Presidential Decision Making

Published: September 16, 2013

By Jim Lichtman
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“We are probably going to have to bomb them,” the President said after looking at the U-2 photographs. He then turned to his special assistant, Ken O’Donnell. “You still think the fuss about Cuba is unimportant?”

“Absolutely,” O’Donnell snapped. “The voters won’t give a damn about Cuba.”

During my August break, I spent time reading Richard ReevesProfile of Power, a month by month examination of the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The comprehensive (662 page) assessment not only gives us a first-hand glimpse into the dialog and debate that took place inside the Kennedy White House, it shows us the process – at times imperfect – of how a chief executive makes difficult decisions in times of crisis.

More than a few comparisons stood out to me between both Kennedy and what we know of President Obama’s decision-making with regards to the Syrian issue in general and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, in particular.

Early this month, Obama and Putin already displayed frosty relations made all the worse by Mr. Putin’s refusal to turn over NSA leader Edward Snowden. With a meeting of the G20 set in Russia, Obama cancelled a face-to-face meeting with the Russian President due to the Snowden matter as well as other policy differences.

President Kennedy was repeatedly warned about the aggressive verbal bullying of Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev. Nonetheless, Kennedy attended a summit in Vienna in June 1961 believing he could charm the Russian bear. However, the meeting came less than two months after the failed U.S. backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Kennedy had blundered into an abortive attempt by rebels to overthrow Fidel Castro. Publicly, Kennedy took responsibility. Privately however, he blamed the military men who had talked him into a weak plan with too few rebels who were overmatched by Castro’s troops.

Kennedy’s chief purpose in the Vienna meeting was making sure the Soviet leader did not underestimate American resolve on issues like Berlin. But the meeting was a disaster. Kennedy was completely unprepared for Khrushchev’s verbal assaults on the intrusion of American politics in world affairs. “Shattered” was the word Kennedy advisor Averell Harriman used to describe how Kennedy felt afterwards.

“He’s very young… not strong enough,” Khrushchev later summarized. “Too intelligent and too weak.”

Anyone looking at the photo of Obama sitting with Putin last June can clearly read the body language between the two. “Following a careful review begun in July,” the White House press office wrote, “we have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a U.S.-Russia Summit in early September…

“However, given our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last twelve months, we have informed the Russian government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda…”

The difference between then and now is the fact that where Kennedy believed he could defeat the Russian chairman with sheer charisma, Obama saw the handwriting on the wall weeks before his meeting with Putin. Granting temporary asylum to Snowden was the final nail.

In October 1962, when Kennedy learned that the Soviets had placed medium and long range missiles in Cuba despite public speeches stating that the U.S. and North American countries would not tolerate such weapons, a crisis lasting thirteen critical days began where both countries stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation.

While the Joint Chiefs pushed Kennedy for a military response, the president carefully worked his way through a variety of options. According to a summary memo by speechwriter Ted Sorensen, the ultimate question came down to bomb or blockade. Kennedy settled on a blockade of Cuba preceded by a strongly-worded public speech calling on the Russians to remove all offensive weapons from the tiny island that posed a threat to the Americas. The final (secret) agreement between the two superpowers removed the Cuban missiles in exchange for the removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey that would take place six months later.

Dean Acheson, an advisor critical of Kennedy’s decision-making, wrote to the president afterwards saying, “May I congratulate you on your leadership, firmness and judgment over the past tough week. We have not had these qualities at the helm in this country at all times. It is good to have them again…”

Privately, however, the former Secretary of State called Kennedy’s strategy a reckless gamble. “Plain dumb luck.”

After announcing plans for a “limited” air strike against Syria in response to their using chemical weapons, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked, during a press conference, if there was any way Syria could halt the bombing. “Sure,” Kerry said, “he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting (of it), but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.”

The Russians jumped all over what many called a “gaff” by the Secretary. Nonetheless, the door had been opened for a possible diplomatic solution. And suddenly, where the Syrian regime would not even admit to possessing chemical weapons, they now volunteered that they had them. Further, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was not only ready to negotiate their removal, but was willing to sign the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention whose central obligation by signatories is the prohibition of use and production of chemical weapons along with international evaluation of chemical and military plants.

Some notable exceptions to the two crises: Kennedy opted to inform key members of Congress about his plan for Cuba. After listening to their criticism, Kennedy walked out of the meeting. President Obama, while making clear that it was within the decision-making scope of his office, chose to have Congress debate his plan calling for limited strikes. Citing polls of Americans opposed to any military intervention, most in Congress have criticized the president’s plan. A vote on the matter has yet to take place.

Bottom line: As of this writing, it appears that Russian President Putin, through his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov have agreed to a resolution supporting Syria’s disposing of all chemical weapons.

With Putin brokering a possible deal to avoid U.S. conflict, more than a few journalists have called Obama lucky, and they’re probably right. However, the U.S. has been trying to get Syria to turn over their chemical weapons stockpile and join the international treaty for years without success.

Whether Putin and Syria live up to the, as yet, tentative agreement remains to be seen. Based on what we know at this point, Syria’s current motivation is due, in no small part, to the threat of air strikes.

“Many illusions were shattered in those two tense weeks,” Richard Reeves writes about the Cuban Missile Crisis, “but a significant reality emerged, too. At least two men, the two at the center – Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy – realized that no politician in his right mind was going to use nuclear weapons first. The price was too high…”

What is significant between the two decisions is the fact that all sides stepped back and looked at the long term. Who will be helped; who will be harmed by the actions we’re considering?

Whether they got there through luck is not the point. Looking at a decision in terms of stakeholders and long term consequences is at the heart of ethical decision making.

We can only hope that all sides on the Syrian issue believe the price is too high for anyone to engage in another war.



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