- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

Every month has its ghosts. October has one of particular consequence, Halloween withstanding. The Cuban Missile Crisis is eerily relevant to today and the campaign to relieve Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction.

Forty years ago this month, the world's first nuclear showdown unfolded in and around Cuba. In September 1962, American U-2 spy planes photographed hard evidence of construction sites for Soviet nuclear tipped ballistic missiles in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy understood the extent of the danger and the urgent need for American action. After careful thought, he took the evidence public.

Quickly eliminating pre-emptive strikes as reckless, Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba, called a "quarantine" to mitigate the charge of war, to intercept Soviet merchant ships carrying the missiles. For 13 chilling days in October, recently made into a major motion picture, the world held its breath as the nuclear confrontation between the superpowers played out.

The other side "blinked" first. Soviet First Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev ordered the Soviet ships turned round and halted construction on the sites. Kennedy claimed a great victory. Most agreed with that assessment. But, there was another side to the story. That side has never been fully recognized.

Kennedy won the presidency partly by charging that, due to the "soft" defense policies of the Eisenhower administration, an alleged "missile gap" placed America strategically far behind the Soviets. Kennedy also attacked the former general for downgrading conventional forces. The missile gap was a myth. Eisenhower had been smarter than that.

Eisenhower's policy was to reduce American military expenditures forced by the Korean War and rely on nuclear superiority to deter Soviet ambitions. Eisenhower knew the Soviets and their leader Josef Stalin from World War II. The strategy of "massive retaliation" worked.

By 1959, Khrushchev, who emerged to replace Stalin, recognized the opportunity in Eisenhower's strategy. Khrushchev thought a Soviet variant of defense on the cheap could be achieved with a "minimal" nuclear deterrent but one large enough to destroy America several times over. In January 1960, despite powerful internal political resistance, he began reducing Soviet conventional forces and defense spending.

We knew all of this. From 1959 to 1962, through the disgruntled GRU Col. Oleg Penkovsky, British and American intelligence had extraordinary access to the most sensitive deliberations of the Soviet high command. But when Kennedy took office in early 1961, that intelligence was entirely ignored. The fact was we were ahead and the Soviets were cutting back.

Years later, when asked why the administration dismissed these facts and their long-term implications, Robert McNamara, Kennedy's defense secretary and McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser, would answer, "Because they made no difference." Kennedy was set on and promised rearmament. Col. Penkovsky's intelligence bonanza flew in the face of that conviction.

Khrushchev watched with horror as Kennedy pushed through three large increases in U.S. defense spending just after taking office and doubled the future size of America's nuclear forces. Basing missiles in Cuba was the most expedient way to circumvent Kennedy's reversal of the Eisenhower strategy and still reduce Soviet defenses. But the ploy failed.

Two years later, Khrushchev paid the price and was ousted in a coup. Soviet defenses skyrocketed and the Cold War went on for another 30 years. Who knows what would have happened if Kennedy had not entered office willfully misinformed about the other side.

The Bush administration took office with strong convictions especially about good and evil in setting security policy. Since September 11, it believes, if unchecked, Saddam will obtain nuclear weapons. And it has no doubt that Saddam's evilness will lead either to his using nuclear weapons or supplying them to those who will.

In this case, however, the administration does not have irrefutable facts about the threat and its imminence. Sadly, U-2's and their follow-ons have only limited X-ray vision to see inside buildings or deep underground. Like John F. Kennedy 40 years ago, the administration is focusing on the immediate crisis at hand and not on longer-term consequences.

Despite the lopsided vote in Congress authorizing the use of force, there will not be a war this October. But if war comes, what happens when it is over will prove more important such as long-term regional stability, the battle against terror and growing animosity against the United States.

The parallel with the Cuban Missile Crisis is clear. If this administration rests its case on ideology, as well as defers careful thought of what to do when Saddam is gone, then ghosts of Octobers past surely will return to haunt us. The shocking news that North Korea has not abandoned its nuclear program brings into sharp relief the flaws in the administration's strategy. Why Iraq and not North Korea? We can win a war against Saddam as dramatically as Kennedy backed the Soviets down in 1962. But what will be the price of the peace? And what about North Korea?

Harlan Ullman is with the CNA Corp. and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His latest book is "Unfinished Business: Afghanistan, the Middle East and Beyond Defusing the Dangers that Threaten America's Security."

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