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Obama stands on the verge of a ‘Truman moment’ in history

REUTERS/Jason Reed
President Barack Obama speaking during his election night victory rally in Chicago early Wednesday morning.

In the early morning hours after the election, our pundits paid little attention to one historic sentence in President Obama’s victory speech. “A decade of war is ending,” the president said, pausing as a groundswell of applause filled Chicago’s McCormick Place to the rafters.

The audience applauded a president for promises kept. The first, the withdrawal from Iraq, came a year ago with the end of U.S. military operations there. Obama’s second promise — the withdrawal of the remaining 66,000 troops in Afghanistan — is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2014.

In his first term, he was a president at war on at least two fronts. In his second term, he aspires to be a president at peace, a postwar president.

Getting there is not easy. It is easier to withdraw from a war than to forget it. The heart is slow to forget the damage done.

The Huffington Post this week reported on the American casualties to date from our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since the start of the first war in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 5,225 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Defense Department confirms that 50 159 American have so far been wounded in the course of a decade of war in those countries, and 1,500 Americans have lost an arm or a leg in combat. In just the U.S. Army, 73,674 soldiers have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

What President Dwight Eisenhower called “the lingering sadness of war” will be with us for a long time. 

Obama’s Republican adversaries will not give him a “Get Out of Afghanistan Free Card.” The last phase of his planned troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will coincide with the 2014 congressional elections. Republicans will distort an inevitably imperfect American exit from Kabul to look like a perfect repeat of the fall of Saigon.

Although in history “now” is never exactly “then,” Obama must end a war and construct a peace in a world at home and abroad that President Harry S. Truman would recognize.

Truman also faced hostility from Republicans in Congress who second-guessed his every move and denounced as surrender the terms of what proved to be a lasting peace in Europe. Truman’s policy also faced the challenge of a crucial world region — Eastern Europe in tumult — and an implacable adversary — Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, determined to acquire and threaten us with nuclear weapons.

Obama now stands on the verge of a Truman moment in history.

The key to Truman’s success in diplomacy was a word that was taken off the table by both Obama and Gov. Romney in discussions of foreign policy during the recent election campaign.

It’s the word “containment.” Coined by the icon of 20th century American diplomats, George F. Kennan, in the anonymously written “Mister X” article for Foreign Affairs in 1946, “containment” was, first and foremost, a political, rather than a military,challenge to the Soviet Union.  The success of democracy in the U.S. and among its allies was our most effective political weapon against Soviet totalitarianism.

Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman

“Containment” accepted an odious regime in Moscow that Washington could not directly change and left the task of regime change to history and the internal evolution of Russia.

“Containment” also accepted that the only military option to Moscow’s acquisition of nuclear weapons was deterrence.

Finally, “containment” relied on, in Kennan’s phrase, “long term” patience and vigilance on our part. Look back on the history of the Cold War from 1946 to 1991. “Containment” worked.

What should this history lesson mean to Obama?

Above all else, our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end to a decade of U.S. war allows us project power in the Middle East through the force of our political beliefs, not the superiority of our military weapons.

Secondly, Iran represents our foremost challenge and threat. We can hope for the pre-emption of nuclear weapons in Iran through diplomacy, sanctions and the option of military intervention.  We need, nevertheless, to plan a new strategy of “containment” for when diplomacy fails. Bill Keller recently argued in The New York Times, that “nuclear mullahs” in Tehran eagerly send others on suicide missions but are not themselves suicidal. They have another motive. Tehran lives in a neighborhood where five of its neighbors already have nuclear weapons and has learned a lesson from France’s Gen. Charles de Gaulle:  “No country without an atom bomb could properly consider itself independent.” 

Obama’s task in the Middle East, like Truman’s in Europe nearly seven decades ago, is not to re-make the world in our own image but to prevent this part of the world from destroying itself. History cautions Obama to keep his expectations low and hope guarded.  Yet, as Obama also said in his victory speech, “Hope is a stubborn thing.”

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by David Frenkel on 11/09/2012 - 11:40 am.

    False sense of containment

    Not sure how we ‘contained’ the Soviet Union. They took control of eastern Europe and the Baltic countries after WWII. Containment in Berlin was both sides literally starring down each other at the end of a tank cannon. Soviet submarines were routinely and more important not routinely spotted off US shores during the cold war. This article follows the cold water attitude that the US had overwhelming military superiority during the cold war which we will never completely know but in many areas the US was not superior including submarine warfare. When the cold war ended the US Navy was surprised to find out their intelligence on the Soviet Navy was not very accurate especially with submarines. WWII and the recent wars in Afghanistan are difficult to draw comparisons other than as in all war it is living hell for civilians and combatants something politicians forget.

