I can’t think of a recent presidential campaign that’s been characterized by as many terrible historical analogies as this one. From Obama’s evocations of Ronald Reagan, to McCain’s addled nonsense about appeasement, to Clinton’s suggestion that the woman suffrage and black voting rights campaigns provide some sort of model for protesting the “disenfranchisement” of Florida and Michigan voters — it’s been a brutal mess. And we haven’t even gotten to the general election campaign yet.
Corrective efforts in the media haven’t been terribly helpful, either. In the Times today, for instance, Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins attempt to call bullshit on Barack Obama’s occasional references the JFK’s meeting with Khrushchev; they make the uncontroversial point that the Soviet leader handed Kennedy’s ass to him at Vienna, and they suggest that perhaps those meetings don’t offer the most useful historical memories for someone looking to trumpet the virtues of negotiating with one’s adversaries. Of course, Nathan Thrall is a neoconservative who thinks that Reagan was an appeaser, so I’m not sure how much weight his conclusions are supposed to carry. The Vienna summit might have concluded with Khrushchev offering Kennedy a deep tissue massage and a happy ending, and Thrall would be still be offering some sort of captious explanation for why the whole affair was actually a disaster for the free world.
What’s interesting, though, is their suggestion that Khrushchev somehow “triumphed” in the wake of Vienna. He didn’t. Thrall’s and Wilkins’ central point — that the summit encouraged the Soviet leader to push back against the US, especially in his decision to place missiles in Cuba — is true enough. But what they fail to mention is that Khrushchev’s aggressive response helped destroy his own position within three years, as his rivals became persuaded that his concessions during the October 1962 crisis — that is to say, his appeasement of the United States — underscored his other weaknesses as a leader. By 1964, he was toast, replaced by a government that eventually coagulated under Brezhnev’s rule, which over the next 15 years mismanaged the Soviet Union to the brink of destruction.
So I’m not sure what Thrall and Kilkins have actually shown us, except to make the obvious point that historical confrontations are likely to have unanticipated — even disastrous — consequences. That’s true of diplomacy as much as any other strategy for dealing with adversaries. The piece concludes by suggesting that sometimes there’s “good reason to fear to negotiate.” There’s also — call me crazy — good reason to fear the apparent alternative, which is to reaffirm eight miserable years of US policy in the Middle East.