Fiddling While It Burns

The Media and the Politics of Diplomacy | 23/04/2009

Moments after the handshake, the President began to wonder if he might have caught diplomacy. Photo: HO/AFP/Getty Images, via TimesOnline.

Moments after the handshake, the President began to wonder if he might have caught diplomacy. Photo: HO/AFP/Getty Images, via TimesOnline.

From the CNN blog politicalticker:

April 20, 2009
Posted: 11:20 AM ET

(CNN) – President Obama’s friendly encounter with Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas will be used as propaganda by enemies of the United States, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Monday.

Gingrich, the second high-profile Republican to criticize the president’s now-famous exchange with the Venezuelan leader in as many days, said countries hostile toward America will view the cordial moment as evidence the United States accepts Chavez as an acceptable leader.

“Everywhere in Latin America, enemies of America are going to use the picture of Chavez smiling and being with the president as proof that Chavez is now legitimate that he is acceptable,” Gingrich said in an interview on NBC’s The Today Show.

When Barack Obama won by a massive margin, after having so publicly declared his intention to open dialogues with countries that had been frozen out as America’s “enemies”, I guess I kind of assumed that would just happen, and it wouldn’t be such a big deal.

Manichean media narratives have made diplomacy incredibly difficult since World War II. Since Reagan, it’s been a paradigm of US politics that presidents can’t talk to anyone who’s been designated as a bad guy. Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Libya, the Cold War, Latin American socialists – all these foreign policy challenges have at some point been massively complicated by the US just flat-out refusing to talk to the other party. Ironically, Reagan, whose overblown rhetoric cemented this tendency, was the ultimate hypocrite on the matter – think Iran-Contra.

Foreign policy makers aren’t idiots. They know that no matter how bad the other side are, it’s always more productive to keep talking. The reason they don’t is all about posturing – the thought is that it will play well in the media to be a strongman, whereas no one wants to be a Jimmy Carter. However, over time the American habit of acting against perceived enemies before talking to them has had many very negative results, most notably turning Castro Communist.

Chávez is the ultimate example of the United States making its own enemies. Prior to 2002, he was a populist, yes, and a socialist, but it’s not the Cold War, and Venezuela is no USSR. The chronic problem of South America is the control of massive proportions of resources by tiny elites. The people of Venezuela, 43% of whom were then living in poverty, chose redistributive socialism, in the form of Hugo Chávez. The Bush administraion, however, was run by Cold War stalwarts, and they weren’t about to allow socialism to take root in America’s backyard (wow, that’s some backyard, isn’t it?)

Immediately efforts began to undermine Chávez. In 2002, the Bush administration had at least advance knowledge of, if not involvement in, the attempted coup against Chávez. Afterwards, Chávez was radicalised, leading to a lot of inflammatory statements and an attempt to create a political axis in opposition to Washington.

The change of presidents is a blessing in this case; this is now an enmity which can be undone by simply being reasonable. However, the ballistic conservative reaction to this one small overture shows that the idea of moral absolutism in diplomatic negotiations is not dead yet, and reshaping the way America deals with the world will be  a rocky road.


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