Another Cuban Missile Crisis?

Politics

Rep. Turner draws the wrong lessons from October 1962.

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Those of us of a certain age will remember an imperishable scene from The Princess Bride, where Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya advises Wallace Shawn’s Vizzini: “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

A similar thought came to mind last week when, for what seemed the umpteenth time, the Chairman of House Intelligence Committee Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), this time in an appearance on Bloomberg’s Balance of Power, treated viewers to a lesson on the continuing relevance of the Cuban Missile Crisis—particularly as it relates to what Turner sees as the imminent threat posed to the U.S. by Russia’s alleged plans to launch a nuclear weapon into space.

For the past six months Turner has been tirelessly sounding the alarm over what he says is a dereliction of duty on the part of the Biden administration in addressing this threat—despite the fact that, in May, Russia introduced a resolution in the UN Security Council to ban all space-based weapons.  At a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in June, Turner said,

Imagine how different the world would have been if Kennedy had allowed Khrushchev to place nuclear weapons in Cuba…Europe would not be free. The United States would have been too fearful to challenge Russia in Europe.

In Turner’s telling of the tale, had Kennedy acquiesced in 1962, “Europe would not be free” today. This, at a minimum, betrays a great lack of understanding of how and why the Cold War ended.

Turner, by mentioning the October Crisis as a precedent to deal with the threat (if it in fact exists) of Russian nuclear weapons in space, is pointing an already overly hawkish administration in a dangerous direction. 

As President John F. Kennedy and only a few members of the Executive Committee (ExComm), which was set up to act as an advisory council to Kennedy during the crisis, recognized right away, Khrushchev’s plan to place nuclear warheads in Cuba was above all a political problem for the United States—a problem of perception. After all, a nuclear warhead, whether launched from Soviet Russia, Europe or Cuba would have the same catastrophic result.

But Turner seems to be implying that, should Russia attempt to launch a nuclear weapons program in space (a move prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to which Russia is a party), Biden and his team of second-raters must attempt to do as Kennedy did. 

But do what exactly? You can’t enact the equivalent of a naval quarantine on space-bound warheads. Is Turner suggesting we bomb the launch pads? The space shuttles? Take out the missiles themselves? That last option was on the table back in October 1962—indeed, it was favored by a majority of the ExComm—but thanks to Kennedy’s prudent statesmanship, it was not pursued. If it had been, the world would be a far different place today—after all, the Soviet warheads in Cuba were already operational, a fact not known to the President or to ExComm at the time.

The answer we need lies in compliance—by us and by them—with existing treaties and in the shared principle of non-proliferation. 

Turner also seems to forget what actually brought the Missile Crisis to a denouement. It wasn’t a question of the Soviets “blinking first.” The crisis ended thanks to a negotiated settlement that included Kennedy’s pledge not to invade Cuba and a (then secret) swap—our Jupiter missiles in Turkey for theirs in Cuba.

Turner is right to be concerned about the “nuclearization” of outer space, but his implied solution—a Cuban-style stand-of—is dangerously misconceived, especially at a time when the wondrously reckless Biden policy of giving Kiev almost everything it wants (up to and including the wherewithal to bomb parents and children on Crimean beaches) is pushing the NATO–Russia proxy war to perhaps its most dangerous moment yet.

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American University Professor Peter Kuznick tells me, “Turner’s scare tactics appear to be intended to further demonize the Russians and lay the groundwork for giving Ukraine all the enhanced capabilities it desires. So in that sense Turner may be correct for the wrong reasons.” 

Kuznick, who is the founder and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American, believes that “we may be on the verge of another Cuban Missile Crisis, but one that has been provoked not only by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but by the latest rounds of NATO actions in escalating the Ukrainian war to the point where a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO does occur and World War III becomes not a nightmarish possibility but an end to civilization as we know it.”

Indeed, we are fast approaching the point where a nuclear worst-case scenario is no longer inconceivable. Indeed, there are very real reasons to worry about a nuclear crisis in the near to medium term. They just aren’t quite the ones Congressman Turner thinks they are.

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James W. Carden