  2. Submitted by Cynthia Scott on 11/09/2012 - 01:26 pm.

    Obama’s Truman moment

    I am surprised and baffled that Nick Hayes does not question the president’s assertion that a decade of war is ending. How can war be ending when the use of drones continues unabated and promises to remain a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy? Does the use of drones somehow not qualify as warfare? If it isn’t warfare, what is it? The 21st century version of the president’s special envoy?

    Americans seem content to let drone warfare—or whatever it is—remain out of sight and out of mind. Apparently not having American troops on the ground is good enough for us—we can pat ourselves and our president on the back for ending U.S. wars. To me, this is a morally depraved position. I know that others see the use of drones differently. But I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of Americans simply have not thought very much about the issue, if they’re even aware of it. This gives the president carte blanche to continue blowing to bits whoever he sees fit in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and probably Iran.

    I wonder if Professor Hayes sees drones fitting into the policy of containment.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/09/2012 - 02:28 pm.

    Drone warfare

    For what little it’s worth – my foreign policy credentials in D.C. are zilch – I’m inclined to agree with both Professor Hayes and Ms. Scott.

    Hayes’ characterization of the current scenario as a “Truman Moment” in the Middle East seems to me an accurate one. Surrounded by members of the nuclear club, and not very friendly ones, for the most part, it’s understandable that Iran would want to join, no matter what we happen to think is in the best interests of the planet. I particularly liked Hayes’ phraseology that Obama’s task “…is not to re-make the world in our own image but to prevent this part of the world from destroying itself.” Given the short temperaments and the too-often-demonstrated willingness of Middle Easterners to commit suicide, this will, of itself, present formidable challenges for the President, the Secretary of State (whoever that turns out to be after Hillary leaves), and other interested parties – not least, the Iranian people.

    Having said that, the issue of drone warfare seems both legitimate in its own right, and irrelevant to the issue of Iran and the nuclear club. I’m wondering where the statutory authority for Mr. Obama to assassinate people by video game controller comes from, and the degree to which Congress will be willing to extend that authority to him, if it exists. Apparently, it’s rather effective. Also apparently, it’s pretty difficult to justify on both legal and moral grounds. Saying “Ooops! Sorry!” is hardly compensation to civilian families whose members have been tried, convicted and executed in absentia. Were it to happen to an American family, let’s say, in Texas, it’s not hard to imagine the public outcry that would follow. Why is it different for Middle Eastern families, aside from the “us vs. them” prejudices that typically accompany warfare? Once the troops are withdrawn, we’re going to have few, if any, friends in either Iraq or Afghanistan for a very long time, by which I mean multiple generations at the very least.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 11/09/2012 - 05:24 pm.

      Criminals or combatants?

      That seems to me to be the question one has to answer in evaluating the use of armed drones. The circumstances don’t fit neatly into our late-20th century concepts of crime and/or war. We expect non-combatants to be casualties in war but don’t expect bystanders to become casualties when we apprehend criminals. If we accept, as I do, that there are those who actively seek to cause physical harm to Americans and American interests, at home and abroad, to in effect wage war on the United States where and when the opportunity presents itself, then I see no practical alternative to drone warfare. Certainly, it was the only option for attacking those in Pakistan, unless one preferred either an invasion or “hands off”.

      U.S. casualties over the last 10 years likely would have approached the numbers killed in Vietnam, but for improved military tech and medical expertise. I find it odd, and disappointing, that so little attention is paid to casualties on the other sides, combatant and civilian alike, by most media. (We, after all, were the aggressors in Iraq and Afghanitan, though with some justification in the latter.) While we reveled in [inflated] body counts 40 years ago, Americans must have some understanding of the overall cost in lives, if only so that none of us may ever say “I didn’t know.”

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 11/10/2012 - 08:40 am.

    Goes around comes around there-here…

    I suppose it’s neither here nor there; rather there than here… or just a matter of time?

    Surveillance? The drone soon became the watch dog of choice there and here?

    It’s neither here nor there…but how soon before it becomes the weapon-of-choice; there and here?

    What goes around, comes around. Call it the boomerang effect…here from there?

  5. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 11/11/2012 - 11:16 am.

    ” The lingering sadness of war ” Dwight D Eisenhower

    You came as the night wind

    “You came as the night wind/ rising out of nothing/ brushing the wild flowers/ rustling the prairie grass.// You reminded me of God, duty and country// I didn’t need you.// I was happy with the whippoorwill, the golden brown wheat/ and the harvest moon.

    I laughed at the lights in the valley, mocking as they mocked.// Under the heavens/ under the midnight dawn,/ I was content/ with the space between stardust.// Why did you come?// Now I hear the cry of a child/ in the eyes of an old man/ and when I reach out, death runs through my fingers.” Jon Merton… Korean conflict; Special Forces, Rangers, JACKS etc…

    My apology Bro, for using your words here but Dwight D’s words reminded me of your words,your poem some time ago……

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