National Security

Of Myths and Missiles

What Les Gelb gets wrong about the Cuban missile crisis.

For more on the Cuban missile crisis, follow Michael Dobbs as he live tweets the 13 days here

Is there a better measure of an international crisis than how long we keep arguing about it? This month, umpteen retrospectives will remind us that it has been 50 years since the United States and the Soviet Union were "eyeball to eyeball" over nuclear weapons in Cuba. The basic facts have been known for a long time, yet the arguments about this legendary confrontation go on and on.

The latest entrant in the wars over the Cuban missile crisis is Leslie Gelb, whose article "The Myth That Screwed Up 50 Years of U.S. Foreign Policy" appears in Foreign Policy's November 2012 issue. Gelb is one of the most stimulating and provocative interpreters of American diplomacy, and he has an interesting story to tell. John F. Kennedy and his advisors, he says, falsely claimed to have given nothing away in getting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to back down in Cuba. By keeping secret their promise to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey, they made "toughness and risky dueling with bad guys" the default mode of U.S. foreign policy.

"American leaders don't like to compromise," Gelb explains, "and a lingering misunderstanding of those 13 days in October 1962 has a lot to do with it." For him, what we really need to remember about the missile crisis is that the key to resolving it was flexibility, not rigidity. The same flexibility, he suggests, might enable the United States to make headway with Tehran, the Taliban, and others.

A bold reading like this shows how much new juice can be squeezed out of events half a century in the past. But there are two problems with it. First, Kennedy actually did make a public compromise offer to Khrushchev to resolve the crisis, pledging (as Gelb himself notes) not to invade Cuba if the missiles were withdrawn. Both leaders, moreover, pointed to this formula as proof of success. Khrushchev claimed -- not totally convincingly -- that it was only the risk of a U.S. invasion that had led him to deploy the missiles in the first place. As for Kennedy, his boosters have always treated the non-invasion offer as one crucial part of a masterful diplomatic performance.

The second problem with Gelb's reading is more important. American concessions were simply not the key to resolving the crisis. It's obviously inconvenient for anyone who favors a calm, compromising approach to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, but the truth is that what softened Khrushchev up -- unhinged him, really -- was the threat of U.S. military action. From the messages the Soviet leader sent Kennedy at the peak of the crisis, Maxwell Taylor, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded that he was "half drunk, or distraught, or both." As Gelb acknowledges, we now know that Khrushchev told his colleagues he was going to back down before he heard about the secret Turkish missile offer.

His reason was simple and statesmanlike: He wanted to avoid blowing up the world. If humiliating retreat was necessary to prevent calamitous defeat, so be it. American strategists had long wondered whether a threat by one superpower to attack the other side's military forces could be credible, given the horrible consequences likely to ensue. Yet Khrushchev clearly believed Kennedy would act. Publicly, the U.S. president conveyed grim determination throughout the crisis. As much as Gelb may lament the lessons that have been drawn from Kennedy's resolve, there is no denying his achievement. In the most dangerous showdown of the Cold War, he got the other guy to blink.

Had Khrushchev been privy to discussions inside the White House, of course, he would have found out how divided the Americans were. The president and a small group of advisors known as the "ExComm" (for executive committee) deliberated around the clock, bouncing from one position to another. They changed their minds from one day to the next, many of them more than once. Even when they agreed on what to do, their reasons often differed.

Yet Khrushchev would also have learned that most ExComm members agreed on one big thing -- that the crisis was unlikely to be resolved by negotiation. Foremost in this camp, at least at the beginning, was Kennedy himself. He repeatedly overruled advisors who favored diplomatic give-and-take. When he found that Ted Sorensen, his speechwriter, had drafted a speech inviting Khrushchev to an emergency summit, he personally vetoed the idea. Such a proposal, the president thought, would suggest that the U.S. government was in a "state of panic."

Kennedy also overrode his secretaries of state and defense, both of whom thought Moscow was more likely to yield if the United States were a little less rigid. For Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, insisting that all the missiles be removed increased the chance that the United States would have to invade. Secretary of State Dean Rusk also tried to chip away at his boss's resolve, suggesting that the Soviets might more easily agree to freeze construction of their bases in Cuba than to dismantle them outright. Kennedy disagreed with both men. America, he believed, had to get the missiles out -- quickly. Khrushchev should hear no hint that compromise was acceptable.

