Edward Luttwak: A Truman for our times





[Edward Luttwak's The Middle of Nowhere: Why the West Should Get Out of the Middle East (Atlantic) is forthcoming.]

That George W Bush's foreign policy has been a total failure is now taken for granted by so many people that one usually hears it stated as a simple truth that need not be argued at all.

It has happened before. When President Harry S Truman said in March 1952 that he would not seek re-election, most Americans could agree on one thing: that his foreign policy had been a catastrophic failure. In Korea his indecision had invited aggression, and then his incompetence had cost the lives of some 54,000 Americans and millions of Korean civilians in just two years of fighting—on both counts more than ten times the number of casualties in Iraq. Right-wingers reviled Truman for having lost China to communism and for his dismissal of the great General Douglas MacArthur, who had wanted to win it back, with nukes if necessary. Liberals despised Truman because he was the failed shopkeeper who had usurped the patrician Franklin Roosevelt's White House—liberals always were the snobs of US politics.

Abroad, Truman was widely hated too. The communist accusation that he had waged "bacteriological warfare" to kill Korean children and destroy Chinese crops was believed by many, and was fully endorsed by a 669-page report issued by a commission chaired by the eminent British biochemist Joseph Needham. Even more people believed that Truman was guilty of having started the cold war by trying to intimidate our brave Soviet ally, or at least that he and Stalin were equally to blame.

How did this same Harry Truman come to be universally viewed as a great president, especially for his foreign policy? It is all a question of time perspectives: the Korean war is half forgotten, while everyone now knows that Truman's strategy of containment was successful and finally ended with the almost peaceful disintegration of the Soviet empire.

For Bush to be recognised as a great president in the Truman mould, the Iraq war too must become half forgotten. The swift removal of the murderous Saddam Hussein was followed by years of expensive violence instead of the instant democracy that had been promised. To confuse the imam-ridden Iraqis with Danes or Norwegians under German occupation, ready to return to democracy as soon as they were liberated, was not a forgivable error: before invading a country, a US president is supposed to know if it is in the middle east or Scandinavia.

Yet the costly Iraq war must also be recognised as a sideshow in the Bush global counteroffensive against Islamist militancy, just as the far more costly Korean war was a sideshow to global cold war containment. For the Bush response to 9/11 was precisely that—a global attack against the ideology of Islamic militancy. While anti-terrorist operations have been successful here and there in a patchy way, and the fate of Afghanistan remains in doubt, the far more important ideological war has ended with a spectacular global victory for President Bush.

Of course, the analogy with Truman is far from perfect: the Soviet Union was a state, not a state of mind. But even so, once Bush's victory is recognised, the errors of Iraq will be forgiven, just as nobody now blames Truman for having sent mixed signals on whether Korea would be defended. Of course, the Bush victory has not yet been recognised, which is very odd indeed because it has all happened in full view.

Until 9/11, Islamic militants, including violent jihadists of every sort, from al Qaeda to purely local outfits, enjoyed much public support—either overt or tacit—across most of the Muslim world. From Morocco to Indonesia, governments appeased militants at home while encouraging them to focus their violent activities abroad. Some, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) funded both militant preachers and armed jihadists. The Saudis financed extremist schools in many countries, including the US and Britain, and had thousands of militant preachers on the payroll in addition to writing cheques for jihadists in the Caucasus, Pakistan and a dozen other places (although not to Osama bin Laden himself, their declared enemy). The UAE rulers who now talk only of their airlines and banks are reliably reported to have handed over sackfuls of cash to Osama in person, meeting him at Kandahar's airfield when flying in to hunt endangered species. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were also the only countries that joined Pakistan in recognising the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. Other Muslim governments, notably Sudan, Syria and Yemen, helped jihadists by giving them passports and safe havens, while others still, including Indonesia, simply turned a blind eye to Islamist indoctrination and jihadist recruitment. ...



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