The Guns of 17th Street

The Guns of 17th Street

Mini Teaser: A dissection of the few pluses and many minuses of the crusading approach to American foreign policy.

by Author(s): Jonathan Clarke

Robert Kagan and William Kristol, Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2000).

It is common currency that the Clinton administration's foreign policy was a disappointment. Even Clinton supporters give him only a middling grade. With the President never fully engaged (a few amateurish, end of term flourishes aside), policy either reacted to crises or preserved the status quo. Here and there are some bright spots--NAFTA was consolidated, relations with Vietnam were normalized, progress, albeit fragile, was made on Northern Ireland, and the UN dues issue was settled. Elsewhere, however, the legacy is full of unfinished business: uneasy relationships with Russia and China; impasse in Kosovo and Bosnia; indecision on European defense structures; Japan uncertain of its status; the Middle East in disarray; Iraq policy on the verge of breakdown; Haiti a dismal failure; Colombia on the threshold of implosion; Africa still adrift from the mainstream; a gaggle of emergent "global issues" like the environment and AIDS sitting uncomfortably with traditional foreign policy issues; treaty issues such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the International Criminal Court in limbo. Most of all, at the beginning of the second decade after the demise of the Soviet Union, there is still little consensus on America's core role and purposes in the circumstances of the new world.

However, conservative critics who have enjoyed easy pickings with Clinton's mediocre performance now face a more demanding challenge. As with the liberals following Richard Nixon's 1962 defeat in California, conservatives no longer have their favorite Aunt Sally to kick around. Instead they have power. Having for eight years bemoaned the administration's incompetence from the bleachers, they now sit in the coach's booth.

It is already clear that Republicans do not have a coherent game plan. Apart from a generic feeling that an expanded national missile defense is a good idea and that more military spending is needed, there is wide divergence on specifics, including the top-tier questions like China and Russia. At the risk of generalizing, it is possible to discern two major strands of thought. The first is the one whose proponents are now settling into actual jobs: pragmatic, non-ideological "realists", represented by the well-known figures of past Republican administrations whose views found expression in then-candidate George W. Bush's November 2000 speech on "A Distinctly American Internationalism." The second is a Young Turk school of "hegemonists", whose objective is to complete on a global scale what they regard as the American Cold War triumph over the Soviet Union. Both strands are internationalist in orientation and favor a strong global role for the United States. As such they entirely eclipse a third strand, isolationism, which has lost its former salience and whose advocates have now either left the Republican Party or have negligible influence.

In This important new book edited by Robert Kagan and William Kristol, the would-be hegemons set out their stall. Deriving from a 1996 Foreign Affairs article, "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy" (which, having been published at a time of maximum Clinton foreign policy drift, was received as a powerful cri du coeur), much of the book focuses on the shortcomings of the Clinton administration's performance. In very specific and credible detail, the various authors critique the Clinton record and find it wanting. "A squandered opportunity", "flaccid", "drift", "folly" and "based on illusion" are some of their conclusions, all backed by meticulous and knowledgeable research. Few will disagree. The foreign policy inheritance of the Bush administration is not an enviable one.

With Clintonism now fading into the archives, the book's chief interest lies less in its dissection of the past than in its prescriptions of how the authors will right the deficiencies they discern. Commendably, they do not shy away from the logic of their arguments. They advocate clear and robust options. Nor do they conceal the budgetary implications of their recommendations: a $60 billion to $100 billion increase in annual defense spending. The proposals for increased military appropriations and national missile defense coincide with early Bush administration ideas--although Bush has indicated that he may move less aggressively on the former than many had supposed. Other ideas, particularly in the sphere of regional activism, go beyond the emerging sense of caution. Given that the book contains many trenchant criticisms of earlier Republican policies (Nixon is dismissed for wanting to "coexist" with the Soviet Union; George Bush's post-Desert Storm policy is rejected as "absurd"; Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's views on force deployment are characterized as "mistaken"), it may engender some fratricidal sparks. It may be that some of its contributors are now anxiously searching the text lest some superheated phrase has cost them hope of preferment.

The book advocates a U.S. foreign policy of maximum muscularity. No concession is offered to the traditional arts of diplomacy. Indeed, those of us who have labored in overseas chanceries in the interests of "good relations" find our endeavors ridiculed. The word "stability" is used in quotation marks as though it was somehow a suspect notion of doubtful legitimacy. The conventional ingredients of national interest are attacked as imposing rigid, undesirable limitations on American options. The concept of engagement is dismissed as the equivalent of appeasement.

Far from looking for ways to take the toxicity out of international problems, the authors purposefully seek out trouble spots (the Taiwan Strait, North Korea, Iraq) and then reach for the gas can. "Quiet diplomacy" or "keeping one's powder dry" are anathema. "Steely resolve" is the watchword, with the emphasis on steel. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that if the book's combined recommendations were implemented all at once, the United States would risk unilaterally fighting at least a five-front war, while simultaneously urging Israel to abandon the peace process in favor of a new no-holds-barred confrontation with the Palestinians.

