It’s a story that could be ripped from today’s headlines. An unpopular president commits American forces to a dangerous mission. If things go well, millions will probably see him as a hero. But if they go poorly, his political career is over. Oh, and he may well trigger a new war.
Are we talking about George W. Bush, sending more troops to Iraq in 2007? No. Harry Truman, starting the Berlin Airlift in 1948.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Bush encouraged lawmakers to support his troop surge into Iraq. “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we’re in,” he said. “Every one of us wishes this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned and our own security at risk.”
Nothing doing, answered Virginia’s Sen. Jim Webb in the Democrat response. “The majority of our nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought, nor does the majority of our military. We need a new direction,” Webb declared. That includes “a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq’s cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq.” In short, he and his party want an “exit strategy” for Iraq.
Webb’s a great writer and a military expert. However, he’s missing the clear meaning of his own words.
Elsewhere in his speech, Webb celebrated the success of the Berlin airlift and of President Eisenhower’s policies toward Korea. But both of these examples highlight the importance of not tying our country to a particular exit strategy. Consider the aftermath of World War II. American troops had occupied Germany for three solid years after winning a bloody war against Hitler’s military machine. Hundreds of thousands of Americans had already given their lives so Europeans could be free.
Yet the U.S.S.R. was the real powerbroker on the continent. The Soviet Union had swallowed most of Eastern Europe after the war, leaving West Berlin as a tiny island of freedom surrounded by a Soviet sea. So in 1948, when Joseph Stalin cut off supplies to West Berlin, it would have been easy for the United States to simply give it up.
Instead, Truman ordered Allied pilots to fly dangerous missions to deliver supplies. Some 78 people were eventually killed during the airlift. Truman’s action is popular today because it worked. But if the Soviets had decided to shoot down the Allied planes, or if they had invaded West Germany, he might have triggered World War III.