Rick Perry’s Bay of Pigs Moment

One war ends, another is threatened? Peter Beinart on the Texas governor’s shocking Latin America plan.

Many commentators will say the highlight of last night’s Republican presidential debate was Michele Bachmann’s attacks on Newt Gingrich for taking money from Freddie Mac. Not me. In my view, the highlight was Rick Perry endorsing the Bay of Pigs.

Midway through the debate, Perry suggested that the U.S. enforce a new “Monroe Doctrine” toward Latin America, “like we used against the Cubans in the ‘60s.” Let’s unpack that.

First, for close to a century after the Monroe Doctrine was born, it was Britain—the strongest naval power in the world—that enforced it, not the United States. Secondly, in the early 20th century, when the United States did start toppling governments south of the border, the consequences were disastrous. By repeatedly sending the Marines to invade and occupy Latin American governments that didn’t prostrate themselves to U.S. business interests, presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson sowed decades of hatred toward the United States. One of the consequences of that hatred was Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in Cuba in 1959.

Dwight Eisenhower’s CIA responded with a plan to train and arm Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro. When John F. Kennedy succeeded Eisenhower, the CIA’s leaders told him of the plan and promised that once the exiles landed on Cuba’s shores, the Cuban people would turn against their new leader. The Agency’s own Cuba experts thought that was nonsense, but they were ignored. Many of Kennedy’s own advisers also doubted the plan could work. But as survivors of the McCarthyite hysteria of the early 1950s, they were terrified of being considered weak. “Nobody in the White House wanted to be soft,” one White House aide later recalled. “Everybody wanted to show they were just as daring and bold as everybody else.”

Castro knew the invasion was coming. It had been reported in The New York Times. And so his troops were waiting to meet the exiles when they came ashore. Although CIA leaders had claimed that the beach where the exiles’ landed—the Bay of Pigs—was a hotbed of anti-Castro sentiment, it was actually a Castro stronghold, a place he went to fish. Kennedy officials also believed that if the exiles came under fire, they could escape into the nearby Escambray Mountains and launch a guerrilla war. No one told them that between the beach and the mountains lay 80 miles of swamp.

The Bay of Pigs was, in the words of the historian Robert Draper, “one of those rare events in history—a perfect failure.” By the time it ended, Kennedy was sitting alone in his bedroom, in tears.

This is the model Rick Perry would use for dealing with Latin America today. And not just Latin America. Perry and many of his fellow Republican presidential candidates are also proposing that the United States go to war against Iran, a country about which they are every bit as ignorant as John Kennedy was about Cuba in 1961. They’re not proposing this in 2002 or 2003, when the memory of Vietnam had faded. They’re proposing it in 2011, just as America’s catastrophe in Iraq is ending, and while our futile and mindless war in Afghanistan is still going on.

It’s an extraordinary thing to behold. With the exception of Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, none of the Republican presidential candidates have learned a single thing from the wartime disasters of the last decade. They haven’t learned because they’re not engaging with the terrifying and humbling realities of war. They’re treating war as an abstraction, a way of showing they’re tough. The calculation is simple: Barack Obama hasn’t attacked Iran. Barack Obama must be portrayed as weak. Ergo, America should attack Iran.

It would be nice to think that the potential consequences of such an attack—consequences so frightening that they have dissuaded most of the key figures in Israel’s security establishment—would dissuade the Republican contenders. But why should they? After all, the dangers of attacking Iran are at least hypothetical. With Cuba in 1961, we don’t have to speculate. We tried it—and yet Perry still recommends the experience as a guide for American foreign policy in the region.

After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy famously said that “victory has a thousand fathers while defeat is an orphan.” But that’s no longer quite the case. For Rick Perry, it seems, even defeat in war is better than no war at all.