On The Brink

Would JFK favor a ‘red line’ with Iran?

Would JFK favor a ‘red line’ with Iran?

Earlier this week, I received a call from the Washington Post‘s political fact checker, Glenn Kessler, asking about a Benjamin Netanyahu quote relating to the Cuban missile crisis. The Israeli prime minister was citing President Kennedy’s handling of the Soviet missile threat from Cuba to bolster his demands for a clear "red line" before Iran. Netanyahu would like the Obama administration to tell the Iranians that the United States will take military action if they seem likely to acquire sufficient weapons-grade plutonium to make a nuclear bomb.

"President Kennedy put a red line before the Soviets in the Cuban missile crisis," Netanyahu told CNN on September 16. "He was criticized for it, but it actually pushed the world back from conflict and maybe purchased decades of peace."

In my reply to Kessler, I noted that "everybody quotes JFK when it is in their interest."  President George W. Bush cited Kennedy’s actions during the missile crisis approvingly back in 2002, as part of his justification for going to war with Iraq. But we should be wary of simplistic historical parallels, in both the Iraq and Iran cases. 

"While it is true that JFK demanded the removal of the missiles — which you could interpret as a red line — he was deliberately flexible about the way he handled it.The blockade, or quarantine, was essentially a diplomatic maneuver to gain time for negotiations. Most of the missiles had already arrived.  

"JFK’s first instinct was to bomb the missile sites on Cuba, but he thought better of it, and chose a more subtle approach. It is a good thing he did, as the Soviets had tactical nuclear weapons on Cuba. A U.S. air strike would have been followed almost inevitably by a U.S. invasion of the island, which could easily have provoked use of Soviet tactical nukes against the invading force, escalating rapidly to nuclear war.

"The parallels with the current situation are pretty interesting. Like Obama, JFK was facing an election in November 1962 (a mid-term) and was under attack from the Republicans for not doing enough on Cuba. There were rumors of missiles and other military equipment crossing the Atlantic, but officials lacked the definitive proof; JFK locked himself into doing something about deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba with a statement on September 4, in which he said that ‘the gravest issues would arise’ if the Soviets were deploying nukes to Cuba.

"Kennedy later regretted making this statement, as it made it impossible for him to shrug the deployment off. You could argue that Obama has done the same thing by saying, earlier this year, that the U.S. will not tolerate Iran gaining nuclear weapons. In other words, they both committed themselves to preventing nuclearization of a hostile country.  

"After drawing this line, however, JFK went out of his way to avoid a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, and was willing to go to considerable lengths to make concessions (including withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey). Obama is following a similar playbook, perhaps a little less flexibly than JFK."

Drawing the wrong lessons from history can be as dangerous as ignoring history all together. I will return to this theme in a future post.