Did the first several drafts of history leave out Kennedy’s compromise with the Russians–a key fact that led to diffusing the Cuban Missile Crisis and yet undermined the myth of Presidential resolve? With seemingly intractable challenges in the DPRK, Iran, and even next door in Cuba and Venezuela foreign policy constants, Leslie Gelb’s paean to the truth behind the event that could have resulted in nuclear war has an important lesson:
COMPROMISE IS NOT a word that generally makes political hearts flutter, and it is even less loved when it comes to the politics of U.S. foreign policy. The myth of the missile crisis strengthened the scorn. The myth, not the reality, became the measure for how to bargain with adversaries. Everyone feared becoming the next Adlai Stevenson, whom the Kennedys, their aides, and their foes discredited for proposing the Jupiter deal publicly.
It took extraordinary courage to propose compromises in arms control talks with Moscow. Even treaties for trivial reductions in nuclear forces on both sides faced furious battles in Congress. Today, it is near political suicide to publicly suggest letting Iran enrich uranium up to an inconsequential 5 percent with strong inspections, though the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty permits it. And while Barack Obama’s team is talking to the Taliban, its demands are so absolute — the Taliban must lay down their arms and accept the Kabul constitution — that any serious give-and-take is impossible. Were it at all serious, the White House would have to at least dangle the possibility of a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban.
For too long, U.S. foreign-policy debates have lionized threats and confrontation and minimized realistic compromise. And yes, to be sure, compromise is not always the answer, and sometimes it’s precisely the wrong answer. But policymakers and politicians have to be able to examine it openly and without fear, and measure it against alternatives. Compromises do fail, and presidents can then ratchet up threats or even use force. But they need to remember that the ever steely-eyed JFK found a compromise solution to the Cuban missile crisis — and the compromise worked.