Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Lessons for new Presidents: Entangling long-term alliances

Jerry Stratton, November 23, 2016

George Washington goes to war

That’s a mighty entangling alliance you got with that eagle there, George. (SharpWriter, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The New York Times recently headlined an oped by William S. Cohen and Gary Hart, Don’t retreat into fortress America. As headlines go it’s good advice, but I had to wonder where they were when President Obama retreated from Iraq, tried to bring terrorist inmates from Guantanamo Bay into the continental United States, turned Middle East foreign policy over to Russia, and threatened not to deal with a free Britain.

It’s the usual relative bullshit that ensures people don’t trust the media today: they’ve taken sides, and when their side retreats from long-term alliances, it’s right, when their enemy does it, it’s wrong.

But what form our long-term involvement overseas takes is a huge issue, one of trust—or the lack of it—brought on mainly by our abandonment of the Iraqi people

One of the defined duties of the United States President is negotiating the “permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world” that President Washington feared would “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice”. In the modern world, these entanglements did all that, but they also turned a fascist Germany into a modern democratic powerhouse, and turned a totalitarian Japan into a similar democratic economic miracle.

These entanglements continued following the Korean war, which was justifiably criticized as propping up a dictatorship—and yet still managed to produce a modern democratic country with a powerful economy in South Korea.

There is every likelihood that South Vietnam would have followed the same path, if we had lived up to our commitments after the peace, as we did in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. The war was won; the enemy was back across the border; we had a peace treaty and we had agreements with South Vietnam. We did not honor those agreements—replacing military equipment—and the result was hundreds of thousands of deaths among the Vietnamese “boat people”, millions of deaths in the “killing fields” of Cambodia, and a fragile economy that remains weak under a communist rule that isn’t as bad as North Korea, but is far worse than what they’d have if we’d honored our commitments.

Imagine Southeast Asia today if China were surrounded on one side by a democratic and economically powerful South Korea, and on the other by a democratic and economically powerful South Vietnam? Taiwan could feel a lot more secure, and China would probably be a lot more careful abrogating the freedom of Hong Kong’s citizens.

But it was possible to look at our failure to live up to our agreement with Vietnam as an outlier, as the random result of President Nixon's domestic troubles emboldening an oppositional congress.

But then we did the same thing in Iraq, abandoned them to an enemy that we had beaten. Iraq had been such a success that President Obama said we were leaving them “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant”.

But when the Iraqi people voted against Maliki, he backed Maliki. And he pulled out the rearguard military protecting Iraq from what remained of Al Qaeda. And, of course, the remnants of Al Qaeda saw this and formed ISIS, taking advantage of the power vacuum. The result has been chaos across the Middle East, chaos that now extends into Europe and touches, once in a while, in the United States.

Nothing in this analysis is new. But the implications for foreign policy going forward are huge. No country or people can trust the United States beyond the term of its current President. And, more importantly, no President should trust their successor to live up to America's commitments. Rather than trigger US reaction based on expected baselines, Presidents will have to provide support up front. South Vietnam probably would have survived if all we had done was live up to our commitment to provide them with weapon replacements to defend themselves. I don't know what the solution could have been to preempt abandoning the Iraqi people. But future presidents will have to come up with something.

There is a sense in which Barack Obama has done this, although in an extraordinarily perverse manner. Negotiating Iran's nuclear progress, he gave them billions up front, rather than trust the next President to continue a safer, slower process that held Iran to the agreement.

If you think that kind of pre-emptive action sounds like a bad idea, and one that will reduce the ability of America to foster democracy in our partners, I agree. But future presidents may not see an alternative. We may have traded entangling long-term alliances for even more entangling short-term ones.

In response to Election 2016: Another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.

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