From Preparedness to Appeasement and Back

Are we about to repeat this tired cycle?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

By 1930 Verdun had been transmogrified almost into a dirty word in French schools. Throughout the late 1920s, the First World War was increasingly reinterpreted in the West as a futile bloodletting. International “Merchants of Death” and greedy capitalists, not the Kaiser’s aggressive Prussian militarism, were now seen as the true causes of that recent horrific war. A punitive Versailles Treaty — and not the failure to invade, occupy, democratize, monitor, and transform a defeated Germany — was seen as the real mistake on the part of the victors.

Britain and France all but disarmed. The Maginot defensive line, England’s island status, the new and welcomed art of appeasement (originally, lest we forget, a suitably liberal and humane idea), growing socialist movements, the League of Nations, and a new pacifism were all seen as substitutes for Neanderthal notions like deterrence and military preparedness. Perpetual peace was supposed to follow — and not another war with Germany a mere 20 years after the last one. Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, and the rest begged to differ.

After the Second World War, the United Kingdom and the United States once again disarmed at an astonishing rate. By June 1950, even tiny Communist North Korea had access to better tanks and jets than were available to nearby American occupation troops in Japan. Only the threat of a nuclear response kept Stalin’s divisions from walking into postwar Western Europe — mostly disarmed despite efforts to forge a conventional NATO deterrent.

Louis Johnson, briefly Truman’s secretary of defense, had sought to close down the Marine Corps altogether and dismantle as many army divisions as he could — all thought to be superfluous in the new postwar age of strategic air power and nuclear weapons following the defeat of the Axis powers. Admirals were up in arms over massive cancellations of shipbuilding and the mothballing of their fleets.

Then came the Communist-inspired effort to topple Greece and Turkey, the Communist takeover of China, the war in Korea, the brutal Soviet suppression of liberation movements in Eastern Europe, and the massive expansion of the Soviet Union’s conventional and nuclear forces. Only the rearming of the United States in the early 1950s, along with the new policy of containment and foreign aid, stopped the Soviet advance and saved millions from Communist takeovers.

By the mid-1970s the United States was weary again. Vietnam had nearly wrecked the American military and had sent millions into the streets at home. Accommodation and détente — not the rollback of Communism — were the preferred way of dealing with an ascendant, but now supposedly more moderate, Soviet Union.

After the Nixon years and Watergate, the evangelical Jimmy Carter called for defense reductions and an end to our “inordinate” fear of Communism. He put confidence instead in the United Nations, good will among men, and a new emphasis on global human rights, rather than, yet again, reactionary deterrence.

But after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Communist intrusions into Central America, the rise of radical Islam, and the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran, Carter ended his presidency in disillusionment about the efficacy of the United Nations, and about the supposedly benign intentions of the Soviet Union and radical Islam.

Nonetheless, Ronald Reagan was considered a cretin for once again massively rearming and waging an ideological war against the “evil empire” created by the Soviet Union, as well as for engaging in provocative acts like bombing Libya and invading Grenada. Reagan spent eight years enlarging all branches of the military, creating new strategic weapons, and opposing Soviet adventurism almost anywhere it was identified. Soon after he left office the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended.

George Bush continued these policies during the four years of his administration, but then, as if on cue, Bill Clinton reversed course and announced a “peace dividend.” He reduced the number of army and marine divisions and of air wings. The military shrunk radically in size. New weapons programs were put on hold. We settled into the 1990s prosperity of the dot-com boom. The talk was all about twentysomething college dropouts making millions in ground-floor stock options by brainstorming for brilliant new concerns like AskJeeves or America Online. Little Silicon Valleys were going to sprout up everywhere.

By 1999 Americans were focused on whether their president should be merely censured or impeached for engaging in sex acts with a White House intern in the Oval Office. Occasional radical Islamic attacks such as the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the murder of U.S. servicemen in their Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the destruction of three of our East African embassies in 1998, and the assault on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 were all considered police matters that did not warrant a full-fledged military response. It was the global American hegemony and support for Zionist Israel, not existential hatred for Western freedom and liberality, that provoked these outbursts from an exasperated radical Islam.

Then came 9/11, and the belated catch-up inevitably followed. A new Department of Homeland Security was created with bipartisan support. Both houses of Congress passed the Patriot Act. A majority of Democratic senators voted with the Republicans to authorize two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Bush enlarged the defense budget. In the dark days after 9/11, Americans praised the FBI, CIA, and armed forces for keeping us safe.

Indeed, for the next eight years there was no repetition of the September 11 massacres, despite terrible suicide bombings abroad. For all the tragedy of the occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were removed, and ensuing constitutional democracies continued to survive. Tens of thousands of al-Qaeda terrorists flocked to Iraq and were killed there. Their leadership remains attrited and scattered in the wilderness of Waziristan. Dozens of terrorist plots in America were broken up while still in the planning stages. The message went out that if another American city were to be attacked, an unpredictable but angry United States would go after any nation that had supported, housed, or subsidized the terrorists, even if only tangentially.

So here we are in yet the latest round of perpetual peace, this time overseen by a postnational, messianic Barack Obama. Serial apologies, engagement with dictators, the trashing of his predecessor, and calls for a newly empowered United Nations are all part of a sophisticated soft power that has replaced the old Bush “smoke ’em out,” “dead or alive” reductionism.

We are more likely now to put CIA interrogators on trial than to arrest and berate new terrorists. Dick Cheney, not Osama bin Laden, has become the new national threat. George W. Bush has been reduced to Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein, the “He did it” collective menace at whom we are supposed to yell out in hatred each morning. We now live in an era of renewed appeasement, faith in the United Nations, no “inordinate fear,” and all the usual tired slogans.

Given the massive, nearly $2-trillion annual deficits, and the soon to be $9-trillion addition to the existing $11-trillion national debt, together with a new confidence in world governance, defense stagnation and cuts are not a matter of if, but only when.

So there is no need to mention what follows next in this tired old script. We may experience another attack like 9/11, given that many terrorists must now believe that the United States either cannot or will not go after them in the manner of the last eight years.

Many jihadists must feel that the new government in Washington is more likely to contextualize their hatred than ensure it does not spread or materialize into war. Regional bad actors — take your pick, from Ahmadinejad to Chávez to Kim to Putin — may feel it is about time to make regional adjustments in the balance of power, given their impressions that the United States is almost sympathetic to their frustrations and believes that Bush ineptness and bad faith, not the intrinsic agendas of such antidemocratic, ambitious powers, caused prior tension.

And once we experience such “adventurism,” the reaction is just as scripted. We will want tougher CIA interrogators to ensure there is no more suicide mass murdering. Attorney General Eric Holder will go the way of Louis Johnson. Congress will hold hearings on who shut down Guantanamo and freed the terrorists. White papers will be issued detailing how the Obama administration curtailed proactive national-security measures. Committees will blast the creation of needless “firewalls” between agencies. Senators will call for more aid to Colombia or Georgia or South Korea or Israel or (fill in the blank).

The cycle will play out as in the past, because, in this age of enlightenment, affluence, and leisure, we just cannot accept that human nature remains the same and thus predictable. It remains too depressing to concede that for a few evil opportunists good will is seen not as magnanimity to be appreciated, but as weakness to be tested. And who but a dunce would believe that continual military preparedness is far cheaper — and more humane — than the perpetual “peace dividend” and lowering of our defenses?

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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