Miscues in foreign relations
The 27th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party took place in Moscow in February 1986. As it was the first such major party meeting since Mikhail Gorbachev had become its general secretary, there was intense international interest in the event, because of expectations it would provide major clues to the Soviet Union’s future direction.
It may be hard to imagine, given the soft news nature of today’s network newscasts, but ABC News decided to originate its signature World News Tonight broadcast from Moscow that week. Peter Jennings arrived with a team from New York, and as senior foreign correspondent, I was there with a group from London to beef up the Moscow Bureau. Wall-to-wall coverage was planned.
One night before the Congress, a small group of us including Jennings, George Will (who much to Peter’s discomfiture was now doing commentaries on the evening news), a senior official from the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and his guest, Vladimir Feltsman, got together for dinner. Feltsman, the young concert pianist, was the son of a ranking communist official and had recently announced he wanted to emigrate from the Soviet Union. His request had been denied and he had become persona non grata to Soviet authorities.
Not long before our dinner, Feltsman had been invited to play at Spaso House, the official Moscow residence of the American ambassador (at the time, Arthur Hartman). Presumably, some KGB plant had cut some of the strings of the embassy piano. But it had been quickly repaired, and the concert went on. So at that moment, Feltsman was a pretty big deal in U.S.-Soviet relations.
I can’t recall the name of the restaurant, but it was not bad and was popular with journalists and artists, so, of course, it would have the attention of the KGB. But that did not stop the “intrepid” Mr. Will.
During dinner, he announced he had been speaking to First Lady Nancy Reagan and she had asked him to invite Feltsman to come to play at the White House. As he recounted this story he gleefully added, “so you could go to Washington — and defect.” Feltsman looked thunderstruck. At that point, Peter and I and the embassy official all jumped in to loudly suggest to Feltsman that this would not be a good idea.
Left unspoken was the reality that even the most naïve journalist would know that the KGB was undoubtedly listening to this conversation and for a prominent Russian to be heard publicly talking about his defection was a pretty sure way to get himself sent to Siberia for a long stay. Mr. Will was either clueless or didn’t care.
As it happens, Feltsman did not try to defect. And Gorbachev emerged as a historic Soviet reformer. A little more than two years later, after an intervention by Secretary of State George Shultz, Feltsman, his wife and son were given exit visas. When they arrived in Vienna in August 1988, American officials met them at the airport with an invitation for Feltsman to play at the White House the next month. That was followed by an electric American debut concert at Carnegie Hall. He has since had a successful career as a noted international concert pianist.
As for George Will, he did not last very long as a World News Tonight commentator. But for about 25 years, he was featured on ABC News’ “This Week,” only recently going over to FOX News. Will has, of course, been highly successful in his self-appointed role as the leading conservative intellectual.
I confess there are very few things upon which I agree with George Will. But quite recently, Will said something with which I entirely concurred.
Speaking of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he called it, “The worst foreign policy blunder in U.S. history.” It was that line that set me musing about him, and inspired this historical reverie. But beyond that, I consider it significant that the darling-of-the-right should be so unequivocal, on such an important subject — especially as Iraq has come crashing back into the headlines.
Much of the latest reporting and commentary dealing with this very serious turn of events in Iraq, has been cast in terms of President Barack Obama’s mistakes and miscalculations.
n Obama did not try hard enough to get Iraq to accept a properly robust American military force to be left behind after the U.S. withdrawal.
n He did not arm the “good guys” among the Syrian rebels, which empowered the truly “bad guys” — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — to be able to take over parts of Syria and Iraq.
n American air strikes against ISIS threats to take the Kurdish capital of Irbil in Northern Iraq are too little, too late.
Obama’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an interview with The Atlantic this past week, said a number of things that suggest she shares some of those critiques of Obama’s foreign policy. We knew the two had differences, but the fact that she went public with them now seems to erase any doubt that she will seek the presidency in 2016.
Yet, if as now widely accepted, invading Iraq was the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history, then blaming Obama for the disasters that continue to reverberate from that invasion and the eight-year war which followed is like blaming the lifeboat crews for the Titanic’s death toll.
Noted career diplomat Aaron David Miller wrote in a thoughtful op-ed this past week that “Obama isn’t going to reverse his fundamentally risk-averse nature in this dysfunctional region. Obama has no interest in resuming his predecessor’s trillion-dollar social science project in Iraq. As extricator-in-chief, he’s determined to get America out of profitless wars, not into new ones.”
Perhaps. But given the increasingly bad news from Iraq and the broad and realistic threat posed by ISIS, greater U.S. involvement in further conflict there seems inevitable.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.