Pearl Harbor in Reverse

Visualize a scene from the recent past. An American president elected by a whisker-thin margin, but now riding a wave of personal popularity, is meeting with his advisors barely two years into his term of office. The president, his foreign-policy team, and representatives of the Pentagon are contemplating a critical decision: They are deciding whether or not to attack a much smaller Third World country ruled by a dictator with a record of antipathy toward the United States, a country deemed by many a serious threat to our national security.

George W. Bush and his administration on the verge of war with Iraq? No, John F. Kennedy and his "best and brightest" during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. But there the similarity ends. In contrast to today's bellicose executive leadership, the Kennedy operatives (most of them) were characterized by a scrupulous concern not only for the good opinion of America's Western allies but of the world in general; they were motivated as well by an abiding respect for the eventual verdict of history, and they carried on their deliberations with the weight of American moral principles and democratic traditions bearing heavily upon them. In short, their decision on how to respond to the installation of Soviet missile sites in Cuba incorporated far more than military considerations.

The Kennedy approach was a far cry from the current Bush mindset with respect to Iraq. According to the GOP militants in the White House, Saddam Hussein and his regime will unquestionably be attacked and overthrown; it's only a question of precisely how and when. In the wake of Sept. 11, we are told, a preemptive strike against Iraq (or any other unfriendly government or suspected terrorist state) is our absolute right as an aggrieved nation. Proof of hostile actions or evil intentions directed against the US is not necessary, just a reasonable suspicion that the bad actor in Baghdad wishes us ill and might, at some future date, act out his aggressive fantasies. The fact that America condemned Israel when it engineered a preemptive bombing raid against Iraq in 1981, levelling a nuclear reactor that could, conceivably, have been used for weapons-making purposes, has been long forgotten.

The Bush rhetoric suggests that Saddam will be only the first victim of a righteous and vengeful screaming eagle out to police the globe. If any other sullen Third World countries look at us the wrong way, if they develop offensive "weapons of mass destruction" (ours are merely defensive), if they coddle presumed terrorists, if they fail to shape up and get in line with American interests (especially economic interests), we will take them out. Like the unsavory regime in Iraq, those in Iran, North Korea, and other recalcitrant "rogue states" unwilling to share the Washington view of the world will be considered (paraphrasing George W. Bush) enemies until proven otherwise.

This chest-thumping, bully-boy attitude is not only arrogant and dangerous, it will prove expensive -- in lives, certainly, but also in national treasure. The tab for ousting Saddam Hussein, CBS News reports, will be an estimated $80 billion. (Goodbye domestic spending.) Other likely ramifications of an Iraq campaign, as The Nation magazine pointed out recently, include widespread civilian casualties, unstable world oil prices, political chaos in the Middle East, the bad PR associated with US unilateralism, and the likelihood that Saddam, having nothing to lose, will go down in nuclear and/or chemical-biological flames, taking many with him. All in all, the "Bush Doctrine" of preventative warmaking is officially sanctioned foolishness -- or worse.

Back to the past, when we had leaders worthy of the name. During the Cuban crisis of 1962, moral values still informed American foreign policy. JFK aide and biographer Theodore C. Sorensen wrote of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's "impassioned" response to the suggestion of an offensive air strike against the newly installed missile bases in Cuba, which would be "a Pearl Harbor in reverse," blackening the historical reputation of the United States. Kennedy advocated instead the naval-blockade strategy that was ultimately (and successfully) adopted, with the support of Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, among others -- a policy not unlike the containment policy applied with equal success to Iraq since 1991.

It may be worthwhile, in light of the Bush administration's tough-guy rhetoric, to quote Robert Kennedy directly on the decision he and his brother faced 40 years ago. Fortunately, we have his personal recollections, set down immediately following the critical events and posthumously published in book form as Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis [W. W. Norton, 1969]. The first five of those 13 days, RFK wrote, were largely spent debating the moral justification of launching a massive preemptive air bombardment of Cuba to eliminate the Soviet missiles that, though nominally defensive, had potential first-strike capability. "We struggled and fought with one another and with our consciences," he recalled, "for it was a question that deeply troubled us all."

RFK, a tough guy himself, nevertheless took the lead in making the case against an unprovoked sneak attack: "With some trepidation, I argued that, whatever the validity the military and political arguments were for such an attack in preference to a blockade [think sanctions and containment in the case of Iraq], America's traditions and history would not permit such a course of action. ... Most importantly, like others, I could not accept the idea that the United States would rain bombs on Cuba, killing thousands and thousands of civilians in a surprise attack." He added that whatever sound military reasons bombing advocates could marshal, they were, in the last analysis, proposing a Pearl Harbor-style assault "by a very large nation against a very small one."

Such an attack, RFK felt, "could not be undertaken by the US if we were to maintain our moral position at home and around the globe." His reservations, while essentially idealistic, were at the same time eminently practical. Acting against our own heritage of fairness and decency, he reasoned, would be self-destructive in the end, and it would produce anti-American hatred and bitterness throughout Latin America [think, in today's context, the Middle East] that would persist for decades. It was this argument -- sensible, pragmatic, but at bottom based on moral principle -- that ultimately swayed President Kennedy and peacefully resolved the crisis, avoiding nuclear Armageddon in the process.

President Bush, fortunately, does not have to worry about a world war with another superpower; he can bomb and invade Iraq with relative impunity. But the moral ambiguities Robert Kennedy wrestled with four decades ago remain on the front burner. The unilateral and preemptive Bush Doctrine can be implemented, but at an enormous potential cost that goes beyond money and American lives. In the end, after all the strategic and tactical issues have been sorted through, the operable questions remain: What kind of a people are we, and what will be our final historical legacy?

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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