From Kennedy to Macron: Strategy, Ambiguity, Leadership - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
From Kennedy to Macron: Strategy, Ambiguity, Leadership
by
Putin and Castro in Havana on Dec. 14, 2000 (www.kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons)

France’s President Emmanuel Macron may have a penchant for ambivalence — he often adds en meme temps (“at the same time”) to a declarative sentence — but, on the matter of Armageddon, he is unambiguous, as in his remarks on Oct. 12:

France has a nuclear doctrine, based on our nation’s fundamental interests, which are very clearly defined. A ballistic nuclear attack in Ukraine or the region would not concern these. A [nuclear response] would not be called for by our present doctrine. We have a threshold.

Unlike Henry Kissinger, whose advice is to seek a negotiated end to the war involving some territorial concessions by Ukraine, Macron supports the Ukrainian position of throwing the Russians out of all annexed or occupied territory, including Crimea. Observers estimate some 14,000 people were killed in the eastern Donbas regions, which Russia claims as its own, following the breakdown of negotiations between the two nations at Minsk in 2014. These were meant to resolve territorial disputes and Russian objections to Ukraine’s relationship with western Europe, notably its application for NATO membership. The toll since Russia invaded Ukraine last February has been at least as high.

In practice, French support for Kiev’s resistance to Russian aggression means supplying Ukraine with weapons and training, as well as humanitarian assistance. The quantitative value of this support has been modest, a few millions in defensive artillery, compared to the billions in U.S. aid. Money is not everything, but it helps.

It also helps to know who helped himself; and, as neither Russia nor Ukraine has been a model of clean government and honest bookkeeping, the accountants will have their work cut out for them when the shooting stops, as will the inventory record keepers. One side effect of American efforts to play good cop around the world is that we often leave a lot of lethal hardware around that for all we know shows up where we do not want it, such as our southern border and our inner cities.

Unlike the French executive, the Biden administration, in keeping with longstanding U.S. deterrence doctrine, is not publicly on record as absolutely ruling out the use of nuclear weapons. However, one of our top (though retired) commanders, Gen. David Petraeus, stated that a response with conventional weapons to Russian nukes in Ukraine would be devastating.

It would seem the concept of “strategic ambiguity,” designed to deter aggression or escalation by keeping your opponent unsure of your response, should be understood to encompass ambiguous ambiguity. When exactly are we saying that the line is crossed and we are going in with whatever works for us? And if whatever works, works, are we to understand that the nuclear terror is not necessarily more terrible than terror by conventional means? Experts note that today’s “battlefield” or “tactical” nukes are not necessarily more lethal than the popular idea of strategic doomsday bombs, many of which are said to be still in our and (and our enemies’) quivers.

European and American verbal blunders last February, including President Joe Biden’s witless downplaying of the Russian threat, may have been seen as a green light in Moscow to send tank columns to Kiev. But the quick victory that the Russians gambled on did not pan out. The tanks were destroyed or forced to turn back.

In this perspective, Macron’s statement suggests, as does Petraeus’s, that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to use nukes will not work and that he ought instead to consider other ways out of the disaster he caused.

Comparisons are made with the Cuban missile crisis, which came to a head in the last week of October 1962, as the Russians sought to surprise us with a stealth move on our side of the board and present us with a fait accompli that we would have to live — or die — with. Though quite different in key respects, notably in the use of U.S. naval and air power, the October crisis remains an instructive case of Russian (or Soviet) gambling — or “brinkmanship” — that American leadership halted by offering a war-averting “offramp,” to use today’s terminology.

An adventurous Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had sized up President John F. Kennedy as a callow youth (he was 45), inexperienced and weak. The Soviet leader secretly plotted with the Castro regime to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, while maintaining pressure on West Berlin, which was cut off from the Free World by communist East Germany.

Rising to the challenge, JFK combined a firm public position — all nuclear weapons must be removed from the island — with effective diplomacy. He obtained the support of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and French President Charles de Gaulle as well as the unanimous backing of the Organization of American States, a mainly consultative body that carried some weight in regional politics. He was formal, clear, and calm in his public communication, without in any sense hiding the peril we faced. At the same time, he took a just-flexible-enough line in the back channel, which consisted of written exchanges with Khrushchev and secret meetings in Washington between the president’s brother Robert and the Soviet ambassador.

Kennedy knew that allowing the missiles to remain in Cuba would encourage a Soviet move on Berlin. The divided city was the site of recurring standoffs between the Soviets and the Allies, including tanks facing each other at Checkpoint Charlie between the Soviet and American sectors.

The president viewed nukes in Cuba as an intolerable threat in their own right. He recognized their political or psychological relation to Berlin: If he tolerated them, the risk of war over Berlin, meaning in Europe, increased. He also knew that the Jupiter medium-range nuclear armed missiles, positioned in Turkey and Italy the past summer as a deterrent to just such a war, were both an irritant to Khrushchev and not particularly useful strategically.

