Diplomacy! The Horror!

It’s probably no surprise that AEI’s Danielle Pletka would dismiss Obama’s speech in Cairo yesterday as mere “jawboning.” Her implication, though, is much broader: that basically all efforts at negotiations with nefarious or intransigent actors — the usual suspects of Iran, North Korea, and Palestine — are not only wasteful and ineffective “jawboning,” but provide a near-treasonous benefit to America’s adversaries.

The underlying fallacy of Pletka’s argument comes exactly here, in the assumption that negotiation — the entire act of diplomacy — is a zero-sum game. No one is arguing that negotiations don’t come with trade-offs, or setbacks, or, yes, disingenuousness on the part of one’s unsavory interlocutors. But continuing to engage in talks despite these problems is not, as Pletka would have it, to allow these problems to win the day. It is simply giving up.

In fact, Pletka seems more exercised by the medium of diplomacy than of the rotten fruit that she sees it begetting. The question she does not answer, though, is what method besides the “negotiation” and “engagement” that she derides — and beyond simply giving up talking to other counties — she would have us employ. Recklessly wielding sticks (or bombs) just limits our options — and will only make the negative outcomes that she disdains all the more likely.

Obama’s Cairo speech, moreover, seems a rather awkward hook on which to hang a denunciation of diplomacy. Obama was not involved in negotiations yesterday; he was making a broad outreach to Muslim populations. This use of “smart power” is a very different exercise than that of negotiating with, say, Hamas. When commentators like Pletka shudder at that latter thought, they are merely misunderstanding both the futility of isolation and the point of “smart power.” While Hamas may still rail against Obama’s outreach, millions of moderate Muslims heard what the U.S. president had to say. And most of them probably liked it a lot more than what extremists on either side had to say.