Barack Obama’s professed willingness to sit down with dictators may have elicited jeers from the Clinton campaign, but in recent months the idea has found broad support in the mainstream of center-left opinion. After all, engaging Middle East rivals was one of the recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group, and now the thread has been picked up by Washington think tanks like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the International Crisis Group, and the New America Foundation, as well as a number of journalists and analysts who argue that it’s time to bring in everyone that the Bush administration left out in the cold.In particular, Syria seems to have won the attention of the pro-engagement crowd, like Obama adviser Robert Malley, who has said that Washington’s dealings with Damascus “undoubtedly can have a significant impact on each” aspect of U.S. Middle East policy—from Iraq and Iran, to Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
However, the present situation in Syria shows the folly of Obama’s idea. First, as Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s unctuous welcome of Nancy Pelosi a year ago proves, for the U.S. simply to talk to its enemy was a victory of a type for Syria, and one that worked against the U.S.‘s larger strategic goals. And secondly, the situation in Syria indicates that sometimes isolating an enemy can be the smartest and most effective diplomatic solution—by not alienating our allies or undermining a precarious multilateral strategy of non-engagement.
When Pelosi visited Damascus last spring, her main purpose was to thumb her nose at the White House by demonstrating that there was no harm merely chatting with the solicitious, clearly delighted Asad. And yet the unintended consequence of her overture, as Syrian dissidents had warned, was that Asad clamped down on opposition figures, seemingly availing himself of the apparently relaxed U.S. pressure. The same happened when Arlen Specter visited this past winter and Syria arrested two dissidents within 48 hours of the Pennsylvania senator’s trip.