Kennedy and His Advisors

Kennedy's conduct during the Cuban missile crisis has since that time been considered an example of responsible leadership under pressure.

A few months after the new leader came into office, he became embroiled in a failed military adventure in a neighboring country. Senior military advisors who led the action were forced to retire, but the leader remained in office.

A year went by, and a power from outside the region positioned threatening nuclear capabilities in the neighboring country. This time, the leader acted responsibly. The nuclear threat was removed and deterioration into all-out war was averted. The leader's public stature surged, and the stain of military weakness and the loss of deterrance was washed away.

The reference is not to Ehud Olmert and the decisions he made during the Second Lebanon War and around the "attack on the nuclear facility in Syria according to foreign sources," but rather to John Kennedy, the American president of whom David Ben-Gurion said was "too much a politician."

Three months after Kennedy came into office, he authorized the amateurish and failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961. His political rivals presented him as a weakling in contrast with Fidel Castro. A year and a half later, the Soviets stationed nuclear missiles in Cuba. United States intelligence discovered them late, but the find provided Kennedy with the chance of a lifetime.

After a week of secret consultations, Kennedy imposed a naval blockade on Cuba on October 24, 1962, and threatened to attack if the missiles were not removed. Nikita Khrushchev. the Soviet leader, avoided confrontation. He removed the missiles after receiving a quiet promise to remove outmoded American missiles from Turkey. Kennedy came out a giant: without firing a single shot, he had alleviated the threat and stopped a decline into nuclear holocaust.

Kennedy's conduct during the Cuban missile crisis has since that time been considered an example of responsible leadership under pressure. Those who did not learn about it in university or read any of a dozen books on the subject have seen the movie. Few historical events have been better documented or studied.

However, research shows that this story is one not only of courage and determination, but a great deal of politics and psychology. The scholar Graham Allison, in his landmark book "Essence of Decision," analyzed the Cuban missile crisis according to three different models that lead to the same outcome.

The first model presents the countries and their leaders as rational players working to advance national interests. This model is very well accepted in describing international relations, and is well known to anyone who has listened to TV commentator Ehud Ya'ari. In the Cuban crisis, Khrushchev was working to improve the standing of the Soviet Union in the global struggle for power and influence, and Kennedy wanted to perpetuate American superiority. The balance of power dictated the outcome: the Soviets tried to gain points by surprise, but folded in the face of the greater power of the U.S.

The second model, an organizational one, shows that leaders are limited in their decision-making. Their freedom to act depends on the structure and methods of bodies implementing the decisions, particularly the military and intelligence organizations. If the army has been organized, outfitted and trained for a certain war, it will recommend to the leader to act accordingly, and will have difficulty preparing for another scenario. The commander of the U.S. Air Force pushed Kennedy to bomb the missile sites in Cuba, the head of the CIA promoted plans to assassinate Castro, and the State Department sought a diplomatic out. The greatness of a leader stems from the ability to balance the recommendations of the various bodies, but under crisis conditions he will find it difficult to improvise.

The third model, the political one, describes strategic decisions as the outcome of power struggles both in the public and internal spheres. The missile crisis caught Kennedy on the eve of congressional elections, in which his opponents had made the Cuban crisis a focus of the campaign. The defense secretary told Kennedy that the missiles in Cuba are a political, not a military problem; that they had not changed the balance of terror, but they had damaged the president's image, and therefore he must appear determined without risking a war.

The decision that was made was a compromise between the personal power and persuasive abilities of the cabinet, and the president's advisors. Everyone served their leader and their country, but were also certainly thinking about credit. Those who project from this historical analysis onto the events of Israel in 2007 do so at their own risk.