What do Reagan, Patton and Obama have in common? The answer: they have all faced significant challenges abroad --aggressive action by Stalin, Brezhnev or Putin, or by despots in the Middle East. All have had to deploy U.S. forces, and all have had to confront the question of when to pull out. We know that nature abhors a vacuum, and so does geopolitics; a pull out of troops all too often creates a vacuum that fills with bloodshed.
In 1945, As World War 2 was racing to an end, General George S. Patton firmly believed that the U.S., led by his massive 3rd Army, should continue East and take Berlin, Prague, and Vienna before the Russians could gain a foothold. He was ordered to "pull back" by Eisenhower and in the ensuing forty years Eastern Europe was frozen in time by the Cold War. Patton warned that a strong German defense would be imperative, as would maintaining the former Panzer forces. Considered a crazy idea at the time, it became policy when NATO was formed only a few years later during Truman's presidency. Thirty five years later, in 1980, Ronald Reagan, having witnessed the horror of Communism, which had cannibalized nations such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Ukraine, and despising the "Evil Empire, " committed to its utter destruction. With a powerful military, and the economic engine of free market capitalism --far superior to the Russian system--Reagan gambled that an escalated race for military superiority would starve the enemy. It worked!
In 1989, the Berlin Wall that separated Soviet from Allied Germany fell. The Iron Curtain opened and winds of change swept through East Berlin. Millions of people were suddenly exposed to the new lights of Western freedom. 2008 saw Barack Obama voted in, the emergence of Putin, former KGB head, as a dictator, and the reemergence of Islamic terror. Obama felt it necessary to apologize for American policy and thought it better that we lead from behind, not projecting strength but restraining power in the name of diplomacy. Under the dark of night, Putin quickly took back the nearest lands of Russian ethnic majorities in the Crimea and tipping power back to his favor in the Ukraine (a member of NATO). He also strengthened Russia's position in the Middle East, placing the West on high alert.
Those with globalist views still make the case that our bright future rests on the fact that cultural conflicts and wars are diminishing. Their reasons: a) America's acknowledging our abuses of the past (slavery, colonialism, militarism) and positing that penance will soften any potential enemies in the future, and b) believing that technology holds the greatest hope for what had been missing all along, better communication . . . just need to talk. But do these rationales pass the test of history? How did these different philosophies impact the way Patton and Reagan-- conservative/nationalists-- and Obama--a liberal/globalist--governed? First, we must raise the fundamental question for any 21st-century U.S. citizen: is there something worth fighting or dying for? Are we Reagan's "shining city on a hill," possibly the best the world has ever seen, warts and all, or a country "grabbing for our guns and religion," as Obama would have it.
Conservatives, like Reagan, believe in American exceptionalism. One of the essential tenets of conservatism is that the world will not race pell mell toward "progress," but instead repeat the past until lessons are learned. They feel that boundaries are worth "conserving" and that national identity requires national borders to deter foreign aggression. But waiting for the enemy to draw first blood as happened at Pearl Harbor or on 9/11 is not an option with dangerous new actors like ISIS, as well as North Korea and other rogue militants in possession of nuclear weapons. Should Americans safety be sacrificed in the hope that our implacable enemies will come to love and appreciate us?
For the truly liberal, pulling out of conflict seems to be a reward in and of itself. Pull out of Eastern Europe, Saigon, Iraq, etc, and allow these nations to find democracy, and then they will leave us alone, right? Wrong! As Patton and Reagan understood, pulling out in the hope of peace, does not really resolve the conflict. It just postpones the resolution and passes the buck to future Americans, who will be forced to clean up the mess. In World War 2 Patton was called in to fight because his superiors counted on him to act swiftly. To foment more war? Of course not! He knew that war was violent and to defeat an enemy combatant quickly and decisively meant the least amount of bloodshed. Like it or not, the swifter violent act --Colin Powell's "shock and awe" or Patton's blitzkrieg--saves lives.
Under Reagan Russia was defeated in Afghanistan, but on Obama's watch it has newfound power in its partnership with Syria, Iran and even Turkey, opening the world to Soviet aggression not seen in a generation. Add in threats from North Korea, China and Iran, lead many of us to conclude that our enemies must perceive weakness in the president, or why be so bold? No one expects Obama to be General Patton, but we might expect him not to ignore the advice of his generals. Reagan, although a politician too, never hesitated to call evil when he saw it and he stood behind his military leaders, a show of strength that ironically avoided direct conflict. The perfect example of walk softly but carry a big anti-missile defense program.
In 1945, when Patton was forced to pull out, we failed to fortify Eastern Europe's main capitals against future Soviet tyranny, resulting in the U.S.S.R. taking over Eastern Europe and engaging the West in proxy wars for decades. That led to an estimated one hundred million deaths by 1989, when Reagan ended his second term in office. "The Crusader," as he was deemed by his Russian counterparts, though cautioned, did not flinch from conflict with the Soviet Union and from 1981, when he took office, capitalized on a weakening empire to force its demise. Obama, as he promised when campaigning, pulled out of Iraq abruptly, against the advice of his generals. Thus Isis is born, and fills the vacuum left by departing Army troops Iraq erupts into a civil war, as Iran finally gains the power it has sought since the Iran-Iraq wars in the 1980s. Syria is overrun by Islamic fanatics and the entire Middle East is shaken to its foundation. To date in Syria alone at least five hundred thousand people have been killed and masses of refugees have fled for their lives. Russia has partnered with the dictator Assad and holds the reins of Syria's future, a key strategic partner in the Middle East.
Our 20th and 21st centuries history provides a crimson tale of what happens when leaders are elected with the promise of peace only to leave a vacuum of power as a legacy for the next generation. Is it not the responsibility of those who remember war to repeat the clarion call of Patton to finish the job of shoring up Eastern Europe? And never forget Reagan's unwavering stand against an evil empire, underlining his credo that peace is something worth fighting for.