In their litany of American presidents who met with hostile dictators, supporters of Barack Obama cite John F. Kennedy and his meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961. They leave out how it went.
The earnest, young American 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 life." Kennedy adviser George Ball later said that Khrushchev had perceived Kennedy as "young and weak," and 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. Which is why it's folly for a presidential candidate to make a blanket promise to negotiate personally with adversaries. Asked last year at the YouTube debate 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, in a speech in Israel, 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 strategy.
Consider President 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 U.S. 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 economic system.
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 EU-3 (Great Britain, France and Germany) 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 Clinton had Yasser Arafat to the White House more than any other foreign leader, and his secretary of state, Warren Christopher, spent long, bootless hours with then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. When Clinton tried to pressure Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister 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.