American Maximalism

American Maximalism

Mini Teaser: President Bush's reputation as a radical is exaggerated.  He is following in the footsteps of bold predecessors.  So why is he making such a mess of it?

by Author(s): Stephen Sestanovich

Like the two preceding administrations, the foreign policy team of the Clinton Administration believed that its own predecessor had responded inadequately to emerging threats. In particular, the new president held that firmer American leadership was desperately needed in the Balkans. Without it, Bill Clinton told his first NSC meeting, "nothing happens."

The Clinton Administration explored a more ambitious Balkans policy, but soon reverted to the Bush approach. It had wanted to help the Bosnian Muslims and put more pressure on the Bosnian Serbs, but it would not risk a major breach in the Atlantic Alliance merely to stop inter-ethnic atrocities. Between 1993 and 1995, European objections to American proposals repeatedly led Washington to back down. Reluctant to make Bosnia the "manhood test that breaks NATO", the administration settled for more modest objectives-to contain the spread of violence and hold the alliance together.

When it became clear, however, that not even these minimal goals were being achieved, American policy changed again. Merely choosing not to argue with allies had not prevented an alliance crisis. In the spring of 1995, with a four-month winter ceasefire expiring, a widely anticipated Bosnian Serb offensive seemed likely to bring new mass killings and to dramatize Western impotence. This prospect led the United States to stop seeing Bosnia as a containable second-tier issue on which second-best results were acceptable. It became instead a major problem that had to be solved. And to solve it, the Clinton Administration revived those premises that had guided its predecessors in addressing their own biggest problems.

The first of these premises would have been familiar to the Bush team that put German reunification on a fast track. The president told his advisors, "we have to seize control of this." The status quo was "doing enormous damage to U.S. standing in the world." The administration concluded that the best way to overcome the intra-alliance disagreements that had kept NATO from acting was to stop listening to allied views in the first place. Instead, it chose to deliberate internally and then send senior officials to European capitals to inform them of the president's decision. Allied acquiescence was expected. The United States, in the words of National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, was "the big dog", and on an issue this important, the smaller dogs would surely follow, as long as the United States set a firm enough example.

To its newly decisive style, the administration added more ambitious substance. "Containing" Balkan instability was discarded as an acceptable goal. American planners were urged to work backwards from a desirable and sustainable end-state. A major initiative had to promise a better outcome than merely keeping genocide at manageable levels. The contrast with European policy was striking. In mid-1995, the French were also preparing to involve themselves more deeply in Bosnia and deployed thousands of new troops to defend peacekeepers already in place. But the purpose of Europe's so-called "rapid reaction force" was not to implement a new strategy, only to shore up the old one.

Like previous Bosnian "peace plans"-and indeed like most American diplomatic initiatives-the new U.S. strategy began with a call for negotiations. But the Clinton Administration told both its allies and the warring parties that if a peaceful solution were not quickly accepted by all sides, it would turn to coercive military action (training and arms for Bosnian Muslims, air strikes to repel Serb advances, removal of European peacekeepers so as not to inhibit NATO operations). This two-step approach-an offer to talk, plus a quick timetable for action-echoed the 1979 INF decision. As their predecessors had done in responding to the Soviet SS-20s, American policymakers proposed to negotiate, but they did not expect diplomacy to succeed until they changed realities on the ground.

Their expectations proved truer than they knew: NATO began attacks on Bosnian Serb positions (in reply to the so-called Sarajevo "marketplace bombing") before U.S. proposals had been laid out and the parties had reacted to them. Having resorted to force as a matter of retaliation, U.S. negotiators kept using it as a bargaining tool. They saw bombing as the most effective way of softening up the other side and increasing chances of diplomatic success.

With America's full entry into the Balkan arena, its diplomatic aims escalated. In preparing the Dayton conference, American negotiators resolved to make maximum use of the opportunities military power had created. Their working assumption was that anything not nailed down at Dayton would never be agreed on at all. Success did not mean one more thinly disguised ceasefire, but a breakthrough agreement creating as many of the elements of a single Bosnian state as possible. Richard Holbrooke summarized his go-for-broke strategy this way: "Better a high benchmark than a weak compromise."

