Hey, pundits: Trade hypotheticals for history

Posing questions to the candidates without concrete context takes us in circles.

I'm not joining the debate about whether the next president should hold unconditional talks with leaders of Iran, North Korea, or Cuba. Too many commentators are already chasing that one around the barn. Listening to the various hypothetical scenarios makes me think the law of diminishing returns can be applied to punditry as well as economics.

Here's a more productive idea: Trade hypotheticals for history. Let's question the presidential candidates about a major event from American foreign-policy history.

This would anchor the discussion with established facts and a common starting point. Then we'd work forward. By focusing on the consequences of something that's already happened, we stand to gain some insights that are useful to key policy questions America faces today.

My starting point for a foreign-policy debate is 1972, when President Nixon visited Mao Zedong and began the process of normalizing relations with Communist China. The key question is: Have developments during the past 35 years shown Nixon's decision to be good or bad for the US?

For everyone who answers "good," I have an immediate follow-up: If the breakthrough was a positive move, should it have happened sooner? Instead of adopting a policy of total noncontact, what other options were available after Mao's forces defeated Chiang Kai-shek in 1949?

In fact, no alternatives were on the diplomatic table throughout the 1950s and '60s. Chiang had powerful friends in the American government and media. One of his most influential supporters was Time magazine cofounder Henry Luce. The so-called China Lobby relentlessly promoted the idea that Mao's regime would eventually collapse and Chiang would restore a pro-American government on the mainland.

Anyone who questioned the scenario was ridiculed as foolishly naive or an outright communist sympathizer. The notion of even debating the issue was effectively suppressed.

Several US foreign service officers with long experience in China saw their careers come to an abrupt end because they were suspected of covertly undermining the nationalist cause.

A thorough explanation of how the China Lobby affected US political and military moves in the Far East can be found in "The Best and the Brightest." David Halberstam covered a lot of ground that is useful to revisit. One idea that particularly resonates with me is the opening line of Chapter 8: "The essence of good foreign policy is constant re-examination."

So true, and so difficult to accomplish. When a president chooses a course of action that's risky or controversial, history has shown that close advisers have a better chance of keeping their jobs if they support the boss.

My suggestion for the next president is to carefully reexamine the road this country has traveled during the past five decades.

It's been a long, complicated march for all of us. Debating individual policy issues without a greater context grounded in history only takes us in circles.

We should be looking for ways to repeat the steps that led us forward, and avoid the ones that took us nowhere.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes from Portland, Ore.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.