We've inherited a myth from the Cuban Missile Crisis that compromise is for the weak, a myth that’s long been contradicted by the facts. And yet it still casts a long dark shadow over the policy-makers in Washington, according to recent issues of both Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy magazines. Brooke speaks with Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. He says he had first-hand experience with the cherished notion that America's strength lies in rigidity.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we have this myth from the Cuban missile crisis that compromise is for the weak, a myth that’s long been contradicted by the facts. And yet, it still casts a long dark shadow over the policymakers in Washington, according to the latest issues of both Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy magazines. Leslie Gelb is President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. In the late 1960s, he served as director of policy planning for the Defense Department. That gave him firsthand experience with the cherished notion that America's strength lies in - rigidity.
LESLIE GELB: In the case of Vietnam, it was that you couldn't compromise with the North Vietnamese.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
LESLIE GELB: In fact, at the end of 1968, the end of Lyndon Johnson's administration, when he wanted to get negotiations started with the North Vietnamese, Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State, directed you can do a paper but there’s no compromising from the US position of a non-Communist South Vietnam.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do we know for a fact that it was the Cuban missile crisis that put that prescription in there?
LESLIE GELB: I know for a fact that it was very much of a part of the conversations there because Lyndon Johnson was one of the believers in the Kennedy Cuban missile crisis myth. It’s always been hard to do any compromises in foreign policy. The Cuban missile crisis myth made it harder. So take Iran.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm?
LESLIE GELB: We’re squeezing them economically, and that’s good. But they’re never going to say ‘uncle’ with that alone. You have to put some proposition on the table that allows them to say ‘yes.’ And the one proposition you could put on is to allow them to do uranium enrichment up to some very small level, under a very careful inspection regime. But we can’t actually put that on the table because that would look soft.
Take Afghanistan. I don't like the Taliban, I think they’re horrible, but they are part of the fabric of Afghan society; Taliban are Pashtun. Pashtun is 60% of Afghanistan. At some point, you’re going to have to do some compromising with them. We can't even compromise now in order to get negotiations going.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I guess we could link this back to the Cuban missile crisis, but honestly after 9/11 can you really expect Americans to wrap their heads around concessions with terrorists in Afghanistan?
LESLIE GELB: I used to hear exactly those arguments about making any deal with Communist Moscow, with communist Beijing. And yet, in the end we did because we had interest in making certain kinds of agreements, without being foolish. It's not as if you’re gonna offer proposals that put our country in a position of danger. You won’t do that.
Does giving Iran the right to enrich up to 5% mean that you’re compromising our security or Israel's? I don't think so. In fact, I think it's even better to do that under strict conditions of inspection than to let them continue to enrich uranium up to levels where it’s easy to make a bomb.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So years have gone by. We understand more and more about what really happened. Why do we still have a myth guiding important parts of our foreign policy, 50 years later?
LESLIE GELB: Well, because what they focus on in the story is the lengths to which Kennedy said he was prepared to go to get the missiles out of Cuba and much less on the fact that he actually gave in to important demands on the Soviet side.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And didn’t Bundy later apologize for the lie?
LESLIE GELB: He did. McGeorge Bundy published his memoir. He was a key figure. He was the national security advisor. Bundy understood full well what we've been talking about, namely that there was a price to pay for pretending we gave up nothing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Les, thank you very much.
LESLIE GELB: Very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Les Gelb is President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a former foreign policy columnist for the New York Times and the former Defense Department official and State Department official.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now, in the midst of all of this partisan rhetoric, we have a reminder that On the Media has relaunched its Media Scrutiny Theater series. What’s Media Scrutiny Theater? Well, it’s our take on the late, great Mystery Science Theater, which was basically the silhouettes of one human and two robots in front of a big screen in a dark theater, making fun of bad science fiction films. Since a few years ago the Wall Street Journal dubbed us the “irrepressibly snide duo,” we thought we might as well apply that talent to what are indisputably the worst short films of the season, the current crop of political ads. It’s not all snark because, you know, we have a few fact checks. But we thought a little video would make the necessary confrontation of the good, the bad and the ugly go down a little easier.
ANNOUNCER: We are Americans –
BOB GARFIELD: Likely voters in the swing states of Iowa and Wisconsin.
[SOUND TRAILS OFF]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is in black and white, so they’re obviously evil.
ANNOUNCER: As President, Barack Obama has never visited Israel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or Gaza, Lebanon, Argentina.
BOB GARFIELD: Sweden, Hungary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Holland, Disney World.
BOB GARFIELD: Duh! It’s all Romney’s fault!
ANNOUNCER: Furthermore, I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Murderer!
ANNOUNCER: Priorities USA Action is responsible for the content of this advertising.
BOB GARFIELD: And what is – who?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So check out Media Scrutiny Theater. You’ll find it at on the media.org\blog\mst.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Julia Barton, with more help from Lita Martinez, Ariel Stulberg and Andy Lancet. And it was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Ken Feldman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts and read our fabulous blog at onthemedia.org. You can find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. You can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.