Before I head off into the mountains for a weekend of lean angles and contributing to global warming by converting gasoline into relaxation, let me point you to an oped in today’s NYT:
In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy expressed in two eloquent sentences, often invoked by Barack Obama, a policy that turned out to be one of his presidencyâ€™s – indeed one of the cold warâ€™s – most consequential: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kennedyâ€™s special assistant, called those sentences “the distinctive note” of the inaugural.
They have also been a distinctive note in Senator Obamaâ€™s campaign, and were made even more prominent last week when President Bush, in a speech to Israelâ€™s Parliament, disparaged a willingness to negotiate with Americaâ€™s adversaries as appeasement. Senator Obama defended his position by again enlisting Kennedyâ€™s legacy: “If George Bush and John McCain have a problem with direct diplomacy led by the president of the United States, then they can explain why they have a problem with John F. Kennedy, because thatâ€™s what he did with Khrushchev.”
But Kennedyâ€™s one presidential meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, suggests that there are legitimate reasons to fear negotiating with oneâ€™s adversaries. Although Kennedy was keenly aware of some of the risks of such meetings – his Harvard thesis was titled “Appeasement at Munich” – he embarked on a summit meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, a move that would be recorded as one of the more self-destructive American actions of the cold war, and one that contributed to the most dangerous crisis of the nuclear age.
Now, I’m on record as saying we should be talking to Iran. And I think Israel is right to talk to Syria.
But there are two things that must be kept in mind if we decide to do so: 1) it matters – a lot – what we say; and 2) it is important to understand that talking is not an end in itself, even though for some institutions, it is.
As David Blue put it well in the comments below, the danger is that we will “…fight to settle not win…” Settling is a good thing – when we get enough out of it to make the settlement worthwhile. If we decide we’ll settle for anything – well, then we will.
And it is critical that the other side sees that they have something to gain from settling – and something to lose from not settling – as well. When we talk about “Nixon in China”, we’re talking about the fact that only an extreme anti-Communitst hawk like Nixon could have made the rapproachment with China work – both because he needed to have the trust of suspicious Americans, and because China believed that settling was better than the alternatives – which include continued inconclusive negotiation.
If Obama is going to talk to Iran, or to Chavez, or to anyone whose interests and beliefs place them in strong conflict with us, he’d better keep those things in mind. Because the outcomes of a failed meeting can be quite concrete:
A little more than two months later, Khrushchev gave the go-ahead to begin erecting what would become the Berlin Wall. Kennedy had resigned himself to it, telling his aides in private that “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” The following spring, Khrushchev made plans to “throw a hedgehog at Uncle Samâ€™s pants”: nuclear missiles in Cuba. And while there were many factors that led to the missile crisis, it is no exaggeration to say that the impression Khrushchev formed at Vienna – of Kennedy as ineffective – was among them.
I’ll try and get something up for Memorial Day. But in case I don’t please take a quiet moment to thank those who died in the name of our country. And if you see someone abusing a soldier, kick them in the shins for me, will you?