Talk Is Cheap

Apparently, I’ve made the official John Kerry blog, and even get some choice John Kerry quotes to try to change my mind. As blogger Violet Bliss Dietz notes:

Jay, as JK pointed out, “Conversation is not capitulation. Until recently, it was widely accepted that good foreign policy demands a willingness to seize opportunities and change policy as the facts change.”

Which is all well and good, except that statement is rather tepid. Yes, good foreign policy does demand a willingness to seize opportunities and change with the situation. The question is whether negotiating with Syria gets us anywhere. Unfortunately, the Assad regime is diametrically opposed to American interests in the Middle East. In terms of Lebanon, they don’t want to see Hizballah be disarmed. Hizballah is a joint creation of Syria and Iran. It exists specifically to keep pressure on Israel and expand Syrian and Iranian influence. Now, Senator Kerry is quite right to say that the US should do more to support the Lebanese government. However, one must also realize that the Syrians have every interest in undermining that government. A strong Seniora government would undermine Syria’s influence in the region. Furthermore, the very last thing that the Syrians want is a strongly democratic state on their borders — which is why they are working so hard to undermine the nascent democratic movements in Iraq and Lebanon. It’s similar to the classic problem of the security dilemma — a state which democratizes tends to increase the pressure for democratization in other surrounding states. If you’re an autocrat like Bashar al-Assad, do you want a functioning democratic republic next door that has free multiparty elections? Especially if that state has a better quality of life for its citizens then yours? In order to understand the political situation in the Middle East it’s important to understand just how dangerously revolutionary the idea of democracy — an idea which we take for granted — really is in that country.

Ms Dietz continues:

JK’s outlook on talks with Syria was clear in this AP story: “Talking to somebody is not rewarding their behavior. I have no illusions about our differences with these countries … and nothing in the discussion is based on trust,” said. “But you cannot get to (action and verifiability) without setting up the modalities. So you have to engage in some dialogue.”

Now, although I’m trying to act in the spirit of comity here since I’m a bit flattered that the Kerry people are trying to engage with people on the opposite side in a serious and respectful manner, but this statement strikes me as somewhat incoherent. The first sentence is true, and it is something that conservatives could stand to learn: the mere fact that you choose to negotiate doesn’t necessarily show weakness. What makes a difference is whether you’re negotiating from a position of strength or not — when Reagan engaged with Gorbechev at Reykjavik in the 1980s it was from a position of knowing that he was in a position of strength and he had a pragmatic partner on the other side.

The problem with our relations with Syria is that the Syrians know we’re not in a position of strength right now, and Assad’s has no reasons of pragmatism to do what we want him to do. Assad knows our military is bogged down in Iraq and we have a government that has lost much of its trust with the people. We’re constrained, and Assad knows it. We can give him plenty of carrots, but what sticks do we have in the region? As much as I’d love for us to be able to take the Assad regime out and institute a democratic state in Syria, that just is not going to happen. It seems just as unlikely that we can put substantial diplomatic pressure on Syria, sanctions are unlikely to work, nor do we have the means to significantly hurt the Syrian economy.

Kerry also admits that he understands we have our differences with Syria, which I’ll attribute to tact rather than dramatic understatement, and that his discussions were not based on trust. Which, when one parses that statement, is quite a slam to the Syrians. One of the things I’ve always learned about negotiation is that if you don’t trust the person you’re negotiating with, you can’t get anywhere. To negotiate with someone you know will not act in good faith is usually a less than productive exercise. If Kerry really doesn’t trust the Syrians to act in good faith, then all he’s doing is wasting his time. Now, if he’s arguing that it’s important to have contacts in Syria who might be willing to help, that’s one thing — but if John Kerry (or anyone else for that matter) thinks that they can go in and single-handedly get Syria to change their position on being a state sponsor of terrorism and undermining the Lebanese government, I have bridge in Brooklyn to sell them.

That gets to my biggest critique of Kerry’s position on this (and his foreign policy in general) — talk is cheap. Just establishing a “dialogue” doesn’t do much if you can’t expect anything productive to come out of it. “Dialogue” isn’t valuable in its own context. To make it so puts process over results. Yes, it would be nice if we could sit down with the Syrians over tea and come to an agreement in which Syria would stop exacerbating the situations in Lebanon and Iraq. It also isn’t going to happen unless the consequences of noncompliance are so high that Syria has no other viable alternative. We don’t have that kind of force. We can talk ourselves blue, but Syria has no reason to budge unless there’s either a very big carrot or a very big stick involved. And if we start offering carrots, we have to be able to assure that the Syrians won’t take them and still support Hizballah under the table — which would still require a big stick.

Now, I do give Senator Kerry credit for making Lebanon a bigger issue. On 99% of issues I disagree with the Senator, but he is right on this. If he thinks that someone needs to be a stronger advocate for the Lebanese people in the US government and he wants to take the job, he should do it. Senator Kerry is absolutely right on one thing: the Seniora government needs to be able to provide the services to its people that Hizballah does if we want to have a prayer of defeating Hizballah. The Administration should offer its full support to any bill Kerry wishes to propose towards that end. We should be supporting the Lebanese people in their struggle against foreign domination and the anti-democratic forces that threaten to plunge their fragile democracy back into civil war. Regardless of political affiliation, every American should stand behind that principal, and Senator Kerry is right to make it a key issue.

However, we also must realize that the politics of the Middle East are still based on power arrangements. “Dialogue” alone cannot move us forward, especially when our interests run counter to the interests on the other side of the table. If we can’t trust the Syrians to do the right thing, then we can’t have good-faith negotiations with them. The Assad regime has every interest to sabotage democracy in their region, and if our goal is to negotiate the Syrians out of defending their interests, we’re not going to find much success.

One thought on “Talk Is Cheap

  1. I’m a regular reader of the John Kerry blog mentioned in this essay, and I posted a response to this essay over there a few minutes ago. In the spirit of reasonable dialogue among persons of good will, I’ll quote it here as well:

    “That having been said, I see that conservative blogger Jay Reding has responded to his having been included in this week’s wrap-up on his Conservatism with Attitude blog this morning.

    “While Mr. Reding disagrees with Senator Kerry on some points, he also agrees with him on others — and he does both in a reasonable and thoughtful way, which is a refreshing change from so many other bloggers who claim to be real conservatives when they’re really just being right-wing ranters.

    “The Senate being a much calmer, quieter place than the large and rambunctious House, its members have earned a reputation for referring to each other as ‘my friend across the aisle.’ In many cases this is more than just a rhetorical device, it’s actually true — and the small-d democratic legislative process is the better for it.

    “Genuine bipartisanship means recognizing that it is possible, and even productive, to be adversaries without having to be enemies. Mr. Reding seems to recognize this as well. I’ve bookmarked his blog and will continue to read it in the future. Here’s hoping that he’ll do the same with this one.”

    Genuine conservatism is in many ways not that far removed from genuine progressivism. Being able to rationally and respectfully discuss the issues of the day with someone whose viewpoint is different than one’s own is the best way to make sure that one considers all sides of a given question, and I appreciate having the opportunity to do so here.

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