Lessons from the lost opportunity of the Castro revolution
Two decades ago, Thomas Friedman suggested that someone should write a book called The Dictator Diet. Surely there must be some secret to the longevity of strongmen like Muammar Gaddafi, Yasser Arafat, and Fidel Castro. Like horror-movie mutations of the Eveready bunny, they just kept going and going and going.
Well, the last of them is gone at last. Adios, Mr. Castro. We wish we never knew ye.
But imagine if it had been different. What if Fidel had been a friend instead of a nuisance, if Cuba had been an ally instead of a thorn in America's side?
It's not such a wild notion. In 1962, former President Harry Truman told interviewer Merle Miller how he would have dealt with Castro's revolution had he still been in office:
I'd have picked up the phone and called [Castro] direct in Havana… and I'd have said, 'Fidel, this is Harry Truman in Washington, and I'd like to have you come up here and have a little talk.'
He'd have come, of course, and he'd have come to the White House, and I'd have said, 'Fidel, it looks to me like you've had a pretty good revolution down there, and it's been a long time coming. Now you're going to need help... you just tell me what you need, and I'll see to it that you get it.'
Well, he'd have thanked me, and we'd have talked awhile, and then as he got up to go, I'd have said to him, 'Now, Fidel, I've told you what we'll do for you. There's one thing you can do for me. Would you get a shave and a haircut and take a bath?'
Harry knew that the best way to deal with an enemy is to turn him into a friend. But he also knew that you can't buy comrades-in-arms; you have to earn them. And that happens only if:
1) You're willing to help them get what they want most
2) You make it clear what you expect in return
3) You convince them that they need you more than you need them
The ability to do this in a way that allows the other side to save face or, even better, allows them to think they've gotten the better deal, is called diplomacy. Sadly, it has become a dying art. Instead, what now passes for diplomacy appears as one of two caricatures.
Domestically, both Democrats and Republicans have grown so militantly entrenched in their ideological positions that compromise has become a four-letter word. Party leaders see only two possible courses of action: beat the opposition into submission or block their initiatives at every opportunity. Despite his vicious and crass campaign rhetoric, Donald Trump's apparent willingness to build a team of rivals might – we hope – signal a return to saner times.
Internationally, the approach couldn't be more different. American policy-makers have resurrected the long-discredited strategy of appeasement, which is no more effective dealing with radical ideologues or power-hungry autocrats than it is with schoolyard bullies. The current administration freed Iran and Cuba from economic sanctions without getting anything substantive in return; it offered Vladimir Putin an "off ramp" out of the Crimea that he didn't want; and it has driven our allies around the world to search for more reliable and trustworthy partners.
Harry Truman would not be impressed.
Whether on the world stage, in the workplace, or in our communities, you won't win compatriots through either intimidation or flattery. You command loyalty only when you know what you stand for, articulate clearly what you expect, and are willing to meet others half way.
King Solomon teaches, A healing tongue is a tree of life, but wavering speech wounds the spirit.
In more contemporary terms, one who carries a big stick and speaks softly will never need to raise his voice or brandish his stick. If we want to rein in modern day tyrants and stop new ones from rising up, we have to exchange the failed tactics of blunt-force aggression and utopian appeasement for the common sense solution of principled diplomacy.
If we start with our friends, our families, and our coworkers, maybe we'll be able to produce a new generation of leaders who have the vision and the temperament to lead us where we need to go.