Friday, July 28, 2006

Fallacies of Pre-emption

Some weeks ago the Washington Post reported that William Kristol’s think tank, the Project for a New American Century, may be closing its doors, claiming that it has accomplished its mission now that the United States has removed Saddam Hussein. The doctrine of preventive war against potentially dangerous states, which the PNAC trumpeted and the Bush Administration has written into our National Security Strategy, has led us into Iraq and threatens to add a new war in Iran. Kristol remains committed to the overthrow of dictatorships in the belief that democracies friendly to the United States will inevitably replace them. In advocating this policy, he has argued that the United States in earlier eras failed to take timely action. Thus, Kristol remarked to Jeffrey Goldberg of the New Yorker last fall. “Have the mistakes of the last century been ones of too much intervention or not enough? Was it good that we waited to be attacked on December 7, 1941?” Condolezza Rice, then National Security Adviser, was quoted during the run-up to the war in Iraq as saying that the United States should have waged a preventive war against the Soviet Union in 1945. That statement, it seems to me, typifies the vast historical misunderstanding characteristic of neoconservative thought, and its inability to understand that foreign policy—and especially war—has to be based upon a realistic sense of where the world is at any given moment and about what actions can reasonably be expected to achieve. The true answer to Kristol’s rhetorical question, in my view as a historian who has been thinking about it for about 35 years, is yes—and by explaining why, I can explain why neoconservative policies have done so much harm to the nation.

When the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937 and the European war broke out in 1939, Franklin Roosevelt was the President of an isolationist and largely unarmed nation. When in late 1937 he attempted to create some kind of new consensus to resist aggression in his quarantine speech, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. When the British and French declared war on Germany, polls showed that the American people wanted an allied victory but had no interest in entering the war—and we had virtually no army with which to do so. The fall of France in the spring of 1940 changed the situation. With Britain also threatened, there might be nothing left between Hitler and the United States within a few months. Roosevelt responded that summer with a huge rearmament program and the beginnings of a draft. When the Tripartite Pact was signed in September 1940 he attacked it as a conspiracy against the American way of life, and pointed out that our values were truly threatened literally all over the civilized world. But he appeared to be focusing upon hemispheric defense, not intervention overseas, and while providing the British with some help, he and his advisers were obviously waiting to see if Britain would survive. After his re-election he began lend-lease, but it was still not clear, all through the first half of 1941, that he was determined to enter the war.

What apparently changed his policy was the German attack on the Soviet Union, a step which made a German victory much more dangerous should Hitler win, but also much more possible should the Soviet Union survive. A coalition of the United States, the British Empire, and the Soviets would dispose of overwhelming force. It was in the second half of 1941 that Roosevelt embargoed oil to Japan, that he began a naval war in the Atlantic against Germany, that he met with Churchill and committed the US to “the destruction of the Nazi tyranny,” and that he declared that the time for “active defense” against Germany was now.

He did not, however, ask for a declaration of war, because it would have passed only narrowly, if at all. As late as November 13, 1941, the amendment of the Neutrality Act to allow the arming of merchant vessels passed the House of Representatives by a vote of just 212-194—despite the presence of 265 members of the President’s own party. The complete defeat of the Axis was going to require unprecedented effort and sacrifices from the American people, and they had to be convinced that they had no choice but to make them. And thus, rather than try to declare war, Roosevelt, in full view of the public, demanded that Japan withdraw from Indochina and China in order to get their oil imports resumed. Rather than do so, they attacked.

Now I am not suggesting, of course, that it helped to have the war begin with the crippling of the US Navy. That was partly the fault of FDR, who had insisted upon staging it at Pearl Harbor, and partly the fault of the fleet commander, whose behavior made clear that he did not take the danger of war seriously despite an explicit warning from Washington. But as Roosevelt and his senior subordinates discussed about two weeks before war broke out, it was crucial to have the Japanese fire the first shot, to show that this was, fundamentally, a defensive war. That was what enabled the President to mobilize the American people to make the gigantic effort (for us, anyway, since all the other belligerents made proportionally larger efforts in manpower) necessary to prevail. It also rammed home the point that Axis aggression was the cause of the war, creating a truly worldwide coalition against it. Victory followed three and a half years later—a victory based upon the principle that every nation had the right to live in peace, free of aggression, and protected by the new United Nations. The world lived on that dream, to varying degrees, for the next 56 years, until neoconservatism took power in the United States.

