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Missile defense will facilitate use of U.S. power

29.8.2008 - Andrew J. Bacevich, The National Interest
This depiction of the United States as besieged by "new threats" is very much the handiwork of the Clinton years. Yet the idea is one that the Bush administration has adopted without reservation. On the campaign trail in September, Bush depicted the twenty-first century as "an era of car bombers and plutonium merchants and cyber terrorists and drug cartels and unbalanced dictators." Once in office, the new President affirmed that the dangers facing the United States in this new era "are more widespread and less certain." Cribbing a term invented by the Clinton administration, Bush has cited the great danger posed by "rogue nations" intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, the "rogue" label obviating any need actually to evaluate the capabilities of nations such as North Korea that fall into this category. When it comes to terror, Bush likewise endorses his predecessor's view, ignoring (as did Clinton) data indicating that the incidence of international terrorism is actually on the wane. For Bush, as for Clinton, the utopia implicit in the vision of a globalized world will, it appears, be a precarious one.

FOURTH, the necessity of military supremacy. Even as openness exposes the United States to what Bush has called "all the unconventional and invisible threats of new technologies and old hatreds", it remains an abiding imperative. Once having decided that the protective barriers must go, there can be no retreat. To do so would be to jeopardize domestic prosperity, unsustainable absent ever expanding access to global markets. Furthermore, the most effective way to defend the open order (and to promote economic growth) is to continuously expand its perimeter.

Policing the perimeter and pushing it outward requires power, above all coercive power. As a result, the passing of the Cold War has accelerated the transformation of the U.S. military from an institution charged with providing for the common defense into an instrument of power projection and political influence. Begun haphazardly in 1898 when American soldiers set sail to liberate Cuba, that transformation reached a culminating point of sorts in the 1990s when the Pentagon promulgated its "strategy of engagement", formally charging U.S. forces with responsibility for "shaping" the international environment.

Formalized during the Clinton years, the notion of using the military to sustain the momentum toward openness and integration under the aegis of the United States is by no means the exclusive property of liberal Democrats. It commands bipartisan support. Consider the post-Cold War U.S. military presence and activities in Europe. A half century after World War II, with Europe prosperous, democratic, stable and easily able to defend itself, leaders of both parties take it for granted that the United States should maintain in perpetuity a European garrison of 100,000 soldiers.

Similarly, leaders of both parties agree on the wisdom of expanding the "Europe" that the United States is committed to defend. A decade ago, the elder Bush first proposed the program of NATO enlargement. Clinton converted that idea into reality. But Clinton went even further: he also enlarged NATO's charter, exploiting the opportunities presented in Bosnia and Kosovo to convert a defensive alliance into a vehicle for policing Europe's periphery. The younger Bush who supported the war for Kosovo--shows little sign of undoing the work that Clinton began.


On this score, too, the elite consensus is firm. Indeed, to judge by the most recent national elections, the proposition that the United States must remain militarily supreme attracts something close to universal assent. In mainstream American politics, there is nothing even remotely resembling an anti-military party. Nor does either national party contain an anti-military wing or faction. Indeed, in all of American public life there is hardly a single prominent figure who finds fault with the notion of the United States remaining the world's sole military superpower until the end of time.


The Bush administration has forcefully declared its intention to close this gap, if necessary bludgeoning the services into discarding the Cold War era structure to which they have clung. But in vowing to create, in Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's words, "a future force that is at once more agile, more lethal and more rapidly deployable", the Bush national security team is reciting the very same litany of qualities that the Clinton administration had long since identified as essential for effective global interventionism. In other words, although on defense matters notable differences do exist between Bush and his predecessor, it is easy to make more of these differences than they deserve.

Ballistic missile defense--the signature initiative of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld Pentagon--offers a case in point. The new administration's commitment to missile defense does not signify an abandonment of Clinton's paradigm regarding the proper role of American forces; if anything, it affirms that paradigm. The true purpose of missile defense after all is not to permit the United States to withdraw behind the ramparts of Fortress America. It is not a step toward isolationism. Rather, ballistic missile defense will facilitate the more effective application of U.S. military power abroad. By insulating the homeland from reprisal--albeit in a limited way--missile defense will underwrite the capacity and willingness of the United States to "shape" the environment elsewhere. As Lawrence F. Kaplan, writing in The New Republic, has correctly discerned, "Missile defense isn't really meant to protect America. It's a tool for global dominance." Credit the Bush administration with having a better appreciation of what military tools dominance requires. But do not credit it with changing the larger purpose to which the tools will be put.

FIFTH, the imperative of American "leadership". The final element of the consensus to which leaders of the Clinton administration and of both Bush administrations have subscribed stipulates that there exists no alternative to global U.S. leadership. To be sure, during his first year in office, Clinton dallied briefly with "assertive multilateralism." But any fanciful notions that Washington would routinely work with or through the United Nations did not survive the debacle of Mogadishu in October 1993. Subsequent to that chastening experience, the Clinton administration acted unilaterally or at the head of a coalition, working in concert with international organizations only as it saw fit. In speech after speech and in crisis after crisis, members of Clinton's team and the President himself made it clear that the United States would defer to no one.

What the Clinton administration never could bring itself to acknowledge is that leadership is really a code word, one whose use honors the cherished tradition according to which the United States is not and cannot be an empire. Leadership has become a euphemism for hegemony.

In the public statements of senior officials, the word "hegemon" figures only by way of identifying threats that the United States must anticipate and deflect. For example, Condoleezza Rice has stated that the paramount aim of U.S. foreign policy should be to "make certain that the international system remains stable and secure... so that no hegemon can rise to threaten stability." But what is the exercise of U.S. power to maintain global stability and security if not itself hegemony? There is today no region of strategic significance in which the United States is not pre-eminent. Thanks to NATO, the United States remains the leading power in Europe. With its permanent commitment of 100,000 troops in the Pacific, it is the leading power in East Asia. With its various bases and garrisons established subsequent to the Persian Gulf War, it is the guarantor of order and stability in that region as well. And that does not even count America's sway over the Western Hemisphere.

Back in the days when President Bush's father was in the White House, the Pentagon prepared a document suggesting (in so many words) that something approximating global hegemony offered a useful principle around which to organize U.S. strategy after the Cold War. The document leaked, the New York Trines professed great shock, and Democrats pilloried its chief author, then Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Eight years later Wolfowitz is back in the Pentagon as deputy secretary of defense, and there is no evidence that he has modified his views. What has changed is the climate of informed opinion. Were Wolfowitz today to publish a new draft of the strategy he devised in 1992, it would produce nary a ripple. As a result of the Clinton era, hegemony--although few dare to call it by its rightful name--has gone mainstream.

2001 may well prove to be the pivotal year in fixing the azimuth of U.S. policy in the emerging global era. Historians may well look back on the transfer of power from Clinton to Bush as the moment in which conservative Republicans, after a long and frustrating absence from power, after years of complaining about pusillanimity and ineptness, affirmed the course set by liberal Democrats--and in doing so made manifest the new consensus underlying U.S. strategy.

Source (American): Bacevich, Andrew J.
Different Drummers, Same Drum. The National Interest, Summer 2001, Issue 64, p. 67-77 (on-line available here)

Andrew J. Bacevich (* 1947) studied at the renowned American military academy West Point. He is a Vietnam war veteran and a vocal critic of the US-led Iraq invasion. He teaches as professor of international relations on the Boston University.

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