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June 20, 2004
David Warsh, Proprietor


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A Short History of America’s Foreign Wars

How can the American presidential contest be so close, given that so much has happened since the tie election of 2000? Leaving aside the economy for this week, the answer is there are two competing views of the Bush administration’s response to 9/11.

One interpretation sees the U.S. campaign in Iraq as being personal, visceral, unprecedented and inept. The other sees it as being deeply rooted both in American history and the realities of the modern world — in conception, at least.

Probably there is no one on any side who thinks the American intervention in Iraq has been well carried out.

The best argument to explain why Bush may yet be re-elected despite the various disasters that have occurred is to be found in a little book that appeared earlier this year by the distinguished Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis: Surprise, Security and the American Experience

The account he gives of the matter is almost completely at right-angles to the report of the 9/11 Commission that made so much news last week.

That the horrifying events of that early Tuesday morning in September were surprising — the turning of passenger airliners into cruise missiles, the extent of the subsequent destruction and loss of life — Gaddis takes as the primary facts of the matter, instead of second-guessing them away.

He then fits the administration’s strategic response into the context of the other two great surprise attacks in American history — August 24, 1814, when a British army burned most of official Washington, D.C., including the Capitol and the White House; and December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In the process, he offers a short history of America’s foreign wars

Gaddis argues that the three tenets of the Bush doctrine — preemption, unilateralism, hegemony — can be traced back to John Quincy Adams (before he was president, in his years as James Monroe’s secretary of state). In embryo, he says, a preoccupation with homeland security probably goes back to President Thomas Jefferson, who was able to buy enhanced security, in the form of the Louisiana Purchase, rather than fight for it.

In each of the three major episodes of surprise attack, Gaddis says, American presidents have asserted that “safety comes from enlarging, rather than from contracting, [America's] sphere of responsibilities.”

“Americans… have generally responded to threatsÑand particularly to surprise attacks — by confronting, neutralizing, and if possible overwhelming the sources of danger rather than fleeing from them.”

It is a commonplace that two great oceans kept the American colonies relatively safe from external threats for many years. Gaddis cites the assertion of his late colleague C. Vann Woodward, that  while “[a]nxieties about security have kept the growth of optimism within bounds among other peoples,… the relative absence of such anxieties in the past has helped, along with other factors, to make optimism a national philosophy in America.”

(Woodward was a historian of the South. He had in mind slavery and the Civil War when he wrote this in 1959, no less than the Cold War. His point was that perhaps the situation merited less optimism, not more.)

The United States’ innocence was decisively shattered by the War of 1812.  The fledgling republic stumbled into this late skirmish of the Napoleonic Wars through inexperience and bad diplomacy. But when the British casually landed an army and burned Washington, it became clear that America could not expect to simply hide from the great powers of Europe.  It would need to develop a new approach.

It was John Quincy Adams who designed the principle of preemption. The son of the second president; he negotiated the treaty that ended the 1812 war in 1814, then became secretary of state three years later.

When the next year Andrew Jackson, with scant authority from the Monroe administration, invaded Spanish Florida in pursuit of raiding parties of Indians and escaped slaves, executing a pair off Englishmen in the process, it was Adams who stood up for him in a decisive memorandum.

“The modern term ‘failed state’ did not appear in Adams’ note,” writes Gaddis, “but he surely had that idea in mind when he insisted that power vacuums were dangerous and that the United States should therefore fill them.”

The doctrine of preemption took root.  James Polk cited it when he annexed Texas in 1845, citing fears that the new republic might not be able to sustain its independence from Mexico.  War with Mexico soon followed, enabling Polk to annex California and thus deny it to Spain to the south, Russia to the north and whatever other European nations might covet its great harbors.

The Civil War and continental expansion preoccupied Americans for the next 40 years, but by 1898 they were back at it. This time the targets were Spanish colonies in Cuba and the Philippines, Gaddis writes.  Better to occupy them with no particular plans than to permit further expansion of imperial powers, Germany and Japan in particular.

Over the next two decades, writes Gaddis, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson “would use similar arguments to justify a succession of preemptive interventions in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, and ultimately Mexico, on the grounds that instability within those countries might give the European great powers — especially Germany — grounds for intervening.”

Theodore Roosevelt put it this way in 1904: “[C]hronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may… ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the western hemisphere… may force the United States, however reluctantly, … to the exercise of an international police power.

A second doctrine devised by Adams was unilateralism, Gaddis says. This was something more than George Washington’s warning against the danger of “foreign entanglements.” It was the notion that, he continues, “the United States could not depend on the goodwill of others to secure its safety, and therefore should be prepared to act on its own.”

Adams himself put the principle into practice in 1819 when “he bullied Spain into not only relinquishing Florida but also accepting a northern boundary for its Mexican territories drawn all the way to the Pacific — this at a time when the United States itself possessed no clear title to land beyond the Rocky Mountains.”

This determination to avoid any and all binding alliance with other powers evolved when Spanish authority collapsed in Latin America in the 1820s and governed America’s approach to the world for a century — through John Jay’s Open Door policy in China to Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in World War I as an “associated” (not allied!) power.

