March 01, 2007

Soft Heads and Awkward Backtracks

I'm sure I'm not the only person whose reaction to the news that the Bush administration will talk to Iran and Syria was a big sigh of relief. I don't think this means there's no danger of a wider conflict, but it's at least a hint of hope. However, the lead-in of the New York Times article is a perfect illustration of why a move like this would be so surprising, and also such a difficult political step. Emphasis mine:

WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 — In the span of just two weeks, the United States has agreed to hold high-level contacts with Iran and Syria, and to start down the path toward formal diplomatic recognition of North Korea.

Has the Bush administration gone soft on its foes?

As recently as Jan. 12, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeated what has been a constant of Bush foreign policy: a refusal to bestow on Iran, Syria and North Korea the legitimacy of diplomatic engagement as long as they refuse to bend on disputed issues.

“That’s not diplomacy,” Ms. Rice said before a Senate panel, in defending the administration’s stand on Iran and Syria. “That’s extortion.” ...

Can we let it stand for the moment that Rice's statement signifies an administration who believes that diplomacy means your negotiating partner has to comply with your demands as a precondition for negotiating? Right then.

Helene Cooper, in only the second sentence of her article, explains everything about why belligerence and bullying can be described unblinkingly as diplomacy. She explains everything about why it's taken more years than it should for this administration to have sat down to seriously, and successfully, address the situation with North Korea. It's why it's taken four years for them to come around to the position that it would be worth engaging in talks with two of Iraq's most influential and directly impacted neighbors. It's that word: soft.

One of the worst things you can call someone in American politics today, and for as long as I can remember, is soft. No one wants to be accused of being soft on crime, or drugs, or enemies, or the so-called lazy. Soft is weak, ineffectual, insufficiently poisoned with aggression and cruelty. Soft is also merciful, conciliatory, apologizing, forgiving, generous and gracious. It conveys an expansive catalog of traits, all demonized, all confused and jumbled up with each other. All ideologically damned and unexamined. Nothing characterized as soft can usually be seriously discussed in terms of its effectiveness.

As Robert Anton Wilson might have put it, calling an idea soft is another way of categorizing it among the set of things that no serious person needs to listen to.

This is the poison of our debate. This is why it's so easy to forget in our politics that people exist for each other. This is why a bully like Condoleezza Rice can be appointed as the nation's chief diplomat, why an unapologetic thug like John Bolton could have been advanced as our representative to the United Nations without unleashing a storm of outrage. This is why it seems shocking and novel to try any foreign policy tactic besides getting a bigger hammer.

Thanks, Ms. Cooper, for doing your part to destroy our chances at a political climate in which diplomacy and creativity might be the natural first choice. The softest thing I'm seeing in this story is the type of fuzzy thinking that can't get beyond a limited palette of jingoistic buzzwords with which to examine current events.

Posted by natasha at March 1, 2007 01:55 AM | Iran | Technorati links |

This is so right on, natasha. And I think it is a great diagnosis of the problems we have in our society. People belittle more humane solutions because the only thing that is politically acceptable is to beat people over the head because reasoning and positive incentives are seen as not tough enough.

So our prisons are inhumane hellholes and when people come out they are more ready to avenge others for the shame and brutalization with which they were treated. No wonder California has the world's largest prison population with no end in sight.

And no wonder we all have to worry that some nutcase won't set off WWIII because they are playing chicken on the grand scale and have no incentive to back down and every incentive to make the other guy blink first.

Posted by: Mary at March 1, 2007 11:27 PM