Dateline: above the garage in Portsmouth RI, 6 June 2004
The 60th anniversary of D-Day and Ronald Reagan is dead, two events that remind us of the power of myths. The myths surrounding the Second World War are almost too many to mention: that all Americans were behind the war (never trueóespecially at the beginning), that is was an unending string of successes (too many screw-up along the way to mention), that it was a ìgood warî justly waged (except for ignoring the Holocaust, the fire bombings, using nukes), etc. Reaganís myths are equally fantastic in many ways: he reduced the role of government (it grew exponentially under him, as did Washington itself), he won the Cold War through his military build-up (the move to a professional military was the key change to getting the force we enjoy today, the defense build-up began under Carter, and it was Nixonís dÈtente that did the most damage to the Soviet Union), and that he represented old-time values (the first divorcee as presidentóand a Hollywood actor who only played at war).
Admitting such myths donít make these events or accomplishments any less real, or important, or essentially positive; it just means weíre honest with ourselves that nothing is ever as simple as it seems, never so black and white, never so clear from the beginning. World War II really ended much of what was bad about the 20th century and began much of what became good about the 20th century, and D-Day was the turning point of all thatóeasily the most important day of the entire century. We lost more U.S. soldiers on that morning than weíve lost in this entire Global War on Terrorism to dateóin fact more than all the combat deaths weíve suffered since the end of the Vietnam War. Good war? It was horrible from start to finish, but it created a lot of good in its wake.
I could say the same for Reagan. There was little I liked about his administration, as charming as he was personally. In many ways, his term was a horribly painful course correction from the historical pathway this country had slipped into across the 1960s (both in foreign policy and in domestic affairs), and even I dismayed at much of his conduct throughout his presidency, much good came in coincidence with that reign. People believe it was the changes Reagan created within the government that remade America, but frankly they were far more minimal than imagined. The real remaking of America happened in the private sector, and little of that had anything to do with Reaganomics. It was simply the business world coming to grips with the emerging phenomenon we would later describe as globalizationógiving up certain fantasies about how America could remain a global economic power while maintaining the myth of lifetime employment in a single field, much less with a single employer. Pretending Reagan was responsible for all that is like pretending Clinton made globalization magically appear on his watch.
Nonetheless, America as a whole went through a very difficult retooling of expectations and assumptions about the role of the government, the role of the private sector, and the role of the United States in world history. We are still dealing with that amazing course correctionóperhaps reaching an apogee in our occupation of Iraq today and our attempts to remake the security order of the Middle East.
Are we in the midst of another course correction?
I donít think so.
I think whoever gets elected in November will end up doing much the same thing in this Global War on Terrorism, as well as much the same things in response to the continuing economic challenges posed by globalization. The main questions will be about speed, as in ìHow fast?î versus ìHow slow?î Clinton was fast on economics and slow on security. Bush is the opposite in many ways. Will Kerry constitute a return to Clinton? Not as much as many might think. I imagine his basic approach will be to go a bit slower on each: mitigating globalizationís effects on workers and pursuing the GWOT in a more bottom-up fashion (focusing on the root causes and less on regime change).
The big question for me is which administration can really make the effort at constructing the international organizations and strategic alliances necessary to generate that A-to-Z Core-wide rule set on processing politically bankrupt regimes, because until that happens, itíll be hard to image lasting successes occurring in the effort to shrink the Gap. If you arenít willing to take down the bad guys on top, itís hard to imagine how your efforts at working the underlying conditions will lead to permanent, positive change.
Bush II might end up being that working-on-the-legacy sort of affair like Reagan II, i.e., willing to take huge chances on big dreams (remember Reaganís crazy offer to Gorby to get rid of all nukes there and then?). It could be hugely aggressive in reshaping key relationships like Nixon II did with superpower ties. Or it could be the same sort of dumb-ass vindictiveness weíve too often seen from this White House. But I tend to be optimistic on such things. Why? I expect Bush to win in November.
