Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather

Mini Teaser: Bosnia and Haiti, Somalia and North Korea .

by Author(s): Angelo M. Codevilla

Bosnia and Haiti, Somalia and North Korea . . . The failure of the Clinton administration's foreign policy becomes ever more clear, even as the menacing reality of a Russia that Washington has indulged and deferred to becomes more difficult to deny. That failure, it can be argued, is the direct result of a certain cast of mind.

Today the foreign policy of the United States is well-nigh controlled by that wing of the establishment that worked to defeat the U.S. in Vietnam, championed lower U.S. defense spending and arms control, favored concessions to the Soviet Union and its surrogates, and imposed a variety of restrictions on the use of U.S. power in the world. Their performance is best understood in terms of a syndrome which is the logical result of a mentality acquired over decades--a mentality that impairs understanding of America's place in the world and makes it nearly impossible to make policy in America's interest.

What is this mentality? To answer that we have to look back to the debates of the Cold War, debates as fundamental as any in our history. Today, those debates survive as ideas embodied in people. People do not spring up new, Minerva-like, in middle age. So, whereas terms like "nationalist" and "internationalist," "isolationist" and "realist," can be stuffed with anyone's favorite meanings, decades of struggles over real issues--Vietnam, the Soviet Union, armaments, and the rest have fashioned real mental capacities and incapacities in real people. These mentalities, rather than nebulous new concepts, are affecting reactions to post-Cold War challenges.

Some argue that the "wise men" of the Eastern establishment who ran America's foreign affairs from the 1920s through the Cold War have given way to geographic and ethnic diversity. But this is wrong. Those who are responsible for national security today are surely more narrowly homogeneous than ever in what matters most--their ideas and experiences. It would be easier for the proverbial camel to pass through the needle's eye than for someone to enter the senior ranks at State, Defense, or NSC who favored a U.S. victory in Vietnam, who had cheered Ronald Reagan's call in 1982 to cast communism on the scrap heap of history, or who had favored building an antimissile defense for the United States. Anthony Lake, Madeleine Albright, Strobe Talbott, Morton Halperin, Peter Tarnoff, Les Aspin, Dennis Ross, to name but a few, never were outsiders who stormed the ramparts of the U.S. government. Nor did they infiltrate. Rather they came through government's front door from Hotchkiss, Harvard, and Yale, and enjoyed the best patronage government can give, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Their rise, then, is best understood as a gradual change in the collective mentality of the establishment, a change that is now complete.

Throughout their thirty-year march to the conquest of virtually all positions of prominence, this remarkably like-minded middle-aged group have described themselves at various times as partisans of peace and morality against those insufficiently sensitive to the evils of war; as practical idealists who have outgrown excessive preoccupation with narrow national interests and elusive "victories"; as multi-nationalists, to be distinguished both from isolationists and unilateralists; and as "owls," to be distinguished from doves, and very much in opposition to hawks.

Members of today's foreign policy establishment did not spend their formative years worrying about how to maximize their country's power or studying the principles of international statecraft. After opposing the United States in Vietnam, they made their careers restraining, diminishing, denigrating American power, and arguing that power is not fundamental to world affairs. Their favorite image of the world was that of their forefathers in the Roosevelt administration: partnership between a reformed Soviet Union and an America which had abandoned its Western triumphalism. While they championed arms control agreements, they never got excited when the Soviet Union violated them. With few exceptions, they did not serve in the armed forces, and have scarce social contact and sympathy with those Americans who do. Hence neither in mind nor heart nor habit are they comfortable managing America's power for the sake of its interests, or calling forth the nation's martial instincts to defends its sacred values.

