The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Friday, May 23, 2008


Among the many questions that each of us must ask about the Presidential contenders is a reasonably simply one: Does this person have the experience and the humility to be President of the United States in troubled times?

Although easy to ask, the question is not always easy to answer. In recent days, Barack Obama’s suggestion that he will meet “without preconditions” with a rogue’s gallery of America’s adversaries—Iran’s Ahmadinejad, Korea’s Kim Il Jong, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and others—provides us with worthwhile insight.

Obama uses JFK’s meetings with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier in the early 1960s, as an indirect justification for his position. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins comment on the history of that meeting:
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. Senator Obama defended his position by again enlisting Kennedy’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 that’s what he did with Khrushchev.”

But Kennedy’s one presidential meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, suggests that there are legitimate reasons to fear negotiating with one’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.

The meeting between the Soviet Premier and President Kennedy was a disaster. Even though he was advised not to negotiate, JFK persisted:
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.

How many times have you heard Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rail against “the hypocrisy of American foreign policy” and bluntly state that “his country could not be intimidated.” History has a strange way of repeating itself. And yet, Obama persists, discounting the lessons of the past.
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.

Today, many of Obama's advocates ask the question—what harm can come from talking? It turns out — a lot of harm can come from talking.

Thrall and Wilkins continue:
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 Sam’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.

As a consequence we came frighteningly close to an all-out nuclear war.

Among the many attributes that trouble me about Barack Obama is his apparent lack of humility. Unquestionably he has charmed the American people with his rhetoric. I honestly believe that he thinks he can charm hard core adversaries in the same way.

Charles Krauthammer comments further:
As every seasoned diplomat knows, the danger of a summit is that it creates enormous pressure for results. And results require mutual concessions. That is why conditions and concessions are worked out in advance, not on the scene.

What concessions does Obama imagine Ahmadinejad will make to him on Iran's nuclear program? And what new concessions will Obama offer? To abandon Lebanon? To recognize Hamas? Or perhaps to squeeze Israel?

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."

Smooth talk about “changing the world” won’t impress those who goal is our demise. If he’s not careful, an inexperienced and overly-confident President Obama might give them an inadvertent assist in that goal.