What Can History Teach About War?

An outstanding essay by Victor Davis Hanson is currently up on PJ Media here and here.  It is a two-part (so far) study of the history of wars, and the interplay of Greek tragedy – victory leading to hubris and overreaching and failure.  Part 1 analyzes WWII and Korea, while the second looks at the Peloponnesian War, and draws conclusions to describe our present situation.

It is outstanding, and you ought to read the whole thing.  But here is the conclusion.

What exactly was the “Leading from Ahead” Strategy of the Postwar Era?

I say “was,” in the sense that whatever we once did has largely been replaced by “leading from behind,” and outsourcing legitimacy to trans-national agencies like the Arab League and the United Nations.

What was the old policy? In easily caricatured terms, the U.S. and its Westernized allies once sought to craft a postwar world order, conducive to consensual government, free-market economics, and personal freedom. That did not mean that we would not support opportunistically at times both left-wing and right-wing tyrants, or find ourselves in wars of marginal interest, or resent bitterly the costs in blood and treasure.

Rather, the result was that from 1945 to 1990 the world did not follow the communist lead (the Soviet Union was to implode, and China was to claim an authoritarian capitalist state as a communist success story). Instead, it quite logically evolved along the present lines of globalized free markets and more or less generally recognized accords on trade, communications, and travel, as a vast American Navy patrolled the seas and American air force and army bases dotted the globe.

But to continue that paternalistic role, the U.S. had to assume that it was a better enforcer than the alternative for the rest of the world, and the leadership role sustainable in terms of costs at home. While Carter, Reagan, the two Bushes, and Clinton all at times ranged from lackadaisical to near missionary in following this policy, its general contours remained unchanged.

With the end of the old communist order, and the Pax Americana of the 1990s, the U.S. vision began to resemble a global version of mare nostrum. Just as the legions put down national liberationists, tribal insurrectionists, and regional renegades for over four hundred years — a Jugurtha, Mithridates, Vercingetorix, Ariovistus, Boudicca, etc. — so too the U.S. contained or ended the charismatic careers of a Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, etc. mostly on the premises that they threatened U.S. interests, humanitarian pieties, or the “new world order.”

We were never consistent in adjudicating which rogue crackpot warranted lectures, bombs, or an invasion, but there was enough consistency to bring on the world of Amazon, Apple, BP, Facebook, Google, Mercedes, Michelin, Samsung, Starbucks, and Toyota, and steady evolution to consensual government from South Korea to Brazil. Such shared prosperity was the result of American-inspired and recognized rules, the absence of another World War II type conflagration, and the deterrence offered by a militarily potent U.S.

We may be changing: note the failure of Russian reset, the schizophrenic policy of lecturing, borrowing from (and profiting in) China, the Arab Winter, the lead from behind strategy in Libya and Mali, the loud sermons and nonexistent follow-up in Syria, the leftward tilt in Latin America, the failure to reassure Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan that their security interests are guaranteed by the U.S. and they need not make accommodations with or challenge alone a rising China, and the general worry that the next Saddam Hussein or Taliban will have free rein.

Perhaps finance is the problem. We are broke and depressed, and so like our forefathers in 1939 do not want to borrow money for abroad better spent at home, as the lamentations over Iraq and Afghanistan resemble the earlier depression over the outcome of the “Great War” that likewise seemed to have solved nothing.

Or perhaps Barack Obama does not see the same picture outlined above, but rather a more shameful postwar record of neocolonialism, imperialism, and mercantilism waged by white Western peoples against the former Third World. Or perhaps Obama sees a new cartel of concerned hegemons — Europe, Japan, China, Russia, India, and the U.S. — each equal to the other, and all working under UN auspices to implement a just and fair global strategy in a way that a parochial and unilateral America never quite did. Who is to say that America has had an exceptional record abroad and a Russia, India, or China has not?

The reasons do not matter as much as the fact that there is a growing perception abroad that America cannot or will not deter any potential rogue nation or alliance of nations. The old warm spots — the Sea of Japan, the former Soviet Republics, the Aegean, Cyprus, the Middle East, the horn of Africa, the Persian Gulf, the Falklands, the 38th Parallel, the Balkans — may get hot again, given the impression that regional hegemons might believe (whether rightly or wrongly is immaterial) that the U.S. will debate rather than deter their opportunism.

Obama is not the sole architect of this new Hagel/Kerry/Brennan vision, but rather quite adroitly has tapped into all sorts of new bipartisan currents in American civilization:

1) The public is exhausted over Afghanistan and Iraq and equates the $1.5 trillion spent there as the cause of its additional $9 trillion in debt from 2002-2013. Blaming the war in Iraq is analogous to blaming Bush — the catch phrase that precludes introspection and provides an emotional end to all discussion of present melancholy. The new America has no problem with a leader who kills suspected terrorists by cut-rate drones, or who outsources power to Europeans, or who tries to back off from the predictable Western alignment in the Middle East — if it costs little and is out of the news.

2) There is a lot of support for Obamism from the paleo-right. Chuck Hagel plays the role to Obama that Pat Buchanan once did during the Iraq War with MSNBC — a useful conservative that is a far better critic than are Leftists of Republican supported foreign policy. Suspicion of big government accruing from neoconservative foreign policy, allegedly too close a relationship with Israel, too much power for the Washington military-industrial-consultant-diplomatic nexus — all these concerns appeal to a new conservative notion of isolationism and dovetail with Obamism.

3) The demography of the U.S is gradually changing to one of mixed ancestry from a traditional majority population of predominately European heritage. That reality means new areas of the world are of greater concern — Latin America, Africa, Asia — than the old European focus that had led to the UN, NATO, and the trans-Atlantic alliance with Great Britain: thus the “pivot” to Asia, the gratuitous occasional snubbing of Britain, and the haggling with France over supplies to forces in Mali.

The irony is that much of the vast wealth of the U.S., its unbridled leisure and affluence, and even its huge entitlement industry are the direct results of an active, interventionist policy and a resulting global economic order that sought to replace the isolationism of 1914 and 1939 — even as it is now blamed for most of our problems.

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