Lessons of Vietnam

William Appleman Williams' The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) contained, in principle, all the complaints expressed by Senator J.W. Fulbright in The Arrogance of Power (1967), the primer for Americans who wanted to see America lose in Vietnam. These books taught those who came of age during that war the same lessons: Americans were so cocksure of the superiority of their own way of life, so obsessed with the evil of communism, that they violated the peace and integrity of gentler peoples who were trying to improve their lives in their own way. If the Soviet menace had not existed, America would have invented it, and to a considerable extent that menace was our own invention. Americans thought they were saving Vietnam and other places, but instead brought death and corruption. The "other side" were not really communists, but even if they were, they were closer to the people than we, and our violent opposition to them was immoral. America's anticommunism was the original sin of contemporary international life. The evil that others did, from Stalin to Castro to Ho Chi Minh, was in substantial part a reaction to America's criminally stupid anticommunism.

This is the mentality of which John Lewis Gaddis writes: "Those of us who work in this field have allowed [William Appleman] Williams' 'tragic perspective' to obscure our vision...Like most orthodoxies, it does not wear well; it distorts our understanding of our place in the world and of ourselves."

Young people interested in foreign affairs became the counterculture's first recruits. Anthony Lake, Peter Tarnoff, and Les Aspin worked together as junior officers in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1963-64. By the end of the decade they were working "against the war." Lake, together with Morton Halperin, was doing so from within Nixon's NSC. Meanwhile, Dennis Ross was taking part in anti-U.S. demonstrations at UCLA and Strobe Talbott was writing anti-U.S. diatribes (along with pleas for legalizing pot) in the Harvard Crimson. Just as the Goldwater campaign of 1964 was the defining experience for a generation of conservative leaders, denouncing America over Vietnam and working on the campaigns of Edmund Muskie and George McGovern in 1972 constitutes the crucial experience for today's foreign policy establishment.

By 1977 Lake had written President Jimmy Carter's Notre Dame speech, which blamed the Vietnam War on "our inordinate fear of communism." Vietnam, Lake and Carter said, had been therapeutic: "Through failure we have found our way back to our own values." The "lessons of Vietnam" for these Americans who won while the rest of their country lost were laid out in The Legacy of Vietnam, a Council on Foreign Relations book edited by Anthony Lake. Although it is written in the calm style of interagency memoranda, it leaves no doubt who was on whose side. According to Lake, "the interventionist thrust" of American foreign policy after World War II and especially in Vietnam was "couched in terms of the obligation of ideals" (sic) but was "the same" as the European imperialism which had committed abominations and which had been justified as "the white man's burden." Lake said Americans justified their imperialism as "the free man's burden"--putting "freedom" in quotation marks--denigrating it by an implicit comparison to "the white man's burden." Nevertheless, unlike "some of our most intense domestic critics," Lake did not conclude that the "United States is inherently incapable of progressive action abroad..." He is sure that given a shaken conscience and under the right leadership, the U.S. could play a very different role in the world.

The book is full of perceptive analyses of how internal contradictions sped the American defeat. Particularly insightful are Philip Geyelin's account of the self-contradictory messages that the U.S. government put out to the press (tough to scare North Vietnam and bland to reassure everyone else) and Morton Halperin's account of the Johnson and Nixon administrations' attempts to achieve the same self-contradictory effects through military means. But these are not dispassionate technicians eager to lend their expertise to make the U.S. successful. On the contrary, there is no doubt that Lake and his friends meant to push their "soft" line for its own sake, and if its effect was ruinous to the United States in Vietnam, so be it. Why? Halperin explains that the logic of the "hard" line leads to nuclear war. Its success "depends on the willingness of the Soviet leaders to back down...This is not a structure of peace but a structure of threat, with the ever present danger that brinkmanship will lead to a nuclear holocaust."

At least some members of the anti-U.S.-in-Vietnam set, then, believed that by teaching America a bitter lesson in Southeast Asia they saved the world from nuclear war.

This mindset was the issue in the 1993 battle over the confirmation of Morton Halperin to be Assistant Secretary of Defense. His opponents charged that he had been on the other side in the Cold War, while his supporters said that he was a mainstream foreign policy expert. Both sides had a point. Halperin's views on the entire agenda of national security affairs was very much in the mainstream of the new establishment. Strobe Talbott describes him as "on the frontier of clear thinking about nuclear arms policy." The supreme value of this value-free ethic is peace.

