Scowcroft: ‘Hard to Make Things Better if You Don’t Talk’

When I first saw the headline “Brent Scowcroft Echoes Obama” at memeorandum, I read it as “Brent Scowcroft Endorses Obama,” which struck me as sufficiently newsworthy to immediately click the link. The actual story is markedly less surprising:

Brent Scowcroft ‘Hard to Make Things Better if You Don’t Talk’ Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, said on Monday that he agrees with the position, stated mainly by Sen. Barack Obama, that the U.S. would benefit from having direct talks with the leaders of its most distrusted adversaries.

“Absolutely,” said Scowcroft, when asked by The Huffington Post whether he thought the next president should meet with the likes of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “It’s hard to make things better if you don’t talk.”

Scowcroft, in addition to his more famous resume’ entries, is a former Chairman and current head of the International Advisory Board of the Atlantic Council of the United States, the organization that issues my paychecks. Thankfully, we’re in full agreement here. Indeed, what Scowcroft says is so axiomatically true as to not be in dispute in serious foreign policy circles.

My strong sense, however, is that the difference between Barack Obama and John McCain on this issue is one of posturing rather than substance. Obama wishes to present himself as a healer and conciliator, so he pronounces that he’ll hold summit meetings with the most bellicose dictators and try to work out our problems. McCain, by contrast, wishes to present himself as a touch guy who won’t cozy up to bad actors, so he says he won’t talk to these people without some concessions.

In reality, regardless of which president occupies the Oval Office, the United States will hold routine discussions with every international actor with which we have business. Which is to say, pretty much all of them. No president is going to hold summit talks with the Iranian ayatollahs without serious back channel ground work by his diplomatic people and without getting concessions ahead of time so that he can make some grand announcement at the end. Nor will any president refuse to talk to the Iranian regime, at least in back channels, given their incredible importance in a region vital to American interests. At the end of the day, this is a matter of style rather than substance.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    We’re already conducting negotiations with Iran. It’s a fair question, however, whether the president of the United States should have direct meetings with the president of Iran, who is neither head of government nor head or state.

    Unfortunately, there are too many Americans, apparently including some in the Bush Administration, who don’t understand that one of the purposes of ongoing diplomacy is to establish a foundation for future agreements. The process is important.

  2. Michael says:

    It’s a fair question, however, whether the president of the United States should have direct meetings with the president of Iran, who is neither head of government nor head or state.

    For the purposes of diplomacy, the President of Iran is close enough to being both head of government and head of state. I certainly don’t see Khamenei overturning any foreign policy agreements made by Ahmadinejad.

  3. Bithead says:

    Hmmm.
    A little comparison is perhaps in order. How many years has brent Scrowcroft been ‘talking’? How many years was he in charge of such matters? How much progress was made?

    OTOH, we have Ronald Reagan’s talking: “We begin bombing in 5 minutes”, which seemed far more successful.

    Hmmm.

  4. James Joyner says:

    How many years has brent Scrowcroft been ‘talking’? How many years was he in charge of such matters? How much progress was made?

    Well, there’s the opening to China, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the first Gulf War.

  5. Anderson says:

    McCain, by contrast, wishes to present himself as a touch guy who won’t cozy up to bad actors, so he says he won’t talk to these people without some concessions.

    Yes, this is the kind of thing people used to tell themselves about Bush, too.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Yes, this is the kind of thing people used to tell themselves about Bush, too.

    True. But, as Dave points out, Bush and his team are negotiating with the Iranians and others.

    We’re making real progress, for example, in the Six-Party Talks. And I still maintain that we’re looking for a diplomatic solution in Iran.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    For the purposes of diplomacy, the President of Iran is close enough to being both head of government and head of state. I certainly don’t see Khamenei overturning any foreign policy agreements made by Ahmadinejad.

    Ah. Then, for purposes of diplomacy, I presume you’d agree that an Undersecretary of State with instructions would be adequate as a representative from our side? That’s pretty much what’s going on now.

  8. Michael says:

    Ah. Then, for purposes of diplomacy, I presume you’d agree that an Undersecretary of State with instructions would be adequate as a representative from our side? That’s pretty much what’s going on now.

    For diplomacy, sure, there isn’t a real need for a meeting of the Presidents until they want the photo-op and press coverage, which I assume will only be after the deal is made.

  9. Bithead says:

    Well, there’s the opening to China, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the first Gulf War.

    And how much of that talking progress was backed by a Presdient who was quite willing to take action? Soviet Union, Check. Iraq, Check.

  10. Bithead says:

    As Beldar says elsewhere:

    I am entirely certain — and both ancient and modern history of Iran and the region unequivocally teach — that nothing will be settled without the threat or use of arms.

  11. James Joyner says:

    And how much of that talking progress was backed by a Presdient who was quite willing to take action?

    The two aren’t mutully exclusive. Remember, Scowcroft is a West Point grad and retired 3-star general.

  12. Bithead says:

    Didnt say they were, James. But someone wiling to act is a requirement. Talking is a nice to have, usually, and sometimes is counter productive. I think Iran to be one such time.

  13. As Will Rogers once said, “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.”

    The epitome of “rockless” diplomacy is Jimmy Carter.

  14. Beldar says:

    At the end of the day, this is a matter of style rather than substance.

    Yes, but:

    Style matters.