Commentary Magazine


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Thomas Friedman on Leverage

Thomas Friedman begins an entirely sensible column with this observation:

Barack Obama is getting painfully close to tying himself in knots with all his explanations of the conditions under which he would unconditionally talk with America’s foes, like Iran. His latest clarification was that there is a difference between “preparations” and “preconditions” for negotiations with bad guys. Such hair-splitting word games do not inspire confidence, and they play right into the arms of his critics. The last place he wants to look uncertain is on national security.

Friedman argues, as he has before, that negotiation with rouge states should follow not proceed acquisition of leverage by the U.S. and its allies. So what should we make of a candidate who thinks the opposite, that his mere presence before the likes of Castro and Ahmejinedad would be productive, would melt their hearts and persuade them of the errors of their ways?

Friedman advises:

Mr. Obama would do himself a big favor by shifting his focus from the list of enemy leaders he would talk with to the list of things he would do as president to generate more leverage for America, so no matter who we have to talk with the advantage will be on our side of the table. That’s what matters.

But that seems entirely out of character and contrary to all of Obama’s pronouncements to date. He opposes measures which would pressure rogue states or their surrogates. He wants to roll back key sanctions against Cuba. He shushes Hillary Clinton, who announced in no uncertain terms that she would “obliterate” Iran if it destroyed Israel with a nuclear attack. He strenuously opposed the Kyl-Liebermann Amendment designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. And, of course, his plan to evacuate Iraq immediately is not the type of display of national fortitude designed to impress Iran, Syria or any other state or group in the Middle East.

Indeed he often gets Friedman’s formulation exactly backwards, as with North Korea. The Council on Foreign Relations reminds us: “Within weeks of Pyongyang’s nuclear test, Obama appeared on Meet the Press and said the United States had no leverage over North Korea because of Washington’s refusal to hold bilateral negotiations. ” No, Friedman would patiently remind him, get the leverage first - it makes diplomatic talks potentially successful and does not result from negotiations.

So I think it is unlikely, perhaps impossible, for Obama to take Friedman’s advice.