It's always sad to see those who have blundered egregiously defending their mistakes to the bitter end – hoping that forceful repetition of erroneous arguments will somehow make up for what they lack in wisdom. We have seen this tactic throughout the failed presidency of George W. Bush, especially regarding his disastrous choice to invade Iraq.
Bush's most recent defense of the indefensible was his outrageous comparison of those who would talk with the government of Iran and radical groups to Nazi appeasers. Despite White House denials, everyone recognized Bush's remarks as a swipe at Senator Barack Obama, who says that the United States should be willing to talk to its adversaries. Regardless of how often and inelegantly Bush presses this argument, neither recent nor distant history supports his position.
During a speech in Israel to mark the country's 60th anniversary of independence, Bush said the following, which (because of John McCain's quick and complete agreement with it) has already helped define a philosophical battleground of the presidential race:
"Some seem to believe we should negotiate with the 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 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."
There are so many problems with this statement – not least of which is that it violates longstanding presidential custom of avoiding partisan attacks while abroad – that it's hard to know where to begin. But let's start with Bush's perversion of the historical record.
To the charge of being naïve and/or delusional, American history demonstrates that our strongest and most successful leaders – both Republican and Democratic – were willing to meet with some of our country's most brutal adversaries. During the Cold War, President Nixon was willing to go to Communist China for direct negotiations with Chairman Mao Zedong, even though China supported America's foes in Vietnam.
President Reagan was willing to meet with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, despite the fact that the USSR had thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at our cities and had a history of training and financing the Palestinian Liberation Organization to carry out attacks against our ally Israel.
Were Nixon and Reagan appeasers? Of course not. In fact, most historians credit the willingness of these presidents to engage in aggressive diplomacy as important turning points that helped end the Cold War in the West's favor.
In addition, while Bush criticizes Obama for suggesting that the United States should be willing to talk with Iran without preconditions, presidents have been willing to negotiate with America's adversaries without conditions throughout the country's history. Nixon and Reagan understood that it would have been self-defeating to require China and the Soviet Union to change their objectionable behavior before engagement. And Bush himself authorized talks with rogue regimes in North Korea and Libya while they were still pursuing nuclear weapons.
Regarding Iran, what has Bush's refusal to engage in a meaningful way gotten us? Iran is closer to developing a nuclear weapon than it was seven years ago; Hezbollah – which Iran supports – is growing stronger in Lebanon; and Iran's overall influence in Iraq and the region has expanded greatly. Furthermore, high-ranking officials in Bush's own administration, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, have called for meaningful negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear program. Our unwillingness to talk has gotten us nowhere, and the American people seem to agree: A January 2007 poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 79 percent of Americans think that the United States should have direct talks with Iran on issues of mutual concern.
Diplomacy and negotiation should never be viewed as a reward for good behavior. Talking is merely one of the many tools available to the United States in defending its national interests. Refusing to discuss issues at the heart of a disagreement between the United States and an adversary is just plain foolish. As Senator Joe Biden rightly states, "You either talk; you go to war; or you maintain the unacceptable status quo." The United States is strong enough, and should be secure enough, to talk to anyone.
Spencer P. Boyer is Director of international law and diplomacy with the Center for American Progress.