“These Colors Don’t Run.” By the time the controversy over Vietnam had reached its height, that defiant slogan had become in its way emblematic of an era. Accompanied by a prosaic image of Old Glory, it appeared across the vast expanse of middle America: stuck to the bumper of family station wagons, plastered on the side of semi-trailer cabs, and displayed in roadside cafes. In the midst of a most unpopular war, such sentiments testified to the persistence of grassroots support for America’s armed forces. As was the case with any ugly conflict, that support had originated in nothing more complicated than the sympathy felt for young men dispatched into combat, blended no doubt with a tincture of red-blooded patriotism. Long before the war reached its melancholy end, however, much more was involved.
In more progressive quarters, sympathy for those being sent to Vietnam was notable by its absence. The cadres animating what became the antiwar movement-a movement energized by a resurgence of political radicalism-could find no shred of merit in the American cause in Southeast Asia. From the very outset, they reviled the war without stint and without qualification. Those Americans who directed the war they abominated as dissemblers, if not criminals. Those who fought it they viewed as dupes. Only fools would participate willingly in such an enterprise. Those who understood the score took to the streets or headed north to Canada.
Paradoxically, opponents of the war also saw it as a godsend. By inflating Vietnam into a symbol of rot and corruption in the very soul of America, the antiwar movement could transform the real issue into one of politics in the broadest definition of the term. This was the movement’s true aim. From the outset, many antiwar activists were less interested in vying for the control of distant rice paddies and jungles than in seizing universities, editorial offices, and the corridors of political power at home. Who ruled Saigon was not the issue, who ruled Washington was. Vietnam was thus nothing less than the opening salvo in a struggle to determine the values that would predominate in American culture.
Writing from Oxford near the end of the 1960s, a war-resister like Bill Clinton could position himself with exquisite care among those “still loving their country but loathing the military.” Perhaps Clinton’s attempt to have it both ways-to align himself with the forces of conscience and dissent while remaining a true-blue patriot-was guileless, the cri d’coeur of an idealist grappling with a complex moral predicament. Or perhaps this ambitious youth, intent on maintaining his “political viability within the system,” tailored his views accordingly. Either way, Clinton was atypical.
Few of those who cut their eyeteeth on the antiwar movement troubled themselves with such distinctions. Rather than loathing the military even as they cherished their country, most antiwar activists loathed the military because it represented the essence of all that they despised. This scorn for the military mirrored the Movement’s contempt for the qualities that it ascribed to the nation as a whole: shallowness and hypocrisy, widespread inequity and gross injustice, suffocating conventions of “acceptable” behavior that masked a systemic reliance on repression and violence. Unlike Bill Clinton, those who embraced the counterculture did not covet positions as influential insiders; in raising a vast clamor of protest against the system, they sought to dismantle it.
As that clamor increased, the ordinary citizens who instinctively supported “American boys” sent to fight endorsed at least one tenet of the antiwar thesis. They began to grasp-if at first only fleetingly-that more was at stake in the war’s conduct and outcome than they had comprehended. Holding Vietnam itself in no particular regard, having little appreciation for the geopolitical implications of victory or defeat, they came to accept the notion that the war did somehow constitute a summary judgment of America itself. Vietnam was becoming the prism through which all previous American history was now interpreted. Yet their view as to what that history signified was altogether different from that of the antiwar left. Rejecting the shrill assertion that the war was exposing the American experiment as fraudulent, they insisted upon seeing themselves as well-intentioned and the nation as fundamentally virtuous.
This stubborn belief in America reflected a deeply conservative outlook, albeit a brand of conservatism that defied strict categorization. It derived less from dogma than from tradition and temperament, an outlook that rested on a series of widely accepted prescriptions as to what was right, what was necessary, and what was impermissible in both private life and the public square. It was emphatically nationalistic.
Groping for some way to testify to that outlook, Americans energized by their antipathy toward the left’s smug self-righteousness found a partial answer in the American military itself. Reaffirming their commitment to the war effort-and to the military as a manifestation of their America-offered a visible means of resisting the agenda of the left. What had begun as a patriotic reflex thus became an impassioned expression of politics.
