No Jack Kennedy
Last week, by wide margins, Congress granted to the Bush administration broad authority to embark on a preemptive war against the country of Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein. In the weeks preceding the votes, Bush and his underlings proclaimed the necessity and urgency of war. Yet forty years ago this month, the Kennedy administration faced a far greater and immediate threat than Iraq now poses, and chose a course that avoided a potentially horrific war.
Besides the immediate threat of war, however, the Bush administration threatens to create a chronic and severe threat to peace. Even if some happenstance prevents war between Iraq and the United States, by making preemption a part of its basic policy, the Bush administration risks setting an awful precedent for other leaders and other countries.
President Bush has talked at length about the supposed dangers of the supposedly awesome Iraqi nuclear program, but one of his predecessors had to deal with a far more potent threat. Iraq now lacks missiles that can reach the United States, and even lacks the nuclear material to build viable warheads. In October 1962, the United States obtained photographic proof that actual Russian missiles and nuclear warheads were 100 miles away from the American mainland. The missiles and warheads in Cuba posed a real threat to the United States. They posed the potential threat of a sneak attack on American bases or cities.
Once the presence of Soviet missiles became public knowledge, many members of Congress and much of the Pentagon brass favored immediate air strikes against the missile installations, followed by an invasion. Although he had authorized an unsuccessful invasion only 18 months beforehand, President Kennedy was not eager for a rematch. He declined to attack Cuba, and settled instead on a naval blockade of Cuba. Eventually, the Soviet Union withdrew the missile in exchange for the American withdrawal of missiles in Greece and Turkey. As some recently declassified documents show, the United States and Soviet Union narrowly averted nuclear war, and almost certainly would have gone to war after an invasion of Cuba.
The Cuban Missile Crisis served notice to both countries that tense stand-offs between nuclear powers could lead to, but did not entail, all-out war. While the United States and Soviet Union were always distrustful of one another, one of the key lessons of October 1962 was that both countries preferred a watchful peace to war. In the years after 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union served to counter each other's aggressions. They entered agreements to slow, then reverse the nuclear arms race, and to rely on mutual verification of each other's armaments. Also, the balance of power—not just in terms of nuclear weapons, but in geopolitical interests—between the two most powerful countries on earth meant that neither could act with utter impunity.
Even as recently as twenty years ago, the United States routinely condemned preemptive attacks as contrary to international law, regardless of the countries involved. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and eventually replaced the Khmer Rouge regime with its own government. Although the leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, had killed over 3 million of his own people, and was arguably the most brutal world figure since Stalin and Hitler, the United States and its allies sided with the Khmer Rouge, in part because they were hostile to Soviet Communism, and in part because international law frowned on invasions.
In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up a failing Communist government and attempt to quash uprisings in the country. The Carter administration cut off grain shipments to the Soviet Union, withdrew the American team from the upcoming Moscow Olympic Games, and began funding some of the Afghan rebel forces. In 1981, Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor that Iraq was nearly finished building at Osirak. The Reagan administration sharply condemned the attack, despite the close ties between Israel and the United States. Now, President Bush wants the world to celebrate an invasion of a sovereign country.
Whatever theoretical merit preemptive attacks have should be tempered by at least two misgivings. First, some of the most treacherous acts of warfare in modern history have been acts of preemption. Even if one dismisses the attacks in 2001 by Al-Qaeda against the United States as acts of terrorism and not war, bad examples abound of preemptive warfare. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was despicable and unwarranted. Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975 was despicable and unwarranted. The Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1981 were despicable and unwarranted. Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was despicable and unwarranted. Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939 was despicable and unwarranted. International law has rightly come to regard invasion of sovereign states as a measure properly borne out of last resort.
Second, using preemptive war as an agent of statecraft establishes a haunting precedent. The Bush administration has publicly proclaimed that it will, by any means possible, prevent other countries from challenging America's preeminent position in world affairs. Arguing that preemption is good policy for America invites other countries to emulate us. The Russian government has threatened to send troops into the Republic of Georgia to quash the Chechen rebellion. India and Pakistan are continuing to quarrel over the proper disposition of Kashmir. Israel seeks ways to prevent Palestinian terrorists from killing Israeli civilians. Can the Bush administration seriously believe that justice and peace are better served if Russia, India, Pakistan, and Israel, as well as other countries, have carte blanche to invade their neighbors just because they can? Alternatively, can the Bush administration really claim that one set of rules applies to the United States and not to the rest of the world?
In 1962, the United States avoided a preemptive war that could have killed millions of people. In 2002, the United States is gearing up for a preemptive war that is far less dangerous in and of itself, but carries great danger in the precedent that it could set. Time will tell George Bush can be another Jack Kennedy.
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