What's Wrong With Talking? An Adviser Speaks

President Bush

President Bush is willing to talk to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Awad Awad/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Awad Awad/AFP/Getty Images

After last week's scuffle over President Bush's using the word "appeasement" regarding any negotiations with Iran, Robert Kagan, foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain, discusses why sitting down at a table with your enemy is a bad thing.

"There's always something being traded when someone sits down to talk," Kagan says. "If a leader is behaving in a particular odious fashion ... you may not want to reward that, especially if you think there may be a power struggle or political jockeying in a particular country, as there appears to be in Iran. You might not want to reward the harder-line faction."

Kagan says he and others are frustrated by Sen. Barack Obama's repeated indications he would meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a move Kagan says would represent a unilateral departure from European allies. "The United States and its European allies have made it very clear that we're perfectly willing to talk to Iran if it will suspend its nuclear enrichment," Kagan says. "Iran's refusal to meet it indicates a lack of good will."

But there's a wrinkle: Kagan has been part of a chorus calling for the Bush administration to ignore just such logic and to schedule meetings with Iranian leaders in the final year of power. "Negotiating will at first appear to be a sign of weakness," Kagan says. But because Bush has just months left and as Iran gets closer to having a nuclear weapon, Kagan says he and his staff can afford to take the hit for the sake of the next administration. "My biggest concern is that if we wait too long, Iran may be so advanced along the path that we may miss the opportunity."

Whether or not Bush meets with Ahmadinejad, Kagan stresses that diplomacy has as checkered a past as not talking at all. Kagan points to Reagan national security adviser Robert C. "Bud" McFarlane, who famously visited Tehran carrying a cake and a Koran — to no avail. And then there was President John F. Kennedy, who showed a weak hand during his first summit meeting with Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, an interaction that Kagan says may have led to Russia's aggressive conduct and the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

"Some people think just talking is the answer," Kagan says. "That can't always be the answer."

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