President Kennedy vs. the Mullahs

What the Cuban Missile Crisis can teach us about stopping Iran.

With the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis looming, it is a good time to think about how the same sort of deal that saved the world from atomic war in October 1962 might work today with Tehran. Back then, the Russians sent nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba with the two-fold purpose of trying to deter any use of force aimed at toppling Fidel Castro and countering American Jupiter missile emplacements in Italy and Turkey. Moscow's risky move -- which also entailed giving commanders in Cuba some authority to launch their missiles in the event of an American attack -- led to a 13-day brinksmanship crisis that came all too close to ending in Armageddon.

Things turned out well only because of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's willingness to remove his weapons from Cuba in return for a public American pledge never again to try to overthrow Castro by force (the U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion had occurred just the previous year). Also, President John F. Kennedy secretly acceded to a Russian request to remove the intermediate-range Jupiters from sites within striking range of Moscow. For half a century, both sides have lived up to the terms of the bargain. The durable success of the solution to this earlier showdown should thus suggest how we might resolve the festering nuclear crisis with Iran.

At its core, the current dispute arises from these irreconcilable concerns: the fear in many capitals that Iran might send a nuclear device "downstream" to a terrorist network; the possibility that "crazy" mullahs might not react coolly in a major crisis; and reasonable worry in Tehran that, absent a deterrent capability of its own, a military intervention aimed at regime change -- i.e., the fate that befell Saddam Hussein -- might be mounted. On this last point, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad put the matter quite succinctly at Iran's National Defense Industry Day in August, when he spoke of the goal of having capabilities that would "reach a point where they will serve as a deterrent to all bullying and arrogant powers." Ahmadinejad is no doubt implicitly referring to the United States, but Israeli-Iranian antipathy is surely an accelerant in this matter as well. Still, the heart of the dispute lies in mutual fear -- as can be seen even in Prime Minister Netanyahu's high-school-style poster presentation at the United Nations last week.

There are just two problems with a "Cuban solution." The first is that Tehran might turn down the offer of a no-invasion pledge from the United States (n.b., Israel poses no practical threat of occupation and regime change). The second is that it might accept. But if they declined this peace offer, the mullahs would further undermine their already shaky support with significant slices of Iranian society, and the international community would firm up its unified economic and military opposition. If the offer were accepted, there would be the worry that Iran would become more adventurous in world affairs, since it now had a "safety net." At best, though, more adventurism would simply be a change at the margin, easily coped with through skillful diplomacy, as well as by special operations and other counter-terrorist forces from many nations.

To the objection that Iran might accept a no-invasion pledge, agree to cease any nuclear weapons efforts, then secretly continue to build a bomb, there are two responses. The first is that Tehran would have to submit to rigorous United Nations monitoring that would make cheating very hard. Second, the cost of getting caught would be quite high, leading to the imposition of even stricter sanctions and providing a clear rationale for the use of force against the regime.

The deal is simply too good for Tehran to say no. And realistically, there is no way for an American president to make such a deal and then go back on it. Ten U.S. presidents have honored the 1962 accord with Cuba. Ten more will honor an agreement of this sort if one is made with Tehran.

The attractiveness of the deal to the Iranians, and the way in which it binds those making it, means that the most serious impediment to proceeding is likely to be opposition by the United States and Israel. American reluctance to negotiate will continue to be driven by the poisoned relations that have persisted since the 1979 hostage-taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Israeli resistance to such a solution will be fueled by understandable anger with a regime that routinely calls for Israel's destruction. Nevertheless, it is time for the leaders of both countries to calculate costs, risks, and benefits most carefully. On balance, there is far more to gain than to lose.

Yes, a Cuban-style deal might shore up the regime and allow Iran to punch above its weight in world affairs. Fidel Castro surely benefited in these ways from the negotiated solution to the Missile Crisis. And so might the mullahs now. But the sheer gain of keeping Iran -- a state that many consider an international rogue -- from becoming a nuclear-armed power must be seen as outweighing these other manageable concerns about its behavior in the wake of a pact.

The other great gain to be had, by all three principal protagonists, would be better relations with the world. Iran's isolation would diminish, and the images of both Israel and the United States would be much improved. This at the same time that the security of all three would be enhanced. Not bad for the seemingly zero-sum world of power politics, where anybody's gain is supposed to be someone else's loss.

The only question now is whether some leader will come forth to make the proposal officially. Thucydides, who noted that pride and fear were prime movers on the path to war, would probably recommend that a neutral third party should come forward, as the disputants themselves would be unlikely to grab at this chance for peace. He was surely right when it came to ancient Athens and Sparta; and is probably still correct when it comes to America, Israel, and Iran today.

But Thucydides' rule should not be seen as iron-clad. John F. Kennedy proved able to see past pride and fear when he made the courageous choice to negotiate an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis half a century ago. And a similar path to peace is there to be seen today. All that is needed now is someone of vision, and courage, to take the first step.


