Michael KreponThe Vision Thing

President George H.W. Bush bemoaned his lack of “the vision thing.” In contrast, George W. Bush was a bold visionary. By acting on his ambitious rhetoric to extend freedom, fight terrorism and wage preventive war, Bush 43 became America’s least admired wartime President since Harry S Truman. (Read it and wince: Bush’s second inaugural address and his September 2002 National Security Strategy.) Truman rebounded from terrible poll numbers after he left office because his accomplishments — the Berlin airlift, the policy of containment, the Marshall Plan, the founding of NATO and the United Nations, among others — outweighed the morass of the Korean War. George W. Bush’s war-time presidency will not be so readily rehabilitated.

Getting the vision thing right is hard. The ability to deliver a stirring speech enunciating idealistic goals is a start, but without successful follow up, the vision seems hollow. On nuclear issues, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama certainly met the rhetorical standard – Kennedy at American University in June 1963 and Obama at Prague in May 2009. Expressing idealistic long-term goals doesn’t help make them happen, however. Presidents who succeed at the vision thing manage to secure way stations along the path to overly ambitious objectives. In this regard, President Obama still has a long way to go to match President Kennedy.

JFK’s speech at American University 50 years ago demonstrates how the vision thing can prompt historic accomplishment. Less than ten months after the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy sought to shift gears from nuclear confrontation to nuclear risk reduction by going out on another limb, seeking a treaty banning nuclear testing. There’s nothing like a whiff of catalytic nuclear war to clarify thinking about the Bomb.

Kennedy engineered this shift through quiet, preparatory diplomacy and through adept stage management. JFK’s masterful commencement address at American University calling for an era of peace between ideological foes was a key factor in success, but there was far more to JFK’s recipe. Presidents who want to bake this cake need the following ingredients:

1. Convey private messages to your competitor that you seek to change course.
2. Make a high-profile public statement calling for a specific, notable result.
3. Take a calculated risk, but avoid making an offer likely to be stiffed.
4. Dispense with harsh rhetoric. Use a tone of respect and empathy instead.
5. Take a verifiable, meaningful, politically risky step as a sign of serious intent.
6. Call for reciprocal restraint.
7. Send a high-profile negotiator who knows his way around both capitals to cut a deal.
8. Seize the moment. Don’t dilly-dally.

If you want to learn from a master about the vision thing, take a few moments to read the key portions of Kennedy’s American University speech, reprinted below:

I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age where great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age where a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.

Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential to the keeping of peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles — which can only destroy and never create — is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.

Some say that it is useless to speak of peace or world law or world disarmament, and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitudes, as individuals and as a Nation, for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward, by examining his own attitude towards the possibilities of peace, towards the Soviet Union, towards the course of the cold war and towards freedom and peace here at home…

No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture, in acts of courage.

Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war. Almost unique among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other. And no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and families were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland — a loss equivalent to the destruction of this country east of Chicago…

So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures…

The only major area of these negotiations where the end is in sight, yet where a fresh start is badly needed, is in a treaty to outlaw nuclear tests. The conclusion of such a treaty, so near and yet so far, would check the spiraling arms race in one of its most dangerous areas. It would place the nuclear powers in a position to deal more effectively with one of the greatest hazards which man faces in 1963, the further spread of nuclear arms. It would increase our security; it would decrease the prospects of war. Surely this goal is sufficiently important to require our steady pursuit, yielding neither to the temptation to give up the whole effort nor the temptation to give up our insistence on vital and responsible safeguards.

I’m taking this opportunity, therefore, to announce two important decisions in this regard. First, Chairman Khrushchev, Prime Minister Macmillan, and I have agreed that high-level discussions will shortly begin in Moscow looking towards early agreement on a comprehensive test ban treaty. Our hope must be tempered — Our hopes must be tempered with the caution of history; but with our hopes go the hopes of all mankind. Second, to make clear our good faith and solemn convictions on this matter, I now declare that the United States does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so. We will not — We will not be the first to resume. Such a declaration is no substitute for a formal binding treaty, but I hope it will help us achieve one. Nor would such a treaty be a substitute for disarmament, but I hope it will help us achieve it.

Kennedy had greater ambitions than an atmospheric test ban treaty, but a complete test ban wasn’t negotiable in 1963. The key sticking point was the number of on-site inspections required to monitor underground tests. While falling short of what he wanted, JFK still achieved concrete results, ending the plague and public health hazards of atmospheric testing. (In the 23 months before Kennedy’s emissary, Averell Harriman, put the finishing touches on the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Soviet Union and the United States carried out no less than 179 atmospheric tests. That averages out to about two mushroom clouds per week.)

