December 6, 2023

Winning the peace


Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Under fire for a foreign policy that critics say lacks muscle, President Obama chose the commencement ceremony at West Point to lay down military markers. Succinctly stated, he addressed three types of military actions the nation faces: conventional wars, covert warfare, and humanitarian operations.

The implied conventional threat is being confronted by the president’s “Pivot to Asia,” a phrase he did not employ in his speech, but which was addressed nonetheless: “China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors. . . . Regional aggression that goes unchecked, whether in the South China Sea or anywhere else in the world, will ultimately impact our allies, and could draw in our military.” China may be a major trading partner, but the president left no doubt that China may also pose the greatest threat to world peace. At the same time, he downplayed Russia’s recent aggressive moves against Ukraine. Clearly “The Pivot” will continue.

His primary concentration was on covert wars. Obama wants to shift America’s attention to fighting terrorist threats, and to do it in partnership with other countries, and without putting American boots on the ground. The centerpiece of his speech at West Point is the creation of a counterterrorism partnerships fund, which he said would “allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.”

He put the price tag for the fund at $5 billion. He would need congressional approval, which may doom the proposal. With or without the fund, the administration has begun shifting away from traditional warfare as we knew it to a much greater emphasis on covert forces in league with drones. No one calls what’s happening in Yemen a war, but the approach there is to work with the local government, have the CIA pinpoint where terrorist leaders and networks are, and take them out with drone attacks.

The strategy has been successful, and it’s modeled after the initial stages of the war in Afghanistan when a small number of U.S. covert forces joined with the Afghan Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban.

Finally, the president said we cannot shy away from humanitarian operations: “I believe we have a real stake –abiding self-interest – in making sure our children and our grandchildren grow up in a world where schoolgirls are not kidnapped; where individuals aren’t slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political belief.” This category of intervention is most problematic when genocide is threatened by those in power, or those seeking power. President Clinton said the biggest mistake of his presidency was his failure to intervene in Rwanda. Even so, while the Syrian civil war has displaced much of the population, created hundreds of thousands of refugees, and caused so much heartache, Obama stands firm in his refusal to intervene militarily, saying only that he would look for ways to increase humanitarian aid.

“Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” Obama said in a Rose Garden statement ahead of his speech. We disagree. It’s easy to start a war and easy to end a war. The hard part is doing either one in a way that makes the future better than the past.

World War II clearly met the test, vanquishing the Fascists, and rebuilding Germany and Japan. In contrast, the First World War failed to secure the future. All the treaty of Versailles did was lay the groundwork for World War II. Lessons were learned between those wars. The harsh peace demanded by the allies after World War I with reparations against Germany did not endure, and at the conclusion of the Second World War, America not only won the war, but knew how to win the peace.


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© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.



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