Friday, May 23, 2008

Fear Of Paper Tigers

What does it take to get an opportunity to run an editorial in the Times these days? The standards seem pretty low.
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 presidency’s — indeed one of the cold war’s — most consequential: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy’s special assistant, called those sentences “the distinctive note” of the inaugural.

They have also been a distinctive note in Senator Obama’s campaign, and were made even more prominent last week when President Bush, in a speech to Israel’s Parliament, disparaged a willingness to negotiate with America’s adversaries as appeasement.
Now here, one would think a responsible analysis would point out that it is not appeasement to talk to your enemies, or even to negotiate with your enemies. But Bush gets a free pass for his prevarication. Call it foreshadowing if you will, as you know the quality of analysis is going to get worse from this point forward.
Senior American statesmen like George Kennan advised Kennedy not to rush into a high-level meeting, arguing that Khrushchev had engaged in anti-American propaganda and that the issues at hand could as well be addressed by lower-level diplomats. Kennedy’s own secretary of state, Dean Rusk, had argued much the same in a Foreign Affairs article the previous year....

But Kennedy went ahead, and for two days he was pummeled by the Soviet leader. Despite his eloquence, Kennedy was no match as a sparring partner, and offered only token resistance as Khrushchev lectured him on the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, cautioned America against supporting “old, moribund, reactionary regimes” and asserted that the United States, which had valiantly risen against the British, now stood “against other peoples following its suit.” Khrushchev used the opportunity of a face-to-face meeting to warn Kennedy that his country could not be intimidated and that it was “very unwise” for the United States to surround the Soviet Union with military bases.

Kennedy’s aides convinced the press at the time that behind closed doors the president was performing well, but American diplomats in attendance, including the ambassador to the Soviet Union, later said they were shocked that Kennedy had taken so much abuse. Paul Nitze, the assistant secretary of defense, said the meeting was “just a disaster.” Khrushchev’s aide, after the first day, said the American president seemed “very inexperienced, even immature.” Khrushchev agreed, noting that the youthful Kennedy was “too intelligent and too weak.” The Soviet leader left Vienna elated — and with a very low opinion of the leader of the free world.
Okay... So we have the typical exaggerated representation of Obama's willingness to meet with "enemies" of the United States, representing the naivete of... a John McCain or Defense Secretary Gates. Should we expect a lecture about how weak Israel is for seeing to reopen peace negotiations with Syria?

But why not be more concrete? What world leader has, through Bush's tenure, been the closest analog to Kruschev? Could it be... Vladimir Putin? What happens when a President who will not at any time during his lifetime be described as "too intelligent" meets with Kruschev's modern counterpart?
Mr Bush described their meeting as straightforward and effective.

He said it was time to move beyond Cold War attitudes, away from mutually assured destruction towards mutually earned respect.

"I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue.

"I was able to get a sense of his soul.
I know we're supposed to buy into the author's right-wing talking point that the penny ante dictators Obama will supposedly make his first term priority are the equivalent of Kruschev, but... if you're not a heavy crack smoker that one's probably not very convincing. You want to talk failures of perception? Incompetence at a first meeting resulting in incredible loss of leverage with a dictatorial nuclear power? Do you think Putin walked away from that meeting awed by G.W.'s "strength and somewhat ordinary level of intelligence," or that he was quietly chuckling to himself. And let's not forget the Bush Administration's on-again, off-again love affair with Ahmed Chalabi.

And yes, I love the way the authors glom onto this notion that Kennedy was "too intelligent", as if we're better served by having Presidents of more modest intelligence - G.W. or, the apparent preference of the authors of the editorial, John McCain. I'm not sure that McCain would be flattered, but at least the authors make up for insulting his intelligence by implying that he would be "strong". But what good does that do us if his self-lauded years of experience leave him unable to distinguish Shia from Sunni, believing that Iran is backing Al Qaeda, or proudly clueless about the power hierarchy in Iran? If his childish rhetoric against diplomacy leaves him afraid to approach or be approached by leaders of "our enemies", "rogue states", whatever you want to call them, under circumstances that could aid us or our allies? Using examples cited earlier, the type of negotiations with Syria that could lead to a severe diminishment of tensions between Israel and Syria, weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon, and may even result in Syria's formal recognition of Israel? You know, the sort of negotiation Israel deems to be in its own self-interest, even if our "strong leaders of somewhat ordinary intelligence" don't see the wisdom.

