McCain, Obama, Biden, and JFK
"Mark my words. It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We're about to elect a brilliant 47-year old senator president of the United States of America...Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."
--Joe Biden, Seattle Fundraiser, October 19, 2008.
"I sat in the cockpit on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise off of Cuba [during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.] I had a target. I know how close we came to a nuclear war and I will not be a president that needs to be tested. I have been tested. Senator Obama has not." --John McCain, Harrisburg, PA, October 21, 2008.
John McCain has seized on an unguarded comment by Democratic vice-presidential hopeful Joe Biden at a Seattle fundraiser to reintroduce the experience argument into the closing days of the presidential campaign. The Arizona senator is reminding audiences that he actually participated in the Cuban missile crisis as a young U.S. Navy pilot. Barack Obama was a one-year-old baby in Hawaii when his future rival was being assigned bombing targets in Cuba.
Obama brushed aside his running mate's remarks as a "rhetorical flourish." But are Biden's premonitions historically accurate--and what do they tell us about the kind of foreign policy challenges Obama will face if elected president?
John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th president of the United States in January 1961 at the age of 43. Six months later, in June 1961, he held his first and only summit meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. The Soviet leader attempted to bully Kennedy into making concessions on Berlin, threatening him with nuclear war. "Roughest thing in my life," JFK told James Reston of The New York Times shortly afterwards. "He just beat the hell out of me."
JFK understood that he would have an uphill struggle to re-establish his credibility with Khrushchev following the Vienna meeting and the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961. After reluctantly giving his approval for the invasion, Kennedy refused to commit U.S. forces to support the 1,500 CIA-trained Cuban exiles who were rounded up by Fidel Castro's security forces. He told Reston that his superpower rival had likely concluded that "I'm inexperienced. Probably thinks I'm stupid. Maybe most important, he thinks that I had no guts."
Kennedy and his aides expected a superpower showdown over West Berlin, a capitalist enclave surrounded by communist east Germany. Instead, the defining crisis of his presidency came over Cuba, in October 1962. Alarmed by the Kennedy administration's efforts to overthrow Castro, including the sabotage operation known as Operation Mongoose, Khrushchev decided that he had to take dramatic action to "save socialism" in Cuba. By deploying nuclear missiles to Cuba, he also hoped to offset the 10-1 American advantage in nuclear warheads capable of reaching the territory of the other superpower.
The McCain campaign can reasonably claim that Kennedy's inexperience was one of the factors that encouraged the Soviet leader to take his great gamble over Cuba. After the Vienna summit, Khrushchev told his aides that the U.S. president was "young enough to be my son." In his memoirs, he confessed to "feeling a bit sorry" for Kennedy, but he described politics as "a merciless business." His verdict on Kennedy at Vienna: "Too intelligent and too weak."
On the other hand, Khrushchev later developed a "deep respect" for his rival. In his memoirs, he praised Kennedy for his "sober-minded" handling of the missile crisis which ended with the withdrawal of the most lethal Soviet weaponry from Cuba and a U.S. promise not to invade the island. According to Khrushchev, Kennedy did not allow himself "to become frightened," but neither did he "become reckless." He "left himself a way out of the crisis."
The Cuban missile crisis demonstrates the sometimes pivotal role of personality in poltics. Had someone else been president in October 1962, it is possible that Khrushchev would not have challenged the United States in Cuba in the way that he did. But one can also imagine circumstances in which a more impulsive U.S. president might have overreacted to Khrushchev, triggering a nuclear war over Cuba.
In his book, Thirteen Days, Bobby Kennedy noted that his brother was surrounded by some of the "most able people" in the country. Nevertheless, in RFK's view, "if any of half a dozen of them were president, the world would have been very likely plunged into a catastrophic war." He based this conclusion on the knowledge that nearly half the ExComm--the committee established by Kennedy to manage the crisis--had favored bombing the Soviet missile sites in Cuba, a step that probably would have led to an American invasion of the island and Soviet retaliation.
The failed Vienna summit and the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs helped prepare Kennedy for the ultimate challenge of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He knew that a major crisis was coming, and steeled himself for a confrontation with Khrushchev by carrying around a slip of paper in his wallet with a quote from Abraham Lincoln:
I know there is a God--and I see a storm coming;
If he has a place for me, I believe I am ready.
The Pinocchio Test
Historical analogies can be dangerous. The world has changed enormously since the Cold War, and has become an infinitely more complicated place. The "evil empire" has been replaced by an assortment of "rogue states," including some, like Iran and North Korea, that appear bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. While John McCain can fairly claim to have more "foreign policy experience" than his rival, it is not at all clear that serving as a bomber pilot during the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam war will fully prepare him for the foreign policy challenges of the next four years.
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