National Security

Guerrilla Lit 101

Ten books that are better than The Art of War.

West Point's recently released list of the top 10 military classics is replete with doorstop-sized accounts of conflict from ancient to relatively modern times -- but almost completely neglects insurgency, terrorism, and other forms of irregular warfare. The U.S. Military Academy's list does a fine job of capturing the "horizontal" dynamic of clashes of roughly equal great powers armed with the most advanced weapons. But the history and shape of the world system have been just as influenced by the "vertical" axis -- the unequal struggles that have seen guerrillas, bandits, and commandos waging "wars of the knife" against empires and nations. And it is this latter mode of conflict that has dominated world affairs for the past half-century -- and will likely do so for at least a century to come.

With this in mind, let me supplement the West Point list. For those drawn to West Point's recommendation to read Thucydides, I suggest taking a look also at Sallust's The Jugurthine War. Jugurtha of Numidia (today's northern Algeria) fought a bitter guerrilla war against Rome, some 50 years before Julius Caesar's great campaigns, that Sallust captured with verve. He also spoke to the corruption of Roman character that came with protracted exposure to this kind of fighting.

Hans Delbrück, whose four-volume history of ancient, medieval, and early modern warfare that West Point selected, can be nicely complemented by Lt. Gen. John Bagot Glubb's The Great Arab Conquests. His survey of the sweeping seventh-century victories of Muslim warriors is of the highest analytic and literary quality, a principal observation being that much of the world of that time was shaped by the irregular "pirate strategy" the Arabs adopted. That is, they used the desert as an ocean and came raiding from it, again and again, with startling success.

The West Point list also focuses on several important philosophers of war: the aphoristic Sun Tzu; the turgid, elusive treatises of Machiavelli and Clausewitz; and Jomini's geometrically inspired principles. Jomini in particular, with his emphasis on angles of approach and other seemingly precise formulas, captured the minds of generations of military leaders. His ideas about how to properly mass one's forces and take the offensive remain powerfully prominent in -- if not especially useful to -- current U.S. strategic thought. Irregular philosophers of war are, by comparison, few. Mao Zedong is certainly the best, though his On Guerrilla Warfare is very nearly as vague as Sun Tzu. Yet Mao's key insight for irregulars -- centralize strategy, decentralize operations -- is still the polestar.

For a more operationally oriented study of land battles, West Point chose Ardant du Picq's Battle Studies. This is a curious choice. Col. du Picq was killed in the Franco-Prussian War, but his belief that good morale could overcome concentrated firepower animated French strategic thought up to and during World War I -- with near-catastrophic results. For the period in question, I suggest two alternatives. First, there is Col. Charles Callwell's survey of the many modes of irregular warfare, Small Wars -- find the third edition, the one with the insightful introduction by eminent military historian Douglas Porch. The second book is by John Reed -- also the author of Ten Days That Shook the World about the Russian Revolution -- whose account of Pancho Villa in Insurgent Mexico is one of the finest eyewitness accounts of an insurgent campaign ever written, even taking into account T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Interestingly, the West Point list also includes two naval classics, one each from Britain's Julian Corbett and American A.T. Mahan. They are without question the best in their field, but the works chosen hardly speak to the phenomenon of raiding from the sea -- the principal way of waging maritime irregular warfare. Handily, however, both Corbett and Mahan did write about such matters, the former in his depiction of the life (and value as a sea raider) of Francis Drake and the latter in his Types of Naval Officers, particularly the character study of Edward Pellew.

When it comes to air power, West Point opted for Italian strategist Giulio Douhet's The Command of the Air. First published in 1921, the book called for massive bombing of civilian targets -- with chemical weapons. Douhet's belief in the profound psychological effect of aerial attack attracted legions of followers -- and still does. Yet few such campaigns have ever worked. Better to look at "air raiding" through more irregular eyes, such as those of Orde Wingate. This British general pioneered the concept of "deep penetration" of small raiding forces, inserted and supplied from the air. It is a concept he tried out with some success in Burma during World War II, but his ideas still await full development. Leonard Mosley's Gideon Goes to War -- Wingate was something of a religious fanatic and saw himself much like the biblical warrior -- offers a lucid, but still deep, assessment.

For those counting, you know that I have two choices left. I'll conclude with recommendations that reflect an important debate. Robert Taber's War of the Flea argues that little can stop the weak from wearing down the strong with insurgent warfare; Lewis Gann's Guerrillas in History is a brief but thorough survey that shows how often irregulars have been beaten in the past. Both books were written over 40 years ago, and both remain exceptionally timely. Indeed, Abu Musab al-Suri, al Qaeda's deepest strategic thinker, lectured on Taber at the "university of terror" that used to operate in Afghanistan.

The 10 books I have outlined here -- all quite short save for Glubb and Callwell -- provide nice complements to the West Point list and may prove a bit more relevant to the wars of our time and conflicts to come.

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