The Magazine

Innocents Abroad

The American military's new global responsibilities.

Mar 31, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 28 • By CHRISTIAN D. BROSE
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The Mission

Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military

by Dana Priest

W.W. Norton & Co., 384 pp., $26.95

THE END of the Cold War in 1991 opened a decade of serious confusion for the United States as it grappled to define its proper role in the new era. As Bush the Elder and Clinton the Expedient failed to develop a comprehensive strategic vision, the U.S. military spent the 1990s pursuing missions plainly antithetical to its nature. Nineteen-year-old GIs were ordered to build nations, rather than destroy them--and to win over the "hearts and minds," instead of fighting enemy combatants. American soldiers thus experienced profound difficulties as they attempted to create order and build civil society in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

In her new book "The Mission," Dana Priest describes the U.S. military's unparalleled success at waging war even as it repeatedly bumbles peacekeeping missions. The main culprit, argues Priest, a Washington Post reporter, is feckless political leadership. She is right. Successive post-Cold War administrations have treated the U.S. military as a kind of global duct tape: a quick fix for the messy problems of a "unipolar" world.

Priest divides her book into thirds, the first of which looks at the military's five regional commanders in chief, who oversee all operations in their theaters of action. These four-star generals amassed great authority when the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act increased both their budgets and regional responsibilities. Priest calls them "proconsuls to the empire." They have increasingly come to embody America's global presence--possessing greater diplomatic leverage than ambassadors and performing functions that previously fell to civilian agencies.

The second portion of "The Mission" examines the recently expanded role of Special Operations soldiers, whose marching orders include everything from training security forces in Nigeria to waging the war on drugs in Colombia. The emerging portrait shows a rough fraternity of violent alpha males. Yet, Priest tells their story with compassion. Special Operations soldiers have a lot of steam to let off, having to endure complex and ill-defined missions that are especially prone to failure. Green Berets, for example, were sent to train Colombian security forces to fight leftist rebels and destroy the coca crops used to make cocaine. But when the job was done, Colombian farmers simply replanted their lucrative drug crop. And (big surprise) they grew even fonder of the leftist rebels. U.S. soldiers did their part, but no one else did theirs.

Such policies, and others, were predicated on the naive assumption that military "engagement" would promote professionalism and thereby increase political stability abroad. But military training alone cannot remake splintered societies, enable people to lift themselves out of poverty, or cultivate democratic political cultures. Indeed, it takes a special kind of optimism to believe that a few human rights lectures from U.S. Special Forces could effect a change of heart in Indonesia's Kopassus forces, and ensure that they not commit atrocities in East Timor.

IN THE BOOK'S FINAL SECTION, Priest examines the Clinton administration's policy toward the Balkans, particularly Kosovo, where a reluctant war from the air begot an even more befuddled peace on the ground. Rather than separating two warring peoples, a solution that Priest suggests would have been more realistic, Clinton and his allies demanded an integrated, democratic Kosovo. And their main tool of choice for bringing about this new and unprecedented state of affairs was, of course, the military.

If it is true that soldiers must be like dogs--devoted to their friends and vicious to their enemies--it is also true that their black-and-white vision is unsuited to political and social nuance. Yet the Clinton administration cast these young dogs of war into situations where friends and enemies are indistinguishable: Serbs killed and displaced Albanians during NATO's air campaign, and Albanians eagerly returned the favor during the U.N.'s feckless peacekeeping mission. Priest offers a rich account of that failed, and still failing, mission. Her book contains colorful anecdotal evidence to support two central truths about nation-building: It is an all-or-nothing endeavor, and the military cannot take the lead role.

Although Priest sometimes casts America's military as imperial, one gathers her problem is not with a forward-leaning U.S. foreign policy. Rather, it is the crude manner in which America has oafishly tripped and fallen into various post-Cold War messes. The United States eagerly deployed its soldiers to keep peace and build nations, but failed to follow through properly with a coordinated army of political and legal advisers, civil engineers, and agricultural specialists.