Policing Utopia

Policing Utopia

Mini Teaser: Military force has become the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy, ironically in the name of enforcing a global utopia.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

Coming in rapid succession, three recent events--last August's cruise missile attacks against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, the resumption in December 1998 of hostilities with Iraq, and the launching, after fits and starts, of this spring's air campaign against Yugoslavia--have cast in sharp relief the centrality of military power to present-day American policy. Offering the apparent prospect of clean, quick and affordable solutions to vexing problems, force has become the preferred instrument of American statecraft. The deployment of U.S. forces into harm's way, once thought to be fraught with hazard and certain to generate controversy, has become commonplace. The result has been the renewed, intensified--and perhaps irreversible--militarization of U.S. foreign policy.

For American military men and women, the ten years that have transpired since the fall of the Berlin Wall have been intensely busy. Notably, however, that decade has contained only a single incident that strictly qualifies as war. As that one brief conflict fades into memory, moreover, its own significance dwindles. Indeed, when the military history of the 1990s is written, the Persian Gulf War will appear as an oddity, not a harbinger of things to come but a grand martial convocation unlikely to be seen again any time soon. Today the prospect of major war appears increasingly remote. The very idea of armies clashing in battle has acquired a vaguely disreputable odor. These conditions have prompted the United States to seek new ways of exploiting its military preponderance.

The result has been a spectacular outburst of military activism--not campaigns and battles, but myriad experiments in peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace enforcement; the repeated use or threatened use of air power to warn, coerce or punish; and the employment of armed forces to bolster economic sanctions or to respond to anarchy, natural disaster and social disintegration. The prevailing fashion in operational code names tells the story: in contrast to the Torch, Husky and Overlord of yesteryear, today's warriors Deny Flight, Provide Comfort, Restore Hope, Uphold Democracy or, in Albania, offer sanctuary in an Allied Harbor.

Seldom does the assigned mission in such endeavors entail the pursuit of victory. Like battle, "victory" has become an anachronism. The object of the exercise is rarely to defeat an enemy. Rather, it is to convey disapproval, change attitudes and dictate behavior. Never especially comfortable with Clausewitz, Americans have gone him one better. Rejecting the dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means, they have advanced the proposition that force is indistinguishable from politics. "Diplomacy and force are two sides of the same coin", President Bill Clinton declared in a speech at the National Defense University in January 1998.

This development is rich with irony. After all, the President who has made the flexing of American military muscle into a routine event was once thought to be uncomfortable with the use of force. In its early days, the Clinton administration acquired, and at times seemed to flaunt, a reputation for disdaining things military. Mr. Clinton's critics, including many professional officers, openly questioned his qualifications to command the armed forces. Yet if success in aligning military practice with his own conception of strategy is a measure of effectiveness, President Clinton has been the very model of a successful commander-in-chief. His achievement has been as extraordinary as it has been unanticipated. Yet the legacy of that achievement is likely to be pernicious.

The Clinton Doctrine

At the time of Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993, when it came to committing U.S. troops abroad only the most naive--or the most daring--commander-in-chief would presume to disregard the dictates of the Weinberger-Powell doctrine. Drafted in November 1984 at the behest of the then-serving secretary of defense, the Weinberger doctrine established guidelines for considering how and under what circumstances the United States would resort to the use of force. The doctrine's thrust was negative; its aim, to avoid the disaster of another Vietnam. Its six tests codified the lessons of that war: send Americans to fight only when vital national interests are at stake; establish unambiguous military and political objectives; intervene "with the clear intention of winning"; undertake only those missions that have popular and congressional support; when conditions change, reassess the commitment; and finally, employ force only as a last resort. When Caspar Weinberger enunciated his doctrine, critics complained that it was too confining and inflexible. But once seemingly validated by the Persian Gulf War and endorsed by General Colin Powell at the height of his influence, it became dogma.

