In a remark that greatly angered many Britons of the World War II generation, Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s secretary of state, said that Britain “having lost an Empire, had failed to find a role.” America is now wrestling with the converse fate. With the demise of its mission against communism, America has lost a role, but, as the vacillations over Bosnia and Somalia show, has failed to find an empire against which to launch its prodigious energies.
The search for new roles is leading in increasingly bizarre and unsustainable directions. A much more realistic concentration on American interests is required.
The recently completed “bottom-up” review of America’s force structures exemplifies these flaws. Against a background of world maps, Defense Secretary Les Aspin pointed to regional “hot spots” in central Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East and east Asia. This is the new empire that will provide the new role.
This concept still betrays too many traces of the Cold War assumption that massive countervailing force can right the world’s evils. The National Security Council has concluded that this approach failed in narcotics interdiction but this mind-set has become the intellectual operating system of the foreign-policy Establishment.
But new thinking cannot be indefinitely postponed. Public opinion is unambiguously signaling its disinterest in accepting the costs and casualties that come from involvement in regional conflicts--in a recent poll, only 19% of respondents admitted to a close interest in Bosnia. The number drops out of sight in cases such as Zaire where there are no film crews to document what Amnesty International calls the “ruthless brutality of government security forces.” Instead, people are responding overwhelmingly to examples such as the Israel-PLO accords, where enemies reconcile without a single G.I. being consigned into harm’s way.
Additionally, practical experience, notably from Somalia, has highlighted the limits of force as the catalyst of stable order, let alone of peace. The U.S. Rangers, world-class though they may be as a “lean, mobile, high-tech” unit, are probably aggravating rather than solving the problems. Armed forces are trained to kill and defeat enemies. But in today’s conflicts, the distinction between friends and enemies is almost impossible to make.
As Yasser Arafat can testify, yesterday’s face on a wanted poster is today’s honored White House guest. Will the wheel turn again in Somalia and render Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid once more a welcome figure at the American ambassador’s dinner table? Such questions have no part in the military’s training. Today’s problems need civilian mediation skills; troops tend to make hot spots hotter.
The Pentagon’s review inhabits a world disembodied from either public perceptions of national interest or hard, practical post-Cold War experience. It risks doing a grave disservice to the consensus on which support for the military rests. There is no evidence that the American people have lost the will to defend their interest overseas, still less that they are ready to compromise on their security. But there is plenty of support for the view that Americans wish to avoid what Thomas Jefferson called “entanglements” or, in contemporary parlance, “quagmires.” Yet these are the very scenarios around which the Pentagon’s review is based.
It is perhaps unfair to blame the Pentagon for foreign-policy deficiencies. The military’s job, after all, is to defend national interests, not to define them. But this is the gaping hole in the national-security debate: no one is making a cogent connection between the threats to American interests and a defense budget that continues at more than 90% of its Cold War levels.
The sense of the American people during the 1992 election seemed to be that “we have plenty of sins of our own to war against, and under ordinary circumstances we can do more for the general uplifting of humanity by striving with heart and soul to put a stop to civic corruption, to brutal lawlessness and violent racial prejudice here at home than by passing resolutions about wrongdoing elsewhere.”
These are the words of the arch imperialist President Theodore Roosevelt in the same year that he reinterpreted the Monroe Doctrine to allow unlimited American intervention in Latin America. He was displaying a shrewd sense of proportion about the national interest. If he felt a need to do so when the juices of Manifest Destiny were in full flow, how much more should today’s policy-makers, who stand at the other end of that historical cycle, hold fast to the basic principle of national interest. The American people are more than willing to vote resources for the protection of real American interests, but not to create or subsidize a new empire.