President Obama clearly has Kennedy’s chops when it comes to making stirring speeches. What he lacks – so far – is the moxie to replicate JFK’s recipe to reduce nuclear dangers. I have my doubts whether this approach would work with Tehran, but it is worth trying prior to any decision to carry out air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. President Obama might have more success using JFK’s recipe with Beijing. The initiative I have in mind is a symbolically freighted, strategically tinged, cooperative venture between the United States and China in space.


  1. Magpie (History)

    I know I say this too much, but yeah, I do think this is just the sort of thing that can work with Iran. They’re proud people (most people are, but in my experience Persians are often proud of being proud, if that makes sense). A public declaration that the US has been convinced of their sincerity to use nuclear power for only peaceful purposes, that they trust Iran to keep their word (and with all the quiet groundwork done, sure) – all of that would put the weight of Persian pride on the side of proving the validity of that trust, proving they were right all along. The more public the respect given, the better.

    Khamenei’s ‘05 fatwa against nuclear weapons, alongside the opportunity a new president provides, can be leveraged now to make a strong impression on the Iranian people – that without a tool for a president (to many Iranians, Ahmadinejad was their GW Bush – a significant source of embarrassment) they can expect international respect *without* needing to push against the international community. We’re in a position where we can politically support both the existing regime, and the incoming, relatively moderate, president – and at the same time improve public opinion in both countries of each other. That could provide a strong motivator for all parties to hold up their various ends of the bargain, and provide a solid kickstart to normalising relations someday.

    Honestly, there is nothing anyone can do to stop Iran getting nukes if they really want them. If you leave them with the options of a humiliating backdown, or a terribly risky victory, they’ll choose the latter eventually. The only way to win is to stop playing this game – call it a draw – and start a completely different one.

    • FlamesInTheDesert (History)

      Unfortunately this is very unlikely to happen unless the west gives in and acknowledges irans right to enrich and since western policy has been zero enrichment for iran I do not see this happening regardless of who is president in iran,nor do I see any likelihood of suspensions on irans part,there is only one possible deal and that is the one the west has continually ignored in favor of zero enrichment demands,military threats and sanctions after sanctions

    • rba (History)

      As an Iranian-American I can’t help but to agree with both of the above. I don’t think there’s any shortage of articles on the importance of communication and rhetoric in Iranian culture. Posturing and deference is a cultural fixture, regardless of actually held intentions. (A joke being upon being driven to a destination, a customer asks the cabbie how much the fare is. The cabbie insists, “Don’t think anything of it. It’s free!” The customer retorts that he must pay and the cabbie sets some price for the fare. The customer is sticker shocked and the customer and cabbie argue till they negotiate a price).

      It’s very clear from any speeches by Iranian politicians that any negotiations or 1-on-1 talks must be on grounds of mutual respect. So long as warmongering politicians insist on attacking Iran and take trips to Israel, let alone passing stricter sanctions or accepting Iran has some rights to enrichment via NPT – Iranian leaders can just as well claim there’s no mutual respect.

      Remembering Obama’s Cairo speech might be some inspiration – but according to foreign students in the US, friends abroad, and maybe a Pew poll his credibility is next to nil.

    • Magpie (History)

      Yeah, that’s it, really. I mean, I dunno how war-mongery it all is – people are looking to their spheres of influence like always. Iran is still on the kinda-sorta Russian side of the ol’ Great Game, with the US over the other side with the KSA and Israel (and Iraq pretty much out of the match, if not gift-wrapped for Iran thanks to Iran’s own enemy the US tuning on its own ally, and Iran’s enemy, for opaque reasons), and KSA hating Iran more than the US does, and Iran being pro-Syria and on the Shia / Hezbollah end of the anti-Israel stuff, even while the KSA is over on the Sunni side of the anti-Israel stuff (regardless of ties to the US) and also pushing for the rebels in Syria, which is supported by both ex-al-Qaida from Iraq and now also, probably, the US…

      It’s all bloody stupid, and stupidly bloody.

      But at least THIS little teeny tiny part is, I reckon, solvable. The US is going to have to do the very slightly galling thing of pretty much apologising to Iran, but they CAN do that now by framing it as a rapprochement that’s been catalysed by the recent change in Prez (given a year or so of preparatory cooling off / vague niceties). The US can pretend to their domestic audience that they won iron-clad assurances of no-nuclear weapons, throw their hands about and mumble “Persian Spring”, “the twitter revolution became a democratic evolution”, “moderate groundswell”, blah de blah blah.

