As he ponders how to respond to the military bluster of North Korea, President Obama is learning a lesson that was driven home to John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis: When it comes to a possible nuclear confrontation, pre-delegating authority to the generals can be a big mistake.
According to a report this week in the Wall Street Journal, the White House has abandoned a pre-approved "playbook" calling for a show of force against North Korea in response to its nuclear saber-rattling. Instead of a series of well-orchestrated, and well-publicized, moves designed to increase the pressure on Pyongyang, the Obama administration is now reported to be looking for ways to de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula. White House officials are said to be upset with the Navy for publicizing the deployment of two missile-guided destroyers off South Korea -- a step that could provoke an unpredictable response from North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un.
The hints of civilian-military disagreement are reminiscent of a celebrated confrontation at the height of the Cuban missile crisis between the secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, and the chief of naval operations, Admiral George Anderson. After the president announced a naval blockade of Cuba, Anderson felt he had all the authority he needed to stop Soviet ships from crossing the "quarantine line," by force if necessary. "We know how to do this," he told McNamara, waving his well-thumbed copy of the Laws of Military Warfare. "We've been doing it ever since the days of John Paul Jones."
The confrontation climaxed with an apoplectic defense secretary telling a red-faced CNO that there would be "no shots fired without my express permission." A few months later, Anderson was dispatched into exile as U.S. ambassador to Portugal.
The episode marked a significant turning point in civilian-military relations. During the Second World War, military commanders enjoyed a huge amount of autonomy. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was ordered to "liberate Europe" -- but he did not have politicians breathing down his neck, supervising every aspect of his operations. He took history-making decisions -- such as his refusal to race the Soviet army to Berlin -- all by himself.
The nuclear era spelled an end to the traditional military ethos of "Tell us what to do, but don't tell us how to do it." Mistakes are inevitable in war -- but there is no margin for error when it comes to handling nuclear weapons. Worried that a single misstep could lead to a chain of cataclysmic consequences, Kennedy and McNamara insisted on centralizing military decision-making. The symbol of this shift was the creation of the White House "Situation Room," which permitted the president and his advisors to acquire close-to-real-time information from the battlefront, and therefore exercise a much greater degree of command and control.
With sufficient material for just half a dozen nuclear weapons, Kim Jong Un can hardly be compared to Kennedy's nemesis, Nikita Khrushchev. (As a second-tier bad guy, Kim is more reminiscent of the fiercely nationalistic Fidel Castro, who excelled at playing the "madman card.") In 1962, the Soviet Union had 300 nuclear weapons capable of reaching U.S. territory, including 32 in Cuba, 90 miles from the Florida Keys.
Nevertheless, there are unsettling parallels with the Cuban missile crisis. While it will likely be several years before Kim can reach the American mainland with a missile, he could turn the South Korean capital Seoul into a pile of ashes tomorrow. With his Mao-like suits and Doctor Evil persona, Kim may be fodder for the late night TV comedians, but he controls a growing nuclear arsenal that poses a threat to key U.S. allies. Like Kennedy before him, Obama must be concerned about the possibility of miscalculation that could result in what McNamara termed "a spasm response" by the other side.