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Lessons of Pearl Harbor resonate with the worst U.S. policy blunders

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
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Lessons of Pearl Harbor resonate with the worst U.S. policy blunders
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden participate in a wreath-laying at the World War II Memorial on Tuesday, the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Photo by Michael Reynolds/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 8 (UPI) -- This week marks the 80th anniversary of the infamous Japanese Navy attack on Pearl Harbor.

Japanese strategy was based on the assumption that the "shock and awe" derived from sinking the U.S. Pacific Fleet would force a very divided America to seek peace. And the destruction of that fleet would enable Japan to continue its offensives to capture and occupy much of Asia without much opposition.

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The second assumption worked -- for two years. By the end of 1943, Japan was well on its way to losing the war. Instead of an American capitulation, the attack rallied a very divided nation. And all but one of the battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor returned to fight, along with a navy that would consist of 6,000 ships and nearly 100 aircraft carriers of all sizes.

The history of the Pearl Harbor attack and the catastrophic consequences of fatally flawed assumptions is as relevant today as it was on Dec. 7, 1941. For the United States, aside from Vietnam, three colossal, more recent foreign policy blunders are instructive. Each comes from the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump. And if there were a fourth, it would haunt the Obama administration.

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The Clinton blunder was putting in place the explosive ingredients that would implode US/NATO/Russian relations and lead to the current crisis over Ukraine. Expanding NATO and deferring how Russia ultimately would be engaged was not the only cause of this fracture. Russia could not tolerate being surrounded by a military alliance that would include the Soviet Union's former Warsaw Pact allies and reunite a Germany whose history had often destabilized Europe.

Another, less apparent disaster arose from the defeat of George H.W. Bush in the 1992 elections. Not only was Bush experienced and Clinton a foreign policy novice. Bush's administration was filled with heavyweights: Secretary of State James Baker; National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft; and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.

Further, Bush and Baker were developing plans for a new version of the Marshall Plan to help Russia make the transition from a controlled and failing centralized economy to a free market, open and transparent. Bush and Baker knew and worked with Boris Yeltsin. But that was not to be.

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More than enough ink and electrons have been spent on George W. Bush's catastrophic decision to invade Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from using or developing weapons of mass destruction he never had. Former Central Command Cmdr. Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni gave an address at the National War College's 75th anniversary last week. He laid out in detail his plan for Iraq called Desert Crossing.

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Desert Crossing called for 380,000 troops, not to defeat Saddam, which Zinni predicted would take just over two weeks, but to occupy the country. CentCom had also been using influence operations to wean Iraqi generals away from Saddam, either to turn against the dictator or to change sides if or when the allies attacked.

His criticism over disbanding the Iraqi army and provoking an insurgency could not have been harsher. Zinni wondered how a new administration and a new CentCom commander could completely reject and ignore a war plan that had been three years in the making and coordinated throughout government.

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However, the reason suggests a profound flaw in the U.S. political process: Incoming administrations, usually of the other party, dismiss out of hand the planning efforts of their successors if the ideologies do not fit.

The third foreign policy disaster was the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran. Trump's declaration that this was "the worst treaty" the United States ever made was a fitting summary of his complete failure to understand its conditions. The JCPOA was not a treaty. And had it been followed by all parties, repeat all parties, Iran would never obtain nuclear weapons.

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Instead, Iran is enhancing its nuclear capabilities. So far, Iran has not made an overt decision to field nuclear weapons. However, that option exists when under the JCPOA it did not. And the region remains highly volatile and unsettled.

The conclusions from using Pearl Harbor as a model in examining U.S. foreign policy failures are crystal clear. First, ruthlessly challenge basic policy assumptions. Second, consider second, third and even fourth order consequences if events go well or badly. Until this advice is taken seriously, do not be surprised when other U.S. foreign policy decisions go disastrously bad.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of the upcoming book "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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