past April. He is now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In Newsweek, he writes:

“In each of the three presidential debates, McCain belittled Obama as naive for arguing that America should be willing to negotiate with such adversaries. In the vice presidential debate, Sarah Palin went even further, accusing Obama of "bad judgment … that is dangerous," an ironic charge given her own very modest foreign-policy credentials.

I lived this issue for 27 years as a career diplomat, serving both Republican and Democratic administrations. Maybe that's why I've been struggling to find the real wisdom and logic in this Republican assault against Obama. I'll bet that a poll of senior diplomats who have served presidents from Carter to Bush would reveal an overwhelming majority who agree with the following position: of course we should talk to difficult adversaries—when it is in our interest and at a time of our choosing.”

He points out to Israel's Yitzhak Rabin, who defended his discussions with PLO’s Yasir Arafat by declaring, "You don't make peace with friends, you make peace with very unsavory enemies."

Why should the United States approach the world any differently now? Especially now? As Americans learned all too dramatically on 9/11 and again during the financial crisis this autumn, we inhabit a rapidly integrating planet where dangers can strike at any time and from great distances. And when others—China, India, Brazil—are rising to share power in the world with us, America needs to spend more time, not less, talking and listening to friends and foes alike.

Simply put, we need all the friends we can get. And we need to think more creatively about how to blunt the power of opponents through smart diplomacy, not just the force of arms.

You can read the entire text here.

Meanwhile, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Ambassador Richard N. Haass, who had served previously as director of policy planning for the Department of State, and where he was a principal adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell also penned a thoughtful and pragmatic piece for the incoming president. In “The World That Awaits,” Ambassador Haass warns that “An Iran with nuclear weapons or the capacity to produce them quickly would place the Middle East on a hair trigger and lead several Arab states to embark on nuclear programs of their own.”

He proposes a realistic way forward based on collaboration:

“I would suggest that we work with the Europeans, Russia and China to cobble together a new diplomatic package to present to the Iranians. Ideally, Iran would be persuaded to give up its independent enrichment capability or, if it refused, to consider accepting clear limits on enrichment and intrusive inspections so that the threat is clearly bounded. We should be prepared to have face-to-face talks with the Iranians, without preconditions. In general, it is wiser to see negotiations not as a reward but as a tool of national security.”

I am heartened to see his counsel on the current efforts involving democracy and world transformation:

One area, however, where you would be wise to put some distance between yourself and "43" involves democracy. America does not have the ability to transform the world. Nor do we have the luxury. We need to focus more on what countries do than on what they are. This is not an argument for ignoring human rights or setting aside our interest in promoting democracy. But we should go slow and focus on building its prerequisites—the checks and balances of civil society and constitutionalism—and not rush elections or impose political change through force."

You can read the whole piece here.

All this talk about talking to our enemies made me think of Sun Tzu (孫子 or 孫武), the famous 6th century BC Chinese military strategist and author of Sun Tzu, The Art of War: “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” Is this great knowing possible if we don't conduct an open, and healthy discussion about our collective vision of a new, revitalized America? Is it possible if we engage with our enemies only at a point of a gun?

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