IN their litany of US presidents who met with hostile dictators,
supporters of Barack Obama cite John Kennedy and his meeting with
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961. They leave out how
The earnest, young president wanted to forestall any possibility of
misunderstanding and to win Khrushchev's commitment to the
international status quo. The blustery, risk-taking Soviet premier
wanted to bludgeon Kennedy into making concessions that would further
the Soviet goal of global revolution. With such clashing objectives,
the two leaders didn't exactly hit it off.
When Kennedy thought he was being accommodating, Khrushchev thought
he was being weak. He pocketed rhetorical concessions by Kennedy and
demanded more. Afterward, Kennedy called it "the roughest thing in my
Kennedy adviser George Ball later said that Khrushchev had
perceived Kennedy as "young and weak Kennedy confidant Gen. Maxwell
Taylor thought Khrushchev concluded he could "shove this young man
around." Vienna was the backdrop for Soviet assertion in the Cold War
flash points to come.
Not all talking is created equal. That's why it's folly for a
presidential candidate to make a blanket promise to negotiate
personally with adversaries.
Asked at a debate last year if he'd be willing to meet "without
precondition, during the first year of your administration . . . with
the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea," Obama
said "yes." Since then, he's tried to elevate his ill-considered
improvisation into foreign-policy gospel.
So when President Bush characterized trying to talk adversaries out
of their hatreds as appeasement, Obama and his supporters reacted as if
he had been skewered to the core. The Obama Doctrine had been attacked!
On foreign soil!
They countered that the act of talking is, in itself, not
appeasement. True enough. But neither is talking a substitute for
Consider Ronald Reagan, another president invoked by Obama
supporters. Reagan believed in personal diplomacy, but concluded upon
taking office that it was pointless to talk to Soviet hard-liner Leonid
Brezhnev. In stiffening US defenses and pursuing the Strategic Defense
Initiative, his administration sought to convince Moscow, in the words
of Secretary of State George Shultz, that restraint "was its most
attractive, or only, option," while pressuring the tottering Soviet
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the administration thought it
had the strategic upper hand, and a man it could work with. Reagan met
with his counterpart in Geneva and Reykjavik. Keenly aware of his
inability to keep pace in a high-tech arms race, Gorbachev wanted any
deal contingent on prohibiting SDI. Reagan said "no." Out of his
weakness, Gorbachev eventually gave the Reagan administration the kinds
of arms cuts it wanted and openings in the Soviet system. The Cold War
was about to end.
If a President Obama handles relations with Iran as deftly,
maneuvering the clerical regime to its doom, he's worthy of his hype.
Nothing suggests that he even conceives of his desire to talk in these terms. To do so, he'd have to develop some appreciation for the concept of leverage.
Has the Bush administration been too diplomatically inflexible?
Maybe, but it has allowed the Europeans to take the lead with Iran, and
the Europeans have offered incentives for the suspension of its nuclear
program. It has engaged in prolonged negotiations with North Korea,
winning the (dubious) promise of the suspension of its nuclear program.
It has relentlessly promoted Israel-Palestinian negotiations.
We have a recent example of even more active Middle East diplomacy.
President Bill Clinton had Yasser Arafat to the White House more than
any other foreign leader; his secretary of state, Warren Christopher,
spent long, bootless hours with then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
When Clinton tried to pressure Arafat and Israel's Ehud Barak into a
deal that wasn't there near the end of his second term, the second intifada erupted.
It wasn't appeasement; it was just foolish. Obama beware.