The tradition lives on.
Jul 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 43 • By GARY SCHMITT
America Between the Wars
As we've already seen, much of the presidential campaign will be about how the candidates can distance themselves from the foreign and defense policies of the Bush administration. The underlying presumptions are that it is possible to move forward with a substantially new agenda, or return to the halcyon days of the 1990s. But these two new books reveal just how problematic, and probably unrealistic, those presumptions are.
America Between the Wars is a remarkably evenhanded and serious review of U.S. security policy between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the attacks on New York and the Pentagon in the fall of 2001. Although both Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier held positions in the Clinton administration, the book is no partisan taking of accounts. To the contrary, judicious in tone, and especially insightful about the various meanderings of the political parties during the first decade-plus of the post-Cold War era, this volume will likely stand as the definitive overview of that period for some time to come.
Chollet and Goldgeier, however, are not writing a history for the sake of writing a history. Their larger point is to stress that much (if not most) of what we are dealing with today--whether issues of terrorism, economic globalization, the rise of China, weapons proliferation, the utility of international institutions and our alliances, the possibilities and limits to the exercise of American primacy and leadership--all came to the fore in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
"The ideas and dynamics that characterize the current era took shape" well before George W. Bush ever stepped into the Oval Office, they write. In short, "just as history did not end on 11/9, it did not begin on 9/11."
What America Between the Wars is especially adept at is reminding the reader of just how chaotic Washington's response to the end of the Cold War was. For all of the first Bush administration's accomplishments in helping to unite Germany and rallying the world to turn back Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, it could only leave behind a slogan, a hope, for a "new world order." Divided on whether that meant a more assertive American leadership abroad, as outlined in the infamous Defense Policy Guidance of 1992, or a less forward-leaning realism, as exhibited in the equally infamous statement on the Balkans conflict by Secretary of State James Baker that we didn't "have a dog in that fight," the Bush team left office with the country strategically adrift.
Matters hardly improved during Bill Clinton's first years in office. With a president whose interest in foreign affairs was slight to begin with, and weak hands at State (Warren Christopher), Defense (Les Aspin), and the National Security Council (Anthony Lake), the result was a predictable incoherence as the new administration tackled such problems as Somalia, Haiti, North Korea, and Bosnia. Not only did the United States look adrift, it looked weak, as well.
Conservatives, as Chollet and Goldgeier point out, were hardly in better shape. When the Gingrich-led forces took control of the House of Representatives in 1995, the vast majority of the new members sounded more like Patrick Buchanan than Ronald Reagan when it came to foreign affairs. This was reflected in the "Contract With America," which had virtually nothing to say about America's role in the world. And although some Republicans eventually came around to criticizing the Clinton administration's decision to allow defense spending (especially for weapons procurement and readiness) to slide downward, there were just as many who thought the books should be balanced by pulling back from foreign engagements or, if they were in favor of increased spending, were at a loss to explain exactly why.
Equally well done is their account of the various comings and goings of the neoconservatives. Chollet and Goldgeier remind us that some neocons initially supported the Clinton campaign in 1992 on the candidate's pledge to promote a foreign policy with a more moral cast, while others declared that, with the end of communism, game, set, and match had gone to the West and the United States could return to being a more "normal country." As Chollet and Goldgeier point out, that most infamous of neocon efforts, the Project for the New American Century (which I helped run for nearly a decade), was in part established in an effort to do battle with that latter sentiment. And, as they also correctly note, PNAC's success on that front was certainly more mixed than all the conspiracy theories would have it.
Indeed, one of the impressive features of America Between the Wars is its willingness to highlight those features of the Clinton years that the most vociferous critics of the Bush administration see as having originated since 9/11. Lest anyone forget, when it came to Bosnia, for example, the Clinton administration's "approach had a gloss of allied involvement and buy-in, but in the end was unilateral, rejecting U.N. participation and keeping allies at arm's length. The United States acted first and consulted later." Similarly, as Chollet and Goldgeier note, the war over Kosovo was a "war of choice," and one waged without the sanction of the United Nations.
Nor, finally, was the problem of Iraq some wholesale invention by the Bush White House and the nefarious neocon cabal. Time and again, the Clinton team had to deal with a crisis generated by Saddam Hussein. And it was Bill Clinton himself, in a Pentagon speech in 1998, who made the link between Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. Moreover, Clinton's team knew that the policy of containment was in free fall, and having no stomach "for bearing the costs and consequences of a full-scale invasion," they would (in NSC adviser Samuel Berger's words) be leaving it "up to [the next] administration to decide what to do."
