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.


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.

Essay Types: Essay