What JFK Can Teach Obama About Dealing With Iran

There are many lessons, including one for his Republican critics.

JFK and Barack Obama sitting in the Oval Office of the White House
John Fitzgerald Kennedy (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama (R) sitting in the Oval Office of the White House

Photograph of JFK by AFP/AFP/Getty Images. Photograph of Obama by Brendan Smialowski-Pool/Getty Images.

Imagine this: The world watches as a relatively young American president walks a tightrope to prove he would defend U.S. commitments in a strategic region with military force despite his known preference for a diplomatic solution. While he promises that all options are on the table, some very important American allies send signals that they doubt the president’s resolve.

President Obama’s “I don’t bluff” statement last week on the Iran nuclear issue recalled a similar situation a half-century ago when John F. Kennedy faced his first foreign policy crisis in the landlocked Southeast Asian country of Laos, where communist guerrillas supported by the Soviet Union, North Vietnam, and China threatened to overrun a U.S. ally. “We will not be provoked, trapped, or drawn into this or any other situation;” Kennedy said on national television in March 1961, “but I know that every American will want his country to honor its obligations to the point that freedom and security of the free world and ourselves may be achieved.”

Kennedy, like Obama, had concluded that what key U.S. allies in the region were pushing for—unilateral U.S. military intervention—was the worst of a set of bad options. Meanwhile, U.S. allies outside the region, whose support was needed for any serious international sanctions regime to work, were counseling diplomacy and patience with equal passion. Kennedy, like Obama, looked for just the right mix of political, intelligence, and military activities to keep friends and influence enemies. In the end, Kennedy got what he wanted: an acceptable status quo in the country without a U.S. invasion. But it wasn’t easy.

President Obama opened himself to a torrent of criticism in the wake of his “I don’t bluff” interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this month. Mitt Romney vowed that if Obama were re-elected that Iran was sure to get the bomb. Rick Santorum accused the president of “another appeasement” of Iran. Longtime foreign affairs observer Charles Krauthammer charged the Obama administration of being more interested in containing Israel than deterring Iran’s nuclear program. The Laos parallel, like most historical analogies, is inexact, but a look at how Kennedy managed to keep his options open suggests the strengths and weaknesses of this approach.

Kennedy worked along three tracks. He encouraged the Europeans to pursue a diplomatic settlement. He used covert action to complicate his adversary’s efforts in the target country. And he prepared for the war that he did not want. Even then, his “I’m not bluffing” strategy almost failed. When Kennedy first made the statement, the communist guerrillas still had reason to believe the French and the British could effectively veto any use of force by Washington. Over time, however, through the deft use of military signals—the movement of U.S. ships and helicopters—and the creation of a credible international coalition, Kennedy erased that doubt and found the sweet spot between provocation and deterrence. Of his three approaches, it is not clear that Kennedy’s resort to covert action helped.

Obama is similarly using a multitrack approach. He has worked with two difficult great powers, Russia and China, to build a credible international sanctions regime. Obama has shown respect for Iranian sovereignty by offering to negotiate without any risk to American interests. Further, although the details of such things are classified, there are enough strange occurrences in the secret world—the premature deaths of Iranian nuclear scientists, cyberwarfare against Iranian computer systems, and excellent counterintelligence against Iranian targets—that messages are likely being sent covertly. And finally, the U.S. Fifth Fleet is making sure that Iran is not closing the Strait of Hormuz and is a constant reminder of America’s ability to project lethal power in the Persian Gulf.

One lesson that Obama could learn from Kennedy involves something that he is not doing. Kennedy showed creativity in speaking directly to the Laotian people by making it clear that he respected Laotian sovereignty. Obama could show similar dexterity and potentially drive a wedge into Iranian politics. In his rhetoric on Iran, the president does not differentiate between Iran and Iranians. By saying that the United States does not want “Iran” to get the bomb, the president is ignoring the possibility that for many Iranians, like many Indians, having the right to get the bomb is considered a matter of sovereignty and national pride. “You have a bad government that the world doesn’t trust with a bomb” is a much better argument to make than “You Persians are not worthy of having nukes.”

Leaving aside whether Iran proves to be more difficult to deter than communists in Laos, Obama begins with a problem that Kennedy did not have. In 1961, former President Dwight Eisenhower set aside his private concerns about Kennedy to tell Americans that on Laos they should “stand where the Commander in Chief stands.” Even Sen. Barry Goldwater, the leader in that era of the GOP’s conservative wing, stood behind President Kennedy’s approach to the crisis. “President Kennedy did the right thing,” said Goldwater. “We have to let the world know we are going to get tough and I pray the President will have the courage to follow through.”

Obama, however, does not start with the support of a loyal opposition. Literally hours after Obama sent his warning to Iran, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed it as “a talking point” and suggested to our friends and adversaries that the Obama administration could not be trusted to use military force if all other approaches failed. Kennedy, at least, did not have the Republicans encouraging the Kremlin to hang tough. And Obama should not either. Finding that sweet spot in international politics is hard enough. No one should make it harder.