I Got One For Ya

This morning I was on the subway thinking about the Korean War, just on the DL as usual, when it occurred to me that President Bush could learn a lesson from his professed exemplar, Harry S Truman. (No period after the S.)

People in the Administration and the military have regularly accused Iran of aiding Iraqi Shi’ite militias in their attacks on Americans. I don’t know if Iran is actually building the IEDs, but they certainly have a sympathetic Shi’ite proxy in Iraq, and it’s unlikely that they aren’t somehow involved. Whatever the nature of Iran’s help in the mayhem, this assistance is one of the leading casus belli (plural of that?) for a potential strike on Iran. (For a level-headed assessment of what would likely happen in that event, you can read this.) Here’s where history offers some perspective.

In October 1950 the U.S. and its United Nations allies were, by all measures, winning the Korean War, having pushed to the Yalu River and taken the majority of what is now North Korea. It was then that Mao Tse-Tung sent an army of Chinese regulars into Korea and pushed the United Nations halfway back into South Korea. Eventually the front lines stabilized around the 38th Parallel and stayed roughly there until the ceasefire in 1953, which obviously is still the border today.

What does this have to do with Iran today? Well, General MacArthur was loudly calling for a nuclear attack on China to punish them for getting involved in Korea, and with an entire Chinese army fighting directly against the Americans, China’s involvement was far more overt and deadly than anything Iran has done in Iraq. It also had a more direct cost, as North Korea would likely have gone down in utter defeat without Chinese help.

Truman, however, knew that the U.S. public–not to mention the military and America’s allies fighting in Korea–would not support a widened conflict that could easily turn into World War III only five years after the end of the biggest war yet, and an attack on China would likely have widened things a great deal. So rather than attack China directly, Truman fired MacArthur (hugely unpopular at the time) and kept the conflict limited to Korea, which eventually led to his leaving office at record low approval ratings. Was his decision unfair to American forces fighting in Korea? I don’t know, but I do know that he was smart to avoid a broader war that would have turned nuclear. (MacArthur could have even volunteered an attack on the USSR: Soviet pilots were flying North Korea’s jet fighters against the U.S. and UN. Imagine how an American attack on Vladivostok would have played out for the world.)

The Korean War was a mixed bag: the U.S. avoided a wider conflict and halted communism’s advance on the peninsula, but we’ve been stuck with Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il for 50+ years, and there was the fact that South Korea only became a real democracy in the 1980s after several awful dictators. The lesson here for President Bush is that his predecessor knew that he was playing with fire if he widened the war, fire that could quickly burn out of control and sweep the war-exhausted U.S. into a tremendous fight it didn’t want. Attacking Iran would be a similar regional tinderbox, no matter how grumbly Dick Cheney states otherwise.

I hope this is all overblown and the President’s team is just doing a “Look how crazy we are that we’d make it look like we want another war; you better not mess with us because woo! Crazy!” act to scare potential critics and enemies into keeping their mouths shut. (Kind of a stretch if true.) But, either way, the President can learn from all those historical biographies he’s supposedly reading and gain some valuable insight.

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2 Responses to “I Got One For Ya”

  1. plural of casus is also casus I believe.

  2. Also, I understand us acting all crazy about attacking Iran (we’re supposed to be the hard power, while the EU shows the carrot as the soft power), but what’s with Sarkozy talkin’ shit about bombs over Teheran? Trying to buddy up to us this week?

    You might be interested in Karl Rove’s statements published in the latest Atlantic from this year’s Aspen Ideas Conference. Say what you will about Rove, his quotes about Iran basically said that we played the sanction card in 1979 so that’s not really going to change anything now. The only non-military escalation of pressure on Iran is either covert action that stays below the level of commiting troops (like undeclared Soviet pilots in Korea) or convincing the rest of the world to follow the sanctions. Specifically the EU, China, India, and Russia. Did you know most of Iran’s gas comes from India? They pump crude east to get it refined and it gets pumped back. There is very little domestic refining capacity.

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