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Indispensable Nation

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Jul 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 43 • By GARY SCHMITT
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America Between the Wars

From 11/9 to 9/11

by Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier

PublicAffairs, 432 pp., $27.95

After Bush

The Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy

by Timothy J. Lynch and Robert S. Singh

Cambridge, 396 pp., $28

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.