To Engage or Not to Engage?

December 29, 2006 Topic: Society Region: LevantPersian GulfMiddle East

To Engage or Not to Engage?

 With an eye to the Iraq Study Group recommendations, David Rivkin and Ian Bremmer discuss the value of opening dialogue with hostile regimes.

In the sphere of high-stakes diplomacy, talk may not be so cheap after all-at least according to David Rivkin. The current partner at the Baker Hostetler law firm sparred with Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, over the utility of engaging rogue states. The debate, held at The National Interest yesterday, paid special attention to the Baker-Hamilton report's endorsement of talks with Syria and Iran.    

Rivkin expressed disappointment that James Baker-his former colleague in the George H.W. Bush Administration-did not examine more closely the consequences of forming relations with these states.

In general, the decision to foster a dialogue with hostile regimes must be made after a careful cost-benefit analysis. A cursory examination of history reveals that talking to enemies does not-despite popular perceptions-always advance the national interest. After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln's cabinet urged him to make concessions to the South; Lincoln declined.  Approximately eighty years later, when advised to negotiate with Benito Mussolini, Winston Churchill refused; speaking with Il Duce would have destroyed the British population's will to fight the then-seemingly invincible Third Reich.

Since "we live in a world where legitimacy matters a great deal", U.S. engagement with rogue regimes will bestow great authority upon them, Rivkin said. Worse, talks with Syria and Iran could undo the emerging multilateral consensus that these nations must be punished.

Bashir al-Asad, Syria's leader, is widely believed to "practice assassination as statecraft." The United Nations' investigation of the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has focused its suspicions on several prominent Syrians close to the Asad regime. If the Bush Administration opens talks with Syria, the United States will effectively communicate to the world that a policy of state-sponsored assassination is not "sufficiently odious enough" to preclude the possibility of  diplomatic relations with the world's superpower. Furthermore, such talks would undermine the international pursuit of justice in the Hariri case.

In the same vein, discussions with Iran's leaders will damage the hard-fought effort to forge UN Security Council-approved sanctions against Iran. As bilateral U.S.-Iran talks would amount to "throwing out" this already existing "multilateral machinery, however creaky", the choice to press forward with engagement must not be taken lightly. If the costs of engagement are found to outweigh its benefits, the United States must seek to contain Iran within a regional security structure.

Bremmer dismissed as "foolish" concerns about granting legitimacy to adversaries. The states that care most about legitimacy, argued Bremmer, are those who already share common values with the United States. On the other hand, states that U.S. policymakers would classify as "hostile", are unconcerned about obtaining U.S.-endowed legitimacy. Not only are these states indifferent to international scorn, but their rulers can actually employ forced isolation to shore up domestic authority. Unfortunately, the United States' declining global influence reinforces this rogue tendency.  

Castro's Cuba, for instance, has survived almost fifty years of tough, U.S.-imposed economic sanctions. Despite the long-standing enmity between the United States and Castro's regime, most Cubans would be apathetic towards a thawing of diplomatic relations between the two antagonists. According to Bremmer, it is engagement through investment-not isolation-that will cause communism to crumble in the Caribbean state. 

Similarly, sanctions are unlikely to deflect Iran from its current nuclear course.  The credibility of this particular punishment will founder on the United States' status as a "crippled superpower." Even if U.S.-backed sanctions against Iran did carry some clout, they would likely knock off balance an already precarious nuclear situation. Sanctioning Iran would certainly not win the Islamic Republic's assistance in stabilizing Iraq.

Talking to Iran, as prescribed by the Iraq Study Group, is also unlikely to create a policy breakthrough on Iraq, since it is doubtful that such talks will occur in the first place. Although the Bush Administration has offered to engage the theocracy, the Iranian government will not meet the condition required for the discussion's commencement-the suspension of uranium enrichment. The country's nuclear program is a source of national pride, and Iranian officials-even the moderates-are united in support of it. Unfortunately, the United States' prerequisite has helped to make the American and Iranian negotiating positions so "incongruous" that it may "no longer matter what the U.S. is prepared to put on the table."

An encounter with Ali Larijani, Iran's foreign minister, confirmed Bremmer's suspicions about the infeasibility of the Iraq Study Group's main recommendation. Larijani bluntly informed the scholar that "Iranians have no intentions of engaging in direct negotiations with the United States."

The president of the Eurasia Group pointed to U.S.-China relations as an example of successful engagement. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's recent visit to Beijing demonstrates that the United States is committed to treating China as a legitimate diplomatic partner. This display of respect for China developed as a result of the United States' "having been beaten around" by the East Asian country. Bremmer cautioned that a similar setback on Iran will have to occur for American foreign policy to exhibit constructive change. "The good news," he noted, "is that this will be relatively soon. "

Marisa Morrison is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.