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Castro's Lesson for Saddam By: William R. Hawkins
The Washington Times | Thursday, September 12, 2002


As President George Bush argues the case for decisive action to remove the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the hands Saddam Hussein, it might be well to remember events of 40 years ago. In September 1962, intelligence reports indicated that a radical leader with an anti-American agenda and aggressive regional ambitions was about to receive nuclear weapons. That dictator was Fidel Castro and the resulting confrontation in October and November would be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

President John F. Kennedy had tried to get rid of Mr. Castro by covert means. There were attempts to foment a guerrilla war or orchestrate a military coup.

The most dramatic event was the Bay of Pigs landing by a brigade of Cuban exiles in April 1961. This attempt to incite a broader uprising against Mr. Castro was crushed, just as the uprisings in Iraq were crushed in 1991 by Saddam. In both cases, Washington refused to commit American forces to support the rebels. Mr. Castro is still in power, and Saddam also seems able to frustrate local plots against his rule despite claims from exiles that the regime is hated by the people.

When the Soviet Union moved nuclear armed missiles and bombers into Cuba, Moscow claimed it was only supplying Cuba with defensive weapons. In one sense, this was correct. The reason rogue states wish to acquire WMDs — especially nuclear, is to serve as a deterrent against invasions meant to overthrow the regime. With their thrones more secure from U.S. intervention, ambitious rulers believe they will have more freedom to act against their neighbors. WMDs would then play an offensive role in support of regional intimidation and war.

American reactions have encouraged the belief that acquiring WMDs pays off. There is an immediate shift in priorities from removing the regime to removing the WMD threat. In the Cuban crisis, Kennedy was willing to offer Nikita Khrushchev a pledge not to invade Cuba or support another attack on the Castro regime from overseas freedom fighters in exchange for a withdrawal of the Soviet nukes.

A similar example was provided by President Bill Clinton's response to the threat of nuclear bombs and missile development in North Korea. Rather than seek the removal of one of the most brutal regimes on the planet, which had callously allowed millions of its citizens to starve to death while it poured scarce resources into WMDs, the imperative became shoring up the Pyongyang dictatorship. The fear was a "death ride" scenario where the failed state would fire its missiles in an attempt to avoid collapse. Food and fuel were given to Pyongyang, nuclear reactors were promised, and some sanctions were lifted to encourage trade.

In all cases, the State Department bureaucracy favors diplomatic solutions to any attempted regime change.

When President Kennedy confronted the Kremlin over Cuba, the Soviets intensified their pro-Castro propaganda campaign in ways very similar to what Saddam is doing today. There were appeals to European opinion, claiming American sanctions were "starving the Cuban people" and risking war. It was thought that a U.S. attack on Cuba would lead to a Soviet counterthrust in Europe, probably the seizure of Berlin. Today, it is an Iraqi attack on Israel that is expected if a U.S.-led invasion imperils Baghdad.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved peacefully, after an American show of force involving a naval blockade and the assembly of an invasion fleet. A pre-emptive U.S. strike was at the ready. The key difference between 1962 and 2002 is that the U.S. was then dealing with another major power, not the local despot. The WMDs were in Soviet hands, and the Kremlin had larger concerns to consider when facing an aroused United States.

Mr. Castro showed himself to be emotionally unstable and reckless during the crisis, even calling on Khrushchev to launch a nuclear first strike on the United States rather than back down. Mr. Castro also opposed any arms inspections and wanted Moscow to keep a secret arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba for use against an invasion. (At the height of the crisis, the Kremlin drafted an authorization for the Soviet commander in Cuba to use tactical nukes against U.S. forces).

In the wake of the crisis, Mr. Castro felt secure enough to launch a campaign of subversion throughout Latin America. He played a major role in the wars in Central America and sent Cuban troops to fight in support of Marxist regimes in Africa. Cuba remains a center for international terrorism and last December hosted a meeting of Latin American and Middle Eastern groups including the Columbian FARC and representatives from Iraq. Mr. Castro provided critical support (including personnel) to help Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez survive a coup attempt. And he is courting the Chinese. The cost of abandoning regime change in Cuba has been very high.

Saddam is in charge of his own WMD arsenal and Iraq's nuclear weapons program. He does not need subsidies from a patron, as he has plentiful oil reserves to finance his regime. He may already believe the chemical and bioweapons he possessed in 1991 deterred a U.S. march on Baghdad. Should he acquire nuclear weapons, his confidence as a survivor and leader of radical movements in the Middle East will skyrocket. A sizable proportion of the Iraqi people, as well as other Arabs, will hail Saddam as a leader who has what it takes to make the "imperialists" and their "puppets" back down.

Regime change in Iraq is a strategic necessity. It cannot be postponed, because time is not on America's side. Saddam must be removed before he has even a single nuclear bomb, and before he has the means to deliver his other WMDs on a large scale to distant targets. An invasion to liberate Iraq will be costly in money and effort, and possibly in lives. But the long-term costs of allowing Saddam to strengthen his position will be much higher on all counts. 

William R. Hawkins is senior fellow for national security studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council.


William Hawkins is a consultant on international economics and national security issues.


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