Less than a decade later, the Weinberger-Powell doctrine has vanished. Phrases common to military discourse as recently as the early 1990s--"overwhelming force", "exit strategy", "mission creep", and "criteria of success"--have virtually disappeared from our vocabulary. Gone too is the spirit of caution and restraint implicit in Weinberger's six tests.

To be sure, the stirrings of change predated the Clinton years. The process of breaking free of constraints inherited from Vietnam became evident during the second half of the Bush administration. It was George Bush who in the aftermath of Desert Storm committed U.S. forces to rescue the Kurds in northern Iraq. Bush also deployed American troops to Somalia in response to famine and chaos in that benighted country. In a now all but forgotten incident, Bush, on the verge of leaving office, cuffed Iraq with pinprick air attacks, that method henceforth to become something of an American military signature.

Having said that, the present administration can rightfully claim credit for translating such inklings into its own full-fledged doctrine for the use of force, superceding Secretary Weinberger's six tests. The key aspects of the Clinton doctrine--the pre-eminence assigned to casualty avoidance; the emphasis on holding collateral damage to an absolute minimum; the expectation that the very prospect of American military action will compel or persuade; the unseemly haste to declare even the most modest use (or threat) of force a roaring success--have been described elsewhere. Yet to ascribe this wholesale abandonment of military orthodoxy to presidential amateurism, disdain for the counsel of defense experts, or even efforts to distract attention from scandal is to misunderstand and underestimate its true significance.

Any great power--especially a great one suddenly deprived of its traditional adversary--faces the perennial dilemma of showing a reasonable return on its costly military investments. The currency of that return is political utility. The Clinton doctrine reflects this administration's considered response to that enduring problem. In a much quoted remark to General Powell, Madeleine Albright, speaking in the early days of the Clinton presidency, cut to the heart of the matter: "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?"

Eagerness to "use" the military does not imply eagerness for war. On the contrary, in earnestly professing their devotion to peace, senior officials of the Clinton administration are being no less sincere than their predecessors. Yet in seeking to establish the basis for that peace, the temptation to capitalize on America's strong suit--military striking power--becomes well nigh irresistible. For Mr. Clinton and his advisers, a propensity for using means of coercion is not to be confused with being bellicose or with courting full-scale armed conflict. Attempting (without success) to drum up popular support for punishing Iraq during the February 1998 showdown with Saddam Hussein, Secretary of State Albright made the point explicitly in a speech at Tennessee State University. Critics who worried that the threatened U.S. air campaign might plunge the United States into a messy, protracted struggle just didn't get it. "We are talking about using military force, but we are not talking about a war", she snapped. "I think that is an important distinction." Through weeks of subjecting Serbia to daily, sustained bombing, the administration persisted in this distinction, insisting that the encounter between NATO and Yugoslavia did not really qualify as war.

Indeed, the distinction is central to the administration's military policy. War typically involves suffering, bloodshed and loss on a large scale. Waging war implies national sacrifice. War gives birth to unintended and unforeseen consequences. The horrific experience of this century suggests that war by its very nature is uncontrollable. Time and again, statesmen presuming to subordinate war to their own designs have instead seen their countries swept into the abyss. Europeans learned this over the course of two world wars. Americans learned it--at least for a time--in Vietnam.

Force, as conceived by the Clinton doctrine, obviates such concerns. The employment of force in precisely measured increments against carefully selected targets--preferably inanimate objects--precludes the prospect of slaughter. By capitalizing upon advanced technology to deliver ordnance from afar, targeting opponents that have little or no capability to retaliate, the United States minimizes the risk to its own forces. Expending American military power for limited and carefully (indeed, often publicly) delineated purposes while avoiding the prospect of anything resembling "combat" all but eliminates uncertainty. And should errant missiles smash passenger trains, kill unlucky refugees or demolish the odd foreign legation, we express regret and expect that the victims will understand.

Why has the senior leadership of the armed forces gone along with a new paradigm that is so contrary to military conventions and so much at odds with previous American military experience? Certainly, General Powell's departure from the stage has been a crucial factor. Having invested the position of Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman with unprecedented authority, Powell wielded his influence to curb inclinations to stray from the Weinberger rules. Since Powell's retirement, the Clinton administration has been careful to appoint successors who, whatever their virtues, possess little of Powell's charisma, independence and political savvy.

