Jay Fleitman: Obama muffs what Truman got right

Last modified: Tuesday, August 05, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — The most famous quote about the lessons of history reads, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." There is a converse to this idea, as history has also had successes and those who do not understand them will not have the opportunity to repeat them.

I am now reading David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Harry Truman. The parallels between Truman’s first term as president, from April 12, 1945, through 1948, and our current politics are remarkable.

Truman, a Democrat, came to the presidency at a time when the political environment around the previous president was toxic. A major war was coming to a successful end and the population was war weary with painful memories of a severe depression still immediate. Republicans took control of the House and the Senate in the midterm election of 1946.

The tyranny of the Nazis was defeated, but Europe was in ruins and England was bankrupt. The continent was divided by the Western armies in the west and the Soviet army in the east. Stalin was clearly not going to allow the agreed-upon free elections in the Eastern European nations once his armies had occupied this territory.

Several European countries were in political chaos with vigorous communist insurgencies threatening to control their governments. Turkey, Greece and Italy were on the verge of collapse and it became clear to the Truman government that the Soviets had no interest in stabilizing these countries and that Stalin expected to expand his control in Europe through the ongoing turmoil.

Truman and his Cabinet recognized what was at stake. Through what became known as the Truman Doctrine, the president articulated his belief that America had just fought a world war to stop a murderous dictator and would not then allow the spread of another tyranny. The Truman government did not want to fight another war in Europe, this time with the Soviet Union, and so crafted a strategy to finance the economic and political rebuilding of the European countries to enable them to resist Stalin’s interference.

This program was the Marshall Plan, which in hindsight was a critical long-term success in establishing a free European future. It would be nation-building on a grand scale, an idea that no politician in our current climate would support. The Marshall Plan was expected to be extraordinarily expensive for an America just getting back on its feet, and Truman had to get it passed by a Republican House and Senate.

Truman’s legislation was overwhelmingly supported by Congress. The degree of bipartisanship on this and on many other issues between Truman and Congress was remarkable.

That was then, this is now. Barack Obama came to office in economic turmoil but at the end of a successful war in Iraq.

Though the immediate excuse for the war, eliminating a murderous dictator’s weapons of mass destruction, is now in disrepute, the circumstances around the origin of the war must be remembered. Islamic fanaticism was on the rise as manifest by the attacks of 9/11. The Bush government was articulating a belief that if we could establish a stable democracy in the Middle East, America might alter the conditions that made the fanaticism grow. Yes, this was nation-building, and expensive.

As a result of our involvement, Qaddafi’s government in Libya looked at a new landscape and in 2003 voluntarily relinquished its program of developing weapons of mass destruction. It might also be considered that the success of removing Saddam Hussein triggered the Arab Spring, an effort throughout the Middle East to remove dictators. The most dramatic of these uprisings was to occur with the Green Revolution in Iran and the secular revolt against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

The Obama administration had the opportunity to leverage the gains of the Iraq war and possibly change the course of Middle Eastern history, but it didn’t.

Our government did not demonstrate the necessary commitment of time needed to consolidate Iraq, and the premature removal of all American forces in December 2011 destabilized that nation.

The nonviolent Green Revolution erupted in Iran, but not even rhetorical support came from the American government and that uprising for democracy failed. The brutal theocracy remains in place in Iran and there is the fearful prospect it will soon have nuclear weapons. The United States was also conspicuously absent in involvement with the uprising against Assad in Syria, which soon was hijacked by Islamic extremists. Now we are left with an Islamist army raging across borders and America’s best option is to work with a hostile Iran in keeping a hostile Assad in power.

There were similar strategies that drove Truman’s and Bush’s foreign interventions. I cannot discern in any fashion what is the strategy or principle driving the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

Truman’s interventions changed the course of European history in the face of advancing Communism. Bush also saw an opportunity to alter the history of a most difficult region. That Obama’s administration has not recognized a critical juncture in history, as the Truman administration did in 1947, may lead to a very different story developing in the Middle East, and one far less hospitable to a future of democratic principles.

Jay Fleitman, M.D., lives in Northampton. His column appears the first Tuesday of the month. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.