DIPLOMACY….At a conference in Tokyo last month, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill was hoping to pull aside a North Korean official for a private chat. It never happened:

Hill’s superiors in Washington forbade him from talking directly to the North Koreans, said three U.S. officials, a conference participant and another knowledgeable expert. All requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The Bush administration also is refusing to talk directly with Iran about its nuclear program, with Syria about Middle East security and the infiltration of terrorists into Iraq, and, like Europe, with the Palestinian government led by Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization.

This approach to diplomacy is drawing criticism. “I believe that diplomacy is not simply meant for our friends. It is meant for our enemies,” said Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state in President Bush’s first term. “In fact, our enemies need diplomatic engagement more.

The first step to effective diplomacy is to actually conduct diplomacy. If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. But you don’t simply refuse to try.

Democrats don’t need to “get to the right” of the Bush administration on national security. They need to appeal to the common sense of the American public and promise that, like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, they will actually show a willingness to engage in toughminded talks with our enemies. Believe it or not, sometimes it works.

Darfur is a good example. It wasn’t easy, and Khartoum is not exactly a broadminded negotiating partner, but it tentatively looks like Robert Zoellick has pulled off a miracle. If talks with the warlords of Sudan can work, why isn’t it at least possible that talks with the mullahs of Tehran might not also work?

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