The third and final presidential debate – covering foreign policy—falls on the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s address to the nation announcing the presence of bases in Cuba for Soviet offensive nuclear weapons.
Historic coincidence or irony?
The 13 days in October 1962 we call the Cuban Missile Crisis is considered one of modern history’s most dangerous episodes, the time we were closer to nuclear war than we have ever been.
With Iran’s nuclear ambitions certain to be front and center in Monday’s debate and high on the list of foreign policy issues the next president will face, Obama and Romney should be asked to discuss what lessons they glean from the missile crisis and how they would apply them to the Iranian situation.
The responses of Romney and his running mate Congressman Paul Ryan in previous debates to foreign policy questions indicate they are either ill-informed about the missile crisis or have learned the wrong lessons.
It took many decades after October 1962 before government documents were declassified, Kennedy’s own secret White House recordings were released, and his brother Robert’s private notes were made public, all making crystal clear that back-channel diplomacy and compromise led to peaceful resolution of the Crisis.
Much of the long-held conventional wisdom about the missile crisis—including the belief that Kennedy’s vow to bomb Cuban missile sites forced the Soviets to back down – have been thoroughly debunked.
Under the compromise that ended the crisis, President Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba and to remove nuclear weapons from Turkey if the Soviets would remove nuclear weapons from Cuba.
Kennedy resisted pressure from his hawkish cabinet and national security advisors that he cede nothing to Moscow and consider a pre-emptive strike, which very likely would have triggered a nuclear war.
Yet, hard-liners, foremost among them GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his neo-con foreign policy advisors, cling to the belief that taking a tough inflexible stand or military intervention are the only ways to resolve Cuban Missile Crisis-like confrontations.
President George W. Bush, advised by many of the same neo-con foreign policy experts, cited the missile crisis as a historic lesson in fortitude to justify a preemptive invasion of Iraq.
The myth of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that being tough is the only way to resolve crises, colors our current debate about Iran’s apparent drive to acquire nuclear weapons. In September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on President Obama to place a “clear red line” before Iran just as “President Kennedy set a red line during the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Harvard professor Graham Allison, author of the groundbreaking study of governmental decision-making “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis,” describes Iran as a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion.
He says that the main lesson of the missile crisis is that we have to avert crises that lead to confrontations in which an adversary has to choose between humiliating retreat and war.
If we follow the lead of under-no-circumstances-allow-the-Iranians-to-cross-my-red-line Netanyahu, as Mitt Romney would as president, the Iranians would have no way to save face leaving the president, whoever he might be, with the option of either attacking Iran to prevent it acquiring nuclear weapons or acquiescing in Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The consequences of either are pretty ugly; a likely war in the Middle East and all of its unintended consequences, or a nuclear Iran, which will likely trigger other states in the region like Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons.
Clearly, a President Obama or President Romney would better serve the global community by searching for a third option.
A good first step would be to understand that countries feeling threatened act to defend themselves.
Just as Castro rightfully feared a U.S. invasion (ergo Bay of Pigs) and encouraged the Soviets to install nuclear weapons, it could be argued that the Iranians desire to acquire nuclear weapons—or at least the capability to build them quickly – stems in part from their fear of the U.S.; a not irrational fear given our history of meddling in the country’s internal affairs, including support for the 1953 military coup that overthrew a parliamentary regime and installed the Shah.
Just as the Soviet Union was a closed society making it almost impossible for us to know with certainty what motivated their actions and how far they might go, so too is Iran.
A resolution of the current stalemate with Iran would have to involve negotiations at the highest levels and a willingness on the part of the U.S. and Israel to accept a less than perfect solution.
With the Iranian economy in a freefall thanks in large part to sanctions pushed by Obama, next year might be the time to secure a compromise that allows the Iranians to save face. That compromise would probably allow the Iranians to continue to enrich uranium to the levels needed for civilian purposes, such as energy production.
If Romney is elected would he have the guts to stand up to Netanyahu who would oppose any compromise with Iran? Even more critical would Romney have the guts to stand up Netanyahu’s obsessive desire to bomb Iran even against the U.S. interests?
The Cuban Missile Crisis is widely thought to be Kennedy’s finest hour. Will some future event diffusing America’s and Israel’s confrontation with Iran be hailed as Obama’s or (less likely) Romney’s finest hour?
Let’s hope so.