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On Point

"Surprise, Security and the American Experience"


by Austin Bay
August 3, 2004

Consider the historical record: 1814, Washington burns in one of the final acts of the War of 1812; 1941, Pearl Harbor, America can no longer avoid WWII; Sept. 11, 2001, America can no longer treat The War on Terror as a problem for police. 1814, 1941 and 2001 each revealed inadequacies in American homeland defense.

The James Monroe administration (with John Quincy Adams as primary architect) implemented the post-War of 1812 strategy intended to thwart future attacks on the American mainland, and not simply along the East Coast. Franklin Roosevelt's administration devised the grand strategy to secure America in WWII and its long aftermath.

What became the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny guided American statecraft throughout the 19th century. FDR's coalitions, with the United States as central player, won WWII and became the cornerstone of the 20th century's international state system. Monroe implemented the first and FDR the second "grand strategies" in American history.

George W. Bush's administration has formulated and is implementing the third.

That's the nutshell version of "Surprise, Security and the American Experience," by Yale prof John Lewis Gaddis. It's an insightful, nuanced, scholarly book that should leave the Bush administration's most rabid critics choking on their scorn -- if they can slip their blind rage long enough to read it.

I know -- that'll happen when Hell freezes over, or after the November elections, whichever comes first.

Anyone else who wants to understand the deep strategic roots of American security policies past, and then gain a keen appreciation of the "big concepts" powering our global war to defeat terror networks -- with the goal of once again providing the high-degree of security liberty-loving American citizens demand -- needs to read this book.

Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History and Political Science at Yale --the man's covered in academy Ivy. His publisher is Harvard Press. The book is neither election year polemic nor an insider's kiss and tell -- which explains why cable TV gab shows have missed it. Instead, ever the scholar, Gaddis has produced a crisp and readable volume addressing a subject that usually defies crisp prose and readability: the formulation of grand strategy and the application of grand strategy.

Gaddis argues America has pursued three grand strategies, and all three had pre-emptive diplomatic and military action as components. The Monroe administration set in motion policies to guarantee U.S. hegemony in the Western hemisphere. Here's the gist of it: Expand until frontiers are secure.

FDR and then Truman chose to expand American influence, using allies, but with American goals always foremost, if subtly disguised as a choice between U.S. primacy or "a worse alternative." The worse alternative was at first Hitler, then Stalin became the unacceptable other.

Gaddis frames US strategy post-9/11 in the context of (1) American history; (2) changes in the post-World War Two international system; and (3) the politically sclerotic Muslim Middle East.

Gaddis says 9/11 "placed what we like to think of as civilization itself back on a dangerous frontier, leaving governments everywhere scrambling to catch up." The attacks collapsed "our most fundamental assumptions about international, national and personal security."

Gaddis indicts the view in U.S. academic and policy communities during the 1990s "that the international system had become so benign that the U.S. no longer faced serious security threat of any kind. ... The Clinton Administration drew from it the idea that if progress toward political self-determination and economic integration was assured, then the U.S. need only ... engage with the rest of the world in order to enlarge those processes."

This "encouraged a tendency to view history in linear terms, and to ignore the feedback effects that can cause successes to breed failures by inducing complacency. ... It sought coherence through alignment with vague processes rather than through the specification of clear objectives. It brought the Clinton team closer to the examples of Harding and Coolidge than to those of Roosevelt and Truman ..."

Terrorists, unlike states, aren't deterrable. Bush, whom Gaddis calls the "most underrated national leader since Prince Hal became Henry V," has developed the strategic objectives of defending, preserving and extending peace. In a world with failed states, Al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction, that means extending the frontier of democracy, into the planet's hardest corners. It's a long, hard slog, but there really is no better choice.

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