As 2016 looms, the cadres of experts who would staff a Republican administration continue to wrestle with the lessons of recent history for our current foreign policy challenges. Dozens of articles labor to set the record straight, criticize the president, and offer advice for securing American national interests. This process is needed and important: achieving consensus about what foreign policies best protect liberty at home is no less crucial than settling on tax and regulatory reforms to promote prosperity within our borders.
One recent offering in this genre entitled, “Destabilizer-in-Chief” authored by my friend and colleague, Mario Loyola, recently appeared in National Review Online. In his well-written exposition, Loyola demolishes the administration’s Middle East policies, making a convincing case that the president,“Bent on withdrawing U.S. power from the Middle East… (has) removed the major counterweight to the competing extremist forces there. As a result, the conflicts smoldering beneath the surface have burst into a major conflagration in a region that is far more vital to U.S. interests than Korea was (in 1950).”
But, in making his case for a robust, consistent foreign policy based on tried and true great power principles, Loyola overlooks one key ingredient: U.S. foreign policy must not only strive to protect the national interest, it must also be sustainable in the face of American public opinion (Loyola has treated the matter of public opinion in foreign policy in other pieces).
Rethink the Korean Conflict
Loyola begins his case with the example of the origins of the Korean Conflict (1950-53), noting that the war could have been,“…avoided but for a major blunder on the part of the Truman administration. The year before South Korea was attacked, the U.S. withdrew the forces it had left there in the wake of World War II. It was the ensuing vacuum of power that precipitated that terrible war.”
He goes on to note that local U.S. commanders opposed the withdrawal and the final straw was Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s January 1950 “perimeter speech,” which excluded South Korea from America’s Pacific Rim defense perimeter. War ensued and, as a result, as many American troops were lost in three years of fighting as had been occupying Korea before they were pulled out.
History is more nuanced.
In the wake of victory over the Axis powers in World War II, the American public, including soldiers in uniform, demanded rapid demobilization. A military that had 336,000 personnel in 1939 soared to more than 12 million under arms in 1945 and then plummeted to just under 1.6 million by mid-1947. The U.S. armed forces were stretched thin in their occupation responsibilities in the post-war world.
By early 1946, thousands of U.S. military personnel all over the globe demonstrated against what they saw as the sluggish pace of demobilization—they wanted to go home. Military discipline fell apart. General Eisenhower, the chief of staff, recommended that commanders avoid cracking down on the homesick troops. The once all-powerful American military machine was alarmingly hollowed-out. It took the realization that the free world had encountered a new foreign policy challenge—the Soviet Union and the Cold War—before the Selective Service Act restarted the draft in 1948.
The U.S. position in Korea was challenging. Many Koreans chaffed against what they viewed as another foreign occupation, with the Americans merely replacing the Japanese. Decades of Japanese control had severely weakened the sinews of Korean self-governance, however. The United States was forced to stand up a regime capable of fending for itself against the Soviet-sponsored Communist north. By September 1947, with no resolution in sight for reconciliation of north and south, the United States placed the issue of Korea before the General Assembly of the United Nations. Under the U.S. proposal, both the northern and southern zones of Korea would hold elections in March 1948 leading to a unified government and the subsequent withdrawal of foreign troops. The Soviets protested. Elections in North Korea never happened while the South held its elections in May 1948. Subsequently, the United States dissolved its military government on Korea on August 15, 1948.
Divide Between Military and State
As is often the case in American statecraft, the Department of State was more willing to commit U.S. ground troops to national objectives than was the U.S. military. The State Department wanted U.S. forces to remain in Korea until a strong South Korean government could be established with formal U.N. approval of the U.S. withdrawal. The U.S. Army had other plans. Eventually the State Department agreed to a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces beginning August 15, 1948, leading to a remnant military presence of 61 personnel. However, unrest on the Korean peninsula, bankrolled by the Communist north, slowed the pullout. By December 1948, the U.N. called for all U.S. forces to leave Korea. The Pentagon ordered the 16,000 troops there be reduced to 7,500: a single regimental combat team.
In early 1949, the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked General MacArthur, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, his advice on what the withdrawal of American forces might mean for Korea and how best to accomplish it. MacArthur saw that, “The threat of invasion possibly supported by Communist Armies from Manchuria will continue in foreseeable future,” but that U.S. forces were too weak to provide “active military support.” The best time to withdraw, MacArthur wrote, would be May 10, 1949. President Truman approved MacArthur’s recommendation and U.S. troops left South Korea.
By June 1949, Secretary of State Acheson told Congress that $150 million ($1.5 billion in 2014 dollars) was needed for South Korean economic and military aid. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives rejected the Korean aid bill on January 19, 1950 by a vote of 193 to 191. The vote came only a week after Secretary Acheson’s speech to the National Press Club excluding Korea from America’s defense perimeter. President Truman expressed grave concern over the bill’s failure, and a new bill became law four weeks later.