Of course I'm giving the editorial far more credit than it is due. It's an amateurish argument from anecdote. You find one example of the point you want to make, depict it in the least flattering light to your target, then suggest that there could be no other outcome at any time in future history. Perhaps the Ph.D. student who contributed is so focused on this one incident (for his thesis?) that he isn't aware that history can offer counter-examples. I'm not sure what the other guy's excuse might be, other than preventing Middle East diplomacy of any sort. If you read his other work (here attacking Reagan's record), he seems to fall into the category of people who think that Arab and Muslim nations are incapable of responding to anything but fear of annihilation. Perhaps right now he's furiously scribbling out a screed against Israel's attempts to finally achieve peace with Syria, lamenting how its past leaders were duped and outsmarted in their peace negotiations with Jordan and Egypt.

I am not surprised when right-wingers of various sorts try to depict nations like Iran or Syria as the modern equivalents of Kruschev's Russia. Some don't know better, and the others who favor the argument will say whatever it takes to defeat the Democratic nominee. But is it not reasonable to be surprised when the New York Times agrees to print it? Is honoring this type of straw man argument somehow justified by the fact that it is embraced by McCain? Oh, it's so nice to see McCain threaten to stonewall the al-Qaeda supporting insurgent-supporting, Sunni Shiite nation of Iran, a nation that we are not presently prepared to occupy but could otherwise crush under the heel of our boot at any time. Or how tough he's going to be on Cuba, as if Kruschev is still alive and trying to put nuclear missiles on Cuban soil. But is it unreasonable to expect a major national newspaper to devote a few column inches to tearing down McCain's paper tigers, or burning through these straw men, rather than turning over the editorial page to people who want to advance these essentially dishonest arguments?


  1. If you are in doubt that the "it's like Kennedy and Kruschev" argument is a right-wing talking point, Charles Krauthammer is doing his best to erase those doubts. It's quite the "Chicken Little" act.

    Having lashed himself to the ridiculous, unprecedented promise of unconditional presidential negotiations -- and then having compounded the problem by elevating it to a principle -- Obama keeps trying to explain. On Sunday, he declared in Pendleton, Ore., that by Soviet standards Iran and others "don't pose a serious threat to us." (On the contrary. Islamic Iran is dangerously apocalyptic. Soviet Russia was not.) The next day in Billings, Mont.: "I've made it clear for years that the threat from Iran is grave."

    For those who grew up in the cold war, remembering everything from "duck and cover" to "the Evil Empire", with the constantly hyped fear of nuclear annihilation by the USSR, it may seem glib and dishonest for Krauthammer to suggest that the former USSR was not "dangerously apocalyptic". But it's Krauthammer, so that's par for the course.

    And that's before we address the fact that even if we assume Iran is more "dangerously apocalyptic" than was the USSR, as I previously noted Iran is a country that can be quickly and decisively crushed under the heel of the U.S. military. It poses no significant military threat to the United States or any U.S. allies, let alone an existential threat. You want to hype Iran as more dangerous than the USSR at the height of the cold war? Then you're either incredibly stupid, or don't mind anybody with a whit of intelligence immediately recognizing you as a lying buffoon.

  2. A point of clarification on the USSR as "dangerously apocalyptic". The argument has been made that the U.S. exaggerated the threat of the USSR during the cold war, for any number of reasons, and that its leaders were far less apocalyptic than the government and mainstream media suggested. If Krauthammer is advancing his argument on the basis of that revised history, simply put, he's engaged in the same type of hyping of an enemy that he pretends did not occur in relation to the USSR - only on an exponentially greater scale.


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