It would be a bad mistake, however, to dismiss the book as the work of armchair warriors from the academy. At its heart lies a tightly woven philosophy leading to a matrix for action. The policy recommendations may be uncomfortable for the diplomatic mainstream, but they present a serious challenge to the conventional norms of conducting business between nations. Explicitly rejected are the notions of "normalcy" and "strategic pause" as unworthy of a great nation like the United States, appropriate only for nations once described by Kipling as "lesser breeds without the law."

The book's central assertion is both negative and positive. First, it is a rejection of the idea that, in American foreign policy calculations, pragmatism should take precedence over ideology. Instead, the authors unapologetically and enthusiastically enthrone ideology, defined as the "set of universal principles derived from natural rights as enunciated in the Declaration of Independence", as the dominant feature of American foreign policy practice. This, in turn, leads the way to positive action. The authors argue that American moral exceptionalism should not just be a general source of inspiration (in the manner of John Quincy Adams) but should be actively asserted to "advance civilization and improve the world's condition"--for example, by promoting "regime change" in states like China that do not meet American standards.

In making this argument, the book presents a powerful case that, without such a commitment to American values and the willingness to deploy hard power in support of them, the Cold War would never have been won. They usefully nail the liberal rewriting of history that the Cold War was a period of rock-solid bipartisan agreement about ends and means. Elliott Abrams, one of the contributors with whom this reviewer had the privilege to cooperate in various Anglo-American forums on Central America, can attest to the vicious personal attacks he suffered for his courageous pursuit of a value-based policy that led to the defeat of the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran guerrillas. President Ronald Reagan, the hero of this book, was excoriated for his "evil empire" approach to the Soviet Union. Yet there is little doubt that, had it not been for Reagan's willingness to go beyond intellectual criticism of communism and commit himself to a forward-leaning action plan for its removal, the chances are good that the gulag would still be entertaining its guests.

The force of this argument for today's purposes is that the Nervous Nellies who worried that the Reagan approach (for example, the hugely controversial deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles to Europe) was either reckless or destabilizing or both were wrong. Spectacularly so. And if their worries were misplaced then, they are, by extension, misplaced now.

Few conservatives will quarrel with the propositions that power has an indispensable role in international affairs and that the United States should harness its own power in the causes of human freedom, prosperity and justice. The area of debate is how in practical terms power is most effectively deployed and whether there are other elements in international relations that might achieve the desired ends just as effectively, and with much less danger of potentially catastrophic warfare. Some minor weasel wording aside, the authors leave no doubt about where they stand. They echo Tacitus: "If you want peace, prepare for war."

At first blush, this is a compelling argument. But in fact there is a mass of contrary evidence that suggests it makes little sense to confine America's international instrumentality to the sword and nothing but the sword. The authors are far too experienced in international analysis to be unaware of this evidence, and, to be fair, Nicholas Eberstadt credits, somewhat grudgingly, President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" with a contributory role in the improved situation on the Korean Peninsula. But the reluctance of his colleagues to grapple with evidence that does not support their thesis is noteworthy.

The most important contrary indicator is, of course, the Vietnam War. Here is a war fought for precisely the value-pregnant reasons embraced in this book--a war fought in precisely the same mindset of overwhelming American military superiority, with precisely the same form of paper surrogates. These considerations should give genuine pause, not simply an excuse to say that it is time to move beyond the Vietnam "syndrome." It was not a syndrome, it was a killing field. Similar considerations apply to the Bay of Pigs episode, also dismissed as a syndrome.

A more modern example comes from the Balkans. According to the book's thesis, the Kosovo war should have removed Milosevic. Yet the book explicitly expects him to "present continuing risks to the United States and its allies in the new millennium." The inconvenient truth is that it was the actions of brave, democratically-minded Serbs who played the determining role in overthrowing Milosevic, not NATO bombs. The same, of course, is true of the Cold War. Reagan's approach was certainly heroic, but let us not forget the dock workers of Gdansk (supported, incidentally, with significant funds from the AFL-CIO), the moral authority of Pope John Paul II, and the toughness of the Russian leadership in the face of coups. Let us also not romanticize the Reagan approach. At the Reykjavik summit he came extraordinarily close to coexistence by almost bargaining away his allies' nuclear forces. It is also fair to ask whether Israeli security has benefited from the sort of policies recommended in this book. Its withdrawal from Lebanon suggests that this is at least an open question.
Indeed, a central feature of the book is its inclination to ignore foreigners as actors in their own right. Apart from Reuel Marc Gerecht's essay--which makes a genuine, albeit hostile, attempt to understand Iranian politics--descriptions of foreign leaders are cartoonish. No attempt whatsoever is made, for example, to understand Iraqi motivations. This points to a common characteristic shared by much American foreign policy analysis: It is written by commentators whose primary background is in the academy or in Washington policy seminars. Such people often appear to inhabit a gated community of the mind. Overseas experience is not predominant.

