Richard Reeves

The Dangers of Crisis Without Rules

WASHINGTON -- Doing my homework for a segment on presidential leadership on NBC's "Dateline" program, I found myself thinking about how new and difficult is the situation confronted now by President Bush. My assignment, I was told, was to discuss the war-and-peace crises that confronted President John F. Kennedy during the most heated days of the Cold War.

Despite talk of another "long twilight struggle" -- Kennedy's words -- what is happening now is far less predictable than the events of 1961 and 1962. The Cold War was a rational confrontation between two expanding world systems. At its most dangerous that struggle involved confrontations between politicians and soldiers, with diplomats occasionally serving as go-betweens.

Kennedy, untested and lightly regarded as a young president, was a brilliant politician who eventually did quite well in those situations -- the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 -- because he was able to understand the thinking and motives of another politician. He was able to put himself in the place of his principal adversary, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The identification between the leaders, who seemed so different on the surface, was close enough that Kennedy was able to offer Khrushchev a solution in Berlin. Then a year later, after the Soviets placed missiles in Cuba, he could say, privately, that he would have done the same thing as the Soviet leader if he had faced the same situation.

Khrushchev's political problem in the summer of 1961 was the growing exodus of Eastern Europe's best and brightest through the open gateway of West Berlin. As many as 2,000 people a day were fleeing communism by getting to Soviet-occupied East Berlin and then walking into Allied-occupied West Berlin and being flown 110 miles across East Germany into West Germany.

"This is unbearable for Khrushchev," said Kennedy to one of his men. "East Germany is hemorrhaging to death. The entire East bloc is in danger. He has to do something to stop it."

War was one way. The Soviets greatly outnumbered and outgunned the Americans, British and French. But added Kennedy: "Perhaps a wall." The American backed that up by approving public statements that what the communists did on their side of the border was their own business as long as Allied access to East Berlin was not impaired. The Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie replaced the real threat of overrun Americans using nuclear weapons to keep a foothold in Europe.

In 1962, it was the Soviets who were obviously outgunned most everywhere in the world. The United States had ringed the Soviet Union with picket fences of nuclear missiles. We had at least a 20-to-1 lead in strategic (long-range) missiles. In the summer of that year, Khrushchev tried to balance the contest in one swift, secret move. He put medium-range nuclear missiles on Cuba, 90 miles from Florida. It almost worked. But after millions of words and a U.S. naval "quarantine" of the Caribbean, the Soviets removed the missiles in return for an American promise never to invade Cuba.

What really brought that agreement was unspoken understanding between two politicians -- from different systems -- that neither wanted to be the man remembered for pushing the nuclear button. "It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization," said Kennedy. In the famous Khrushchev letter that ended the crisis, the Soviet leader said: "We want to live and do not at all want to destroy your country ..."

Politics is the art of compromise. The thinking of soldiers is as predictable.

But the enemy today is neither politician nor soldier. He is not interested in compromise. He is not predictable. He does want to destroy our country.

This is the worst of times. The United States will have no trouble making alliances and forming coalitions with politicians and soldiers around the world -- that is the old way, the rational way. But the enemey is not rational in the traditional sense of rules and understanding, and so the job of George W. Bush is among the most difficult ever thrust on a world leader.

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