A half-century ago this week, a relatively inexperienced young president, John F. Kennedy, set off for Europe at a crucial moment in the Cold War. He had just botched the Bay of Pigs invasion launched by CIA-backed Cuban exiles, and his critics worried that he lacked the backbone to deal with the Soviet threat and an escalating Berlin crisis.
Fast-forward to 2011, and another relatively young president, Barack Obama, is in Europe at a turning point of the post-Cold War era that could prove no less historic. Even given the killing of Osama bin Laden, the high point so far of Obama’s presidency, critics still worry that he hasn’t demonstrated the consistent decisiveness required for the multiple challenges of the Arab Spring and its aftermath.
There are lessons in Kennedy’s blunders of 1961 for Obama, who was sufficiently eager to attain some of the Kennedy mystique during his presidential campaign that he sought the endorsements of JFK’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, and Sen. Ted Kennedy.
But Obama should pay less attention to the Kennedy myth and more to the reality that 1961 marked one of the worst inaugural-year foreign policy performances of any modern presidency. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s reading of Kennedy’s weakness and indecisiveness — through the Bay of Pigs Crisis in April, followed by the Vienna Summit in June and the building of the Berlin Wall in August — helped convince him that he could get away with placing nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962.
The stakes for Obama today are different. The United States no longer faces the threat of nuclear war with an ideological adversary nor the danger of great power conflict growing out of regional upheavals, as was the case during the Berlin crisis of 1961.
But how Obama manages U.S. policy during the current Middle East upheavals will very likely make a greater difference than the actions of any other country in determining whether the Arab Spring turns sour or becomes a positive, historic turning point for the world’s most troubled and explosive region.
Obama’s big advantage over Kennedy is that he is facing tests across the Middle East in the third year of his presidency, while many of Kennedy’s errors came in his first months in office. Inaugural years can be perilous — presidents are often forced to play match point on their first day.
That is particularly true for young, untested but brilliant individuals — like Kennedy and Obama — who come to office with the confidence of electoral victors but little relevant experience.
There are also striking similarities between the two men’s leadership styles and how they have handled challenges. Kennedy and Obama — the first Roman Catholic and the first African-American president, respectively — emerged as reflective and cerebral leaders in contrast to the more instinctive styles of Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan.
The most striking resemblance has been how Kennedy weighed his options on the Bay of Pigs compared with Obama’s course on Libya, which will very likely be one of the tensest discussion points this week when Obama meets with his French and British counterparts, who are seeking greater U.S. involvement.
Kennedy could have made one of two choices that would have avoided the Bay of Pigs failure. First, he could have rejected the invasion plans, which had been hatched during the Eisenhower administration. Alternatively, Kennedy could have decided to involve the U.S. military more deeply and give the mission the teeth required for victory. When presented with a final option to save the mission, Kennedy rejected a request for direct U.S. military involvement.
“I don’t want the United States involved in this,” Kennedy fumed at Adm. Arleigh Burke, the chief of naval operations, when Burke asked that a U.S. destroyer’s guns help the Cuban brigade.
“Hell, Mr. President,” Burke shot back, “we are involved.”
Like Kennedy in 1961, Obama, on Libya in 2011, took the advice of neither those, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said not to intervene militarily nor those who counseled decisive action.
The message to our allies and friends has been confusing. One clear presidential statement at the start, “Qadhafi must go,” sounded as resolute in rhetoric as the Pakistan SEAL operation was in action.
Yet there are also constant reminders by administration spokesmen that the U.S. military would go no further than a supporting role for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization operation led by the French and British that is limited to protecting the population — not changing the regime.
Though laudable in theory, this hasn’t worked well in practice. Obama is right to demand that our European allies accept more of the burden and cost of global leadership. France and the United Kingdom, however, lack the means and resources to sustain the Libya operation.
Whether justified or not, both U.S. allies and antagonists in the region have been responding to perceived presidential indecision — Saudi Arabia by marching its troops into Bahrain; Iran through actions aimed at taking advantage of regional unrest in hopes that parties supporting more Islamist, anti-American outcomes will supplant long-standing authoritarian U.S. friends.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, late in the second year of Kennedy’s presidency, marked a turning point in his approach to the Soviet Union. He decided that he could deal with Moscow only from a position of unquestioned strength.
One of Kennedy’s most memorable speeches followed, in June 1963, when he declared “Ich bin Ein Berliner,” linking all free people across the globe to free West Berlin. Yet the cost of his mistakes in 1961 would be three more decades of Cold War and a close brush with nuclear conflict.
It’s too early to know whether the bin Laden killing marks a similar defining moment for Obama. His Middle East speech suggests that he may have found his voice, for the address was stirring, sensible but also courageous. It now, however, demands immediate action in a place like Libya and consistent execution in Egypt and elsewhere.
The eras of Obama and Kennedy have more differences than similarities. But what remains unchanged is that presidential action and inaction has a magnified importance at historic inflection points.
Fred Kempe is president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. His latest book, Berlin 1961, was published May 10. This essay originally published by Politico.