- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

Country singer Johnny Russell once said if he were president, he would promote peace by bringing all the world leaders together for a big old barbecue. President Obama tried to buy into that down-home wisdom but was rebuffed.

Heedless of the bloody crackdown on the democracy movement in Iran, the administration invited Iranian diplomats to a July 4 barbecue at the White House as a gesture of outreach. The Iranians mocked the invitations, and they were withdrawn in a huff.

Presidential barbecues have been used for high-level diplomacy before. In 1967, Lyndon B. Johnson hosted 29 Latin American diplomats at his Texas ranch in what was billed as “barbecue diplomacy.” The event was “a merry one all the way,” United Press International reported. At a July 1984 feast, President Reagan took the opportunity to talk with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin over an American initiative on limiting space weapons. The two held an animated 50-minute discussion to the strains of country and Western music, and Mr. Dobrynin seemed relaxed and happy, but the proposal was rejected.

President George W. Bush had the “barbecue summit” down to a fine art, hosting fetes for Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Barbecues have had their miscues as well. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush hosted a “brisket, beans and beer” buffet at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel at the conclusion of his goodwill tour of China. Unfortunately, he invited noted Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi, whose “crimes against the state” included demanding democracy and calling socialism “the scourge of humanity in this century.” The Chinese government barred Mr. Fang — physically — from attending and threatened that the contretemps could unravel all the good will the trip had generated. First lady Barbara Bush observed that there was some stiffness at the event because “the Chinese didn’t seem to understand ribs and beans.”

There have been stranger outreach efforts to Iran. We wince when recalling the Reagan administration’s 1986 gifts to Tehran of an autographed Bible and an Israeli-baked cake with a key on top. A picnic has less chance of turning into a diplomatic incident, although the White House ought to have some halal burgers and hot dogs on hand so Muslim diplomats can enjoy themselves.

Maybe the administration can patch things up in time for the barbecue. It might be considered bad form to use the venue to get into a discussion over Iran’s domestic political problems. But given the coincidence of the barbecue’s date with a planned North Korean missile test on July 4, Mr. Obama might make some time — between forkfuls of coleslaw and sips of Kool-Aid — to mention Iranian and North Korean cooperation on ballistic-missile and nuclear-weapons technology. Or maybe stick to sports. There are many possibilities for wiener diplomacy.

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