The thought that the current Syrian situation mirrors in some ways the Cuban Missile Crisis was playing for room in my mind when I read the quote from Peggy Noonan in her WSJ blog. She made the following comparison (in her inimitable prose):
“Syria...was Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis—high-stakes, eyeball-to-eyeball, with weapons of mass destruction and an implacable foe. The steady waiting it out, the inner anguish, the idea that crosses the Telex that seems to soften the situation. A cool, calibrated, chancy decision to go with the idea, to make a concession. In the end it got us through the crisis.”
Noonan’s comparison is well written and well thought out. This is, in many ways, the kind of face-off between superpowers that puts the world on the brink of major military confrontation over the deployment (in one case) and use (in the other) of weapons of mass destruction. All of a sudden, just before the shooting was bound to start -- possibly to escalate out of control regionally or globally -- a diplomatic solution appears, and offers an opportunity that seems ideal, if managed with subtlety, to settle differences in the conference room rather than on the battleground.
It is difficult for Obama to start firing missiles (even at cruel tyrants) when everyone, from the Pope on down to your most recently elected member of Congress is telling you that war is the last resort. It is part of the hubris of an American president to flex your muscles but not have to use them.
For that reason, and because he is a Nobel Peace laureate, Obama must smell victory where there previously was only the stench of vacillation and inevitable defeat. The “victory” will be sealed if Assad at least goes through the motions of subscribing to international accords on WMD. And that will certainly happen, since it would be sheer idiocy not to sign whatever they put in front of him if it begets a corresponding promise of non-intervention.
And that is precisely where the analogy to the Cuban Missile Crisis becomes scary. Implicit in any deal worked out with Putin or the United Nations or even the Pope and his entire College of Cardinals, is the promise that neither the United States nor the UN will intervene in Syria’s civil war if the future use of WMD is foreclosed.
That promise, by the community of free and mostly democratic nations, has echoes of the promise by JFK not to interfere with Castro-communism if the Soviets removed their medium range missiles from Cuba. In that case, the promise was contained in a secret exchange of hand-delivered correspondence, commonly referred to as the “Kennedy-Khrushchev” letters. It could not be ratified by the rest of the world, because it was not known until later; but world leaders would have endorsed it, as they are getting ready to do with the Syrian deal.
After the Cuban quid-pro-quo referred to above, involving removal of missiles in exchange for the promise of non-intervention, the world breathed a sigh of relief that lasted until the end of the Cold War. President Kennedy regained his touch and left a lasting legacy of goodwill towards America that is still unsurpassed. The image of strength, if not necessarily the reality, was tarnished only by the Vietnam mess -- a stain that was lessened substantially by the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Soviet empire.
But Cuba is still in chains, and the policy of non-intervention is still in place, 50 years after the Missile Crisis. Castro is still a cruel tyrant, and he and his allies (read: Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro) are strong supporters of Syria’s cruel regime.
Ideology is the only place where the comparison fails; Khrushchev and Castro were hardline communists, whereas Putin is a reformed, dictatorially inclined, semi-democratically elected socialist and Assad is just a simple tyrant who happens to count on the support of a more malevolent, more ideological, and more radical puppeteer called Iran.
Syria under Assad is a regional explosion waiting to happen. Unlike Cuba, Syria is not an island and cannot be contained simply by removing medium-range missiles. The use of chemical WMD by Syria on its own people is a humanitarian disaster; the elimination of the WMD (assuming it can be monitored) solves very little, except in the symbolic sense.
Indiscriminate killing of civilians will continue and war will rage, with the probable result of regime continuation. The threat of military action by the world’s only superpower (and history’s only benevolent one) will no longer be even a theoretical propaganda weapon to be brandished by those struggling to forge a free and democratic Syria.
That is not a happy ending, any more than it was for Cuba.
Xavier L. Suarez represents District 7 on the Miami-Dade County Commission.