Essence of Indecision
June 22, 2017
A counterfactual is an experiment where the researcher asks how an outcome would change if some causal factor or key element had been different. A classic example is Robert Fogel’s examination of whether the U.S. economy would have grown as quickly in the nineteenth century if there were no railroads. A counterfactual problem with implications for cybersecurity and deterrence is to consider whether the outcome would have been different if it had been the John F. Kennedy administration in charge during the Russian DNC hacking episode.
Kennedy himself wrote (after the Cuban Missile Crisis) that “the secret of the presidential enterprise is to be found in an examination of the way presidential choices are made.” The model for such decisionmaking is the missile crisis, which has been dissected ad nauseam. (The definitive account remains Graham T. Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis [Little Brown, 1971]). The crisis itself lasted two weeks in October 1962, but the Russian program had begun several months earlier. The CIA suspecting that missiles were being installed in Cuba as early as August (and informed the president of its suspicions). The first missiles arrived a month later, in September, and despite problems with overhead reconnaissance were detected by the United States a month after that, in October. This was the onset of the crisis.
The Kennedy administration considered a number of potential responses, including doing nothing, since the Soviet missiles would not fundamentally change the military balance (a conclusion disputed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Kennedy concluded, however, that allowing Russia to install missiles would fundamentally change the political balance, damage allies’ confidence in the United States, and discourage the American people. Despite the very real risk of escalation to nuclear war and fears of Soviet retaliation in other areas (such as Berlin), Kennedy took action, using public communication, military pressure, negotiations, and concessions, in a series of incremental moves that led to the withdrawal of the missiles.
The Russians entered the crisis believing that the new president was inexperienced and had demonstrated a lack of confidence during the Bay of Pigs episode. They believed he would not react and would accept the placement of the missiles. This proved to be a miscalculation that eventually helped to cost Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev his job. We do not want to exaggerate or idealize the role of the Kennedy administration or imply that it had perfect knowledge or consensus among its members on what course of action to take. Decisionmaking was dynamic and interactive in that U.S. actions changed in response to Soviet messages and actions, but the central decision that the placement of the missiles in Cuba was unacceptable guided the administration’s actions.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was both more dangerous and more complicated than the recent Russian interference in the U.S. presidential elections. Covert interference with an election is not as discrete a challenge as placing nuclear-armed missiles within a few minutes flight of the U.S. homeland. Information operations lack the tangibility of traditional military activities. But interfering in a presidential election (even if it did not affect the final outcome) is part of a larger Russian effort to injure the United States, disrupt NATO, and discredit democracy, and it is ultimately as damaging as missiles in Cuba.
Kennedy could “trade” missiles in Turkey for missiles in Cuba (a symbolic concession since the U.S. missiles had become irrelevant), but it is not clear now that a symbolic concession would sway Russia or that any tangible concession would be in our interest, since it would involve a diminishment of democracy or the Western alliance. We cannot assuage Putin by pressing the reset button a few more times. A response must be tailored to avoid confirming his charge of implacable U.S. hostility to Russia, while convincing Russia that it does not have a free hand in the West, a task that is neither easy nor without risk but is indispensable for defense against new generation threats.
It is not clear than any twenty-first-century U.S. administration, whether Republican or Democrat, could develop a timely response. Learning from their mistakes in the Cold War, the Russians have developed new coercive doctrines that do not easily fit with our definition of conflict. This shields them and makes devising a response more difficult. They have redefined the rules of the game, leaving us uncertain as to how to respond.
Uncertainty is part of conflict. The antidote to uncertainty is not perfect knowledge but confidence. In conflict, leaders need the confidence to act despite risk and imperfect knowledge and to move forward into the fog of war despite ambiguity. If we are to draw any lessons from 1962, it is that a challenge posing unacceptable harm to the United States requires a firm response that, while weighing the risks, is not paralyzed by them.
James Andrew Lewis is a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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