Drawing His Line in the Sand
October 9, 2004
By Phyllis Teague
On October 7, CBSNews.com posted an article, “Bush
Throws Down The Gauntlet,” in which the first line states, “President
Bush has drawn a line in the sand.” The article goes on to discuss
Bush’s new campaign tactic against Kerry, “a rousing, no-retreat
defense of the Iraq war and a harsh critique of John Kerry that
focuses on his Democratic rival's perceived weaknesses on both foreign
and domestic issues.”
This reminded me of Bush’s oft-repeated assertions during the first
presidential debate last week that the American people know where
he stands, that the country will “win” this war against terrorism
if the White House remains resolute, that he always sticks to his
guns on issues such as these.
I was very troubled about Bush’s stubborn attitude, his refusal
to let new information enlighten his stance toward Iraq or Afghanistan,
but I couldn’t quite articulate why — until now. When I read the
CBSNews.com article, I suddenly realized that while it’s perfectly
fine to be “resolute” with our children — that’s how we set expectations
in order to teach them discipline and moral character — stubbornness
is not a perfectly fine approach to carrying out foreign
In fact, foreign policy is extremely complex; it’s rife with ever-changing
priorities, policies, and demands. And good foreign policy calls
for sensitive, nuanced, well-thought-out actions. Leaders who have
approached diplomacy with respect for its complexity have forged
new trade alliances (such as President Nixon did with the opening
of China) and even averted international disasters. One of the best
examples of this was President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile
The public generally knows the broad details of the crisis: That
Kruschev placed offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, that Kennedy
“quarantined” Cuba, that Kruschev eventually backed down and removed
his missiles from Cuba. The public also generally understands —
as has been pointed out in several History Channel-type documentaries
— that at that moment, the world stood on the brink of a nuclear
What many may not know, however, is that the White House
and the Kremlin carried out intensive back-channel communications
and negotiations during the entire crisis. And while Kennedy publicly
took a firm, no-negotiations stance toward the Soviet Union, he
and his advisors privately strategized about ways to force
Kruschev to back down without provoking world crisis.
As Ernest R. May (co-editor of The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the
White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis) puts
it, “Though Kennedy had felt it necessary to be uncompromising
in his demand for removal of the missiles from Cuba, he had been
careful to put off to the last possible moment any action that could
result in killing a Russian … Kennedy and Khruschev both recognized
that, once blood had been spilled, it would be very hard to keep
any crisis under control.”
Consider some of the intricacies Kennedy had to deal with during
the Cuban Missile Crisis:
• The Soviets had blockaded West Berlin in 1948, and according
to May, “in 1958 Khruschev had once more revived the threat,
and he continued to do so.” Kennedy feared that quarantining
Cuba over the Soviet nuclear missiles would provoke a “showdown”
over West Berlin. Nevertheless, he believed, as May says, that
“the quarantine bought time for possibly developing some diplomatic
• May also notes, “Both for legal reasons and for resonance
with Franklin Roosevelt's 'Quarantine Address' of 1937, the
term 'quarantine' was substituted for 'blockade'. That is, during
the crisis Kennedy was so aware that even minor actions
could provoke a serious confrontation, he and his staff labored
even over the correct language to use every step of the
way — there was never, ever a braggart’s boast to “Bring
• Although the United States instituted the quarantine of Cuba,
Kennedy and his advisors privately wondered how they would actually
stop a Soviet ship should it cross the quarantine line. If a
Soviet commander thought he were being attacked by the U.S.,
it might provoke an exchange of missile fire and escalate into
the dreaded nuclear exchange.
• Kennedy was painfully aware of the delicate line between
being uncompromising in demanding that the Soviets remove their
missiles from Cuba and so uncompromising that Kruschev decided
to move on West Berlin anyway — thus provoking an exchange of
nuclear missiles, which both the United States and the Soviet
Union saw as the ultimate outcome of such a confrontation.
In other words, Kennedy and his staff proceeded cautiously, carefully,
every step of the way throughout the crisis. According to May, Kennedy
and his advisors first had “favored bombing Cuba.” By the third
day of the crisis, however, caution and knowledge of the far-reaching
implications of such actions prevailed in the White House. May quotes
Undersecretary of State George Ball: “…a U.S. surprise attach on
Cuba would be ‘like Pearl Harbor. It’s the kind of conduct that
one might expect of the Soviet Union. It is not conduct that one
expects of the United States’” [emphasis mine].
Secretary of State Dean Rusk agreed with that assessment and noted
that “the decision-makers could carry ‘the mark of Cain’ [a biblical
reference to killing one’s own brother] on their brows for the rest
of their lives.” It’s hard not to contrast Rusk’s biblical reference
— one that cautions the United States to remember its obligations
to even those it considers to be enemies — to the apocalyptic, endtime
biblical references preferred by President Bush and his cronies.