"The Doves Were Right"

In the same book on Vietnam, Les Gelb rightly refers to the followers of Henry Wallace as "early doves." Indeed, those for whom good relations with the Soviet Union in the 1940s were of overriding importance are politically indistinguishable from their fellows in subsequent decades, right up to our own times. They have condemned America and its friends more easily than they did transgressions by the Soviets or by those who stood with them.

The doves' arguments were consistent over the decades: the Soviet Union did not pose a threat to the United States; therefore the U.S. should not build this weapon or do that harsh thing, but rather should do what more nearly pleased the Soviet leadership. At the same time, the Soviet Union was so terribly powerful that to risk its ire was to bring the world to the brink of holocaust. Therefore do not build this weapon...etc. For the doves, the ultimate offense was to treat the Soviet Union not as a normal, permanent part of the international scene but as illegitimate, outlaw, and temporary. The mark of wisdom was to seek detente and even entente with the Soviet regime, meaning recognition of each other's legitimate interests, as well as partnership to solve the world's problems in the context of the United Nations Organization.

Over the past generation professors Marshall Shulman, Seweryn Bialer, Steven Cohen et al. sought to banish the concept of totalitarianism from academic Sovietology and consequently from the minds of college graduates going into government. But the clearest, loudest expression of the dovish view of the Soviet Union came from Strobe Talbott's books and articles.

In 1981 Ronald Reagan had countered Jimmy Carter's "inordinate fear of Communism" speech by telling the graduates of Notre Dame that the West should dismiss Communism "as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written." Talbott agreed with "other administration officials, especially professional diplomats and intelligence analysts with long experience in Soviet affairs [who]...expressed confidence that the Soviets recognized such theorizing for what it was: idiosyncratic, extremist, and very much confined to the fringes of government." In 1982 Reagan told the British parliament that "this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals...The Soviet Union itself is not immune to this reality." Reagan predicted that people would resist the Soviet system "if necessary by force." Talbott insisted dismissively that "very few in the West took it seriously as a statement of policy....There was little follow up in the form of cables from the State Department, Pentagon, or Central Intelligence Agency...."

"The course of events," Talbott wrote with evident satisfaction, showed that Reagan was in never-never land. "The struggle between the Polish regime and Solidarity turned out to be a one-sided contest...Nor was there any sign of the Polish phenomenon spreading to East Germany or the Soviet Union."

Talbott's stock-in-trade was to attack Americans for being nasty to the Soviets. Even after the Soviets had shot down a Korean airliner killing 269 innocent people, Talbott censored Reagan for calling the Soviet Union an outlaw state and the act itself murder. Later, said Talbott, it all "emerged" that "the Soviets believed they were intercepting a military spy plane."

As regards violations of arms control treaties, Talbott sought to have it every way. In his main Time article on arms control (18 April, 1983), Talbott chastised Reagan for removing "negotiability" as a criterion for a good proposal. The U.S. position that the Soviet Union "must build down to a position that the United States would recognize as equality," or face a U.S. buildup, Talbott criticized as "a transparently one-sided set of objectives." Talbott dismissed charges of Soviet cheating: "[The Soviets] have been at least as careful to abide by the letter of the nuclear arms pacts as the U.S." Nevertheless he made clear that the U.S. should not try to push the Soviets around in part because they had stolen a march on us precisely by cheating on arms control agreements.

He implied that we had no hope but to get along with the Soviets on such terms as the Soviets might accept: "Reagan's views notwithstanding, there is little reason to hope that the many handicaps of the Soviet economy will be decisively advantageous to the U.S. in the long run, allowing the U.S. to "beat" the USSR in an arms race....The USSR has learned to live without stinting on the priority of guns over butter. And guns may be bazookas, missiles, or space based anti-missile lasers."

