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Friday, May 16, 2008

The Attack of the Primitives, Revisited

Professional diplomatists are offended by the idea that “talking” to one’s enemies is equivalent to a pre-emptive concession. Megaphone diplomacy of the kind practiced by George W. Bush recently, and by many others in his administration, is also a form of talking. In a more civilized era, this was once called “jawboning.” John F. Kennedy was particularly fond of it. It is certainly better than going to war.

Of course too much belligerent talk can backfire. Iran or Israel would not be the first country in recent history to launch an attack in order to defend a rhetorical position. How surprising that the Americans, who excel in poker, are proving to be such poor bluffers? We were led to believe that they won the Cold War in good measure by such talent. A good poker player always comes out ahead of a good chess player in time of war, however cold.

But brinksmanship is a deadly business. Better an enemy appeased, the British once said as regards their American and Russian rivals, than an enemy victorious. Lest Talleyrand be accused of posing as a Cold War revisionist, he refers here instead to the period 1895-1907, an underappreciated, golden age of rapprochement. Appeasement can be a good thing, in other words, if one cannot afford more than a couple of wars at a time. But this is an election season, alas. He (or she) who obliterates the fastest with the mostest wins.

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