11/30/2010 03:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Wiki Wondering: Is It Still the Season to Rely on Reason?

It might work with the mullahs. That doesn't mean it'll work with the Republicans.

It's another WikiLeaks week -- thousands upon thousands of meant-to-be-secret diplomatic cables made available to The New York Times and a handful of other news organizations around the world, with the first highlights now available on paper and pixels.

And the first conclusion? This stuff is complicated.

Start with the fact that what everyone says in public -- everyone from Yemeni presidents to Afghan bagmen -- has virtually no connection to what these very same people say in private. Consistency? Not a chance. There are different audiences to contend with, with different needs -- and different trigger points.

What sounds like sweet sanity to the suit-and-tie types will be anathema on the street. So the soapbox and the back channel might as well be on different planets.

It could be worse, of course. If the world's leaders had three sides of their mouths instead of just two, they'd be talking out of all of them.

Second conclusion? This stuff is even more complicated than that.

To make diplomacy succeed -- or even have a chance to succeed -- you have to be able to think multiple moves ahead, and to strategize simultaneously on multiple tracks. (Think spinning plates -- while cooking dinner.)

Which is how you can find the Obama administration, for instance, pressing Saudi Arabia to guarantee China a steady flow of oil to replace China's Iranian supply -- in exchange for Chinese support for economic sanctions on Iran.

Which is also how you can find the Obama administration rethinking a Bush administration plan for a missile-defense site in Poland, too-close-for-comfort to Russia, after which (connected to which?) Russia decided it could support sanctions on Iran after all.

Which is, most particularly, how you can find the Obama administration talking from its earliest days about "engagement" with the Muslim world, and a "new beginning" with Iran, even as it rallies the world to tighten the noose on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his merry men in Tehran.

According to the cables, it wasn't so much that the administration expected its "new beginning" to convince Iran to change its ways, to give up its efforts to join the nuclear club. Far from it.

"In essence," the Times explains, "the administration expected its outreach to fail, but believed that it had to make a bona fide attempt in order to build support for tougher measures."

In other words, Barack Obama had to look reasonable so that he could get tough. So that he'd have broader backing when it came time to get tough.

No guarantees that this multi-track, multi-tone approach will do the trick, of course -- but some welcome evidence, at least, that they're thinking deeply, even creatively, about how to deal with the problem.

Anyone care to point out the parallel on the home front?

Anyone notice how insistent Obama has been on looking reasonable in his dealings with the Republicans? How willing he's been to sacrifice this or that major provision of this or that major bill to meet Republican objections, and to seek Republican votes? How committed he is to finding "bipartisan" solutions to the big issues that divide us?

He's been trying to "engage." He's talking about "new beginnings." From Day One of his administration, he's been all about being the reasonable one, the grown-up in the room. You'd like to believe it's all part of the strategy, that he's been reasonable toward Republicans up to now so that he'll have broader backing when it comes time to get tough.

There will be a time to get tough, right?



Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at