      Iran can pretend they never wanted nukes in the first place, quietly allow some solid IAEA oversight, but otherwise get to hold on to what they have (and probably all they need): the ability to rush some nukes if they’re threatened. They’ll get sanctions dropped, lots of popularity at home, and a slight backing off of various destabilisation efforts – but the hit they’ll take is that the message will be quite clear about moderate leadership. If that *is* a hit. But it’ll make some domestic politics a lot less viable, and it’ll make it hell difficult to actually go for nukes down the track, even if they do decide they need them. Their enemies will be able to continue being their enemies about as much as they always have.

      Everyone can pretend they won, when all they did was stop playing.

      Then they can go back to the other super-happy-fun-time game: Russia can fight the US by proxy through Iran. Iran can fight the US and Israel and the KSA by proxy through Assad and Hezbollah. The US can fight Russia by proxy through Afghanistan and the next ethnic-spring and via(snort) al-Qaida in Syria, while they also fight both their enemy Iran and their own ally the KSA by proxy via Israel. And the Pashtuns will continue to see the hand of Iran behind the Hazaras and will keep killing them, while at the same time they see the hand of the US behind anything the Afghan or Pakistani governments do that they don’t like, so they’ll support attacks against US interests too. So the Sunnis fight the US and the Shia, and the Shia (via Iran) fight the US and the Sunnis, and both the Sunnis and the Shia fight Israel (standing in for the US). It’s almost like the US didn’t notice the Sunni revival and keep thinking that their old Shia enemies have to keep being their enemies, even when they’ve really become something a lot more like natural allies at about the same speed that old Sunni allies have become enemies – and they could sort it out a bit if only everyone would calm the hell down.

      And I’m sure Russia and China are laughing their arses off.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      There was folly in earlier NPT negotiations, that was horribly impolitic to point out, an ambiguity that let this situation develop.

      When pointed out the answer was either that it would never happen, or that it was too hard to get agreement and people prayed it would never happen, or some variation thereof. After 1991 it was sincerely hoped nobody would seriously test it.

      I do not know, honestly, nor do I know if we can know, if more push after 1991 would have been able to solve this. But I know a lot of people who spent 10-12 years in denial. And I also know that Iraq’s actions and giant masrikova contributed to the geopolitics becoming so poisoned.

      Every time someone argues “This is all we can get” or “The better is the enemy of the good enough”, think back upon things like this, and consider if that’s true, or if people are just tired and want to go home.

    • Cthippo (History)


      The counter point to that argument is “Would we be better off if the NPT had not been signed because of disagreement over specific language”?

      Ambiguity is a legitimate negotiating tactic, and in this case I suspect that if the US or USSR had pushed for the kind of specific language we’re talking about now then there might not have been a treaty.

      Case in point from just today (OK, today to me, technically yesterday)…

      The final communique from the G20 summit calls for an “interim” government in Syria. The US interprets that to mean Assad goes, Russia interprets it to mean that he says in power, but in a diminished role. It’s ambigious as hell, arguably moreso than anything in the NPT, but the alternative was no agreement at all. Better or worse? I don’t know.

    • Magpie (History)

      Regarding Iran: if they, back in the early 90’s, judged that there was a non-zero chance that the US might someday invade someone just for the political mileage, could you say they were wrong? Saddam his-own-self had pretty much, in diplomatic speak, got a sorta-kinda go ahead nod for Kuwait, and the US had very strong form for backing him in crazy stuff (the US was careful to assure him that after UN outrage blew over they’d be best buds again, after their “both sides should stop using chemical weapons” statements). Plus, you know, that whole Iran-Iraq war thing.

      And then, as a suspicious observer might see it, the US turned on someone pretty much just so they could have a war. Whatever the real motives, you’ve got to agree that the US *could* have first encouraged the Kuwait invasion, then used it to justify smacking a tinpot army into the dirt. Right? Seriously – from a suspicious point of view, with your power, your country, and your life at stake – would you seriously expect long time US proxy Saddam to invade Kuwait without US sanction? Can you really rule out a casus belli -> STOMP cycle here?

      Then Afghanistan got turned into a rather large military staging point (because, you may remember, they actually wanted proof that Bin Laden had done anything before handing him over, which the US refused to provide. Pfff, who needs proof from the GW Bush regime?! They have *intelligence*. Trust us). Then came the Axis of Evil (Iraq, Iran, NK). Then Iraq got stomped right into the dirt on a… let’s say dubious pretext. And no-one was looking at NK seriously, because they had credible threats pointed at western interests.

      Whoever will the US go after next? Who’s next on the casus belli list? If everything in Iraq goes swimmingly, if it’s over by Christmas and the tanks and troops and ammo is, hey, right there! And oh, look, we’ve got all that stuff right over in Afghanistan too! What a coincidence! What happens next?

      What is an Iran to do in these circumstances?

