The Magazine

Indispensable Nation

The tradition lives on.

Jul 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 43 • By GARY SCHMITT
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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.