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Dunsmore: Getting Tough

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. With this is mind, I recently wrote about a new book on the subject by British military historian Max Hastings titled Catastrophe: 1914. Who bears the greatest blame for the war, remains in dispute. Hastings believes it was Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. But leaders in Germany, Russia, Serbia, France and Britain all share responsibility. Where there does seem to be a historical consensus is that in the summer of 1914, all the parties were trying to show they were not weak.

In her 1962 Pulitzer Prize winning best seller, “The Guns of August,” American historian Barbara Tuchman made this point: mistakes, misunderstandings and miscommunication can unleash an unpredictable chain of events, causing governments to go to war with little understanding of the consequences.

Author Michael Dobbs, in “One Minute to Midnight”, his definitive history of the Cuban Missile Crisis, tells us that even as President John Kennedy was negotiating with the Russians - and with his own hawkish generals and advisors - the The Guns of August tragedy was very much on his mind.

“One of Kennedy’s favorite passages” writes Dobbs, “was a scene in which two German statesmen are analyzing the reasons for the most destructive confrontation up until that time. ‘How did it all happen?’ the younger man wanted to know.” The older man responds, “Ah, if only one knew.”

Dobbs stresses, “Whatever else he did as president, Kennedy was determined to avoid an outcome in which one survivor of nuclear war asks, ‘how did this all happen?’ and receives the incredible reply, ‘Ah if only one knew.’”

Fortunately for the world, Kennedy succeeded. But it was very close. At key points during the crisis, had it not been for Kennedy’s determination not to provoke a nuclear war, many of us would not be here today.

I am not implying that the current crisis with Russia over Ukraine is of the same magnitude as World War I or the Cuban Missile Crisis. What I am suggesting is that trying to prove how tough you are, is also not the solution to the Ukrainian problem.

Obama’s critics insist that he is feckless and that by being so averse to the use of force, he invites challenges from the likes of Russian President Putin. But what is it the critics want him to do? Do not use American troops they say - but give the Ukrainians more weapons so they can fight the Russians.

Yet, we know Ukraine has a sadly depleted military with perhaps fewer then 10,000 troops adequately trained to fight. The Russians already have 40,000 well equipped forces right on the Ukrainian border and another 750 thousand in reserve.

Sending arms to Ukraine won’t make America seem tougher. It will just result in more bloodshed, and will have no bearing on the outcome. Stronger sanctions by both America and Europe - still just might.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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