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Daniel Brumberg Daniel Brumberg is an Associate Professor of Government and Co-Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University. He also serves as Acting Director of the United States...

OTHER POSTS

Egypt's sad elections

December 9, 2010

The limits to Obama's Muslim outreach

November 15, 2010

What does Obama want?

July 7, 2010

Setting diplomatic traps

June 7, 2010

Engagement and peacemaking

April 27, 2010

Israel: Obama's next moment?

March 25, 2010

Analytical warfare in Tehran and Washington

February 26, 2010

Dawn of a new republic in Iran?

February 9, 2010

Defying Middle East autocrats

January 13, 2010

The struggle for Obama's soul

December 19, 2009

A long exit from Afghanistan

December 4, 2009

Adrift in Cairo: Is U.S. watching?

November 12, 2009

Taking the long view in Afghanistan

October 21, 2009

How to Help The Iranian People

October 8, 2009

Iraq the Sequel: Now Playing in Afghanistan

August 24, 2009

Cleric's Defiance a Breach of Faith?

July 25, 2009


>> more

Engaging the World Anew

September 10, 2009

One of the emerging lessons of the Obama administration's foreign policy might be summed up as follows: The idea that presidential "direct diplomacy" with actors such as Chávez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il or Fidel Castro is feasible or likely to produce results is, well, naive.

--Jackson Diehl, The Washington Post

Is the idea of "direct diplomacy" with our most troublesome rivals dead, at least for the moment? Perhaps. Is the idea of engagement still alive and kicking? I hope so.
Whether or not our president was "naïve" in assuming that dialogue with the likes of Castro or Chávez would be useful is a judgment that I will leave to my readers. But there was nothing simplistic or innocent about the purpose and utility of an integrated strategy of engagement.

I emphasize "strategy" because any calculated policy of engagement is not about making nice with our enemies. Nor it is about deploying the charismatic or intellectual qualities of our national leaders and diplomats in a bid to magically win over (or at least positively influence) a narrow-minded autocrat such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rather, the purpose is to communicate a readiness to reach out to a variety of political actors and organizations in ways that undercut the domestic, regional and global leverage of our most dangerous rivals. A sophisticated engagement strategy pokes holes in the veneer of unity that these rivals claim to defend, be it political, cultural or ideological, thus opening space for more pragmatic voices and actors.

Such a strategy no doubt entails risk, and can have unintended--even unhappy-- consequences. Still, the recent course of the Obama administration's diplomacy amply demonstrates that strategic engagement is worth pursuing.

Consider Lebanon. In the months leading up to the country's June 7 parliamentary elections, the Obama administration signaled a desire to forge a new relationship with the Muslim world. Washington's bid to open talks with Tehran undercut the efforts of Hezbollah to portray the US as an enemy of all Muslims, or of Shi'ites in particular. As I witnessed while serving as an election observer with the National Democratic Institute, Sa'ad Hariri and his allies in the pro-Western "March 14 Coalition" appreciated the sophisticated logic that animated Obama's efforts. And while I do not attribute the March 14 Coalition's unexpected electoral victory to Obama's June 4 Cairo speech, it would be wrong to deny or ignore the indirect but positive effect in Lebanon of the President's efforts to redefine and realign US-Muslim relations.

In contrast, the Iranian case illustrates how the road to hell can be paved with the positive intentions of strategic engagement. President Obama's bid to reach out to the Iranian people and their government inspired many Iranians to envision a reciprocal opening to Washington. Echoing these hopes were reformists such as Mir Hossein Mousavi, and hard-line apparatchiks such as Mohsen Rezai. In the lead up to the June 12 parliamentary elections, this former leader of Iran's Revolutionary Guard lambasted Ahmadinejad's economic and diplomatic incompetence while calling for a "constructive" approach to the United States.

Ahmadinejad and his allies in Iran's New Right got the message. One of the secondary goals of their electoral coup was to muzzle independent Iranian voices advocating dialogue with the new American president.

I am not suggesting that Ahmadinejad's opponents are a fifth column of U.S. influence. Nor am I suggesting by any stretch of the imagination that Obama's engagement strategy is responsible for provoking the June 12 electoral coup.

Still, as I discuss in Conflict, Identity and Reform in the Muslim World: Challenges for U.S. Engagement, any effort to shake up the calculations of our rivals, friends and potential interlocutors will produce diverse results, some of them good, others less so. While we cannot control all outcomes, over time strategic engagement could benefit both the United States and the Muslim world. Relinquishing this tool would be naïve and even counter-productive.