Parsing “Unconditional Diplomacy”

Does John McCain know what the word "diplomacy" means?

Sometimes, the press can unwittingly redefine the entire political debate on an issue just through its choice of language. The ongoing disagreement between the campaigns over the value of talking to America’s adversaries might turn out to be the latest example—and not in a good way.

In an article that aims to assess how similar John McCain’s policies are to those of President Bush, The New York Times today asserts that McCain “would refuse to engage in unconditional diplomacy with Iran.”

We’ve noticed that the word “unconditional” has been popping up a lot lately in this context, mostly thanks to the McCain campaign. A press statement issued last month from the McCain camp charged that Barack Obama “has pledged to meet unconditionally with Iran’s leader.” And the Arizona senator recently unveiled a Web page that solicits donations by asking: “Is it OK to unconditionally meet with anti-American foreign leaders?”

But it seems to have filtered into the mainstream press coverage as well. In addition to today’s example, the Times’ “Election Guide” notes that McCain “would not engage in unconditional diplomacy.”

Of course, the McCain camp has been using the word “unconditional” for a reason. It deliberately echoes the phrase “unconditional surrender,” and implies that Obama’s position involves making concessions up front.

But what is “unconditional diplomacy,” anyway? It appears to be nothing more than diplomacy. The whole point of international diplomacy, as traditionally understood, is to meet with adversaries in order to identify mutual interests. For instance, in February we reached an agreement with North Korea in which we gave them something they wanted—oil, and other economic aid—and in return, they gave us something we wanted—by agreeing to shut down their nuclear program. That’s how it works. Few countries are likely to accede to America’s demands up front, without being offered anything in return. So diplomacy that has any chance of being successful is, by definition, “unconditional.” (Of course, this leaves aside the question of whether to meet directly with the Iranian president Ahmadinejad, or with lower-level figures, which is a separate issue.)

McCain, for his part, has made it clear, like Bush, that he doesn’t believe in talking to our adversaries. In other words, he doesn’t believe in diplomacy. That’s how the press should characterize his position. And, rather than buying into his campaign’s talking points, it should also make clear, when the McCain camp accuses Obama of wanting to hold “unconditional” talks with America’s adversaries, that Obama has done nothing more than advocate diplomacy.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.