Jacob's Jottings: Democrats as Realists

John McCain says that talking to hostile regimes is appeasement, but Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan wouldn’t agree. Are Democrats like Barack Obama heirs to the foreign-policy realism that Republicans now seem to spurn?

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has been pummeling Senator Barack Obama's (D-IL) pledge to engage in diplomacy with America's enemies as dangerously naive. Whether the issue is dealing with Iran or Iraq, Senator McCain declared in a June speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, "Senator Obama does not have the experience and the knowledge and clearly the judgment, my friends." That charge has been echoed by others. Former-United Nations Ambassador John R. Bolton, in a stinging op-ed critique of Obama in the June 5 Los Angeles Times, wrote,

Barack Obama's willingness to meet with the leaders of rogue states such as Iran and North Korea ‘without preconditions' is a naive and dangerous approach to dealing with the hard men who run pariah states. It will be an important and legitimate issue for policy debate during the remainder of the presidential campaign.

Bolton, one of the most hard-hitting thinkers on the right, went on to make some telling points, including that Democrats were often viewed, in the past, as blaming America first.

It's doubtless true that Obama doesn't have much experience in either domestic or foreign affairs. His rise has, by any standard, been sensationally rapid. It's also true that diplomacy doesn't always work. There are moments when deploying military force is the only way a country can defend itself, or its national interests. But does Obama's stress on diplomacy mean that his views are inherently unsophisticated?

Obama defended himself in March by declaring, as the Associated Press reported:

The truth is that my foreign policy is actually a return to the traditional bipartisan realistic policy of George Bush's father, of John F. Kennedy, of, in some ways, Ronald Reagan, and it is George Bush that's been naive and it's people like John McCain and, unfortunately, some Democrats that have facilitated him acting in these naive ways that have caused us so much damage in our reputation around the world. 

What McCain's remarks may highlight, then, is something else-the role reversal that is taking place between Democrats and Republicans in foreign affairs. In fact, a look at the historical record suggests that Obama may, in some significant ways, be closer in spirit to previous Republican presidents than McCain is.

For one thing, until George W. Bush, modern Republican presidents have always embraced diplomacy as a key foreign-policy tool. Dwight Eisenhower won election in 1952 by famously proclaiming, in a phrase reportedly coined by his speechwriter Emmet John Hughes, that he would "go to Korea." He did, even before he was inaugurated. As soon as he could, Eisenhower ended the war, signing an armistice in July 1953, which didn't come a moment too soon for an American public weary of being bogged down in an unwinnable conflict. Nor was this all. Eisenhower, who had always sought good relations with the Soviets since his years as supreme allied commander-he visited Moscow in August 1945 and was greeted by jubilant crowds-agreed to a meeting with Soviet leaders in Geneva in 1955, the first such meeting to take place since the 1945 Potsdam Agreement. Eisenhower also exercised great restraint when it came to what amounted to the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. When the Kremlin crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1956, Eisenhower remained aloof. The Republican far right's rhetoric about the "rollback" of Soviet communism remained just that-talk. Eisenhower also met with Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev at Camp David in 1959. Eisenhower's pacific record, then, was more notable for what didn't happen in foreign affairs than what did. His mantra, you might say, was prudence.

Something similar could be said about Eisenhower's vice president, Richard Nixon. Though the two men always had a tense and sometimes-frosty personal relationship, Nixon clearly carefully studied and absorbed Eisenhower's precepts. Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that Nixon displayed great diplomatic dexterity. Though Nixon had enjoyed a meteoric rise in the GOP by accommodating the far right as a congressman and senator, he dispensed with such rhodomontade once he became president. Nixon negotiated with the North Vietnamese to end the Vietnam War, signed a pioneering Strategic Arms Limitations agreement with the Soviet Union and established relations with China. A strong argument could be mounted that every bit as much as Ronald Reagan, Nixon deserves credit for improving U.S.-Soviet relations, thereby helping to end the cold war and the division of Europe. He pulled it off, not by saber rattling, but by talking with America's opponents. Nixon viewed the Soviets as canny adversaries, not as evil incarnate. An apocalyptic view of international affairs was as foreign to him as it was to Eisenhower.