Progressives think they are really good at fighting wars. That is the problem.
A core progressive belief is that international structures of management and arbitration would check and eventually end aggression between nations. As James Srodes notes in "On Dupont Circle," a book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and their cadre of young reformers, they had unshakable "faith in the powers of experts to solve political issues." And, of course, they saw themselves as the experts.
When conflict came, New Deal progressives ran the war effort with authoritarian zeal. FDR, John Foster Dulles, Sumner Welles and Henry Stimson felt supremely confident to lead the nation through World War II because their fellow progressives had done it before, in the First World War.
Progressives prided themselves on the way they had engineered victory in "The War to End All Wars." In doing so, they blithely ignored the "slight inconveniences" that had arisen under the experts' direction: The government had violated constitutional liberties right and left; they had allowed tens of billions in defense contracts that produced virtually no usable tanks or planes before the war ended; they had rushed troops with the "Spanish" flu overseas, sparking a worldwide outbreak -- and then concealed the truth about the pandemic from the American people.
Still, the progressive elite of FDR's time were cocksure they could run domestic and foreign affairs just as beautifully as their Wilsonian predecessors. Unfortunately, they were right.
Despite "progressive" measures, the United States had lapsed into a punishing recession after World War I. Twenty years later, the progressive response to the Great Depression actually prolonged and deepened the crisis.
Following World War I, the progressives were so sure of their ability to "manage" the world (think League of Nations), they allowed U.S. forces to wither away. Their management left FDR an Army of a few thousand men in a very dangerous world. Similarly, the progressives' rapid World War II demobilization left the U.S. woefully unprepared for the Korean conflict.
Today, President Obama is living the progressive mind-set. He and his team have supreme faith in their ability to administer us and the rest of the world.
But the facts just don't match.
The current recession is already deeper and longer than it should have been.
Meanwhile, the White House is intentionally downsizing our military, stripping the U.S. nuclear arsenal and insisting on a minimalist missile defense. Why? Because our progressive elite knows better than the Pentagon exactly what is needed to defend the nation. And, as Wilson envisioned with the League of Nations and Roosevelt envisioned when calling for a United Nations, Obama hopes to outsource the heavy lifting of international affairs to international bodies.
As the president's second term begins, the White House appears convinced that it is managing everything very well, thank you. In the weeks and months ahead, we will see the appointment of a new national security team -- every member of which will doubtless affirm that the president is on the right course. And when the Pentagon produces the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review this year, don't be shocked if that document also turns out to be light on analysis and heavy on cheerleading for the president's defense and foreign policies.
If history is any guide, the progressive prescription of "starve defense and feed international organizations" will fail badly. If anything, it will help precipitate the next war. But don't worry. Progressives will fall back on their faith in themselves as being the nation's supreme war managers. After all, they're smarter than the rest of us, aren't they?
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is vice president for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation