During the 2008 presidential campaign, then Illinois Senator Barrack Obama told an audience at a roundtable discussion at Purdue University in Indiana, “We are constantly fighting the last war. Responding to the threats that have come to fruition instead of staying one step ahead of the threats of the 21st century.”[1] Obama’s comments reflected an often made observation about foreign relations and war that has become almost cliché.   Quoted and re-quoted over the years, the refrain ranges from simply “Generals are always prepared to fight the last war” to “Generals always prepare for the last war, while diplomats try to avert the war they fear at the moment.”  In whatever form, the statement, like all clichés, contains an element of truth that cannot be ignored.  It also contains an implied criticism of decision makers that Obama made explicit:  Those making policy should respond to threats by staying “one step ahead.”

Barack Obama (Photo: AP)These words seem ironic when considering President Obama’s decisions regarding Libya.  On March 18, 2011, he explained the reason for establishing a no fly zone by saying, “Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Qaddafi would commit atrocities against his people.  Many thousands could die.  A humanitarian crisis would ensue.  The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners.  The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered.  The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun.  Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow.”[2] As with other chief executives before him, a sense of moral obligation and a need to defend democratic ideals made it impossible, as he said three days later in Chile, to “simply stand by with empty words.” He went on to assert, “It is US policy that Qaddafi needs to go. We have got a wide range of tools in addition to our military efforts to support that policy.”[3] In an address to the nation on March 28, the President went even further.  “There will be times when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are.  Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and common security . . . These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us, and they are problems worth solving.  And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.”[4]

His reasoning should hardly be surprising.  In article in Foreign Affairs in 2007, Obama argued that “At moments of great peril in the last century, American leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy managed both to protect the American people and to expand opportunity for the next generation. What is more, they ensured that America, by deed and example, led and lifted the world – that we stood for and fought for the freedoms sought by billions of people beyond our borders.”[5] Clearly Obama saw it as his mission to build on the legacy of these presidential icons.   In his inaugural address, the President told the world, “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”[6]

Such comments, as well as international actions, suggest that Wilsonianism is still alive and well in the 21st century, at least at a rhetorical level.  That fact was manifested in the logic behind the Nobel Prize committee’s decision to award the Peace Prize to Obama in 2009.  Despite criticism that the award was premature or that the President had done nothing significant to merit it beyond talking about his global vision, the committee’s statements made it clear that, even if unconsciously, they embraced Wilsonian ideals.  Citing Obama’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” the committee went on to extol the President’s ability to capture “the world’s attention and give its people hope for a better future.”[7] Unfortunately, a global – or at least a Western – commitment to Wilsonian isn’t necessarily a good thing.  As wonderful as it would be to create the world that the 28th U.S. president envisioned and that so many of his successors committed themselves to, most efforts to do so have tended to prove the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Or perhaps more accurately, it has validated Niccolo Machiavelli’s assertion that it is more important to a political leader’s power that he appear to be virtuous and honorable than that he actually be virtuous or honorable.  This is clearly the case with events unfolding in Libya.

The record of the last nearly 100 years speaks for itself, but a few examples will suffice.  In 1913, Woodrow Wilson said, “I am going to teach the South American Republics to elect good men!”  After 31 years of tyrannical rule, Porfirio Diaz was ousted from power by a younger generation bent on reform.  In the chaos that followed, another strong man, General Victoriano Huerta, took control.   In words that sound eerily similar to Obama’s remarks about Qaddafi, Wilson told his Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan that he considered it, “his immediate duty to require Huerta’s retirement,” and that the United States would “proceed to employ such means as may be necessary to secure this result.”[8]

The consequence of Wilson’s so-called sense of “duty” was a steady escalation of tensions that eventually included U.S. intervention in Mexico.  First Wilson threw his support to Venustiano Carranza in his struggle against Huerta.  In 1914, after the crew of a U.S. ship that had anchored in Tampico was briefly detained, the President demanded an apology and when what he received was not to his liking, he sent the Navy into the Gulf of Mexico.   He then learned that the Germans were allegedly sending arms to Veracruz in support of the Mexican dictator and ordered American troops to capture the Customs House and impound the cargo.  It did not seem to matter that the weapons came from the Remington Arms Company, an American manufacturer, which had shipped the guns and ammunition via Hamburg, Germany, to avoid the American arms embargo to Mexico.  Events escalated from there, forcing Huerta from office.

Because Carranza publicly opposed Wilson’s intervention, the U.S. began negotiating with Carranza’s chief rival, Pancho Villa.  Wilson eventually reversed himself, recognizing Carranza’s new government, but antagonizing Villa.  When Villa attacked and killed Americans in 1916, the United States retaliated by sending General Black Jack Pershing into Mexico to hunt him down the following year.   Although they never captured the Mexican outlaw, they did engage in several skirmishes with Carranza’s army.  In the end, the situation in Europe drew the United States into World War I and out of Mexico.

