Doublethink Online | 12.22.08
By Alan W. Dowd

Change was the touchstone of President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign—a promise to change the ways of Washington and, most pointedly, to change the way Washington deals with the world. Indeed, it pays to recall that Obama’s success during the primary season was fueled by his promise to make a clean break from the Bush administration: to end the war in Iraq, to talk with America’s foes, to invest in the UN’s “capability to keep the peace [and] resolve disputes,” to re-elevate the post of UN ambassador to the Cabinet level.

After eight years of what has been mislabeled as a “go-it-alone foreign policy”—recall that 24 of NATO’s 26 members sent troops to Afghanistan or Iraq, and at least 17 of them deployed troops on both fronts—Obama’s words are music to the ears of America’s friends and even to strategic competitors like Russia and China. But if history is any guide, the world and Obama himself are likely to be disappointed by the gap between what Washington wants to do and what it has to do.

With leadership comes responsibility, as the old saying goes. To be sure, Washington has a responsibility to use restraint and to seek international support for its efforts beyond the water’s edge. But some six decades of global engagement remind us that Washington also has the responsibility to act when the UN fumbles and stumbles, as it inevitably does. The United States even has the responsibility to act alone from time to time.

George W. Bush was neither the first nor last to walk this lonely path. His predecessor and his father acted alone on the international stage, as did Ronald Reagan and even the sainted John Kennedy. In fact, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, America’s allies were badly shaken by the notion that, in historian Walter LaFeber’s clever phrase, Washington had dragged them “uncomfortably close to annihilation without representation.” The French ultimately broke ranks with NATO, and one British official concluded, “The United States didn’t want a partner. They wanted a satellite.”

The world’s views of America haven’t changed much in the intervening decades. Now, as then, the world loudly complains but tacitly expects Washington to do the dirty work—to be the bad cop who polices the toughest neighborhoods, to be the good cop who is the first responder to disasters, to keep the sea lanes open for the global marketplace. As Johns Hopkins scholar Michael Mandelbaum argues, “The world’s guilty secret is that it enjoys the security and stability the United States provides.”

Indeed, the duly and freely elected Iraqi government wants U.S. forces in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Afghanistan wants a U.S.-led coalition to excise the Taliban cancer. Kosovo, Korea and Kuwait want U.S. troops to maintain regional stability. From Germany to Georgia, those who remember a Europe of concrete walls and iron curtains want U.S. protection as a hedge against a revisionist Russia. And across the Pacific, many who worry about a rising China are strengthening their ties with Washington.

If his fusion foreign policy team is any indication, Obama may recognize that his idealistic rhetoric about a reinvigorated UN will not match the policies he will have to implement.

After all, he has hired a defense secretary who carried out the very surge strategy he himself once criticized. He has talked about bombing Pakistan, with or without Pakistan’s (let alone UN) approval. And he even has pulled back from his primary-season promise of an immediate pullout from Iraq. For good measure, he has chosen a hawkish secretary of state who suggested deploying a Cold War-style nuclear umbrella in the Middle East to protect Israel from Iran. Not even Bush and his doctrine went that far. But if recent news reports are accurate, Obama will turn that campaign applause line into U.S. policy.

Some argue that Obama’s collegial style will engender a more constructive reaction from the world than his predecessor’s “with us or against us” rhetoric. In other words, howWashington says something is as important as what it says.

Perhaps. But given the makeup of Obama’s Cabinet and inner circle, it pays to recall how the world responded to Bill Clinton, who found that speaking the language of multilateralism and deferring to the UN actually caused as many problems as it solved.

For example, when Clinton yielded to the UN in Somalia, the U.S. military was drawn into nation-building and policing duties well beyond the scope of its mission. That mission abruptly ended after 18 U.S. troops were cut down while UN peacekeeping units dithered over whether and how to deploy armored assets into the battle zone.

When Clinton let the UN take the lead in Bosnia, French President Jacques Chirac mixed complaint with delight by suggesting that “the position of leader of the free world is vacant.” Later, as Clinton waited for NATO to come to consensus on Kosovo, The Wall Street Journal labeled Britain’s Tony Blair “de facto leader of the alliance.”

When Clinton called on the UN to enforce its own resolutions in Iraq, he was dragged into months of diplomatic mischief. When the U.S. and Britain finally targeted Iraq’s WMD capabilities—alone—other Security Council members shrugged or complained. (Bush had a similar experience in late 2002, when the UN Security Council took the grave step of passing a resolution demanding that Iraq comply with existing resolutions—and then failed to follow through on its demands.)

It took some time, but Clinton came to realize that the U.S. had to do certain things or else they would be left undone—that the West, as historian Derek Leebaert has observed, is largely a “euphemism for the United States.”

So Clinton unilaterally broke the UN arms embargo in the former Yugoslavia and sent weaponry to the outgunned Bosnian Muslims. He bombed the Bosnian Serbs with halfhearted support from half of NATO. A few years later, he led a reluctant NATO to war over Kosovo. And he ordered the U.S. military to wage what came to be called “low-grade war” against Iraq, with barely the veneer of international support.

In fact, in the second half of the 1990s, Washington struck targets in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Serbia and Sudan. Of those military operations, the UN pre-authorized precisely one (Bosnia). It’s no wonder the French coined the term “hyperpower” during the Clinton presidency. 

In short, events have a way of teaching American presidents that they have to act—and often alone. Let’s hope America’s next commander-in-chief is a quick learner.