In Syria, lessons of the Cuban missile crisis

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.

 

5 comments

  1. My comment on a NY Times columnist column on this issue:

    ” Obama knows that if he doesn’t punish Bashar al-Assad, America and his presidency will be forever reduced.”

    …says who? Sounds like a Curtis LeMay follower in October of 1962….”Kennedy knows that if he doesn’t punish Castro. America and his presidency will be forever reduced.”

    Thankfully, not what happened. JFK’s presidency will forever be praised for the restraint he showed and the skill with which he did it. People don’t have to “punish” or bomb other people to gain stature in history; they shouldn’t have to.”
    Sept. 8, 2013 at 12:48 p.m. RECOMMEND64

  2. mitchum22 says:

    You forgot one thing: JFK at every turn resisted confrontation and violence (Laos, Berlin, Vietnam, Cuba, Indonesia, the Congo).

    Obama? White House death squads, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Honduras, predator drones, 20,000 airstrikes (and counting), Colombia. And soon, Syria. (You betcha.)

    To even mention these two men in the same comment box is an infamnia.

  3. Bill Pierce says:

    “Bashar Assad won’t like it but if he is compelling 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.”

    I’m sure that’s how the White House will spin it. And some of the beltway stenographers might go along. In reality this is a humiliating defeat for Obama, Kerry and the MIC/foreign policy hawks who were lusting for another illegal military action against another sovereign nation.

    British Parliament and Russia’s president get credit for the “triumph”. Had Parliament acquiesced to Cameron’s nonsense, Obama would have bombed Syria already. The president’s decision to delay the unpopular attack had nothing to do with his ethics, statesmanship, courage or morality. He was isolated by the world and US citizens.

    Let’s hope Americans are finally catching on to the government’s propaganda and transparent lies.

    • I thought Maureen Dowd was way off base and I made the comparison with JFK to make that point; however,that the White House would try and spin it that way, deserves the spew of Bill Pierce and I join him in that disgust.

  4. Hans Trayne says:

    For those who have served the US in the military (like me) the 1st red flag was Obama telling the nation the CIA was assisting in supplying the rebels in Syria. This tells one where the brain center originates.

    What has followed since old soldiers have seen before: stalling.

    It takes time to get munitions, tanks, ships, subs, etc. into place.

    Obama has to play along. The alternative was demonstrated in Dallas 50 years ago.

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