Although reluctant to pull the trigger when it came to Iraq--or, for that matter, when it came to the other hot spots--the Clinton administration found itself at the end espousing the idea that the United States was the "indispensable nation." And with good reason. American leadership had been critical in expanding NATO, ending the slaughter in the Balkans, solving the Mexican financial crisis, expanding free trade, and deterring Chinese threats against Taiwan. But as Clinton himself understood, and Chollet and Goldgeier make clear, free trade and the exercise of American power were not policies that sat easily among their own party's left wing. And so the obvious question to ask now is, with the Bush presidency ending, whether an Obama administration would pick up where the Clinton team left off, or would it let itself be defined, at least initially, by the Democrats' post-Iraq rages?
I say initially because there is an argument that no presidency can ultimately be successful when it comes to foreign affairs if it eschews the exercise of power. The world being what it is, and American interests and principles being what they are, it is unlikely any president can get by playing the role of reluctant leader--as George W. Bush came to discover as well. It's not that a new administration has to go looking for trouble; more likely than not, trouble will find it.
In After Bush, Timothy Lynch and Robert Singh lay out the case, with incisive scholarly detail, why there is likely to be--and should be--more constancy in American foreign policy in the coming years than not. What is a bit unusual about this volume and its argument is that it is made by two British academics. But then again, this gives Lynch and Singh the advantage of seeing beyond the current partisan disputes about George W. Bush and the war in Iraq and identifying what they believe are the longer-term continuities that have driven, and will likely continue to animate, America's security policies in the future.
Citing analysis by Robert Kagan and Ivo Daalder, they note that, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to 2003, presidents have decided to use significant military force on nine separate occasions, with more than half those decisions being made by a Democrat sitting in the White House. What's more, for all the talk about the imperial presidency of George W. Bush, Lynch and Singh note that not once did Bill Clinton obtain congressional authorization for his use of the military.
Nor, if Barack Obama's words last year to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs are to be taken seriously, have we seen the end of American unilateralism or the possibility of preemption. Declared Obama: "No president should ever hesitate to use force--unilaterally if necessary--to protect ourselves and our vital interest when we are attacked or imminently threatened." And like Bush, Obama sees "this century's threats"--the combination of "rogue states allied to terrorists" and weapons of mass destruction "fall[ing] into the hands of terrorists"--"as dangerous as and in some ways more complex than those we have confronted in the past."
Of course, Lynch and Singh are not naive about the difference an individual president can make in shaping security policy. But as they pointedly note, "For all their recent acrimony, Democrats and Republicans have more in common with each other on foreign policy than they do even with their closest allies in Europe and Asia."
There are a number of reasons for this. The first is the consensus about the character of the threats the United States faces, especially from Islamist terrorism. Second, and equally important, is the fact that there doesn't appear to be any realistic alternative to the exercise of American primacy. Balance of power scenarios, handing things off to the U.N., isolationism--none offers much prospect of long-term stability, let alone security. And there is the unique American strategic vision that pursues its universalist aspirations with the tools of power (soft and hard) and trade.
Moreover, as After Bush argues, when you step back and take an honest account of how all of this has played out in practice, you see that, on balance, this American approach to the world has been successful. Whether it is the peace enjoyed by the democracies of the world, or the advances made in the war on terror, the existing approach to foreign policy has served Americans and their allies well.
Nor have the costs been as high as critics claim. Defense spending as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product remains lower, as Lynch and Singh note, than what the federal government spends on Social Security and substantially less (by nearly a factor of three!) on welfare programs altogether. And for all the talk about the unpopularity of the Bush White House abroad, there has been no seismic shift in the international order: America's allies remain about where they have been during the past 20 years, as have relations with the would-be competitor state of China. (Interestingly, immigration from Arabic-speaking countries to the United States has actually gone up since 9/11.)
All that said, Lynch and Singh understand that George W. Bush's central strategic goal--the transformation of the Middle East--will not come easily, and may well require a "reformation" within Islam that is scarcely under the control of the United States and the West.
Yet, as difficult as that task may be, as Lynch and Singh point out, the United States has been here before. A president comes to office, lacking an electoral mandate. He is a "notoriously incurious and relatively provincial man," who soon faces a loss of control of Congress while having to address an extraordinarily difficult new security crisis. He offers up a "sweeping vision" to address that crisis, "essentially dividing the world into those who are with or against America" while, at the same time, undertaking "far-reaching" changes in the government's security organizations. And finally, that president leaves office with "his popularity at its lowest ebb" and the country "mired in a seemingly unwinnable war."
Of course, whether Bush goes down in history as a second Harry Truman is anybody's guess. But as our two professors from Britain do well to remind us: For all the difficulties, the American way in foreign and defense affairs has served the nation, and the world, pretty well.
Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar and director of the Program on Advanced Strategic Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.