As long as the antics of protest monopolized media attention, this backlash attracted little notice. Yet perceptive analysts saw it as a potentially formidable political force. In the arena of national politics, conservative ideologues were quick to exploit that potential. Thus, from the mid-1960s onward, conservative intellectuals, conservative polemicists, and conservative political leaders-themselves invariably in the minority-thrust themselves into the role of the military’s advocate and protector. Once mainstream Democrats caved in to the extreme left and disowned the debacle to which they had given birth in Vietnam, the identification between conservatives and the military became pronounced. It was almost a point of honor: as the left’s criticism of the armed forces escalated-for My Lai and Kent State, for racial unrest and drug abuse in the ranks, for cost overruns on lavishly appointed weapons, above all, for failing to win-the right stood firm as the military’s chief advocate. More than any other factor, this steadfast defense of the military accelerated the metamorphosis of conservatism that paralleled the rise of the radical left. For generations, conservatism had languished as a refuge for plutocrats. Now it transformed itself into a movement in tune with the values and sympathies of middle America.
In the years that followed, observers of the American scene came to accept the roles as permanently fixed: the left launched slings and arrows at the military and the right did its best to deflect them. The division seemed foreordained. It was soon all but forgotten that things had not always been that way.
To be sure, postwar American defense policy had never been entirely harmonious. Yet prior to Vietnam a tradition of bipartisanship had sustained a rough consensus regarding such matters as how to arm America and how to employ its military strength. Granted, from the earliest days of the Cold War, liberals professed a certain skepticism about military affairs. That thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles had made war “obsolete” was self-evident. That force had lost whatever modest political utility it had once possessed was obvious. Western military establishments were at best a necessary evil, tolerated by progressives for purposes of deterrence, but even then suspected of harboring Strangelovian fanatics and heedless spendthrifts. If the imperatives of national security deflected attention from problems at home, it did so against a backdrop of complaint from the second-generation New Dealers who dominated the postwar left. Yet for at least two decades after World War II, the paladins of liberalism who blamed untended domestic needs on the Pentagon’s insatiable appetite for aircraft carriers and long-range bombers nonetheless accepted the necessity of stocking America’s arsenals with whatever hardware fighting the cold War might require. Adlai Stevenson and LBJ and Hubert Humphrey had no trouble squaring their commitment to liberal principles with their support for American military might.
In changing all that, Vietnam changed American politics in ways that seemed irreversible. Not even the fall of Saigon could bank the fires that the long war had fueled. The war ended, but attitudes toward defense remained polarized. Thus in the aftermath of Vietnam, defense policy-the forms that military power should take, the purposes for which it should be used-continued to describe one of the principal fault lines dividing right and left. Military policy provided an arena in which the dissonance of the 1960s continued to reverberate.
American military policies and the American military establishment itself had become surrogates for a conflict rooted in irreconcilable differences over the nation’s proper role in the world and, by extension, over the content of American political culture. Henceforth, any issue related to the use of American power beyond the boundaries of the United States triggered fierce wrangling. Having jettisoned the old principle of politics stopping at the water’s edge, Americans could devise no replacement.
Of course, from its very inception that principle had rested on a fiction, one that had portrayed the ends of American military policy in terms that none could find objectionable: the defense of freedom and of America itself. The reality had long been quite different, far more complex, and not quite so benign. From the outset of the Cold War, military power had been crucial to creating and then sustaining throughout the West the political deference that had elevated the United States to the status of unchallenged leader of the Free World. American military power underwrote the expectation that in allied councils America’s wishes would prevail, whether the issue at hand involved resisting Soviet expansionism, defining “universal” rights, or prescribing the rules of international commerce. Talk about democratic ideals, the vitality of the American economy, and the allure of American pop culture was well and good. But absent the nuclear arsenal of the United States, its system of far-flung bases, its garrisons maintained at flashpoints around the globe, the West would not have been so quick to conform to American expectations of how the world should work.
