I have a clear memory of an old basketball coach from high school who preached a simple strategy. Coach would say when someone was trying to make a particularly difficult play, for example, a flashy, behind the back pass when simple and straightforward would do, “Don’t try to do too much.”
I have been thinking about that old coach this week as I’ve watched President Obama ensure that America’s longest war – our eight years and counting in the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan – will last a good deal longer. Afghanistan is Obama’s war now and I cannot escape the feeling that the president has made the decision – for good or bad – that will define all the rest of his historic presidency. We all hope he got it right. There is a good chance he has made the mistake of trying to do too much.
A nagging sense of deja vu hangs over his decision. We have seen this movie before and, as one of the president’s critics from the right – George Will – suggests, we won’t like the way it ends. As an Idaho and Northwest history buff, I am also struck by a realization of something missing from the political debate aimed at defining the correct policy approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The missing element, it seems to me, is hard headed consideration of the limits of American power and influence. Deja vu all over again. We have seen this movie before, as well, and the end is not very satisfying.
An Idaho Perspective on Limits
Idaho has had two remarkable United States Senators who played major national and international roles in formulating our country’s foreign policy in the 20th Century. William Borah, a progressive Republican, served 33 years in the Senate and chaired the once-powerful Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920’s. Frank Church, a liberal Democrat, served 24 years in the Senate and chaired the same committee in the 1970’s.
The Idahoans wielded political power in vastly different times and a half century apart. In the broad sweep of history, we have to say both lost their fundamental battles to shape American attitudes about the limits of our power and influence. There is a direct link from that failure to the president standing in front of the cadet corps at West Point earlier this week.
Borah’s influence was at its zenith in the interval between the two great wars of the 20th Century when he served as chief spokesman of the non-interventionist approach to foreign affairs. Church’s time on the world stage coincided with the post-war period when international Communism dominated our concerns and Vietnam provided all the proof we should ever need about the limits of American power.
It can only be conjecture, but I would bet that neither of the men from Idaho, who once exercised real influence in the Senate, would be comfortable with the president’s course in Afghanistan. The reason is pretty simple. Both Borah and Church, passionately committed to American ideals and to representative democracy, believed that even given the awesome power of the country’s military, there are real limits to what America power can accomplish in the world. Historically, both felt America had repeatedly embraced the errands of a fool by believing that we could impose our will on people and places far removed and far different from us. Their approach to foreign policy and identifying American interests was defined by limits and certainly not by the belief that we can do it all.
In his day, Borah opposed sending the Marines to Nicaragua to police a revolution. It simply wasn’t our fight or responsibility, he argued, and the effort would prove to be beyond the limits of American influence. Church never believed that American air power and 500,000 combat troops could help the Vietnamese sort out a civil war. Both were guided by the notion that Americans often make tragic mistakes when we try to do too much.
Other Northwesterners of the past – the Senate’s greatest Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, Oregon’s pugnacious maverick Wayne Morse and the elegant, thoughtful Mark Hatfield – counseled presidents of both parties to understand our limits. Those reminders hover over our history and this moment in time.
None of this is to say that there are not real and compelling American interests in shutting down the 21st Century phenomenon of Jihadist terrorism. We do have legitimate interests and we must keep after this strategic imperative. But, the foundation of any successful strategy is correctly defining the problem and understanding the limitations.
Is projecting an additional 30,000 American troops into one of the world’s most historically difficult places, in the midst of tribal, religious and cultural complexity, the right approach? And, does it address the right problem? We’ll find out. The British and Russians found out before us.
As Barbara Tuchman made clear in her classic book The Guns of August – the book centers on the miscalculations and unintended consequences that helped precipitate the First World War – wars never unfold as planned. Miscalculations and faulty assumptions always get in the way of grand strategy.
Assuming progress on a tight timeline, assuming better behavior from a stunningly corrupt Afghan government, assuming our brave and talented troops can “nation build,” where others have failed time and again, are calculations and assumptions that may just not go as planned.
Grant the president this: he inherited a mess and no good option. Also, like Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Harry Truman in Korea, he faces great political pressure not to display weakness or signal American retreat. It has never been in the presidential playbook to candidly discuss the limits of our power and influence. The American way is to believe we can do it all.
One of the great “what ifs” of 20th Century American history, particularly the history of presidential decision-making, is the question of what John Kennedy, had he lived and been elected to a second term in 1964, would have done with American involvement in Vietnam.
Many historians now believe, with a second term secure and political pressure reduced, JFK would have gotten out. We’ll never know. We do know what Johnson did, and his inability to confront the limits of national power and define precise American interests destroyed his presidency. History may well record that George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to confront the same limits and correctly define precise interests.
Kennedy once said this: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, continued, and dishonest; but the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”
As we head into the cold and gray of another long winter in the rugged, deadly mountains of Afghanistan, we may again – I hope I’m wrong – confront the persistent, persuasive and unrealistic myth that America’s military – motivated, trained and determined as it is – can do everything.
As I said, I hope I’m wrong.