Making the case for action against Iraq, President Bush has quoted what President John F. Kennedy said in October of 1962: "We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation's security to constitute maximum peril."
In thinking about Iraq, one of the president's closest advisers told The New York Times,"The example he refers to is the Cuban missile crisis." Says Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: "It is not a perfect, on all fours, analogy, but it is certainly as similar as anything in recent years that one can find."
As a longtime student of the missile crisis, I agree with Mr. Bush that the similarities between it and the current face-off with Iraq are more salient than the differences. What's uncertain in the current crisis, however, is whether Bush will grasp and apply what Kennedy judged the most significant lesson of the missile crisis.
Initially, Bush found the missile crisis analogy helpful in thinking about preventive action before an adversary fired the first shot.
"In his mind, it's got that kind of urgency," the adviser noted.
Like Kennedy before him, Bush has taken the initiative in confronting an adversary to demand elimination of actions he deems unacceptable. Then, the threat was Soviet missiles in Cuba; today, it is Iraq's continued buildup of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
To eliminate the threat, each president asserted unambiguously American readiness to use overwhelming force, should that prove necessary. Moreover, both assembled overwhelming military force to make vivid the fact that the adversary had no alternative.
In both cases, the presidents' and their advisers' initial choice was a military attack. Yet here, a potential difference emerges. In 1962, JFK paused to reconsider, concluding upon reflection that his first answer was not the best answer. Probing his advisers about likely Soviet responses, US countermoves, and subsequent third and fourth steps in this deadly chess game, Kennedy stimulated a decisionmaking process that invented additional options short of war.