50 Years After Bay of Pigs, We're Still the World Police

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, the failed attempt by the Kennedy administration to remove Fidel Castro from Cuba. On April 15, 1961, a small band of 1500 Cuban exiles set out to invade their former homeland. Masterminded by the CIA, the operation hinged on covert action and a preemptive strike. This was all part of a program under development at the CIA aimed at regime change through the elimination of undesirable state leaders.

There is a new book about Bay of Pigs called “The Brilliant Disaster” (Jim Rasenberger, Harper Collins). The oxymoronic title only begins to suggest the far-reaching consequences of the doomed invasion. The operation was planned by a group of men that have long been called the "best and the brightest." But the results were calamitous.

In a three-day battle, everything that could go wrong for the Cuban brigade did - 114 Cuban exiles were killed in action; about 1,200 brigade members were captured, nine of who died from asphyxiation during transfer to Havana in a closed truck.

Why be concerned with the Bay of Pigs a half-century later? Precisely because the lessons of the Bay of Pigs haven’t been learned at all. Since the brilliant disaster, we have been to Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, and back to Iraq again, with military force. And now there is Libya. All told, the United States has been involved in no fewer than fifteen military actions overseas, and that does not include the untold number of covert operations in which our country may have been engaged.

Some of these have arguably benefited U.S. interests. Most have not.

To be fair, it is very difficult to know when the U.S. should involve itself in the affairs of another country, and when we shouldn’t. In 1961, before this blogger was born, but after World War II, the United States was certain of its place in the world – to secure democracy and freedom for all. We were, simply put, the Cop of the World, righteous and mighty.

The Bay of Pigs should have taught us a lesson in humility. Despite what may have been the best intentions of decent people under stressful circumstances (think: The Cold War), Fidel Castro remained in power until 2008, to no horrible end. The threat we so greatly feared - creeping communism across the globe - is long gone.

I am not an expert in foreign affairs (my expertise is U.S. Law and the Constitution). But speaking strictly as a citizen, albeit one who has worked in the White House, it seems that, with the largest national debt in the world, we need to start getting our own house in order, before further engagement in the affairs of others. The cases in which we act – certainly, in which we attack - ought to be few and far between.

Yet, it seems, our leaders – on both sides of the political aisle – are still trying, fifty-years after the debacle in Cuba, to determine how best to employ American military power in a manner that is consistent with our democratic principles. (In fact, we now have another debacle in Cuba, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, inconsistent with our democracy, and confusing to our leadership.)

As "The Brilliant Disaster" so wisely observes: “America is still driven by the same conflicting motives and urgencies that landed the country at the Bay of Pigs fifty years ago. On the one hand, we are a people convinced of our righteousness, power, and genius – convictions that compel us to cure what ails the world. On the other hand, we are stalked by deep insecurities: Our way of life is in constant jeopardy our enemies are implacable and closing in.”

The question then is, what lessons can be extracted from this fiasco of nearly half a century ago? The short answer: Regime change has remained a central part of American foreign policy. America has failed to learn anything constructive from the Bay of Pigs.

The ironic lesson we must learn in the new century, given our 14 trillion dollar debt, the hostility toward American citizens overseas, and our core democratic principles, is that our national interest may be better served by fewer interventions overseas than to continue a policy of policing the globe. Military action has untold costs, at home and abroad – economic costs, human costs. The Bay of Pigs debacle provided ample warning of the dangers inherent in any interventionist foreign policy.

Today, we are facing significant challenges on a range of fronts: Afghanistan, North Africa, the Middle East, North Korea, and beyond. As President Obama makes the life-and-death decisions that will define his presidency and alter the course of history, he would do well to consider the lessons of the Bay of Pigs once more.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.