Nor, as an unanticipated product of reforms instituted in the 1980s, do the Joint Chiefs as a corporate body any longer possess the clout to obstruct White House initiatives. The intent of those reforms, embodied in the Goldwater-Nichols Act, was to sharpen the quality of military advice coming to the president. In elevating the JCS chairman to principal military adviser, Goldwater-Nichols diminished the role of the service chiefs. The result has been to simplify the problem of securing military acquiescence to the use of force. To get the military "on board", civilian policymakers need satisfy the concerns of a single individual, selected in part on the basis of his expected pliability. Today, the Clinton administration routinely bypasses the service chiefs in decisions relating to the use of force.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that a Pentagon devoted to orthodoxy has been hoodwinked or browbeaten into accepting the new military order instituted by Bill Clinton. Whatever their misgivings about the President, senior military leaders themselves have been, to a remarkable extent, his willing collaborators. Faced with the looming prospect of diminished status, signified above all by the long, slow erosion in the level of defense spending, enterprising officers have welcomed new responsibilities. After all, in a world without great power adversaries, mere "defense" provides a flimsy justification for maintaining a military establishment with global reach and a global presence.

Thus, the Pentagon has worked diligently to erect a framework that accommodates and justifies the activities undertaken at the behest of the Clinton doctrine. Cutting-edge thinking now endorses a greatly expanded definition of the military's charter. Rather than simply defending the United States and its interests, it aims to sustain a level of military dominance that will forestall serious challenge. Rather than simply responding to crisis, it will anticipate crisis. Henceforth, the American military establishment will assert itself proactively to "shape" the international environment.

The Strategy of Globalization

In embracing such a broad, open-ended requirement, senior military officers have jettisoned principles of American military practice that until very recently seemed sacrosanct. Yet whatever the role of personalities, organizational arrangements and institutional interests in facilitating such a radical departure from past practice, the Clinton doctrine does possess at least one redeeming virtue: it is congruent with U.S. strategy. Indeed, the Clinton doctrine reflects an innovative (if deeply flawed) effort to bring military practice into conformity with the national strategy that the United States has evolved since the end of the Cold War.

The conditions of the post-Cold War era permit the United States to wield its military power freely. But the actual propensity to use force derives from a particular world-view that Mr. Clinton and his chief lieutenants have spelled out with some care. In this sense, the Clinton doctrine reflects and supports reigning strategic imperatives. However contrary to precepts of military orthodoxy, it constitutes a logical, almost inevitable, extension of this nation's strategic aspirations.

At the very heart of the Clinton administration's approach to strategy is the concept of globalization. As a rationale for the role of the United States in the world, "Globalization" today has become the functional equivalent of the phrase "Free World" during the 1950s and 1960s. It contains an important truth, but vastly oversimplifies that truth. It implies mysteries grasped fully only in the most rarified circles of government. It suggests the existence of obligations to which ordinary people must submit. It is a powerful instrument of persuasion, the rhetorical device of last resort, to which--not unlike "diversity" in the realm of domestic politics--there is no counter.
Globalization, according to senior administration officials, points ineluctably toward an international order whose chief characteristic will be "openness." As the President himself enthused in a 1996 address at George Washington University,

"The blocks, the barriers, the borders that defined the world for our parents and grandparents are giving way, with the help of a new generation of extraordinary technology. Every day millions of people use laptops, modems, CD-ROMs and satellites to send ideas, products and money all across the planet in seconds."

This removal of barriers and borders is a development of singular importance. As Sandy Berger, the President's national security adviser, has remarked, "We have experienced the emergence of a global economy and a cultural and intellectual global village." The priorities implicit in that statement are not accidental. The promise of globalization is first of all economic. An open, integrated world implies unprecedented opportunities for the creation of wealth. In its very essence, globalization heralds the enticing prospect of vast new and expanding markets.