Thus, “The Pentagon” and all that it implied did define an essential, even preeminent, facet of the nation’s identity. In this sense, large defense budgets and an assertive military posture testified to the overarching metaphor of the entire postwar era-that of a “strong America” resisting the forces of darkness. For left liberals from the 1960s onward, every component of that metaphor was anathema, starting with the fact that it was the creation of an all-white fraternity of well-to-do power-brokers who were presumed to call the shots in American government. Specifically, however, the left despised the military establishment that was both symbol of this “strong America” as well as its essential prop.
American humiliation in Vietnam only deepened the left’s antagonism for a national identity defined in terms of military strength. left liberals derided the very notion of a “Free World” engaged in a great Manichean struggle. They denounced any exercise of American power that had as its declared purpose resistance to communism. As penance for American sins in Vietnam, the left demanded that the United States henceforth remain militarily passive. To ordinary citizens, however, the left’s continuing anti-militarism aimed at more than simply abandoning the anti-Communist strategy to which the nation had subscribed since the late 1940s. It was integral to the war being fought to overturn the dominant culture, inseparable from the left’s scorn for the values esteemed by the right-a staid, middlebrow sensibility, a market economy, a democratic political system that granted limited powers to the state, and not least, a moral order derived from Judeo-Christian traditions.
Long after the war had ended, therefore, debates over defense continued to be debates over politics writ large. The issue immediately at hand might involve developing a new weapons system, deploying a few dozen “trainers” to assist an ally, fixing the aggregate level of defense spending, or even the opportunities for military service accorded to oppressed minorities. On the surface, the controversy of the moment might appear to be a narrow technical matter; yet both left and right understood that the underlying stakes were fundamental.
That a whole line of post-1960s liberal standard-bearers should fail to grasp this point and prove only too willing to preside over the erosion of American military power marked them in the eyes of many voters-including large numbers who had formerly considered themselves loyal Democrats-as not quite trustworthy. This became the story of post-Vietnam presidential politics: in places like Queens and Dubuque and Salt Lake City, military strength had come to be freighted with political and cultural sensitivities; the wooly-headed inability of George
McGovern and Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis to respond to those sensibilities contributed to their undoing. Indeed, impatience with Carter’s acquiescence in the decline of American power gave a critical boost to the conservative ascendancy of the late 1970s that culminated in Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency. Nor did Reagan doubt that reversing that decline was central to his mandate.
Thus, with the left having gutted the Pentagon’s budget in retribution for defeat in southeast Asia, the Reagan Administration sponsored the build-up that restored the hollow force to effectiveness. Reagan’s defense initiatives made the 1980s the high water mark of conservative/military collaboration. So, for example, when liberals shied nervously away from confrontational initiatives such as modernizing NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons, conservatives strongly supported such moves. When liberals warned that American opposition to Marxist insurgencies in Central America would lead to new Vietnams, conservatives thought it worth the risk-and anted up to support the Contras and the besieged government of El Salvador. When liberals derided Star Wars, conservatives invested huge sums in what was by all odds a chancy scheme. By the time Reagan left office, political divisions over defense policies had come to take the form of a parallelism that seemed a fixture of American politics: Right : Hawk :: Left : Dove.
Then, with stunning suddenness, two events-the fall of the Berlin Wall and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait-scrambled this alignment. In winning the Cold War, the United States won an epic victory and became the world’s only superpower. With Americans barely having begun to consider the implications of this triumph, the Gulf War revealed just how lofty was the pinnacle on which the United States now found itself perched. Together, these developments transformed the way Americans thought about defense.
Although a far lesser event than the end of the Cold War and although many of its proclaimed lessons would quickly prove misleading, Desert Storm in particular upended previous American attitudes toward war and the use of force, an upheaval felt on the left no less than on the right. Indeed, the apparently flawless execution of Desert Storm-eminently suited to the nation’s pronounced sense of righteousness, voracious appetite for entertainment, and limited attention span-made it all the more disorienting.
