Mellman: Carrying loads and paying prices in Ukraine
JOhn F. Kennedy formulated America’s Cold War creed in his inaugural address: “We will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose to any enemy, in order to ensure the survival and success of freedom”.
Although often observed in the breach, when respected, this doctrine sometimes leads us into disasters. Today, many of our leaders mistakenly believe that the American people rejected him, but the reality is more complex.
President Kennedy’s words were not entirely accurate descriptions of American policy before, during, or after his all-too-brief administration.
Indeed, America recognized the partition of Europe after World War II. When Soviet tanks and troops invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, not only did the United States “bear no burden,” but we barely lifted a finger.
Execution of the Kennedy Doctrine has sometimes ended in catastrophic failure – our invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs was a fiasco, while Vietnam proved a horrible waste of blood and treasure. Too often, the doctrine places us on the side of kleptocratic dictators happy to espouse anti-communist rhetoric in exchange for American largesse.
There were also stunning successes. American support for the Marshall Plan and NATO kept Europe free. Thirty-six thousand Americans sacrificed their lives to protect South Korea’s freedom, and American taxpayers spent more than $300 billion in today’s dollars on this project.
Most of these efforts enjoyed broad public support from the outset. According to Gallup, 65% favored a NATO-like pact as it was being negotiated. Initially, 78% approved of President Truman’s decision to send US troops to Korea; only 15 percent disapproved. In 1965, only 24% thought it was a mistake to send troops to Vietnam.
In all of these conflicts, support faded as we began to bear a heavier burden and pay a higher price. When wars were going “well,” when Americans saw clear and important goals achieved, they favored the war effort, but when things were going badly, support plummeted.
In 1971, 60% thought Vietnam was a mistake and in 2010 a similar number had the same view of Afghanistan.
Public disillusionment with Vietnam and the “eternal wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq led politicians to believe that Americans were no longer willing to bear the burden and pay the price Kennedy had us. engaged.
Therefore, the rhetoric around Ukraine falls far short of the Kennedy Doctrine. We are prepared to use economic sanctions to deter Russia, but the use of force was ruled out from the start of this crisis.
While this has been consistent with current policy since the end of World War II, it is not consistent with rhetoric.
Regardless of the opinion of decision-makers, voters offer a more nuanced assessment.
While Americans are certainly more focused on domestic than foreign affairs and prefer their politicians to be similarly absorbed, voters do not abandon foreign entanglements and even support the use of force when the goals are clear. and important.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll last year found that 63% would support the use of US troops if North Korea invaded South Korea; 64% if North Korea attacked Japan; 52% if China invaded Taiwan; and 71% to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
All of these numbers reflect increases from previous polls. For example, the number of supporters of sending American troops if North Korea invaded the South has almost doubled since the late 1990s.
That same poll asked if he would send US troops if Russia invaded “the rest of Ukraine” long before the current crisis. Half said yes.
Last week, YouGov found that Americans were evenly divided on sending American troops to Ukraine “to help, but not to fight Russian soldiers.” By a margin of more than 40 points, they rejected sending Americans “to fight” Russians, which is very similar to World War III.
In the end, Americans remain willing to bear many burdens and pay a heavy price to truly stand up for freedom, in circumstances where it makes sense and there is a reasonable chance of success.
Mellman is chairman of the Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 US senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman was a pollster for Democratic Senate leaders for more than 20 years, president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and Democratic Majority Chairman for Israel.