Monday, June 16, 2014

Leadership and Interventionism Are Not the Same Thing

Robert Kagan has written a piece in the New Republic entitled "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire." In it, he bemoans what he perceives as America's retreat from its responsibility to preserve a liberal world order. Kagan argues: "Many Americans and their political leaders in both parties, including President Obama, have either forgotten or rejected the assumptions that undergirded American foreign policy for the past seven decades."

Kagan is correct that public attitudes towards America's role in the world have shifted recently, but he dramatically overstates the case when he posits a break with a 70-year tradition. He seems to equate "leadership" with military interventionism. Americans have rejected the latter, not the former.

What Kagan does not recognize is that the public's current aversion to military interventionism abroad is not only consistent with America's pre-World War II foreign policy, but with the golden age of leadership he praises.

Kagan's fundamental mistake is to think that the American people embraced military interventionism during and after World War II. They did not.

Americans have always been averse to military actions leading to large numbers of American casualties and extended occupations of hostile territory. In the two years before Pearl Harbor, Americans (even the so-called "interventionists") desperately clung to the idea that they could protect American interests merely by supplying the British (and later the Soviets) with the weapons to do the fighting.

While conventional wisdom suggests that Pearl Harbor changed all that, the reality is different. Even after the United States entered the war, it was reluctant to launch military operations that posed the threat of huge casualties. As David M. Kennedy has stated, this American predilection to avoid combat with Germany's forces in France led Stalin to conclude: "it looks like the Americans have decided to fight this war with American money and American machines and Russian men."

Even the major architect of the postwar order, Franklin Roosevelt, did not envision an America that would permanently station large numbers of U.S. soldiers abroad, much less deploy them on a regular basis. Yes, he did see the United States as the leading power in the new United Nations. But the point of having the so-called "Four Policemen" was to insure that the other three would be the ones to send soldiers to keep order in their respective spheres of interest. He imagined that the American role would be primarily in the form of naval and air power. "The United States will have to lead," FDR said of the UN, but its role would be to use "its good offices always to conciliate to help solve the differences which will arise between the others."

FDR, Churchill, and Stalin at Teheran
By Horton (Capt), War Office official photographer
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As the historian Warren Kimball has written, at the 1943 Teheran conference, when Stalin pressed him on how the United States would comport itself as one of the policemen, "FDR resorted to his prewar notion of sending only planes and ships from the United States to keep the peace in Europe." In FDR's mind, the United States would be primarily responsible for order in the western hemisphere, a role it had played for decades.

Even the so-called American declaration of cold war, the Truman Doctrine speech of March 1947, avoided the implication that American military forces would be deployed to uphold the doctrine. The speech simultaneously signaled to the world that the United States was both assuming some of Britain's responsibilities and had given up on the idea of cooperation with the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, Truman explicitly stated that the aid he was requesting would not be military: "I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes." Truman presented aid to Greece and Turkey as mere money to make good on the far larger investment of lives and treasure during World War II: "The assistance that I am recommending for Greece and Turkey amounts to little more than 1 tenth of 1 per cent of this investment. It is only common sense that we should safeguard this investment and make sure that it was not in vain."

The Korean War changed that by requiring quick American military intervention to prevent the collapse of South Korea in the summer of 1950, but when it bogged down into a stalemate after the Chinese intervention in November, the public quickly soured on the war. In January 1951, "49% thought the decision was a mistake, while 38% said it was not, and 13% had no opinion," according to Gallup. While those numbers fluctuated over the next two years, and more Americans thought the war was not a mistake whenever an end to the war was in sight, the American public in general did not support military actions that led to substantial American casualties and prolonged combat. The public's disillusionment with the war was one of the reasons that an increasingly unpopular President Truman decided not to run for reelection in 1952.

The next president, Dwight Eisenhower, moved quickly to end that war, and, more importantly, instituted a foreign policy that had at its core the principle of avoidance of any Korea-style wars in the future. Rather than engage in limited wars in every world hot spot, Eisenhower determined that such a course would bankrupt the country. He preferred "massive retaliation": the idea that a threat to essential American interests would be met with a nuclear threat, not a conventional response in kind. Even when the French faced defeat in Vietnam, Eisenhower refused to intervene, and never seriously considered deploying American troops to Vietnam.

While John Kennedy came into office criticizing that approach, pledging to "pay any price, bear any burden," the sobering experience of the Cuban missile crisis made him rethink that mindset. The cold war, he said in June 1963, imposed "burdens and dangers to so many countries," and specifically noted that the US and Soviet Union "bear the heaviest burdens." He spoke of the American aversion to war: "The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough -- more than enough -- of war and hate and oppression."

While one may argue that Kennedy's policies led to the next American war in Vietnam under his successor Lyndon Johnson, it is also the case that Johnson sought to avoid a land war. Significantly, he looked first to use air power. Operation Rolling Thunder, the American air campaign against North Vietnam, was meant to forestall the need for American ground troops in large numbers. It was only after the clear failure of bombing to achieve American aims that Johnson escalated the war with more ground troops.

When that effort too proved futile, Richard Nixon again returned to air power as America's main instrument to maintain order abroad. His Vietnamizaion policy tried to balance the withdrawal of American troops with the deployment of increased air power. The "Nixon Doctrine," announced that henceforth "we shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with our treaty commitments. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense." In other words, America's friends should not expect American troops to do their fighting for them.

I'd argue that from Nixon up until George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, that was American policy. Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all avoided open-ended military commitments of American troops (Clinton's air-only campaign against Serbia in 1999 is the best example).

Only the first war against Iraq in 1991 challenged that trend, and even that war involved a longer preliminary air campaign than a ground one: five weeks of bombing preceded the ground campaign, which lasted only 100 hours. According to Colin Powell, Bush had the Vietnam War in mind when he resisted the calls of "on to Baghdad." Bush "had promised the American people that Desert Storm would not become a Persian Gulf Vietnam," Powell writes in his memoir, "and he kept his promise." Within two weeks of the ceasefire, the 540,000 U.S. troops began their withdrawal from the Persian Gulf.

Even the American war in Afghanistan in 2001 was planned to keep the American "footprint" light, relying on American air power and the Afghan Northern Alliance to do much of the fighting. It was the invasion and prolonged occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003 that predictably soured Americans once again on the prospect of extended military engagements.

In sum, what Americans are experiencing now is not exceptional, but rather normal. In the aftermath of extended, costly military interventions leading to the loss of American lives, the American people revert to their historical aversion to solving problems by fighting in and occupying foreign states. That does not mean the United States ceases to be relevant, or ceases to lead. It simply means that Americans have been reminded once again that not every problem can be solved by an invasion, and that leadership is more than a reflexive application of American military might.

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