In a nod to President Obama’s attempted pivot on Tuesday from Iraq to jobs, on this Labor Day I’d like to pivot from jobs to national defense.
I’m a child of the Cold War. Born in the 1965, I spent 12 of my first 24 years living outside the United States. My family spent five years in Naples, Italy, where both parents worked on a NATO base. We spent another five years living on the thorn in Fidel Castro’s side known as Guantanamo Bay. After school I spent two years in the Army stationed in what was at the time called West Germany. The Cold War just was. The Iron Curtain was the line of demarcation between freedom and oppression.
The Cold War was called the Cold War because it was, well… cold. Not in the anti-global warming sense, but cold as opposed to hot, where bullets fly and lifeless bodies lay strewn on across the battlefields that make up the front lines. As uncomfortable as friction zones like Korea and Vietnam were, they were a far cry from the 16 million killed in World War I and 60 million in WWII. The Cold War stayed cold because everyone knew there were severe consequences for turning it hot. Those sentiments held for both conventional war – with over a quarter of a million American troops stationed in Germany alone, and unconventional – with the well understood doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. As distressing as the visions that inspired “duck and cover” were, they were far better than the actual loss of millions of lives.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a President Obama who spent 20 years in Jeremiah Wright’s church and somehow never picked up that the pastor was an America hating racist, similarly spent his life under the umbrella of security provided by a stalwart American foreign policy yet never understood its most basic lessons. This lack of understanding is clearly demonstrated by his oft stated determination to pull American troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan according to an arbitrary calendar on his desk.
The fact that the world has existed in relative peace, absent a significant hot war with major players directly confronting one another for 65 years is a monument to the lessons learned between 1918 and 1939. After WWI Woodrow Wilson put his faith in his Fourteen Points and the League of Nations to maintain the peace and America returned to isolation. Hitler’s 1938 designs on the Sudetenland and Chamberlain’s “Peace for Our Time” demonstrated Wilson’s folly.
Seeking to avoid Wilson’s mistakes, Truman initially left hundreds of thousands of troops in Japan and Germany to keep the vanquished from somehow reassembling their war machines and starting WWIII. Soon it became clear however that the primary threat did not come from vanquished enemies but from our erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union. The result was that the American presence in both countries morphed from an occupying force to one of mutual defense. Ostensibly that defense protected those countries from an invasion. What it did somewhat more subtly was just important; it acted as a midwife to their nascent democracies.
By making it clear whenever necessary that the United States was willing to go to the mattresses to protect its interests and its friends, we were able to avoid the horrors of the first half of the 20th century. Simultaneously, by providing the people of Germany and Japan with the stability to develop their democratic institutions the United States was able to midwife two former enemies into two of the most robust and dynamic economies (and trading partners) in the world. In the end everyone won.
The success of this model did not always play out on the same timetable: In the Philippines and South Korea democracy took much longer to develop. Nor were the lessons always heeded: We abandoned Vietnam (and later the South Vietnamese government when Congress balked at support), let Afghanistan become a vacuum after the Soviets departed, and left an armed Saddam in power after the first Gulf War.
The lessons of the Cold War success are lost on President Obama. By continuously signaling his plan to pull American troops out according to his arbitrary deadline he is killing two birds with one stone. On the one hand, he is telling the people of Afghanistan and Iraq that they had better get this democracy thing right – now – because soon they are going to be on their own. This is a monumental error. Democracy is a difficult form of government even in the best of circumstances and only more so with a violent enemy within who has no compunction about slaughtering innocent civilians by the thousands. Four years after the end of the Revolutionary War the United States had a true government in name only. The Constitution was written and ratified in 1787 and it was the child of accomplished patriots such as James Madison, Benjamin Franklin George Mason, John Hancock, John Adams and of course George Washington. Without them who knows what might have become of those 13 states. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan has such men of skill and stature.
At the same time he is warning the Iraqis and Afghanistanis that they had better get things right, President Obama is signaling to the Taliban and insurgents across the middle east that if they lay low and bide their time they will soon have a clear field for launching their assaults on these precarious democracies. Like a burglar who waits for the security guard to make his nightly rounds before stealing a coveted masterpiece, the terrorists who seek to take over Iraq and Afghanistan understand their chances of success are far greater if the Americans are gone. As such, given President Obama’s promised timelines, they know they can simply husband their resources to strike when the Americans are gone. From any terrorist’s perspective, that is a far different playing field than one where they knew the Americans were focused on victory rather than the calendar.
At the risk of interrupting a Labor Day golf vacation I might suggest President Obama also start doing a little Cold War research to find out what it takes to be victorious in wars not fought within ivory towers. A good place to start might William Manchester’s American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 – 1964. Not only did McArthur say “In war there is no substitute for Victory” but he was also the man who set the foundations for a non aggressive, economically successful and democratically stable Japan. It even comes in a paperback, just the right size for a golf bag pocket…