Robert Gates in his new book being published next week writes that “I sat there, I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” The long war had become unpopular and Obama’s concern was, solely, domestic politics.
Imagine if Franklin Roosevelt had allowed domestic politics to be the sole driver of his foreign policy. In 1939, when war broke out in Europe, the American population was overwhelmingly opposed to the country taking any part in it. The Neutrality Acts passed in the 1930s as the war clouds darkened in Europe essentially forbade selling arms and ammunition to belligerent nations, aggressors and their victims alike. It would have been easy politics for Roosevelt to pander to the isolationist sentiment that ran so strong in the country.
But Roosevelt knew that Britain and France could not defeat Germany on their own and that if they fell, as France did in June 1940, that Hitler would be the master of Europe and soon of the Old World. He would then, from a vastly stronger position, move against the United States. The world, in Churchill’s immortal words, would “sink into the abyss of a new dark age, made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of perverted science.”
So with extraordinary political deftness, Roosevelt began to nudge the country toward aiding the Allies. In November 1939, he convinced Congress to allow them to purchase arms and ammunition on a cash-and-carry basis. In September 1940, the first peacetime draft in American history was passed. That month as well, Roosevelt arranged for the transfer of fifty mothballed U.S. destroyers in exchange for U.S. bases on British territory. In March 1941, Roosevelt effectively gutted the Neutrality Act with Lend-Lease, in which we didn’t sell to the British (who were broke anyway) but lent them war materiel. Roosevelt justified this by using the analogy of lending a garden hose to a neighbor whose house was on fire.
He was not above being disingenuous. FDR had promised not to station U.S. forces outside the North American continent. So when he agreed to take over the defense of Iceland from the British in the summer of 1941, he simply declared Iceland to be part of North America. By that time, American naval forces were helping with escort duty in the western Atlantic.
With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and, four days later, Hitler’s strategically idiotic decision to declare war on the United States, Roosevelt’s efforts to bring the country into the war and save the world from the Nazis reached fruition. It had taken great political courage and deftness to achieve. The country and the world are forever in Roosevelt’s debt for taking the tough but necessary political road in the face of public opinion. That’s called leadership.
Imagine what the world would have been like today if Barack Obama had been president in the dark days of 1939-41.