Most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment is aghast at the foreign policy doctrine President Obama outlined at West Point last week, and even more so by the fact that administration is now describing its vision for foreign policy as “Don’t do stupid sh*t.” And, as Henry Kissinger has often pointed out, when Americans want to be critical of foreign policy, they often slap on the label “realism.” And so what passes for Obama’s foreign policy doctrine is now being demonized as realism.
To be fair, as I noted immediately following the West Point speech, certain elements of President Obama’s foreign policy mimic the Nixon Doctrine, and Nixon and Kissinger are seen as the penultimate realists of post-WWII U.S. foreign policy. That being said, I’m in full agreement with John Allen Gay when he argues that just because Obama “resists the idealism of the neoconservatives and humanitarian warriors while also rejecting isolation does not mean he is therefore a realist.”
One of the more egregious attempts to tie Obama’s supposed realism to his failings in foreign policy comes to us courtesy of Roger Cohen. In his column for the New York Times this week, Cohen more or less deems Obama unworthy of visiting the site of D-Day to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the allied landings on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
To be clear, I find the New York Times reporting and opinions to be fantastic reads, and the newspaper counts me among its subscribers (I actually have two subscriptions at the moment, but that’s a different story). Moreover, I have often found Cohen’s columns in particular to make a great deal of sense (especially his commentaries on Iran). Which is why I find this week’s column to be particularly noteworthy, and in need of a response.
The first sign that something is amiss is when Cohen suggests that Obama will not cut a “convincing figure” on the beaches in Omaha this week because he doesn’t embody America’s “commitment to the spread of liberty, the defense of allies and the sanctity of the American ‘red lines’ that are the guarantors of global security,” in the manner that D-Day did. In the same context, Cohen references Obama’s new “don’t do stupid stuff” mantra before asking, “Since when did the can-do nation become the can-avoid nation?”
This question is phrased rhetorically but I think is deserving of an answer nonetheless. Since at least the end of the War of 1812 until at least the end of WWII, America’s foreign policy excelled on the can-avoid philosophy, or what might more properly be labeled a “leading from behind” mentality. At no time was this more evident, or successful, than during WWII.
Without a doubt, America emerged from WWII as the most powerful nation by a long shot, and it did so precisely because it didn’t demonstrate a commitment to liberty or defending allies, much less bothering to set red lines. In fact, one of the reasons the allies were landing on the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944 was because America had done nothing as the Nazi regime overran most of Europe, including countries like France. Moreover, as described more below, even after entering the war America hardly could be celebrated for its rush to defend allies. It didn’t even plan for nor attempt much of a defense of the Philippines in the Pacific theatre, despite being its so-called protectorate. As a result, all other industrialized places in the world were ravaged by the end of WWII, while the American homeland laid untouched (Hawaii wasn’t technically a state at the time.)
More importantly, Cohen concludes his column by chiding Obama’s supposed realism before declaring that “realism did not win the day at Omaha. No realist would have attempted such impossible landings. If he [Obama] takes one lesson away from the beaches for the remainder of his presidency, it should be that.”
But in fact D-Day exemplified realist logic. In this case, America deserves less than full credit. After joining the war, the American civilian and military leaders had initially been eager to mount a cross channel amphibious landing to open up a second front in Europe. Thankfully, their much wiser British counterparts convinced them of the utter folly of attempting such an audacious action at this point in the war.
Much to Stalin’s chagrin, then, the British and green American troops set out to win the “all-important” battlefield of North Africa. There they battled marginal Nazi forces and, at least initially, still didn’t find much success. Meanwhile, on the Eastern front the Nazi and Soviet forces bled each other dry. To be sure, America’s lend-lease program did aid in the Soviet effort, but this weaponry didn’t even arrive in large quantities until after Stalingrad. Thus, the U.S. could hardly be credited with running to the defense of its ally in the Soviet Union.
In fact, the ultimate decision to launch the D-Day invasion was more about running to defend against its ally in Moscow. As Neil Sheehan explains in his book, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, “Contrary to popular American belief, the turning point of the war in Europe was not the Allied landing in France on June 6, 1944, and the ensuing battle of Normandy. The turning point had taken place nearly a year and a half earlier and almost 2,000 miles to the east at Stalingrad on the Volga.”
After the Germans surrendered at Stalingrad, the Soviet army went on the offensive and began pushing the Nazis back towards Germany. In fact, according to Sheehan, by D-Day “the Red Army had pushed the Germans out of most of European Russia and was approaching the Polish frontier.” And, while it would have been a harder fight for the Red Army without the second front, the truth of the matter was that “Normandy or no Normandy, the Russians were going to Berlin.”
This was of course was unacceptable to the U.S., British, and Canadians, who wanted to share in the spoils of victory. And thus, opening up a second front in Europe became imperative to prevent a Nazi occupation of Europe from being replaced by a Soviet one. Thankfully, the fierce fighting on the Eastern front had greatly weakened the Nazi forces, making the still herculean challenge of an amphibious landing in Normandy a considerable degree easier. As Sheehan once again points out, in the year-and-a-half between Stalingrad and D-Day, “the Soviets had torn the vitals out of the German army,” and the German forces that greeted the allies on the beaches of Normandy “were a shadow of the mighty Wehrmacht that had stormed across the Soviet frontier.”
The point is that U.S. WWII policy in general, and D-Day in particular, was motivated and made possible precisely because the U.S. operated according to the dictates of realism. For better or for worse, Obama isn’t a realist. But he’d be right at home in Omaha if he was.