One hundred and twenty years after Bismarck’s pithy remark though, the Balkans were yet again aflame. The Bush administration brushed this aside with Secretary James Baker’s realist observation that “we have no dog in that fight.” President Clinton continued this hands-off policy, with Secretary Warren Christopher explaining that our inaction amounted to “doing all [we] can consistent with our national interest.”
Realists applauded both administrations for their restraint. Neocons, in contrast, mostly joined the camp urging U.S. action in the form of air attacks against the Serbs and/or supplying arms to the Bosnian Muslims. I and others of my general persuasion—for example, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Max Kampelman and Charles Fairbanks—argued that in addition to the considerable humanitarian stakes, security considerations also required some form of American intervention. The principle that the United States had advanced in respect to Kuwait—collective response to aggression—was being put to the test. Bosnia-Herzegovina, however fledgling a country, was a UN member recognized by most other states, and it was being subjected to aggression from Serbia. Moreover, it was a European state. Upholding the peace of Europe had been part of the bedrock of U.S. policy since 1945. To tolerate aggression there, neocons believed, would be to invite it elsewhere.
The Clinton administration finally brought an end to three and a half years of mayhem after the loss of some two hundred thousand lives, mostly civilian. The action required to bring the slaughter to a halt proved to be extremely modest: a few weeks of aerial bombardment plus some training of Croatian and Muslim forces. This reversal of U.S. policy seems to have been motivated in part by Clinton’s political concerns and in part by worries that the Atlantic alliance’s disarray and impotence was sucking the vital spirit out of NATO. This inference is reinforced by NATO’s subsequent rush to intervene in Kosovo, even though the humanitarian issues were much smaller and the legal basis was nil.
From a neocon perspective, our intervention in Bosnia should have come sooner. Realists, I suppose, regret that we ever intervened.
Unlike Bosnia, where, at least in the eyes of neocons, humanitarian and strategic issues were interlaced, the other most pointed humanitarian episodes of that era, in Somalia and Rwanda, admittedly entailed no strategic dimension. In Somalia, intervention to stanch a famine was undertaken by realists (George H. W. Bush at the urging of Colin Powell), but critics would have a fair point if they said that the action had more in common with the spirit of neoconservatism than of realism. Some half-million Somali lives were in fact rescued, but the episode ended in the deaths of nineteen American soldiers, impelling an abrupt U.S. departure. The moral of this episode, in terms of its implications for our debate, is murky.
Much clearer is the case of Rwanda, where upwards of half a million people were slaughtered on account of their race, the truest case of genocide since Hitler’s annihilation of European Jewry. This massacre was accomplished in mere months, implying a rate of killing even faster than the Nazi death machine. All the while, the United States assiduously refused to lift a finger in response and blocked any UN action in the Security Council for fear it would entail U.S. involvement. Here was a great triumph of realism.
FINALLY, LET us turn to the events of 9/11 and their aftermath. Americans had been murdered by Middle Eastern terrorists on scores of occasions over the preceding thirty years and in ever-larger batches, starting with the murders of U.S. diplomats Cleo Noel Jr. and George Curtis Moore by Black September in Khartoum in 1973, through the bombing of the U.S. embassy and later the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, to the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 and of U.S. military housing in Dhahran in 1996, to the attack on the USS Cole in 2000—among many other bombings, hijackings and assassinations. The 9/11 events constituted a climacteric. Most Americans agreed on the need to go after al-Qaeda. But the evidence that many young Muslims were ready to kill themselves for the pleasure of killing us, and that their deeds enjoyed the sympathy of a substantial minority of their various countrymen, suggested that we needed a deeper strategy, as well.
Liberals argued that terrorists were motivated by misery, and that the solution lay in lifting the world out of poverty. Two things took the force out of this argument. One was the neglect to specify how, exactly, we might achieve the unoriginal goal of universal abundance. The second was that most actual terrorists turned out not to be poor.
Bush, instead, set out to precipitate change in the political culture of the Middle East so that it would breed fewer people ready to commit or endorse terrorism. This was a strategy of unmistakably neocon coloration. Why did Bush, who came of realist stock, embrace it? Because realism had virtually nothing to suggest in the face of terrorism or jihadism.
The closest thing to a realist solution was to break America’s friendship with Israel in the hope of allaying the Muslim world’s anger. To be sure, many Muslims are angry at America’s support for Israel. But the preponderant share of violence in the Middle East does not involve Israel; and the Muslim world’s hatred for Israel is only a symptom of a deeper rage at the West for enjoying a superiority of power and status that Muslims feel rightly belongs to themselves. In short, this solution is as unconvincing as it is unprincipled, and the realists were unable to persuade many Americans of its validity. At a loss to understand why, the least decent of them turned to conspiracy theories.
The war in Iraq grew out of Bush’s neocon strategy, whether or not it was a necessary part of that strategy. Since the war turned into a fiasco, neocons rightly receive much blame, just as they or their ideological predecessors did over the war in Vietnam. But Vietnam was a flawed and painful episode in what proved ultimately to be a sound, even brilliant, strategy. The strategy that led us into Iraq may also in the end be vindicated. Meanwhile, neocons take their lumps for Iraq. But realism remains as barren of answers to the threat of global terrorism as it was to the threat of global Communism.
Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.