In a smart piece for the Washington Post, Michael Dobbs notes the similarities between President Obama’s predicament in Syria and President Kennedy’s dilemma during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962.
While there are many differences, one basic dynamic is the same: how does the president of the United States resist pressures for a war of choice (not necessity) created by the articulation of red lines.
Dobbs, author of “One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War,” writes;
“Whether he is aware of the precedent or not, Obama has taken a leaf out of JFK’s playbook by postponing immediate military action. In 1962, nearly all of the president’s top advisers were calling for airstrikes against Soviet missile sites on Cuba. Kennedy was leaning in that direction himself but was restrained by fear of tit-for-tat escalations that could result in all-out nuclear war.”
Buying time enabled JFK to find peace. He threatened to attack Cuba while providing the Soviet Union a face-saving way to back down. Fidel Castro didn’t like it but the Russians withdrew their missiles. The United States and the world were spared a war that might have gone nuclear.
Dobbs observes the same process unfolding in Syria. Obama is threatening an attack while Russia is offering Syria a face-saving way to back down.
The differences are hugely important. Unlike Cuba in 1962, Syria is a war zone. Unlike Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, Obama, Putin, and even Assad may not be able to control events on the ground.
Unlike in Cuba in 1962, the client state, not the superpower patron, controls the weapons of mass destruction. Khrushchev could withdraw the missiles and ignore Fidel Castro’s fulminations. Putin cannot dismantle the chemical weapons arsenal and ignore Assad.
In Cuba, the U.S. could verify the withdrawal of the missiles from a distance by satellite photography. In Syria, the dismantling of the chemical weapons arsenal can only be verified in person.
Another difference that will actually help Obama: unlike in 1962, the military leadership of the United States has signaled that it does not want to go to war.
And one similarity that will help Obama: as in 1962, there is little appetite in the American public for elective war.
Bashar Assad won’t like it but if he is compelled to turn his chemical weapons over international inspectors it will be a triumph for Obama on the order of JFK’s statesmanship in October 1962.