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Is Obama Repeating Truman’s Error?

The Obama administration is signaling that, against the backdrop of genocidal rhetoric and faced with an existential threat from Iran, Israel cannot count on the United States. There is no greater sign than the wavering U.S. commitment to the Jewish state than the Obama administration’s decision to scale down considerably a forthcoming joint military exercise.

Obama may wish to express his displeasure with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he should realize that it can encourage war when enemies believe U.S. commitments to American allies are shakable. Here, the genesis of the Korean war should provide an important lesson. On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech in which he laid out U.S. interests in Asia:

In the first place, the defeat and the disarmament of Japan has placed upon the United States the necessity of assuming the military defense of Japan so long as that is required, both in the interest of our security and in the interests of the security of the entire Pacific area… The defensive perimeter runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus. We hold important defense positions in the Ryukyu Islands, and those we will continue to hold… The defensive perimeter runs from the Ryukyus to the Philippine Islands. Our relations, our defensive relations with the Philippines are contained in agreements between us. Those agreements are being loyally carried out and will be loyally carried out… So far as the military security of other areas in the Pacific is concerned, it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military attack. But it must also be clear that such a guarantee is hardly sensible or necessary within the realm of practical relationship.

Acheson continued to advise those states not covered by the defensive perimeter to resist on their own or rely on the United Nations. “It is a mistake, I think, in considering Pacific and Far Eastern problems to become obsessed with military considerations,” he explained.

Kim Il Sung heard Acheson’s speech and interpreted his omission of South Korea (and Taiwan) from the defense perimeter as a green light to attack South Korea six months later. Had the Truman administration signaled an unshakable commitment to South Korea, it might have impacted Kim’s thinking.

Obama may not like Netanyahu, but by amplifying his antipathy into symbolic chastisement of Israel, the president may be impacting Iranian thinking in ways that will be very costly to the United States (not to mention Israel) and impossible to reverse.



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