When John F. Kennedy dispatched Dean Acheson to Paris to make the case (complete with aerial reconnaissance photographs) for the U.S. blockade of Cuba in the 1962 missile crisis, Charles de Gaulle grandly waved aside the evidence. The word of Kennedy's emissary was good enough. "If there is a war," de Gaulle said simply, "I will be with you."
Those were the days, you might say. Would that the French, who actually complicated the U.S. air raid on Libya by denying overflight rights, were as trusting and as understanding of the United States today. The same may be said for our other European allies, with the notable exception of Britain's Margaret Thatcher. So why aren't they, the more so when they would seem to have more to lose than we do at the hands of Muammar Qaddafi? What's the difference now?
At first blush, the two situations are so different in kind that comparisons seem idle. Terrorism's global menace is in no way as clear-cut as the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Caribbean is our neighborhood. The evidence in 1962 was unambiguous. Kennedy was prepared to make it public.
Reagan's problem today with the alliance is a lot stickier. If Americans are often (but by no means always) Qaddafi's target, Europe is more often than not the battleground -- not the Caribbean and not the United States. It is not, accordingly, so easy to dismiss fundamental European disagreements with the administration's tactics and strategy, for Libya and for the rest of the Mideast.
This means that unless the administration is willing to adjust to European perspectives, in the interest of greater cooperation on intermediate measures (economic sanctions, political isolation, or even some form of naval quarantine), it is left with the option of doing what it did by military means, or doing nothing.
But when all that is said, there remain striking differences between the handling of the Cuban missile crisis and the current Qaddafi crisis that are worth examining -- differences in style and method that point to basic flaws in the Reagan administration's mastery of crisis management. In "A Thousand Days," Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. lays it on a little thick, hailing Kennedy's "combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve and wisdom, brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated. . . ." But the word "restraint" alone makes the point -- rhetorical restraint and restraint in the sense of the discipline Kennedy imposed personally upon able and faithful subordinates. For more than a dozen days of intense internal debate, there were, if you can believe it, no significant leaks. Contrary courses of action were not debated in public by anonymous advocates.
True, Kennedy had a problem with a conceivable solution. He had a plain purpose: one way or another the missiles had to go. That is not the case with anything as multifaceted as international terrorism. Reagan has no decisive answer.
Qaddafi is also a much looser cannon than Nikita Khrushchev, although at times in the thick of the missile crisis Kennedy was by no means sure that Khrushchev was still in charge.
But that struck Kennedy as all the more reason not to indulge his bitter sense of betrayal by the Soviets. He did not hurl invective for kicks, however much he may have thought that Khrushad dog." Rather, he recognized a sensible need to give his adversary a reasonably dignified line of retreat.
For its part, the Reagan administration seems to think that vilifying Qaddafi will perhaps make him appear even more villainous to our allies or perhaps play into the hands of more moderate opposition elements in the Libyan military. The use of force is defended on the same grounds. Most of the experts with whom I've talked think just the opposite: that inflammatory rhetoric or military reprisal will only rally support for Qaddafi and delay the day when his bloody adventures may bring him down.
There's one more important difference: Kennedy took public reaction in the United States and Europe carefully into account, but he made his own tough decision before making it public and trying to explain it. The Reagan administration does its decision-making semi-publicly. Driven by its ideological frenzies, it seems not to care how the perception of dithering and blathering comes across at home or abroad.
It is impossible to say whether Qaddafi will be deterred from terrorism by the air strike, as the president insists he will, or whether it will inflame the atmosphere and generate wider terrorism. What is clear, however, is that the effect of the air strike will be largely psychological, rather than materially damaging to Qaddafi's terrorist capabilities. And the psychological impact will not be nearly as effective as it might have been had the administration not conveyed the perception of its own irresolution and alliance disarray.