Having just completed a trilogy of books about decisive moments in the Cold War, I am bemused by the "Who lost the Arab Spring?" debate that suddenly seems to be gripping Washington. Like many foreign policy controversies, this one is driven more by the domestic political agenda -- and specifically the presidential election in November -- than informed analysis of actual events.
To hear many Republicans talk, Barack Obama is to blame for the sudden upsurge of violence in the Arab world that claimed the life of our brave ambassador to Libya. The president's repeated "apologies" for American values have encouraged the extremists in Cairo, Benghazi, and elsewhere.
This kind of argument is similar to the "Who lost China?" debate that followed the Chinese Communist seizure of power in 1949. It supposes that China -- or the Arab Spring, in this case -- was ours to lose. The reality, of course, is that a U.S. president has very little influence over what happens in the paddy-fields of China or the streets of Cairo or the bazaars of Baghdad, unless he chooses to send in the First Armored Division. And as we have seen in Iraq, the forceful exercise of presidential power does not always produce the desired results.
A central theme of my three Cold War books -- Down with Big Brother, One Minute to Midnight, and Six Months in 1945 -- is the role of political leadership versus the chaotic forces of history. There are moments -- the Cuban missile crisis is a good example -- when the fate of the world hangs on the decisions and actions of a few individuals. More generally, however, the politicians are left scrambling to keep pace with events that are beyond their ability to control.
The most successful leaders are those who understand this fundamental truth, but keep plugging away all the same. At the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln lamented that he did not control events. "Events control me." And yet he somehow steered the country through the greatest crisis in its history. JFK expressed very similar sentiments during the Cuban missile crisis.
Of course, there are different types of foreign policy crises. As I describe in One Minute to Midnight, the missile crisis is a good example of a crisis that Kennedy and Khrushchev helped to create. This is a rare case where two men actually had the power to blow up the world. Through a series of mistakes and miscalculations, Kennedy and Khrushchev led the world to the brink of nuclear destruction -- but also had the wisdom to lead it back from the brink.
The onset of the Cold War was a different kind of crisis, more akin to the kind of crisis we are facing in the Middle East right now. In my forthcoming book, Six Months in 1945, I conclude that neither FDR, nor Stalin, nor Churchill, nor Truman wanted the Cold War. They sought to postpone it, for as long as they could. But it happened anyway -- because of the larger forces of history identified by Alexis de Tocqueville more than a century before.
"Their starting point is different and their courses are not the same," de Tocqueville wrote of Russia and America in 1839, "yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe." I think we are seeing a historical upheaval of similar dimensions play out before our eyes on the streets of the Arab world.
In my last blog post, I asked how the Kremlin was able to fool the CIA about the nature of its military assistance to Cuba during the summer of 1962. U.S. intelligence estimated Soviet troop strength in Cuba at between 4,000-4,500 as late as early October 1962, when by that time around 35,000 Soviet soldiers had arrived on the island. It was not until October 15 that the CIA figured out that these soldiers were equipped with nuclear weapons capable of destroying major American cities.
One reason for the bungled CIA intelligence was that the Russians are very good at what they called maskirovka, the art of concealment. They dressed their soldiers up to look like "agricultural technicians," in conformity with the cover story. The CIA did not latch on to the fact that the "agricultural technicians" were all wearing almost identical checkered shirts-see photograph above-leading Soviet wags to call the Cuban adventure "Operation Checkered Shirt."
But another reason for the miscalculation was the CIA's tendency to "mirror image." The intelligence analysts used American standards, rather than Russians standards, as the basis for measuring Soviet troop strength. They observed the number of Soviet ships crossing the Atlantic, figured out the likely deck space, and calculated the number of likely passengers. What they failed to understand was that the Russian soldiers were crammed below decks in almost slave transport conditions, with just sixteen square feet of living space per person, barely enough to lie down.
There was one person in the CIA who correctly guessed the reason for the massive Soviet armada crossing the Atlantic-and that was the director, John McCone. Informed that the Soviets were developing a sophisticated air defense system in Cuba, McCone reasoned that they must have something very important to hide-and guessed that it was nuclear missiles. But this was an inspired deduction, not an intelligence estimate, and it did not represent the official position of the CIA.
It should also be noted that McCone was the most senior Republican to serve in the Kennedy administration. His conclusions were politically embarrassing to the president, who was acutely aware of the approach of mid-term elections. In my next post, I will address a politically sensitive question that was raised again, four decades later, during the run-up to the Iraq War.
Did the intelligence people tell the president what they thought he wanted to hear?
Fifty years ago this month, an armada of Soviet ships crossed the Atlantic, headed toward Cuba. As this August 21 New York Times report shows, the Kennedy administration dismissed claims by Cuban exiles in Miami that the ships were carrying combat troops and sophisticated military equipment. U.S. officials were initially inclined to accept the Soviet explanation that most of the personnel arriving in Cuba were "civilian technicians," with a sprinkling of "military advisers."
One of the Soviet ships was the Poltava, photographed above as it neared the end of its voyage, which turned out to be carrying a shipment of eight medium-range nuclear missiles capable of reaching Washington and New York. In order to mislead the CIA, the Soviets hid the missiles in long holds, originally designed for the lumber trade. According to Soviet accounts, there were 261 military personnel on board, but they were also kept out of sight below decks.
Transporting an army of 50,000 men, including five missile regiments, in secret half way across the world under the gaze of Uncle Sam was a huge logistical undertaking. It required a fleet of 85 ships, many of which made two or even three trips to Cuba. The final destination was kept secret even from the regimental commanders and ship captains. It was only after they passed Gibraltar, and entered the Atlantic, that they received the instruction "proceed to Cuba."
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, we should spare a thought for the Soviet soldiers crammed below decks in the stifling heat, with barely enough room to lie down. (Temperatures reached 120 degrees at times.) To be allowed up on deck and breathe the fresh air was a privilege, granted to soldiers on special occasions, such as their birthday, and only at night, when there was little risk of being photographed.
Needless to say, by the time they reached Cuba, they were hardly fighting fit. As I described in my book One Minute to Midnight, Soviet military statisticians estimated that three out of every four passengers got seriously seasick. The average Soviet soldier lost twenty-two pounds in weight during the voyage.
What is most remarkable about this epic expedition is that the CIA failed to understand its significance until the very last moment. I will describe why our spooks got it so wrong in a subsequent post.
"What did the president know and when did he know it?" was the question made famous by Watergate. During the two years I spent researching the Cuban missile crisis, I came to feel that a more appropriate question about the man waiting for that 3 a.m. phone call in the White House would be: "What didn't the president know and when didn't he know it?"
Confronted with grave national security crises, we comfort ourselves with the image of a near-omniscient commander-in-chief able to draw on the vast resources of the world's most powerful military machine. The historical record suggests a more realistic -- and human -- picture of presidents stumbling about in the semi-darkness as they attempt to master the chaotic forces of history. With rare exceptions, it is difficult for them to bend history to their will: the most they can do is avoid the obvious pitfalls. As Abraham Lincoln remarked at the height of the Civil War, "I do not control events, events control me."
In my book One Minute to Midnight, I tried to integrate the debates in the White House with a minute-by-minute account of events in the rest of the world. The disconnect was often jarring.
Cecil Stoughton, White House/John F. Kennedy Library, Boston
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the nerve-wracking peak of the Cold War. To commemorate this event, Foreign Policy is launching a "Tweeting the Cuban Missile Crisis" feed in real time, chronicling the days, hours, and minutes when the world stood on the brink of nuclear destruction.
See the entire project here