Barack Obama is getting painfully close to tying himself in knots with all his explanations of the conditions under which he would unconditionally talk with America's foes, like Iran. His latest clarification was that there is a difference between "preparations" and "preconditions" for negotiations with bad guys. Such hair-splitting word games do not inspire confidence, and they play right into the arms of his critics. The last place he wants to look uncertain is on national security.
The fact is, Obama was right to say that he would talk with any foe, if it would advance U.S. interests. The Bush team negotiated with Libya to give up its nuclear program, even after Libya had accepted responsibility for blowing up Americans on Pan Am Flight 103. Those negotiations succeeded, though, not because Bush was better "prepared," but because, at the time, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Bush had leverage. Iraq had yet to fall apart.
Obama would do himself a big favor by shifting his focus from the list of enemy leaders he would talk with to the list of things he would do as president to generate more leverage for America, so no matter who we have to talk with the advantage will be on our side of the table. That's what matters.
Bush was also right: Talking with Iran today would be tantamount to appeasement but that's because the Bush team has so squandered U.S. power and credibility in the Middle East, and has failed to put in place any effective energy policy, that negotiating with Iran could only end up with us on the short end. We don't have the leverage the allies, the alternative energy, the unity at home, the credible threat of force to advance our interests diplomatically today.
As I have argued before: When you have leverage, talk. When you don't have leverage, get some. Then talk.
Right now Iran & Friends Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria have a strategy that has produced leverage for them, and the next U.S. president is going to have to think afresh how to counter it. The Iran & Friends strategy is built on five principles:
Principle No. 1: Always seek "control without responsibility." In Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq, Iran & Friends have veto power over the politics, without being held fully responsible for the electricity. America's allies, by contrast, tend to have "responsibility without control."
Principle No. 2: Always insist on being able to both run for political office and bear arms. In Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq, America's opponents are both in the government and have their own militias.
Principle No. 3: Use suicide bombing and targeted assassinations against any opponents who get in your way. In Lebanon, Syria is widely suspected to have been behind the spate of killings of anti-Syrian journalists and parliamentarians. One suicide attack on a major official in Iraq can neutralize superior U.S. power.
Principle No. 4: Use the Internet as a free command and control system for raising money, recruiting and operations.
Principle No. 5: Cast yourself as the "resistance" to Israel and America, so any opposition to you is equal to support for Israel and America and so no matter how badly you are defeated, the mere fact that you "resisted" means you didn't really lose.
Do the pro-American Arab moderates have a counterstrategy with leverage? I just got the new book, "The Arab Center," by Marwan Muasher, the former foreign minister of Jordan. Retired Arab statesmen don't often write books about their time in office, but Muasher has, and his argument is a powerful one: Arab moderates have been on the defensive because they have been "one-dimensional moderates," focused only on moderate proposals for making peace with Israel while ignoring other issues important to Arab citizens: good governance, political reform, economic well-being, women's rights and religious and cultural diversity.
"For the Arab moderates to have credibility, they have to assume more responsibility," says Muasher. America could help by delivering on the Arab moderates' main issue a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal. But, ultimately, he said, if the Arab center is to shape the future and rid "itself of the image its opponents paint of an apologist for the West or a compromiser of Arab rights," it will have to meet the challenge of building "a robust, diverse, tolerant, democratic and prosperous Arab society."There has been some promising moderate push back against extremists in Iraq, Lebanon and the West Bank lately. It's definitely worth watching, but is still very frail. America's leverage will be limited as long as our key allies do not have a strategy, with weight, to counter the hard-liners. Here's hoping that once the primary silly season is over, the McCain and Obama camps will stop jousting over whether to talk with our enemies which we must and will start focusing instead about how we and our friends get more chips to bargain with which we lack.
Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist.