A Matter for Debate
President Bush's May 27 commencement address at West Point lays out, maybe not for the first time but more clearly than previously, his understanding and proposed roadmap to today's "long war" (hat tip: Austin Bay). The metaphor he invokes to describe what's been called the War on Terror is the Cold War. The Cold War is the last "Big One" of which large numbers of people still have a first hand memory. Only a slowly shrinking number of old people can actually remember the Second World War. But Vietnam, Checkpoint Charlie, Chrome Dome and Cuban Missile crisis are within living memory and it is on this that Bush hangs his rhetorical hook by recalling the first five years after World War 2.
In 1947, communist forces were threatening Greece and Turkey, the reconstruction of Germany was faltering, mass starvation was setting in across Europe. In 1948, Czechoslovakia fell to communism; France and Italy appeared to be headed for the same fate, and Berlin was blockaded on the orders of Josef Stalin. In 1949, the Soviet Union exploded a nuclear weapon, giving our new enemy the ability to bring catastrophic destruction to our homeland. And weeks later, communist forces won their revolution in China, and claimed the world's most populous nation for communism. And in the summer of 1950, seven North Korean divisions poured across the border into South Korea, marking the start of the first direct military clash of the Cold War. All of this took place in just the first five years following World War II.
It's hard now, in the first years of the 21st century to even imagine the succession of foreign policy disasters which appeared to engulf the US a few short years after its triumph over Nazi Germany and Japan's surrender in Tokyo Bay. The "fall of China"; the Soviet sweep across Eastern Europe punctuated by the annihilation of a US task force in Korea -- Task Force Smith -- were a succession of catastrophes orders of magnitude greater than any debacle facing GWB today. And they swept over Harry Truman's administration like an evil and apparently unstoppable tide. But Bush went on to describe how Harry Truman found in it not defeat but the framework of victory.
Fortunately, we had a President named Harry Truman, who recognized the threat, took bold action to confront it, and laid the foundation for freedom's victory in the Cold War. President Truman set a clear doctrine. In a speech to Congress, he called for military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey, and announced a new doctrine that would guide American policy throughout the Cold War. He told the Congress: "It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." With this new doctrine, and with the aid to back it up, Greece and Turkey were saved from communism, and the Soviet expansion into Southern Europe and the Middle East was stopped.
The implication, though it will be a hard act to follow, is that the time is ripe to create a new version of the doctrine which guided the Cold War and GWB says this bluntly. "Today, at the start of a new century, we are again engaged in a war unlike any our nation has fought before -- and like Americans in Truman's day, we are laying the foundations for victory." He is consciously donning the mantle of Truman, but unlike his predecessor's Bush's strategy has a large "rollback" component from the start; it is not content to limit what it calls the terrorist threat; it aims to stamp it out at its base.
Today, at the start of a new century, we are again engaged in a war unlike any our nation has fought before ... The enemies we face today are different in many ways from the enemy we faced in the Cold War. In the Cold War, we deterred Soviet aggression through a policy of mutually assured destruction. Unlike the Soviet Union, the terrorist enemies we face today hide in caves and shadows -- and emerge to attack free nations from within. The terrorists have no borders to protect, or capital to defend. They cannot be deterred -- but they will be defeated. America will fight the terrorists on every battlefront, and we will not rest until this threat to our country has been removed. ...
In this new war, we have set a clear doctrine. After the attacks of September the 11th, I told a joint session of Congress: America makes no distinction between the terrorists and the countries that harbor them. If you harbor a terrorist, you are just as guilty as the terrorists and you're an enemy of the United States of America. In the months that followed, I also made clear the principles that will guide us in this new war: America will not wait to be attacked again. We will confront threats before they fully materialize. We will stay on the offense against the terrorists, fighting them abroad so we do not have to face them here at home.
In contrast to the Cold War, GWB hopes to create offensive alliances rather than purely defensive ones. This is best illustrated by NATO: once a defensive shield now an extirpating sword.
In this new war, we have helped transform old adversaries into democratic allies. Just as an earlier generation of Americans helped change Germany and Japan from conquered adversaries into democratic allies ... In this new war, we have forged new alliances, and transformed old ones, for the challenges of a new century. After our nation was attacked, we formed the largest coalition in history to fight the war on terror. More than 90 nations are cooperating in a global campaign to dry up terrorist financing, to hunt down terrorist operatives, and bring terrorist leaders to justice. ... For five decades, NATO forces never deployed outside of Europe. Today, NATO is leading security operations in Afghanistan, training Iraqi security forces in Baghdad, delivering humanitarian relief to earthquake victims in Pakistan, and training peacekeepers in Sudan. An alliance some said had lost its purpose after the Cold War is now meeting the challenges of the 21st century. ... In this new war, we've undertaken the most sweeping reorganization of the federal government since the start of the Cold War.
And in an indication of the perceived order of magnitude of the task the President makes a prediction to the West Point Class of 2006. This war will last the life of a young man.
Now the Class of 2006 will enter the great struggle -- and the final outcome depends on your leadership. The war began on my watch -- but it's going to end on your watch. Your generation will bring us victory in the war on terror. My call to you is this: Trust in the power of freedom, and be bold in freedom's defense. Show leadership and courage -- and not just on the battlefield. Take risk, try new things, and challenge the established way of doing things. Trust in your convictions, stay true to yourselves -- and one day the world will celebrate your achievements.
The speech contains little that is new and simply brings together threads which were articulated separately. But it performs a service. Alexander Dumas observed that explicit speech forced listeners to examine an assertion on its terms, citing the case of Atilla who some had dismissed as brigand until he styled himself the "Hammer of God". Until then many had never though of him as such; afterwards it was necessary to determine whether he was not. President Bush, by gathering these ideas under the heading of strategy makes it possible to examine each notion in turn and to ask ourselves whether they are correct. While the debate over strategy will -- like the Cold War's -- probably rage over decades, here's what I believe the arguments will revolve around.
First: has the President defined the enemy correctly? He is content to call the enemy "terrorism". Others have preferred the notion of radical Islam or even Islam as a better descriptor of the foe. Personally I believe the underlying cause of the War lies in the breakdown of the Third World, as manifested in the multiplication of failing states: that is my definition of the enemy. Still other authors have preferred to describe today's troubles in terms of the Core and the Gap or as the consequence of the transition to a world of Market States. Whatever. The key question is whether the President has defined the problem to which today's Long War seeks a solution in a correct manner. This particularly necessary because the causes of War are likely to contain elements of unresolved contradiction within the West itself.
Second: is it appropriate to aim for a "rollback" strategy as opposed to one of pure containment? This is a very nuanced question. Going back to the Cold War metaphor one may argue that President Reagan's efforts at rollback bore fruit only after Communism had been weakened by the more passive containment of his predecessors. Rollback and containment may each be valid strategies, but within the context of timing need not be mutually exclusive. Many people who have criticized OIF believe it would have been better to maintain the encirclement of Saddam, limiting offensive action to police work or perhaps solely to Afghanistan. I think the issue of pure containment versus containment + rollback is the subject which will be most debated within the political center. I would add, however, that it is probably a less important question than "getting the definition of the enemy" (the previous point) right.
Third is the implicit question of what the world will look like assuming GWB's strategy eventually succeeds. Is it a world in which America is dominant or at least the primus inter pares? Or is it a world in which America and perhaps other nation-states, eventually disappear? Although the future is veiled it is probably important to keep glancing ahead now and again to see whether we are emerging into "broad sunlit uplands" or "a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science".
None of the answers are evident. But at least the speech, while ostensibly making assertions, has actually asked the questions.