Neither the Asian flu nor Russia's economic collapse nor narrowly averted financial disaster in Latin America can shake the administration's faith in the prospect of continuous market expansion. With good reason: the administration has convinced itself that expanding markets abroad is essential to sustaining American prosperity. The President himself has bluntly declared that "growth at home depends upon growth abroad." But there is more at stake here than mere economic considerations. Market expansion is not an opportunity; it is a necessity. Thus, for example, the administration's blueprint for national security--A National Security Strategy for a New Century, released in 1998--states categorically that "we must expand our international trade to sustain economic growth at home." Or, as Berger has remarked, explaining the imperative of finding new outlets for trade and investment, "You know, Willie Sutton said, that's why he went into banks. We have a mature market--we have to expand, we have to grow."

The drive to sustain domestic prosperity by creating a world that, in Madeleine Albright's words, is "open to our exports, investments, and ideas" is by no means unique to this administration. Enhancing openness has long been a central aim of American statecraft. In that sense, globalization offers a variation on a familiar theme. The distinctive features of that variation make it particularly useful as a rationale for U.S. policy after the Cold War. The supposed implacability with which the process advances conveys an aura of historical inevitability. Nations have little alternative but to conform to its demands. As Berger has remarked, "We cannot turn back the tides of globalization any more than King Knute [sic] could turn back the tides." Yet those demands derive not from any sly neo-imperial scheme, but from the apolitical factor of technology, above all the revolution in information technology. Although the chief proponent and leading beneficiary of globalization, the United States can insist that it is merely responding to circumstance rather than attempting to perpetuate American hegemony.

The Rule Maker

The apparent inevitability of globalization would seem to permit the United States to relax, while NAFTA, the WTO and the APEC forum pry open new markets for American entrepreneurs to exploit. In fact, nothing is more likely to endanger the project than passivity on the part of the United States. Again as Secretary Albright explains, "What we've done is kind of open the whole system up." To function properly, a system based on the principle of openness must have some mechanism for maintaining order. Hence the urgent requirement, endlessly reiterated by administration officials, for continuing U.S. engagement in world affairs.

"America's place", Albright tells the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "is at the center of this system." Indeed, belief that only the United States--the "indispensable nation"--can direct the system's operation is, in the Clinton administration and throughout the foreign policy elite, an article of faith. "If we do not provide international leadership", Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott insists, "then there is no other country that can or will lead in our place as a constructive, positive influence." Or, as Albright has it, "the United States is kind of the organizing principal [sic] of the international system."

A properly functioning system requires rules. The ordained role of the United States is to impart to this emergent system the discipline and cohesion that will enable it to work. As the President explained last year, it lies in "helping to write the international rules of the road for the twenty-first century, protecting those who've joined the family of nations and isolating those who do not." As that comment suggests, adherence to the rules is not optional. "No nation, rich or poor, democratic or authoritarian, can escape the fundamental economic imperatives of the global market. No nation can escape its discipline. No nation can avoid its responsibility to do its part." During his visit to Moscow in September 1998, Mr. Clinton warned Russians that "There is no way out of playing by the rules of the international economy if you wish to be a part of it." Rule breakers undermine stability, the sine qua non of system effectiveness. "When you have stability", Defense Secretary William Cohen explained to an audience in Munich, Germany, "you have at least the opportunity to enjoy prosperity because investment flows. Business tends to follow the flag. When they find a secure environment, they will invest." Take away security and barriers go up, borders close and openness is lost. American influence and American prosperity suffer accordingly.

Alas, as has become increasingly apparent, not everyone is willing to play by the rules. Not everyone views what Berger describes as "the President's strategy for harnessing the forces of globalization for the benefit of the people of America and the world" as benign. Indeed, not everyone acknowledges even the desirability or the historical inevitability of globalization.

