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What Kennedy would have said to George Bush
by Saima Alvi
27 October 2002 06:21 UTC
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Rupert Cornwell: What Kennedy would have said to George Bush

President Bush's confrontation with Saddam Hussein is heaven for
addicts of historical parallelism. For some, Saddam is Hitler,
and Europeans who refuse to confront him are committing a new
Munich. Alternatively, the US risks being dragged into a new
Vietnam. But the comparison even Bush invites is with the Cuban
missile crisis.

Exactly 40 years ago tonight, at 7pm on Monday 22 October 1962,
President Kennedy went on television to reveal the existence of
Soviet missile bases in Cuba, 90 miles from the southernmost
territory of Florida, and announced he was imposing a
"quarantine" or blockade of the island. Nikita Khrushchev
immediately denounced the US action as "piracy". With Soviet
ships sailing towards the blockade, nuclear war seemed possible,
if not probable.

Today, both supporters and opponents of military action against
Saddam use Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis to
bolster their cause. Bush has donned the JFK mantle by quoting
from his 1962 address, and its warning that the world could not
tolerate "deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part
of any nation great or small". No longer, said Bush/ Kennedy,
did only "the actual firing of weapons represent a sufficient
challenge to a nation's security to constitute maximum peril".

But Ted Kennedy, an opponent of a pre-emptive strike, has drawn
the opposite lesson. To support his argument that a strike
against Iraq now would be "unilateralism run amok", he recalled
his brother Robert's comment 40 years ago that an attack on Cuba
would be a "Pearl Harbor in reverse".

In fact, both sides distort history. Ted Kennedy conveniently
forgets that his brother did launch a pre-emptive strike against
Cuba, in May 1961. It was called the Bay of Pigs and was a total
fiasco. But the greater distortion is Bush's.

Cuba then and Iraq now are basically incompatible. Yes, there
are a few similarities. Like JFK, Bush is a newish President
with many doubters. They both had an eye on approaching mid-term
elections. Partly as a result of Kennedy's resolution of the
missile crisis, his Democrats made gains in those elections.
Bush hopes the same will happen in 2002.

But what threat? The Cuban crisis was a genuine time of fear.
The adversary was the rival superpower, and Kennedy told his
countrymen that America would not shrink from the risk of
"world-wide nuclear war" to force the removal of the missiles. I
was a schoolboy then, and remember a master talking about an
event planned the next week  "if there is a next week".

Compare and contrast the situation now. The opponent is Saddam
Hussein, leader of a ramshackle, pariah country 6,000 miles from
the US. The danger he poses is that he might have a nuclear
weapon a year or two hence. Even if he developed one, he could
not hit the US with it. And however erratic Saddam's career, one
constant is his aversion to self-immolation.

Yes, he is an irritant, whose thwarting of the United Nations
and general durability drives the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld crowd
mad. His record is indisputably appalling, and the world, not to
mention his long-suffering country, would be better off without

But as a threat to US national security, Saddam hardly rates; as
a menace to the American way of life, he is not a patch on the
Washington sniper. Back in 1962, Kennedy's stand against the
Soviet Union had broad international support. Bush's
militaristic designs on Iraq, by contrast have little backing
beyond Britain.

Many personal roles too are reversed this time around. In 1962
the generals were urging Kennedy to invade and dare Khrushchev
to respond; this time the Pentagon's uniformed commanders
counsel caution, to the annoyance of their civilian bosses.
Having served in the Second World War, Kennedy understood the
horrors of conflict; the Bush who seems so eager to unleash the
US military against Iraq spent the Vietnam years in the Texas
National Guard.

But for all the differences, Kennedy's handling of the Cuban
crisis offers lessons today. His aides remember his constant
looking ahead, the questions about the impact of a particular
decision, the "what happens if". Kennedy's adviser and
speechwriter Ted Sorensen warned against "actions that history
could neither understand nor forget", and his President took the
advice to heart.

Like Kennedy, Bush faces an eternal dilemma. "If you want peace,
prepare for war", runs the old Roman dictum. Just as in 1962
against the Soviet Union, the threat of force is essential now
to secure the desired peaceful outcome, in this case of
persuading Saddam to disarm.

Kennedy faithfully applied the immortal rule of negotiating laid
down by Ernest Bevin, which applies as much to international
negotiation as to the trade union bargaining at which Attlee's
great foreign secretary also excelled: "The first thing to
decide before you walk into any negotiation is what to do if the
other chap says 'no'."

Obviously Bevin's maxim does not apply with Iraq. The entire
world agrees there is nothing to negotiate with Saddam Hussein.
Rather, has Bush thought ahead to what happens when the other
chap isn't there any more? It is then that the Iraq crisis, in a
very different way, could become as risky as the Cuban missile
crisis 40 years ago. 


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