Appease in Our Time: Keeping Tired Diplomats Retired

They tell me that "Paradise Lost" was written by Milton, but when I met Berle, he denied it completely. My knowledge of history could use a buff; I never took a shine to it. The die was cast when a friend explained why he was made to take seventh-grade history a second time: “Those that don’t learn History are doomed to repeat it.” Since then, I have given the subject a wide berth despite its abiding worth. I’m not calling all lore of yore a bore, but neither have I covered more than the core.

Even my rooting among the rudiments is sufficient to see that in the past, appeasers who deferred and prolonged crises that eventually exploded were condemned for lack of foresight. The name of Chamberlain, for example, is a byword for shortsightedness. This despite the fact that he did negotiate a deal with Hitler that seemed to hold for awhile. But afterwards, all intelligent observers realized this treaty Chamberlain had brandished with such pride was merely something that Hitler’s blandishments pried from his very lax grasp.

In brief, diplomacy is to be admired as a means, not an end. It is an approach, a vessel for understanding, a language for dialogue, a backdrop for civility. In sales terminology, it is “getting the meeting,” it is not “getting the sale.” In the long run, the success of diplomacy is measured by the viability and durability of the accords achieved. It’s one thing to be optimistical, quite another to opt for the mystical. Diplomacy is not alchemy.

For example, we sat in Paris for years negotiating the long-term relationship between North and South Vietnam. The arrangement hammered out between the sides was announced with great fanfare. Within months, there was no South Vietnam, Congress having abandoned it and the North having annexed the territory. Do the guys who sat around that table in Paris get a lot of credit today? They worked very hard and their ideas were not all bad. Still, their work is seen as futile, because at the end of the day it did not produce self-sustaining systems.

Following upon this logic, the last people who should be interceders of Lebanon are Presidents Bush I and Clinton. Any ceasefires effectuated during their tenures merely allowed Hamas and Hezbollah to seize more firepower. In a rational world, they would be scorned for their naivete and banished to listen to Muzak all day in the Old Presidents’ Home. Instead, Dean Dean and other guardians of the liberal brain trust are championing them as prime envoys to be dispatched Mideast-ward.

Apparently our shortened attention span and frenetic news cycle have mated to produce this gruesome offspring. In this new reality, success is measured only in the moment. If 9/11 did not occur in the Clinton term, it cannot be laid at his feet. If Saddam Hussein made a comeback, no blame attaches to the elder Bush. If Iran turned into a horror movie, no one thinks to indict Jimmy Carter for ushering the mullahs into power.

We saw this clearly last week when Madeline Albright was being interviewed about North Korea’s missile tests. The premise was that she is the maven who had effectively corralled North Korean ambitions. How? By giving them the chance to continue enhancing their arsenal quietly. Instead of hanging her head in shame for being a gullible bungler who was taken by a con artist, she gets to be crowned the expert in husbanding such affairs. After all, no immediate war followed her concessions to Li’l Kim, the nuke kid on the bloc.

It’s time for some hard-headed thinking to penetrate these thick skulls: make no bones about it. The current President Bush is the unlucky legatee who inherited a whole tea set of saucers spinning on sticks. Previous administrations kept pushing things forward “four more years,” eventually causing “your more fears.” Now they want to tag him as a dunce if he can’t cap all the volcanoes erupting at once. Adding insult to injury, they consult the very procrastinators who stalled the problems forward instead of forestalling them.

Again, diplomacy is a way to sell the opponent on peace rather than to help him buy time. Carter in Iran, Bush I in Iraq, Clinton with al-Qaeda and Madeline Albright in North Korea solved no problems, just deferred them. Their work seemed timely at the time, but did not stand the test of time, unlike Shakespeare for instance. Speaking of whom, I thought he wrote all his work for the Globe, but the folks in Boston are denying that too.