Monday, September 2, 2013

War or Diplomacy

As we celebrate the Labor Day holiday, Americans should thank our lucky stars that we’re still around. America as we know it nearly ended in October 1962. That’s when the US military squared off against Soviet forces in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Long before President Obama proclaimed a “red line” in Syria, President John F. Kennedy drew one around Cuba. In the end, World War III was narrowly averted by back door diplomacy.

The Soviet Union is no longer around, but Russia inherited its nuclear weapons. And Russia’s leaders back Syria’s government, which Obama is threatening to “punish” with a military attack. Getting into a proxy war with Russia in the Middle East could well revive the most dangerous times of the Cold War nuclear age.

Furthermore, Syria and its regional allies previously devastated a US military force sent to send them a message.

“At this time of crisis, it is worth remembering another time, 30 years ago in October, 1983 when U.S. warships bombarded Lebanon, the country located next to Syria,” retired Col. Ann Wright wrote recently. “Within weeks, the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut was blown up by a massive truck bomb that killed 241 American servicemen: 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers. The truck driver-suicide bomber was an Iranian national named Ismail Ascari … Two minutes later a second suicide bomber drove a truck filled with explosives into the French military compound in Beirut killing 58 French paratroopers.”

The explosive blowback against US military posturing aimed at countering Syria’s influence in Lebanon also destroyed US diplomatic work in the region. Wright, a former diplomat as well as Army officer, noted:

“Earlier in the year, on April 18, 1983, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut had been blown up by another suicide driver with 900 pounds of explosives that killed 63 people, 17 Americans, mostly embassy and CIA staff members, several soldiers and one Marine, 34 Lebanese employees of the US Embassy and 12 Embassy visitors. It was the deadliest attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission up to that time, and marked the beginning of anti-U.S. attacks by Islamist groups. The U.S. and French military were in Lebanon as a part of a Multi-National force after the PLO left Lebanon following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. ostensibly to create a 40 km buffer zone between the PLO and Syrian forces in Lebanon and Israel.”

US military forces withdrew from Lebanon and diplomatic efforts sputtered out. Three violent decades later, Obama aims to fire cruise missiles into Syria to teach them a lesson, a move that could backfire in explosive ways that wreck peacemaking work in the region for another generation.

If Obama intends to resolve this long-simmering crisis, rather than inflame it, he should read a perceptive account in The Atlantic of how Kennedy ultimately used diplomacy in the Cuban Missile Crisis:

“Plainly shaken by the apocalyptic potentialities of the situation, Kennedy advocated, in the face of the bellicose and near-unanimous opposition of his pseudo-tough-guy advisers, accepting the missile swap that Khrushchev had proposed [that the US remove its nuclear missiles from the Soviet border area in Turkey in exchange for Soviet missiles being shipped back from Cuba]. …”

Obama should continue reading how Kennedy hid this diplomatic deal from the American public, so that he would look tough militarily.

“Although Kennedy in fact agreed to the missile swap and, with Khrushchev, helped settle the confrontation maturely, the legacy of that confrontation was nonetheless pernicious. By successfully hiding the deal from the vice president, from a generation of foreign-policy makers and strategists, and from the American public, Kennedy and his team reinforced the dangerous notion that firmness in the face of what the United States construes as aggression, and the graduated escalation of military threats and action in countering that aggression, makes for a successful national-security strategy…”

As the author of The Atlantic article, Benjamin Schwarz, noted:

“This esoteric strategizing—this misplaced obsession with credibility, this dangerously expansive concept of what constitutes security—which has afflicted both Democratic and Republican administrations, and both liberals and conservatives, is the antithesis of statecraft, which requires discernment based on power, interest, and circumstance.” 

The lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis that Kennedy muddled is that diplomacy is a far better bet than waging war—and it takes more courage to do peacemaking than doing puffed chest posturing to look warrior-like.

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