Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Cuban Missile Crisis and Iran

Thinking about allowing a nuclear-armed Iran and Cold War-style containment as options? Studying up on the Cuban Missile Crisis should make you think twice, to say the least.

Cuba's Communist regime and Iran's Islamist regime are allies, united by a common hatred of the United States. This should be a matter of serious concern, given Cuba's transfer to Iran of biotechnology materials and knowhow, under cover of cooperative, scientific and medical research accords, which may have aided Iranian development of biological weapons.

But Iran has no doubt gained something else from Cuba--namely, potentially valuable insights into the enormous capacity for self-delusion and denial that exists on the part of many U.S. policymakers and pundits.

The historical parallels are striking. Just as nowadays Iran's intentions are hidden in plain sight, Soviet-Cuban intentions were fairly obvious in the months leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most dangerous episode of the Cold War. No espionage activities (no James Bond or Blackford Oakes missions) were necessary to figure out what Moscow and Havana were up to in 1962; and none are required today. Merely reading the news should suffice.

Back to the missile crisis. In the late summer and early autumn of '62, the Kennedy administration and its admirers in the press downplayed or ridiculed Republican Congressional concerns over a growing Soviet military presence in Cuba, an island only 90 miles off the U.S. shore. Soviet ships loaded with military equipment had begun arriving in Cuba at the rate of one or more a day starting sometime in July; and it is now known that by September or earlier, Moscow had introduced offensive missiles and bombers, complete with nuclear warheads, into Cuba, and that the Soviet plan was to wait until the installation was finished before confronting Washington with the frightening new reality.

On August 10, CIA director John A. McCone wrote a memo to President Kennedy in which he asserted that the Soviets were preparing to introduce ballistic missiles into Cuba. Then, Senator Kenneth Keating (R-New York), who probably received his information from Cuban exiles in Florida, warned on the Senate floor that the Soviets were building missile launch sites in Cuba, "pads capable of hurling missiles into the heartland of the United States and as far as the Panama Canal Zone."

The charge was dismissed as absurd. The so-called dean of American columnists, Walter Lippmann (a liberal who had actually praised Hitler during the Nazi rise to power), responded by assuring his readers, "The present Cuban military buildup is not only not capable of offensive action, but also it is not capable of defensive action against the United States."

The rest is history. Click here and here to read it. The Wikipedia article's explanation of the Soviet deception program seems especially relevant in light of oil-rich Iran's claim--which many media personalities still seem willing to take seriously--that it is developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes. An excerpt:

From the very beginning, the Soviet's operation entailed elaborate denial and deception, known in the USSR as Maskirovka. All of the planning and preparation for transporting and deploying the missiles were carried out in the utmost secrecy, with only a very few told the exact nature of the mission. Even the troops detailed for the mission were given misdirection, told they were headed for a cold region and outfitted with ski boots, fleece-lined parkas, and other winter equipment. The Soviet code name, Operation Anadyr, was also the name of a river flowing into the Bering Sea, the name of the capital of Chukotsky District, and a bomber base in the far eastern region. All these were meant to conceal the program from both internal and external audiences.

Max Holland's historical essay is arguably even more relevant, addressing the need for the heads of intelligence agencies to resist pressures to provide policymakers with the intelligence they would prefer to receive instead of the intelligence they need to receive. He writes: "The literature on the [Cuban Missile Crisis] has painted a rosier-than-warranted picture… What actually happened was not a textbook case of how the system should work."

If the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev (he was no Stalin) could dare to smuggle nuclear missiles into Cuba, imagine what Iran's missile-mad mullahs are capable of doing with atomic arms.

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