Nick Burns, a career diplomat who recently retired after a quarter century of service as the number three ranked official in the State Department, has a long piece in Newsweek declaring “We Should Talk to Our Enemies.”  It pointedly takes John McCain to task for his repeated hammering at Barack Obama for pledging to negotiate with adversaries without preconditions.

I’ll bet that a poll of senior diplomats who have served presidents from Carter to Bush would reveal an overwhelming majority who agree with the following position: of course we should talk to difficult adversaries—when it is in our interest and at a time of our choosing.


Talking to our adversaries is no one’s idea of fun, and it is not a sure prescription for success in every crisis. But it is crude, simplistic and wrong to charge that negotiations reflect weakness or appeasement. More often than not, they are evidence of a strong and self-confident country. One of America’s greatest but often neglected strengths is, in fact, our diplomatic power. Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Libya in September—the first by a U.S. secretary of state in five decades—was the culmination of years of careful, deliberate diplomacy to maneuver the Libyan leadership to give up its weapons of mass destruction and renounce terrorism. She would not have achieved that victory had she refused to talk to the Libyans.


I’m not saying the next president should sit down immediately with Ahmadinejad. We should initiate contact at a lower level to investigate whether it’s worth putting the president’s prestige on the line. We should leave the threat of military action on the table to give us greater leverage as we talk to the Iranian government. And ultimately we’d want other countries with influence—like Russia and China—to sit on our side of the table in order to bring maximum pressure to bear against Tehran. But the United States hasn’t had a meaningful set of talks with Iran on all the critical issues that separate us in 30 years, since the Khomeini revolution. To illustrate how far we have isolated ourselves, think about this: I served as the Bush administration’s point person on Iran for three years but was never permitted to meet an Iranian. To her immense credit, Secretary Rice arranged for my successor to participate in a multilateral meeting with Iranian officials this past summer. That is a good first step, but the next American president should initiate a more sustained discussion with senior Iranians.


Newsweek titles the pages containing the piece online “Ex-Bush Official: We Should Talk to Iran,” garnering the attention of Obama supporters online.   Matthew Yglesias, who blogs for the New America Foundation and recently published the book Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats, cites Burns’ piece as “part of the trend of realists and career practitioners moving toward Democratic Party positions. And, I might add, of Democratic Party positions coming toward the consensus among real experts and professions.” 

Kevin Drum, blogger for Mother Jones, observes that “Burns, of course, has no time for campaign claptrap about preconditions being the same thing as preparation. In fact, he doesn’t even mention it.”  It seems to me, however, that this is not  “claptrap” at all but the essence of the debate between McCain and Obama on the issue.  The Democratic contenders were asked during the YouTube debate on July 23, 2007 whether they would be “willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?”  Obama, who answered first, replied in the affirmative:

I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous. Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.

While this generated enthusiastic applause from the crowd, Obama’s opponents quickly seized upon it.  Hillary Clinton, answering next:

Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are. I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don’t want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration. And I will purse very vigorous diplomacy.

And I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we’re not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.

Others followed suit and Clinton, sensing an opportunity to make a move, made the rounds the next day telling everyone with a microphone that Obama was “naive” on foreign policy.   The Nation‘s David Corn wrote that this was a major “flub” for Obama which demonstrated that he had a lot of maturation to do as a candidate and that he must “avoid such mistakes as promising to open the doors of the White House without conditions to Kim Jong Il and others of that ilk.”

McCain is merely trying to pick up where Clinton laid off.  Thus far, if the polls are to be believed, with similar success.

He’s not arguing that the United States should avoid diplomatic contact with states with whom we have conflict — he is, after all, the Republican who led the push for reopening relations with Vietnam — but rather that we should not have presidential level negotiations without preconditions.  Instead, as Burns, Henry Kissinger, and others have suggested, talks should be conducted at the cabinet and subcabinet levels with the principals once an agreement is close. 

Ironically, that’s Obama’s position as well.  While caught somewhat flatfooted at the debate — whether out of confusion over the definition of “preconditions” or genuine naïveté  — he has long since adopted the consensus view of the foreign policy establishment on the matter.   Rather than backing off his off-the-cuff answer at the debate, he has adopted the distinction between “preparation” and “preconditions” that Drum alludes to.  Nor does McCain, as Drum suggests, argue we should “demand that Iran agree to halt its nuclear program before we even sit down to talk, even though their nuclear program is supposedly one of the very reasons for the talks in the first place.”  He’s saying exactly what Burns and Obama is, merely using different language.

Perhaps and even greater irony is that, despite all the rhetoric of “change” from an unpopular Bush administration policy, both candidates are advocating a continuation of the second term Bush policy.  While the neoconservatives might have trumped Colin Powell and other Realists in the first term, Condi Rice and Bob Gates and the Realists took over thereafter, with a total victory after Don Rumsfeld was replaced after the Republicans’ 2006 midterm debacle.  

An Obama administration may bring a more pleasant voice and a McCain adminstration may be a bit more combative and they’ll both have different policy priorities than the other and their predecessor.  Either way, though, the U.S. will talk to representatives from governments with whom we have sharp disagreements, shifting to direct head-of-government talks when and only when sufficient preparation/preconditions have been met to avoid embarrassment.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.  

Related Experts: James Joyner