Thursday, August 18, 2005

Another swing of the pendulum?

Gideon Rose, editor of the influential journal Foreign Affairs, writes that idealist leaders present and past have taken the country into ill-considered wars in response to some undefined American urge to go "have an adventure" abroad, like taking a semester in Europe during college. This analysis ignores the crucial motivating element behind every war: fear.

In explaining the recent Bush shift away from the idealism of the neocons, Rose asserts:

Seen in proper perspective, in other words, the Bush administration's signature efforts represent not some durable, world-historical shift in America's approach to foreign policy but merely one more failed idealistic attempt to escape the difficult trade-offs and unpleasant compromises that international politics inevitably demand - even from the strongest power since Rome. Just as they have so many times before, the realists have come in after an election to offer some adult supervision and tidy up the joint. This time it's simply happened under the nose of a victorious incumbent rather than his opponent (which may account for the failure to change the rhetoric along with the policy).

BEING fully American rather than devotees of classic European realpolitik, the realists-today represented most prominently by Ms. Rice and her team at the State Department-offer not different goals but a calmer and more measured path toward the same ones. They still believe in American power and the global spread of liberal democratic capitalism. But they seek legitimate authority rather than mere material dominance, favor cost-benefit analyses rather than ideological litmus tests, and prize good results over good intentions.

So what can we expect next? A spell of calm without dramatic visionary campaigns or new wars, along with an effort to gradually wind down the current conflict while leaving Iraq reasonably stable but hardly a liberal democracy. This is likely to play well - until domestic carping over the realists' supposedly limited vision starts the wheel of American foreign policy turning once again.

Rose has vaguely attributed our bad wars to "idealism" when there is a simpler explanation. Politicians have taken the country into wars of choice that ended badly in scary, uncertain times to console a fearful public anxious for some kind of action. Whether such action was defensive or offensive didn't really matter in the eyes of an uninformed, frightened populace. Any offensive action would be justifiable as self-defense, since the country perceived itself to be in danger from an outside threat. (Whether or not the perception was initially accurate is kind of irrelevant. A cornered animal, in addition to being more dangerous than usual, is itself at greater risk of being attacked.)

In the cases of Vietnam and Iraq, the specific location of the war was not as important as the circumstances in which the U.S. found itself at the time. At a time of high tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, shortly after Cuba had fallen to the communists and after the country had narrowly avoided catastrophe during the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK and LBJ needed a war to make the American people feel more secure against the perceived communist threat. Really, any war would do. It didn't so much matter where it took place—Afghanistan, Guatemala, or Angola would have worked just as well as Vietnam [Update: Afghanistan would not have worked, since fighting there would almost certainly have drawn the USSR into a major confrontation]. The important thing was that that the government be seen as "doing something" to confront the communist threat without drawing the Soviets into a direct confrontation. The same dynamic was at work in 2002-2003. The invasion of Afghanistan had generally gone well, but Bin Laden was still at large and the mood in the U.S. remained tense and uncertain. Bush decided to go for broke, knowing that so soon after 9/11, he'd have a relatively free hand. A fearful, uninformed public acquiesced, not bothering to ask for much of an explanation.

I don't know the history of the Korean war that well, but if memory serves, MacArthur became overconfident after early success and pushed on past the 38th parallel towards China, drawing the Chinese into the war and ensuring a protracted, bloody conflict. The problem there was not the idealism of Truman, as Rose suggests, but the folly of his lieutenant. Nixon did not technically extricate the U.S. from Vietnam, as Rose indicates, so much as he was pushed out after escalating the bombing campaign in a failed attempt to win the war. Also, he had already resigned by the time the U.S. was finally forced to leave Saigon. The limited wars in Kosovo and Iraq 1991 were less ambitious and enjoyed wide international support, and occurred during periods of relative peace and stability. They were not driven by the panicky urge to strike out at a shadowy enemy, as were the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Rose alludes to Clinton's debacle in Somalia, but fails to mention the 800,000 Rwandans that Clinton watched be slaughtered rather than face a public still angry over the American lives lost in Africa.

Rose tries to link America's misadventures abroad with idealism, but the distinctions between realist and idealist presidents that he makes break down under scrutiny. And he fails to acknowledge that the U.S. has a history of launching bad wars under particular circumstances—when its people are afraid and its leaders decide that doing anything is better than doing nothing.

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