April 15, 2015
I have a piece out right now in Military History about the American intervention in the Russian Revolution in 1918 and '19, at the end of the First World War. I was thinking about it this morning reading the NYTimes after seeing a letter by someone talking about the weakness of Obama's foreign policy, which seems to be a mantra these days. Actually I rather like Obama's foreign policy. He's cautious. Woodrow Wilson was cautious, too. He's famous for wanting to make the world "safe for democracy," but what he's less famous for is not wanting to interfere with other nations' right to self-determination.
Obama will be known historically for being realistic about the ability of the United States to affect the course of events internationally, and not wanting to start yet another stupid war in the Middle East. Maybe he's read history, knows that Afghanistan has always been at war with itself, has always resisted or ridden out foreign invasions, from Alexander the Great on, that's its citizens are all armed, that Afghan culture is divided into tribes, and two languages, and that warfare is part of their tradition. Maybe he has read enough to know that Iraq is a made-up country, a creature of the arbitrary "nation making" of the French and British at the end of the First World War, that it has no national history, little national feeling, and is radically and deeply divided on religious and tribal grounds, with the Sunni and Shia sects carrying on, incessantly, their mutual hatreds, which will extend far into the future. Democracy? The Middle East is theocratic, even Israel. The so-called nations there do best--i.e., do not stir up trouble with their neighbors--when under the control of dictators. I know, we don't want to think about that, but the wiser of the American politicians of the '40s and '50s, men like George Kennan or Dean Acheson, understood it well.
Kennan has to be the guide to the American intervention in Russia in 1918, too. He wrote a two-volume study of it, the second volume of which I've read. It began when in 1917 Russia ended their participation in the war, made a separate peace with Germany, ceding the Germans an enormous amount of territory in the process, and freed up 40 German divisions to go fight in the West. The Allies were desperate to persuade, or force, the new Communist government to reopen the eastern front. The Allies were exhausted by the war, were running out of manpower, and knew the renewed strength on the German side might bring about their defeat. The Americans at the time were in the war but not ready to fight. So Churchill mounted a relentless effort to persuade Wilson to send American troops to both Murmansk and Archangel, in the west, and Vladivostok in the east. Wilson was extremely reluctant to do this. He felt it was up to the Russians to decide their own fate. He delayed for months. But ultimately Churchill got to him, he felt he no longer had a choice, and in the summer of 1918, even as American troops were beginning to make the difference on the Western Front, he sent troops, under British commanders (most of them incompetent), to fight the Bolsheviks in Russia.
Machinations. Churchill wanted to revive the Eastern Front, yes, but he also wanted to do whatever he could to stop Communism while he thought it was possible. Churchill was arrogant, ambitious, aggressive. This was one of his many mistakes, nearly as big as Gallipoli. Wilson had no such intentions, he was only trying to please an ally. We can forgive him for this one, but we cannot forget. George Kennan makes the point that the Russians have certainly never forgotten, that their enmity to the United States begins in Murmansk, and that we lost, by this bungle, any opportunity we might have had to find some reasonable way to develop a mutually tolerant relationship with each other. The intervention itself was a disaster. Russia is huge. No one seemed to remember what happened to Napoleon when he invaded Russia. American soldiers died in the snow and swamps for nothing. When we left in 1919, all we had done is make a permanent enemy.
Since the piece appeared I've heard from a couple of readers that, hey, if we'd only sent enough troops, we could have killed Communism in the cradle. Hawkish and unwise. Look at the history, check out the circumstances, and anyone can see it wasn't possible. Now we have yet more of the unwise, noisier than ever, trying to kill Obama's effort to reverse 50 years of hatred and distrust between the U. S. and Iran, which stem from equally hawkish and unwise actions on the part of the CIA when they managed to depose Mossadegh.
We are not as strong as we think we are, and we are definitely not smart. Our nation is in decline by any number of standards. Yet all the hawks can think of is shock and awe. While our President, who seems to know the history, see the limitations, and understand the law of unintended consequences, pulls back from foolish threats and aggressive policies. There's a time for everything, but this is certainly not the time to pull us deeper into the rabbit hole that is the Middle East, and I have no confidence whatsoever that any of the Republican candidates has the wisdom to be cautious.