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How Bush Might Have Profited from Kennedy’s Example

by Alice L. George on Dec 20, 2003

Alice L. George

As we’ve learned in the global age, international crises threaten the United States with unprecedented dangers. Prudent, steady leadership is necessary to manage those threats. Once, leadership safeguarded the nation’s interest; today, it threatens that interest.

Nothing better illustrates the deterioration in the quality of American presidential leadership than comparison of John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis with George W. Bush’s approach to Iraq. In 1962, Kennedy led the nation and world away from the abyss of nuclear war. Today, Bush’s handling of the War on Terrorism has brought us toward a different abyss — an ill-defined conflict guided by impossible goals and requiring costly, limitless sacrifices.

Each president’s strategy began as a rational, well-intended attempt to save lives. But where Kennedy succeeded, Bush has failed. To avert nuclear exchanges, JFK compromised and limited their likelihood. To eliminate dangerous enemies, Bush attacked and increased their numbers.

In each case, the president faced an unusual problem: Despite overwhelming military might, Americans suddenly felt newly vulnerable.

They feared loss of their homes, their workplaces and their lives. In 1962, Soviet nuclear missiles had been placed in Cuba, just 90 miles off the Florida coast, heightening the threat of nuclear war; on Sept. 11, of course, suicidal terrorists threatened Americans’ sense of security.

Kennedy’s caution matched his resolve. He had irrefutable proof of missiles in Cuba before deploying troops to American ships and to southeastern states. To avoid creating a public panic, he urged civil defense agencies to heighten readiness without taking dramatic initiatives, such as public discussions of evacuation or distribution of food to the Southeast, which was most vulnerable to attack.

Knowing that his actions were playing out on a global stage, he wisely tried to anticipate repercussions. For instance, he worried that partisan politicians might send mixed signals to the Soviet Union, and he feared that Latin America might take a divided stand on the crisis. To avoid these outcomes, he sought support from prominent American and foreign leaders.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s motives were a vital piece of the puzzle to Kennedy. Understanding that enabled him to alleviate Khrushchev’s concerns by promising to remove U.S. missiles from the Soviet Union’s doorstep in Turkey. Repeatedly, Kennedy rejected his military advisers’ recommendations of a pre-emptive strike against Cuba, in part because he feared U.S. forces might cause civilian casualties like those that have occurred recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even in the planet’s closest brush with nuclear war, he clung to American ideals, violating no one’s rights. He placed some restrictions on the press but attempted to be true to all of the freedoms embraced in the Bill of Rights, both within the United States and in his consideration of possible action against Cuba. For instance, he didn’t arrest Cubans in the United States and throw them into a detention camp without due process of law.

JFK knew that he could not save Americans from a barrage of Soviet missiles launched from the Soviet Union or Cuba, so he maintained a firm resolve on key issues and evinced a willingness to make reasonable compromises on others. After Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles, Kennedy remained prudent, admonishing members of his administration to avoid public celebration.

Bush’s approach to the current crisis has been short-sighted. Ignoring Kennedy’s example, Bush, since Sept. 11, has surrendered the opportunity for a lasting victory in the court of world opinion and embraced instead a dangerously provocative strategy against an enemy driven by anti-American passion. The administration’s brash decision to storm into Iraq without an exit strategy and with only questionable evidence of weapons of mass destruction has reinforced the image of the United States as an arrogant superpower, stimulated anger in the Arab world, and guaranteed continuing American casualties.

While Kennedy sought to avoid unnecessary panic, the Bush administration again and again has issued terror alerts without giving civilians any real means of protection. This tactic achieves little except to heighten terrorism’s psychological grip on the nation and to reinforce the kind of fear-based unity that serves incumbent presidents well.

At the same time, unlike Kennedy’s administration, Bush and his appointees have demonstrated a pugnacious response to domestic criticism and a willful dafness to world opinion. It has attempted no thoughtful examination of Sept. 11’s most haunting question: why the United States engenders so much loathing in some parts of the world. If anything, the administration’s actions have nourished that hatred, not diminished them.

Clearly, Bush and his team underestimated the level of civilian resistance in Iraq. In addition, as recently was evidenced by avid high-fiving following the capture of Saddam Hussein, they have failed to realize that one triumph such as Hussein’s apprehension could be fleeting. Subsequent Iraqi violence has demonstrated the bloody truth that putting one man behind bars will not end the killing in Iraq or eliminate the threat to America.

In sharp contrast to Kennedy’s strong stands against reckless military actions, Bush’s reluctance to say no to the military seems equaled only by his unwillingness to explore all of the benefits of diplomacy. And the Bush administration’s decision to hold hundreds of “suspected terrorists” at Guantanamo Bay without due process of law represents a counter-productive abandonment of U.S. principles.

In short, Kennedy’s bold assertion of presidential control, his caution in the face of danger and his commitment to American ideals benefited both the United States and the world.

By contrast, two years after Sept. 11, we remain vulnerable. Despite large military and financial commitments, the administration cannot hope to capture every potential terrorist or to anticipate every means of attack. In fact, by promoting policies that feed anti-American fervor, Bush has invigorated the breeding grounds of terror. Americans should never trample the rights of others to assuage our fears. The rights and lives of non-Americans have value, too.

In a dangerous world, as John Kennedy showed us, prudence is just as crucial as vigilance.

Alice L. George, author of "Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis," is an independent historian and a writer for the History News Service.