Not surprisingly, however, overseas experience can provide perspectives that depart from those conceived in the Washington hot house. The account of the Cold War endgame as seen from the American embassy in Moscow in Jack Matlock's magnificent Autopsy of an Empire offers valuable detail of the diplomatic process that needs to be read alongside this book's interpretation. It is significant that in this volume Paul Wolfowitz, the only contributor with en poste diplomatic experience, offers significantly more nuanced recommendations on China. Wolfowitz rejects Cold War-type containment, favoring instead commercial engagement, working with China's domestic reformers, and capping Taiwan's independence aspirations. In stark contrast, Ross H. Munro describes China as a "rogue state" and proposes a three-front policy to "counter, confront and challenge China", as well as arming Taiwan to the teeth. These are not, as claimed, differences over a "set of tactics" within the book's prevailing ethos, but ones of fundamental philosophy.

This lack of meaningful and sustained interaction with foreigners produces a key conceptual error, namely, the sense that America's actions take place in a vacuum. In his masterful On the Origins of War, Donald Kagan (one of the contributors to this book, who, presumably in order to conform to the book's anti-appeasement thesis, presents a regrettably bowdlerized version of the run-up to World War II, much at odds with the sophisticated version in his scholarly work) sets out the locus classicus of realist thinking: "it was the growth of Athenian power, which presented an object of fear to the Spartans and forced them to go to war." This is an absolutely key point, well established in international relations theory as the "security paradox" and more popularly known as the "arms race." The authors seek to rebut the idea of countervailing actions by modern Spartas with the reassurance that, because the United States is "so powerful", such possibilities can be disregarded. Well, there is always a first time in history, but one sentence is far from an adequate rebuttal. Already there are warning signs that American moves on national missile defense will have just the opposite effect to that intended. Russia will slow the retirement of its ICBM fleet, China will accelerate development, and terrorists will exploit the ingenuity of subminiature nuclear or biological weaponry to pass over, through or around the Maginot Line of missile defense.

There is a curious flavor of Nietzschean "will" running through this book. There is a constant appeal to the need to mobilize the people to war. The "present dangers" of the title turn out not to be external threats but the possibility that the American people will not be sufficiently ready to lift up arms. There is a fascination with history's strong men, as if the "Triumph des Willen" was an admirable trait, albeit expressed as evil in certain of them. Whether this is really compatible with American ideals of limited, constitutional government by laws rather than by men is the subject of another essay.

Any book of this kind has omissions. The authors list Latin America as one. This is a pity. There are signs that the Bush administration will be more engaged in Latin America than its predecessor. Colombia will present an immediate challenge. Former drug czar Bill Bennett's description of Colombia as an "unabashed narco-state" suggests that the authors welcome the deepening U.S. military engagement there, but it would have been helpful to have a full article on the issue. (Bennett, incidentally, is responsible for one of the book's most bizarre statements, citing a medieval Serbian poem as an example of extreme nationalism, three hundred or so years before nationalism was invented. One might as well damn Shakespeare as an extreme nationalist for penning Henry V's anti-French fulminations before Agincourt or John of Gaunt's deathbed encomium to England.)

Two other omissions are so out of sight in the authors' Weltanschauung that they are not even listed in the list of omissions: Africa and the role of international law. The book's central thesis is that American overseas intervention is justified--indeed necessitated--because American values are universal. But do not West Africa and the Congo provide increasingly salient test cases for such a value-driven agenda? Their omission, presumably because they do not meet national interest criteria, leads to the suspicion that the authors' invocation of American values in other theaters functions more as rhetorical window-dressing than as an expression of core philosophy. With regard to the role of law, we should remember that we put the Nazis on trial inter alia for the crime of making war. If, as the authors suggest, they rehabilitate war as an acceptable instrument of national policy, there should perhaps be a passing reference to the legal ramifications.
In a work of broad intellectual sweep such as this, inconsistencies are bound to intrude. One practical instance is worth mentioning. In all their enthusiasm for finding latter-day Berlin Walls and tearing them down, the authors never mention the wall that actually exists in Europe, namely, the nearly thirty year-old UN-patrolled divide in Cyprus. Getting rid of this should be an attractive project for value-driven activists. But there is a practical problem. Making progress entails putting pressure on Turkey, a country that elsewhere in the book receives lavish praise for its contributions to the allegedly wimpish virtues of stability and classic national interest. Inconsistencies of this sort do not fatally undermine the book's central thesis, but they are a reminder that, in international relations, the supposedly watertight compartments of good and bad are more fluid than the authors would have us believe.

Balance is always needed in conducting, or in thinking about, foreign relations. There will be times when force is needed and others when force is entirely inappropriate. Munich may have been one of the latter times. Had Britain gone to war in 1938, the Battle of Britain would have taken place in 1939 and, with Royal Air Force rebuilding a year short, might well have been lost, with catastrophic results for history. This book's central omission is a failure to discuss these contingencies. Perhaps the fault lies in our slogans--which leads to a concluding plea: If the advocates of extreme muscularity will give up their perennial invocation of "Munich" as their all-purpose buzzword, the rest of us will give up "Vietnam" as ours. The MTV generation needs fresher examples. What about Sarajevo and Somalia?

Essay Types: Book Review