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To Talk or Not to Talk with the Despots

What is a president to do with all the troublesome despots of the world like Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin? Freeze them out and refuse to engage, like President George Bush has done with the governments of Iran and Syria? Or set up regular diplomatic meetings despite enormous disagreements and conflicts of interest? One of the U.S. candidates, Sen. Barack Obama, often catches a lot of criticism for his inexperience, and for his calls to open up talks with a variety of unsavory autocrats of the world. But would it work? These interesting questions are addressed by Michael O’Hanlon in the Wall Street Journal today, and he finds that Russia is often the example that breaks the mold: “A nice dual test of the theory that talking to extremist leaders can soften their behavior comes from how we have handled President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and President Vladimir Putin in Russia this decade. In the first case, we played the usual game of trading insults and giving cold shoulders, and got nowhere — seemingly validating Sen. Obama’s argument. In the other case, our president looked into the foreign leader’s eyes, saw a soul he thought he could work with, engaged in Texas ranch diplomacy and other such direct consultations, and was sorely disappointed by the trajectory of the relationship nonetheless. If the Bush administration failed on this one, it was not for Mr. Bush’s lack of willingness to talk.” Probably, a more appropriate question is whether or not it is too late. The United States had an unprecedented opportunity to bring Russia into the fold after 9/11, but instead the situation was grossly mishandled by Washington. Moscow was insulted, and felt taken advantage of, and although I don’t think that anybody owes Putin an apology, a fresh start from two new leaders will be very important in shaping the environment for an advancement in relations between the United States and Russia.