Monday, September 2, 2013

1962 all over again...with Russia holding all of the cards

After the colossal failure at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, President Kennedy switched tactics with regard to Cuba in the beginning of 1962, by increasing the scope of the economic embargo against the island nation put in place after Castro took control of U.S interests in Cuba in 1960. At the same time, the CIA and other groups continued to look for ways to bring Castro down. All of this was a product of fear,by and large, fear of the continued spread of communism and Soviet influence.

At the time, the Soviet Union was being led by Nikita Khrushchev, who already viewed Kennedy as something of a weakling. In response to the embargo and other actions against Castro, Khrushchev substantially upped the stakes later in 1962 by placing medium-range nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba (a move that Castro was none too happy with, to be fair). This was done in secret, but eventually intelligence operatives and spy plane photographs--taken on October 14th of that year--proved to U.S. military commanders that there were indeed Soviet missiles in Cuba. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara learned of the missiles the next day. On October 16th, President Kennedy was notified of their existence, too.

The period from October 15th--when definitive proof of the missiles was first revealed to McNamara--until October 27th is known now as the Cuban Missile Crisis. For thirteen days, the world teetered in the brink of nuclear war, as Kennedy and Khrushchev engaged in what amounted to a high stakes game of poker. In the end, Kennedy triumphed. He did so by making it clear that he would accept no agreement on the matter that was anything less than outright Soviet capitulation to U.S. demands, with regard to removing the missiles from Cuba.

Many in Kennedy's administration lobbied for outright invasion of Cuba. Others pushed for a tit-for-tat agreement to end the crisis. But Kennedy did neither, yet still acted decisively throughout the period. It was truly a high point for his administration and proof of his serious mind and critical thinking skills, as he effectively out-dueled his Soviet counterpart, a man who had made it clear he did not believe Kennedy was up to the task in the least.

The long term consequences can be--and have been--debated ad nauseam, but it is crystal clear that the crisis cost Khrushchev dearly. He looked weak throughout the world and back home in the Soviet Union in particular. Less than two years later, Leonid Brezhnev and others successfully ousted Khrushchev from office (arresting him was debated as a possible option), forcing him into "voluntary" retirement (though luckily for Khrushchev, not in Siberia). The Party virtually erased his name from history, however, in a way that would have made Orwell proud.

Now, we have another possible confrontation brewing between west and east, though not over nukes and not over Cuba. Instead, it is over Syrian leadership and the decision by the same to resort to chemical weapons in the course of an ongoing civil war. The U.S.--in the person of President Obama--is weighing its options in this regard, apparently leaning towards some sort of limited military strike against Assad's forces (though how this will prevent future use of chemical weapons is yet to be explained).

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin--who counts Assad and Syria as an ally--is questioning the tale being told, arguing that it makes no sense for Assad to use chemical weapons. Putin's less-than-subtle message to Obama and the west is that it should simply stand down. And this is because Putin has done the calculations here: a limited strike by the U.S. will not bring down Assad; it can damage him, no doubt, but Russia could use such a strike as cover to increase military assistance to Assad after the fact. He is quite certain, I believe, that Obama is not prepared to challenge him in that regard, as the U.S. President--in acting unilaterally--will have lost the upper hand (if he every even had it) in the eyes of the international community.

The refusal of the British Parliament to back their Prime Minister's call for military action is proof positive of this, in Putin's eyes. As he said with regard to the vote in the UK:
I will be honest: This was completely unexpected for me. This shows that in Great Britain, even if it is the U.S.A.'s main geopolitical ally in the world ... there are people who are guided by national interests and common sense, and value their sovereignty.
The only way Putin could lose in Syria is if the United States opted for a sustained assault against Assad and his forces to the point that Assad lost his hold on power completely, lost the civil war. Lack of action by the U.S. makes Putin and Russia look stronger. A limited strike by the U.S. gives Putin even more options, as well allowing him to claim moral superiority over the U.S. in international affairs.

To be fair, the Syrian situation is not one that places the world on the brink of nuclear war; it is not about stemming the rise of communism or the like. So comparing it to the Cuban Missile Crisis is perhaps a little much. Still, the latter proved the strength of a U.S. President when dealing with the second most powerful military in the world at the time. The former is proving the weakness of a U.S. President.

Cheers, all.

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