Parallels in Courage
Cold War History, Vol. 2, No. 3, April 2002, London George W. Bush has it easy. Historically speaking, at least. That is the conclusion reached by Lawrence Freedman, chair of the University of London’s war studies department and Foreign Policy editorial board member, in the April 2002 issue of Cold War History. Headquartered in London, ...
Cold War History, Vol. 2, No. 3, April 2002, London
Cold War History, Vol. 2, No. 3, April 2002, London
George W. Bush has it easy. Historically speaking, at least.
That is the conclusion reached by Lawrence Freedman, chair of the University of London’s war studies department and Foreign Policy editorial board member, in the April 2002 issue of Cold War History. Headquartered in London, the three-year-old journal’s stated mission is to use the decades-long Soviet-American rivalry as a "bridge between the era of traditional and Euro-centric great power politics and contemporary international relations."
Freedman’s article does just that when he draws parallels between John F. Kennedy’s political leadership during crises over Berlin and Cuba in 1961–62 and George W. Bush’s experience fighting terrorism. But Freedman argues that the two men belong to very different political eras, and any attempt to draw lessons from the Kennedy years for the war on terror is premature.
Why? First, Kennedy’s decision making, argues Freedman, "was geared to a situation where a modus vivendi had to be found with his chief antagonist." As Kennedy wrote to that antagonist, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in November 1962, "If the leaders of the two great nuclear powers cannot judge… the intentions of each other," the result will be "a period of gravely increasing danger." By contrast, no one expects Bush to negotiate with al Qaeda’s leadership.
Second, Kennedy faced political battles with both the American public and within his own administration. "If Kennedy wanted freedom to manoeuvre in crises," Freedman explains, "he had to fight for it politically, both within the executive branch and in his dealings with American public opinion." Bush, on the other hand, barely had to explain his response to the U.S. public or Congress. For Freedman, this challenge of public communication is the thick, juicy center cut of Kennedy’s crisis management — and the issue on which the king of Camelot saw himself most tested.
Crisis management is a matter of legitimacy, not legality, and requires "knowing whether your policies enjoy not only popular support but also understanding." U.S. presidents, Freedman argues, must be able to tap the various currents of U.S. public opinion, to "link policies to values" while addressing citizens’ fears, and to envision how policy proposals will be implemented. He praises Kennedy’s ability to accomplish all three. In the end, Freedman believes Bush’s challenges pale in comparison to Kennedy’s.
That may be. But Freedman’s conclusion holds true more for the acutely focused war in Afghanistan than it does for the cornerstone of Bush’s long-term strategy to defeat terror: restructuring the U.S. homeland security apparatus. Bush is rushing a massive government restructuring through the U.S. Congress, a move that will do little to encourage the kind of understanding Kennedy advocated, either at home or among allies. To make matters worse, Bush faces a similar lack of understanding when it comes to his broader vow to fight terror worldwide in the years ahead. For instance, in Congress, confusion over Bush’s strategy on Iraq has already prompted some members to call for a "national dialogue" on "risks and objectives." Bridging these gaps in understanding — both at home and abroad — presents challenges that are Kennedy-esque in their difficulty and importance.
In another article, diplomatic historian Vojtech Mastny suggests the last 50 years have proved that Bush will need a renewed emphasis on multilateral diplomacy to win the war. Mastny, who heads the Zurich-based Parallel History Project on nato and the Warsaw Pact, sees military power as an indispensable supplement to multilateral diplomacy. The deployment of precision-oriented conventional weapons in Afghanistan, together with more easily identifiable political goals, Mastny concludes, "may at least indicate the beginning of a solution by restoring a balance between military power and diplomacy."
Is Bush on his way to achieving the judicious balance of (often intensely personal) diplomacy and military restraint that Kennedy showed? Perhaps. But for all Bush’s talk of seeking a global coalition, his administration is unlikely to forgo taking action on what it sees as strategic gospel — that Iraq poses a threat to the United States, for instance — in favor of multilateral diplomacy. When Bush does act, he would do well to heed a lesson Freedman extracts from Kennedy’s experience: Lead with a case you can explain and support.
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