In his January 1, 1990 Time essay crowning Mikhail Gorbachev "Man of the Decade," Talbott never compared his earlier judgments with reality. He never noted that Soviet spokesmen had confirmed that the Soviet regime fully intended to cheat on arms control, had knowingly shot down the Korean airliner, and that Communist rule had been as evil, odious, and as fragile as Ronald Reagan had said it was, and that he had denied. Rather, with exemplary chutzpah he asserted that, "The doves in the great debate of the past 40 years were right all along." The Soviet threat "never was." Beyond self-justification, the point of the essay is familiar: the U.S. must ease up on Moscow's clients abroad, and help the Soviet regime to hold on so that it can continue its reforms and be a partner for progress in the world.

This is also the constant commercial of At the Highest Levels, by Talbott and Michael Bechsloss. The book applauds the Soviet policy of the Bush administration in 1990-92, among whose intellectual authors were Dennis Ross and Graham Allison. Despite protestations to the contrary from administration spokesmen, this policy was meant to preserve the Soviet Union, with Mikhail Gorbachev at its head. It was summed up by President Bush when he told the Ukrainian people--19 days before the coup--that their best hopes lay in a reformist Soviet Union. The point here is not that Talbott and his colleagues were mistaken about the USSR, but that a lifetime of thinking this way is intellectually debilitating.

Fowl Language

T hose Who share this mentality are no less confused about armaments. If the Soviet Union was not so bad, and America was not so good, then an American arms build-up might do more harm than good. Moreover the invention of nuclear weapons has rendered war an obsolete and hence illegitimate tool of statecraft. These premises have led a whole class of intellectuals to reduce defense policy to arguments about arms control and budgeting.

The bible for this class, The Absolute Weapon, was edited by Bernard Brodie, within weeks of Hiroshima. Since then its central point has been restated innumerable times as the acme of sophistication: thenceforward and forever more the United States and the Soviet Union would be able to destroy each other for all practical purposes, and neither could defend itself. Nuclear war would be universal holocaust. The concepts of victory and defeat no longer made sense.

This dogma, along with its priesthood, came to power in 1962 with Secretary of Defense McNamara. His dovish policy called for "assured destruction"--namely putting 400 megaton equivalents on Soviet cities in order to achieve the destruction of 50 percent of the Soviet population and 25 percent of Soviet industry, while very practically encouraging the Soviets to do the same to the U.S. When confronted with common sense revulsion that partisans of peace should plan genocide, the doves countered that the very existence of nuclear weapons implied this state of things, and that carrying out of the threat of mutual assured destruction was so obviously in no one's interest that we could rest easy--as long as no one doubted our will to act suicidally. Thus the concepts of protection and destruction merged in a cloud of nonsense.

In 1984 Talbott wrote "Nuclear missiles and bombs are symbols of power. The way in which their custodians manipulate these symbols is a key factor in how successful their other policies will be. In that respect, nuclear weapons exist to be talked about, not to be used. Largely for that reason...they exist to be controlled." Moscow's evident preparations, over decades, to fight, survive, and win a nuclear war did not shake the doves' attachment to this dogma. But they did embarrass the doves sufficiently for them to transmogrify themselves into "owls." This perpetuated the influence of the ideas themselves and served to make Graham Allison palatable as an idea man for Reagan's Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger.

In Hawks, Doves and Owls, Graham Allison, Albert Carnesale, and Joseph Nye tried to distinguish their wise species of fowl from doves by arguing that owls give greater weight to "non-rational factors." But the new set of feathers does not affect the essentials: denial of the rationality of war; lack of interest in all forms of damage limitation, especially through defense; emphasis on retaliation tempered by ever more arcane procedures, especially cooperative procedures agreed upon between adversaries.

