The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

13 Days in October

In a must-read historical flashback, Warren Kozak recounts the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13 day period in October, 1962 that brought us closer to nuclear war than at any other period in history.

Because their intercontinental missiles were unreliable, the Soviet Union crafted a clandestine plan to place more reliable medium range missiles in Cuba. Kozak continues the story:
Under a false manifest, he [soviet primier Nikita Khrushchev ]sent an armada of ships carrying 60 missiles and 40 launchers along with a small army of 40,000 Soviet technicians on a clandestine journey to his new client state, Cuba. The trip took three weeks and the technicians were not allowed topside during the day in case they were seen by U.S. planes. In spite of numerous warning signs, the secret operation went undetected by Washington.

That's because the wily Soviet premier suckered the young American President, John F. Kennedy, by an exchange of messages that year. In an outright lie, Khrushchev promised Kennedy that he would not place any menacing weapons outside of the Soviet Union and Kennedy believed him. At the same time, Khrushchev stepped up the heat in Berlin—the other hot spot in the Cold War—focusing Kennedy's attention away from Cuba.

The ruse worked even though there were hundreds of reports concerning Soviet missiles coming from a variety of sources. But with each clue, the U.S. intelligence community failed the president by talking itself out of the possibility that the Russians would actually do what they were doing. However, there was one man in the federal government who felt uncomfortable with the status quo and believed it was his job to worry about exactly this kind of problem.

John McCone was a conservative Republican industrialist who had made a fortune building ships during World War II. He entered government service late, in the Eisenhower administration, and was clearly an odd duck in the group of Democratic New Frontiersmen. But on Robert Kennedy's insistence, President Kennedy placed him in charge of the CIA after the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961. McCone was smart. He constantly put himself in Khrushchev's head and he realized that summer that if he were the leader of the USSR, Cuba was exactly where he would place his short-range missiles.

McCone pressed Kennedy for U-2 flights over Cuba to see if he was right. Kennedy refused. He worried that the U-2 flights might be seen as a provocation.

McCone would not let up, even after a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in September completely rejected McCone's notion. Giving one reason after another, the NIE confidently predicted the Soviets would not place offensive missiles in Cuba at that time. But the crusty CIA director refused to accept his own agency's report. Finally, prodded by McCone and some Republicans on the Hill, including Sen. Ken Keating of New York, Kennedy acquiesced to one flight on Oct. 14, 1962.

The overflight uncovered Khrushchev’s clandestine scheme and led to a tense blockade of Cuba and the ultimate removal of the weapons. Kennedy learned to be tough, but he was also lucky. He was dealing with Khrushchev, a rational actor who wanted to avoid a shooting war at all cost.

Today, Iran and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuelan government have become good and close friends. Our current President, in the naïve hope that mea culpas and soft words will convince thugs to change their approach, has worked hard not to antagonize both dictatorial regimes. It’s quite likely that both regimes view President Obama’s approach not as enlightened, but as weak.

Is it possible that Iran might consider the clandestine placement of medium range missiles in Venezuela, well within the range of the continental United States?

Since Barack Obama is such a smart guy, he might take a small amount of time out of his busy schedule and read the unvarnished history of those 13 days during the summer of 1962. The parallels are eerie.

But there is one difference. Rather than dealing with rational actors, this time President Obama might be forced to deal with Hugo Chavez and the mad Mullahs of Iran. I wonder whether he’ll be as tough as JFK?

Barack Obama should also heed the oft-used aphorism: “Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”