Coherence in American foreign policy comes as a result of presidential pronouncements. So said Henry Kissinger in his opus "Diplomacy." Yesterday’s pronouncement by President Barack Obama is a perfect example of limited war, the idea of using American power with restraint.
Harry Truman introduced the concept in 1950, after North Korean troops launched an attack across the 38th parallel and Truman requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council in response. When 52 of 59 members of the Security Council agreed to support South Korea, Truman said it proved that the U.N. had learned the lesson of Munich: “Appeasement leads only to further aggression and ultimately to war.”
Almost every one of Truman’s successors has cited limited war (or some variation of it) to support a variety of policies. Lyndon Johnson said Vietnam was a limited war and pledged to do everything necessary and only what was necessary, which is a textbook definition.
Richard Nixon disliked the negative connotations of limited war and described the limited objectives of his Vietnam policy. George H.W. Bush described the limited objectives of the mission in Somalia, as did Bill Clinton regarding the mission in Haiti. And George W. Bush — who also disliked the connotations of limited war — said the only way to limit the duration of the Iraq War was to use decisive force.
It does not matter that Obama did not specifically use the phrase "limited war" to announce his new policy to defeat the Islamic State. What matters is coherence. First, conduct systematic airstrikes. Second, support friendly (Iraqi and Kurdish) forces with training, intelligence, and equipment. Third, disrupt terrorist networks, cut off funding, stem the influx of foreign fighters, and assemble a fighting coalition. Fourth, provide humanitarian assistance wherever necessary.
The Islamic State poses a threat to Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East, which Obama said “could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States.” This is exactly the same rational Truman used regarding Korea. What is the best time to fight a fire? The best time is in the beginning, when it is small, and thus the best time to fight the Islamic State is now.
The policy of limited war is one of the most consistent instruments of American foreign policy. It was introduced after WWII as a cost-effective means for war-weary Americans to fulfill their obligations. Obama acknowledged as much in his speech when he said America’s blessings bestow an enduring burden.
Jack Godwin is an award-winning political scientist whose appeal spans the political spectrum. He is the author of three books on politics, most recently "The Office Politics Handbook," and is now writing his first novel, a political thriller set at the end of the Cold War, the golden age of spy fiction. To view more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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