U.S. Big Enough To Talk To Anybody

Back in the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter fired UN Ambassador Andy Young for talking to the Palestinians. Young acknowledged the transgression, took one for the team and let others more vigorously make the case. And that case was: If you aspire to something other than heated public rhetoric, impasse, and worst-case scenario, you can’t preclude talking directly to people. Calling it a matter of principle, policy, protocol, politics or just visceral dislike doesn’t change it.

Recall that we had to talk to the Soviets, for whom the gut feeling was closer to paranoia and loathing. But the USSR was our Cold War partner. A fellow hegemon. Our own self-interest, indeed, preservation, demanded a dialogue. So we talked, stayed out of a nuclear Armageddon and settled for proxy fights around the globe until the USSR imploded.

We didn’t deign to talk to Fidel Castro, however. He was certainly no peer, and it was as personal as it was political. And, besides, you would only elevate – read: reward – such a dictator by sharing a forum with him. Two generations later, there is still a counterproductive embargo and Cubans literally dying to get here.

The lessons have gone unheeded.

The culture-fractured, post-Cold War era has left us without a nation-state peer. But not without sovereign threats. Iran and North Korea come readily to mind.

But we still don’t talk directly to either one. With Tehran, it’s been personal since the hostage-taking of 1979; with Pyongyang, it’s been enigmatic and threatening since the Korean War.

There are incipient signs, however, that the post-Cold War cold shoulder could thaw. But it has taken an ill-advised “axis of evil” taunt, dynamics borne of a flawed Iraqi occupation, a neocon eclipse and the ascendance of Condoleezza Rice to secretary of state.

No longer is the Bush Administration talking in terms of “rewarding” bad behavior by agreeing to talk with Iran and North Korea. In fact, the president no longer seems to be packing rhetorical heat. Increasingly he’s been flashing the “diplomacy” card.

Through the tragedy and crucible that is Iraq, it appears the administration may have learned something. You have to be big enough – and smart enough – to talk to everybody that needs talking to.

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