There seems to be no end to the media obsession with the relationship between Donald Trump and the Russians.
The latest charge is that during the presidential transition trusted adviser Jared Kushner sought "back channel" contacts through communications with Russia's ambassador to the United States.
Leave aside for a moment that contact with Russia's U.S. ambassador is hardly a "back channel" contact, let's assume that Mr. Kushner was indeed trying to establish a process for communicating with Russian contacts outside usual diplomatic and intelligence channels. A look at some pertinent historical analogies might be helpful here.
Take the example of John F. Kennedy's transition in late 1960, as JFK prepared to enter the White House after his election as President. Like Donald Trump, the president-elect relied on a "close adviser" and family member – his brother Robert Kennedy – to quietly reach out to a Russian correspondent stationed in Washington who also not coincidentally served in Russian intelligence. This meeting took place at a particularly tense era in U.S.-Soviet competition, when the two major superpowers warily eyed each other's every move.
JFK wanted to establish a direct private link to the Russians to express his hope for an improvement in relations that might reduce the chance for military conflict. As JFK would painfully learn in the very first few months of his young administration, he had good reason to be wary not only of the Soviets but of his own national security apparatus itself.
The infamous Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion launched in 1961 was a holdover project of the CIA that had been hatched in the waning months of the Eisenhower administration to remove Fidel Castro from power. It was based on seriously flawed intelligence and poor military planning, and led to a disastrous defeat for the invading forces.
Thankfully, JFK learned quickly from this fiasco. He thereafter retained a very healthy skepticism of professional intelligence and military sources. This would come in handy just a year later when the U.S. was again enmeshed in an exceedingly dangerous confrontation with the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
President Kennedy eventually avoided a potentially disastrous nuclear war with Russia by constantly probing the intelligence he was receiving – and standing up to some particularly trigger-happy U.S. generals who advised a pre-emptive strike on Soviet nuclear missiles that had been placed in Cuba.
But historians agree that a key element in Kennedy's success in avoiding a nuclear holocaust was through private back-door communications with the Russians well outside normal diplomatic channels. JFK again relied on his brother Bobby and a private citizen, John Scali, who also happened to be a respected journalist with good sources in the Russian Embassy in Washington.
Throughout the back-and-forth negotiations on the missile crisis, Scali kept open a line of communication to RFK that helped defuse the crisis and avoid war. I give these historical examples because it is not fair to judge Donald Trump's overtures to the Russians in a vacuum.
Just as in JFK's 1960, Donald Trump has inherited a situation fraught with tension between two nuclear superpowers. And whatever one might think of Vladimir Putin, Trump understands instinctively (again like JFK before him) that engaging in constructive communication with Russia might avoid engaging in destructive conflict.
One can only imagine what terrible consequences might have been avoided if there had been effective "back channel" communications with some of the vexing leaders who have confronted the U.S. in more recent times.
Maybe someone who could have effectively debunked the CIA's "slam dunk" assertion of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and opened a line of communication with Iraqi military leaders? Or someone who could have communicated more effectively with Syria's leadership rather than drawing meaningless "red lines" in the sand?
Yes, these are dangerous times we live in, but those who find a way to open dialog with our foes are not the danger. The real danger is being straightjacketed by institutions and ways of doing things that fail as often as they succeed. On this the hundred year anniversary of JFK's birth, it is especially fitting to remember that what's past is prologue.
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