Truly, the campaign to liberate Kuwait provided something for everyone. Thanks to monumental miscalculations by Saddam Hussein, President George Bush donned the mantle of world statesman and with approval ratings soaring above 90 percent made himself a sure bet (so said the experts) for reelection. Doing what they do best, the media rendered complex reality as caricature, packaging war as melodrama, complete with innocents and oppressors and a posse dispatched to the rescue, climaxing in a spectacular shoot-out with villains vanquished, heroes triumphant, and justice done-the entire proceedings beamed around the world in living color. The uniformed services meanwhile got the big win for which they had yearned, silencing (finally) their critics and affirming the legitimacy of their profession by demonstrating that real war-army versus army, with generals in charge and victory as the outcome-was not obsolete. Thrilling to a spectacle that outdid even the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four (and conveniently filling the void between those two events), Joe Sixpack derived huge satisfaction from this reassurance that the United States was once again indisputably Number One. Little wonder that Americans in every quarter saw in the Gulf War portents of even better things to come.
Underlying these expectations was the belief that warfare itself was in the midst of a revolutionary transformation. If Desert Storm proved anything, it proved that technology was changing war fundamentally and irrevocably. Satellites, sensors, computers, lasers, high-speed data links, night vision devices, “low observables”-the panoply of high-tech systems that figured so prominently in our images of the Gulf War-were converting what was formerly a blunt instrument into a device that advanced nations could employ with hitherto unimaginable precision and with confidence of achieving prompt results at tolerable human and material cost. No more slogging through long, bloody, indecisive campaigns. No more wholesale slaughter of noncombatants as an incidental accompaniment of war. No more quagmires.
Absolutely integral to the emerging military orthodoxy was a subtext of two related propositions. The first was that the revolution in warfare reversed the trend that had reduced to the point of invisibility the utility of force. In an astonishing turnabout, shapers of opinion began to impute to force wondrous new applications. As a result, in the aftermath of Desert Storm expectations regarding the uses to which a high-tech military might be put mushroomed. That the military might henceforth assume responsibility for tasks like shielding the persecuted, providing sustenance to the starving, and disciplining the recalcitrant struck many as eminently sensible. When it came to correcting the world’s ills, where diplomacy or economic leverage or the pressure of public opinion failed, a couple of smart bombs just might do the trick. Should a dollop of force not suffice, then a Desert Storm-style air campaign promised to solve the problem in short order.
The second proposition-one that found as much favor outside the United States as at home-was no less important. It postulated that among the world’s military establishments the well-trained and superbly equipped American forces that had vanquished Saddam were uniquely suited to capitalize on this revolution. As a result, the revolution in military affairs empowered the United States with a new capacity to influence the course of world affairs-if Americans would simply muster the vision and the will to do so. Thus the optimism of President Bush at a press conference immediately following the Gulf War-an optimism that pervaded enlightened circles: “Because of what’s happened we won’t have to use U.S. forces around the world. I think when we say something that is objectively correct-like don’t take over a neighbor or you’re going to bear some responsibility-people are going to listen.”
Enthusiasm for this new orthodoxy transcended the usual political categories. Thus, once the liberation of Kuwait had been accomplished, the partisanship that had characterized discussion of American defense policy since Vietnam eased perceptibly. Liberal antagonism toward the military softened. As the nation indulged in an orgy of self-congratulation to celebrate success in the Gulf, differences between left and right on military matters began to blur. Liberals and conservatives together embraced the thesis that “the troops” and their high-tech paraphernalia personified all that was best about America. With the Emerald City of a harmonious world order shimmering in the near distance, voices from across the political spectrum professed to believe that American military might would pave the Yellow Brick Road leading to the city’s gates.
Nothing more clearly exemplified this depoliticization of military affairs than the presidential campaign of 1992. When it came to defense, the opposing candidates-one a career Cold Warrior, the other a self-styled New Democrat who had evaded service in Vietnam-had remarkably little to say. On the few occasions when the subject did come up, their views were nearly indistinguishable. Should the American battle fleet include fourteen carrier battle groups or twelve? Efforts to portray these differences of opinion as significant foundered on the fact that, in either case, the United States Navy would retain more carriers than all the remaining navies of the world combined. So similar were the positions of the two candidates that, in a campaign widely perceived to revolve around the need for “change,” the ends for which the world-champion American military establishment might henceforth be employed was largely a nonissue.