The U.S. mission in Mexico had many of the characteristics that give critics of the current policy towards Libya pause.  Informed by a vague moralistic agenda, decision makers in both cases failed to understand that although oppression, abuses of power, and even violence exercised by a tyrannical government against its people are awful things, the opposition does not necessarily equate with virtue, reform, or democracy.  If and when Qaddafi goes, who or what will fill the power vacuum?  Who will the coalition support and for how long?  How many Huertas, Carranzas, and Villas are in Libya’s future?

Equally important are the issues we now call mission creep and exit strategy.  With an unclear objective like teaching “the South American Republics to elect good men,” it was easy for Wilson to justify political and military intervention, to switch sides from Carranza to Villa and back again, and to send troops into harm’s way ostensibly to capture Villa.  The mission kept changing because there was no clear purpose from the beginning.  The only exit strategy was what was forced upon the U.S. by more pressing issues in Europe.

Similarly, open-ended statements like that of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 that authorizes member nations “to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians”[9] provide no clear definition of what that means, when the mission can be considered accomplished, and what contingencies exist for dealing with the aftermath of a post-Qaddafi Libya.  Indeed, the conflicting agendas of the various coalition members, and of individuals like President Obama, seem unsettlingly reminiscent of Wilson’s flip-flopping on Mexico.  For example, while at times declaring that Qaddafi must go, Obama has also said that the no-fly zone and the use of missiles to enforce it have nothing to do with that goal and are designed to “stop any potential atrocities”  against the Libyan people.  What happens if Qaddafi comes to his senses and stops the atrocities?  What if he is toppled and his replacement is just as bad or worse?  Diaz was eventually replaced by Huerta, who proved to be just as bad.  The vagaries of revolution have a tendency to produce such confusion, be it in early twentieth century Mexico of early twenty-first century Libya.

Of course, there are those who may argue that Libya is different.  After all, the United States acted unilaterally against Mexico, but the coalition against Libya is international.  Be that as it may, the logic that informed both missions derive from the same rhetoric; or if one wishes to give Wilson, Obama, and the coalition the benefit of the doubt, the same thinking.  In either case, it is both dangerous and self-deluding, allowing decision makers to assuage their consciences, justify their actions, all while perpetuating the sort of violence they supposedly deplore.

Another Wilson example is equally instructive.  In deciding to go to war in Europe, Wilson told Congress, “”Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people . . .  We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states.”[10] One hundred and sixteen thousand Americans lost their lives for that vision.  The victors at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, however, were more concerned with punishing the Central Powers.  As British Prime Minister David Lloyd George put  it,  the negotiations at Versailles had more to do with “squeezing the orange until the pips squeak” than implementing the Fourteen Points, making the world safe for democracy, or creating of a victorless peace.  Members of the United States Senate were equally unsympathetic.  The United States never joined the League of Nations or signed the Treaty of Versailles, and twenty years later the world was on the brink of another global war.  As mission creep continues in Libya, who is to say how long support for the international effort will last?  If international resolve weakens and Qaddafi manages to remain in power, it is clear he will squeeze the oranges even harder than Lloyd George could ever have imagined.

Of course, many may argue that a lot has changed since the days of Wilson.  Military technology, global politics, and shifting economic dynamics to mention just a few.   However, the problem is that the logic of U.S. foreign policy has remained fundamentally the same.  Examining the record of the presidents Obama held up as models of American global leadership in his article for Foreign Affairs reveals an interesting pattern.  The ideals of Wilson’s Fourteen Points were enshrined in the principles agreed to by Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in August 1941.  Unfortunately,  the American President learned the hard way that while such an agenda may have made sense to American and English sensibilities, it had little place in the calculations of Soviet leader Josef Stalin.  At the Yalta Conference in 1945, Roosevelt found it necessary to settle for the vague platitudes of the Declaration of Liberated Europe, which paid lip service to the ideals of the Atlantic Charter, while effectively giving Stalin the control he desired in Eastern Europe.

Confronted with the challenge of Soviet expansionism in Greece and Turkey, Harry Truman’s call for aid to those two nations harkened back to lessons most Americans could understand in the wake of the recently ended Second World War.  In his speech to Congress on March 12, 1947, he said, “We shall not realize our objectives  … unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes.”[11] Equating the Soviet threat with that of the totalitarian regimes of the recently defeated Axis powers, Truman sold the logic of aid to a Congress and nation ill-disposed to such an idea.

