Former Vice President Richard B. Cheney in a recent interview with Politico labeled President Barack Obama's drawn-out process of deciding on a troop surge for Afghanistan as projecting "weakness," and charged that this and other "signs of weakness" would embolden our adversaries in the world. In articulating this position, Cheney embraced the concept of "provocative weakness" promulgated many years ago by the mysterious Pentagon civilian adviser Fritz G. A. Kraemer.
A German émigré with two doctorates, who had served with distinction for the U.S. Army in World War II and then in the Pentagon as a civilian adviser to army chiefs of staff and secretaries of defense until retiring in 1978, Kraemer was an iconoclast who habitually wore a monocle, refused promotions, and maintained an ascetic lifestyle to give more weight to his philosophy.
As a moral absolutist and militarist of the first water, Kraemer was convinced that the only effective foreign policy was one backed by the realistic threat of using military force to achieve its goals. He distrusted diplomacy, especially with dictatorial regimes, was dismissive of the efforts of international organizations such as the United Nations, and advocated that foreign policy be made and executed by a self-selected elite without interference from elected officials or the bourgeoisie.
The discoverer and shaper of Henry Kissinger, and the mentor of Alexander Haig, Kraemer provided these two protégés, especially, with an antipodal, absolutist, ideologically pure anti-Communist pole to the pragmatism of Richard M. Nixon during his administration. The tape of a half-hour's conversation between Kraemer and Nixon in the Oval Office on October 24, 1972, moderated by Kissinger, provides a classic example of the clash of ideologue and pragmatist: Kraemer tries to warn Nixon that the forthcoming peace accord to end the war in Vietnam will not prevent Vietnam from going Communist and will cause allies and enemies alike to believe that the U.S. will not fight to keep its promises.
Kraemer later became counselor and tutor to Donald Rumsfeld, as well as to Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, and provided his insights to friends and to the occasional lecture audience until shortly before his death in 2003 at the age of 95. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, asked by a reporter what was the greatest danger to the world, he replied, "Moral relativism."
"Provocative weakness," Kraemer's signature tenet, was forged from his lifelong experience of countering fascism and communism. He saw provocative weakness operating in such instances as Chamberlain and Daladier giving in to Hitler at Munich in 1938, in John F. Kennedy's not standing firm enough against the Soviets in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962, in Richard Nixon's radical schedule of troop removals from Vietnam in 1969-1972, and in Ronald Reagan's bringing home of the marines from Lebanon, six months after the 1983 bombing of their barracks. Osama bin Laden later ratified this position, saying he had understood, after the marines' exit from Lebanon, that Americans when bloodied would cut and run rather than stand and fight.
Donald Rumsfeld, in his December 2006 valedictory upon leaving the post of secretary of defense, also agreed, warning, "It should be clear that not only is weakness provocative, but [that] the perception of weakness on our part can be provocative, as well. A conclusion by our enemies that the united States lacks the will or the resolve to carry out missions that demand sacrifice and demand patience is every bit as dangerous as an imbalance of conventional military power."
Cheney's statement of this position, although it seems new, is a restatement of what he, Rumsfeld, and the neoconservatives have been embracing since they first came to national attention in the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter Administrations. The need to prevent provocative weakness, and to base our foreign policy on sheer military strength alone, underlay the neocon worldview and its excesses, the primary example being the United States' unilateral invasion of Iraq in 2003. An ideological, inflexible notion, it continues to provide the prime opposition to the efforts of pragmatists such as President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to tailor America's responses to each foreign situation and crisis to what seems most appropriate to the circumstances.
Tom Shachtman is the author, with Len Colodny, of the brand new book THE FORTY YEARS WAR: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE NEOCONS, FROM NIXON TO OBAMA. He is also the author of thirty other books, including, Decade of Shocks, 1963-1974, which covers the Nixon years, Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold, and Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish. His website is www.tomshachtman.com.