In his infrequent references to defense, Bill Clinton pointedly distanced himself from the soft views associated with previous presidential aspirants in the McGovern and Dukakis mold, proclaiming his commitment to a policy that “keeps America strong.” Yet this had less to do with substance than with assuming correct attitudes. Clinton took pains to show that he now held in highest regard those who had served or were serving in uniform. Recalling his attendance at a Little Rock parade honoring Arkansas’ returning Gulf War heroes, for example, candidate Clinton spoke of the pride he had come to feel for all veterans. “I’ll never forget how moved I was as I watched them march down the street to our cheers, and saw the Vietnam veterans finally being given the honor they deserved all along.”
No longer loathing the armed forces, neither did Clinton view the use of American military power as repugnant. Indeed, he expected the military to be a real asset in shaping the emerging post-Cold War order. Clinton envisioned the American military playing a key role in a proposed International Rapid Deployment Force that would find wide employment “standing guard at the borders of countries threatened by aggression, preventing attacks on civilians, providing humanitarian relief, and combatting terrorism and drug trafficking.” Not that Clinton would hesitate to act unilaterally when the occasion required. Pressed by reporters to explain how he would resolve the Bosnian imbroglio, for example, candidate Clinton vowed that he “would begin with air power, against the Serbs, to try to restore the basic conditions of humanity.”
A newly anointed champion of the left and former war-resister promoting aerial bombardment to “restore the basic conditions of humanity” to an obscure corner of Europe embroiled in a vicious conflict: thus had American thinking about the utility of force, inspired by the dubious promise of Desert Storm, finally overcome the Vietnam syndrome. Thus, too, had it become decoupled from considerations of strategy and calculations of national interest.
Amidst this clamor for militarism-in-pursuit-of- worthy-causes, some few dissenting voices attempted to make themselves heard. Notable among them were the mandarins of the foreign policy establishment. Although indifferent to the depoliticization of defense-apart from maintaining the nominal party affiliation that is a prerequisite for appointment to positions of power, mandarins do not stoop to mere politics-members of the foreign policy elite viewed the decoupling of military policy from strategy as a matter of grave concern and a professional embarrassment. Although mandarins cultivate the pretense of being above partisan matters, statecraft and grand strategy rouse their passions. Such matters, after all, justify their existence as a privileged class.
Over the course of forty years, regardless of who might occupy the Oval Office or control the Congress, the purpose of the mandarins had remained constant: to keep the ship of state steady on the internationalist course charted by that legendary cohort of “Wise Men” who had devised America’s postwar strategy, casting a weather eye for shifts in the popular mood that might jeopardize that strategy. By 1991, however, success beyond the wildest imaginings of the architects of containment had left American strategy badly in need of refurbishing. With public opinion even giddier than usual after the Gulf War, the mandarins believed it imperative that someone puncture unrealistic expectations about the era now dawning and keep the nation on an even strategic keel. Someone, in other words, needed to talk sense to the American people. Not for a moment did the mandarins doubt that responsibility for doing so was quite properly theirs.
In short order, a flurry of high-sounding speculations and pronouncements began spewing forth from prestigious addresses between Cambridge and Washington, each proffering some label to hang on this new era and each prescribing new approaches that would tie together the several strands of American policy, military and otherwise. Competition among would-be George Kennans aspiring to become the seer of the new age was indeed fierce. Yet none of these efforts to impose a new grand strategy from on high took hold.
It was not for want of imagination or originality that this effort failed. Rather, the nation’s changing political temper had combined with the new military orthodoxy to deprive the mandarins of the authority to which they had become accustomed. Although Henry and Zbig et al. still held forth on the op-ed pages of the New York Times or in prestigious journals, few paid attention. For Americans eager to turn their attention to an accumulation of domestic complaints-a stagnant economy, crime in the streets, woefully inadequate schools, the health care “crisis”-elite reflections about geopolitics, however cogent, no longer carried much weight. Unless it translated into jobs for Queens or Dubuque, geopolitics itself didn’t especially matter. Rather than re-upping for the obligations and hefty price tag of some new Global Strategy, Americans looked to leaders who would direct their attention to matters at home. As the stunning rejection of George Bush in November 1992 suggested, popular gratitude for even splendid feats of statesmanship was ephemeral.
