Rupert Cornwell: What Kennedy would have said to George Bush

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President Bush's confrontation with Saddam Hussein is heaven for addicts of historical parallelism. For some, Saddam is Hitler, and Europeans who refuse to confront him are committing a new Munich. Alternatively, the US risks being dragged into a new Vietnam. But the comparison even Bush invites is with the Cuban missile crisis.

Exactly 40 years ago tonight, at 7pm on Monday 22 October 1962, President Kennedy went on television to reveal the existence of Soviet missile bases in Cuba, 90 miles from the southernmost territory of Florida, and announced he was imposing a "quarantine" or blockade of the island. Nikita Khrushchev immediately denounced the US action as "piracy". With Soviet ships sailing towards the blockade, nuclear war seemed possible, if not probable.

Today, both supporters and opponents of military action against Saddam use Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis to bolster their cause. Bush has donned the JFK mantle by quoting from his 1962 address, and its warning that the world could not tolerate "deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation great or small". No longer, said Bush/ Kennedy, did only "the actual firing of weapons represent a sufficient challenge to a nation's security to constitute maximum peril".

But Ted Kennedy, an opponent of a pre-emptive strike, has drawn the opposite lesson. To support his argument that a strike against Iraq now would be "unilateralism run amok", he recalled his brother Robert's comment 40 years ago that an attack on Cuba would be a "Pearl Harbor in reverse".

In fact, both sides distort history. Ted Kennedy conveniently forgets that his brother did launch a pre-emptive strike against Cuba, in May 1961. It was called the Bay of Pigs and was a total fiasco. But the greater distortion is Bush's.

Cuba then and Iraq now are basically incompatible. Yes, there are a few similarities. Like JFK, Bush is a newish President with many doubters. They both had an eye on approaching mid-term elections. Partly as a result of Kennedy's resolution of the missile crisis, his Democrats made gains in those elections. Bush hopes the same will happen in 2002.

But what threat? The Cuban crisis was a genuine time of fear. The adversary was the rival superpower, and Kennedy told his countrymen that America would not shrink from the risk of "world-wide nuclear war" to force the removal of the missiles. I was a schoolboy then, and remember a master talking about an event planned the next week – "if there is a next week".

Compare and contrast the situation now. The opponent is Saddam Hussein, leader of a ramshackle, pariah country 6,000 miles from the US. The danger he poses is that he might have a nuclear weapon a year or two hence. Even if he developed one, he could not hit the US with it. And however erratic Saddam's career, one constant is his aversion to self-immolation.

Yes, he is an irritant, whose thwarting of the United Nations and general durability drives the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld crowd mad. His record is indisputably appalling, and the world, not to mention his long-suffering country, would be better off without him.

But as a threat to US national security, Saddam hardly rates; as a menace to the American way of life, he is not a patch on the Washington sniper. Back in 1962, Kennedy's stand against the Soviet Union had broad international support. Bush's militaristic designs on Iraq, by contrast have little backing beyond Britain.

Many personal roles too are reversed this time around. In 1962 the generals were urging Kennedy to invade and dare Khrushchev to respond; this time the Pentagon's uniformed commanders counsel caution, to the annoyance of their civilian bosses. Having served in the Second World War, Kennedy understood the horrors of conflict; the Bush who seems so eager to unleash the US military against Iraq spent the Vietnam years in the Texas National Guard.

But for all the differences, Kennedy's handling of the Cuban crisis offers lessons today. His aides remember his constant looking ahead, the questions about the impact of a particular decision, the "what happens if". Kennedy's adviser and speechwriter Ted Sorensen warned against "actions that history could neither understand nor forget", and his President took the advice to heart.

Like Kennedy, Bush faces an eternal dilemma. "If you want peace, prepare for war", runs the old Roman dictum. Just as in 1962 against the Soviet Union, the threat of force is essential now to secure the desired peaceful outcome, in this case of persuading Saddam to disarm.

Kennedy faithfully applied the immortal rule of negotiating laid down by Ernest Bevin, which applies as much to international negotiation as to the trade union bargaining at which Attlee's great foreign secretary also excelled: "The first thing to decide before you walk into any negotiation is what to do if the other chap says 'no'."

Obviously Bevin's maxim does not apply with Iraq. The entire world agrees there is nothing to negotiate with Saddam Hussein. Rather, has Bush thought ahead to what happens when the other chap isn't there any more? It is then that the Iraq crisis, in a very different way, could become as risky as the Cuban missile crisis 40 years ago.

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