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Lessons from JFK on power, diplomacy

THE USS JOHN F. KENNEDY docked in Boston yesterday for a final farewell before decommissioning. While in service, the aircraft carrier was frequently stationed in the Mediterranean, projecting American power in the tumultuous Middle East. The retirement of the warship calls forth memories of the man for whom the vessel was aptly named and his conception of the role of military might in US strategy abroad.

Bogged down in Iraq, many Americans argue that our military hammer should be put back in the closet in favor of diplomacy. Bellicose rhetoric about Iran and the dispatch of a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf raise fears about repetition of the run-up to the Iraq war. Had President Kennedy lived to be an elderly statesman, what advice might he give his successor about our current showdown with Iran?

Lesson One: In addressing nuclear dilemmas, military might and diplomacy are not distinct alternatives, but necessary complements. Kennedy believed that the use of military muscle should be a last resort. But he knew that projection of US power in ways that threatened potential use of force was an essential instrument of statesmanship. For JFK, force was the hand inside the glove of diplomacy. In the world's most dangerous show down, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy confronted a Soviet leader sneaking nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba and demanded that they be withdrawn. The first instinct of American policymakers at the time was a preventive first strike to eliminate the missiles. Although the president assembled overwhelming military force to demonstrate vividly US determination, he also orchestrated a decision-making process that invented additional options short of war. In the end, presented with the right mix of carrots and sticks, Khrushchev withdrew the missiles without a shot being fired.

In the deployment of the USS Stennis to the Persian Gulf, one can hear echoes of Kennedy's naval quarantine of Cuba. What has been missing so far, however, is the equivalent of the second half of JFK's successful strategy: imaginative diplomacy.

Lesson Two: President Kennedy famously said, "Let us never negotiate outof fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." Vice President Dick Cheney articulated the Bush administration's neocon alternative: "We don't negotiate with evil, we defeat it." Following that principle, the Bush administration watched as North Korea added eight bombs of plutonium to its arsenal and conducted a nuclear test. Only then did the United States resort to diplomacy, enter serious negotiations, and reach last month's agreement. Let us hope that, on the Iranian front, the administration will soon make a similar about-face.

Even when negotiation proves successful, as it did this month when North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium production, true neoconservatives object. The architect of the Bush administration's nonproliferation strategy, former undersecretary of state John Bolton, condemned the recent agreement on the grounds that it "contradicts the fundamental premises of the president's policy he's been following for the past six years." The secretary of state should be applauded for that contradiction.

Lesson Three: The perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Although his ultimate goal was to bury Communism, Kennedy knew that this was a long-term project. Success would require careful small steps that avoided confrontations that could lead to a nuclear war neither country would survive. President Kennedy thus initiated arms-control negotiations with the Soviet Union that led to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, an emergency hotline between Washington and Moscow, and, ultimately, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

If there is to be a negotiated solution that stops Iran short of a nuclear bomb, the United States will be required to take uncomfortable steps. These will include offering Iran a security assurance if and when it gives up its nuclear weapons program. Despite valid concerns about the nature of the Islamic Republic, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrotein a 2004 publication entitled "Iran: Time for a New Approach," "Iran is not on the verge of another revolution . . . The durability of the Islamic Republic and the urgency of the concerns surrounding its policies mandate that the United States deal with the current regime rather than wait for it to fall."

Kennedy would have approved.

Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe."