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June 14, 2006
Truman The Unilateralist

After making references to Harry Truman in recent speeches, George Bush received criticism from Democrats who complained that Bush falsely assumed Truman's mantle in foreign affairs. They claimed that Truman set the standard for multilateralism through his founding of the United Nations, bringing his predecessor's dream to fruition. Max Boot answers them in today's Los Angeles Times by reminding them that even Truman found the UN and an insistence on multilateralism to be a hindrance to American security:

WHEN HE delivered the West Point commencement address last month, President Bush compared his efforts to stand up to terrorists to Harry Truman's efforts to stand up to communists during the early years of the Cold War. Liberal pundits were outraged. How dare this Republican cite a sainted Democrat as his inspiration? Commentators such as Peter Beinart, the former New Republic editor, suggested that Bush should instead learn from Truman about the need to recognize the limits of American strength, eschew grandiose rhetoric and unilateral action and encase American power in a "web" of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and NATO.

This is a refrain that has been heard since 2001, and it is worth correcting the historical record before this mythology becomes accepted as fact. The reality is that Bush is far more multilateral and Truman was much less so than commonly assumed. ...

True, he did preside over the founding of the United Nations, and he sometimes expressed grandiloquent hopes for this "parliament of man." But in practice his viewpoint was closer to that of his hardheaded secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who believed that the U.N. Charter was "impracticable" and who scoffed at the idea that "the way to solve this or that problem is to leave it to the United Nations."

Acheson did make effective use of the U.N. in 1950, when he secured a resolution authorizing an armed response to North Korea's invasion of South Korea, but only because the Soviet delegate was boycotting the Security Council. In any case, Truman had already committed air and naval forces to combat before the vote. As he wrote to Acheson, a U.N. failure to act would not have altered his plans — "we would have had to go into Korea alone." Truman was equally clearheaded about the U.N.'s limitations in an earlier crisis — the British cutoff of aid to Greece and Turkey in 1947, which left those countries exposed to communist aggression. Truman told Congress: "The situation is an urgent one requiring immediate action, and the United Nations and its related organizations are not in a position to extend help of the kind that is required." So the U.S. offered $400 million on its own.

The same pattern is evident throughout Truman's presidency. The decision to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki? A unilateral U.S. initiative. The Marshall Plan to aid European recovery? Ditto. The 1948-49 airlift to break the Soviet blockade of Berlin? More unilateralism.

Even NATO, as Boot points out, came after the decision by America to permanently base a good portion of our armed forces in liberated Europe as a counter to Soviet aggression. The formal NATO structure came later, and while its multilateral nature became an important part of our foreign policy and security, the impetus for its formation came from the US and UK.

And as Boot points out, Bush is nowhere near the unilateralist that his critics claim him to be. That meme started with his withdrawal from the Kyoto Accord, but critics usually fail to remember that the Senate unanimously rejected the treaty before Bill Clinton had the chance to present it to them. Without ratification, the President cannot bind the nation to treaties, so that bit of unilateralism belongs to both parties, not Bush, who can hardly be blamed for withdrawing a treaty that had already had no votes from either party.

He successfullly garnered support from the UN and NATO for the Afghanistan mission, and he spent five months at Turtle Bay while the best weather conditions in Iraq disappeared trying to forge a consensus on finally enforcing 16 UNSC resolutions over a twelve-year quagmire that had made it necessary to keep significant levels of American and British armed forces engaged in a failing containment strategy. Only when France, Russia, and China made it clear that they would never agree to enforcement did Bush act, and he acted in concert with dozens of nations in support, and with a number of them contributing troops, including the UK, Australia, Italy, Poland, South Korea, and others.

Bush did withdraw from the ABM treaty in order to develop anti-missile systems, a rare unilateral move that time has shown to be prescient. With North Korea and Iran both developing long-range ballistic missiles and the nuclear weapons with which to arm them, the ABM would have done nothing but leave us exposed to their threats in the post-Cold War era. The ABM made sense in a binary-power world, but by 2001 had outlived its usefulness. And regarding both Iran and North Korea, Bush has been scrupulously multilateral, insisting in both cases that efforts to address the nuclear threats come from a number of nations and not just George Bush.

The truth of American foreign policy under George Bush is not that is unilateral, but rather that it no longer relies on unanimity of international opinion before taking action in defense of the US. Like Truman, Bush has tried to build that consensus where possible, but when unanimity cannot be achieved, he acts in the interest of American security and builds alliances outside of the UN as broadly as possible.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 14, 2006 6:10 AM

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