Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Put Up or Shut Up: Obama’s Foreign Policy Crossroads

by Victor Davis Hanson

Ricochet

I don’t often agree with Pat Buchanan and am an occasional target of his magazine, but his ideas (which Peter highlighted in an earlier post on Ricochet) are at least always provocative and he is right that we need a debate on what we can afford and what not, and why we do the things we do abroad.

On basing, ostensibly Buchanan is making sense; there is no real reason to deploy American troops on the soil of wealthy allies who for a variety of reasons apparently think they cannot defend themselves. That said, the original logic was not just “America in, Russia out,” but also “Germany (or Japan) down” — an effort never again to have an isolationist America faced with a two-front war with Asian and European powerhouses. If we were to leave, we must be prepared for the vacuum to be filled by someone, and calibrate in advance the consequences of that.

An American presence was once thought to be a moderating influence to avoid the sort of nationalism seen in 1870, 1914, and 1939. Whether the current financial supremacy of Germany and its pique at its clients is reason to worry, I don’t quite know. So it may well be time to get out and let Germany be Germany — again.

In the case of South Korea, the troops serve symbolic purposes as well (such things matter as the English realized when they removed a single ship from the Falklands or in the case of April Glaspie who made an offhanded remark about supposed American uninterest in the status of the Kuwaiti border, or Dean Acheson who suggested that South Korea was outside the American sphere of defense). But perhaps it is time to revisit that issue as well, and offer South Korea mostly air support in times of crises from carriers or Japanese bases — which also raises the question of Japan (there is a domino effect in pulling out from overseas). As I understand it, there is also the nuclear issue as well. Germany, Japan, and South Korea in months could make reliable nuclear weapons as they do BMWs, Hondas, and Kias. That they don’t may well be due to American security guarantees based on our physical presence on their soils. But ultimately finance will decide. If we are borrowing now in one month almost as much as we just recently used to borrow in one year (e.g., 2007), then everything will soon be on the table, and if it is a question of mothballing two or three carrier groups or pruning forces stationed in wealthy allied lands, then I’d prefer to keep our own assets.

So Buchanan is right to raise the issue, as was Gates on the Middle East.

With regards to Gates’ Libya comments: The problem in our current Middle East commentary is that it is inconsistent, erratic, and loud with a small stick.

Is there a connection with a presidential threat and reality; did Mubarak step down because we asked him to, or, rather, because the size of the resistance simply reached a tipping point and we wanted to get in on the removal?

Timing is key: does President Obama ask a Mubarak or Gaddafi to step down because they are innately savage and he wishes to preempt inevitable popular unrest and violence, or does he do so only in reaction to preexisting growing unrest and wishes to piggy-back on apparently successful indigenous efforts to remove a dictator? Two weeks ago we were lectured that Gaddafi would be gone within hours, tomorrow, within days, within a week; today we are lectured of an upcoming Somalia-like civil war in Libya and serial chaos. And tomorrow, we will be told what?

If we sound bellicose while behind the curve, as in the case of Egypt and perhaps Libya, the US seems opportunistic, predicating its principles on the apparent ebb and flow of crowds in the street.

And what conditions earn these frequent presidential put-downs? A million people in the streets of Teheran demonstrating against fascist theocracy? The subversion of Lebanese democracy, serial assassination abroad, and overt support for terrorist killers as in the case of the Syrian dictatorship? Why was Iran different from Tunisia and Egypt? I do not think that we have a consistent policy that governs the level of expressed American anguish — e.g., the degree of violence used against the people, the degree of anti-American hostility, the degree of support for international terrorism and unrest, the degree a regime is likely to fall soon?

At some point, we had better be consistent in the application of threats, and calibrate our rhetoric with our willingness and ability to use force if called upon to put up, or else shut up; otherwise the more frequent the proclamations, the more empty they sound, and the more irrelevant the US is seen. Bottom line, we should either shut up or be prepared for a third intervention which would be tantamount to a war — something impossible without allied bases, which is I suppose Buchanan’s point.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

 

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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