Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New Dog, Old Tricks

Ezra Klein links to a Rick Perlstein piece describing Ike's reception of Nikita Krushchev in September 1959. The conclusion they both draw is that this week's controversy over how to receive Iran's President Ahmadinejad reveals a diminished America, lacking confidence in its ability to defeat its adversaries on the merits.

While Krushchev's regal tour (which was more than anything else an elaborate stage production) certainly stands in contrast with the treatment Ahamdinejad received this week, there is another distinction to be made between the two. Krushchev represented a country that, in addition to being a sworn enemy with the capacity to annihilate us, we recognized diplomatically. And he was on an official state visit. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, represents a country that we do not formally recognize. And he was on a visit to the UN.

Fortunately, there is a better comparison to be made from 1959, when a young, charismatic leader hostile to American interests (though posing no existential threat) also visited the United States. His name? Fidel Castro:

Fidel's first trip to the United States (on April 15, 1959) demonstrated his intelligence. He neither requested nor accepted the classical official invitation; rather, he had himself invited by the press, the Press Club...

...He never lost his temper, always kept his good humor. And he visited progressive universities, liberal organizations, the zoo, Yankee Stadium; he ate hot dogs and hamburgers, and tried to make a media splash.

...Fidel was a hit.

...And in Washington the prevailing atmosphere was pure disdain. One incident typifies the entire scene. Someone came into the room where the delegation was waiting and was announced as "Mister So-and-so, in charge of Cuban affairs." To this Fidel could only reply, "And I thought I was in charge of Cuban affairs."

Now, granted, the United States and Cuba didn't formally end diplomatic ties until January 1961. But I still think this is the more appropriate comparison. The controversy over Ahmadinejad's visit reflects not so much a novel failure of American nerve as it does a traditional failure of American diplomacy. Namely, to enhance the status of petty goons by treating them as mortal threats, while at the same time proving unable to defeat them in the war of images.

Ahmadinejad is the latest in a long line of inflated nemeses (one that includes Saddam Hussein and Hugo Chavez, but not Nikita Krushchev). The answer isn't to roll out the red carpet for these guys. It's to reveal them for the frauds they are. I think Ezra and I are probably in agreement that the best way to do that is to engage and challenge them. I just wouldn't exagerrate the psychological significance of our failure to do so.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   

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