Engaging the Enemy

The fact that the Israeli-Syrian discussions mediated by Turkey, which were confirmed today, are taking place less than a year after Israel’s airstrike on an alleged Syrian nuclear facility is pretty mindboggling. It shows that Israel is neither afraid to address what it considers security threats with force, nor to explore the possibility of negotiated resolutions. For now, the approach is limited to the “symptoms” (Syria, Hamas, if not yet Hizbollah), and not the “disease” (Iran).

As Kevin Drum points out, though, any deal that is reached will depend on America buying in. And since Syria recently made it clear that it did not seriously entertain the possibility of a deal while the Bush administration remains in power, that leaves this one squarely in the inbox of the future president:

. . .[E]ven if Syria and Israel manage to reach agreement, Syria almost certainly needs direct assurances from the United States too before it would enter into any kind of comprehensive deal — something which would, among other things, have the salutary effect of cutting off Iran from an ally and increasing Hamas’s isolation. President Obama has made it clear that he’d be willing to be a part of that. President McCain, not so much. That’s your foreign policy choice this November in a nutshell.

Noah Pollack at Contentions (via Andrew Sullivan) brings up the very good point that a more useful debate than whether or not to negotiate with the Iranians (or Syria, or Hamas) is what we can realistically expect to achieve through negotiations. Pollack argues that we’ve already been negotiating with Iran via the EU3, and it hasn’t accomplished anything. But that’s a bit disingenuous, because the EU3 lacks the very thing that Barack Obama has suggested an American president could bring to the table, namely America.

Meanwhile, one of John McCain’s principal objections to meeting with the Iranians is the prestige it will bring them. I’d argue that that works more in our favor than in theirs. Iran might represent a relatively small threat and an even smaller global power. But it also represents a great historical and cultural heritage, one we’d do well to avoid offending by reducing it to its current political incarnation. Taking the Iranian leadership seriously would do little to increase its real influence, something that can’t be said for the Bush administration’s policy of containment and isolation that John McCain embraces. But if in flattering its vanity we increase Tehran’s inclination to meaningful negotiate, that seems like a small price to pay.

The fact that we sit down with them will not only impact Iran’s image, though. It will also impact our own, even if, in the end, those negotiations prove fruitless.