Further complicating matters is the fact that openness and the technological advances that sustain it create an environment conducive to those who are hostile to the enterprise. In a remark that has become a staple of administration thinking, Mr. Clinton noted in 1996 that "The forces of destruction find opportunity in the very openness, freedom and progress we cherish." As befits a system that is global in scope, the "forces of destruction" to which the President alludes are diverse and highly adaptive. They are all around us. "Twenty-first Century threats know no boundaries", according to Secretary Albright. No longer permitted the luxury of concentrating on a single powerful threat, as during the Cold War, the United States today must arm itself, in Albright's words, "against a viper's nest of perils." Those perils run the gamut from terror and international organized crime to rogue states and genocidal violence fueled by ethnic hatred. The access to advanced technology afforded by the open world means that even the smallest band of fanatics or computer hackers can wreak havoc. The integrated world's ever increasing dependence on information networks poses a particular vulnerability: as the President explains, "terrorists, criminals and hostile regimes could invade and paralyze these vital systems, disrupting commerce, threatening health, weakening our capacity to function in a crisis."

In short, having prevailed in the Cold War, the United States finds itself not more secure, but less. With communism discredited and with the Soviet Union having collapsed, American prosperity and well-being are now more precarious, held hostage to a world order that is susceptible to attack from any quarter at any time. That is the logic of globalization. That is our peace dividend.

Enforcing the Rules

When President Clinton discussed the role of the United States in writing and enforcing the rules of the twenty-first century, he was speaking, appropriately enough, to an audience of military officers. The audience was appropriate because the President has designated the Department of Defense as chief enforcer. After only the barest hesitation, America's soldiers have signed on.

Their mission is primarily a constabulary one. Absent American military power, the system will break down and globalization will fail. Even a domestic dispute such as Kosovo, according to the President, forms part of "the great battle between the forces of integration and the forces of disintegration; the forces of globalism versus tribalism; of oppression against empowerment"--and therefore commands American attention.

Any suggestion that the United States is not measuring up to its obligation to enforce the rules might call into question its claim to be the hub from which the spokes of the international system extend. Hence the appearance of American troops in all sorts of out-of-the-way locales, many of them hitherto remote from even the loosest definition of U.S. interests: periodic demonstrations of U.S. capability in places like Kuwait and Kazakhstan; emergency interventions to set things right in Somalia and Haiti; the establishment of quasi-permanent garrisons in Bosnia, Macedonia and the Persian Gulf; and the continuous dispatch of training missions and liaison teams throughout Latin America and the former Soviet bloc. Hence, too, the growing White House tendency to rely on the military "to initiate or lead its diplomacy in areas where the civilian foreign policy apparatus lacks access or resources"--in Algeria and Yemen, for instance. Hence, finally, the periodic administering of punishment to signal U.S. displeasure with Serbs, Sudanese, Afghans and, of course, Saddam Hussein.

What are the implications of converting the U.S. military into a global constabulary? Until the latest unpleasantness in the Balkans, the Clinton administration viewed that question as inconsequential. After all, the role assigned to soldiers by the Clinton doctrine is intended to be a transitional one, pointing directly toward utopia. "Prosperity is a parent to peace", according to Secretary Albright. Then, too, "we know that democracy is a parent to peace." Globalization promises to create wealth and to spread democracy. Q.E.D. Even in the near term, optimists like Albright look forward to the day when "more people in more nations will recognize their stake in abiding by the international rules of the road", thereby permitting U.S. troops a breather.

Based on recent events, skeptics may be forgiven for viewing such optimistic expectations as fanciful. Certainly Pentagon planners do not stay up nights worrying that globalization will put the Department of Defense out of business. On the contrary, they understand that pressing for an open world and enforcing its rules will generate a plethora of new military requirements. In the first decade of the post-Cold War era, with its myriad crises, interventions and emergency deployments, they have experienced this phenomenon at first hand. In a larger though barely acknowledged sense, that experience revalidates century-old military lessons derived from a time when the United States liberated (and occupied) Cuba and shouldered the responsibility for uplifting "Little Brown Brother" in the western Pacific. Crusades mean work for soldiers.

