Democratic Underground

Drawing His Line in the Sand

October 9, 2004
By Phyllis Teague

On October 7, 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 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 policy.

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 Crisis.

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 disaster.

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 solution.”

• 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 it on.”

• 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.

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