Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara says, with some exuberance, “Yes, exactly. We ought to go in at dawn and take out that SAM site, and we ought to send the surveillance aircraft in tomorrow, and we ought to be prepared to take out more SAM sites.”
At the group’s meeting four days earlier, Kennedy had agreed to do just that if a U-2 were shot down. But now that it had happened, he decided against it. “I think we should wait,” he says, and turned back to what he’d been discussing before the news came in.
What he’d been discussing was Khrushchev’s offer to end the crisis through a Cuba-for-Turkey missile-trade. As noted above, all of Kennedy’s advisers opposed the trade. JFK insisted on taking it (“To any man at the United Nations or any other rational man,” he says, “it will look like a very fair trade”), and later that day, the crisis ended.
Now this isn’t a parallel with the crisis in Syria. For one thing, JFK’s remark about taking forceful action if a Soviet SAM shot down a U-2 plane was made in a closed meeting with his advisers; Obama’s remarks about treating the use of Syrian chemical weapons as a red line were made in public, several times. A lot of people around the world, friends and foes, are curious to see how the president follows up.
Still, the U-2 incident is instructive. Kennedy knew he had to get the Soviet missiles out of Cuba, but he didn’t want to launch air strikes and send in troops—as the Joint Chiefs had suggested doing, beginning two days later. He worried that the Soviets would respond by grabbing West Berlin (which was pretty much undefended at the time) and that the conflict would escalate from there, perhaps to all-out war. He was looking for a diplomatic alternative from the third day of the 13-day crisis, and in Khrushchev’s deal, he found it. (The deal was kept secret, as he knew that any sort of compromise with the Soviets, in those Cold War days, would have set off a political storm. Kennedy told nobody outside his seven closest advisers; his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, who might have done well to know about it in his own upcoming crises, was not among them. The secret deal wasn’t made public until 20 years later.)
The Kennedy–Khrushchev showdown was a lot more perilous than any confrontation one might imagine between Obama and Assad. Still, there are some common elements. Obama, clearly, would rather steer clear of the civil war in Syria. The rebels, whom he’s under pressure to arm, are a fractious lot, infested with jihadists. Assad can’t be allowed to stay, but if he’s overthrown by force, his successor might be morally as bad and geostrategically worse. And while escalation might resolve the war more quickly, it might also broaden the fighting throughout the region.
It’s understandable if Obama is seeking a diplomatic solution; and it’s also understandable if he’s placing his hopes on Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent mission to Moscow. The Russians seem to be getting nervous about the state of things in Syria as well. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told the Itar-Tass news service today that, contrary to earlier reports, Russia was not selling Syria advanced S-300 surface-to-air missiles (the presence of which would make it harder for the United States to mount air strikes or enforce a no-fly zone, should Obama decide to do any of those things). Talks are being scheduled. Kerry told reporters that if the talks halt the fighting, there might not be any need to arm the rebels. He even suggested the possibility of a political settlement that leaves Assad with some power, perhaps as part of a coalition.
This whole enterprise might be a pipe dream. For Kerry even to talk this way is bound to infuriate some of the rebels and might embolden Assad still further. It’s possible that Lavrov and Russian president Vladimir Putin are engaging in deception, keeping Obama at bay with vague talks of peace and compromise, while stretching out the war long enough for Assad to prevail.
In short, this might be a really bad idea. But it might also be a way to wind down the war—a war that the American people have no desire to get sucked into, a fact that Obama seems to understand more than some of his advisers and political opponents. If Obama does get sucked in, and things go badly, all of his opponents—who had been pressuring him to dive in—will walk away from their earlier advocacy and hold Obama entirely to blame. The president is the one who’s always left holding the bag, and properly so. Obama seems to understand this, too.
Correction, May 10, 2013: This article originally and incorrectly suggested that the United States sent weapons to Libya during the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi.