Bush’s invocation of the Cuban Missile Crisis to justify war in Iraq was absurd—but telling.
Published on TomPaine.com.
I haven’t watched Thirteen Days recently, but I think it’s safe to say that if George W. Bush were President during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we’d all be dead.
In the fall of 2002, on the 40th anniversary of the crisis, President Bush tried to evoke John F. Kennedy to justify his impending attack on Iraq: “As President Kennedy said in October of 1962,” Bush quoted with brazen disregard for irony, “the world community of nations [cannot] tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small.”
Of course, there’s no real comparison between Saddam’s scheming and the deployment of Soviet nukes a short swim from the Florida coast. But now that the Bush administration mentions it, there is a point to reflecting on the analogy. Not only does it demonstrate a disturbing level of delusion within the White House, it raises frightening questions about what would happen if Bush actually faced a serious threat.
Last February, Colin Powell put on a Def Leppard-esque multimedia extravaganza at the U.N. in an attempt awe the other delegates with an “irrefutable and undeniable” case against Iraq. Powell tried to replicate Kennedy-era U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson’s display of reconnaissance photos that pinpointed Soviet missile sites in Cuba. Reflecting on the beauty of his PowerPoint presentation (supposedly showing Iraqi “decontamination vehicles”) Powell boasted, “this was my Adlai moment.”
It didn’t quite work. Despite Powell’s “conservative estimate” predicting “a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent,” the Iraq survey team discovered zero tons of weapons agent upon sweeping the country. Since then, menacing stockpiles of deadly chemical and biological munitions have morphed, via White House spinsters, into “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities.” (“Homework-related activities” probably wouldn’t have gotten past your third grade teacher. On the other hand, “national service-related planning activities” sounds like a pretty good description of the President’s time in the National Guard in Alabama.)
While Stevenson was able to convince the world of imminent danger, Powell’s theatrics failed to make other countries hop on the bandwagon. The White House liked talking about its stately “coalition of willing,” 46-members strong as of the start of the war. But Palau, Micronesia, and Iceland do not fearsome allies make. Nor does Morocco. A March 25, 2003, article in the Washinton Post reported that:
“‘According to the [UPI] wire service, Morocco’s weekly al Usbu’ al-Siyassi claimed that Morocco has offered 2,000 monkeys to help detonate land mines.
‘An official at the Moroccan Embassy could not confirm the presence of monkeys in the coalition of the willing.'”
Willing monkeys or not, when we look at the way President Bush dealt with a fake threat in Iraq, we should grow all the more concerned about the way he would perform if confronted with a real one.
In recent weeks Bush has gone on the air to defend his decisions. Seeing the President in action outside of Top Gun dress rehearsals and fake turkey deliveries has been less than encouraging. Against all evidence, he has doggedly held to the idea that “Saddam Hussein was dangerous with weapons,” like a woman heavy with child. And with the game on the line, President Bush went with the Dr. Strangelove defense: “I’m a war president,” he said. “I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy manners with war on my mind.”
Yes, indeed he does. But war on the mind is not what averted a probably unpleasant nuclear exchange in 1962.
Let’s hope that Bush will learn something from his Iraqi missile crisis gone wrong. Unfortunately, I fear if he discovers that Kennedy’s approval ratings rose more than 13 points in the wake of the famous late-autumn confrontation with the Soviets, he may again draw a dubious lesson from history.
We can’t know, of course, whether G.W. will be inspired to dream up an “October Surprise.” But anything is possible. As President Bush says in regard to Iraq, “It’s historic times.”
Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe. Photo credit: Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Tyler J. Clements / U.S. Navy