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The War USA Won, and the Wars to Come

Has there ever been an administration that needed a milestone D-Day anniversary more urgently than this one?

D-Day anniversaries are a time for the country to honor heroes from a "good war." They are a time to marvel again at the audacity of draftees and the innovative genius of myriad strategic planners and designers who solved daunting logistical challenges and overcame seemingly impossible odds. They are a time to reflect, too, on the strategic courage necessary to risk decisive action -- General Eisenhower, the overall commander, was not certain the operation would succeed and had penned a message in case the landing failed. In an age when we herald far less consequential strategic gambles, remembering the D-Day wager gives us pause.

Taking a pause is precisely what the Obama administration needs right now. The combination of the VA scandal, the controversial Afghanistan end-game decision, the over-hyped West Point "strategy speech," and most recently the thoroughly mishandled return of Bowe Bergdahl -- and those are just the last few days -- would threaten to sink even the best-run White House. If one expands the time frame to the preceding weeks and months the list is really striking. For the team running Obama's administration, one wonders if all these signs are not an indication, to invert and repurpose another famous World War II reference, that we are finally seeing the "beginning of the end."

The D-Day anniversary gives the president a chance to wrap himself in the patriotic pride that comes from celebrating the heroism of others. It gives him a chance to speak only in the soaring rhetoric of higher purpose. As one witty friend of mine put it, we should not expect the President to give a moving speech about how D-Day was an example of "not doing stupid sh__."

Yes, there is a certain delicacy in the president's first event with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the start of the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. The contrast between the audacity of D-Day and the paucity of the western response to Ukraine will make for awkward commentary. But overall, the commemoration will be the most-welcome thing on the president's agenda, the only planned event under the White House's control that can provide temporary respite to an administration under siege.

The 50th anniversary functioned a bit like that for the Clinton Administration. I remember that well. I was serving at the time on the National Security Council staff and was one of many White House staffers contributing to the anniversary planning. The previous year or so had been an annus horribilis for President Clinton -- "don't ask, don't tell," Mogadishu, Haiti, Whitewater, "troopergate," the failed health care reform effort, Paula Jones, Rwanda, North Korea, and on and on. Like Obama, President Clinton headed to the beaches of Normandy carrying a great deal of political baggage -- and there, as the Obama team surely hopes to replicate, President Clinton delivered a mostly well-received performance that seemed symbolically to mark a turning point in his administration. He returned a bit more sure-footed, and while new and even bigger scandals were still yet to come, the Clinton White House managed the next 18 months better than they managed the previous 18 months.

So tactically, the D-Day commemoration is timely. But I think it is even more importantly a timely reminder of a key strategic debate: What are the costs and benefits of alternative ways for the United States to engage global challenges?

As a nation, we are currently debating America's role in the world. There are many voices, in both parties, who argue that for the past decade we have paid too high a price for global leadership. There are many who argue that it is better to risks the costs of mistakes of omission than to pay the price of more mistakes of commission.

Some knowledgeable observes say that what the United States needs is a grand strategy of restraint, one built around what academic theorists call "offshore balancing." Advocates, such as fellow FP blogger Steve Walt (see here and here), tout it as a way for the United States to defend national security interests at a much lower price than we have paid with the more forward-leaning grand strategy of the post-Cold War era.

Offshore balancing involves avoiding indefinite commitments that require pre-deployed forces, and wielding influence instead through aid, bribery, diplomacy, and covert operations. When light-touch efforts fail to preserve a balance of power necessary to protect our interests, then offshore balancing calls for the United States to fight its way on shore to settle the matter in a decisive fashion - and then to go back over the horizon until the next time.

As I have argued elsewhere, offshore balancing looks better in an academic seminar than it looks in policy practice, and often advocates of it shrink from defending the necessary corollaries of the strategy (compare critiques by offshore balancers of the quintessentially offshore balancing techniques of buying influence in Afghanistan and arming factions in Syria). For that and many other reasons, the United States has rarely relied on offshore balancing to protect really important interests since, well, since 70 years ago this week.

The last time the United States really did implement an offshore balancing grand strategy was in the interwar period -- after World War I and before World War II.

D-Day was the literal implementation of the most difficult and dangerous part of the offshore balancing strategy: fighting your way onshore when the balance of power has become intolerable. Because D-Day was successful, the offshore balancing strategy "worked," in the sense that the United States was able to restore a balance of power favorable to our interests. It also did so, as Walt has observed, at a lower price than what France or Britain or any of the other victorious Allied powers joining to remember D-Day paid.

But it was not at a cheap price, nor was it necessarily cheaper than what a wiser grand strategy during the inter-war period might have accomplished. Given all of the attention paid to the terrible human toll paid by the United States during the last dozen years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is sobering to remember that the few days of the D-Day invasion alone came to close to half of that, with the toll mounting into the hundreds of thousands by the end of this "successful" war of offshore balancing.

The D-Day generation understood that offshore balancing was not an inexpensive grand strategy. That is why they supported the antithesis of offshore balancing, the establishment of NATO. That is why the D-Day commander decided to try to become President Eisenhower, rather than risk the country being run by a President Taft, who threatened to go back to an offshore balancing strategy.

It might be a necessary one under certain circumstances, and reasonable people can debate today whether the prospective costs in 2014 are low enough to make it a worthwhile gamble. But that debate should not forget the price of offshore balancing the last time the country really relied upon it as a grand strategy.

The 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion will not let us forget that price.
By Peter D. Feaver, shadow.foreignpolicy.com