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Obama's Engagement Woes

10:00 AM, Sep 15, 2009 • By JAMIE FLY
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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.