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Works and Days

War’s Paradoxes II: From the Peloponnesian War to ‘Leading From Behind’

February 6th, 2013 - 10:45 pm

By July 1864 very few elites outside New England thought the North could win, or that Lincoln could even be reelected. Yet by November 1864, very few thought either the war or the election had ever been in doubt. Lincoln stayed resolute as former supporters slandered him, and modest as they later deified him. Grant and Sherman likewise went through cycles of success, near ruin, resurrection, controversy, and eventual apotheosis — while keeping historical perspective the entire time.

As a general rule in war, when the media and the politicians are in unison declaring victory or defeat, it is wise to reexamine the issue, given that the very opposite of considered wisdom is more likely true. “Hopeless” wars have a tendency to be saved — if the right people eventually rise to the top. In 2003 Chuck Hagel voted for the war and then supported our brilliant victory over Saddam; by 2007, he declared the surge would be analogous to a Vietnam-style debacle. The one constant? Agreement with what 70% of the general population felt at any given time.

3. What exactly was the “Leading from Ahead” Strategy of the Postwar Era?

I say “was,” in the sense that whatever we once did has largely been replaced by “leading from behind,” and outsourcing legitimacy to trans-national agencies like the Arab League and the United Nations.

What was the old policy? In easily caricatured terms, the U.S. and its Westernized allies once sought to craft a postwar world order, conducive to consensual government, free-market economics, and personal freedom. That did not mean that we would not support opportunistically at times both left-wing and right-wing tyrants, or find ourselves in wars of marginal interest, or resent bitterly the costs in blood and treasure.

Rather, the result was that from 1945 to 1990 the world did not follow the communist lead (the Soviet Union was to implode, and China was to claim an authoritarian capitalist state as a communist success story). Instead, it quite logically evolved along the present lines of globalized free markets and more or less generally recognized accords on trade, communications, and travel, as a vast American Navy patrolled the seas and American air force and army bases dotted the globe.

But to continue that paternalistic role, the U.S. had to assume that it was a better enforcer than the alternative for the rest of the world, and the leadership role sustainable in terms of costs at home. While Carter, Reagan, the two Bushes, and Clinton all at times ranged from lackadaisical to near missionary in following this policy, its general contours remained unchanged.

With the end of the old communist order, and the Pax Americana of the 1990s, the U.S. vision began to resemble a global version of mare nostrum. Just as the legions put down national liberationists, tribal insurrectionists, and regional renegades for over four hundred years — a Jugurtha, Mithridates, Vercingetorix, Ariovistus, Boudicca, etc. — so too the U.S. contained or ended the charismatic careers of a Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, etc. mostly on the premises that they threatened U.S. interests, humanitarian pieties, or the “new world order.”

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