Clearly, American patience was wearing thin on the Korean peninsula. This likely contributed to the overall foreign policy confusion.
On the eve of the final American withdrawal from Korea on May 3, 1949, forces from the Communist north launched their first conventional attack into South Korea. They attacked again in July. South Korean forces repelled both attacks, though not without difficulty. Hundreds of small, probing attacks ensued and didn’t let up until the North’s massive invasion on June 25, 1950. In the meantime, South Korea was fighting a communist-supported insurgency in the coastal south, killing some 5,000 guerrillas over eight months through April 1950.
It was difficult to maintain American popular opinion for the occupation of South Korea and later, support for its government, forcing U.S. policy to settle for less resources than was ideal—but that’s always the problem. In most human endeavors—foreign policy and military operations included—there is never enough time, manpower, or material to do the job with a zero margin for error.
This Pattern of Morale Repeats Itself
The annals of American occupations show a remarkably similar pattern.
In the wake of Civil War victory, the Union army was rapidly demobilized, plunging from a million men to a Southern occupation force of some 152,000 by the end of 1865. By the fall of 1866, only 38,000 Union soldiers remained in the South, many guarding coastal forts or garrisoning stockades in the southwest to contain the Indian threat. Violence (especially against freed slaves), general chaos, and resistance to Reconstruction policies were abetted by the lack of troops. But, the will to maintain a large force in the South forced federal policymakers to conform actions to the resources available. Civil rights for freedmen suffered and improvement would remain slow for some 80 years.
In 1898, about 300,000 U.S. military personnel defeated the Spanish empire in three-and-one-half months. The victory resulted in occupation duty in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.
Cuba was organized as an American protectorate from 1899 to 1902. Political turmoil on the island caused the United States to return to Cuba in force from 1906 to 1909 and again from 1917 to 1922.
Puerto Rico was more quiescent, leading to the island’s residents becoming U.S. citizens in 1917.
The Philippines was an entirely different matter, with the United States inheriting a guerrilla war from the Spanish. Some 125,000 U.S. soldiers served in the Philippines for more than three years at a cost of $400 million (about $7.5 billion in today’s dollars) with approximately 4,200 U.S. dead. After the short war with Spain ended, the U.S. Army faced a severe personnel shortage, as volunteer enlistments expired with the ending of the war. Congress had to authorize additional forces for the Philippine occupation.
The Anti-Imperialist League
The U.S. effort in the Philippines resulted in strenuous opposition on the home front. The American Anti-Imperialist League embodied this opposition. The organization believed that imperialism violated the American founding principle that government must derive its powers from the consent of the governed. While the events of World War I, the national wave of Progressive ideology, and the success of the Army in putting down the Philippine revolt in only three years eventually doomed the League to irrelevance, it did capture a great deal of public misgivings over an occupation that morphed into a guerrilla conflict.
In fact, the League’s actions in the election of 1900 foreshadow some of today’s sentiments among the libertarian branch of conservativism: it endorsed Democrat William Jennings Bryan for president because of his anti-imperialist stance. But, since Bryan was also the highest-profile critic of the gold standard, a position in contrast to most of the League’s membership, the endorsement badly split the League.
Mark Twain was vice president of the organization. In a passage that presaged America’s own thoughts about the occupation of Iraq a century later, Twain wrote about the Philippines, “I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it—perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands… We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own… It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now—why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater.”
As is often unavoidable in messy guerilla conflicts, U.S. forces committed atrocities in response to guerrilla outrages, with Twain calling American soldiers “our uniformed assassins” in describing a U.S. reprisal attack as the killing of “…six hundred helpless and weaponless savages… a long and happy picnic with nothing to do but sit in comfort and fire the Golden Rule into those people down there and imagine letters to write home to the admiring families, and pile glory upon glory.”
In another modern parallel, U.S. forces used the “water cure”—a torture designed to extract information from guerillas which featured forcing the subject to ingest large amounts of water until vomiting—or worse.
Our Forgotten Occupation Of Russia
The little-remembered American occupation of Russia after World War I offers a final example of public opinion overriding clear national interests. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, and the subsequent exit of Russia from active fighting in the Great War, about 190,000 Allied troops took up stations in Russia, mainly in key ports. This force included about 70,000 Japanese in Siberia, 13,000 Americans in Vladivostok and Arkhangelsk, British, French, and Greek, as well as contingents from eight other nations. The American forces, known as the “American North Russia Expeditionary Force” and the “American Expeditionary Force Siberia” were sent by President Wilson against the advice of the War Department.
