In today's column, Michael Gerson argues that the Obama administration so stressed "engagement" in its foreign policy that it has revealed the genius of Bush-era saber rattling. Well, that's not exactly how he puts it, but one loses the energy to be charitable to one who treats people with such appalling disrespect. Luckily Gerson is so incompetent at straw-manning.
Six months on, how fares the Obama doctrine? Concerning North Korea and Iran, the doctrine is on its deathbed.
Six months! Seems a little early. But anyway, later on:
The problem is not engagement itself — which was, after all, attempted in various forms by the previous administration. The difficulty is that the Obama foreign policy team has often argued that the reason for tension and conflict with nations such as North Korea and Iran is a lack of adequate American engagement — which is absurd, and which has raised absurdly high expectations.
During the 2008 campaign, for example, Obama adviser P.J. Crowley (now State Department spokesman) argued, "Hard-liners on both sides have dominated that relationship and made it very difficult for the United States and Iran to come together and have a serious conversation." But can the lack of a serious conversation with Iran — or with North Korea — now credibly be blamed on the previous administration? Obama's diplomatic hand has been extended for a while now. Fists remain clenched. This is not because some magical diplomatic words remain unspoken. It is because of the nature of oppressive regimes themselves.
Gerson simply cannot read. In the the first paragraph he sets up the straw man ("Obama argued it was all America's fault"), which the second paragraph means to knock down–quotation and everything. It turns out, however, that the straw man is merely revealed for what it is by the quotation–notice that P.J. Crowley says "on both sides" which Gerson mysteriously interprets as "blame America first and only." So nobody–especially the quotation–blamed the previous administration exclusively or entirely. Sheesh. Don't the editors at the Post read this stuff?
I'd like to quit there, but it gets more silly. Gerson argues in conclusion that regimes such as North Korea and Iran depend for their legitimacy on anti-Americanism to such an extent that if they are stripped of that reason by our non-belligerence, they struggle to control their people.
Such regimes are often internally preoccupied. Precisely because they lack genuine legitimacy, they spend large amounts of time and effort maintaining their fragile authority, consolidating power and managing undemocratic transitions. North Korea confronts a succession crisis. Iran deals with growing dissent and clerical division. Both tend to make calculations based on internal power struggles, not some rational calculation of their external image and interests. They are so inwardly focused that they do not have, as Clinton said, "any capacity" to respond to engagement. It is questionable in these cases whether we currently have any serious negotiating partners at all.
And the inherent instability of oppressive regimes also leads them to tighten control by invoking threats from abroad — particularly from the United States. Because anti-Americanism is a central commitment of North Korean and Iranian ideologies, any softening of this resentment requires a kind of voluntary regime change. Pyongyang and Tehran would need to find a new source of legitimacy — a new prop for their power — other than hatred for America. Not easy or likely.
The Obama administration's public campaign of engaging enemies is headed toward an entirely unintended consequence. Eventually it will raise expectations for action. As the extended hand is slapped again and again, the goals of North Korea and Iran will be fully revealed and the cost to American credibility will rise. Already the administration has given Iran a September deadline to respond to the offer of talks and has threatened "crippling action" if Iran achieves nuclear capabilities. Congress is preparing sanctions on Iranian refined petroleum, which would escalate tensions significantly.
This is the paradox of the Obama doctrine. By attempting to engage North Korea and Iran so visibly, Obama is dramatically exposing the limits of engagement — and building the case for confrontation.
So in other words, Obama's foreign policy of engagement has stripped two oppressive regimes of a major internal reason for their legitimacy, a legitimacy they had previously based on ample evidence of American saber-rattling. And this "builds the case for confrontation" on whose part? Ours, no, we're "engaging." On theirs? Not likely.