Virtually all conversations with Obama administration foreign-policy officials, no matter where they begin, come to rest at "engagement" -- that vexing, mutable, all-purpose word. The U.S. president has "engaged" with rogue states, civil society, the United Nations, and citizens around the globe. Iran vindicates the policy of engagement -- or discredits it. China is a failure of engagement, Russia a success. Inside the Obama realm, engagement has come to mean "good diplomacy."
To critics on both the left and right, however, it has come to mean "bad diplomacy" -- cynical or naive, depending on which side you come from.
These days -- these shaky days -- the critics seem to be gaining the upper hand, making those Obama officials increasingly defensive about their policy toward autocratic states, whether in the Middle East or Eurasia, Iran or Sudan. Having spent years thinking hard thoughts in universities and think tanks, magazines and books, they cannot believe that they are losing the definitional war over their own policy. They are eager, and maybe a little desperate, to set things aright. And so it was, earlier this week, that when I asked to talk to one official about democracy promotion, I wound up having a 75-minute phone conversation with four White House figures, much of it about "engagement."
"A lot of the baggage we carry," said an officeholder I might as well designate as Senior Official #1 -- the conversation was on background and the White House that offered up these folks to defend the policy was insistent they not do so on the record -- "is the word 'engagement.' People hear the word and they think 'constructive engagement.'" I'm not sure this is true outside certain New England common rooms, but it's definitely not an association the Obama White House would like to encourage. After all, Ronald Reagan's administration used that expression to justify the United States's ongoing relationship with South Africa's apartheid government, a policy widely derided as a cynical pretext to preserve ties with a Cold War ally. And it failed.
If "constructive engagement" is one definition the Obamans are eager to avoid, another is straightforward, old-fashioned Kissingerian "realism" -- if by realism one means dealing with the interests of states, including brutal states, to the exclusion of those of ordinary citizens. As another interlocutor -- call him Senior Official #2 -- growing rather hot under the telephonic collar, put it, "A lot of my friends said, 'You guys are a bunch of engagement realists. They'll never talk about democracy and human rights.'" Barack Obama himself arguably encouraged this view during his 2008 presidential campaign by criticizing George W. Bush's moralistic bluster, by regularly expressing his high regard for archrealists like James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, and by stipulating his willingness to meet "without preconditions" with even the worst tyrants. And since becoming president he has muted criticism of the regimes in Sudan and Burma, and referred respectfully to "the Islamic Republic of Iran."