In fact, Kennedy’s nuanced, intricate, delicate assessment and
handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis stands in stark contrast to
Bush’s shortcutting and bypassing of any diplomatic process
in Iraq. Moment by moment during the crisis, Kennedy and his advisors
considered the consequences of any action they might take
and how the United States and the rest of the world might be affected.
What’s more, Kennedy’s aversion to provoking war of any
kind with the Soviet Union even more starkly stands in contrast
to Bush’s jones for a showdown at high noon with Iraq, as it were.
Where Kennedy did all in his power to avoid a war with the
Soviet Union — and probably a global disaster — Bush and his cronies
drove the United States and the world toward a military confrontation
with Iraq, despite opposition from nearly everyone else on the planet.
In driving us into that war, Bush “steadfastly” maintained the
pace toward the war — never letting new information of any kind
deter him from his course — and systematically upped the “diplomatic”
pressure on the rest of the world to comply. He constantly reminded
the world that we would consider those who harbor terrorists the
same as terrorists. So much for nuanced diplomacy.
According to infoplease’s Iraq
Timeline: 2002–Present, Bush declared Iraq to be part of the
“Axis of Evil” on January 29, 2002. Then, only seven months passed
between the UN Security Council’s imposing of “smart sanctions”
against Iraq (May 14, 2002) and Bush’s approval of deploying U.S.
troops to the Gulf region (December 21, 2002). And although “Iraq
beg[an] to destroy its Al Samoud missiles” on March 1, 2003, Bush
delivered his ultimatum to Sadam Hussein on March 17, 2003, and
began the air strike on Baghdad on March 19, 2003.
Now against the two weeks of the Cuban Missile Crisis, these months
leading up to the war in Iraq appear to be an eternity of diplomatic
efforts. Yet nearly every document and book subsequently released
mentions Bush’s steadfast refusal to consider any option other than
a war with Iraq — and this in spite of the growing evidence
that Iraq posed no immediate or gathering threat, that it had dismantled
its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs years before,
and that it had no weapons of mass destruction.
Not only did Bush stonewall the UN inspectors, turn a cold shoulder
to counsel from our world allies, and ignore the worldwide protests
of millions of people, he blew past a foundational concept of our
foreign policy: that the U.S. will not engage in preemptive war.
And although we don’t yet know all the consequences of our
actions concerning Iraq, we do know these things:
• We have made enemies among those who formerly had been our
allies. If we ever were to face a real crisis — like
the Cuban Missile Crisis, and totally unlike the strawman
Iraq crisis Bush and his coterie drummed up — could we even
get support from those we have alienated over Iraq? Or would
we be left to go it our own gunslingin’ way, shouting “Bring
it on!” over the CNN/FOX/MSNBC airways?
• We have committed troops and funding to a poorly planned,
poorly organized effort in Iraq. Despite the rosy picture Bush
paints of how welcome our presence is to the Iraqis, our “management”
of the situation in Iraq is leaving thousands of Iraqis hungry,
cold, angry, and dead.
• We have so willy-nilly spent our surplus funds, current funds,
and future funds on the Iraq war and tax cuts for the wealthy
that by even the most conservative of estimates, it will take
generations to recover from the Bush deficit. The Bush spending
policy is ensuring that our children and grandchildren will
have to sweep up his mess — both fiscally and diplomatically.
If it is even possible to sweep it up.
I suppose that for people who have lived in constant fear since
the September 11 terrorist attacks, and for those who fear new ideas,
new technology, new public priorities, Bush’s daddy-like approach
to “drawing a line in the sand” is comforting. If he takes a firm
stance, if he’s resolute and ‘says what he means and means what
he says,’ all we have to do then is to be compliant, obedient children
and daddy Bush’ll take care of the rest; he’ll protect us from that
bad ol’ Saddam Hussein — or whomever is next in the gunsights.
The United States was lucky that gifted statesmen were in the White
House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But I pray to God that while
Bush inhabits the White House we never face a crisis like
the one Kennedy faced with Kruschev over those nuclear missiles
in Cuba. Oh, Bush would be firm, resolute, all right. But given
the only nuances Bush understands is his very short line between
“I’m a calm kind of guy” and “Bring it on,” given that all Bush
knows about foreign diplomacy is to “draw his line in the sand,”
we likely wouldn’t avoid a nuclear holocaust this time.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll take nuanced diplomacy any day
over always knowing exactly where the president stands, unwavering
in spite of new information, on foreign policy issues.
Phyllis Teague is a freelance writer in New Mexico.