      I think the Iranian leadership has been playing to stay alive. I can’t say I’ve got any evidence that they intentionally supported an effort to bleed the US in Iraq, keep them there as long as they could, and sap this will to invade folk – but they would have been idiots NOT to. And I think it’s pretty clear that they worked pretty damn hard it get what NK has had: a credible threat against western interests. They’ve got missiles. They’ve got nukes in sprint-range.

      Even if the US hadn’t been planning all along to take out Iran, can you honestly say that the Iranians are wrong to suspect it, given all that’s happened?

      And from the Iranian point of view, shouldn’t they be proud (in a grisly way) for having survived? From their point of view ***have they ever had any other choice?***

      And isn’t the best thing to do now is tell them: ok, you won. You’re alive. We’ll stop now. Whether that’s true or not, doesn’t matter. This relationship finally, FINALLY, has a chance at getting back to something like adults would expect, now that Iran can actually feel reasonably secure. Even if it was all paranoia, fine, whatever – but NOW they have the ability to be a bit more trusting. The US got bled. Iran is better armed. Offers of rapprochement are actually credible.

      …and seriously, don’t make another axis of evil speech. It’s pretty stupid to tell someone you’re coming after them a decade or two before you’re ready.

    • Magpie (History)

      Sorry to go on: just a reminder about the (often forgotten) start of the war in Afghanistan. I’ll paste bits from Wikipedia – references are over there. I don’t hold a candle for the Taliban (either of them), but seriously, look at this as an Iranian wondering if the US is going to do this to you someday soon, wondering if the US is keen to invade for the sake of it.

      If you were an Iranian leadership, what would you think?

      The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef said on 13 September that the Taliban would consider extraditing bin Laden if there was solid evidence linking him to the attacks.[83] Though in 2004, Osama bin Laden eventually took responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, he denied having any involvement in a statement issued on September 17 and by interview on September 29

      … a grand council of over 1,000 Muslim clerics from across Afghanstan, which had convened at the request of the Taliban leadership to decide the fate of bin Laden, issued a fatwa, expressing sadness for the deaths in the 9/11 attacks, urging bin Laden to leave their country, and calling on the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to conduct an independent investigation of “recent events to clarify the reality and prevent harassment of innocent people.”[90]

      White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer rejected the response, saying the time for talk had ended and it was time for action.

      Zaeef reiterated the demand for evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks.[92] “If the Americans provide evidence, we will cooperate with them, but they do not provide evidence,” he said.[92] “In America, if I think you are a terrorist, is it properly justified that you should be punished without evidence?” he asked.[92] “This is an international principle. If you use the principle, why do you not apply it to Afghanistan?”[92]

      On 23 September, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told NBC’s Meet the Press that the U.S. government would, “in the near future” release “a document that will describe quite clearly the evidence . . . linking [bin Laden] to this attack.”[93] The evidence was not made public but instead shown to Pakistan’s government whose leaders stated on 4 October that the materials they had seen “provide[d] sufficient basis for indictment in a court of law.”

      On 1 October, Mullah Omar agreed to a proposal by Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the head of Pakistan’s most important Islamic party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, to have bin Laden taken to Pakistan where he would be held under house arrest in Peshawar and tried by an international tribunal.[98] But Pakistan’s president Pervez Musharraf blocked the plan because he could not guarantee bin Laden’s safety

      On 2 October, Zaeef appealed the United States to negotiate…

      On 5 October, the Taliban offered to try bin Laden in an Afghan court, so long as the U.S. provided what it called “solid evidence” of his guilt.[101] The U.S. government dismissed the request for proof as “request for delay or prevarication”…

      A week into the bombing campaign, on 14 October, Abdul Kabir, the Taliban’s third ranking leader, offered to hand over bin Laden if the U.S. government provided evidence of his guilt and halted the bombing campaign. President Bush rejected the offer as non-negotiable.

      On 16 October, Muttawakil, the Taliban foreign minister, dropped the condition to see evidence and offered to send bin Laden to a third country in return for a halt to the bombing.[105] US officials also rejected this offer.

      In 2007, bin Laden indicated that the Taliban had no knowledge of his plans for the 9/11 attacks.

  2. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    You might want to start sizing up the next batch of presidential candidates if you continue to buy into idea that the nation is led from the office of the president. You might do better finding a next generation Lugar and Nunn to operate from the US Congress. While the current occupant of the office of the president talks a good game, the strong parallels with his GW Bush are going to haunt him for the rest of his administration. This administration has probably lost any ability to come up with or push a real public agenda let alone articulate and bring into being a new military stance and policy needed to enact a new arms control regime. It’s been well over 20 years since this nation was able to have a mature discussion about the balance of forces in the world. You’d be laughed off the stage if you even proposed there should be a balance of forces. We have a lot to re-learn.

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