US should never fear negotiating with anyone

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 September, 2008, 12:00am

There was one especially clarifying moment in the joint TV appearance between US presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama that might have struck international viewers of the debate as definitive.

It came in their response to an important foreign-policy question. Posed by the moderator, Jim Lehrer, it served to demonstrate a gulf that sometimes separates these two outstanding politicians.

Lehrer wanted to know how a president should negotiate with antagonistic nations or unpleasant leaders. For his part, Senator McCain emphasised the need for significant conditionality. But Senator Obama articulated a less conditional and more activist view.

'This notion that, by not talking to people, we are punishing them has not worked,' responded Senator Obama. 'I reserve the right, as president of the United States, to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it's going to keep America safe.'

Senator McCain attacked that negotiating philosophy forcefully. The 72-year-old Republican senator adeptly invoked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to suggest that engaging illegitimate figures only serves to legitimise them: 'It isn't just naive. It's dangerous.'

Senator Obama, however, more than held his ground by having carefully thought through the implications of his position, which 'doesn't mean you invite them over for tea one day. What it means is that we don't do what we've been doing, which is to say: 'Until you agree to do exactly what we say, we won't have direct contact with you'.'

The number of nations which merit the US silent treatment is, blessedly, limited. Mr Ahmadinejad's obnoxious threats to Israel make him an unlikely guest in any White House. But underlying Senator McCain's position of not negotiating with enemies is an emotional extension of the Bush administration's habit of seeing other nations as friends or foes.

Such a Manichean world view is profoundly disabling - and it produces dysfunctional presidents.

Iran today has an anti-American president, but a great many Iranians are known to be anything but anti-American. It is securing long-term relations with the Iranian people that the US should care about.

What's more, negotiating only with leaders with whom you tend to agree doesn't say much about your negotiating ability or appetite.

The McCain view also smacks of an American macho mentality that assumes it is incapable of acting in sin, never errs, always reflects the truth, and is rather ready to shoot anyone who disagrees - and without asking too many questions first. It is an attitude that endears us to few, turns off even our many friends and admirers, and short-changes our ability to listen and to learn.

The past eight years has featured an American administration that was far too judgmental - and much too quick with those judgments. The next one needs to listen and to practice at least a little humility.

As President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address: 'Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.'

Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and author