But there are good reasons to believe Kerry could be even better, even in a first term that willóas alwaysóbe obsessed first and foremost with winning a second term. Hereís an excerpt from Joshua Micah Marshallís current piece in the Atlantic Monthly (ìKerry Faces the World,î July/August) that suggests they might get the ìnew mapî a bit better than the Bush White House (although the similarities of thought are much more noticeable than the differences, I will admit):
ìBy the mid-1990s this [Balkans experience] had led the Clinton Administration to focus on terrorism, failed states, and weapons proliferation, and as it did, its foreign-policy outlook changed. The key threat to the United States came to be seen less in terms of traditional conflicts between states and more in terms of endemic regional turmoil of the sort found in the Balkans. ëThe Clinton Administration,í says Jonathan Winer [former Clinton official], ëstarted out with a very traditional Democratic or even mainstream approach to foreign policy: big-power politics, Russia being in the most important role; a critical relationship with China; European cooperation; and some multilateralism.í But over the years, he went on, ëthey moved much more to a failed-state, global-affairs kind of approach, recognizing that the trends established by globalization required you to think about foreign policy in a more synthetic and integrated fashion than nation-state to nation-state.You have to pardon my skepticism here, but if this is the great distinction between the Republicans and Democrats on the tasks that lie ahead in the GWOT, then we already basically have a bipartisan consensus on what is necessary to win. Marshallís clever word-splitting notwithstanding (not a regime that supports terror but a terrorist network thatís hijacked a governmentóoooh! Those are truly profound differences in how they view the threat!), I see both sides identifying roughly the same swath of the world (the Gap), and arguing that regime change makes sense in certain key circumstances, and that it will have to be followed by serious nation-building efforts over the long term if real success is to be had. All I see in this ìdifferentî Democratic view of the world is the current emerging wisdom on how the GWOT must involve both regime change and nation building. Hell, everybody gets that now.
As Winer argues, the threats were less from Russia or China, or even from the rogue states, than from the breakdown of sovereignty and authority in a broad geographic arc that stretched from West Africa through the Middle East, down through the lands of Islam, and into Southeast Asia. In this part of the world poverty, disease, ignorance, fanaticism, and autocracy frequently combined in a self-reinforcing tangle, fostering constant turmoil. Home to many failed or failing states, this area bred money laundering, waves of refugees, drug production, gunrunning, and terrorist networksóthe cancers of the twenty-first-century world order.
In the Balkans, Holbrooke, Clark, and other leading figures found themselves confronting problems that required not only American military force but also a careful synthesis of armed power, peacekeeping capacity, international institutions, and nongovernmental organizations to stabilize the region and maintain some kind of order. Though the former Yugoslavia has continued to experience strife, the settlement in the Balkans remains the most successful one in recent memory, and offers the model on which a Kerry Administration would probably build. As Holbrooke told me, the Bush Administrationís actions in Iraq have shown that the Administration understands only the military component of this model: ëMost of them donít have a real understanding of what it takes to do nation-building, which is an important part of the overall democratic process.í
A key assumption shared by almost all Democratic foreign-policy hands is that by themselves the violent overthrow of a government and the initiation of radical change from above almost never foster democracy, an expanded civil society, or greater openness. ëIf you have too much change too quickly,í Winer says, ëyou have violence and repression. We donít want to see violence and repression in [the Middle East]. We want to see a greater zone for civilizationóa greater zone for personal and private-sector activity and for governmental activity that is not an enactment of violence.í Bush and his advisers have spoken eloquently about democratization. But in the view of their Democratic counterparts, their means of pursuing it are plainly counterproductive. It is here, Holbrooke says, that the Administrationís alleged belief in the stabilizing role of liberal democracy and open society collides with its belief in the need to rule by force and, if necessary, violence: ëThe neoconservatives and the conservativesóand they both exist in uneasy tension within this Administrationóshift unpredictably between advocacy of democratization and advocacy of neo-imperialism without any coherent intellectual position, except the importance of the use of force.í