The Allies provided material support, training, and defensive sanctuaries for the White Russian forces battling the nascent communist state with the aim, in Winston Churchill’s words, “to strangle at birth the Bolshevik State.” Soon, however, Allied military personnel, having suffered tremendous carnage in the war, were wracked with dissension. Several units revolted. By January 1919, Britain’s Daily Express would write, in paraphrase of Bismarck’s dismissal of the Balkans as a strategic concern, “…the frozen plains of Eastern Europe are not worth the bones of a single grenadier.” As public support for the intervention collapsed, the last of the Western military units evacuated in 1920 with the Japanese staying in Siberia until 1922.
Even U.S. forces in Russia, having suffered far fewer casualties on the Western Front than their allies, expressed dismay at the Russian mission. A letter from an American captain to General Pershing encapsulates the difficulty in extending a military deployment after the main mission is accomplished: “The morale of our troop has been low since the signing of the armistice with Germany. The men and some of the officers seem unable to understand why they should be kept in Russia after fighting has stopped with Germany.” U.S. newspapers ran exaggerated accounts of hardship for the deployed American soldiers while touting the Red Army’s strength, both of which hurt morale when copies of the papers sent from home made the rounds with the troops in Russia.
By early 1919, calls began increasing in Congress to pull out of Russia. Republican senators Henry Lodge and Hiram Johnson called for withdrawal. On February 14, 1919, the Senate deadlocked on Senate Resolution 444, a resolution to bring American troops home, with the vice president voting against the bill. Republicans voted for the measure, Democrats voted against it and in support of their party’s president. By April, a Washington Post headline blared: “U.S. TROOPS MUTINY ON ARCHANGEL FRONT.” The article blew out of proportion an incident in which four men refused to move to the front but, after a discussion with their officers, eventually did. Other major U.S. newspapers also hyperventilated about the “mutiny.” The press may have indulged in hyperbole, but the damage to morale was real.
On the political front, President Wilson lost his majority in the House in the election of 1916, even while promising to keep America out of war (America declared war on Germany five weeks after Wilson was sworn in for a second term) while the election of 1918 saw the Republicans gain 21 seats in the House and handed them control of the Senate as well, with a pickup of six seats.
People Aren’t Rational Chess Pieces
This retrospection brings us back to the present. After calling on the example of the Korean Conflict, Loyola notes,
The most basic reason to keep forces in Iraq after 2011 was not to continue the war—which was already over by the time Obama was sworn in as president—but rather so that we wouldn’t have to fight a major war in the Middle East again. Granted, U.S. forces had become necessary only as a result of the 2003 invasion and the toppling of Saddam. But simply ignoring that necessity and withdrawing the troops could not undo the Iraq War, any more than abandoning open-heart surgery midway can undo the initial incision.
If American military units were chess pieces, to be moved about the world by grand strategists well-versed in international power politics and history while possessing a clear vision of the future, all would be well. Aside from that consideration, few can quarrel with Loyola’s analysis.
But, an examination of the path that brought us to this point is needed: an extended and unexpected occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, some 6,800 dead American service members, a Republican drubbing in the elections of 2006, about a trillion dollars in direct costs with another trillion-plus in interest payments on the borrowed money, the likely triggering of a deep recession as a result of poor policies enacted by a newly resurgent Democratic Congressional majority, and the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008. Some might consider that the preceding was a high price to pay for nation-building in a far-off land.
To Loyola’s point, a strong argument can be made that Obama, once having secured the White House, was in a position to do the right thing and stay the course in Iraq. That daily protests against President Bush’s unpopular war virtually vanished the day after the election proves the point: Obama’s election hit the reset button of public opinion on the war, allowing his administration the latitude to make the most of the strategic gains wrung at such high cost from the sands of Iraq.
How About A Different Paradigm
But, might U.S. policy going forward be served by a different paradigm, one that seeks to keep America secure at a minimal cost in blood and treasure while at the same time increasing potential adversaries’ anxiety over the likelihood of American action?
What if the United States fought a short war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then left, promising to return if either region produced a threat to American lives or U.S. interests?
As for nation-building, since when did it become a moral obligation to attempt to build a version of America in a far off land that had threatened American interests or produced terrorists? The challenge with nation-building is the effort it takes to sustain it in a hostile environment. Counterinsurgencies tend to be brutal, ugly affairs, for both occupiers and the occupied. Moreover, there is tremendous collateral damage done to American international credibility when America packs up and leaves its nation-building effort, partially completed, in frustration (does anyone recall the phrase “Vietnam Syndrome”?).
Extending a conflict, no matter how justified, into a long, contested occupation, will only sap national morale and leads America’s enemies to judge that, for a time anyway, America’s war weariness will render the U.S. an impotent player on the international scene.
It is far better to maintain the national capacity and willpower to go anywhere on the globe, engage our enemies, and destroy their ability to harm us, and then return home before the American public becomes restive and the costs become prohibitive.
Chuck DeVore is a former California legislator, special assistant for foreign affairs in the Reagan-era Pentagon, and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army (retired) Reserve.