Besides, had not Desert Storm itself demonstrated that the conventions of strategy were themselves becoming obsolete? Never especially comfortable with the classic dictum that defined war as an extension of politics, popularizers of the new orthodoxy were now able to go Clausewitz one better: war bid fair to supersede politics. Throughout the Cold War, doctrines pertaining to force and its use had constituted only one element of a larger overall national strategy. Formulating strategy was understood to involve setting priorities and making choices. It had required calculated judgments about what the nation must do, what it need not do, and what it should not even attempt, a process that assumed a capacity to discriminate between goals defined as essential and those deemed merely desirable. Allocating limited resources forced trade-offs between competing objectives. Vietnam had, if anything, sharpened this process. By politicizing everything related to defense, the division between left and right meant that any use of American military power was subjected to intense scrutiny, that very prospect suppressing any inclinations to stray from what strategy itself could justify.
Now those constraints eased. Trade-offs and compromises no longer seemed necessary. In elevating the United States to a position of unchallenged primacy, the twin victories of the Cold War (which inspired serious people to declare that history had ended with our side on top) and of Desert Storm (which persuaded others that the Pentagon had unlocked the innermost secrets of warfare) suggested that this nation at least would henceforth operate in a realm beyond strategy, the admonitions of Henry, Zbig, and the Council on Foreign Relations notwithstanding.
Perhaps none of this would have mattered if- pace George Bush-people had “listened” to the presumed lessons of the Gulf War. Alas, they did not. It soon became evident that the post-Cold War international order would be anything but orderly, a development that might properly have inspired caution but instead flushed a covey of neo-Wilsonians eager to create a humane and democratic world and contemptuous of those pusillanimous souls reluctant to join their crusade.
Combined with the void left by the demise of containment, this drumbeat of advocacy swept aside the old notion that force was properly an option of last resort. The suggestion-seldom stated outright-that military power might henceforth constitute a preferred instrument of American statecraft created a mood conducive to unprecedented activism. Neither restrained by politics nor guided by strategy, policymakers casting about for a basis for action took their cues from opinion polls and television. In short order, such serendipity produced operations Provide Comfort (northern Iraq) and Restore Hope (Somalia), the names alone speaking volumes about the new orientation of American defense policy.
It should be emphasized that enthusiasm for this new activism was not confined to a fringe of leftish do-gooders. It pervaded the mainstream. With their reflexive support for all things military, many conservatives went along for the ride. To illustrate the point, one magazine editorial may stand for many. In summoning the United States to “recognize and act upon the promise of the Gulf War,” the magazine’s editors advocate “the wise use” of America’s “battle-tested technology” to “promote a more peaceful world.” Just as the Royal Navy in an earlier era had “employed gunboats to help suppress the slave trade and to deter or punish foreign bullies,” so the United States today can employ “smart bombs and cruise missiles” to “obliterate aggressive forces with minimal casualties of our own.” “Astonishingly,” comment the editors, “we haven’t done that in Serbia, whose murderous acts are . . . setting a horrid example.” This call to arms captures the essence of the new orthodoxy about war: the rapture for technology; the certainty that a high-tech military provides handy solutions to otherwise daunting problems; the belief that possession of this capability bestows on Americans not simply an opportunity but an obligation to correct the world’s ills. The source of this counsel? Not some obscure periodical of fashionably progressive leanings, but the sleek and presumably hardheaded Capitalist Tool, Forbes .
Thus, by the time Bill Clinton became commander-in-chief in January of 1993, whimsy and expediency had already achieved virtual primacy among the determinants of American military policy. Although the Clintonites themselves were not primarily responsible for this unraveling of American thinking about defense, throughout the campaign season-particularly in their glib promises to sort out such sticky problems as Bosnia and Haiti-they had endorsed the premises of the new orthodoxy. Once in office, they embraced it as their own.
