11 March 2016

Barack Obama is no Harry Truman


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Sixty nine years ago this weekend, President Harry Truman made a speech to a joint session of Congress in which he mapped out the anti-Communist doctrine that henceforth bore his name. The choice of timing was down to the British being bust after the War. Contemplating a vast debt mountain, partly owed to the US, Clement Attlee’s administration in the UK was unwilling to continue supporting the Greeks against their homegrown Communists. With some reluctance, Truman prepared to step in to financially assist Greece and Turkey, potentially not a particularly popular move in an America that had had enough of abroad.

Yet in that landmark address, in eighteen minutes on Wednesday March 12th 1947, Harry Truman delivered a crisp and clear enunciation of what would become the core of American foreign policy until at least the Vietnam War. Later, a doctrine rooted in the idea of preventing states falling to the Soviets as “dominoes” was recalibrated and successfully updated by Ronald Reagan during his attempts to bring down the Soviet Union. What Truman did that day in 1947 was not only right  in the sense of the Western way of life being worth defending, it was strategically right in that it offered a rallying point and defined a clearly understandable framework for the pursuit of vital policy goals. This matters, not because the future destination is predictable, but because people like to know that the person in the highest office has some idea of the direction and means of travel.

Almost seven decades later, “The Obama doctrine” is the headline this week on a much discussed article in the latest issue of The Atlantic. It is based on extensive conversations between the President and the author Jeffrey Goldberg. Although the text is at points fascinating, and in others a little like listening in to a seminar or a windy tutorial, the article is extremely long. It is much, much longer than Harry Truman’s clear-sighted speech, yet even so by the end of Goldberg’s article I was not much the wiser on what the Obama doctrine actually is.

Of course there is something to be said for the way in which he declines to follow the Washington “playbook”. Following the hot-headedness and poor planning of the George W Bush era, a little reservation and canny cautiousness at moments of danger was surely welcome, which is one of the reasons many of us had high hopes that he might develop into a Truman. Only those who detest Obama – and in the US that seems to be about 40% of the population – could possibly regard thinking before action as being a failing in a leader.

That said, introspection only gets a President of the United States so far. And there has been a deeply disappointing hollowness at the heart of the Obama Presidency. It as though he has examined foreign policy from every conceivable angle, ten times, and then decided that it’s all very complex, so in that case… what?

The problem is rooted, it appears, in his relentlessly academic, cool as a cucumber approach. In that regard, Obama’s supporters are forever extolling the supposedly deep quality of his thinking and his grasp of history. Despite this, he consistently makes an elementary error when it comes to referencing the past. The implied suggestion – sometimes stated – is that decisions now are especially difficult and the world was a lot simpler back then. It was clear. You had Nazis and anti-Nazis and then you had Communists and anti-Communists. Even that omits the reality that for the first stage of the Second World War the Nazis had the Soviets as effectively allies.

The “it’s all so complex now” defence is not really a defence; it’s a cop-out. Post-war Europe and Asia were not straightforward either and the participants such as Truman were not confronted with simple choices. They did not know then that a devastated Europe would be rebuilt successfully thanks to Truman’s Marshall Plan under the cover of what became the Nato umbrella, or that Britain closed down its Empire (with bloodshed along the way, but nothing like on the scale that might have been involved) and that the spread of totalitarian Communism was, eventually, going to be driven back. To us, hindsight means that the contours are clear. The memoirs of those involved sit on our bookshelves. But Truman and his team could not know any of this. Even so, they did something bold and decisive for which those of us who savour freedom should be eternally grateful.

Surveying the tail end of the Obama presidency, and his antiseptic analysis of the problems, it is impossible to say that he has achieved anything remotely comparable to Truman. The best one can say is that he has kept his country out of a few trouble spots, which is something, but that amounts to technocratic managerialism, not great leadership. Rather than galvanising the West, he will leave office with it badly divided, facing Islamofascism and without any rallying point equivalent to the Truman Doctrine. What would that rallying point look like, asks Obama? That’s partly what you get paid the big bucks for, to try and find out and then utilise those famed rhetorical skills to convince us. That’s your job, Mr President, or it should be.

Many years after the end of Truman’s Presidency, one of his closest aides gave an interview in which he reflected on how the occupant of the White House should wield power. Clark Clifford had been White House Counsel at the time of the Truman doctrine speech and later Defense Secretary under Lyndon Johnson, succeeding Robert McNamara. Clifford had originally opposed the Vietnam incursion. In office he tried to win the war and then realised scaling back was essential. He had this to say about Truman’s style:

“There is, you know, such a thing as being too intellectual in your approach to a problem. The man who insists on seeing all sides of it often can’t make up his mind where to take hold… We’d been through the greatest war in which the world was ever involved… There was every reason for Harry Truman to say, ‘This is not for us’… And yet he decided that it had to be done… Harry Truman looks at this, and he just steps up to it.”

When the history is written of what will be a very long struggle against Islamofascism, will it be possible to echo Clifford’s words in relation to Obama? No, it will not.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX