The 50th anniversary of the assassination and funeral of John F. Kennedy should remind us of his primary legacy: The long shadow of unintended consequences from reckless foreign intervention. JFK’s orchestration of the attempted overthrow of a foreign regime – Fidel Castro’s in Cuba – is usually treated in American history as a one-off disaster from which JFK’s presidency later recovered. Kennedy may have behaved somewhat more responsibly later as he gained experience in being president, but the failed invasion by Cuban exiles of the island in an attempt to trigger a revolt against Castro had unforeseen lingering consequences of monumental proportion for the United States. The often ignored lesson of such unplanned fallout from meddling in foreign countries should not be lost on today’s decision-makers.
As a hedge to forestall another such invasion to overthrow Castro – which incredibly the United States was still planning and the Soviet Union and Castro caught wind of – the Soviets began to install tactical, medium-range, and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, thus triggering the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK inadvertently nearly took the world the closest it has yet come to thermonuclear holocaust. In addition, although Kennedy is often given credit for giving Nikita Khrushchev a face-saving way out of the immediate crisis, the long-term consequences for Khrushchev were his ouster as Soviet leader – in part because of Soviet public humiliation from the episode. The Soviet hardliners who took his place decided that they would never be so embarrassed again and thus began an atomic weapons build up to achieve nuclear arms parity with the United States by the 1970s. The world was made more dangerous by this arms race in doomsday weapons.
Today’s policy-makers should learn from the unintended consequences of launching such unnecessary brushfire wars but often haven’t. For example, the U.S. attack on Libya and ground invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, designed to oust despotic regimes in naïve attempts to remake those countries into U.S.-style democracies, have all ended in failure or chaos. In Afghanistan, once the United States withdraws its forces, the emboldened Taliban will probably eventually dominate some or all of the country, thus rendering futile all the money and lives (US and Afghan) expended in the long American involvement. If the United States leaves some forces there, they may be in the worst possible situation – not large enough to adequately protect themselves from the worsening civil war.
In Iraq, an artificial country in the first place, the US ouster of the only force holding the centrifugal forces of ethno-sectarianism at bay – the autocratic Saddam Hussein – left the country in chaos. The only thing that saved the United States was the ingenuity of Gen. David Petraeus essentially “turning” the Sunni insurgents by paying them to fight al Qaeda in Iraq instead of US forces. This Sunni pivot allowed breathing time for the United States to withdraw forces from Iraq. Even then, learning nothing from the chaos and its likely return, the Obama administration tried, in vain, to negotiate to keep a smaller US force in that country (as it has apparently more successfully, but foolishly, done in Afghanistan) and is again ramping up US military aid as, predictably, the ethno-sectarian violence again escalates.
Learning nothing from Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States helped oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, a leader who had started to play ball with the West and had eliminated his nuclear program – inadvertently showing Iran and North Korea, as did the US invasion of Iraq, what happens to dictators who don’t have nuclear weapons or who cooperate in getting rid of their nuclear programs. Furthermore, Libya is now in chaos, with many militias carving out and ruling various regions of the country, kidnapping high level officials of the Libyan government, massacring civilians, creating terrorist bases in the southern part of the country, and sending fighters with weapons from Gaddafi’s huge stockpile into other countries (for example, Mali).
However, Barack Obama finally has had at least a little inkling about the unintended consequences of all of these disastrous American interventions. He has limited US aid to Syrian rebels fighting the autocrat Bashar al-Assad, because they are dominated by radical and ruthless Islamists. Obama is trying to avoid the error of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in supporting Mujahideen Islamists against the Soviets in the 1980s, which inadvertently created al-Qaeda.
Yet in an example of Colin Powell’s original caution before the invasion of Iraq that “you break it, you’ve bought it,” American hawks have successfully pushed Obama to re-escalate military aid to Iraq to help the government with the resuming insurgency. Likewise, as Assad’s forces continue to gain in the Syrian civil war, hawks will continue their push to deepen US involvement there.
And in their most blatant attempt to start new hostilities, American hawks, encouraged by Saudi Arabia and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are trying to impose more economic sanctions against Iran just when international negotiations to end the Iranian nuclear program are bearing fruit. A sanctions-induced scuttling of this process would probably cause Iran to unabashedly race to get the bomb and prompt futile Israeli or US military action, which would at best set back Iran’s effort to get a nuclear devise by only a few years.
Instead of a superficial fascination and glorification of JFK’s legacy on the anniversary of his death, the American public and US policy-makers should learn from the unintentional adverse consequences of his hawkish unnecessary meddling into the affairs of small, non-threatening foreign countries.