Obama, Bush and appeasement

OK, you decide. Last week President Bush, in a long speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding, made the following statements to the Israeli Knesset (their equivalent of our Congress).

OK, you decide. Last week President Bush, in a long speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding, made the following statements to the Israeli Knesset (their equivalent of our Congress).

“Jews and Americans have seen the consequences of disregarding the words of leaders who espouse hatred. And that is a mistake the world must not repeat in the 21st century.”

An obvious reference to Iran’s Israel-hating President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then Bush said this:

“Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

Who was Bush talking about? The White House said he was referring to “a wide range of people who have talked to or suggested we talk to Hamas, Hezbollah or their state sponsors.”

I assumed it was Jimmy Carter, who had done just that. But Barack Obama claimed that they were “a false political attack,” on him and his fellow Democrats, and added “George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists. …”

Well then, Senator Obama should have simply announced that he strongly agreed with Bush’s statement. Instead we heard defensive anger. Why? Read Bush’s statement again. He makes no reference to any person or party. The senator he was quoting, William Borah of Idaho, was actually a Republican isolationist back in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

The Democrats think Bush was specifically targeting Obama’s declaration that he would meet with Iran’s Ahmadinejad “without precondition.” Obama insists that meeting with Iran’s president is not the same as appeasement.

For the sake of argument, let’s accept Obama’s premise and ask the more important question: Is it a good idea? Ever the idealist, Obama believes that nothing bad can come from talking. It could even clear up or pre-empt misunderstandings.

But history tells a different story. Meeting without preconditions can make things worse. It happened to one of the most revered Democrats of the last half century, John F. Kennedy.

In June of 1961, President Kennedy met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. Kennedy had been embarrassed by the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion two month earlier to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba. The old Soviet boss sized up the new young president. He wasn’t impressed.

Two months later, the Berlin Wall was under construction. A year after that, the Soviets pushed Kennedy further by building Soviet missile bases in Cuba, which brought on the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviets ultimately agreed to dismantle their bases, but only because the U.S. agreed to secretly dismantle Saturn U.S. missile sites in Turkey.

Would there have been a Berlin Wall or a Cuban Missile Crisis if JFK hadn’t held those unnecessary talks with his Soviet counterpart in Vienna? We’ll never know, but we know this: The talks in Berlin did not go well for the U.S., and Soviet aggression accelerated after them.

That is why Barack Obama’s belief that unconditional talks with adversaries are worthwhile is, as leaders in both parties have said, naïve. And naïve idealism, on the left or on the right, is not what this country needs right now.

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