Everyone knows the story. In the fall of 1962 President John F. Kennedy confronted the Russians over their placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba, ninety miles off the shores of the United States. What unfolded, dubbed the Cuban Missile Crisis, brought the world to the edge of nuclear war, but Kennedy and his advisors, demonstrated steely resolve and a talent for crisis management. A blockade of Cuba was imposed. The Russians backed down. The missiles were withdrawn. It was Kennedy's finest hour.
It was also his fault.
Everyone knows about Kennedy's handling of the crisis. Far fewer people know that he brought it on.
The year prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy failed two critical tests in the eyes of Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian premier. First, Kennedy, newly inaugurated, gave the go ahead for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba; a plot to overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro using CIA supported and trained Cuban exiles. When the invasion force ran into trouble on the beaches, Kennedy blinked. He refused to allow the use of air cover for the invasion force, and he refused to order American naval vessels off the coast of Cuba to support the landing. The invasion was crushed, and the United States suffered a humiliating defeat.
Next, Kennedy rushed into a two-day summit meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria. Many of his advisors counseled against the meeting, suggesting that the agenda was vague and the potential downside to the meeting huge. Kennedy ignored the advice, and for two days he was subjected to verbal abuse and threats by Khrushchev without being able to formulate a coherent response. Kennedy did not walk out. He did not thunder back. He was, to use his own words, 'savaged', and emerged from the meeting greatly diminished in Khrushchev's eyes.
What Kennedy had failed to understand was the psychological nature of great power politics. Khrushchev had taken his measure, and he had found him lacking. Had Kennedy never ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion, it would have been of no consequence. Having ordered it, to lose his nerve in the midst of the fighting was unforgivable. Had Kennedy never gone to Vienna, it would not have mattered. Having gone, to allow himself to be abused and humiliated was near fatal.
Khrushchev was a hard, old school Soviet autocrat. He grew up under Stalin at the time of mass purges, and he was Stalin's personal emissary at the siege of Stalingrad, when Stalin made clear he would sacrifice an entire city and an entire army before he would retreat. Khrushchev understood one thing, strength, and he found it lacking in Kennedy.
It is fifty-two years later. Once again, we find ourselves stumbling toward the brink of war with Russia. Once again we find an American President who cannot or will not stand up to the force of will of a Russian leader.
Vladimir Putin is a former KGB officer. He grew up in the Soviet system and dedicated his life to its preservation. He has repeatedly made clear that he regards the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the single greatest tragedy of the 20th century. Keep in mind that the 20th century saw, in addition to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, two world wars, the Holocaust and a worldwide pandemic that killed millions.
Putin has dedicated himself since the fall of the Soviet Union to rebuilding as much of the power and prestige of the Soviet empire as he can. To that end he has used every form of power at his disposal. He has launched an outright conventional invasion of Georgia. He has subjected other nations, like Estonia, to mass cyber attacks designed to bring commerce and banking to a halt. He has turned off the flow of natural gas to neighboring countries like Ukraine in the dead of winter. And, of course, in Crimea, and now in Eastern Ukraine, he has turned loose the full capabilities of Russian intelligence and special operations personnel.
Putin is an unreconstructed, old school leader in the Soviet style. Like Khrushchev, who famously banged his shoe on the desk in front of him at the United Nations, he does not give one wit about the international community's image of him or entreaties to behave in accordance with '21st century norms'. He knows and respects one thing. Power.
President Obama appears to have no appreciation for any of this. He watches as Ukraine burns and violence escalates, and he continues to talk in terms more appropriate for a graduate school seminar on international relations than the reality of managing a real world international crisis. The Ukrainians ask for weapons and military support. Obama says he will give them helmets and rations. The Russians flex their considerable energy might by jacking up the price of natural gas to Ukraine. Obama responds by announcing once again by he is delaying making a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline and thereby refusing to use the considerable influence he would gain by bringing American natural gas to the world market.
It is not just in regard to the immediate crisis, though, that Obama has failed. Like Kennedy he has brought us to this moment by virtue of missteps along the way. Obama interjected himself into the Syrian crisis by drawing an imaginary 'red line' over the use of chemical weapons. Then he twisted, turned and contorted himself to avoid backing up the threat he had issued. In the end, he did nothing. The Syrians are lying about their stockpiles of chemical weapons. They are refusing to hand over even previously identified quantities of sarin gas. They are dropping barrels full of chlorine on civilian neighborhoods. We are watching.
Had Obama not interjected himself into the issue of chemical weapons in Syria it might have been largely of no consequence. Having issued a threat and then backed down, he, like Kennedy at the Bay of Pigs, could not help but emerge diminished.
John F. Kennedy and son
President John F. Kennedy holding hands with son John F. Kennedy Jr. at the White House. | Photo: JFK Collection, ZUMA Press |
Unfortunately, for Obama, the Syrian chemical weapons debacle is but one of many instances on which he has lost credibility. In Libya, when our ambassador was killed and our mission overrun, he showed himself more interested in politics and spin than in retaliation. In the South China Sea he has watched as the Chinese Navy has effectively seized millions of square miles of ocean and boarded on the high seas the vessels of allied nations. He has done nothing. In negotiations with the Iranians, the President has showed himself so gullible and desperate for an agreement, that he has squandered virtually all of the leverage gained from the imposition of sanctions. The Iranians remain sixty days from having nuclear weapons. We are effectively granting them the right to continue enrichment. The Saudis are talking openly in the Gulf about having to arm themselves in a way, which will allow them to respond to a nuclear Iran. We are nowhere to be seen.
In 1962, when his back was against the wall, and the world was at the brink, John F. Kennedy
found within himself the strength and the force of will to do what was required. Like a fighter knocked down in the early rounds, he got up off the mat, shook off the blows and won.
Kennedy, though, was, for all his idealism, a World War II combat veteran. He had been tested and steeled in combat, and he had within him the capacity to recover and, ultimately, to demonstrate that Khrushchev's estimation of him was in error. Whether this President has within him such capacity remains unknown. If so, he has not yet shown it. His reaction to criticism of his handling of foreign affairs has not been to reexamine his approach but rather to express indignation at being questioned and criticized. We all know how the Cuban Missile Crisis story ended. We do not yet know how this story will end or whether we will like that ending quite so much.