The same approach was evident in the administration's debate about the role of NATO peacekeepers after Dayton. Self-described "maximalists", who favored an ambitious mandate encompassing all the tasks of social reconstruction, were pitted against "minimalists" who focused narrowly on maintaining order. Characteristically, the maximalists succeeded in keeping the mission's goals broad, while minimalists (primarily Pentagon opponents of "nation-building") limited the resources available to realize them.

In its confrontation with Milosevic over Kosovo four years later, the Clinton Administration employed the same strategy it had developed earlier in Bosnia. Confident that they now knew what made Milosevic tick, American policymakers were unwilling to let him exploit negotiations to deflect pressure. Diplomacy alone was, they believed, certain to fail; force, by contrast, would produce quick success. Accordingly, the only real point of talking to Milosevic was to show that talking was pointless. As one official described American aims at the unsuccessful multilateral conference on Kosovo at Rambouillet in February 1999, it was to "get the war started with the Europeans locked in."

This conviction was so strong that, when Milosevic responded to an eleventh-hour visit by Holbrooke with unexpected flexibility, the prospect of a deal had no effect on American decision-making. A leader who had one genocide on his record was not entitled to the benefit of the doubt. The war therefore commenced immediately, without even a pro forma round of further deliberations within NATO. The American goal was not to squeeze incremental improvement out of diplomacy. It was to alter an unsatisfactory status quo.

When its bombing campaign failed to produce quick success, the Clinton Administration was criticized for providing an inadequate rationale for war, for failing to anticipate its course, even for making the status quo worse. (Does this sound familiar?) Yet despite deep internal discord, early military reverses, and an acute humanitarian crisis created by the war itself, American policy hardened once hostilities were underway. Issues on which the United States had been prepared to compromise at Rambouillet (such as whether all Serb forces had to leave Kosovo) became non-negotiable. Allied suggestions for a bombing pause were ignored. Senior policymakers who had had doubts about the war began to favor a full-scale ground invasion. "Failure", they said, "was not an option." And when Chancellor Schröder announced that Germany would block an invasion, the administration countered that such objections would not prevail. Only Milosevic's abrupt and essentially unconditional surrender saved the Clinton Administration from having to roll over its ally's dissent.

American aims, it should be added, kept escalating after the war ended. Believing that the Balkans would be unstable as long as Milosevic remained in power, policymakers focused on "regime change"-and only when he fell in October 2000 were the crises of the Yugoslav break-up thought at last to be over.

The conduct of the Kosovo War, and the diplomacy that preceded it have been judged harshly by many. The leading history of the episode, while sympathetic to American aims, is disparagingly entitled Winning Ugly, and former Senator Bob Dole has seen in the story the lesson that "half measures yield half results." Yet viewed at a greater distance, the record looks both more positive and more consistent with the American experience of recent decades. Clinton's zig-zag route to success was guided by a determination to preserve America's leadership position in Europe-and to secure victories big enough to make a difference.

Over the past quarter-century, American presidents have regularly responded in the same way to fundamental international challenges. What energized them was, typically, an extreme reading of the status quo. Events, they believed, were heading in the wrong direction and would, if not reversed, set back American power and influence. In response, they favored large, even risky strategies. They rejected approaches that offered incremental improvement and did not mind if the actions they took made matters worse at first. Creating a new and better international framework was the only means by which policymakers expected to prevent the erosion of America's position. This outlook led them to attack problems head-on-not "manage" them at some acceptable level of cost and risk, not pretend that gradualism would work, and not confront danger only when it became more acute.

Negotiations have frequently had a place in these American strategies, but rarely as the main instrument of problem-solving. Presidents and their advisors have commonly thought of diplomacy as a tool with which to expose an adversary's unreasonableness-and to build support for stronger action against him. When dealing with an unprincipled or unpredictable foe, they believed that negotiation would work only after they had created more favorable "facts on the ground." Illusory talks could not be allowed to block the effort to throw adversaries on the defensive and to improve the balance of power. This outlook frequently discomfited certain allies, stimulated anti-Americanism and increased international tension. Yet American policymakers were ready to pay the price. Madeleine Albright explained their confidence: "We see further than other countries into the future."

Essay Types: Essay