Monday, October 22, 2012

The Compromise Curse

Tonight is the final presidential debate and is supposed to focus, as I understand it, on foreign policy.

That means, without fail, we will be hearing a lot about "strength." I will also wager that the word we won't hear is "compromise," unless it is used in a derogatory manner.

Since the first days of the Republic, American foreign policy has focused on, appropriate, what is best for America.

So while some thought that we had a moral obligation and political rationale for joining the force of the French Revolution -- after all, without France we would not be a country today -- George Washington wisely kept us out of it.

Not because it was necessarily the "right" thing to do, but because, at that early stage of our development, it was the "right thing for the United States."

At another time, in other circumstances, the opposite choice may have been the right one.

The point, of course, is that in foreign policy, as with many things, there are few absolutes. The variables continue to shift, as do priorities, circumstances, personalities of the powerful and the many, many other things over which we have no control.

In other words, its a lot like everything else in life.

Now, on a good Sunday, if I play my cards right, I can let the family sleep late and, if I take long enough making them a pancake breakfast, I can be in the kitchen when "On the Media" airs on NPR.

It's a bit self-indulgent, but also serves as a reality check and staves off any megalomaniacal impulses sometimes experienced by those of us in the media. Essentially, it's an hour devoted to all the things we do wrong.

Anyway, yesterday's program had an interesting segment on the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The program, which was about how the media is the first draft of history and, in this case, got it wrong about how the crisis was resolved as a result of Kennedy's resolute refusal to negotiate with Kruschev and that the matter was essentially an international staring contest.

As it turns out, that first draft is entirely wrong and history is taking its own sweet time about correcting it.

Although almost his entire cabinet favored no compromise, the records now show, Kennedy was inclined to accept an offer by Kruschev to reverse the ship carrying the missiles to Cuba in exchange for the removal of nuclear missiles recently placed in Turkey, within striking range of what was then the Soviet Union.

Kennedy's only trick was to agree to do so, but six months later when it would seem to have happened all by itself.

Thus did compromise save us from a nuclear war in which victory would have been little distinguished from defeat.

The moral of the "Media Matters" piece was evidently that this "myth" of the Cuban Missile Crisis had made it even harder for American politicians to do what was already hard to begin with -- compromise.

Try and imagine, one of the speakers said, a candidate in today's election saying it would be OK to compromise with Iran and let them enrich uranium to a smaller extent under extreme oversight than the current situation, in which sanctions are crippling Iran's economy to a dangerous extent, we are being blamed and the Iranians are enriching as much uranium as they can to whatever extent they can.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
This might seem to make sense as something to consider, I don't pretend to know the answer, which is why I decided a long time ago not to run for president -- that and those pesky closet skeletons.

Some might argue that the whole point of the sanctions is not to wreck Iran's economy, but to give Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a stark choice, face ruination for your nation or come to the negotiating table.

But can you imagine either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney tonight staring into the television camera and saying solemnly that they are ready to negotiate with Iran?
Compromise, or in this case, "appeasement" of Hitler
only let 

him take at the negotiating table what he
otherwise would have 
had to take by force.

I think the best we could hope for is something like "all options are on the table."

None of which is to say that compromise is the magic bullet to solving world problems or diplomatic impasses.

It won't take an opponent of compromise long to take a few steps further back in history to point to the appeasement of Hitler as the ultimate failure of compromise. And they would be right.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin's infamous "peace with honor" policy turned out to be neither and pretty disastrous for a few million people.

So which is it?

Compromise or inflexible strength?


The answer I will be looking for tonight is the person who I believe will not rule out any option that both keeps America safe, but also promotes peace in the world.

Neither of them will likely say that, because that will not win them votes.

As the Tea Party movement has shown us, "compromise" is a dirty word these days in American politics. Anyone who does is seen as having "given in" or "caved" to the inflexible demands of the other side.

We all have our own opinions about which side is more inflexible in Washington these days and I won't dip into that very deep well here. The point I'm trying to make is look what it's gotten us.

We all hate (or at least say we hate) the gridlock which now gives Congress a popularity rating somewhere below the Community Party table at an American Legion convention.

But in truth, they are only doing what we said we wanted when we elected them, to stand for (fill in the blank) "without compromise."

What did we think was going to happen? Does anyone in Washington ever capitulate completely?

Democracy is, ultimately, all about making deals. It is how we decided to break away from England, how we drafted a Constitution and how we have done hundreds of other things that, in the dispassionate view of history turned out to be pretty good things.

Were they flawed? Of course. We're human beings. Everything we do is flawed.

We drafted a Constitution that recognized slavery. We made compromises in westward expansion that failed to resolve that cancer and ultimately it nearly destroyed the country.

But many of those compromises moved us forward, even if it was two steps forward, one step back.

They key, it seems to me, is to know when to compromise and when to stand your ground.

As someone who has helped to negotiate a fair number of union contracts in my time, I can tell you there is little use in sitting down at the table with a side that has no intention of compromising on anything.

Why even bother negotiating otherwise?

So I tend to doubt the supposed subject of tonight's debate will matter much to most Americans.

Our awareness of the rest of the world tends to be fairly small until the complex forces at work break the bubble and planes fly into skyscrapers.
It's a complex world out there.

Rather, tonight's debate will be about zingers, and who scores the most points. And the electronic media (and most of print too) will cover it from the horse race perspective that makes the coverage exciting but not insightful.

I just hope whoever wins the horse race is smart enough to know when compromise serves the best interests of the country -- even if most of us are too stubborn to admit it -- and when it doesn't.

Because after all, in world affairs, as in life, nothing is ever absolute.

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