A comment on a post over at Lex’s Place caught my eye, and got me thinking, difficult as that might be to believe at times. The particular comment is extracted by Lex from a post by Eric Posner:
The persistence of policies across ideologically divided administrations is good evidence that those policies are now mainstream rather than partisan and ideological.
The rest of Posner’s paragraph discussed specific policies and techniques in the War on Terror from the Bush Administration kept in place by President Obama, in many cases despite extreme criticism during the 2008 campaign. However, the larger point is a very interesting one. Effective policy tends to be consistent across politically diverse administrations. Do we need, then, to forge a national security policy document that is to the War on Terror what NSC-68 was to the Cold War?
Seldom in US history have we had a persistent and grave threat that lasted for several administrations, over several decades. Perhaps Germany in central Europe from 1890 to 1945 could be considered as such, but in that time really was two different entities. Imperial Germany under the Kaiser differed greatly from a Nazi Germany under Hitler. As did the dangers each posed, and the measures necessary to defeat them. And there was an uneasy 20-year peace in the interim.
It was, rather, the Soviet Union (with China, before the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s) that presented a common threat, a common theme, for the national security policy of every US President from Truman to Reagan. The document that outlined the US approach to the Soviets in a bi-polar Cold War world was the famous 57-page NSC-68. Written by Paul Nitze in April of 1950, the document was a summation of the ideas of George F. Kennan, former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union and other influential figures.
The tenets of NSC-68 as a basis for US response to the Soviet threat are brilliantly put forth in John Lewis Gaddis’ masterpiece “Strategies of Containment” published in the early 1980s. NSC-68 formally was the basis for US foreign policy during the years of Truman’s “containment” strategy, as the title of the book alludes. But the clear and effective statement of the Soviet threat, and the US response, resonated far beyond Truman’s years in the Oval Office. Indeed, NSC-68’s basic assertions held true during Eisenhower’s “New Look”, JFK’s “Flexible Response”, the Vietnam years under Johnson, Nixon’s “Detente”, Carter’s years, right up to the Reagan Administration’s final challenge of the “Evil Empire” (which, Maggie, is NOT the Yankees).
NSC-68 presents Soviet Russia as an enemy having a “fanatical faith… antithetical to America”, a phrase that rings true of the radical Muslims who oppose the United States and the West. The threat, in all its forms, is not going away any time soon. Like the Soviet threat, we must be prepared for a decades-long struggle against it. Also like the Soviets, radical Muslim fundamentalism is not merely a military threat, with nations and groups on the periphery whose dislike for America and Western society will cause them to look for economic opportunities in the problems and threats that the fundamentalists pose to us. Nor, like the Soviets, is it our only threat. But it is, for the near future, our gravest.
It is time, perhaps, to craft a US national security document that effectively and definitively states America’s intentions and position regarding the threat of radical Muslim fundamentalism. Such a document does not yet formally exist, though like the development of NSC-68, there is much to draw from. A new NSC-68 would bring a consistency to US national security policy that would endure past the four year Presidential election cycles, and dampen what can be at times the commands for radical course change before the rudder swings back toward amidships.
Harry S Truman was a President not considered a foreign policy success, one who got America into an unpopular and undeclared war described as the “wrong place, wrong time”. Yet, his actions to contain the Soviets were, in the end, effective. And it was his Administration that produced a policy document that provided direction for succeeding Presidents for the next four decades. The historical view of Truman has changed definitely for the better, and in part, NSC-68 is a reason why.
George W Bush is not now considered a foreign policy success. He also got America into an unpopular war that some claim was the wrong time and place. But, like Truman, his actions to contain the fundamentalist Muslim threat were, in the end, effective. Out of his Administration’s seven years of the Global War on Terror may come the next NSC-68, shaped perhaps, by the new Administration. And the historical view of George W Bush may undergo a similar revision.
The fact that so many of the Bush-era policies are still in place in the Obama Administration, one so widely divergent in political philosophy from its predecessor, points to the usefulness and value of those policies. Such, as Posner rightfully points out, is the litmus test of effectiveness.