Bob Schieffer of CBS News struck the right note when he opened this week’s presidential debate on foreign policy by reminding viewers it was “the 50th anniversary of the night that President Kennedy told the world that the Soviet Union had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, perhaps the closest we’ve ever come to nuclear war.” He called it “a sobering reminder that every president faces at some point an unexpected threat to our national security from abroad.”
After setting the stage, however, Schieffer missed an opportunity to ask an important follow-up: As commander-in-chief, what lessons would President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney draw from the Cuban missile crisis? Did they agree with Graham Allison — whose Essence of Decision is one of the most popular books on the crisis — that today’s effort to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran is “a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion”? Allison said recently in an NPR interview that we are heading “inexorably toward a confrontation at which an American president is going to have to choose between attacking Iran to prevent it becoming a nuclear weapons state or acquiescing and then confronting a nuclear weapons state.”
The wrong conclusions drawn from the Cuban missile crisis, perhaps the most studied foreign policy event in American history, have misguided U.S. leaders ever since the Kennedy administration.
On one side stand those like Leslie Gelb, who wrote for Foreign Policy about “The Myth that Screwed Up 50 Years of U.S. Foreign Policy.” He argues that by promulgating the argument that Kennedy forced Khrushchev to capitulate in Cuba “by virtue of U.S. military superiority and his steely will,” we’ve created a culture that eschews compromise and has led to misadventures from Vietnam to Iraq. In fact, argues Gelb, it was mutual concessions that ended the crisis:
The crisis concluded not with Moscow’s unconditional diplomatic whimper, but with mutual concessions. The Soviets withdrew their missiles from Cuba in return for U.S. pledges not to invade Fidel Castro’s island and to remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey.