Op-ed: Shultz's engagement with Soviets offers lessons today for Iran, says McFaul

When George Shultz became Secretary of State in 1982, writes Michael McFaul in DemocracyArsenal.org, he began to challenge the Reagan administration's policy of disengagement, arguing that the United States needed to engage both the Soviet leaders but also Soviet society. Shultz's approach toward engaging the Soviets offers profound lessons for today's Iran debate: not just engagement, but also an expanded agenda that includes human rights and democracy.

In their column on National Review on June 24, 2008 called “10 Concerns about Barack Obama,” William Bennett and Seth Leibsohn, begin their list of attacks on Senator Obama by writing that “Barack Obama’s foreign policy is dangerous, naïve, and betrays a profound misreading of history.” In arguing against any engagement with Iran, William Bennett and Seth Leibsohn point out that “Ronald Reagan met with no Soviet leader during the entirely of his first term in office.”

This statement is factually correct. And there was most certainly a big debate within Reagan Administration about whether to talk with the leaders of the Evil Empire. However, Bennett and Leibsohn imply in their piece that this debate was only resolved after the Soviet Union met some preconditions to talks and changed internally, that is after, as they write, that Reagan “was assured Gorbachev was a different kind of leader – after Perestroika, not before.”

In fact, the debate about engaging the evil empire was resolved three years before Reagan met with Gorbachev. The debate and the resolution in favor of talking to the leaders of the evil empires is meticulously chronicled in George’s Shultz’s memoir, Turmoil and Triumph: Diplomacy , Power, and the Victory of the American Ideal (1993). Just the title of Chapter 25, "Realistic Reengagement with the Soviets," underscores how misleading the Bennett and Leibsohn rendition of history is.

When they first came to Washington, many foreign policy advisors within Reagan administration advocated the Bennett and Leibsohn position and did not want to have any contact with the Soviets, even though every American president since the recognition to the USSR in 1933 had met with their Soviet counterparts. When George Shultz became Secretary of State in 1982, he began to challenge this policy of disengagement, arguing that the United States needed to engage both the Soviet leaders but also Soviet society. As he writes in his memoirs about the start of the New Year in 1983, “I wanted to develop a strategy for a new start with the Soviet Union. I felt we had to try to turn the relationship around: away from confrontation and towards real problem solving.” (p. 159) Shultz is writing about his thinking two years before Gorbachev comes to power.

Shultz’s idea for a turn towards engagement met resistance in the Reagan administration. Again, from his memoirs: “I knew the president’s White House staff would oppose such engagement. There was lots of powerful opposition around town to any efforts to bridge the chasm separating Moscow and Washington.” After listing the opponents to direct negotiations, which included Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and CIA head Bill Casey, Shultz affirmed that “I was determined not to hang back from engaging the Soviets because of fears that the ‘Soviet wins negotiations’.” (p. 159). Sound familiar? Instead the word, Iranians, for Soviets and you capture the essence of the debate today.

Shultz, as we all know, won this debate, convincing Reagan about the need to start talking directly to the Soviets (again well before Gorbachev came on to the scene). A subtitle of Chapter 12 of Shultz’s memoir is A President Ready to Engage. (p. 163). In early February 1983, Shultz even floats the idea of meeting directly with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin for a private chat, to which Reagan responds, “Great”, and then adds “I don’t intend to engage in a detailed exchange with Dobrynin , but I do tell him that if Andropov is wiling to do business, so am I” (p. 164). (Remember Andropov died in 1983 and his successor, Chernenko, also did not serve long as the Soviet leader before dying in 1985. from 1983-1985, there was a real crisis of leadership inside the Soviet Union, a factor that contributed to the lack of direct talks at the highest levels). Speed forwarding again to today’s Iran debate, which presidential candidate sounds more like Reagan?

Shultz’s approach toward engaging the Soviets offers another profound lesson for today’s Iran debate. Shultz never let the negotiations focus just on arms control. That played o the Soviet’s strengths. Rather, he insisted on an expanded agenda that always included human rights and democracy. Again, from his memoirs, "We were determined not to allow the Soviets to focus our negotiations simply on matters of arms control. So we continuously adhered to a broad agenda: human rights, regional issues, arms control, and bilateral issues." (p.267). This same approach is needed for dealing with the Iranian regime today.

Finally, Shultz never saw negotiations or expanding contacts with Soviets and Americans as a concession to Moscow or a signal of legitimacy for the communist dictatorship. In the debate about opening consulates in both countries – a move that some hardliners at the time saw as a sign of weakness – Shultz firmly supported the idea as a change in the American national interest. As he quotes from a memorandum that he wrote in 1982, "I believe the next step on our part should be to propose the negotiation of a new U.S.-Soviet cultural agreement and the opening of U.S. and Soviet consulates in Kiev and New York...Both of these proposals will sound good to the Soviets, but are unambiguously in our interest when examined from a hard headed American viewpoint."(p. 275). Exactly the same could be said about Iran today.

Historical analogies can only go far. Many dimensions of U.S.-Iranians relations differ radically from Cold War relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But when observers do roll them out, getting the facts right should be precondition to the substantive date about their relevance.