Adams’ third principle was hegemony, writes Gaddis.  As early as 1811, the diplomat was describing the alternative arrangements facing the New World as being between “an endless multitude of little insignificant clans and tribes at eternal war with one another for a rock, or a fish pond, the sport and fable of European masters and oppressors,” on the one hand, or “a nation, coextensive with the North American continent, destined by God and nature to be the most populous and most powerful people ever combined under one social compact.”

The United States thus determined early on to prevent other great powers from establishing footholds of any kind not just in North America, but in the entire Western Hemisphere. “With the single exception of Cuba during the Cold War,” writes Gaddis, “it succeeded.”

But what about Franklin Roosevelt?  In the chapter on America’s response to Pearl Harbor, Gaddis describes how Roosevelt reacted to changed circumstances without relying on the principles of preemption, unilateralism or, at least apparently, the seeking of hegemony — mainly because he couldn’t.

For a half as century before 1941, American leaders had been preoccupied with the problem of America’s legitimate frontiers, writes Gaddis. “How far did the American sphere of responsibility have to extend in order to ensure American security?”  Woodrow Wilson made a rare exception to the usual answer by firmly intervening in European affairs to decide the outcome of World War I.  Afterwards, America pulled back sharply from the international stage. U.S. participation in Wilson’s League of Nations was defeated in the Senate. America’s longing to be left alone was striking. The nation came as close to “hiding” as at any time since the days of Jefferson.

Under the circumstances, no preemption was possible politically. Roosevelt had to wait for Japan to throw the first punch. Four days later Germany foolishly declared war on the United States and the battle was joined. In a two ocean war, unilateralism clearly would not work either. So the U.S. entered a grand alliance with Britain and the Soviet Union.

Nor could Roosevelt afford to be seen to be seeking hegemony. He proposed that “four policemen” should run the postwar world — the U.S., Great Britain, Soviet Union and China under Chiang Kai-shek. Why China?  To give the US an extra vote. The international financial system designed at Bretton Woods in 1944 was a further underpinning to American hegemony, artfully disguised.

By the advent of the Cold War, the circumstances were somewhat different. For the brief period in which the U.S. alone possessed the atomic bomb, preemption was once again a serious possibility.  For a brief time it was actively, if not seriously, discussed. Then, says Gaddis, American leadership settled on a principle devised not by John Quincy Adams but by Franklin Roosevelt: that there should always be something worse than the prospect of American domination. The principles of preemption and unilateralism were muffled. The principle of hegemony was disguised.

“The influence of the United States therefore expanded during the postwar years, for the most part with the consent of those subject to it. The Soviet Union’s influence also expanded, but without such consent.  The explanation lay largely in the fact that American leaders held themselves accountable: they cared what the rest of the world thought, and tried to frame their policies accordingly. …Soviet leaders, in a manner consistent with their own domestic authoritarianism, attached much less importance to international accountability…”

In the end, the Americans won out.

Gaddis’ last chapter is an extended analysis of the thinking behind the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. Not surprisingly, it is grounded in his reading of his history of the principles of preemption, unilateralism and hegemony. Afghanistan was the natural place to engage first, because its Taliban government sheltered the terrorists.  But the decision to move on to Iraq was not simply a case of filial pique (Saddam being “the guy who tried to kill my dad”).

“Iraq was the most feasible place in which to strike the next blow. If we could topple that tyrant, we could repeat the Afghan Agincourt along the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates, then we could accomplish a great deal. We could complete the task the Gulf War left unfinished. We could destroy whatever weapons of mass destruction Saddam might have accumulated since. We could end whatever support he was providing for terrorists beyond Iraq’s borders. We could liberate the Iraqi people. We could ensure an ample supply of inexpensive oil. We could set in motion a process that could undermine and ultimately remove reactionary regimes elsewhere in the Middle East, thereby eliminating the principal (sic!) breeding ground for terrorism…

“This was, then, in every sense, a grand strategy.  What appeared at first to be a lack of clarity about who was deterrable and who wasn’t turned out to be a plan for transforming the entire Muslim Middle East: for bringing it, once and for all, into the modern world.

“There had been nothing like this, in boldness, sweep and vision since Americans took it upon themselves, more than half a century ago, to democratize Germany and Japan, thus setting in motion processes that stopped short of only a few places on earth, one of which was the Muslim Middle East.”

The lectures that form the basis for Gaddis’ book were given in 2002.  Some of his judgments now sound premature, including the assertion that the predicted huge increase in the price of oil did not take place, and that “one of the most surprising transformations of an underrated national leader since Prince Hal became Henry V” actually did.

But Gaddis is clear that all such assessments must be tentative in the extreme. Historical writing about current events declines in accuracy as it increases in relevance, he says. But, he adds, an incomplete map is better than no map at all.

On this argument, the many miscalculations and stupidities of the American campaign in Iraq have been the failures of an inexperienced Pentagon engaged for the first time in a different kind of war — the battles of the Kasserine Pass or the Ia Drang Valley on a grand scale. Never mind the dress rehearsal in Panama a dozen years ago. Never mind that this time the war planners prejudiced the welfare of the entire population. War is about learning to do better.

If Bush is re-elected in the fall, it will be because some significant fraction of the voters agree.

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