TCS Daily

China Lesson: Bush Needs A Bigger Stick - In Space

By James Pinkerton - April 9, 2001 12:00 AM

What would Teddy Roosevelt do if he were confronted with the Hainan Island situation? TR is often thought of today as an imperialist, even a warmonger, but in fact, he was a subtle and nuanced strategic thinker who presided over the almost entirely peaceful expansion of American power. And so the career of the 26th president offers lessons to the 43rd president, George W. Bush, as he deals with the downing of the American EP-3 surveillance plane.

"Speak Softly "

If Roosevelt were nothing but a militarist, he would not have won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work settling the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Much of TR's diplomatic skill was based on his understanding of strategy; in 1882, when he just was 24, he published The Naval War of 1812. In that book he made the point that while the United States was able to win victories against the British in individual frigate actions, by the end of the war, the superior British fleet had swept American shipping from the Atlantic seaboard. In other words, the British had won the naval war before it started, by dint of superior preparation.

The hinge in Roosevelt's career as a grand strategist came in 1890, when the 31-year-old New Yorker published a review for The Atlantic Monthly of Alfred Thayer Mahan's book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. TR lauded Mahan's scholarship about the past, but his real purpose was to affect public policy in the present. So TR concluded his essay with a blunt call for a bigger U.S. Navy: "Our ships should be the best of their kind...but in addition, there should be plenty of them. We need a large navy, composed not merely of cruisers, but containing also a full proportion of powerful battle-ships, able to meet those of any other nation."

Roosevelt wrote that plea as a Civil Service commissioner in the Harrison administration. For a mid-level bureaucrat responsible for a domestic issue, delving into an international issue took political courage; in the parlance of today's presidential spinmeistering, TR was "off-message." But TR was more concerned about articulating a new vision of American power than he was about going along and getting along with the Harrisonians.

Thanks in no small measure to TR's enthusiasm, Mahan, a career naval officer of no great distinction, was raised from obscurity; he became America's first "defense intellectual." He and TR formed an alliance in support of what they called a "large" policy for the United States; the result was a steady expansion of the U.S. fleet throughout the 1890s.

One indicator of their impact was U.S. policy toward Hawaii. Mahan claimed it was vital that the United States keep the islands within the U.S. sphere of influence. A local coup in 1893 left the islands effectively leaderless; yet President Grover Cleveland, reflecting the isolationism of Democrats in that era, refused to bring them into U.S. custody. Happily, no rival nation was able to pluck the islands and their precious Pearl Harbor before Republican President William McKinley in 1897 annexed Hawaii -- urged on by new Assistant Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt.

By now a national figure, TR was picked to be McKinley's vice president in 1900; the next year, following McKinley's assassination, he became president. From his bully pulpit, TR continued to press for greater U.S. influence. But TR did not use that might for war; he used it to get peacefully what he wanted for his country. That's the essence of his famous adage: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." In 1903, he artfully acquired territory for the Panama Canal; in 1907, he sent the Great White Fleet around the world. That was a spectacular p.r. feat for a nation announcing itself, but TR was particularly determined to make sure that the ascendant Japanese got a message about U.S. resolve to be a Pacific Ocean power. And so TR's politico-military vision set the course for what would become The American Century.

Echoes of TR

So what could George W. Bush learn from TR today? To be sure, Bush can't go back in time to argue for a stronger navy. But he can be mindful, as TR was, of the realpolitik reality that the mere appearance of force -- overwhelming force -- oftentimes does the trick. Such big sticking, as Roosevelt proved, can be the key to keeping the peace.

But today, a hundred years later, Bush has lucklessly inherited a small-stick Clinton-era policy -- namely, of sending unarmed reconnaissance planes up and down China's coast. Indeed, the revelation that the Chinese had been harassing U.S. EP-3s as long ago as last year leads one to wonder what the Clinton administration was up to in its waning months.

But when the short-term maneuvering over the Chinese crew-jacking is over -- and as of this writing, the two countries seemed to be closing in on a settlement -- it will likely emerge that the United States has fewer long-term surveillance options than it did previously. That is, the Navy might run fewer such flights, or run them further away from the Chinese coast, or run them not at all. Which leaves one to wonder what would have happened if the United States had provided the EP-3's with a fighter escort? Such an escort might have dissuaded the Chinese from buzzing our planes, which would have saved a Chinese life, as well as an American airplane.

Fighter planes? Aren't they expensively retro in the age of cruise missiles? It's been fashionable in certain defense circles over the last decade to make fun of manned fighters, to argue that the only reason they exist is that glory-hungry pilots want something to do. But among other limitations, cruise missiles can't fly escort.

The Bush administration and the Congress are currently evaluating two different future fighter programs, the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter. All of a sudden, in the wake of Hainan, the argument for a robust fighter-future based on one or both airplanes looks much more persuasive. And reincarnated Roosevelt would tell Bush to look ahead, not just to the defense needs of the next decade or two, but to the national security requirements of the whole century. Just as "sea power" was supplanted by "air power" in the 20th Century, so "space power" is likely to be the most important power in the 21st Century.

And the Hainan incident underscores the importance of space, as well. Just as the Soviet shoot-down of the U.S. U-2 spyplane effectively ended atmospheric overflights of the U.S.S.R., so the loss of the EP-3 will affect atmospheric surveillance of China. As a result, space satellites are the most promising platform for future surveillance; longstanding precedent holds that satellite overflights are not subject to interference.

Yet that could change at any time. Earlier this year, a bipartisan commission headed by then-private citizen Don Rumsfeld concluded that the United States faces the prospect of a "space Pearl Harbor" in the near future -- as the Chinese, to name just one potential adversary, further develop anti-satellite warfare capability.

TR might tell Bush that war with China is not inevitable. But he would probably also tell Bush that peace with China is not inevitable, either. Instead, he would surely argue that the U.S. national interest, come what may, is best served by being best prepared. Measured in dollars, Roosevelt's advice might be costly, but measured in terms of American destiny, Roosevelt's wisdom might be priceless.

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