This notion that wise men in lab coats can repeal war's natural resolution in victory and defeat and instead deter or manage conflicts has crippled the American establishment's thinking about conventional war as much as it has about nuclear matters. Anthony Lake's 1985 book Third World Radical Regimes acknowledges that diplomacy must be backed by force, but says nothing about the nature of the relationship. Les Aspin's 1987 call for retaliating for Iran's mining of the Persian Gulf was in the best Vietnam style: show them "that we are running out of cheeks to turn"--and complete the policy by offering the carrot, in the form of "a proposal to let Iran achieve what it wants...if it acts responsibly." The new establishment can talk about bombing, sending troops, even showing resolve. But they cannot conceive of any nation, above all the U.S., actually winning wars.

For the new establishment, alliances and diplomacy rather than war and arms are at the center of international affairs. But they are seen not as tools, along with war and arms, but as substitutes for force and indeed as ends in themselves. "Thank God for our European allies" is one of the recurring themes in all of Strobe Talbott's books. He is grateful, however, not for the strengths they provide, but rather that the European governments helped to moderate the Reagan administration's hard line and aversion to the arms control process. America's instincts and politics cannot be trusted; hence the need for alliances. Winston Churchill had noted that Britain and France together in the Thirties did far less in their own interest than either of them would have done alone because each found in the other an excuse for its own inaction. Talbott and his colleagues have erected the Alphonse-Gaston effect of alliances into a positive principle.

Sometimes, it seems, we must restrain our allies. Soon after Israel's 1981 bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor, Strobe Talbott published a major essay in Time (September 7, 1981) in which he criticized the bombing as a breach of international law and suggested that the U.S. answer it with "selective cutbacks in American military aid." In the same article he called Israel "a nasty, and bitter nation, even a violent one." Not surprisingly, when Iraq invaded Kuwait Talbott muddied both the moral waters and the perception of U.S. interest by arguing that "Yitzhak Shamir's talk of 'greater Israel' is as ominous for the prospects of there every being real and lasting peace in the region as Saddam's militant nostalgia for Nebuchadnezzar's empire."

What happens when the concept of alliances that are not necessarily meant to serve the national interest merges with the distrust of America's military power? We see the answer in a recent monograph authored by Secretary of Defense William Perry and his assistant, Ashton Carter: "An international agreement incorporating the concept of cooperative security and accepting the consequent constraint must begin with the central principle that the only legitimate purpose of national military forces is the defense of national territory or the participation in multinational forces that enforce UN sanctions or maintain peace..."

"National ground forces would be structured for defense of national territory and their territory-taking capabilities minimized. National capabilities for deep strike at rear and homeland targets inside the territory of others by missile or long range aircraft would be constrained. Some of the ground and air forces that are in excess of national requirements could be configured for use in a multinational military force that could enforce UN sanctions when necessary..."

Common sense requires one to ask how one would go about defending the territory of the United States without striking the objects on foreign territory from which attacks against the U.S. were being launched--especially given that the authors are on record as opposing anti-missile defenses. Again, is it better for us to employ ground forces to help overseas allies to take territory or to plan to fight on our own beaches? Then imagine for a moment that the UN had military power at its disposal. Is it even possible to argue that the UN 's judgment on the use of such a force would be morally superior to the judgment of the American people's elected representatives? The new establishment have trained their minds not to comprehend such questions.

How does one make national security policy for a country, the grandeur of which one does not have at heart? How does one, even theoretically, chart a path through the world's shoals if all one's life one has deemed weapons evil, the military art noxious, and the very notion of national interest something to be overcome? It is difficult, if not impossible, and so the new establishment will find every excuse not to do it. So, insofar as they prevail, American power will decline and the relative power of other nations will increase. This, in turn, drives the establishment's mentality further towards declinism. There will be increasing pressure to clear the balance between ends and means, between reach and grasp, at a much lower level.

The new establishment wants a kinder, gentler America that gives up the arrogance of its civilization and power while it goes as gently towards its good night as did England. Yet this clearing is unlikely to happen because whereas England's decline was cushioned by the Pax Americana, America's decline will be cushioned by nothing. Sooner than the members of the new establishment expect, they may be in a world harsh enough to lead them to revisit their intellectual roots, asking "Where did we go wrong?"

Essay Types: Essay