So how did this bellicose Kennedy become the one who secretly promised to withdraw American missiles from Turkey? As the confrontation mounted, the president came to the conclusion that Khrushchev could not be pushed any further. The Soviet leader had made his demand about the Turkish missiles in a public letter, rolling back his earlier suggestion that the crisis would be over if the United States promised not to invade. Kennedy believed that Khrushchev would not be able to walk away from this public stance. Even when his advisors suggested a clever way around the problem -- just ignore the tough new letter, they said, and accept the more reasonable earlier one -- the president said their gambit wouldn't work. "We might as well realize that," he told them.

At the most decisive moment of the entire crisis, then, one man -- John F. Kennedy, virtually alone -- thought the United States was driving too hard a bargain. To get the missiles out of Cuba, he predicted, "We're going to have to take our weapons out of Turkey." It did not matter to him that the other members of the ExComm disagreed. Llewellyn Thompson, the senior Soviet expert present and the American who knew Khrushchev best, argued that the non-invasion pledge offered the Soviet leader the precise face-saving concession he had asked for. There was no need to go further. Even Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, cautioned his brother. The American position was a good one, he said. "I don't think we should abandon it."

None of this convinced the president. Khrushchev would reject the deal, he said -- "I'm certain." Out of his certainty came a concession that was almost surely unnecessary to end the crisis.

Kennedy assumed Khrushchev was as boxed in by his public statements as a U.S. politician would have been. But there was more to his miscalculation than this. He had been so sure military force would be needed to remove the Soviet missiles from Cuba that when muscular diplomacy began to do the job instead, he was unable -- unwilling, it seemed -- to recognize his own success. He was convinced that a satisfactory resolution of the crisis could be achieved only at a higher price and insisted on paying it even when others told him he was wrong.

This -- not the pure machismo that Gelb excoriates -- was the Kennedy administration's diplomatic signature. It combined sustained activism and protracted indecision, public threats and private backtracking, blustery overcommitment and quiet scrutiny of available exit routes. McNamara later offered a famous summary of the lessons that he and his colleagues drew from the crisis: "There is no longer any such thing as strategy, only crisis management." The United States, he suggested, was so strong that it didn't have to have clear and consistent doctrines. Improvisational fine-tuning would do.

In the Cuban missile crisis, it proved to be enough. But the victory had its cost. The president and his advisors had kept the peace, while confusing themselves as to the reason why. They played down the sheer bellicosity of American policy and played up their own skillful manipulation of the other side. They grew confident that they could bend adversaries to their will through the careful application of pressures and inducements. The next test of this idea was, of course, Vietnam. Even without an anniversary to remind us, we know how that turned out.

STF/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

The Rial World

No, the Iran sanctions are not working.

In a recent Foreign Policy article, Alireza Nader argued that U.S. sanctions on Iran have played an important role in preventing the country from acquiring nuclear weapons. To the contrary, because of their wording, the sanctions have been -- and still are -- a roadblock to resolving the nuclear issue. As they bite further, and with the value of the rial dropping precipitously, the sanctions are simply shifting the focus of anger in the Iranian street from the regime toward the United States.

As Nader correctly states, "the Iranian regime has not made any major concessions on the nuclear program." Because the sanctions were (ostensibly) designed to influence Iran's nuclear calculus, it is safe to say that they have objectively failed. There is a reason for this: The legislative text of the sanctions goes way beyond Iran's nuclear program and, in fact, provides a disincentive for Iran to cooperate with the United States.

As I have noted before, the sanctions can only be lifted after the U.S. president certifies to Congress "that the government of Iran has: (1) released all political prisoners and detainees; (2) ceased its practices of violence and abuse of Iranian citizens engaging in peaceful political activity; (3) conducted a transparent investigation into the killings and abuse of peaceful political activists in Iran and prosecuted those responsible; and (4) made progress toward establishing an independent judiciary."

Although these are certainly laudable goals, they complicate nuclear negotiations by establishing conditions that have nothing to do with the nuclear program. In fact, many U.S. allies could not satisfy all these conditions: The Bahraini and Saudi governments also crack down heavily on political protests, yet those countries remain unsanctioned by Washington.

So even if Iran were to completely shutter its nuclear program tomorrow, it would still be sanctioned by the United States. But if it's going to be sanctioned no matter what it does with its nuclear program, why should Tehran make any nuclear concessions at all?

