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July 29, 2009

Not Sure What Michael Gerson's Point Is
Posted by David Shorr

My main reaction to Michael Gerson's obituary for President Obama's efforts to engage Iran and North Korea is that Gerson offers mostly a set of well-known facts that show the difficulty of influencing would-be proliferators (newsflash), but really don't prove anything about diplomatic engagement. Yes, we're all aware that Iranian and North Korean leaders are defiant and view their nuclear programs as shows of strength. Tehran and Pyongyang are indeed pursuing policies at odds with international nonproliferation norms. No one has ever claimed that this was a misunderstanding or their failure to see the light. That's why there's a problem!

The only interesting question here is whether and how the US and others can influence their policy choices. On that issue, Gerson basically declares defeat and makes a short hop to regime-change -- essentially an argument that, 'it's not within the character of these regimes to yield' -- exactly the impulse that undercut Bush Administration efforts at engagement. If you tell a regime that you're really interested in their removal, not a mere change in their policy, do you really expect them to cooperate?

I agree with Matt Duss over at the Wonk Room that Gerson has really missed the point in arguing that the lack of immediate results from engagement backs Obama into a corner:

In other words, what Gerson identifies as “the paradox of the Obama doctrine” — that “by attempting to engage North Korea and Iran so visibly, Obama is… building the case for confrontation” — is actually one element of the strategy. By showing a genuine willingness to exhaust diplomatic options and making clear to the international community who the recalcitrant parties are in each case, the U.S. can generate greater international resolve to deal with the problematic regimes like Iran and North Korea.


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