Some time ago, as part of preparing for a graduate course that I teach, I did a study of the habits of successful crisis management by presidents. I studied four presidents who faced serious foreign policy crises and resolved them satisfactorily without having to resort to war. These were Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. Each faced at least one crisis that could have led to armed conflict and three of them — Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan — could have blundered into World War III. What I found was that each, in his own way, exercised four principles that kept things from becoming unraveled. These were very different men, but they seemed to have an intuitive grasp of furthering the nation’s interest while not sacrificing the country’s honor. These principles sound like common sense, but they are very difficult to adhere to in the heat of the moment.
Carl von Clausewitz, the great theorist of war, realized that the threat of force was the ultimate trump card in diplomacy, but he also realized that it should be the last resort. During the 1904 Perdicaris crisis, in which the Moroccan bandit Raisuli kidnapped an American expatriate, Ion Perdicaris, the Theodore Roosevelt administration reacted aggressively in negotiations with the Moroccan government to get Perdicaris back. Navy ships and Marines were dispatched on a “port visit” to Tangier and the Americans made it clear that they were prepared to launch a rescue operation if all else failed. The administration’s message was clear: “Perdicais alive or Raisuli dead.” The Moroccans got the picture and reached an accommodation with Raisuli that freed Perdicaris and his stepson.
During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK made it perfectly clear that Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba were a potential go-to-war issue with the United States and backed it up with a massive naval deployment to the Caribbean and an unprecedented invasion force formed at Key West. The resulting quarantine of further weapons to Cuba convinced the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to seek a peaceful resolution.
Occasionally, a limited military action is needed to deter a wider escalation. In 1958, Eisenhower perceived that the Soviet Union would try to take advantage of a civil war in Lebanon by installing a communist government in Beirut via the United Arab Republic. He preempted this by dispatching U.S. forces to that country to support its legal government in accordance with the Eisenhower Doctrine, which specified that the United States would intervene to prevent communists from taking over any more governments as they had in Eastern Europe.
Following the 1983 Soviet shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 — which killed a U.S. congressman — Reagan took the step of deploying offensive missiles in West Germany on the border of Warsaw Pact nations as a response to Soviet chest-pounding over U.S. protestations claiming that the airliner was a reconnaissance aircraft. This was the worst Cold War confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis and Reagan wanted to make it perfectly clear to Moscow how seriously the United States viewed the incident.
During the Perdicaris affair, the Spanish — who viewed Morocco as being in their sphere of interest — became alarmed that the United States was going to use the crisis as a pretext to grab Moroccan territory. They sent several warships to the area, which made matters worse. Roosevelt and Secretary of State John Hay worked hard with the British and French to convince Madrid that the only U.S. interest was in freeing the hostage. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK kept both official and unofficial channels to Moscow open, and most of the truly productive negotiations were backchannel. Reagan cooled the KAL crisis by allowing international aviation investigators to do their jobs. However, as a sign of disapproval, Reagan canceled the Russian airline Aeroflot’s landing rights in the U.S.
A certain amount of saber-rattling will accompany any crisis but personalizing the dispute between leaders is never helpful. It merely tends to harden positions. It is difficult to negotiate effectively once you have called the other fellow an SOB.
Leaving the other fellow a face-saving way out is always a good idea. Roosevelt told the king of Morocco to give Perdicaris back. How he did it was an internal Moroccan affair (he was eventually ransomed). JFK offered to take some useless missiles out of Turkey in exchange for removing the offensive Soviet missiles from Cuba. Eisenhower went out of his way to assure Nasser and the United Arab Republic that the U.S. incursion into Lebanon was a temporary stabilization operation and not a permanent U.S. ground presence in the region. In Reagan’s case, the report found that the Korean airliner had indeed inadvertently violated Soviet airspace and the USSR issued a statement of regret, but not an apology. The crisis fizzled out, and Reagan’s stature as a statesman grew.
Traditionally, the presidents who have gotten us into wars inadvertently have been those least prepared to fight at the outset. Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman learned this the hard way. All four of the examples in this article had one thing in common: their opponents respected and somewhat feared them. Khrushchev initially lacked respect for Kennedy, but his response during the Cuban Missile Crisis got his attention, and that paid off in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty following the crisis.
This raises the question of how President Joe Biden fits into the model above. I am afraid the answer is: “not well.” Regarding the first principle, Biden took the threat of kinetic action off the table almost immediately and even initially equivocated about sanctions. His eagerness to avoid any direct confrontation could not be seen by Putin as anything less than factoring out the United States in his calculation for invasion. Biden did not need to threaten intervention, all he needed to do was indicate that the United States would react appropriately to Russian actions and that no options were off the table. Russian President Vladimir Putin sees no red lines in front of him; that includes the use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Biden is a Putin enabler in this whole sorry business. (READ MORE: Joe Biden’s War)
On keeping lines of communication open, at least we have not broken diplomatic relations with Russia. China’s Xi Jinping will likely not be of much help, but several European Union member leaders are at least on speaking terms with Putin. Backchannel communications are important in such situations. How well Biden is using them remains unknown, that is why they are backchannel. However, calling Putin a war criminal was not helpful; he probably is, but that is a call that should be made in The Hague. If there was ever a chance for face-to-face negotiations between the two leaders, it is probably gone.
About off-ramps, to be fair to Biden, Putin doesn’t seem to want one at this point. The four presidents mentioned above were dealing with rational actors whose objectives were discernible. Having failed to achieve his desired goal of decapitating the Zelensky government quickly and with an underperforming army at a virtual standstill, Putin has been embarrassed and isolated. His mental state is increasingly suspect, and this makes him a very dangerous man. If anyone offers him an honorable off-ramp, Biden is well advised to support it.
Finally, about willingness to go to war as a last resort, the United States has made it clear that it will uphold its obligations to NATO if Russian attacks expand west. What Biden needs to avoid is his habit of equivocation. If he tries to explain what an actual attack on a NATO nation would constitute, he will undermine the entire concept of deterrence.
Biden’s dwindling stable of supporters and cheerleaders — notably Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post — applaud his leadership in bringing NATO together … balderdash! Putin’s reckless irresponsibility frightened NATO into action. Like Obama, Biden has led from the rear from the beginning and must be prodded by Congress to do anything decisive. The president is even having trouble with getting his own State Department to fast-track Ukrainian refugees and he has consistently rejected innovative but risky ideas from other NATO members. That is precisely why Zelensky appealed directly to Congress. He knows where America’s backbone resides.
Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.