In short, the sanctions are not working because they are not designed to work. Rather than being restricted to nuclear issues, they appear to be crafted to put more and more "crippling" pressure on the populace to -- one assumes -- agitate them to demand regime change.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in a statement that the sanctions "will impose crippling economic pressure on the Iranian regime in order to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program and other dangerous policies."

Nothing of the sort is happening. The nuclear-enrichment program is humming along (under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards), and other unnamed "dangerous policies" -- such as, perhaps, Iranian support of the Syrian regime -- also continue apace.

It is perfectly clear to the average Iranian who is to blame for her recent misery. In the past few months, as more and more of the sanctions have started biting, the ire of the Iranian people has increasingly shifted away from the regime's long-term incompetence, repression, and corruption and toward the United States and the West. Although the sanctions technically exempt food and medicine, sanctions on the financial system prevent Iranians from being able to purchase these items from abroad. Many critical medicines and humanitarian goods simply cannot be purchased by hospitals and other entities within Iran, leading to deadly shortages. Ahmad Ghavidel, the head of the Iranian Hemophilia Society, told the Washington Post recently that "This is a blatant hostage-taking of the most vulnerable people by countries which claim they care about human rights."

On Oct. 3, Iran's currency hit a record low of roughly 36,000 rials to the U.S. dollar -- a year ago the rate was about 13,000 rials to the dollar. Although the currency nosedive is certainly putting pressure on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it is far from clear whether his political downfall would bring about any meaningful change in Iran's nuclear calculus: Most (officially vetted) alternative candidates also support Iran's pursuit of nonmilitary nuclear power, as does the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The president may be under threat, but the regime is not. Protesters have made clear their gripe is with Ahmadinejad and not with the Islamic system. In fact, for the moment, the regime appears delighted that Ahmadinejad is serving as a convenient scapegoat for Iran's economic woes.

It is possible that an even more reactionary candidate will be elected in the 2013 Iranian presidential election precisely because of the draconian sanctions. When Russia and Argentina went through a similar economic meltdown about a decade ago, their people voted in more nationalist leaders: Vladimir Putin and Néstor Kirchner. And even the U.S.-managed regime change in Iraq has resulted in an authoritarian and pro-Iran government there. Right now, the incipient economic meltdown in Iran, triggered by the sanctions, is simply providing more excuses for the regime to crack down on protests, jam foreign news, and block the Internet.

Washington needs to make crystal clear exactly what Iran needs to do with its nuclear program in order for the sanctions to be lifted; otherwise, as with Iraq, it may stumble into another needless, expensive, and counterproductive war over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The language of the current sanctions is distressingly unprofessional and vague on nuclear issues. In fact, the latest round of congressional posturing on Iran, in the form of Senate Joint Resolution 41, declares that "the United States Government and the governments of other responsible countries have a vital interest in working together to prevent the Government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability." It is unclear what Congress means by a "nuclear weapons capability" -- by some measures, Iran already has such a capability.

Any country with a fully developed civilian nuclear sector has the capability to make a nuclear weapon. Brazil and Argentina have a nuclear weapons capability. But, just as you cannot get a speeding ticket for owning a sports car that has the capability to go 120 miles per hour, it is not illicit for countries to have the capability to build a nuclear weapon. What is illicit is for Iran to divert its safeguarded enriched-uranium stockpile to any military uses -- something the country has never been accused of doing.

In fact, according to the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran's stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas actually declined to 91.4 kg from the 101 kg reported in May. This decrease in Iran's "enrich-able" 20 percent-enriched uranium stockpile is due to the conversion of some UF6 into metallic fuel-plates for the Tehran Research Reactor. Reconversion back to gaseous form is difficult and time-consuming. Whatever nuclear weaponization "red lines" one cares to draw, Iran is actually retreating from them.

Far from being on a mad dash to weaponize, Iran has repeatedly signaled its willingness to compromise on the nuclear-enrichment issue; the U.S. administration should consider meeting the Iranians halfway by lifting some sanctions. By rigidly refusing to ease sanctions, Washington is offering no meaningful reciprocity, derailing the possibility of a deal with Tehran and essentially helping Iran enrich more uranium.

Ironically, the dysfunctional nature of the sanctions could be seen by some congressional hawks as a benefit. As with Iraq a decade ago, they could say that sanctions have not "worked" and thus justify moving on to the next, and last, resort: war.