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Getting The Fear

There’s a curious idea, one popularised earlier this year by Obama, that a refusal to negotiate or to dialogue with this or that dreadful government and/or individual is an expression of fear.  This follows the usual drill: everyone else embraces the politics of fear, but Obama and those like him embrace the politics of hope, blah, blah, blah. 

Evidently, it takes courage to stand up and, just like everyone else, denounce the president of another country under the guise of “conversation” and “debate.”  After all, what is the point of letting Ahmadinejad onto your stage so that you can tell him that he’s a “cruel dictator”?  Are we trying to hurt his feelings?  Obviously persuasion isn’t the goal, since calling someone a dictator in front of an audience of students is not going to make him break down and have a conversion experience: “Thank you for showing me the light, Mr. Bollinger!  I will do better!” 

Similarly, there’s no point in holding talks simply for the symbolism of holding talks and showing that We Are Not Afraid To Talk.  How impressive.  All of this attempted appropriation of the rhetoric of toughness and fearlessness is an attempt to steal a page from the (stupid) foreign policy book of militarists.  Instead of “showing resolve” by not talking to someone, we show resolve by talking to someone.  At no point does anyone on either side stop to think that maybe, just maybe, making decisions, whether great or small, based on how fearless and tough they make us look is idiotic and the root of more than a few of our problems overseas.  When strategic interests require it, negotiating with “rogue” states is perfectly reasonable and appropriate, but to do it simply to make a point of doing it or to show just how unafraid we are of Hugo Chavez (I should hope that no one sane and not living in Venezuela is afraid of Hugo Chavez) and the like is daft. 

As I’ve said before, to “engage” Ahmadinejad or someone like him ends up making him look no more ridiculous to our own people, while it can make him seem superficially more important and statesmanlike than he could ever be on his own.  Ahmadinejad is not undermined at home when he is taken seriously by people overseas, even if he is taken seriously as a villain and a despot.  If anything, criticism of him will be met with a visceral reaction of rallying around their President in some quarters, while the invitation will cause frustration and despair among his domestic foes.  These things energise Ahmadinejad’s backers and weaken his rivals.  The stronger he and his backers are within the Iranian government, the harder it becomes to push for a rational Iran policy, as advocates for harsh treatment of Iran can exploit any gain of strength by Ahmadinejad as one more reason to pursue their confrontational policies. 

The invitation ultimately has only a small effect on any of this, but what effect it does have is harmful.  That is why it should not have been made, and not because we are quaking in terror at the prospect of Ahmadinejad’s next speech.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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