This embrace was not without irony. The Clinton succession after all derives much of its putative significance from the assertion that it brings to power the generation forged by Vietnam. That rendering is, at best, imprecise. More accurately, the Clinton Administration brings to power those who evaded service in Vietnam or who opposed the war and still wear that opposition as a badge of honor and indication of enlightenment. By contrast, those who actually fought the war tend to be conspicuous in the Administration’s inner circle by their absence.
Thus does Providence manifest its quirky sense of humor. Those who in the tenderness of youth decried the “arrogance” of American power and the evils inherent in the promiscuous use of force were handed a military instrument of awesome capability at a time when the depoliticization of defense policy and confusion with regard to strategy loosened the usual constraints on its use.
Arguably, such a generation, having imbibed the “lessons” of Vietnam, would have proceeded in gingerly fashion: appraising with circumspection the threats, near-term and distant, facing the nation; evaluating realistically-even skeptically-the utility of military power in responding to those threats; striving to convey by its actions, in matters large and small, a sense of resolution along with modesty of purpose.
Yet in military matters the Clinton Administration during its first year exhibited neither clarity nor realism nor restraint. Instead, it engaged in a series of initiatives notable for being either half-hearted or half-baked. By claiming that important U.S. interests were engaged in Bosnia and then doing next to nothing to resolve that tragedy, the Clinton Administration gave credence to the charge of American complicity in the ongoing slaughter. Yet as the Balkans blazed, a well-heeled American armored corps rested comfortably in its casernes throughout Germany. Preparing for what? The revival of the Warsaw Pact?
Meanwhile, through fecklessness or inattention, the Administration shambled to the brink of its own quagmire in Somalia. The failure of a manhunt aimed at eliminating the Somali warlord implicated in killing several Americans-a failure resulting in still more American deaths-presented Clinton with the unpalatable choices of open-ended escalation or humiliating withdrawal. Opting for the latter, American officials rehabilitated their erstwhile prey, according him VIP treatment and squiring him about in U.S. military aircraft.
Administration efforts to resolve the Haitian crisis likewise led to fiasco. Vowing to restore democracy to Haiti without considering what that commitment might require, the Administration drifted into an unwanted showdown, one that it evaded by allowing the vaunted American military to be “dissed” by Haitian thugs masquerading as soldiers.
Finally, as 1993 drew to a close, Clinton faced the first test of his commitment to nonproliferation. Having declared emphatically that North Korea would not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons, the President was immediately undercut by hand-wringing experts who lamented that American options were limited and that in any conflict with the North-backward and isolated even by Communist standards-heavy U.S. casualties would be unavoidable. The White House was soon backpedalling, confessing that it might tacitly accept whatever nuclear capability North Korea had already managed to develop.
Thus did the American people, their lofty expectations and good intentions battered by a succession of incidents, discover that the legacy of the Cold War and the Gulf was not to eliminate controversies about what it meant to defend America. The real legacy was to create new controversies in place of the old.
How will this discovery affect the constituency that since Vietnam has provided the core of support for a “strong America,” that votes for candidates committed to a powerful defense establishment, and that sees reflected in the military the values they espouse for the nation as a whole? Two alternatives exist. One is that they will find it possible to rally to this President despite his early bungling as commander-in-chief. They may, for example, find the Administration’s much-touted vision of “enlarging democracy and enlarging markets” worthy of their support. Requiring defense outlays only slightly less munificent than those of the Cold War, the so-called Strategy of Enlargement-with its whiff of righteous (and commercially advantageous) neo-imperialism-promises to satisfy the most ardent proponent of American globalism. As a substitute for their old mission of deterring Soviet expansionism, America’s post-Cold War armed forces, their “deployability” and “flexibility” enhanced at substantial expense, can busy themselves with “regional contingencies”-a term of sufficient elasticity to apply to virtually any crisis: yesterday Somalia, today North Korea, tomorrow who knows what threat to democracy and free enterprise?
Yet the furor provoked by a minor setback like last October’s firefight in Mogadishu hints at a second possibility. Middle America’s views about what it means to defend the nation and how best to implement that defense may be on the verge of a great transformation. As was the case in the 1960s, military considerations alone will not explain the attitudes about to emerge.
