Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

George W. Bush caused something of a political firestorm last week when, in an address before the Israeli Knesset, he rebuked those who would talk to Israel's and -- by extension -- his country's enemies. In a passage which many saw as a direct attack on Barack Obama, Bush said: "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."

The ghost of Neville Chamberlain haunted the last century -- and it continues to haunt this one. And, while waving a piece of paper around and declaring "peace in our time," will not guarantee peace, the fact is that all conflicts end with a piece of paper -- after the belligerents have sat down and talked across a table. Often this occurs after particularly dreadful deeds. Such agreements -- like Roosevelt's and Churchill's alliance with Joseph Stalin -- are products of pure convenience. Sometimes they lead to a new relationship, which usually takes a great deal of time and patience. After all, while both sides like to claim a "special relationship," it is no exaggeration to say that, in 1776, contacts between the United States and Britain were more than a little strained.

Bush argues that talking to one's enemies is a sign of weakness. But the Secretary of State in the first Bush administration, James Baker, has declared flatly that it is necessary to talk to one's enemies. Bush's present Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has said that it is necessary to talk to Iran. And high level negotiations are presently going on with the third member of what Mr. Bush called "the axis of evil," North Korea.

Recently a number of political ads have featured "the red phone" at the White House. Many may have forgotten that John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev agreed to set up a direct line of communication after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Both men saw that talking was preferable to fighting -- and neither saw talking as a sign of weakness.

How does one account for the change in perspective between then and now? In his book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold, Frank Rich reviewed the conditions which existed in the United States before September 11th, 2001. He focused particularly on the narcissism of the baby boom generation -- of which the last two presidents are charter members: "A decade of dreaming was coming to an end. The dream had been simple -- that Americans could have it all, without having to pay any price, and that national suffering of almost any kind could be domesticated into an experience of virtual terror akin to a theme park ride or a Hollywood blockbuster." Unlike their parents, these men had not known sacrifice: they were used to getting what they wanted. And refusing to talk to someone you didn't like was the childish reaction of someone who got his own way and who was impressed with his own reflection in a mirror.

Lest Canadians try to take some comfort in what they think is their own moral superiority, it is worth remembering that our present prime minister is used to getting his own way -- and his unwavering support of Israel translates into refusing to talk with Israel's enemies. This is a radical departure from traditional Canadian Mid-East policy. As Linda McQuaig pointed out this week in The Toronto Star, Canada's "attempt at even handedness has utterly disappeared under Stephen Harper, who lavishly celebrated Israel's 60th anniversary with promises of Canada's 'unshakable' support, while utterly ignoring the fact that this is also an anniversary -- although a very different one -- for Palestinians." She noted that, in 1948, Canada's Justice Minister, James Ilsely, expressed concern that the UN plan to partition Palestine "didn't sufficiently answer 'the very strong moral and political claims' of Palestine's Arab community."

And to those who claim that Canada should have no dealings with terrorists, it is also worth remembering that the late Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin proudly admitted being referred to by British newspapers and Members of Parliament as "Terrorist Number One." McQuaig concluded, "If Harper isn't willing to be a tiny bit even handed, it would be helpful if he'd at least stop trying to play a role in the Middle East tinderbox."

Obama's commitment to talk to Israel's enemies does not mean that we will have "peace in our time." But it's virtually certain that unless the next American President sits down with his country's adversaries -- as Reagan did with Gorbachev and Nixon did with the Chinese -- there will be no peace in anyone's time. The next president will have to stop looking at himself in the mirror and look outwards -- to what is increasingly an unstable world.


Anonymous said...

The "American Senator" Bush referred to was apparently William Edgar Borah, a Republican.

Another quote may put him in a more favourable light. It seems to echo McQuaig's view of Harper:

"America has arisen to a position where she is respected and admired by the entire world, she did it by minding her own business"

Owen Gray said...

I appreciate the information and the reference. It is interesting that, when Bush ran for the presidency the first time, he promised a "more humble foreign policy." Canada used to conduct international relations that way. Lester Pearson knew a great deal about how it was done.