Full Spectrum Dominance

Yet rather than acknowledging--and obliging its political masters to acknowledge--the inevitable consequences of enforcing conformity on a complex, dynamic and sometimes recalcitrant world, the military has fashioned a utopia of its own. Unmoved by visions of self-regulating peace and prosperity, the defense establishment seeks to stifle opposition to the American version of globalization by institutionalizing U.S. military supremacy. The Pentagon blueprint for the future, a document known as Joint Vision 2010, has established for itself a singularly grandiose goal: "the ability to win quickly and overwhelmingly across the entire range of operations, or in other words, Full Spectrum Dominance." That full spectrum does not ignore conventional war and the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. But it pays particular attention to the security agenda of the globalization project, now grouped under the rubric of "asymmetric threats"--terrorists, criminals, religious crazies, two-bit strongmen with big ambitions, anarchy-minded hackers and unscrupulous scientists peddling weapons secrets to make a buck.

The pursuit of Full Spectrum Dominance combines powerful elements of both nostalgia and romanticism. Retaining the idiom of combat and battle, it indulges the yearning of soldiers to maintain their traditional identity as warriors, essential if they are to preserve an autonomous sphere of military professional expertise. Yet, in the face of declining resources and taxing day-to-day operational requirements, it aspires to a level of mastery so absolute that the United States will henceforth overawe its adversaries, thereby rendering fighting as such unnecessary. The dominance to which Joint Vision 2010 aspires would exceed by an order of magnitude that which any of history's great empires has enjoyed. NATO's Balkan War of 1999, against a nation whose entire economic output barely equals one-sixteenth of what the United States spends on defense alone, shows just how elusive the quest for dominance is likely to be.
Both utopias--the coming final triumph of globalization and perpetual American military supremacy--share a common assumption. Political and military leaders alike take it for granted that the American people will balk at supporting an enterprise that entails real sacrifice. Therefore, in both instances, the architects of utopia insist that the United States can achieve its aspirations painlessly and without hard choices.

Diverted by gaudy prosperity and insulated from the moral and political ambiguities that accompany U.S. intrusions abroad, Americans have not questioned that dubious assumption. The psychic rewards of proclaiming ourselves Number One are too satisfying to forego. The habit of treating military operations like a spectator sport has become too deeply ingrained to permit questions about whom the missiles kill and what the killing achieves.

Announcing to a complacent public that U.S. forces, acting on his orders, had pelted Afghanistan and Sudan with cruise missiles, President Clinton offered his countrymen and the world the standard assurance that "the United States wants peace, not conflict." Indeed, the United States does seek peace. But it does so on specific terms. It insists that others the world over meet those terms.

From the eve of World War II through the Cold War, a motley crew of foreign policy critics, spanning from the Old Right to the New Left, predicted that embarking on crusades to remake the world invited disaster. They warned of the dangers of overextension. They fulminated against excessive influence wielded by a "military-industrial complex." They accused presidents of abusing their authority and of undermining the Constitution. They worried that the United States, in becoming a global power wielding enormous military clout, would forfeit its political birthright. "America is not to be Rome or Britain", one among them, the historian Charles Beard, wrote in 1939. "It is to be America."

For their trouble, these critics were routinely denounced as cranks or worse. The center of the political spectrum, including a solid bipartisan majority of the foreign policy elite, rejected their concerns, insisting that the great threat and great evil posed by the likes of Hitler and Stalin necessitated great exertions.

For a time, it appeared that the center had won that argument on the merits. Now critics like Beard may yet have their day. As events in Kosovo and elsewhere lay bare the illusions of globalization and Full Spectrum Dominance, Americans will awake not to utopia, but to an unruly world in which the United States has assumed vast burdens not easily shed. In all likelihood, we will have persuaded ourselves--perhaps we have already--that the imperial role signified by those responsibilities and the military power maintained to execute them have become integral not only to our well-being but also to our identity. Denying adamantly that it was ever our intention, America will have become Rome.

Essay Types: Essay