The Cold War lasted from the fall of Berlin in 1945 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And the two most successful presidents of that era were the only presidents
to serve two full terms: Eisenhower and Reagan.
Truman was taken in by Stalin at Potsdam and left us the “no-win war” in Korea. JFK’s tenure was too brief. LBJ was broken by Vietnam, Nixon by Watergate. Ford embraced détente and presided over the loss of Southeast Asia. Carter is remembered for kissing Brezhnev and failing to end the Iranian hostage crisis.
What was the secret of the success of Eisenhower and Reagan? Both were conservatives. Both were prudent and patient. Both knew time was on America’s side. Both understood the truth of what A.J.P. Taylor wrote: “This is an odd inescapable dilemma. Though the object of being a Great Power is to be able to fight a great war, the only way of remaining a Great Power is not to fight one, or to fight it on a limited scale.”
Looking at the deaths of all the empires that entered the 20th century—the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, French, British, Japanese, Russian—all perished because they fought one war too many. Imperial overstretch killed them all. The United States is the lone superpower left because we were the last to enter the world wars, and, so, suffered least.
Eisenhower saw his first duty as wrapping up Korea even if it meant a cease-fire at the DMZ. He refused to bomb Indochina to save the French at Dienbienphu. When Britain, France, and Israel invaded Suez, Ike ordered them out. When the Hungarians heroically rebelled, Ike did not intervene. Who ruled Budapest did not threaten American vital interests. It was hard-headed and cold-blooded, but who is to say now Ike was wrong? And after Castro showed his colors, Ike would have gone in, and there would have no loss of nerve at any Bay of Pigs.
During his tenure, defense rose to nine percent of GDP as Ike built up the bomber fleets and missile forces to deter any Soviet attack. He believed in Peace through Strength, not peace through permanent war.
Reagan began a military buildup Moscow could not match and supported anti-Soviet rebels in Angola, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan. But like Ike, Reagan never sent a U.S. army to fight a foreign war. Grenada was a walkover that swept a Soviet pawn off the board. His great mistake, putting Marines in Lebanon in the midst of a religious-ethnic civil war, proved costly. But Reagan had the courage to admit a mistake. He pulled out and never went back. But for not invading Lebanon and smashing the Islamic militias who blew up the Marine barracks, Reagan is today condemned by the same neoconservatives who see Colin Powell as the principal impediment to their Pax Americana. They believe the way to win the War on Terror is to widen it into “World World IV” and overthrow all the undemocratic regimes of the Middle East.
This issue is at the heart of the struggle over U.S. foreign policy. Is interventionism the way to defeat Islamic extremism? Or is intervention and its concomitant, empire, more likely to spread the infection? In Iraq, final returns are not in, but the outbreak of anti-Americanism suggests that we may have created our own Lebanon.
The presence of Powell, a realist in the War Cabinet, is today the best guarantee the president will not launch the kind of utopian crusade that brought down all the other Great Powers. For while the neocons were doing graduate work at Harvard and Yale, Powell was doing his in Vietnam. That is the difference. The Powell Doctrine that came out of Vietnam—Don’t commit the army until you commit the nation!—is the quintessence of conservatism. Powell’s belief that war is a last resort, but that if we must fight, we go in with overwhelming force, win, and get out, is also faithful to U.S. traditions from Washington to Wilson.
Looking back, it was the conservatives who kept us out of the bloodletting in France until 1918, out of the League of Nations entanglements and commitments, out of World War II until Hitler turned on Stalin and the bloody partners tore each other to pieces long before the Americans arrived on the coast of France in 1944. Looking ahead, there is no threat on the horizon to justify World War IV. Not China, which is contained by her neighbors. Not Islamic fundamentalism, which has failed everywhere it has been tried, from Afghanistan to Iran to Sudan. As in the Cold War, with patience and prudence, America can outlast them all. And in the struggle to prevent the rise of an empire that will surely collapse in blood, Colin Powell is true conservatism’s ally.