Engaging the Enemy

‘Engagement with the Iranians, Syrians or North Koreans, while leaving their dissidents to languish in prison, will achieve little’

Barely ten days before the Durban review conference got under way in Geneva, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced his attendance. Another Iranian – a dissident, Batebi – was also due to speak. Having escaped Iran’s jails after years of confinement and abuse, he is now a vocal supporter of human rights there and living proof of the regime’s brutish ways.

But Batebi’s only stage was at a fringe event. Meanwhile, the head of a regime that persecutes religious and ethnic minorities, demeans women and hangs homosexuals was able to address the world, yet again, from an official platform.

This is the irony of the Durban review – held at the seat of the UN’s Human Rights Council – and the most compelling evidence of the perils of engagement. The conference preparatory work was monopolised by countries that have elevated denial of human rights to a sophisticated art form. 

Ahmadinejad attended hoping to rub shoulders and have photo-ops with leaders of democracies, a stamp of approval that engagement gives tyrants in exchange for what the West defines as good behaviour – the seamless switch from arsonist to fireman. Indeed, he achieved his goal thanks to Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz, a man so deluded with engagement he must have thought that dialogue could transform a totalitarian Holocaust denier into a Simon Wiesenthal.

Clearly, statesmen must recognise that dictators are a fact of life and that human rights activists might sometimes be a luxury we can ill afford. Besides, engagement is not a one-way street – even tyrants understand that. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, engagement bears no fewer than five different meanings, including being a synonym for betrothal. That is evidently not what our friends on the Left have in mind either, except possibly when they marched alongside mock suicide bombers chanting “Death to Israel” at Durban review carnivals. Perhaps they are thinking of engagement as “an arrangement to meet or be present at a specified time and place”, which is neutral enough – unless the presence itself is a value-laden exercise of recognition and a gift of legitimacy handed out on the cheap.

Thus, foreign dignitaries visiting Damascus to “engage” with Bashar al-Assad should know that the very act of standing next to a dictator with much mischief to his (dis)credit has a meaning that goes beyond the substance of discussions. Engagement is a tool, not a goal.

The very public engagement adopted with Damascus has offered legitimacy to the Syrian regime while obtaining little in return. The theory is that Syria has much to lose from its continuing isolation. Engaging Syria offers its regime an opportunity to let go of Iran’s embrace and rejoin the camp of moderation. Besides, its economy is in steady – some say terminal – decline. Iran can offer little solace on that front – much as the Soviet Union could offer little economic reprieve to Egypt in the early 1970s. So, the parallel goes, President Sadat switched sides and received the economic aid his country desperately needed from the US. Why should Syria not do the same? Engagement will encourage precisely that course of action.

It is a tempting thought, but one that is destined to fail. Syria was never in the moderate camp. Syria’s support of Hamas and Hizbollah reflects its continuing commitment to radicalism. And why should it care about its declining economy, given the comparable advantages that come from staying in the game as radicals?

After all, North Korea – one of Syria’s best friends – is also an economy in terminal decline. Have the North Koreans changed their ways to “rejoin” the international community? Not an inch. They just make their blackmail more erratic and unpredictable – and thereby milk diplomatic concessions and economic aid. So do the Syrians. Engaging them – especially when leaving their brave dissidents to languish in prison – will not achieve much more.

And so did Ahmadinejad in Geneva – after all, those images of the president with foreign dignitaries who are supposed to be busy isolating Iran cannot but have helped his bid for re-election.

Still, one trusts that even this silly season of engagement, like all seasons, will end, making room for other meanings of engagement – such as that which Webster defines as “a hostile encounter between military forces”. Let’s hope that when President Obama finally engages the tyrants, it will be clear that all meanings of the word will be on his mind.

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