In July 2007, President George W. Bush was in the Oval Office going over a speech about the Iraq surge, when some of his advisers started pressing him to insert a line about how he looked forward to withdrawing U.S. forces.
Bush was having none of it. “People have to stop thinking Vietnam, and start thinking Korea,” he told us with exasperation in his voice. Bush pointed out that in both Asia and Europe, U.S. forces were still in essentially the same garrisons where Harry Truman had left them when wars ended there a half century earlier — and our continuing presence had provided a security umbrella that allowed peace to prevail and democratic allies to emerge. The same, he said, would be true of Iraq and Afghanistan. So stop talking about withdrawal, Bush instructed us. “We’re going to have troops there for 50 years.”
Bush was wrong. In 2011, President Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq and has announced plans to do the same in Afghanistan by 2016. Obama’s unmistakable objective is to make sure there are no U.S. troops in either country by the time he leaves office so that he can go down in history as the president who ended George W. Bush’s wars.
Obama clearly sees himself as the anti-Bush. But he is not the anti-Bush. He is the anti-Truman. He is rejecting not the legacy of his Republican predecessor, but the legacy of one of the great Democratic statesmen of the 20th century.
Like Obama, Truman faced a population that wanted to bring our troops home. But Truman resisted pressure to withdraw after World War II, keeping U.S. forces in Germany to deter Soviet aggression and keeping U.S. forces in Japan as a counterweight to communist China. Indeed, he deployed U.S. forces to Korea to check communist aggression and kept them in place to patrol the 38th parallel when the Korean War ended. The military footprint he established on two continents served as the foundation for security in Europe and in the Pacific — and gave us seven decades of peace.
Imagine what Europe and the Pacific would look like if Truman had followed the Obama model and removed all U.S. forces from Germany, Japan and Korea. Does anyone imagine that South Korea would be an independent country and a democratic ally of the United States if U.S. troops had not been patrolling the Demilitarized Zone since 1957? Or that the Cold War would have ended with the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union if America had not kept U.S. forces deployed in Europe since 1945?
Obama says “it’s time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” After World War II, Truman knew that Americans wanted to turn the page as well. But when Joseph Stalin tested the United States’ resolve with a blockade of Berlin, Truman did not hesitate. He launched the Berlin Airlift, delivering supplies to the besieged city and forcing the Soviets to back down. Truman understood that just because Americans were weary of war did not mean our adversaries were — and his actions secured the freedom of West Berlin. Today, Iraq is besieged by Islamist terrorists. Where is the modern equivalent of the Berlin Airlift for Iraq?
Obama says it is “time to focus on nation-building here at home.” After World War II, Americans wanted to focus on nation-building at home too. But Truman knew that if the United States failed to lead, Nazi tyranny would soon be replaced by Soviet tyranny in Europe — and with it a mortal threat to the United States would rise. So Truman launched the Marshall Plan, which cost about $100 billion in today’s dollars. He knew the plan would be unpopular and would face strong opposition from Republicans in Congress. But he also knew that it would save Western Europe from Soviet domination.
Toward the end of his presidency, Truman said, “When history says that my term of office saw the beginning of the Cold War, it will also say that in those eight years we set the course that can win it.”
Not end it. Win it.
As with Obama, Truman’s popularity began to plummet in his second term. But because of the courageous decisions he made on the world stage, history has been kind to Harry Truman. History will not be kind to Barack Obama if he continues to define his legacy by withdrawing troops, not winning wars.