Now that he seems poised to become the Democratic Presidential nominee, Obama is taking a bit of heat from McCain, his likely opponent, especially about Obama’s touchy-feely (that is, predominantly talky) foreign policy.
It’s a different sort of heat than Clinton can give out, because the audience is different. Hillary can’t criticize Obama’s extreme liberal positions, nor his antiwar stance, all that effectively, for the simple reason that in order to have a chance at her party’s nomination she needs to appeal to the huge number of Democrats who agree with those very positions.
Obama seems to believe in talk. Lots of it. Hope and talk. Hoping to talk. Talking about hoping to talk:
Obama repeatedly has advocated meeting without preconditions with leaders of such hostile nations as Cuba and Iran, saying current U.S. policy is not working and it is time for a fresh look at ways to improve relations.
“The next president has a job to do to repair our image and to send a signal … that a new era is being ushered in and that we are not afraid to talk to anybody, including those who we have grave problems with,” Obama said.
“Not afraid to talk” is a clever phrase, designed to portray those who won’t cozy up and have a “dialogue” as being motivated by fear rather than practical reality or strategic considerations. Obama is nothing if not clever. But he certainly is naive.
He is not alone, however. Belief in the power of talk has a long history. Ask Neville Chamberlain, if you could. Or Jimmy Carter, if you care to.
I think some of the current faith in talk comes from the popularity of “the talking cure”—therapy. Much of the rest of this post will consist of me quoting myself from an earlier piece; no need to reinvent the wheel. As I wrote some time ago:
But even therapists must acknowledge that there are times when talking does no good, when therapy is inappropriate, and when the tools of the trade not only don’t work but can be harmful. But Pelosi and Lantos and so many others [such as Obama] seem to think of dialogue as something magical and universally appropriate [the following is a Lantos quote]:
“…however objectionable, unfair, and inaccurate many of [Ahmadinejad’s] statements are, it is important that we have a dialogue with him.”
Why? Why is it important? In order to feel that we are peaceful and good people? In order to empower him to think that we are fools? In order to allow him to buy time while he develops his nuclear weaponry? In order to give him greater prestige in the eyes of the world? In order to afford him propaganda opportunities and photo ops?
Lantos and Pelosi don’t seem to feel the need to explain the value of dialogue; it is felt to be self-evident. But it is not.
The original meaning of the word is “a conversation.” But it has taken on a special meaning in the peace movement: it’s been reified as a good in and of itself.
Here’s a definition of dialogue in that sense, by David Somm:
“…a new kind of mind begins to come into being which is based on the development of a common meaning…People are no longer primarily in opposition, nor can they be said to be interacting, rather they are participating in this pool of common meaning, which is capable of constant development and change.”
Commonality and cooperation rather than opposition is a goal of dialogue, and some element of these must be present in the first place in order to even conduct a dialogue in the sense it’s used here. But these things are not present in a “dialogue” with a group such as the leaders of Iran.
Even Pelosi and Lantos, who so badly want to dialogue with Iran’s leaders, describe them as “repulsive” and “outside the circle of human behavior.” So, does Somm’s definition of “dialogue” apply to them? Can it apply to them?
The bottom line is that to have a dialogue the parties must speak the same language—and I don’t mean the sort of language that can be easily handled by interpreters.
Obama is a confident fellow. His experience so far has been in Chicago and Illinois politics, and a short stint in the Senate. Now, running for President and slaying the dragon Hillary, he no doubt has only gained confidence in his remarkable persuasive powers. But I think he’ll find that Raul and Mahmoud are a lot more immune to his considerable charm and intelligence than the American people have been. They might even think of him as a useful idiot.