The Engagement Riff

When spokesmen for the Obama administration are asked to comment on various aspects of foreign policy, they invariably resort to an incantation which begins and ends with reference to engagement. “We are engaged in discussions…” are the first five words employed in every area of foreign policy from Iran to North Korea.

What engagement means precisely is difficult to determine. Should one parse the phraseology, engagement does mean diplomatic conversation.Yet that presumably is a means to an end, not an end itself. Since the Obama team has made it clear it will not “engage” directly in promoting active rebellion in Iran against the mullahs, what we can do is send diplomatic signals. Yes, the United States government is distressed by the violence and bloodshed fomented by the Council of Iranian Guards. Yes, we do not think that peaceful demonstrators should be beaten.

When Ahmadinejad expresses concern that American diplomatic language serves as an impediment to discussions about nuclear disarmament, the Obama administration becomes conspicuously silent. At this point, one can only speculate on the nature of engagement. Surely, we do not intend to challenge the sovereignty of Iran, nor are we going to provide funding for the unions and student groups representing a disproportionate number of those assembled on the Iranian streets. It is also unlikely that we will use, or even could use, clandestine CIA operatives to promote democratic impulses in this Persian government. Since Iran possesses many minorities opposed to the present leadership, one might assume these subsets, e.g. the 16 million Kurds, might be employed as leverage against the Iranian government. But this too would be a misguided assumption.

It appears that engagement is talk and more talk. Even the much discussed stringent sanctions on refined petroleum seem like empty palaver, yet another example of wishful thinking without allied support or emotional muscle.

Of course, this raises the awkward question of what talk ultimately means. If all we offer are words that threaten or encourage, words that offend or endear, but are not backed by serious policy options, the verbal exercise is meaningless.

Some have described “soft power,” diplomatic encouragement, as critical to our interests. But this power is beyond soft when the words aren’t supported with action; it is marshmallow power. You can push it, bend it or discard it, for in the end it doesn’t have any bearing on the actions of an opponent.

To engage is to be involved, interlocked. But the Obama administration is participating in a one-way arrangement. It is asking Iran to comply with our desire. Iranian leaders dictate the nature of these so-called exchanges. If the talk is useful as a cover for the further enrichment of uranium, it continues. If the talk is seen as repudiation for violent police tactics on the street, it is rejected. In the face of this direct exchange, the U.S. is actually without real options.

Since the use of force has been rejected as an option and since our European allies will probably not countenance the use of sanctions on refined petroleum, the U.S. delegation has only one option at its disposal: talk. Some would argue that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” But suppose jaw-jaw without teeth leads to war-war based on miscalculation. Suppose our enemy doesn’t believe we have the will to act decisively and, as a consequence, over-reaches. Surely this is a scenario that cannot be ruled out.

Like most Americans, I hope the Obama’s diplomatic overtures are successful. Yet I am also a realist who recognizes the danger in utopianism. Administrative spokesmen call the present strategy vis-à-vis Iran a form of engagement. Since I prefer to call things by their accurate name, this policy should be described as appeasement. Iran sets the terms and we either dance to its tune or keep talking.