Wednesday, September 26, 2007

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Is the United States more anxious than it used to be?

In the wake of Ahmadinejad's romp through New York, there's a meme that Americans, by not extending every courtesy to him, have displayed an anxiety that would have never existed during the Cold War, when conservatives had no power.

For example, everyone and their mother link to a Rick Perlstein essay that compares and contrasts Ahmadinejad's visit with Nikita Khruschchev's 1959 visit to the United States. Here's a snippet:

Nikita Khrushchev disembarked from his plane at Andrews Air Force Base to a 21-gun salute and a receiving line of 63 officials and bureaucrats, ending with President Eisenhower. He rode 13 miles with Ike in an open limousine to his guest quarters across from the White House. Then he met for two hours with Ike and his foreign policy team. Then came a white-tie state dinner. (The Soviets then put one on at the embassy for Ike.) He joshed with the CIA chief about pooling their intelligence data, since it probably all came from the same people葉hen was ushered upstairs to the East Wing for a leisurely gander at the Eisenhowers' family quarters. Visited the Agriculture Department's 12,000 acre research station ("If you didn't give a turkey a passport you couldn't tell the difference between a Communist and capitalist turkey"), spoke to the National Press Club, toured Manhattan, San Francisco (where he debated Walter Reuther on Stalin's crimes before a retinue of AFL-CIO leaders, or in K's words, "capitalist lackeys"), and Los Angeles (there he supped at the 20th Century Fox commissary, visited the set of the Frank Sinatra picture Can Can but to his great disappointment did not get to visit Disneyland), and sat down one more with the president, at Camp David. Mrs. K did the ladies-who-lunch circuit, with Pat Nixon as guide. Eleanor Roosevelt toured them through Hyde Park. It's not like it was all hearts and flowers. He bellowed that America, as Time magazine reported, "must close down its worldwide deterrent bases and disarm." Reporters asked him what he'd been doing during Stalin's blood purges, and the 1956 invasion of Hungary. A banquet of 27 industrialists tried to impress upon him the merits of capitalism. Nelson Rockefeller rapped with him about the Bible.

Had America suddenly succumbed to a fever of weak-kneed appeasement? Had the general running the country葉he man who had faced down Hitler!用roven himself what the John Birch Society claimed he was: a conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy?

No. Nikita Khrushchev simply visited a nation that had character. That was mature, well-adjusted. A nation confident we were great. We had our neuroses, to be sure用lenty of them.

But look now what we have lost. Now when a bad guy crosses our threshhold, America becomes a pants-piddling mess.

Look, this is a pretty silly historical comparison. There are several reasons why the U.S. treated Khrushchev differently than Ahmadinejad, none of which have to do with the relative power of American conservatives:
1) The USSR was an acknowledged superpower; Iran is not. And yes, these things should matter in how foreign potentates are treated. And last I checked, neither Hu Jintao nor Vladimir Putin has complained about their treatment in visits to the United States during the Bush years. In fact, as Matt Zeitlin observes, Hu got the 21-gun salute and exchange of toasts the last time he was in the USA.

2) Khrushchev had no problem wearing a tuxedo and delighting in the petty charms of the bourgeoisie as it were. If we even offered a white tie dinner to Ahmadinejad, does anyone think he'd actually accept? And what would he wear?

This sounds like a small difference, but it's symbolic of the larger cultural gap that exists between Iran and the U.S. than existed between the superpowers during the Cold War.

3) In 1959, the Soviets weren't viewed as defecting from the tacit rules regarding nuclear weapons. Once they were suspected of violating those rules, I'm astonished to report that Cold War liberals started acting in a different manner.

Take a look, for example, at this video of Adlai Stevenson's famous 1962 UN speech in which he confronted Soviet ambassador Valerian Zorin about the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba -- glamorized in Thirteen Days.

Click on over and check out the speech for yourself. We get nuggets like these:

Mr. Zorin and gentlemen, I want to say to you, Mr. Zorin, that I don't have your talent for obfuscation, for distortion, for confusing language, and for doubletalk. And I must confess to you that I'm glad I don't.
Wow, that Stevenson was a pants-piddler, wasn't he?

The current crisis with Iran is not the same as the Cuban Missile Crisis -- but it's worth remembering that Iran concealed its nuclear activities from the IAEA for two decades. So you'll excuse Americans for not taking too kindly to Ahmadinejad.

