During the 2008 Presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama stated repeatedly that he would engage America's enemies to resolve disputes. In foreign policy, engagement is not always a bad thing if it is done correctly. When combined with leverage -- threats of military action or economic sanctions -- engagement can at times bear fruit. However, the Obama administration has not seemed interested in establishing leverage with various problematic regimes around the world and has instead repeatedly announced its desire to cut a deal as quickly as possible and hope that the other side will be accommodating. On Friday, the Obama administration took this one step farther and made clear that when problematic regimes aren't interested in engaging the United States on its terms, it will be willing to move the goalposts and talk to them nonetheless. First, the State Department announced that the United States was willing to send envoy Stephen Bosworth to meet his North Korean counterparts in the hope of convincing "North Korea to come back to the six-party process and to take affirmative steps toward denuclearization." This comes after North Korea greeted the Obama administration's first year in office with among other actions, a nuclear test, a launch of a long-range missile theoretically capable of hitting the United States, the capture (and release only after being paid with a Bill Clinton photo op) of two Americans, and an announcement last week that it was in the "final stage" of enriching uranium, a nice complement to its existing plutonium fueled nuclear arsenal. North Korea also made clear that it had no intention of returning to the Six-Party process but said it would be willing to meet bilaterally with U.S. officials, something until last week, the Obama administration refused to do. After adopting an initial tough approach with North Korea, the Obama administration now appears to be returning to the Bush administration's playbook. This is a playbook, by the way, which they spent recent months telling reporters they had no interest in using. David Sanger wrote in the New York Times last month that a senior Obama adviser said that this was "a moment…to ‘break the cycle' set under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush: the North's serial nuclear provocations lead to a payoff and an agreement that then falls apart, leading to another crisis and another payoff." Perhaps it just took Bosworth a while to find the instructions former envoy Chris Hill left him in his safe at Foggy Bottom explaining how to capitulate to Pyongyang while playing the tough minded negotiator. Although the administration has spent the last eight months talking tough on North Korea, in reality it has avoided taking the measures necessary to actually implement a containment strategy -- aggressive boarding of North Korean and other ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction and related technology, and serious financial actions against North Korean entities and bank accounts. With Bosworth headed to Pyongyang, don't expect tough actions against North Korean proliferators anytime soon -- State's natural instincts to ensure "success" in the negotiations will preclude any drastic attempts to contain North Korean proliferation lest they upset Kim Jong Il and ruin Bosworth's chances of cutting a deal. The second major announcement on Friday was that the U.S. would join the other five parties of the P5+1 in negotiations with Iran even though Iran's latest offer to talk was a rehash of previous documents and was, in the words of one diplomatic source of Politico reporter Laura Rozen, "not a serious response." The administration's deadline for Iran to agree to talks was fast approaching and the administration had nothing to show for its back-channel letters and coddling of the regime as it murdered its own citizens in the street, so they decided to manufacture some progress. With Russia stating that it did not support additional sanctions, and with the administration having little to no interest in the unilateral sanctions popular on Capitol Hill, they decided to accept Iran's offer for a discussion of the merits of Persian v. Western civilization. How will this lead to resolution of Iran's nuclear program? It won't. Iranian President Ahmadinejad said on Sunday that Iran refuses to talk about its nuclear program because possessing nuclear technology is Iran's "legal and definitive right, and it will not hold discussions about its undeniable rights." How does the White House plan to get around this? Robert Gibbs, who last month called Ahmadinejad Iran's "elected leader," before walking his statement back, said on Saturday that "This may not have been a topic they wanted to be brought up, but I can assure you it's a topic that we'll bring up." I'm sure the Iranians are quaking in their boots: "No, Bill Burns, please don't mention our nuclear program! We'll do anything if you just won't mention our nuclear program!" Even the New York Times editorial board, which usually operates somewhere to the left of MoveOn.org on such issues, wrote on Saturday, that "Unfortunately, there is no sign that Iran is serious about doing much more than buying more time." And buy time it has. One looks at all of the above and wonders what exactly the administration hopes to achieve with such laughable strategies. In both cases, you could argue that it appears they are just trying to sidestep difficult choices. Perhaps an administration obsessed with domestic crises, real and manufactured, doesn't want trouble abroad. Unfortunately, these actions both make us less safe and are likely to only cause the administration more trouble down the road. In the case of North Korea, engagement has been tried and failed numerous times, so many times that many people seem to not realize that there are alternative options. So until the next covert North Korean reactor is discovered somewhere, most of the world will give them a pass. On Iran, however, the administration's actions will be closely followed by observers at home and abroad. Given recent IAEA reports about Iran's continued progress at its uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, unanswered questions about its pre-2003 military nuclear program, and increasing signs that the administration has not figured out how to translate "crippling sanctions" into Chinese or Russian, one wonders how long it will take for the Israelis (the one country the Obama administration has been willing to alienate) to grow tired of this shell game and decide to take matters into their own hands. You would think the Obama administration would be concerned about that eventuality, but perhaps it would absolve President Obama of his responsibility to resolve tough problems via a tactic that sounded good on stage in 2008 but appears increasingly ill suited to the world he faces as president in 2009.
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