Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Cold War legacy of "leading from behind"

One of my favorite people on twitter said this today:

Yeah!!! I'm as caught up in the events unfolding in Ukraine as any other political junkie. But to be really honest, I think this is a terribly complex situation and I'm willing to embrace the fact that - on this one - there are things I simply don't understand. So I'm going to avoid any predictions about what will happen or advice about what the President should/shouldn't do.

But of course our media needs to hype this situation up in order to maximize eyeballs and clicks. To listen to them you'd think NOTHING THIS BAD HAS EVER HAPPENED!!!! That's why the one article on it all that I'd suggest you read comes from Sam Tanehaus in the NYT. As is almost always the case, a little historical perspective is always a good idea.

As folks seem intent on seeing the events in Ukraine as a resurgence of the Cold War, Tanehaus suggests that doesn't mean what a lot of people think it does.
That image of a chessboard — an epic contest between two giant players, carefully nudging their pieces around the globe as part of a grand strategy — has indeed become a familiar metaphor for the Cold War. But it is misleading. Many decisions remembered today for their farsighted, tactical brilliance were denounced in their day as weak-willed. And big, public gestures often made less difference than the small, hidden ones.

Born in tandem with the nuclear age, the Cold War was defined from the outset less by outright confrontation than by caution. And with caution came adjustment, compromise, improvisation and at times retreat. As often as not, both sides blinked...

In fact the costliest maneuvers — chess-piece gambits in Korea and Vietnam — backfired, increasing tensions abroad even as they shook public confidence at home.
Tanehaus goes on to provide specific examples of presidential actions that were decried as "weak-willed" in their day, but which history has recorded as "farsighted, tactical brilliance." For example:
  • 1956 - President Eisenhower refused to intervene when the Red Army killed 30,000 in Budapest to quell anti-communist protests.
  • 1962 - President Kennedy negotiated an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis by agreeing to remove US missiles in Turkey.
  • 1981 - President Reagan's quiet response to the imposition of martial law in Poland to stop the Solidarity Movement. 
Here's what he says about that last one:
Or consider the most hallowed of Republican Cold War presidents, Ronald Reagan. Early in his first term, he too faced a Ukraine-like emergency when the Solidarity movement was crushed in Poland. Many expected a powerful response. Instead he showed restraint. He voiced sympathy for the movement, but the assistance he provided came quietly — and covertly, in part — through money and communications equipment funneled to anti-Communists. 
My, oh my! One might have suggested that Reagan chose to "lead from behind."

As many in the media and on the right attempt to emasculate President Obama for taking a similar approach to dealing with the situation in the Ukraine, its worth remembering just how wrong history proves them to be.

1 comment:

  1. What I have learned is to enjoy the media's impotence in these instances. They shake their fists and decry the man's actions or lack thereof over and over every time someone does anything 'undemocratic' in the world. In the end, the media has ZERO power to influence the decisions made by the President, and it's killing them. I laugh.

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