Because Afghanistan was the Bush Administrationís first order of business following the 9/11 attacks, the results of this policy have advanced the furthest there. And because Kerry is on record as saying he would increase the number of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, itís probably the clearest measure of how a Kerry Administration would differ from Bushís. Afghanistan is a subject that Kerryís advisers and other senior Democrats turn to again and again. When I interviewed Joseph Biden in late March, he recounted a conversation heíd had with Condolezza Rice in the spring of 2002 about the growing instability that had taken hold after the Taliban was defeated, in late 2001. Biden told Rice he believed that the United States was on the verge of squandering its military victory by allowing the country to slip back into the corruption, tyranny, and chaos that had originally paved the way for Taliban rule. Rice was uncomprehending. ëWhat do you mean?í he remembers her asking. Biden pointed to the re-emergence in western Afghanistan of Ismail Khan, the pre-Taliban warlord in Heart who quickly reclaimed power after the American victory. He told me: ëShe said, ëLook, al-Qaedaís not there. The Talibanís not there. Thereís security there.í I said, ëYou mean turning it over to the warlords?í She said, ëYeah, itís always been that way.í
Biden was seeking to illustrate the blind spot that Democratic foreign-policy types see in Bush officials like Rice, who believe that if a rogue state has been rid of its hostile government (in this case the Taliban), its threat has therefore been neutralized. Democrats see Afghanistan as an affirmation of their own view of modern terrorism. As Fareed Zakaria noted recently in Newsweek, the Taliban regime was not so much a state sponsoring and directing a terrorist organization (the Republic view) as a terrorist organization sponsoring, guiding, and even hijacking a state (the Democratic view. Overthrowing regimes like that is at best only the first step in denying safe haven to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Equally important is creating the institutional basis of stability and liberalization that will prevent another descent into lawlessness and terroróin a word, nation-building.î
The Kerry campís big claim right now is, ìWe get this reality better than the Bush people do!î Winerís rewrite of Clinton Administration history is a complete retread of the same intellectual evolution that the Bush Administration went through after 9/11 (off of great-power wars and into Military Operations Other Than War). Clintonites can claim they realized this first; they just canít claim they did anything particularly important to effect this change within the Pentagon or the U.S. military. Remember, these guys let the military basically downgrade MOOTW in relation to ìtransformationî focused on China/Taiwan straits/2025. The Bush Administration went down the same pathway until 9/11, and then got the same religion the Clintonites now claim they got after the Balkans experience. Wow! Same difference!
The real questions on the table right now are which administration would move faster to reform the Department of Defense for the challenges ahead. Both sides are indicating a serious willingness to go beyond tinkering and engage in some serious restructuring, but neither side is offering anything beyond a few sundry ideas here and there (ìstabilization forceî and ìglobal peacekeeping forceî from the Bush people and rapidly expanding the Spec Ops forces from the Kerry camp). I like both ideas, but for Holbrooke to say ìthey have no coherent vision and we doî is a bit like the kettle calling the pot black. Neither side for now has laid out a coherent vision.
Thatís why I wrote the book. Thatís why last night it crept back into Amazonís top 100 (at 98) a full six weeks after release: people want that vision even if neither camp can offer it to them yet. By forcing such a debate within this campaign, Americans will get a better presidential administration in the endóno matter who wins.
Everyone needs to be asking both sides: ìOh yeah, and what exactly will you do to make that ëvisioní come about? How far will you go? What new rule sets will you enshrine in new international organizations designed to really pull off this future worth creating? And how willing are you to deal with allies necessary to make this future really materialize? Not just Europe, but Russia, China, India, Brazil and so on? Not just in NATO, but in the WTO and elsewhere? Be specific on what youíd do better and faster than the other guy!î