Monday, January 16, 2006

Are two big problems at one time one too many for the United States? No one convinced Gen. George C. Marshall of that, as the allies, with the general directing traffic, fought and won wars against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan fought on opposite sides of the globe. But Walter Cronkite thinks dealing with a war in Iraq and a hurricane in Louisiana and Mississippi will fatigue the world’s only superpower. Call it the “one thing at a time” school of leadership. It’s the latest cut-and-run argument from the left. Like its predecessors, it won’t wash.

“It’s my belief that we should get out now,” Mr. Cronkite told reporters Sunday, echoing his 1968 plea for withdrawal from Vietnam. Difficulties on the ground in Vietnam led Mr. Cronkite, who, as the face and voice of the CBS Evening News, took too seriously the notion that he was “the most trusted man in America,” into the swamp of defeatism. Others, including President Lyndon B. Johnson, bought the hype, too: “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” LBJ is said to have said, “I’ve lost Middle America.”

This time it’s not difficulties on the ground, but a hurricane. “We had an opportunity to say to the world and Iraqis after the hurricane disaster that Mother Nature has not treated us well and we find ourselves missing the amount of money it takes to help these poor people out of their homeless situation and rebuild some of our most important cities in the United States,” he said. “Therefore, we are going to have to bring our troops home.” And what should we tell the Iraqis, who believed us when we said we would not abandon them? Mr. Cronkite, now 89 and retired, suggests we tell them: “Our hearts are with you.” With that little Valentine delivered, we should clear out and leave them to the mercies of the anarchoterrorists and ex-Ba’athists.

There’s a kind of monomania here which, historically speaking, the United States has never succumbed to. Are we really such a shadow of our former selves that we can only handle one problem at a time? What would FDR think? Or Harry Truman? Like Gen. Marshall, they would find it a puzzlement. They employed a “Germany first” strategy before dealing with Japan, and the rest is history. Limits on resources were recognized, but the country, realizing that survival was at stake, recognized the limits in ways that did not compel abandoning one difficulty because there was another to be dealt with. This is surely not the resolve that Uncle Walter has in mind.

The Iraq war has become enormously expensive, and dealing with the tragedy in the wake of Hurricane Katrina will not be easy. But whether the difficulty is the Iraq war, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Iranian nuclear threat or an occasional minor irritant like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, the United States must deal effectively with them all. We cannot ignore any one of those difficulties because there are others.

Mr. Cronkite’s notions of statecraft and national security are airily free of practical concern. What message would running from Iraq at its moment of greatest need send to U.S. allies? What effect would it have on American credibility? “I think we can retire with honor,” Mr. Cronkite said.

The crises of our time must be judged on the threats each pose — not on a crabbed, ahistorical notion that the United States is unable to deal with more than one threat to its survival at a time. Honor, indeed.

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