Has Bush Bitten Off Too Much?
Yes, but So Did Truman

Jonathan Rauch

from the National Journal
January 18, 2003


Good grief. First Iraq, now North Korea. The next roguish threat? Iran, of course. And then? Maybe Syria, or Pakistan, or Yemen, or Sudan, or independent Palestine or maybe all of the above. And don't forget Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, narco-terrorism and whoever else comes along (nuclear Myanmar?). No wonder a Reader's Digest article asked: "Are We Biting Off More Than We Can Chew?"

That article, however, ran in 1948.

People, predominantly leftists, who charge President Bush with reckless warmongering would be more persuasive if they were offering a plausible Plan B. In December, a "broad coalition of major progressive civil-rights, business, religious and environmental leaders" presented its own strategic vision: "Win Without War." The group declared that Saddam Hussein "cannot be allowed to possess weapons of mass destruction." But, the leaders stated, "we can achieve the valid U.S. and U.N. objective of disarming Saddam Hussein through legal diplomatic means. There is no need for war." Legal diplomatic means; now, why didn't anyone think of that before?

Meanwhile, continuing his lifelong quest to make Richard Nixon look good, George McGovern, writing in Harper's magazine, came out against war with Iraq "or any other nation that has not harmed us first." Instead, McGovern wrote, "I simply propose that nations submit their disputes with other nations to an international court instead of destroying each other." Eureka.

Still, by filtering out the lazy pacifism that makes up too much of what the Left is saying about Bush's foreign policy, one can distill a center-left critique that is forceful and troubling:

"America's new adversaries are bad people. But it is hardly un-American to argue against the president's way of dealing with them. The president talks as if he faced a bear in the woods, but in reality he faces rattlesnakes in the mountains. The Kim Jong Ils and Saddams and other tin-pot tyrants of the post-Cold War age are not as threatening as the president thinks unless he pokes at them with a sharp stick, in which case they will bite, as Kim just did.

"Bush's bellicosity makes nuclear weapons more attractive to dictators, not less so. It manufactures new recruits for terrorism and new enemies for America. It causes polarization and division at home and abroad, hampering American success.

"Bush's policy is, in short, heightening the very dangers that it seeks to combat. Instead, America should work through international organizations to avert confrontations, even if that means buying off some bad guys or turning the other cheek. As for nukes, deterrence worked for the last 50 years and remains the best bet for the next 50. So take a lesson from the Europeans and leave the rattlesnakes alone."

This is a coherent and compelling argument; but is it right? One way to approach that question is with another: Was the Cold War a mistake? Many of the arguments being heard now sound like ones that were heard then.

In March of 1947, President Harry Truman went before a Joint Session of Congress to request $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey. As a share of the economy, Truman's $400 million would be almost $17 billion today. It was a big sum, and a big commitment. "This is a serious course upon which we embark," Truman said. "I would not recommend it, except that the alternative is much more serious."

Greece's government a "not perfect" government, Truman acknowledged was "threatened by the terrorist activities of several thousand armed men, led by Communists." If Greece or neighboring Turkey fell, "the effect will be far-reaching to the West as well as to the East." Why, though, should America step in? "There is no other country to which democratic Greece can turn." Truman said that opposing such terrorist insurgencies at that early stage, he emphasized the terrorism more than the Communism would be America's policy from then on.

The Truman Doctrine, as it was soon called, was ambitious and, many wise people believed, perilous. It "enumerated a heavy precedent for un-thought-out aid commitments to unassessed regimes in ill-defined places," writes Derek Leebaert in "The Fifty-Year Wound," his searching new book on the costs of the Cold War. Truman's portentous step, Leebaert writes, "eventually created an assembly line of involvement that would grind on for decades."

In 1947, Americans were in no mood for another war, hot or cold. They still hoped to work out a modus vivendi with Josef Stalin's Soviet Union. As late as January of 1948, John Foster Dulles (later President Eisenhower's fiercely anti-Communist secretary of State) was telling Congress that he saw no need for the United States to bear the expense and risk of a defense treaty with Europe.

Then, in February 1948, Stalin swallowed Czechoslovakia. Secretary of State George C. Marshall said that the United States could "no longer count upon others to carry the initial burden of safeguarding our civilization." Leebaert underscores the word "initial": "America was now a front-line nation. Emergency would lead to emergency, begetting an atmosphere of crisis."

Critics from that time to this have charged that Truman's commitment to push back against Communism, using both rhetoric and resources, and to fight on many fronts at once, was more a cause of the Cold War than a reaction to it. Stalin, they said, would not seize West Germany, because a divided, and thus weak, Germany was in his interests. In Eastern Europe and elsewhere, Stalin was taking defensive measures to secure his flanks measures that would only be further provoked by America's anti-Communist hysteria. Stalin, they said, knew that he was both too strong to be beaten and too weak to beat America; a strategic equilibrium was therefore possible, with each side mostly just leaving the other alone.

Communism and the Soviets were, of course, very different from jihadism or Saddam or Kim. Yet the casting of the Cold War as a chess game between two titans is all hindsight. "Right now, we look back at Communism as centralized and so easy to contain," said Leebaert in an interview, "but that's not how it looked at the time." Communism could mean Moscow or Beijing, Cuba or Vietnam, North Korea or Nicaragua. It could mean armored divisions or shoeless guerrillas or palace coups. It had a hundred guises and a hundred redoubts. And the United States intended to fight them all, everywhere? Surely this was madness.

Today's Americans congratulate themselves on the patient determination that finally brought down the Soviet Union; but, again, that was not how it looked at the time. "So much of the Cold War activity was just winging it, just stumbling along, not getting serious," Leebaert says. U.S. policy fluctuated between poles of confrontation and accommodation. Consistency? You must be joking. Critics said, often rightly, that America was applying double standards left and right.

And for what? Cozying up to murderous African or Latin dictators was no way to win converts to American values; it would mainly create new Communists. Militarily, the Cold War wasn't winnable, as even hawks conceded. If the battle was ever to be won, the decisive front would be economic, and there America's military spending was more hindrance than help. The Cold War was thus the problem, not the solution.

All plausible and yet. We know how the story ended.

In hindsight, history seems to suggest that Truman, while getting some little things wrong, got two big things right. First, the adversary was not a rattlesnake: There really was a bear in the woods. The Communists' values and goals and interests were so fundamentally at odds with America's as to make long-term coexistence impossible. Second, and consequently, the adversary had to be confronted whether or not the battle could ever be decisively won.

The pacifist Left is wrong to accuse Bush of reckless belligerence, but it is right to see him as making a historic choice, one that may ultimately rank with Truman's. In its "National Security Strategy of the United States," issued in September, the Bush administration proclaimed: "Where governments find the fight against terrorism beyond their capacities, we will match their willpower and their resources with whatever help we and our allies can provide." That sounds a lot like Truman in 1947, and it provokes the same question that Reader's Digest asked in 1948. Michael Ignatieff, in a recent New York Times Magazine article titled "The Burden," writes: "The question is not whether America is too powerful but whether it is powerful enough."

Like Truman, Bush has set the country on a potentially long course of wearying and far-flung conflict, not because he wants to, but because "the alternative is much more serious." Is he biting off more than the country can chew? Probably, but so did Truman.


2003 National Journal

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26 jan 2002