Obama can't afford a new Cold War, but he can learn from the last one

  • Article by: STEPHEN L. CARTER , Bloomberg View
  • Updated: August 8, 2014 - 6:17 PM

It wouldn’t hurt, however, for him to hold his cards closer to the vest.


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In announcing new sanctions on Russia last week, President Obama was at pains to insist that the standoff over Ukraine doesn’t mark the beginning of a new Cold War. No doubt he’s right — but commentary on the crisis has continued to embrace the Cold War analogy anyway.

As I’ve traveled this month to promote “Back Channel,” my novel about the Cuban missile crisis, audience members have peppered me with questions about what they see as the dawning of a new Cold War.

I’ve tried to be reassuring. The Cuban missile crisis was a unique moment in human history. By bowing to pressure from his hard-liners and sneaking intermediate-range nuclear missiles into Cuba, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev set off a chain of events that could easily have led to a war that would have annihilated both the United States and the Soviet Union. Even given all the troubles around the world, we face nothing like that today.

Nevertheless, there are lessons from the Cold War in general, and the missile crisis in particular, that could usefully be applied to the foreign-policy challenges the U.S. faces today — including the standoff in Ukraine. Two points, I have told my audiences, are particularly apt.

First: Keep your adversary guessing. President John Kennedy’s ability to conceal his true intentions from Khrushchev was crucial to the successful conclusion of the Cuban missile crisis. The historian Graham Allison has recently summarized the point nicely: “Kennedy’s resolution of the 1962 crisis involved a subtle mix of threat and compromise, candor and ambiguity, coercion and inducement. If [Khrushchev] had not accepted Kennedy’s demand that he announce the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba within 24 hours, would Kennedy have ordered the air strike he threatened? The answer will never be known, but what seems certain is that Khrushchev would not have removed the missiles without the threat of force.”

To this day, we don’t know for sure whether Kennedy was really willing to push the button. Despite all the tapes, transcripts and memoirs the crisis has produced, we cannot get into Kennedy’s head. He successfully hid his hand.

Russian President Vladimir Putin understands this strategic tool. At the moment, for example, NATO and other Western observers are wondering whether the massing of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine signals imminent invasion. The West is exactly where Putin wants it: trying to guess his intentions.

The Obama administration, by contrast, has developed the maddening habit of publicly ruling out options in advance. To take only the most recent instance, the administration has accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty by testing a ground-based cruise missile. But rather than dangling the possibility of tit-for-tat, the administration has already leaked the news that it won’t respond by deploying a similar weapon.

I’m not suggesting that the United States should violate the treaty. But there is an advantage to be gained in negotiations if Putin is left to wonder.

I also tell my audiences of a second reason the Cuban missile crisis was resolved successfully — one that would be difficult to replicate today. Trapped between advisers both hawkish and dovish, Kennedy chose a middle ground: the naval quarantine of Cuba, the decision to use the U.S. fleet to ensure that no further Soviet troops or materiel could get through to the island.

Should a similar crisis arise today, it’s not obvious that the United States could pull off a successful blockade. Projecting power, even in one’s own back yard, is no small thing. The blockade required more than 150 U.S. Navy battle force ships, out of the 900 afloat in 1962.

As of this writing, the Navy’s entire roster of battle force ships today stands at 290.

In short, it would be enormously difficult for the U.S. to pull off a quarantine of Cuba today.

Moreover, the strategy works only when the adversary declines to call your bluff. Khrushchev, after a bit of dithering, chose not to challenge the U.S. blockade line. It was on learning that news — not the Soviet decision to remove the missiles — that Secretary of State Dean Rusk made his famous remark that the other fella blinked.

Khrushchev’s choice not to test Kennedy’s resolve over the blockade provided the crucial advantage Kennedy needed to conclude the crisis. In the absence of a successful quarantine, the U.S. would have been left with two unpalatable choices: live with the missiles in Cuba or go to war to get them out.

Don’t get me wrong. Not even Putin would be foolish enough to try to sneak missiles into Cuba today, not least because there’s no particular strategic advantage to be gained, but also because Russia couldn’t afford the expense. My point is different. Budget cuts must fall upon defense as they must fall everywhere, but difficulties in projecting power carry genuine costs that matter in a crisis.

We may not be facing a new Cold War, but the U.S. will only weaken its position in the world by failing to heed the lessons of the old one.

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