“I think it's important to place a red line before Iran. And I think that actually reduces the chance of military conflict because if they know there's a point, a stage in the enrichment or other nuclear activities that they cannot cross because they'll face consequences, I think they'll actually not cross it. And that's been proved time and again. President Kennedy put a red line before the Soviets in the Cuban missile crisis. He was criticized for it, but it actually pushed back the world from conflict and maybe purchased decades of peace.”
— Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on CNN’S “State of the Union,” Sept. 16, 2012
Earlier in the week we looked at the Israeli Prime Minister’s comments on how close Iran was to acquiring the material for a nuclear weapon. Now, let’s examine the historical facts concerning his example of a “red line” — President John F. Kennedy’s actions during the Cuban missile crisis, which occurred almost exactly 50 years ago.
To help us sort out this question, we are pleased to turn to a real expert on the Cuban missile crisis — and the originator of The Fact Checker column during the 2008 election. Our former colleague Michael Dobbs, in fact, is currently writing a blog at Foreign Policy regarding the anniversary of the crisis and live-tweeting the events as they unfolded 50 years ago. He is the author of a best-selling book about the showdown over Cuba, “One Minute to Midnight,” and of the forthcoming “Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War.”
The crisis over Soviet missiles that were discovered in Cuba is, of course, one of the major confrontations of the Cold War, likely the closest the two sides came to nuclear conflict. But as Dobbs demonstrated in his book, many of the known facts concerning the crisis turned out to be wrong — or are simply misunderstood.
Dobbs notes that “everybody quotes JFK when it is in their interest. President George W. Bush did it before the Iraq war, citing JFK's handling of the missile crisis as justification for the new doctrine of pre-emption.” Dobbs cites Bush’s 2002 speech in Cincinnati as an example:
“Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. As President Kennedy said in October of 1962, 'Neither the United States of America, nor the world community of nations can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small. We no longer live in a world,' he said, 'where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nations security to constitute maximum peril.’”
“Historical parallels are never exact and this one isn't either, in either the Iraq or the Iran case.
“While it is true that JFK demanded the removal of the missiles — which you could interpret as a red line — he was deliberately flexible about the way he handled it. The blockade, or quarantine, was essentially a diplomatic maneuver to gain time for negotiations. Most of the missiles had already arrived.
“JFK's first instinct was to bomb the missile sites on Cuba, but he thought better of it, and chose a more subtle approach. It is a good thing he did, as the Soviets had tactical nuclear weapons on Cuba. A U.S. air strike would have been followed almost inevitably by a U.S. invasion of the island, which could easily have provoked use of Soviet tactical nukes against the invading force, escalating rapidly to nuclear war.
“The parallels with the current situation are pretty interesting. Like Obama, JFK was facing an election in November 1962 (a mid-term) and was under attack from the Republicans for not doing enough on Cuba. There were rumors of missiles and other military equipment crossing the Atlantic, but officials lacked the definitive proof; JFK locked himself into doing something about deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba with a statement on September 4, in which he said that ‘the gravest issues would arise’ if the Soviets were deploying nukes to Cuba.
“Kennedy later regretted making this statement, as it made it impossible for him to shrug the deployment off. You could argue that Obama has done the same thing by saying, earlier this year, that the U.S. will not tolerate Iran gaining nuclear weapons. In other words, they both committed themselves to preventing nuclearization of a hostile country.
“After drawing this line, however, JFK went out of his way to avoid a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, and was willing to go to considerable lengths to make concessions (including withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey). Obama is following a similar playbook, perhaps a little less flexibly than JFK.”
The Pinocchio Test
Readers should be wary when a politician cites a historical example, or plucks a line out of a speech by a predecessor, in order to make a case for a particular policy. As in this case, it often turns out to be a misleading parallel.
Dobbs, having developed the Pinocchio scale, suggested either 2 or 3 Pinocchios for Netanyahu. We’re going with three, since in our estimation JFK did almost exactly the opposite of what Netanyahu claims.
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