There are few more insulting attacks on Obama’s foreign policy than a friendly column from Roger Cohen. Fresh off of declaring that Obama is not really a Westerner, he assures us that Obama has been just as successful as Kennedy at Vienna. This is how Roger Cohen continues to offer his “help” to the Obama administration:
It fell to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to play the role Khrushchev once played in toughening a young American president.
The former Soviet leader thought he could browbeat Kennedy only to discover, in Vienna, that the Kennedy charm was not unalloyed to steel (“It will be a long, cold winter.”) Netanyahu was the first foreign leader to think he could steamroll Obama. He earned a frosty comeuppance.
Tom Bevan doesn’t like the comparison between a Soviet premier and an Israeli prime minister, but the problem with the comparison is far more substantial than that. To put it generously, Cohen’s interpretation of what happened at the Vienna summit is unique. Kennedy’s meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna has normally been regarded as a political and diplomatic failure that helped lead to subsequent provocative Soviet moves in Berlin and Cuba. If Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu proves to have similarly poor results, woe unto Obama. Far from concluding that Kennedy’s charm was “not unalloyed to steel,” Khrushchev came away from Vienna with a very poor impression of Kennedy that encouraged him to act very aggressively later:
Kennedy’s aides convinced the press at the time that behind closed doors the president was performing well, but American diplomats in attendance, including the ambassador to the Soviet Union, later said they were shocked that Kennedy had taken so much abuse. Paul Nitze, the assistant secretary of defense, said the meeting was “just a disaster.” Khrushchev’s aide, after the first day, said the American president seemed “very inexperienced, even immature.” Khrushchev agreed, noting that the youthful Kennedy was “too intelligent and too weak.” The Soviet leader left Vienna elated — and with a very low opinion of the leader of the free world.
Kennedy’s assessment of his own performance was no less severe. Only a few minutes after parting with Khrushchev, Kennedy, a World War II veteran, told James Reston of The New York Times that the summit meeting had been the “roughest thing in my life.” Kennedy went on: “He just beat the hell out of me. I’ve got a terrible problem if he thinks I’m inexperienced and have no guts. Until we remove those ideas we won’t get anywhere with him.”
It may be that Obama was hoping to avoid playing Kennedy to Netanyahu’s Khrushchev, so to speak, and it could be that this was partly why he treated Netanyahu as he did, but it is simply bizarre for someone sympathetic to what Obama is trying to do to compare his Netanyahu meeting to one of the most significant diplomatic blunders in postwar history. If the comparison is correct, Netanyahu will believe that he can do whatever he wants and Obama will be unable and unwilling to prevent him, and all of Obama’s half-hearted efforts at pressuring Israel will fail. This could lead to a real crisis in relations later on (perhaps over Iran), as opposed to the charade we have been watching recently, or it could sink the administration’s credibility around the world. Obama’s supporters have to hope that the comparison is completely wrong, because if there is any merit to the comparison Obama’s worst critics will seize on it and claim vindication for all the times they have accused Obama of being “too intelligent and too weak.”