War Stories

The Importance of Allies

Yesterday’s piece argued  that the debate over foreign policy isn’t one of Realists vs. Neoconservatives but rather realists vs. fantasists. But how can the United States regain its influence while retaining its moral values?

If a country is ruled or taken over by extremists who promote terrorism, or who torture and slaughter civilians, should they be allowed to get away with their behavior—should their regime be allowed to continue existing—just because they claim the immunity and privileges of a sovereign state?

In other words, is there a difference in principle between, say, President Clinton’s “humanitarian intervention” in Bosnia and President Bush’s “regime change” in Iraq? A classic Realist would argue (and some did) that there is no meaningful difference and no good reason to intervene militarily in either case. But for those of a different mind, it’s a disturbing question. At least one prominent liberal advocate of using force in Bosnia suffered a crisis of conscience after finding himself opposed to the war in Iraq. He dealt with the contradiction by abandoning his earlier stance and dismissing the whole concept of “humanitarian intervention” as a ruse for neo-colonialism.

It may be hard to devise an ideological argument for embracing one type of intervention and protesting the other. But it is not so hard to make distinctions on practical grounds. It’s reasonable to base a foreign policy chiefly on traditional concepts of national interest—and still sometimes go out of the way, maybe go to war, in order to help a ravaged people or oust a monstrous tyrant, even when those interests are not directly at stake.

One tangible litmus test for getting involved in such “wars of choice” is whether other powers or international bodies endorse and join the fight. This is not to make a moral pitch for multilateralism, but it is to make a pragmatic case. The purpose behind wars of choice is to enforce international norms. One central fact of our time is that the U.S. government can no longer claim that it embodies these norms—that it holds the right to be judge, jury, and executioner on matters of when, where, and how to enforce them. The U.S. government’s recent actions—the willful disregard of international treaties, the tortures at Abu Ghraib, the illegal “renderings,” in the eyes of some the occupation of Iraq—have undermined America’s authority as a moral or legal arbiter.

America’s record in this respect was hardly perfect during the Cold War. Even so, America as a model was clearly preferable to the alternative superpower. And when the Soviet Union fell, those who had lived under its yoke all those decades celebrated and cherished America’s embrace—at least initially.

This is not remotely the case with those whose hearts and minds the U.S. government—which represents only one of many alternatives—is attempting to win over now.

As a result, to the extent America might want to go to war for moral purposes—or to conduct foreign policy with a moral dimension—it needs other, less tainted powers to come along. It needs these allies, in part, to share costs and burdens, because it lacks the money and manpower to do much on its own. More vitally, it needs allies to provide legitimacy.

The war in Bosnia was successful, in part, because it was—and, just as important, was seen as—a joint effort by the nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to quash tyranny and ethnic violence in the heart of Europe, NATO’s area of operation and therefore a mission of common interest.

The first war against Iraq, in 1991, succeeded in large measure because it was waged by a genuine coalition, which included Arab nations—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, even Syria—that not only openly supported the war but sent divisions of soldiers and squadrons of jet fighters. U.S. diplomats labored strenuously to create this coalition and hold it together. The Arab armies didn’t make a vital military contribution, but their presence was vital to the war’s political aims—one of which was to make clear that this was not a Western crusade, that pushing the Iraqi army out of Kuwait was widely seen as a proper enterprise, even in the eyes of other Arabs and Muslims.

In April 1991, the month after the first Gulf War ended, Dick Cheney, then the first President Bush’s defense secretary, said it would have been a mistake for American or coalition forces to go all the way to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam Hussein, because they then would have had to form a new government and keep troops there for years to protect it. “It would have been a mistake,” he said, “for us to get bogged down in the quagmire inside Iraq.”

Surely Cheney hadn’t forgotten this remark by the spring of 2003. (It had been quoted back to him many times over the years.) What was different was that he, and many of those around him, believed that the world had fundamentally changed. They thought that the absence of Arab allies—who had constrained the mission in the earlier war—freed the second Bush administration to muse more grandly about what war could accomplish. And they thought that the collapse of the Soviet Union—which had opposed the first Gulf War—removed the constraints definitively; that America now had the power to make all its musings come true.

Bush, Cheney, and the others didn’t realize that many things about the world, especially the basic things, had not changed. More disastrous, some things that they thought were no longer important—for instance, the value of allies—had grown more important still.

A future president who recognizes this reality must also accept the fact that in the coming years wars of choice will be a less open option. Achieving major goals, military or otherwise, requires allies, and allies are no longer guaranteed. An alliance depends on common goals. Persuading others to go along on risky missions requires appealing to their interests, and this sometimes entails modifying the mission’s goals or the means to achieve them. It is hard to convince a number of countries that some specific threat, conflict, or injustice can be dealt with only through war.

Frustrating as these restraints may be, one consequence of ignoring them will be more American defeats. Whatever policies a nation wants to pursue, its ambitions should not far exceed its abilities. Short of a dire threat to national survival, Americans are not likely to bring back the draft or redouble military spending. It will therefore be impossible to vanquish all foes, capture all terrorists, or topple all tyrants through American power alone.

America needs to advance its interests more through diplomatic routes, not because (or not just because) diplomacy is preferable to war, but because there is no alternative. This doesn’t mean that America should be less assertive about its interests; since global power is so dispersed, its leaders must actively lead. But to do that, they must prove they’re worth following. Leadership is about inspiring some combination of fear and respect. The limits of power and the quagmire of Iraq have made America less fearsome; the next president must restore its respect.

The neocons have no exclusive claim on the idea of standing up for freedom; it is an idea deeply ingrained in America’s history, and it must continue to be if its foreign policy is to muster popular support. But it is one thing to defend free nations that are under attack or in danger of collapse; it is another thing to act as if freedom can be imposed at will, anywhere, by sword and fire.

Ironically, in one of his debates with Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush said that the United States should “project strength” but also humility. “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us,” he said, when asked about other countries’ perception of America. “If we’re a humble nation but strong, they’ll welcome us.”

“Humble” may have gone too far. Wily, shrewd, calculating, manipulative—these, too, are qualities that a world power must occasionally harness in pursuit of its interests, and everyone knows this. But if candidate Bush meant that America doesn’t always know what’s in other nations’ interests and can’t impose its will at whim, then he wasn’t off the mark. He would have done well to hang on to that insight and to explore its implications, as the crises of his presidency exploded and his advisers’ dreams and ambitions summoned his darker and holier instincts.

What was abandoned in the subsequent pursuit of absolute power and universal values was the concept of statecraft—the art of conducting the affairs of state. The term has always implied the meshing of interests and ideals with reality, while navigating the shoals of a dangerous world. On this voyage, which determines life and death for millions, “moral clarity” can be an aid, but it’s not a goal, much less a strategy. It’s one thing to be a visionary, another to have visions. At serendipitous moments, a particularly powerful nation can try to reshape an agenda. But it can’t toss away maps or ignore laws of physics just because they impose unpleasant restrictions. Those limits have to be taken into account, even if doing so means setting aside a great dream. Whatever their ultimate hopes, the leaders of nations have to survive and thrive among the common elements. They have to deal with the world as it is.