The American Interest
“In the history of warfare I do not recollect a more fortunate retreat”, one of George Washington’s closest aides once said. The reference was to events in the late summer of 1776, when the Continental Army was being routed by the British in New York. General Washington was spent. He had exhausted himself riding up and down the lines at Brooklyn Heights, rallying dispirited troops. One of every five of his solders was sick from either dysentery or smallpox. Militia units were deserting in droves. There was heavy pressure from Congress to defend New York harbor.
Under cover of a dense early morning fog, however, the commander of the Continental Army pulled off a brilliant surprise retreat. Rather than seeing his forces decimated, his troops were saved to fight another day. It turned out to be a turning point in the war.
That example can inspire us today, as the U.S. considers how to respond to Russia—and the fraying global order.
The U.S. would be well-advised to resist the impulse to rashly respond to Russia’s intervention in Syria. For one thing, one should “never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake”, as Napoleon put it. If we’re lucky, Russian forces in Syria will meet a similar fate as the Soviets in Afghanistan. But it’s also urgent we regroup from the shambles that is the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. The Western-led world order is crumbling today. Our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, deep cuts to our defense budgets, a resurgent Russia, a rising China, the emergence of ISIS, and the staying power of a theocratic Iran, bent—with or without nuclear weapons—on regional hegemony all suggest a future where peace will be constantly threatened and our interests undermined at every turn.
We can’t solve this nexus of issues at once. Nor can we have high hopes that President Obama will suddenly grasp why so much is coming unraveled. But we can start a discussion about our larger aims, as Eliot Cohen suggested in these pages recently, and we can begin that by proposing that we manage a key problem at hand. We must end the insidious cycle whereby Russian President Vladimir Putin acts and we scramble to react. Playing whack-a-mole siphons precious resources and chips away at our reputation as a world leader. Putin has his agenda. It’s time we get back to ours.
Picture: Mil.ru [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons