Two prominent op-eds this week criticize Barack Obama's position that he is willing to negotiate with the leaders of America's enemies, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Both authors write in breathless tones about the disastrous June 1961 Vienna summit between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev. They recall an intelligent but naïve JFK being lectured at and humiliated by his grizzled Soviet counterpart, laying the groundwork for subsequent communist aggression in Berlin and Cuba. The supposed takeaway: talking with your enemies is a dangerous game, even for smooth operators like JFK and Obama.
Even for armchair historians this analysis is remarkably myopic, focusing as it does on the instant reaction to a single meeting as opposed to the sequence of events that followed. Kennedy may not have scored immediate points in Vienna, but just over a year later he stood resolutely in the face of a Soviet effort to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. During the two weeks of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy pledged that he would not tolerate a nuclear presence on Cuba; that he would immediately order a full embargo of the island; and that any missile launch from Cuba would be regarded as an attack by the Soviet Union itself. These were the tensest days since World War II, but Krushchev's eventual capitulation marked the single greatest American strategic victory of the Cold War. Images of Soviet cargo ships pulling aquatic u-turns away from Cuba signaled to the world that JFK was not just eloquent and idealistic, but also steadfast and tenacious.
It goes to show that a willingness to talk to your enemies doesn't make you naïve, or a wussy. A good president can both negotiate and stand at the brink. Indeed, an adversary's knowledge that a president is willing to negotiate on reasonable terms will make him take notice if and when the president eventually takes a hard line. For all George W. Bush's posturing toward Iran, they don't take our threats seriously. And why should they? We're overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan and we've been shouting the same curses at them since the Axis of Evil speech.
The risks of failing to engage our adversaries can be far graver than the abstract costs of holding a meeting. While we've been shunning Iran over the past eight years, it has marched forward with its nuclear weapons program. And it has risen to new heights of influence in the greater Middle East, from the violent slums of Baghdad and the flashpoints of the Gaza Strip to larger Shiite Iraq and Southern Lebanon, from which the Iranian-backed Hizbullah militia rained down 4,000 Katyusha rockets on Israel in 2006. Our Iran policy is an astonishing failure. The high-minded notion that we shouldn't even talk with bad guys like Ahmadinejad is cold comfort to the hundreds and thousands of victims of Iran's aggression by proxy during the Bush administration.
Obama needs to remind people that a willingness to talk is not the same as an inclination to appease. No one wants to cave in to outrageous Iranian demands or countenance their appalling anti-semitism. But Iran might just act differently if it feels it has a chance to sit at the big boys' table. And if it doesn't, taking a tough stand will appear in the Middle East and beyond to be all the more justified...and credible. If JFK's multi-act dance with Krushchev taught us anything, it's that you can negotiate and also lead from strength. So as for the historical analogies, bring 'em on. There's worse things than being compared to a Kennedy.