Andrew Cockburn

Can Joe Biden channel John F. Kennedy over Ukraine?

(Photos: Getty)

​In a submission for the hotly contested prize for fatuous belligerence over Ukraine, Ben Wallace, UK secretary of state for defence, has spoken of a ‘whiff of Munich’ regarding negotiations to end the crisis. It may only be a matter of time before he, or some fellow tub-thumper, reaches into the historical locker and pulls out the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 as an even more pertinent parallel.

The story writes itself: just as the reckless Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev brought the world to the brink of nuclear war by installing missiles in Cuba but was forced to withdraw thanks to unyielding resolve from President John F. Kennedy, so the equally reckless Vladimir Putin can only be forced into abandoning his threat to Ukraine by firm and fearless defiance on the part of Joe Biden.

​But that story, though almost universally accepted by the scholarly commentariat, is entirely wrong in just about every important respect.

Kennedy had the brains to ignore his senior advisors’ calls for war; it is not clear that Biden enjoys the same qualities

Furthermore, the most important parallel between Cuba then and Ukraine today is unlikely to garner much public attention: Biden, inexorably sinking in the polls, faces crucial mid-term elections. Kennedy was in similarly dire straits prior to the missile crisis. Cuba and Ukraine were and are political crises, and both presidents’ actions must be viewed in that light.

Biden carries the stigma of weakness following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan (really the military’s fault, but they adroitly shifted the blame onto the White House) as well as the likely fall-out from the prospective nuclear settlement with Iran. Hence his need to invoke a supposedly imminent threat and display firm-jawed strength in confronting it.

Kennedy was under equally relentless assault from the republicans for being ‘weak’ in the face of communist Cuba, having failed to rescue the ill-conceived CIA-sponsored invasion the previous year.

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