We should have learned another lesson from the victory in 1945—that, human nature being what it is, the triumph of good is never unambiguous. We defeated Nazi Germany, the most serious threat to western civilization in modern times, only with the help of our alliance with the Soviet Union. That in turn led to a very large expansion of Communism in the world—first in Eastern Europe, and then, owing to the defeat of Japan and power vacuums in Asia, in China and in Indochina. That was a high, but not too high price to pay for the defeat of the Axis, justified in my opinion by our postwar policies, which unified the capitalist industrialized world, including West Germany and Japan. But we had to cope with that result with 45 years of containment. That, of course, has retrospectively become unnecessary in some neoconservative fantasies. I was appalled during the run-up to the Iraq war to read that Condolezza Rice had told Senators that we should have “pre-empted” against the Soviet Union in 1945 to save Eastern Europe. That was an irresponsible fantasy—the Soviet Army in Europe was far, far stronger than our own, even before an entire Army was withdrawn immediately after V-E Day to prepare for the invasion of Japan. A war to free Eastern Europe would actually have left the Soviets in control of Western Europe.

The conquest and occupation of a medium-size country like Iraq, a nation of about 25 million people, would have required at least half a million men. The conquest of Iran, which the neoconservatives had penciled in as next on the list in 2003, would require far, far more. Since the United States does not today dispose of forces of that size, they could be secured in only two ways. The first would involve the restoration of a draft and several years of mobilization here in the United States—exactly what FDR began in 1941. The second would involve the mobilization of a huge coalition comparable to the Grand Alliance. But neither was possible in 2003, because neither the American people nor the world community took the threat of Iraq (and the other proclaimed threats of Iran and North Korea) that seriously. Nor would the international community endorse a strategy based on pre-emption, for the simple reason that no one would be safe in a world based upon that principle. Attempting to pre-empt on the cheap has been disastrous for America’s reputation, for the Iraqi people, and for our strategic position in the Middle East. Something similar happened in Europe in 1922, when France and Belgium occupied the Ruhr to try to compel the payment of German reparations. Financial problems forced the French to withdraw about a year and a half later, and the idea of militarily coercing the Germans lapsed. Premature action had made it harder to deal with the German threat.

Neoconservatism, like Straussianism (to which it is closely related), is about being right. Only the intellectual elite, neoconservatives believe, understands the nature of the threats we face, and they need the power, like a republic of Platonic philosophers, to act whether lesser mortals understand the stakes or not. Unfortunately, there are at least two terrible flaws in this reasoning. First, neoconservatives have frequently been wrong—wrong about the extent of Soviet nuclear forces in the 1970s, wrong about Gorbachev (whom they regarded as an even more dangerous Soviet leader), and wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But even if they were right, their insights are useless if they have not persuaded the American people and the world community to take them seriously. That is what the Bush Administration did not wait to do. Using the aftermath of 9/11 as a club, it rushed into war without adequate planning, resources, or diplomacy—and destroyed the financial posture of the United States government at the same time. When a truly serious threat arises it will be much, much harder to meet it as a result. That will be the real neoconservative legacy.

For forty years now my generation has been prey to a totalitarian spirit. In the late 1960s the SDS, enraged by the Vietnam War, talked of communist revolution in America and the overthrow of world capitalism, and helped destroy the New Deal consensus. In the 1980s and 1990s Boomer capitalists pushed the de-industrialization of America in search of larger short-term bottom lines. And now, in the first decade of a new century, neoconservatives have torn down the whole international legal and diplomatic structure which kept us relatively safe all their lives. That should disqualify them from any further influence in public affairs. They shall eventually be forgotten, but not, alas, before we have emerged from a much larger national crisis which their irresponsibility—so typical of Boomers of all political persuasions—will have made considerably worse.


