Fifty-two years after President John F. Kennedy’s historic address at American University outlining a “strategy of peace,” President Barack Obama visited American University’s School of International Service last week, explicitly tying his efforts to win support for the nuclear deal negotiated by the P5+1 partners with Iran to Kennedy’s ambition to redefine America’s approach to the Soviet Union. Kennedy’s speech led to the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and laid the groundwork for the policy of détente that would emerge a decade later.
Iran is not the Soviet Union and, as President Obama argued, the military threats we face today pale in comparison to what the nation endured during the Cold War. Moreover, Obama’s intended audience last week was narrower: While Kennedy spoke to an anxious nation fearful of nuclear annihilation, Obama’s address was primarily directed at undecided Democrats in Congress who will vote next month on whether to approve the deal. While it was not as grand an address as Kennedy’s, comparing their respective efforts underscores the decided advantage Kennedy enjoyed in gaining support for his endeavor and helps us understand why Obama continues to face such opposition to his diplomatic efforts.
To be sure, Kennedy had his own critics who complained about his “soft line” and called his speech a “dreadful mistake.” Nevertheless, he had something going for him that Obama does not. Eight months earlier, he stared into the nuclear abyss with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and succeeded in compelling the USSR to remove nuclear missiles deployed in Cuba. And Kennedy did so by giving both the Soviet leader and the American public the impression that he was prepared to go to war over the nuclear deployments off the American coast, creating a myth that served him well when he later sought to promote his strategy of peace.
Obama’s goal last week was similar to that of his Democratic predecessor: alter a mindset focused on war as a means for resolving disputes to one in pursuit of peace. He did so by asserting that opponents of the deal with Iran are the very same individuals who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a foreign policy disaster that paved the way for Obama to gain the presidency. Moreover, Obama argued the Iraq war proponents were afflicted
with a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy, a mindset that put a premium on unilateral U.S. action over the painstaking work of building international consensus, a mindset that exaggerated threats beyond what the intelligence supported.
Instead, Obama has advocated for an approach centered on diplomacy. But while his emphasis since the start of his presidency on extricating the United States from the wars he inherited and avoiding initiating new ones has worked well for him politically, he has remained vulnerable from the beginning to charges of weakness and naïveté.
Prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy similarly had been subject to the charge of being weak militarily; he feared that his first meeting with Khrushchev in 1961 had created such an impression with his Soviet counterpart. Indeed Kennedy later confided that he suspected their disastrous initial encounter opened the door to Khrushchev’s gambit a year hence. The crisis enabled Kennedy to dispel that line of attack. He successfully instituted a blockade, threatened that an attack emanating from the missiles deployed in Cuba would unleash an attack on the Soviet Union, and caused Khrushchev to back down, inadvertently leading to the Soviet leader’s ouster by comrades in 1964.
Kennedy’s strategy was coercive diplomacy at its finest — threatening military action to achieve a peaceful resolution to the crisis ― but there was much the public did not know at the time. As the archives opened and more information became available, Americans came to learn that Kennedy had planned to resolve the crisis short of war in any way he could. He offered quietly to remove U.S. Jupiter missiles deployed in Turkey in exchange for the removal of missiles from Cuba, and he relied on United Nations Secretary General U Thant to relay a pledge that the United States would not invade Cuba as part of the final settlement. Kennedy had no intention to start a nuclear war, but the global perception that he forced the Soviets to blink provided the opportunity for his American University address the following year.
Obama has not had his Cuban Missile Crisis moment. He successfully ordered the mission to eliminate Osama bin Laden and has overseen an extensive drone campaign against terrorist operatives across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. But he has not been able to shake the notion his administration put forward during the Libya campaign of “leading from behind.” He sought in his address last week to convey toughness, noting he had authorized military action in seven countries. But no matter. He has stared down no foreign leaders as Kennedy did with Khrushchev ― not Vladimir Putin, not Xi Jinping, not Bashar al-Assad.
When Kennedy spoke of pursuing a strategy of peace, he did so having prevailed over Khrushchev by going to the brink without resorting to war. Obama’s emphasis since the 2008 campaign on getting out of the wars he inherited won him the presidency, but it has not enabled him to project an image of strength during his time in office. Discrediting the charge that he was too eager for a deal with Iran and negotiated from a position of weakness would first require the president to have demonstrated toughness elsewhere, whether over Ukraine, the South China Sea, or the Syrian civil war, before successfully addressing the critics of the Iran deal.
If Obama achieves the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and can withstand congressional opposition to the nuclear deal, he will have had an extraordinary series of diplomatic achievements, from Cuba to Iran to trade. Unfortunately, the American public judges leadership in foreign policy more by successful demonstrations of force than the successful pursuit of peace. Despite trying to cloak himself in the Kennedy mantle last week at American University, President Obama will continue to fall short of the Kennedy mystique until he can prevail not through negotiation, but through resolution of a major conflict through an exhibition of strength. Only then will Obama’s strategy of peace be successful here at home.
James Goldgeier is Dean of the School of International Service at American University. You can follow him on Twitter @JimGoldgeier.