You have to suffer through some of the feigned intellectualism (“the lessons are anything but simple”: actually, they are exceedingly simple). But Ruth Marcus has a point. After a nod to presidential restraint and a Katrina reference (stick with me) she gets to this comparison between the Berlin airlift in 1948 and Baghdad:
But there are lessons from the airlift that should be more unsettling for those, like Obama, who want to be done with Iraq. The impulse of many Americans then, just as now, was to be finished with the entire project . . . Sixty years later, as Obama arrives in a prosperous, thriving Berlin, it is fair to wonder whether the Cold War might have unfolded differently had Truman decided not to draw the line there against Soviet aggression. The allure of quick and definite withdrawal from Iraq is evident. The reward of careful perseverance may become visible only in the long arc of history.
It is that larger historic and strategic argument I think John McCain would do well to make. America has defeated its enemies because we didn’t choose to desert allies and spend our money on “something else” that had a bigger political payoff domestically. We have defended freedom and beaten committed enemies (who observe how we act and see the degree of our resolve) even after we had made errors and suffered setbacks.
I don’t recall President Truman saying that, because others screwed up at Potsdam, he wasn’t going to bother with the mess of a divided Germany. All leaders in war and diplomacy are dealt a flawed hand, the results of their own errors and those who came before them. The issue is whether you fold because the hand is not what you had in mind or whether you make the best of it. What you don’t do is tell your enemies that you’d rather increase domestic spending than win a war you are already fighting. ( Should the Taliban check to see what Obama’s healthcare plan is going to cost to assess his determination to fight on in Afghanistan? How long before that war seems a poor use of funds that could be spent on, say, broadband for Houston?)
McCain would do well to talk about the demands of war, the virtue of perseverance, and the danger of defeat, which invariably emboldens your enemies. Voters might begin to wonder why only one candidate sees that it will be valuable to win a war. And McCain might even get some voters to think what would have happened if past presidents had taken the same approach.