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Cuban missile crisis shows patience best with North Korea

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As he ponders how to respond to the military bluster of North Korea, U.S. President Barack Obama is learning a lesson that was driven home to John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis: When it comes to a possible nuclear confrontation, pre-delegating authority to the generals can be a big mistake.

According to a report this week in the Wall Street Journal, the White House has abandoned a pre-approved "playbook" calling for a show of force against North Korea in response to its nuclear saber-rattling. Instead of a series of well-orchestrated, and well-publicized, moves designed to increase the pressure on Pyongyang, the Obama administration is now reported to be looking for ways to de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula. White House officials are said to be upset with the U.S. Navy for publicizing the deployment of two missile-guided destroyers off South Korea — a step that could provoke an unpredictable response from North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un.

The hints of civilian-military disagreement are reminiscent of a celebrated confrontation at the height of the Cuban missile crisis between the secretary of defence, Robert McNamara, and the chief of naval operations, Adm. George Anderson. After the president announced a naval blockade of Cuba, Anderson felt he had all the authority he needed to stop Soviet ships from crossing the "quarantine line," by force if necessary.

"We know how to do this," he told McNamara, waving his well-thumbed copy of the Laws of Military Warfare. "We’ve been doing it ever since the days of John Paul Jones."

The confrontation climaxed with an apoplectic defence secretary telling a red-faced CNO that there would be "no shots fired without my express permission." A few months later, Anderson was dispatched into exile as U.S. ambassador to Portugal.

The episode marked a significant turning point in civilian-military relations. During the Second World War, military commanders enjoyed a huge amount of autonomy. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was ordered to "liberate Europe" — but he did not have politicians breathing down his neck, supervising every aspect of his operations. He took history-making decisions — such as his refusal to race the Soviet army to Berlin — all by himself.

The nuclear era spelled an end to the traditional military ethos of "Tell us what to do, but don’t tell us how to do it." Mistakes are inevitable in war — but there is no margin for error when it comes to handling nuclear weapons. Worried that a single misstep could lead to a chain of cataclysmic consequences, Kennedy and McNamara insisted on centralizing military decision-making. The symbol of this shift was the creation of the White House "Situation Room," which permitted the president and his advisers to acquire close-to-real-time information from the battlefront, and therefore exercise a much greater degree of command and control.

With sufficient material for just half a dozen nuclear weapons, Kim Jong Un can hardly be compared to Kennedy’s nemesis, Nikita Khrushchev. (As a second-tier bad guy, Kim is more reminiscent of the fiercely nationalistic Fidel Castro, who excelled at playing the "madman card.") In 1962, the Soviet Union had 300 nuclear weapons capable of reaching U.S. territory, including 32 in Cuba, 140 kilometres from the Florida Keys.

Nevertheless, there are unsettling parallels with the Cuban missile crisis. While it will likely be several years before Kim can reach the American mainland with a missile, he could turn the South Korean capital Seoul into a pile of ashes tomorrow. With his Mao-like suits and Doctor Evil persona, Kim may be fodder for the late-night TV comedians, but he controls a growing nuclear arsenal that poses a threat to key U.S. allies. Like Kennedy before him, Obama must be concerned about the possibility of miscalculation that could result in what McNamara termed "a spasm response" by the other side.

Four decades have passed since the world came to the brink of nuclear annihilation in October 1962, but the reverberations from that near-miss remain relevant today. The following is a rundown of the most important lessons of the Cuban missile crisis, as they apply to North Korea (or Iran):

1. A single nuclear weapon changes everything. Confident that the United States enjoyed a 10-1 nuclear advantage over the Soviet Union, the advocates of war, led by Gen. Curtis LeMay, urged the president to settle matters with the "Commie bastards" once and for all. But overwhelming nuclear superiority meant little to Kennedy, who later acknowledged that the possibility of a single Soviet nuclear warhead landing on an American city constituted "a substantial deterrent to me."

2. Avoid blind escalation. When a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba on Oct. 27 at the height of the crisis, Kennedy was informed that existing war plans called for immediate retaliation against the offending Soviet SAM site. Worried that this could provoke a chain of unforeseeable consequences, he ordered the Pentagon to delay a response, to allow more time for diplomacy.

3. Pay attention to the "unknown unknowns." However confident your intelligence chiefs may sound, there is much they are unable to tell you. During the missile crisis, Kennedy was unaware that Soviet troops on Cuba possessed nearly 100 tactical nuclear weapons, capable of wiping out a U.S. invading force. The president was like a blind man stumbling through the semi-darkness, only dimly aware of what was happening around him. Like JFK, Obama is discovering that he must operate on instinct, as much as reliable, real-time intelligence.

4. Understand the limits of "crisis management." In the aftermath of the missile crisis, Kennedy acolytes such as Arthur Schlesinger fed the myth of a resolute president using "calibrated" military power and skillful diplomacy to face down his opposite number in the Kremlin. Believing their own propaganda, the "best and the brightest" felt that they could use a similar strategy during the Vietnam War. But they overestimated their ability to control events. Unfamiliar with the principles of game theory as taught by the RAND Corporation, the North Vietnamese Communists matched the Americans escalation for escalation.

5. Avoid drawing lines in the sand that you might later regret. Prior to the missile crisis, Kennedy found himself under increasing pressure from Republican politicians who accused him of ignoring the Soviet military buildup on Cuba. He responded by issuing a public statement saying that the "gravest issues would arise" if the Soviets developed a "significant offensive capability" on the island. After it turned out that Khrushchev had in fact sent nuclear missiles to Cuba, Kennedy wished he could take back his earlier statement. He was compelled to take action, not because Soviet missiles on Cuba appreciably changed the balance of military power, but because he feared looking weak. He had boxed himself in.

6. Talk to your enemies. After seriously considering an air strike against the missile sites, Kennedy opted for the intermediate step of a partial blockade of Cuba, limited to "offensive military equipment." The blockade bought time for everyone to come to their senses. Khrushchev later praised Kennedy for his "reasonable" approach. Had Kennedy followed his initial instincts, and the advice of people like LeMay, Khrushchev would likely have been obliged to authorize some kind of military response, triggering an unpredictable chain of events.

7. Containment worked. Communism was not defeated militarily: it was defeated economically, culturally and ideologically. Exhausted by military competition with the United States, Khrushchev’s successors were unable to provide their own people with a basic level of material prosperity. By acquiring nuclear weapons, the North Korean communists have warded off the threat of foreign intervention. But they have failed to resolve any of their underlying economic problems and may even have deepened them. Communism will eventually defeat itself in North Korea — just as it did in the Soviet Union. We just have to be patient.

Michael Dobbs is the author of a Cold War trilogy, including One Minute to Midnight, a study of the Cuban missile crisis from American, Russian and Cuban perspectives.

— Foreign Policy

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