In 2003, President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and General Tommy Franks were resolute and decisive when they launched their drive to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, a longtime thorn in the U.S. side. The United States came to regret that bold decision.
After the 1964 election, President Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam commander General William Westmoreland were tough-minded in the face of the challenge from the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong and expanded a war, ultimately deploying more than 500,000 U.S. troops and a massive bombing campaign. The result: a lost war and almost 60,000 American deaths.
On the other hand, President Barack Obama has been vigorously criticized by Republicans, some Democrats and pundits for his caution in response to a trio of crises in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine.
The unflinching Dick Cheney has argued, “We have created an image around the world, not just to the Russians, of weakness and indecisiveness.”
The redoubtable Sen.John McCain, with a penchant for military force to meet worldwide challenges, echoed this sentiment, stating that “every moment the United States and our allies fail to respond sends the signal to President Putin that he can be even more ambitious and aggressive in his military intervention in Ukraine.”
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman correctly labeled these sentiments a “fire, ready, aim” approach too often practiced in the past.
Not for the first time, the Obama Administration’s effort to explain its “don’t do stupid stuff” policy was disjointed and unconvincing. But while there may be a penalty for inaction on the global stage, often there is a much greater cost for swift but misguided action. In fact, American and world history is littered with examples.
In 1950, General Douglas MacArthur, a celebrated hero during World War Two, drove North Korean forces up past the 38th Parallel and to the Yalu River bordering China. In doing so, he ignored the nay-sayers and intelligence analysts who warned of the dangers ahead. His action prompted an attack by the Chinese army, resulting in massive American casualties and an escalated and prolonged conflict.
In 1914, rather than stop to consider the steps ahead, the major European powers let their war machines automatically crank up and launched a war that almost no one desired. There were over 16 million military and civilian deaths and 20 million wounded in the deadliest conflict up to that time.
On the other hand, there are important instances where a President has hesitated rather than act in haste – and succeeded. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy’s military advisors were virtually unanimous in advocating a strong military response to the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy pushed back against that advice, and ultimately avoided what could have been a nuclear holocaust.
More recently, President Obama threatened to bomb Syria after its use of chemical weapons but wavered in the face of strong opposition in this country. In the end, President Assad’s chemical weapons were sent out of the country and destroyed without a shot being fired.
At a time when the U.S. faces international crises on the “cable news circuit” timetable, caution, planning and sober reflection can produce more levelheaded solutions than a rush to action.
A British pedestrian safety campaign called “Stop, Look, Listen, Think” could be equally applied to the search for solutions to world crises – with the saving of many more lives.
Tonight, we will find out what policy the President has chosen to deal with the threat of ISIL. Let us hope his careful study has produced a sound policy.
———-John Isaacs is senior fellow at Council for a Livable World and Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Gregory Terryn is a Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow.