Candidate Obama's second bit of strategic heresy was even more controversial: his declaration that he would negotiate "without preconditions" with the leaders of outlaw nations like North Korea, Iran and Cuba. Obama argued that the Bush Administration's unwillingness to engage adversaries had made the U.S. less secure. "I will meet not just with our friends, but with our enemies because I remember what Kennedy said, that we should never negotiate out of fear but we should never fear to negotiate," Obama said. For that, the Senator was called "naive" by his Democratic primary opponents and accused of succumbing to "the false comfort of appeasement," by President George W. Bush. And yet Republican stalwarts like Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker III all endorsed Obama's central premise: the U.S. can't solve its problems through military force alone. Effective statecraft means talking to people we don't like.....
But relying on military power is a path to ruin. Abbottabad did not alter the structural realities facing the U.S. We can't afford to fight more land wars in far corners of the world. Our commitments overseas exceed our ability to keep paying for them. From Libya to Afghanistan, the Administration's paramount goal must be to establish the minimally acceptable conditions under which the U.S. and its allies can rapidly begin to extricate themselves. The political forces empowered by the spread of democracy in the Arab world are likely to be more Islamic and less friendly to the West and Israel than the autocrats they have replaced. The already moribund Middle East peace process risks complete collapse now that the Palestinian leadership has embraced Hamas, which Israel refuses to negotiate with. None of those challenges will bend to military solutions, and managing them will require active, sustained American diplomacy. And that includes being open to making deals with various miscreants — Gaddafi, the Taliban, Iran, Hamas — we'd prefer to vanquish. (See pictures of tempers flaring across the Middle East.)
Obama secured one foreign policy legacy — and possibly his re-election — by eliminating bin Laden. To advance America's long-term interests in a turbulent age, the President now needs to prove he's strong enough to engage America's enemies, and not just kill them.
Ratnesar, a TIME contributing editor-at-large, is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech That Ended the Cold War. His column on global affairs usually appears on Mondays on TIME.com.
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Obama's Mission: Talk to Some Enemies, Don't Kill Them