Opinion: Too many handshakes?


NEW YORK — President Obama's first months in office brought surprisingly little attention to the issue of Darfur, an issue his supporters care deeply about — especially the woman who led his campaign's foreign policy team, Susan Rice, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Only this week has the administration released some sense of what it plans to do in regard to the violence in that Sudanese region, which the previous administration — with uncharacteristic international backing — decried as genocide. Speaking to reporters Monday, Obama indicated more pressure would be applied if Sudan's conduct did not improve.

"If the government of Sudan acts to improve the situation on the ground and to advance peace, there will be incentives," Obama said. "If it does not, then there will be increased pressure imposed by the United States and the international community."

But details so far have not been provided, and the admininstration is beginning to take heat from Darfur advocates who once treated Obama's victory as the light at the end of the tunnel.

John Prendergast, who is the co-founder of the anti-genocide project Enough, is essentially applying his group's title to Obama policy. On Thursday's Wall Street Journal op-ed page — not a venue normally offered to human rights activists of Prendergast's ilk — he describes the disappointment many feel with U.S. policy so far under the new administration.

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden talked tough when they were presidential candidates, but this administration's day-to-day diplomacy on Sudan has been troubling,” Prendergast wrote.

Coming at a time when Obama seems eager to offer his hand to any willing rogue, this op-ed probably frustrates the White House. But it also demonstrates the dangers of being too idealistic, so to speak, in pursuit of a realist policy.

Obama had made it clear well before winning the election that he intended to reverse the Bush administration's habit of trying to get its way with troublesome foreigners by freezing them out. This quarantine style of diplomacy never constituted an actual policy under Bush — he did, ultimately, reverse course and open talks with North Korea and Syria, and even occasionally parlayed at lower levels with the Iranians. But isolation was the first reflex of the Bush crowd during those eight years, and it flatly failed.

Ideologically, the policy had its roots in Ronald Reagan's "we don't bargain with terrorists" philosophy (though the Gipper, of course, broke his own dictum by trying to trade arms for hostages and a little secretly channeled Iranian money to the Nicaraguan Contras, but that's another story).

If anyone doubted Obama's rhetoric about engaging rogues, those doubts have since been put to rest. Even those who disagree with the idea can't deny that the president is busy trying it out. The tentative, fragile "deal" agreed to transfer Iran's uranium abroad for processing will help validate this new tack if it works out — a big if, since Iran has a history of, shall we say, hiding the truth.

But the extent to which the Obama administration has ditched the State Department's old ways — policy by tantrum, I once called it — is breathtaking. Since taking office, the U.S. has moved to open conversations with Iran and Syria (including the return of America's ambassador to Damascus), has held face-to-face talks with North Korea and removed obstacles to Cuban membership in the Organizatioin of American States.

The administration also dropped plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe that the Russians hated, publicly admitted what many have known about human rights in China for years: that American leverage (thanks to our economic codependence) was very limited.

Washington's decision not to support the ouster of the Honduran president has put Hugo Chavez in a pickle — the smell of sulfur is harder to detect with Obama around, apparently. There's even been an effort to talk to the kleptocratic rulers of Myanmar.

The latest of these initiatives, however, may cross the left's Rubicon. Myanmar is a black hat par excellence, a regime with absolutely no redeeming qualities and (so far) no nuclear weapons program to make its engagement a worthy compromise. Aung San Suu Kyi, the martyred dissident of that miserable dictatorship, energized the left's human rights lobby as intensely in the 1990s as Darfur does today.

Now comes word that Sudan, perpetrator of the Darfur genocide, has also received an invitation to "shake."

Can Obama's allies on the left, already fuming over Wall Street bailouts and the absence of a public option from health reforms, bear this, too? Obama's enemies invariably will cry "appeasement" if a deal that produces no justice is cut. This is where handshake diplomacy gets very tricky.