I would love it if Dr. Phil could get Barack Obama and John McCain on his show sometime between now and November, because I hope there'd be an exchange like this:
DR. PHIL: Now, Senator Obama, you say you'd meet with foreign leaders, even those considered enemies of the United States, without preconditions, is that correct?
OBAMA: Yes, I feel that diplomacy and open dialogue between nations is the only way we're going to make any actual progress in solving international disputes and making the world a more secure place.
DR. PHIL: But now Senator McCain, you say you don't want to talk to those leaders without preconditions, or in some cases at all.
McCAIN: That's right, Phil.
DR. PHIL: Talk to me about that.
McCAIN: Phil, Senator Obama is talking about meeting with people like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who's talked about wiping Israel of the map and who is supporting the insurgents who are causing the violence and instability in Iraq right now. To agree to a meeting like that would lend legitimacy to an oppressive dictator.
DR. PHIL: So you're worried about guys like Ahmadinejad being "legitimized," and you also told me backstage that you're worried about him developing a nuclear program, is that right?
McCAIN: Absolutely. A nuclear-armed Iran would be an incredibly stabilizing force in the Middle East.
DR. PHIL: And you think we shouldn't be talking to countries like that.
McCAIN: That's right.
DR. PHIL: Well, Senator McCain -- how's that working out for you now?
John McCain has already come under plenty of well-deserved criticism for falling in line with too many of the Bush administration's policies, but this spat over differing foreign-policy platforms highlights just how thoroughly McCain has bought into maybe the most unfortunate theme of the Bush presidency: the idea that we have to keep doing something even when it's not working or in fact worsening the problems we were trying to solve in the first place. Maybe this is their idea of "steering into the skid," but as anyone with any actual winter-driving experience will tell you, "steering into the skid" does not mean "keep steering in the direction in which the car is skidding."
So now we have McCain saying that Iran has a dangerous dictator who's gaining power and developing a nuclear program, and the solution to this is to just ignore him -- exactly what we were doing the whole time he was gaining power and developing a nuclear program. Clearly, severing all diplomatic ties with Iran has neither stemmed the tide of violence in Iraq or slowed down Iran's nuclear ambitions, but in McCain's mind, that just means we need to keep on not talking to them.
McCain has said that Obama "needs to explain why he wants to sit down and talk with a man who is the head of a government that is a state sponsor of terror," but I think that should be plainly obvious -- not talking to them has done nothing to stem that state sponsorship of terror, so maybe talking to them will bring about some progress. It may not end up being effective, sure, but it certainly can't be any less effective than what we've already been doing. If anything, I think the burden should be on McCain to explain exactly what tangible benefits we've gotten from not talking to Iran, Syria, or whoever else these past few years, because I certainly don't see any.
I don't know why the neocons are so taken aback by the idea of an American president merely breathing the same air as someone like Ahmadinejad. They act like such a meeting would be completely unprecedented, but even five minutes' worth of Googling makes clear that that isn't true: Just take a look at the country that held the title of Biggest Threat To The United States before Iran stepped in, i.e. the Soviet Union. If being seen in public with our greatest enemy is such an anathema, what do you make of all these?
Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower with the Khrushchevs, 1959.
Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev at the fricking White House, 1973.
Gerald Ford and Brezhnev in Vladivostok, November 1974.
And here's that symbol of American strength, Ronald Reagan, with Gorbachev in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1985.
Somebody's surely going to come along and say, "Well, the USSR and Iran really aren't comparable situations." And they're right: The Soviet Union was far more dangerous to the U.S. then than Iran is now. The Soviets had hundreds of actual nuclear weapons pointed at us for the better part of 40 years; Iran has a nuclear program that might produce weapons at some indefinite point in the next five to ten.
Now, it bears pointing out that none of those presidential meetings on their own brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union as an opposing superpower; it took 40 years for that empire to finally kick over. But if the choice is between invading Iran now or sitting tight for the next four decades trying to hash out ways to not blow each other to pieces, then I'll take Barack Obama and the 40-year wait (particularly considering that if our adventure in Iraq is any indication, an all-out war might not keep us out of a 40-year commitment to begin with).
The first word that the neocons always seem to jump to when Obama talks about meeting with leaders of hostile foreign countries is "appeasement" -- as if Obama was going to offer them the title deed to Israel in exchange for not shooting at us, which only the most insane right-winger would think was an actual possibility. You know, I'm willing to concede that a meeting between Obama and Ahmadinejad might not make any concrete progress; maybe it becomes clear early on that the Iranians are negotiating in bad faith, or maybe the two sides just can't come to a compromise on how to handle X, Y, or Z. But even if that's what ends up happening, we at least tried, we got our issues out there on the table, and nobody got killed. So what's the fuss about? It's also worth pointing out that at neither the above-pictured Geneva summit nor at the Reykjavik summit a year later did Reagan and Gorbachev actually agree to disarm anything -- but they both laid the groundwork for future talks, and by Christmas 1991 the USSR was a memory.
Would the same thing happen with one of the dictators Obama wants to talk to? Who knows, but it's certainly more likely to happen his way than it is by what we're doing (or not doing) now. John McCain has issued a lot of tough-sounding talk in the service of maintaining the status quo, but not once has he articulated what good that's actually done us. It's a good thing for McCain that Dr. Phil is unlikely to be invited to be a moderator at any of this year's presidential debates, because if Phil ever did succeed in asking him the "How's that working out for you now" question, I think McCain would be at a complete loss to find an answer.