The Cuban Missile Crisis versus the Crisis with Iraq

This month marks the fortieth anniversary of Cuban Missile Crisis. The conjunction of this anniversary with the Iraq crisis has led various policymakers and pundits, including President Bush, to make comparisons between the two incidents. Mr. Bush would have us believe that the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis support a preemptive war against Iraq. Mr. Bush is wrong, and his misreading of the Cuban Missile Crisis illustrates what is wrong with the current administration’s policy toward Iraq.

The origins of the Cuban Missile Crisis make it clear that a threat to overthrow a regime can lead the leaders of that regime to take desperate measures–Fidel Castro has recently stated that it was the fear of an American invasion that led him to accept nuclear missiles in Cuba. The lesson for the current crisis is simple: The threat to invade and occupy Iraq is likely to speed the efforts of Iraq (and other countries) to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, as the CIA has warned, an American invasion may lead Iraq either to use these weapons against the United States and its allies or to supply them for use in terrorist attacks.

The negotiations during the Cuban Missile Crisis also offer lessons that Mr. Bush ignores at great peril. The United States was successful at resolving the crisis without war in large part because President Kennedy and his advisers allowed Khrushchev to save face. By agreeing to remove the aging American Jupiter missiles that were stationed in Turkey, Mr. Khrushchev could argue that the removal of missiles from Cuba was part of a quid pro quo. But Mr. Bush has shown no interest in negotiating with Iraq–he has made it clear that war is preferable to any sort of compromise.

This is perhaps the biggest difference between U.S. policy during the Cuban Missile Crisis and U.S. policy today. While Mr. Kennedy and his advisers recognized that war was a possibility for which they had to prepare, they were always cognizant of the costs of war and did all they could to avoid it. Mr. Bush, in contrast, downplays the likely cost of war, as shown in his comment that the situation with Iraq “could hardly get worse.” But the costs of war may be very high indeed, and not only for the Iraqi troops and civilians who will be the obvious first casualties. After all, the reason given for the war is that Iraq is pursuing weapons of mass destruction, and recent reports have suggested that its biological weapons may include smallpox. So the situation with Iraq can get much worse–including even the possibility of a smallpox epidemic–if an American invasion prompts the use of whatever chemical and biological weapons Iraq possesses.

The dangers of the Cuban Missile Crisis were due, in part, to the fact that a stable deterrent relationship had yet to emerge between the United States and the Soviet Union. During the crisis Mr. Kennedy and his advisers were careful to focus on the immediate issue–the missiles in Cuba, and did not inflame the situation by seeking the overthrow of either Mr. Castro or Mr. Khrushchev. And after the crisis was over, the United States and the Soviet Union took steps to help ensure that a stable deterrent relationship emerged despite their deep differences of regime type and ideology. These are the lessons that Mr. Bush should be applying today.