The Day Diplomacy Died

In our special Memorial Day edition, World Beat is publishing an obituary for Diplomacy, which died prematurely last week after an extended illness.

The last seven years or so were difficult ones for Diplomacy. According to press reports, the mainstay of foreign policy began complaining of chest pains and nausea in 2001. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, Diplomacy sustained several shocks to the system, went into intensive care, and very nearly succumbed. But it was last week that its heart and soul finally gave up after a double-barreled assault by President George W. Bush and his presumptive successor John McCain.

The proximate cause of death was a pair of speeches. President Bush, talking before the Israeli parliament on May 15, declared that “some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along.” Diplomacy, which had always maintained that negotiating with adversaries was the very lifeblood of international relations, suffered a stroke on hearing the president’s words.

The killing blow, however, came from John McCain. The Republican presidential candidate assailed Diplomacy in an effort to get at Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. According to McCain, Obama doesn’t understand the “basic realities of international relations” because he favors sitting down and talking to people like Raul Castro in Cuba and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran. McCain’s words, and the possibility that he might bring such an attitude into the White House in 2009, were simply too much for Diplomacy.

Gathered around the deathbed in a last-ditch effort to revive the ailing patient, former secretary of state in the Reagan administration James Baker repeated his assertion from 2006 that “talking to an enemy is not in my view appeasement.” Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) was there as well to give a little pep talk : “This kind of political attack rhetoric masquerading as policy is exactly why we’re in such trouble around the world, why we’re less secure and our adversaries are stronger.” Christopher Hill, the administration’s point person on the nuclear talks with former “evil axis” nation North Korea, phoned in with a tribute to Diplomacy, but the reception was not good and the message probably didn’t get through.

These emergency interventions were not enough. Diplomacy stopped breathing, and the president overruled attempts by next of kin in the State Department to invoke extraordinary measures. With Diplomacy out of the way, the Bush administration has given indications that it will attack Iran before the end of the year. In others signs of Diplomacy’s passing, the administration continues to refuse to talk to Syria and maintains its policy of freezing Hamas out of any settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Whither Appeasement?

World Beat has been concerned about the health of diplomacy before (Talk to the Hand, July 31, 2007). But that was back when Hilary Clinton, not John McCain, was beating up on Obama for a willingness to use his words rather than throw a tantrum. The unreconstructed militarists inside the Republican Party are making one last bid to coalesce around McCain and continue the dubious Bush legacy of equating diplomacy with appeasement. No, diplomacy is not fully dead yet, any more so than the music really died that day in 1959 when an airplane crash killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens. But when future historians try to understand how the Bush administration fundamentally altered how the United States relates to the world, they may well point to the 2008 elections and how first Hillary Clinton and then the Bush-McCain duo managed to make diplomacy look like baby-killing.

Politicians like to talk tough. In office, of course, it’s another matter. “Harry Truman negotiated endlessly with the other side during the Korean War,” FPIF contributor Ira Chernus points out in Obama, McCain, and Munich. “His popularity sank not because he negotiated but because the talks brought no end to the war. In the Vietnam War era, Richard Nixon sent Henry Kissinger for talks with the North Vietnamese.

This is merely the record of public negotiations with enemies. There is also a rich record of secret back-channel talks. JFK defused the 1962 Cuban missile crisis not by ‘standing tough’ and risking war but by secretly agreeing to take U.S. missiles out of Turkey if the Soviets withdrew their missiles from Cuba.” This story of JFK’s negotiations with Moscow somehow never made it into the fatuous op-ed in The New York Times about Kennedy and Khrushchev that purported to teach history to Obama.

Will a Democrat in the White House change this dynamic and resuscitate diplomacy? Perhaps. But as Thomas Powers laments, the appeasement debate will likely be with us for some time, if only because we will still be in Afghanistan and Iraq for the foreseeable future: “At an unmarked moment somewhere between the third and sixth month [of the new president’s term] a sea change occurs: Bush’s war becomes the new president’s war, and getting out means failure, means defeat, means rising opposition at home, means no second term.”

Powers’ scenario will likely unfold unless the peace movement can change the terms of the debate. Recently, the Chicago City Council debated a resolution opposing a U.S. military strike on Iran. The mayor, a Democrat, weighed in on the side of force. Here’s FPIF contributors Phyllis Bennis and Farrah Hassen’s response in The Chicago Sun-Times, which very effectively reframes the issue.

Democrat or Republican, the Pentagon will be breathing down the neck of the next administration. President Bush “wills to his successor a world marred by war and battered by deprivation, but perhaps his most enduring legacy is now deeply embedded in Washington-area politics — a Pentagon metastasized almost beyond recognition,” FPIF contributor Frida Berrigan points out in a thorough analysis in TomDispatch. “The Pentagon’s massive bulk-up these last seven years will not be easily unbuilt, no matter who dons the presidential mantle on January 19, 2009.”

America AWOL

The Bush administration is particularly adamant about applying its no-talk approach to promising developments in arms control. For instance, representatives from most countries of the world are now gathered in Ireland to discuss how to get rid of cluster bombs, a particularly nasty weapon that does most of its damage to civilians. “In the past 10 years, the United States has used cluster bombs in civilian-populated areas of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo,” writes FPIF contributor Lora Lumpe in America AWOL on Cluster Bombs. “These weapons also have an established track record of killing and injuring U.S. soldiers. During Operation Desert Storm, U.S. cluster submunitions were responsible for more U.S. troop casualties (80) than any Iraqi weapons system.”

Alas, there are no U.S. representatives at the Ireland meeting. In the global game of Deal or No Deal, the Bush administration favors the latter choice, again and again.

The Bush administration’s policy on nuclear weapons, meanwhile, is so far to the right that it makes former Secretaries of State George P. Shultz and Henry Kissinger look like the children of Che Guevara and Dr. Pangloss. Both Shultz and Kissinger have endorsed the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. Alas, neither India nor Pakistan has embraced this goal. “India and Pakistan are still producing the plutonium and highly enriched uranium that are the key ingredients in nuclear weapons,” FPIF columnist Zia Mian writes in Ten Years After. “Nuclear policy makers in both countries obviously do not think they have enough weapons. They have never explained how many cities they seek to be able to destroy. For the past decade the two countries have also been waging a nuclear missile race. Some of the tests are user trials and field exercises by the military. They are practicing for fighting nuclear war.” Now, where on earth could India and Pakistan have learned such behavior?

Finally, we have a report from the Pacific by FPIF contributor Andre Vltchek. In A Tale of Two Samoas, he reports on the impact of the Iraq War on American Samoa: “American Samoans are dying in disproportionate numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to compile exact figures, but at least 15 American Samoans have died in Iraq. The death toll is tremendous, considering that the territory is the size of a small American city. Many American Samoan soldiers have come back with devastating war injuries. Post-traumatic stress disorder also plagues the returnees. Behind its barbed wire, the United States Reserve Te’o Soldiers Support Center offers a telephone number for the suicide hotline. It is posted near the entrance door, together with other emergency numbers.”