Archive for September 28th, 2008

McCain and the Missile Crisis

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

Last week, we had George Will, the conscience of conservatism, coming out and all but endorsing Obama, noting that his experience gap is not nearly as worrying as McCain’s “dismaying temperament.” (He called McCain the “flustered rookie” — I blogged on it here.)

This morning, we have Nicholas Kristof, one of the most even-handed, respected columnists we have, taking this critique of McCain one step further (“Impulsive, Impetuous, Impatient“), pointing out that if elected, McCain would be “more Bushian in foreign policy than even Mr. Bush is now.” McCain has become steadily more of a cowboy neocon, Kristof writes, “prone to solving problems with stealth bombers rather than United Nations resolutions.”

Suppose John McCain had been in the White House in October 1962, facing one of the great tests of the modern presidency. If so, we might remember that period not as “the Cuban missile crisis” but as “World War III.”

As Mr. McCain demonstrated in Friday evening’s debate, he is a serious foreign policy thinker who has traveled widely, and he certainly showed vision and bipartisanship in helping to repair relations with Vietnam. But it’s equally clear that in recent years Mr. McCain has become impish cubed — impulsive, impetuous and impatient — and those are perilous qualities in a commander in chief.

Kristof then goes on to talk about McCain’s dangerous positions regarding Iran:

If Iran continues to enrich uranium he would feel obliged to launch airstrikes. And while Mr. McCain understands the lack of any effective military solution (we don’t even know exactly what to hit), he can sound cavalier about a new war.

About North Korea:

A McCain administration would thus apparently mean no more diplomatic track with North Korea. The upshot would be North Korea’s restarting its nuclear weapon assembly line. In similar circumstances in 1994, Mr. McCain raised the prospect of military strikes on North Korea and suggested that war might be inevitable (instead, President Clinton stopped plutonium production with a negotiated deal).

And about Russia:

Russia underscores Mr. McCain’s penchant for risk-taking, theatrics and fulmination. Most striking, he wants to kick Russia out of the Group of 8.

Kristof concludes:

In Friday’s debate, Mr. McCain was on his best behavior. But he did reiterate his suspicion of diplomacy with our enemies, and he has often shown that his instinct in a confrontation (whether with a colleague or a country) is the opposite of John Kennedy’s in the Cuban missile crisis; Mr. McCain responds to challenges by seeking to escalate, to fight.

That’s essentially where his column ends. When I read it, I thought immediately of a trip I took a few years back to the JFK Library and Museum in Boston. There was a striking exhibit there at the time, which illustrated just how Kennedy’s cool, measured response to Khrushchev’s escalations quite literally saved the world from nuclear war.

To quickly recap the history: In October, 1962, a U.S. spy plane detected evidence that the Soviets were building missiles in Cuba. Kennedy authorized a naval quarantine around Cuba, to prevent Soviet weapons from reaching the island. Khrushchev deemed the quarantine an “act of war,” and instructed his ships to ignore it. The U.S. went to DEFCON 2, for the only time in our history.

On Oct. 26, with a stalemate at hand, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a long, overwrought, emotional telegram. I went to the State Department online archives, so I could re-read it. (You can find the correspondence here.) The telegram is 2,760 words, thereabouts. Reading it is nearly impossible. It’s at times meandering, at times threatening, at times barely coherent.

Here, though, are the most relevant three paragraphs:

Let us therefore show statesmanlike wisdom. I propose: We, for our part, will declare that our ships, bound for Cuba, will not carry any kind of armaments. You would declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its forces and will not support any sort of forces which might intend to carry out an invasion of Cuba. Then the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba would disappear.

Mr. President, I appeal to you to weigh well what the aggressive, piratical actions, which you have declared the USA intends to carry out in international waters, would lead to. You yourself know that any sensible man simply cannot agree with this, cannot recognize your right to such actions.

If you did this as the first step towards the unleashing of war, well then, it is evident that nothing else is left to us but to accept this challenge of yours. If, however, you have not lost your self-control and sensibly conceive what this might lead to, then, Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose.

