America First, Cold War, Eastern Europe, FDR, Franklin D. Roosevelt, globalism, globalists, Harry S Truman, ISIS, jihadis, Middle East, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Russia, Soviet Union, spheres of influence, Syria, terrorism, Trump, Turkey, Ukraine, Vietnam, World War II, Yalta
If you know more than a little something about contemporary American history, you’ve no doubt been struck (or you should be struck if you haven’t been already) by the close resemblance in one key respect between the firestorms around the two big foreign policy-related uproars of the day these days, and the big foreign policy uproar of the late 1940s and early 1950s: The cries of “Betrayal” and “Backstabbing!” generated by President Trump’s withdrawal of the small American troop deployment in Syria, and his lack of interest in keeping Ukraine fully independent of Russian designs, fully recall similar charges that followed Washington’s early Cold War acquiescence in the Soviet Union’s establishment of control over Eastern Europe.
And there’s a very good reason for the similarities among these over-the-top reactions in all three cases – today’s version of which is all too capable of pushing the nation into repeating catastrophic foreign policy mistakes. In all of them, a combination of immutable geography and irrefutable common sense has established ironclad limits on American power. In all of them, America’s existential security and prosperity rendered these limits entirely acceptable. And in all, crusading globalists have reacted not with gratitude for the nation’s favored circumstances, but with tantrums that have slandered any support for the prudence logically suggested by these circumstances as evidence of treason and/or degeneracy. It’s the policy equivalent of refusing to take “Yes” for an answer. (See this 2018 article of mine for the fullest statement of these views.)
The Cold War event mainly responsible for the McCarthyite claims of spies and traitors shot through the U.S. government was Yalta conference of 1945 held by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his British and Soviet counterparts Winston S. Churchill and Josef V. Stalin, At that late-World War II meeting in Crimea, FDR agreed to accept Moscow’s clam to the countries located between German and Soviet territory as a sphere of influence.
Roosevelt’s decision reflected his awareness that the enormous Red Army had planted stakes in Eastern Europe after having fought it way through the region on its way to Berlin, that it had no intention of leaving, and that dislodging these forces militarily at remotely acceptable cost was impossible. Interestingly, his successor Harry S Truman fully agreed, even though by the time he became President, the United States enjoyed a monopoly on nuclear weapons.
“Yalta,” however, became a synonym for treason for many Americans, and the next few years (including under the Democrats) became an time of loyalty oaths, persecution, and show trials, Although many of the charges that the U.S. government had become a nest of spies turned out to be true, “McCarthyism” nonetheless ruined numerous innocent lives as well, and for more than a decade stifled badly needed dissent within the national security bureaucracy.
But guess what? Despite Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and the mass, multi-generation human tragedy that unfolded behind the Iron Curtain, the United States not only survived but generally prospered. Further, the serious problems it did experience had absolutely nothing to do with the fates of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, or even the former East Germany etc.
Self-interest and restraint in foreign policy go hand-in-hand just as neatly these days when it comes to Ukraine and Syria. As I’ve written, even more than Eastern Europe, Ukraine’s independence has never been considered a vital American interest because it’s never been a significant determinant of the nation’s safety or well-being; because it’s located even closer to the center of Russian military might than Eastern Europe; because as a result the United States is militarily incapable of mounting a sane challenge with conventional forces; and because on top of these assets, Moscow has long possessed nuclear forces that can obliterate the United States many times over.
As for Syria, Mr. Trump’s critics are caught in one or both intellectual time warps. The first has hurled them back to the era when the United States was thoroughly addicted to Middle East oil. However long it lasted, though, it’s now unmistakably over, thanks to the fossil fuels production revolution of the last decade or so.
It’s true that this oil still matters a great deal to Europe and East Asia, huge chunks of a global economy whose health still matters in turn to the United States (though less lately, since both regions seem chronically incapable of or unwilling to generate acceptable growth other than by amassing enormous – and unsustainable trade surpluses with America). But both regions are eminently capable of fielding the military forces needed to preserve the oil flow. P.S. So do the Middle East’s two biggest powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Their deadly struggle for geopolitical supremacy notwithstanding, both would collapse economically without the revenue brought in by their oil exports. Just ask Iran, which is being bankrupted by President Trump’s – unilateral – sanctions.
The second time warp has the foreign policy Never Trump-ers trapped in the early post-September 11 period, when the nation discovered its shocking vulnerability to Middle East-borne terrorism. Yet as I’ve repeatedly written, and experience can not have made clearer, the best way by far to protect the American homeland from this deadly threat is not continuing to chase jihadist groups around an uncontrollable region whose terminal dysfunction will keep them appearing and reconstituting, but securing America’s far more controllable borders.
Additionally, though less important, terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda have been blessed with the unique gift of antagonizing every other significant actor in the Middle East, for either ethnic (Arab versus Persian versus Turk) or religious (Sunni versus Shia Muslims) reasons. And the Russians, who are now supposedly the new kingpins in the Middle East, have no interest in seeing a serious jihadist revival on their borders. So an American exit from the region will leave it full of countries with every reason to sit on Islamic lunatics, not to mention rife with their own mutual antagonisms and historic rivalries. A chaotic balance of power to be sure, but an entirely durable one. (These arguments have just been made powerfully here.)
During the Cold War, it took debacle in Vietnam, with all the devastation it brought to America’s economy, society, and domestic and national security institutions (some of which still haven’t fully recovered), to teach globalists and the public they led, that geography and common sense mustn’t be completely ignored. Let’s all hope that their America First-oriented opponents, including a critical mass of the body politic, can keep them away from the levers of power before they produce a similar disaster.