Recall that a mix of both strategic and political concerns motivated ordinary citizens during the 1960s and beyond to persist in their vision of a “strong America.” Having concluded after World War II that the Soviet Union was a dangerous and implacable foe, they would not budge from that belief. Thus, despite Vietnam (and sundry other miscalculations), middle Americans refused to abandon what the left derisively tagged the Anti-Communist Crusade. Ill-disposed toward radicalism in any form, these same Americans were downright hostile to any effort to upend the status quo within the United States itself. Thus, despite the weight of the counterculture’s critique in the 1960s, they clung to the conservative disposition that was their political birthright.
Today both international conditions and the nation’s domestic political setting have changed. The Soviet Union has vanished. As an alternative to democratic capitalism, communism has been permanently discredited. As a result, the strategic aims that justified popular support for the huge American military establishment of the Cold War have been fully secured. The likelihood of any credible near-term challenge to American security is remote-whether mounted by an imperial power comparable to Germany in 1914-1918 or Japan in the 1930s or growing out of ideological competition such as led to the European War of 1939-1945 and to the Cold War.
To be sure, the United States will not lack for nations and movements bearing it ill-will. Yet absent a truly ominous threat, the compliant citizens who filled the Pentagon’s coffers will become more insistent about asking what their tax dollars are purchasing. They will want to know why-to cite current examples-procurement of the C17 cargo plane continues despite acknowledged design flaws and cost overruns so massive that the price tag of a single aircraft exceeds the entire sum authorized for President Clinton’s much ballyhooed National and Community Service Corps during its first year. They will question the need for a new fleet of strategic bombers that stand to cost the taxpayer $2.2 billion a pop. When their sons are gunned down in places like Mogadishu and their mutilated bodies are dragged through the streets, they will demand some explanation of the larger purpose being served. By way of response, the usual incantation of National Security will no longer suffice. In short the strategic rationale for a “strong America” is a wasting asset.
So too is the political rationale. Indeed, expectations that military strength would somehow help preserve core American values have proven to be illusory. The idea that the armed forces are bastions of those values was questionable from the outset. More to the point, conservatives are today waking up to the fact that while they were busily cheering on the military, the left was quietly and adroitly transforming American political culture. Even the Reagan “revolution” was a sham, at most a brief pause in the process whereby the left radically redefined concepts like freedom, equality, privacy, and pluralism. In the academy, the mass media, the courts, and the legislatures, those new definitions have become entrenched. They now determine the agenda of American politics. They have also sown confusion about moral values, contributed to the disintegration of the social order, promoted self-indulgence and the cult of victimization, and encouraged the balkanization of American society. They have empowered new elites who no longer bother to conceal their contempt for the antiquarian and philistine values of middle America.
For ordinary citizens unhappy with the trends evident in society, the lesson becomes increasingly clear: the accumulation of military power has become a diversion. Striding self-importantly across the world stage as has been the allotted American role during the last half century detracts from the primary struggle, which in the wake of the Cold War lies indisputably at home.
For something like a half century, the politics of defending America seemed inextricably linked to the cause of defending freedom. Events abroad have vindicated that undertaking. History will honor the statesmen who conceived it: men like Truman, Marshall, Acheson, and Eisenhower. Likewise-and properly-history will commemorate those from whom the Cold War exacted the ultimate sacrifice, often in circumstances so ambiguous or bizarre as to defy understanding apart from the context of the larger struggle. Yet those most deserving credit are least likely to receive it: the ordinary citizens who remained resolute in their opposition to totalitarianism and in their faith in America, who imparted to successive Presidents the authority that enabled the United States to reassure or persuade or deter, and who offered up their sons to fight inglorious wars or to garrison lonely outposts.
It is precisely these middle Americans who are likely to revise their views of what it now means to defend the nation. Awakened to the absurdity of thinking that rescuing distant peoples from their own folly can reverse our own cultural and moral decline, they are discovering that, under today’s conditions, prospects for a society respectful of individual freedom yet preserving its traditional moral foundation may be at odds with acting the part of military superpower.
A. J. Bacevich is Executive Director of The Foreign Policy Institute, The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.