Before Kennedy could respond, Khrushchev sent another missive, continuing his rant, and changing the terms he had offered:

We are willing to remove from Cuba the means which you regard as offensive. We are willing to carry this out and to make this pledge in the United Nations. Your representatives will make a declaration to the effect that the United States, for its part, considering the uneasiness and anxiety of the Soviet State, will remove its analogous means from Turkey.

Essentially, Khrushchev, in increasingly emotional, erratic language, was threatening the U.S. with nuclear war if it did not take a series of steps, including removal of its missiles from Turkey, a NATO ally.

Pause for a moment, and imagine how our two presidential candidates might handle this situation today? Would you rather have McCain, with his finger — and his temperament (impulsive, impetuous, impatient) — on the proverbial button? Or Obama? Which, of the two, is the riskier choice?

Here’s what Kennedy did. He ignored the second telegram. He ignored Khrushchev’s sabre-rattling. He ignored the demand that the U.S. remove its missiles in Turkey. He even ignored the fact that the Soviets had shot down a U.S. spy plane over Cuba that same day. He wrote back to Khrushchev as if the terms of the first letter were still on the table:

Dear Mr. Chairman: I have read your letter of October 26th/1/ with great care and welcomed the statement of your desire to seek a prompt solution to the problem. The first thing that needs to be done, however, is for work to cease on offensive missile bases in Cuba and for all weapons systems in Cuba capable of offensive use to be rendered inoperable, under effective United Nations arrangements.

Assuming this is done promptly, I have given my representatives in New York instructions that will permit them to work out this weekend–in cooperation with the Acting Secretary General and your representative–an arrangement for a permanent solution to the Cuban problem along the lines suggested in your letter of October 26th. As I read your letter, the key elements of your proposals–which seem generally acceptable as I understand them–are as follows:

1) You would agree to remove these weapons systems from Cuba under appropriate United Nations observation and supervision; and undertake, with suitable safeguards, to halt the further introduction of such weapons systems into Cuba.

2) We, on our part, would agree–upon the establishment of adequate arrangements through the United Nations to ensure the carrying out and continuation of these commitments–(a) to remove promptly the quarantine measures now in effect and (b) to give assurances against an invasion of Cuba. I am confident that other nations of the Western Hemisphere would be prepared to do likewise.

This letter was released to the press. Then, through back-channels, Kennedy continued negotiating — eventually agreeing, in a secret deal, to remove the U.S. weapons from Turkey. Krushchev responded by publicly announcing that the Soviets would dismantle their missiles inside Cuba. Nuclear war was averted. What’s more, because the Turkey deal was secret, Russia was widely seen to have backed down.

Obama has taken so much heat for his position about negotiating with our enemies. He’s taken criticism for being too calm, cool, and collected. He’s taking heat these days for not responding more forcefully to McCain during the debate — for being firm and resolute, without resorting to soundbite-style attacks or launching a counter-offensive. Many in the Jewish community write Obama off for even suggesting he would be open to using sticks and carrots with Iran, including holding out the prospect of negotiations.

If we don’t learn from history, I fear, we may be doomed not to repeat it.

My Obama Minute: Jane Mitakides

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

I gave a small donation tonight to Jane Mitakides, who is running for Congress in Ohio’s third district, which includes Dayton. Props to Barbara for pointing out this critical race. If we can elect such an impressive Democrat in this swing district — I’m confident Obama will be in the White House.

It’s clear from her Web site that she’s got terrific priorities. I love how she talks about “rewarding work, not just wealth.” It’s a formula that suggests both an abiding respect for labor, and a recognition of perhaps the central priority problem of the past eight years — boiled down into an easy soundbite. It’s also clear that she’s got a sense of humor (she holds “big fat Greek fundraisers”).

Mitakides is running in a very conservative area against an incumbent with a scandal on his hands — so I’m sure every dollar helps!