Newly elected presidents can be dangerous. Untested and inexperienced, they can act in the name of national security to soothe a personal insecurity. Appearing tough, they think, can make them tough. A case in point goes back 50 years ago today — the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which rescued a president from just this dilemma.
Early in his term, John F. Kennedy bungled the Bay of Pigs and was then roughed up by Nikita Khrushchev at the June summit in Vienna. No “cojones,” critics said. “Now we have a problem in trying to make our power credible,” Kennedy told Times columnist James Reston, “and Vietnam looks like the place.” By “our power,” he meant his own. Having dispatched a few military advisers to help ward off a communist insurgency far away, Kennedy now looked to Southeast Asia as the arena in which to show his nerve.
But then came the Cuban Missile Crisis more than a year later. Kennedy stood strong not only against Soviet enemies, but against his own inner circle. (Robert Caro’s new book shows Lyndon Johnson seething at JFK’s refusal to attack Cuba.) That Kennedy emerged from the Cuba crucible with unchallenged stature resolved his credible-power problem. He would no longer need to prove his cojones in Vietnam — which is the single largest reason to believe he would not have escalated that conflict into full-blown war.
But when Lyndon Johnson took office, it was back to square one. In 1964, he ran as a peace candidate against uber-hawk Barry Goldwater, but no sooner did the pathologically insecure Johnson take the oath in 1965 than he launched Operation Rolling Thunder; to Johnson, the aerial bombardment campaign against North Vietnam looked like toughness squared. Vietnam would give Johnson’s successor the same opportunity to make his power credible, with Richard Nixon coldly expanding the conflict he’d promised to end. (“I’m not going to be the first American president to lose a war,” he declared.) Ronald Reagan’s perilous “evil empire” belligerence early in his presidency, emphasized by his looney-tunes invasion of Grenada in 1983, salved his martial insecurity enough to enable a surprising turnabout in response to Mikhail Gorbachev. But one can reasonably doubt that Reagan’s historic accommodation of the Soviet leader’s peace initiatives would have occurred at the start of his presidency.
In George H.W. Bush’s first year, the fall of the Berlin Wall and a world-wide outbreak of peace was promptly trumped by the bizarre American invasion of Panama. Later, he launched the Gulf War — taken at the time to be a show of prudent resolve, but eventually shown to be phase one of America’s ongoing Middle East disaster, which George W. Bush brought to its horrible climax. In Bush II’s first year, the now mythic 2001, this pattern of presidents imprudently striking out for the sake of credible power came into its own.
This is the context surrounding the most important difference between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. On matters of national security, Romney is flailing; his recent speech at the Virginia Military Institute is only the latest instance. His rants about Iran, Syria, Russia, and China purposefully strike a stark contrast with what he sneeringly calls President Obama’s “passivity.” Of course, the actual policies Romney proposes in these complicated situations effectively echo Obama’s — leaving only ostentatiously tough talk to define the distinction.
The reaction to the first presidential debate reflected the contrast between Romney’s overt belligerence and Obama’s perceived passivity. That voters might take the former, though rooted in neophyte insecurity, over the latter, which is a matter of tested gravitas, defines the risk of this election. Cojones again?
Obama came into office as the solution to the problem of presidential recklessness, with restraint and prudence as welcome marks of his character. Yet he, too, had to make his power “credible,” which is why he paired his rejection of the Iraq war with a misguided promise to escalate in Afghanistan. By now, Obama has been faced with the futility of this dynamic. There is a reason he takes care not to be belligerent. In this dangerous world, only a fool mistakes such earned wisdom for weakness.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.