Look Who's (Not) Talking

March 1, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s this morning’s headline from CNN

White House: U.S. won't talk to Syria, Iran directly

It’s obvious that the US has big problems with Iran and its nuclear program. The White House is recycling its pre-Iraq-war script, but Iran, like Saddam, refuses to cave. For one thing, they probably don’t think the US can really launch another war right now (there are reports, though not in the mainstream press, that several generals have threatened to resign if the Bush administration declares war on Iran). For another, as apparently, even the Bush White House has discovered, the US can’t force other nations to do what it wants — not by threatening invasion, not by waving fistfuls of dollars in their faces.

So talk seems to be the best place to start. But the Bush policy has long been that one cannot talk with evildoers. Such talk would sully our moral purity and reward bad behavior (as though speaking with a Bush administration official were some kind of prize).

How to reconcile the need to talk with the stated policy of not talking? Look closely at the headline, especially the last word: “directly.” Four months ago, I posted here that this “We won’t talk to him” game reminded me of quarreling children, usually siblings, who refuse to talk to each other. At the dinner table, they address remarks to intermediaries (parents) though in full hearing of the enemy (i.e., brother or sister).

And so it is with the US. The CNN story continues that Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, “said U.S. and Iranian officials have been ‘seated at the same table in multilateral negotiations’ several times in the past few years, during aid conferences and in meetings at the United Nations.”

So the US will sit at the table in Baghdad; so will Iran and Syria. But several other countries from the region and from the UN Security Council will also be “seated at the same table.” The US will talk to these others, not to Syria and Iran. But it’s just possible that as at the family dinner table, the representatives from Iran and Syria will overhear.

As I said in my earlier post, when people use this “I’m not talking to him” charade, we call it childish and silly. When nations do it, we call it foreign policy. (Apologies for recycling my garbage. I’m doing it only because the White House is also recycling its own.)

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