Is there anything more entertaining than watching a bunch of young Democratic and Republican strategists on television trying to talk intelligently about the former Soviet Union, China back in Nixon’s day or the nature of state sponsors of terrorism? Well, of course there is, but this is a family column so let’s stay on topic.

Now I realize that the majority of these bright young strategists were dropping loads in their diapers back when the Berlin Wall fell, so obviously they weren’t around when the USSR or Mao’s China were in full swing. Mind you, I’m not talking about folks like Bob Beckel or Karl Rove… guys that have been pundificating since Lenin was toodling around the Kremlin. I’m referring to the fresh batch of strategists that have surfaced during the past ten thousand months of this current campaign.

Is it safe to assume that the media is skewing younger these days with their consultants and talking heads in an effort to entice the youthful viewers away from the information superhighway? You betcha’ they are. I love how I sound like Wilfred Brimley when I make statements like that. Look for me soon on cable where I’ll be doing ads for adjustable beds and reverse mortgages.

I bring this up as a result of the latest verbal smackdown between Senator McCain and Senator Obama. The point of contention is whether to negotiate with terrorists, specifically state sponsors of terrorism such as Iran and Syria, as well as terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. If you haven’t been following the campaign for the past few days, let me summarize:

Many eons ago, during the early stages of the Democratic campaign season when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Obama mentioned during a debate that, if elected president, he would be willing to hold direct discussions without preconditions with President Ahmadinejad of Iran and by implication, other heads of hostile nations engaged in the support of terrorism. Senator Clinton saw that statement for what it was, a stupid statement, and hammered Obama for being naïve and inexperienced in foreign policy matters.

Interestingly, Democratic Senator Chris Dodd from the fine state of Connecticut (state motto: “Connecticut - The Forgotten New York City Borough”) also implied that Obama’s willingness to meet with terrorist sponsoring states showed naivete and lack of experience. Now that Dodd is out of the race he’s found a way to spin those charges in a positive light. How excellent is political life?

Anyway, at a certain point, likely after they spent a minute or two thinking about it, the good folks in the Obama camp decided he should probably adjust his position on meeting with folks such as Ahmadinejad, Syria’s President Bashar Assad, our old pal Castro and my personal favorite, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. So, demonstrating that their campaign is all about change, they changed their position.

Obama struck up a more nuanced pose during the coming months, saying that we should be willing to meet and negotiate with these leaders after they meet certain conditions. In the case of Iran, Obama suggested that the country would first have to halt it’s nuclear ambitions, stop support for terrorists and quit calling Israel a “stinking corpse” before he would enter negotiations with Ahmadinejad. In case you’re wondering, that would be what we call meeting certain conditions. Sooo, we could say those are preconditions.

Apropo of nothing, I just mention it because it’s interesting and takes up another line or two, while Obama was adjusting his policy on discussions with countries supporting terrorism, crazy things were happening elsewhere. Nancy Pelosi covered her head with a scarf, put on her rose colored glasses and traveled over to Syria to talk with President Assad.

I have no way of knowing if they talked about Syria’s support for various terrorist organizations during her visit. However, I do know that shortly after that visit, the well known and very wanted terrorist Imad Mugniyeh was killed in an explosion in an upscale Damascus neighborhood after attending a public event. No one claimed credit for it, so we had no idea where to send the thank you card.

Then we had the road trip by former President Carter out to the Middle East where he met with Hamas leaders. You may well ask what that was all about. Go ahead, ask. Nobody, not even Hamas, knows what the point of that trip might have been. But it resulted in some good press coverage, so that’s nice.

Anyway, back to Obama’s evolving process. To recap, first it was “I’ll meet without preconditions”, then it was “Satisfy the preconditions then I’ll meet”. Simple enough. But then today, we seem to have stepped back on the change train. In today’s New York Times Obama is quoted as saying this week that “demanding that a country meets all your conditions before you meet with them, that’s not a strategy, “ he said. “It’s just naïve, wishful thinking.”
You can see why a simple person such as myself is confused.

This whole issue boiled over during President Bush’s recent trip to Israel. In a speech to the Knesset, President Bush stated that “Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided. We have an obligation to call this what it is, the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

The Obama camp took umbrage at the President’s comments, calling it a political attack as opposed to a foreign policy statement. Hmm, lemme’ see. The President states during a speech that the U.S. administration doesn’t believe in appeasement despite some who feel otherwise. Sounds like it could be a statement of foreign policy. But if you’re sensitive about your limited experience and how that might play in to the upcoming general election, yeh, I can see how you could construe that as a political attack.

Anyway, Obama’s camp got their knickers in a knot and went on the offensive. First thing they did was to go into the science lab and create one human out of two people, a powerful new political beast called BushMcCain. In what we call showing your cards, they unveiled their clever campaign strategy.

Apparently, from now until the November election, Obama’s camp will work to convince the public that BushMcCain is the Frankenstein monster, sharing one brain and one set of policies. It seems to be working… Obama gave a speech in Oregon the other day to 80,000 acolytes all wielding pitchforks and torches. As an aside, who knew you could find 80,000 swooning liberals in the state of Oregon. What a surprise.

Next, showing that he’s a student of history, he pointed out that past presidents had engaged in discussions with our adversaries. Obama mentioned JFK talking to Krushchev, Nixon’s famous meetings with Mao and Reagan engaging Gorbachev. Citing these examples, Obama said “I mean, think about it. Iran, Cuba, Venezuela - these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union. They don’t pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us.”

This reference resulted in two things happening. Hugo Chavez, prickly and sensitive at the best of times, took offense at being called “tiny." Secondly, loads of young Democratic and Republican strategists found themselves struggling to explain Obama’s reference to engagement with the Soviet Union and China and how that relates to talking to countries like Iran and Syria. It was like sitting in my old freshman political science class where every kid was armed with the knowledge gained from cramming a chapter the night before.

Here’s the thing. I joined the CIA back when the Soviet Union was the primary threat. We don’t have enough space or time to explain in detail why it’s nonsensical to try and compare the Soviet Union of JFK or Reagan’s era, or China during Mao’s day, with the fragmented, shifting threats posed by adversaries of today such as Iran and Syria. Instead, to avoid a migraine, you need to focus on how the world of diplomacy works.

While the nature of the countries, leaders and threats posed are markedly different, there is a constant that runs through all these cases from a diplomatic standpoint. You always want to leave open some channel of communication. While heads of state meetings should never be offered up unconditionally, you do want to ensure that there is a mechanism for exchanging comments, concerns, demands and requests at a lower level.

Basically, do what the Bush administration has done with Iran over the past few years. They’ve held firm on the idea that negotiations of substance, discussions between the leaders of the two countries, can’t take place unless Iran meets certain conditions. At the same time, communication channels have remained open further down the chain in an effort to affect change. That policy is nothing new… it’s the same gameplan used by administration after administration, including those of JFK, Nixon and Reagan.

By the way, ignoring his statement to the contrary in today’s New York Times, Obama now seems to be settling on a policy that says we should be willing to negotiate with our adversaries assuming they meet certain conditions. He also seems to be saying that he would want to have conversations going on at a lower level about key issues prior to agreeing to direct meetings with the leaders of the states in question. Change? Not so much.

Till next week, stay safe.


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Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant, writer and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures and two new BBC drama series finishing production in the U.K.