However, his words did not represent a response that was “one step ahead.”  In fact, they ignored the advice of the US Chargé in Moscow George Kennan, who wrote the so-called “Long Telegram,” which along with his article in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “X,” became the basis for Containment Policy.  Nearly a year before the President’s speech, which articulated the rationale for Truman Doctrine, Kennan had argued, “Soviet power, unlike that of Hitlerite Germany, is neither schematic nor adventuristic. It does not work by fixed plans. It does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw – and usually does when strong resistance is encountered at any point.”[12] Such a reality called for a flexible response to challenges from the USSR.  However, as circumstances, political expediency and personal perspective combined during the Cold War, it became easier to simply apply the lessons of the Second World War to dealings with the Soviet Union than to respond to the threats posed by Communism on their own terms.

Certainly, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who promised to lead America to a New Frontier in 1960, had learned little from the events that transpired during the 1940s and 1950s.  In words very much compatible with Truman’s assessment of global politics in 1947, Kennedy’s inaugural address was an affirmation of the American Cold War agenda.  The new president asserted, “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”[13]

The most telling thing about the Obama administration’s actions in Libya, however, is that it has apparently failed to learn from its immediate successor.  In his speech of March 28, Obama said, “Regime change there [Iraq] took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives and nearly a trillion dollars.  That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”[14] Still, his rhetoric and actions suggest otherwise.  How much real difference exists between Obama’s assertions about defending “The democratic values that we stand for” and George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address on January 29, 2002?  Citing Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, Bush asserted, “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world . .  . [T]he price of indifference would be catastrophic . . .  History has called America and our allies to action, and it is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom’s fight.”[15]

Moralism, whether used to justify America’s position during the Cold War, in the War on Terror, or now in Libya, is dangerous because it allows for little flexibility.  Seeing the world in black and white, good and bad, terms, decision makers leave little room for the gray which permeates most of international relations.  Even when such moralism is only a rhetorical device, it affects thinking because words have power.  They shape public discourse and expectations, the hopes of freedom-loving people elsewhere in the world (what is to be said to the Syrians, Jordanians, Yemenese, and Bahrainis when they ask for help?), and ultimately the logic of policy makers.

Although it is naïve to argue that history repeats itself, it does have a disturbing tendency to yield similar results when the assumptions that inform policy don’t change when the world does.  Events in the Middle East are only the most recent example of that fact.  Unfortunately, that only serves to prove another hackneyed cliché, philosopher George Santayana’s often-quoted but seldom heeded bromide that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”


[1] “McCain and Obama Comment on Iran and Security Issues”, The Associated Press, 16 July 2008, AP Archive, http://www.aparchive.com/Search.aspx?remem=x&st=k&kw=+Obama+Purdue+University+2008+&sfs=5%3Dkw%253d%252520Obama%252520warns%252520against%252520fighting%252520the%252520last%252520war%2525202008%252520%2526kws%253d&sfc=kw%2Ckws#preview.

[2] Washington Post, 18 March 2011.

[3] Washington Post, 21March 2011.

[4] Washington Post, 29 March 2011.

[5] Barrack Obama, “Renewing American Leadership”, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/62636/barack-obama/renewing-american-leadership.

[6] President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, 21 January 2009, The White House Blog, http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/inaugural-address/.

[7] The New York Times, 9 October 2009.

[8] Don Wolfensberger, “Congress and Woodrow Wilson’s Military Forays Into Mexico:

An Introductory Essay,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 17 May 2004.

[9] “Security Council Approves ‘No-Fly Zone’ over Libya, Authorizing ‘All Necessary Measures’ to Protect Civilians, by Vote of 10 in Favour with 5 Abstentions,” United Nations Security Council, Department of Public Information, News and Media Division, 17 March 2011, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2011/sc10200.doc.htm.

[10] Address to a Joint Session of Congress Requesting a Declaration of War Against Germany, 2 April 1917, The American Presidency Project, University of California, Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=65366#axzz1I8vVljPJ

[11] Address of the President of the United States Delivered Before a Joint Session of the Senate and House of Representatives, Recommending Assistance to Greece and Turkey, 12 March 1947, Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/doctrine/large/documents/index.php?documentdate=1947-03-12&documentid=5-9&pagenumber=1.

[12] The Chargé in the Soviet Union (Kennan) to the Secretary of State, 22 February 1946, United States Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1946. Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, VI (Washington:  United States Government Printing Office, 1969), 696-709.

[13] Inaugural Address of President John F. Kennedy, 20 January 1961, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, http://www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/Archives/Reference+Desk/Speeches/JFK/003POF03Inaugural01201961.htm

[14] Washington Post, 29 March 2011.

[15] The President’s State of the Union Address, 29 January 2002, George W. Bush White House Archives, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html.