Two weeks ago the issue of negotiation with foreign enemies was brought to the fore by the hostile exchange among President Bush and the two presidential candidates, Barrack Obama and John McCain. With the obvious exception of North Korea once it had developed the atomic bomb, the Bush administration rejects any negotiations whatsoever with presumed enemies, and, if elected, Senator McCain apparently intends to continue this policy. In contrast, Obama wants to feature negotiations and has even suggested in front of a Miami Cuban audience the possibility of negotiating with the present Cuban government a loosening in Cuban visitation privileges. In their exchange both Bush and McCain have used the example of Ahmadinejad, the current President of Iran, as one example of a foreign leader with whom diplomatic negotiations would be impossible, quite aside from the opposite recommendation of James Baker’s Iraq’s Study Group Report as well as the current Secretary Defense Robert Gates and numerous others with extensive foreign policy experience.
Historians supportive of negotiations have also pointed out that most, if not all, of the major diplomatic accomplishments since World War II have been the result of negotiations with putative enemies. Kennedy negotiated with Khrushchev, Nixon negotiated with Mao, Kissinger negotiated with North Vietnam, Carter used negotiations between Israel and Sadat to resolve the Sinai issue, and Reagan negotiated with Gorbachev to end the Cold War. During the last several weeks of his presidency, Clinton brought to the very final stages of negotiations an agreement with North Korea that would have terminated its development of the atomic bomb in exchange for a variety of benefits. Once in office, Bush abruptly terminated this effort much to the surprise of Secretary of State Colin Powell. As a result, Bush ended up seven years later with a much less advantageous agreement that conceded North Korea’s possession of the atomic bomb.
Their memories refreshed about the history of negotiations since World War II, Bush and McCain diverted their argument with Obama to a basically different consideration, the pursuit of negotiations without sufficient preparations. But this had not been their original stance when they used Ahmadinejad to illustrate the impossibility of negotiations with truly evil enemies (not the ordinary version such as Mao and Khrushchev). Moreover, Obama had repeatedly conceded the necessity of sufficient preparations, so their argument was both uninformed regarding Obama’s stance and a dishonest shift in debate from total rejection to a presumably more defensible approach to negotiations.
Now the New York Times publishes an article supportive of Bush and McCain’s revised argument, “Kennedy Talked, Khrushchev Triumphed,” by Nathan Thrall and Jessie James Wilkins. Here they emphasize the failure of Kennedy to hold his own in negotiations with Khrushchev in 1961. His embarrassment, in their opinion (and with some justification), was because he was unseasoned and insufficiently informed of diplomatic possibilities.
However, in their litany of harmful effects resulting from Kennedy’s failure, they include the Cuban missile crisis, probably the most dramatic example of successful negotiations since World War II, despite the lack of adequate preparations. Aware that the USSR was beginning to stockpile Cuba with nuclear missiles, a large White House contingent of professional Cold Warriors spurred by General LeMay (who could boast of having incinerated a hundred thousand Japanese in a single air attack on Tokyo) wanted to bypass negotiations and simply bomb all the missile sites before the missiles could be armed with nuclear warheads. In a crucial White House meeting, only one participant among dozens present continued to advocate negotiations instead, and he did so based on his personal experience with Khrushchev. Fortunately, he won the argument and one last feeler was extended to Khrushchev. This resulted in negotiations that led to the USSR’s withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Cuba in exchange for the U.S. promise not to invade Cuba.
Some consider this outcome to have been a defeat for the U.S., but it turns out to have been absolutely important for our survival as a nation as we know it today. What LeMay and his enthusiastic Cold War friends did not know at the time — nor anybody else connected with the White House — was that many dozens of Cuban missiles were already loaded with nuclear warheads and that Castro and Khrushchev had decided that IF an air attack were launched against Cuba by U.S. bombers, Castro would retaliate with a missile attack on ALL major U.S. cities on the eastern seaboard, probably from Miami to Boston. How many of these missiles would have reached their U.S. targets? Nobody knows, but a major catastrophe was very likely prevented through negotiations rather than the use of a surprise attack that would not have been much of a surprise.
My suggestion to Nathan Thrall and Jessie James Wilkins and everybody who takes heart with their argument is to view once again Robert McNamara’s brilliant account of what happened in the movie, The Fog of War, in which McNamara recounts his discussion of the episode with Castro many years later. During this crisis, as much as at any other time since World War II, diplomacy with a supposed enemy was of crucial importance. Our nation’s survival depended on it. I would suggest that we are up against a comparable situation right now in our relations with Iran. If a bunker-buster air attack escalates into full-scale warfare, for example resulting from the retaliatory destruction of one of our aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, regional warfare would be very possible throughout the entire Middle East from Gaza and Lebanon to the Khyber Pass and beyond. Not even Israel would benefit from the results.