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Santorum’s Fear of Diplomacy

Rick Santorum makes a hawkish argument against a possible Obama-Rouhani meeting in an odd way:

There’s “no way” President Barack Obama should meet with newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United National General Assembly this week, former Sen. Rick Santorum said Tuesday.

“The president of the United States should never meet with someone who’s not the president of their country,” Santorum said on CNN’s “New Day,” arguing that the Ayatollah is the person who leads Iran.

It’s an odd position, since Rouhani is, in fact, the Iranian president, and our president meets with officials of various ranks from other countries as necessary. Santorum wants to say that Rouhani is not the ultimate authority in the Iranian government, which is true enough. This is a distinction that is extremely important to hawks when so-called “moderates” or reformers hold the office, and absolutely irrelevant to them when it is occupied by a more demagogic and obnoxious figure. Then again, if Rouhani is just a “puppet” and a “mouthpiece” as he says, that tells us that his conciliatory gestures have been authorized and have Khamenei’s support for the time being. If that’s so, meeting with Rouhani would be an opportunity to establish contact with someone who has Khamenei’s backing to pursue a negotiated deal. Since Santorum has no interest in a negotiated agreement with Iran, presumably it doesn’t matter to him what Rouhani’s official position happens to be. If it were possible, Santorum wouldn’t want Obama and Khamenei to meet, either, because he is adamantly against anything that might result in reduced tensions with Iran.

It is remarkable how much importance has been attached to the mere possibility that Obama and Rouhani might briefly meet this week. If we were talking about bilateral relations between almost any other pair of governments, such meetings would be commonplace. The question wouldn’t be whether such a meeting would take place, but rather how productive it would prove to be. The U.S. and Iran can’t even begin to find out what kind of deal is possible so long as holding meetings between top officials is itself treated as making a concession to the other side. All of this should remind us how abnormal and counterproductive it is to have no formal diplomatic ties with Iran. There are hardly any other states where the U.S. has gone this far out of its way for so long to avoid high-level contacts with a foreign government, and it severely limits our government’s ability to conduct effective diplomacy.

As Stephen Walt put it earlier today:

My main point is that Americans attach too much significance to these sorts of meetings — mostly because we are too fond of not talking to countries we dislike — and this reticence cripples our diplomacy. Refusing to talk to people or countries with whom we differ is really just a childish form of spite and one the United States indulges in mostly because we can get away with it. But it also makes it more difficult to resolve differences in ways that would advance U.S. interests. In short, it’s dumb.

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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