Kennedy was under considerable pressure to go on preemptive offense. The Joint Chiefs of Staff was in favor of a combined air and land assault on Cuba to knock out the missile launching sites the Soviets had built. Robert Kennedy himself took the Chiefs’ side on this. When a U-2 surveillance plane flown by Maj. Rudolf Anderson (an ace veteran of the Korean War) was shot down on Oct. 27, Kennedy was told by Paul Nitze, a high-ranking State Department official, that the first shot had been fired.

As the Center for a Free Cuba’s John Suarez reminded last week, the Castro regime, Fidel in the forefront, was urging the Soviets throughout the missile crisis to go beyond the brink, up to and including starting a nuclear shootout that would sacrifice the Cuban people.

Khrushchev, for all his bluster, did not want an exchange of ICBMs, and not only because he knew we were stronger in that category. He was committed to a strategy of finding pressure points all around the world where he could weaken the “imperialist camp” through proxies. He aimed to avoid direct confrontation with the U.S. He believed time was on the side of global communist revolution.

The Soviet leader was willing to support and protect his pawns, but he understood the need to restrain them. And when he demanded the withdrawal of the Jupiters, as well as a public pledge not to invade Cuba, Kennedy sensed the caution. He knew then he had the better hand, and he told the hawks to hold back, while staying, of course, on high alert.

The president believed, correctly as it turned out, that Khrushchev would fold if he maintained his firm line on removing the missiles while offering the Soviet leader a face-saving deal. Robert Kennedy signaled to the ambassador that the no-invasion pledge was okay, as was withdrawing the Jupiters, though this would not be announced in public.

Not without reason, the October crisis remains a point of reference in international politics. A miscalculation on today’s European front could have consequences that, cynical as this sounds, will be incomparably worse than the barrages between Russian and Ukrainian forces daily reported.

U.S. and French limited-range weapons that the Ukrainians reportedly are using with winning results possess the grim, but real, advantage of prohibiting Russia from claiming that in self-defense, it views Berlin and Warsaw as fair targets, not to mention Paris and Washington. And with negotiated cease-fire lines, Russia’s leaders can assert that they protected the motherland while keeping at least some of their territorial claims.

It may be that both sides are now past the point of a negotiated cease-fire. But the moment would seem right to find what Kissinger would call an exit ramp or a shaky peace. He is not alone in this. In a recent interview published in the Paris magazine Causeur, Pierre Lellouche, a former high French defense official, said that the war has been won by our side.

Lellouche noted that after the pessimism they expressed in February, Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin decided on a big increase in aid. Anti-tank artillery aided the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Russian weakness — whether due to inept command or poor planning — certainly encouraged U.S. and European unity, as did the inspiring Ukrainian resistance. Macron evidently sees the situation the same way.

Macron’s seemingly startling unilateral concession on the use of nukes is thus seen not as a repetition of Biden’s February loose lips but as a calculated concession to protect Ukraine’s battlefield success and encourage a cease-fire. The most recent terror bombings by the Russians cannot be forgiven, but nor should they serve as a reason to enlarge the war.

A compromise peace now, even over righteous Ukrainian objections, would be viewed as a great American victory. Not incidentally, it would be a message attentively received by the leaders of Red China who are openly touting their regime as an alternative to the liberal West.

A cease-fire in eastern Europe would correspond, in an inadequate but useful analogy, to Kennedy’s limited success in Cuba. It had a calming effect, by the standards of those times, on the chronic Berlin crisis and the nerve-wracking arms race. (JFK capitalized on it 10 months later with his bold speech at the wall between East and West Berlin.) The price was very high. The Cuban people were kept imprisoned — like the East Berliners and many others — by a sadistic police state. To this day, some believe the survival of the Castro regime may have contributed to the assassination of Kennedy.

Kennedy knew Castroism would remain a wicked and dangerous force for an indefinite time. But in October of ’62, he had to think in terms of the hours immediately ahead. During the naval blockade, officially called a quarantine, that Kennedy ordered to prevent more missiles from being brought to the island, a practice depth charge from a Navy vessel shot right by an undetected nuclear-armed Soviet sub. The comrade-captain was so shocked that he ordered his crew to arm the sub’s nukes, and it was only as he was about to push the button that it occurred to him to double-check for a misunderstanding of the situation. As with Kennedy, his steel nerves, which some would characterize as weakness, were the better part of courage — and strategic genius, which, when you consider the stakes, is not too high praise.

The awareness of such proximity to Armageddon in the recent past is harrowing, but it may be salutary, if the bitter irony of such a word can be accepted in context. The most dangerous misunderstanding would be for the Russian leadership to think that it has no say in how the war will end and therefore no choice but to enlarge it. That is the misunderstanding that the French president seeks to avoid, and it would be wise for us to encourage the Ukrainians to see this, however cruel it must seem to them.

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