George Buddy said...

Good analysis of pre-emption. It's funny that the so-called neocons would have been against Roosevelt and against intervention in Europe in the 1930's. Today they eagerly embrace Winston Churchill as their role model saint. I like Churchill too, but he was capable of mistakes. Nothing -- nothing will ever erase the Gallapoli tragedy. Yet Churchill decided that the Soviet Union had to be an ally to fight the Russians. I used to believe that too -- certainly never questioned it -- but you have to wonder. Not that we couldn't make some common cause in the war, but there was no reason for us to invite the Russians into our living room, if you know what I mean.

btw, in your younger years, had you ever heard of Leo Strauss? I never did, although i was not a professional historian. But he must have been pretty obscure, even back in his day.

Oh yeah. Give poor Admiral Kimmel a break.

Steve Clark said...

You do a disservice to Boomers in general with the last paragraph's analysis.

Youthful idealist excess (as in SDS) is one thing, but late adult/near elder idealist excess is something else entirely. The Neocons are true fringe, in that they have not allowed themselves to be tempered by the experience of intervening years.

In their illuminating work, The Fourth Turning, Strauss and Howe point out that the first task of the turn from an Unraveling to a Crisis era is for the emerging social elders, against the backdrop of unfolding cataclymic events, to sort out their differences -- for one Boomer vision to prevail against the other among the decisive Boomer and Gen X opinion leaders.

So far, we've had only the Neocon choice. Americans -- and, indeed, the world -- still await the Gray Champion whose vision can overcome the power and positioning of the Neocons.

As Strauss and Howe point out, it takes a series of cataclysmic events to sort this out. We've seen 9/11 and the Iraqi War. Now, perhaps, the Israeli debacle as well.

The vision of "force makes right" -- even though pitched in overtones of democratic promulgation -- is proving itself a catastrophic failure. Boomers are searching for the alternative.

Anonymous said...

It certainly is odd to see an otherwise plausible exposition suddenly blow up and explode in one's face with the conclusion that Baby Boomers have this, that, and the other thing.

In fact, I am coming the see the Boomer Discourse as the vermiform appendix of the historical digestive system- unnecessary, of uncertain origin, and only too liable to a possibly fatal enlargement and inflammation.

Let's review a few postwar decisions, looking for the Boomer influence. Decision to start Cold War? Well, we were in our cribs, or not even born. Decision to assume French role in Vietnam? Most of us in kindergarten. Decision to build Interstate Highway "Defense" System? Still in the first grade.

And the list could go on- the death of the steel industry, the failure of hundreds of railroads, the suburban flight from a dozen major cities, the rascist policies that subsequently sparked riots in those cities- all the result of decisions made before Boomers had even entered college.

I've seen this critique before, with a slightly different slant- that Boomers had failed to make an effort for world peace or an economy that did not depend on the war machine for Keynesian pump-priming- and I mention this only because of the mindbogling source for that assertion- a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, a person who apparently has spent most of his professional life working for the Pentagon's academies.

Frankly, it's a disgrace to historiography, more on the order of hysteriagraphy one might say. Until I see one of these screeds denominating and quantifying the actions and results that might support the conclusion, I remain unconvinced.

ye olde serial catowner

wholesale air jordan said...

Air Jordan shoes Air Jordan shoesjordan shoes
Air Jordan shoesjordans shoes
Cheap Jordans
wholesale jordan
Air Jordan shoes
wholesale air jordan
Nike Jordan Shoes
Nike Shoes Wholesale

wholesale air jordans Air Jordans
Wholesale Nike shoes Air Jordans
Air JordansWholesale Nike Air Jordans
Air JordansNike shoes Air Jordans
nike jordan Air Jordans
air jordan Air Jordans
Air Jordans Air Jordans