Historical analogies are always a dangerous minefield, but this cherry-picking of the historical record should make amateur analogists blush with embarrassment.

UPDATE: Robert Farley responds here: "Since the point of the wingnutty is that Ahmadinejad is EVIL DANGER EVIL DANGER EVIL DANGER EVIL and must be silenced at all costs, the comparison seems quite apt."

Farley's post clarifies for me where liberal bloggers are coming from on this point, but it also throws up the problem that Perlstein and Farley are now comparing apples with oranges. Both compare the official U.S. handling of Khrushchev (state dinner, etc.) with the unofficial response of Americans to Ahmadinejad (Columbia, visiting 9/11 shrine, blog responses, etc.). One could argue that to many non-Americans, someone like Lee Bollinger appears to be an official spokesman for the foreign policy establishment of the United States. To Americans, however, that's a pretty ludicrous assumption.

The Bush administration's response to Ahmadinejad's visit hasn't exactly been receptive, but does the president walking out of the General Assembly prior to Ahmadinejad's speech really constitute pants-piddling?

posted by Dan on 09.26.07 at 01:24 PM


Comment on your points:

1) Remember in 2006 when President Hu came to Washington. He was upset that he didn't get a state dinner.

2) When Ahmadinejad was speaking at Columbia, he wore a suit with an unbuttoned collar; he may not look Western, but he looks a hell of a lot more cosmopolitan than King Abdullah (and he was invited to a dinner! do you think the president would ask him to wear a black tie suit?)

3) were the "tacit" rule of nukes developed by then? (Adler suggests that a nuclear arms control regime was only nascent at that point; we just deployed (or were approved to deploy) nuclear weapons by the west german government; we just constructed the first ICBM- remember Sputnik was 2 years before; and the Soviets were about to reach nuclear parity- the only thing we did have was a weapons moratorium during that time?)

I don't think it is conservativism, that is the wrong thing to blame. Its CNN,Fox News, and the blogosphere.

Bollinger should have never given the speech he gave before President Ahmadinejad came, and President Bush shouldn't walk out of the UN before Ahmadinejad speaks. Those actions are sophomoric.

Interestingly, and I am surprised you didn't comment on it, was the foreign policy implications regarding the visit, though you did briefly mention the reaction back in Iran. I find the active role that the University took in this scandal a little naive and a little disheartening. You remember when, in 1995, the president of Taiwan came, and China tested missles. These visits have very real implications in international politics, and its hard to believe that president Bollinger didn't take that into account when he gave his speech. At best, Bollinger got his 15 min of fame on MSNBC. At worst, Iranian leaders will make a little mental check and throw it back at us when we come to negotiate (or have scientific exchanges?)

posted by: David Quartner on 09.26.07 at 01:24 PM [permalink]

My English was terrible in that last post. Apologies.

posted by: David Quartner on 09.26.07 at 01:24 PM [permalink]

4. One was a state visit and the other was not.

posted by: PD Shaw on 09.26.07 at 01:24 PM [permalink]

When Hu came to the US he was introduced at the White House as the President of the "Republic of China," was heckled by a Falun Gong protester who had snuck in as press, and was pulled off the dais by Bush. It was an embarrassment for US diplomacy on several levels...

posted by: Sam on 09.26.07 at 01:24 PM [permalink]

"Khrushchev had no problem wearing a tuxedo"

Actually he wore a business suit, while Eisenhower wore white tie.

posted by: J.A.H. on 09.26.07 at 01:24 PM [permalink]

A "pants piddling mess" describes most of the pundits and pseudo-savvy big mouths I have seen, heard, or read with regard to this and virtually every other "news" story lately. It just confirms the old adage about opinions being like buttholes--everybody has one and it usually stinks.

But still, "pants piddling mess" is a great phrase. Wish I'd though of it.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 09.26.07 at 01:24 PM [permalink]

I was a student at Pitt when Nikita showed up there during his tour of the US. (I guess I'm now revealed as an official "old fart".) There were plenty of formal, polite events, but all was not sweetness and light. There were pickets with signs complaining about the USSR's treatment of various Eastern European client states - Pittsburgh had a number of very large immigrant groups with ties to the "old country".

posted by: bud on 09.26.07 at 01:24 PM [permalink]

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posted by: vqejbc ylrvxniq on 09.26.07 at 01:24 PM [permalink]

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