Friday, May 15, 2009

Is the US the world's policeman?

David Fromkin wrote Kosovo Crossing, American Ideals Meet reality on the Balkan Battlefields in 1999. It might seem that this book must be dated. For example, on his final page he writes, “Moreover, the power equations of the 1990s were uniquely favorable to President Clinton’s initiative. There were no global forces of consequence to stand in his way. It is hard to believe that America’s luck in being the world’s sole superpower will last for long. The Kosovo war may turn out to be, for all we know, the last crusade of the sole-superpower age.”

We are a bare ten years after his book and we have experienced two additional crusades. But what Fromkin says about the US after Kosovo seems to apply to the US today, namely that we have learned our limits – or perhaps it would be better to say that we are much further down the learning curve (of learning our limits) than we were 10 years ago. On page 195 Fromkin says “Sometimes it is a cumulative effect that makes a country bump up against its limits. In America’s case, the accumulation may come from an inability to walk away from our victories. In 1950, the United States repelled North Korea’s attack on South Korea, but we still, half a century later, keep an army on its frontier standing guard against a recurrence. The Cold war came to an end in the years 1989-94, but 100,000 American troops remain in Europe, protecting against we know not what.”

Fromkin’s principle seems true. We haven’t been able to walk away from our victories in Iraq and Afghanistan. The implication here is that we only have men and money enough for a certain number of these initiatives. But do we fully understand these limits? We obviously didn’t understand them as well as Fromkin thought we should in 1999 and though we do surely understand them better today, for example we have understood the limit that Afghanistan and Iraq have placed upon our ability to use preemptive military power to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability. We I haven’t heard that we have lifted our “military option” from the table,” but maybe our “limit,” the limit imposed by Afghanistan and Iraq has lifted it for us.

Fromkin’s book isn’t so much about Kosovo and the Yugoslavian wars but about America backing into the powerful position it somewhat reluctantly holds today. He repeats what many historians have said, that America was an isolationist nation trusting in the protection of two oceans rather than in a powerful army. It got into World War One late, didn’t suffer too terribly much and came out better than any other participant. It was at that time the most powerful military force in the world, but that was only a theoretical consideration because it did not exercise that force. In fact it went about disarming as quickly as possible so it could return to its isolationism.

It was still isolationist at the time World War II broke out. Maybe Roosevelt understood what was at stake, but he was one of the tiny few in America who did. He did not have to make the first initiative in regard to a declaration of war in Europe. Once Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and America considered itself at war with Japan, Hitler declared war on the U.S.; so our “national security,” and “national interest” were seen to be threatened by both the Japanese and the Germans during World War II. The American people understood and supported our war efforts with enthusiasm.

The Cold War we found ourselves in after World War II became “hot” in a proxy sense when we carried out our first exercise of “containment” against Communist aggression in Korea. Fromkin makes the interesting point that while we went about containing the aggression of the North Koreans, we were ourselves “contained” a short time later. MacArthur did defeat the North Koreans but he didn’t stop as soon as he ought to, and when he got too close to the Chinese border, hoards of Chinese came across to confront him. MacArthur realized that he didn’t have the manpower to defeat China and so sought the use of Atomic weapons, but Truman refused him and shortly thereafter fired him. America had been “contained.” It was not willing to cross the line into an atomic war; so it was effectively contained by China’s willingness to oppose America’s conquering of North Korea.

And we were “contained” later on in Vietnam. We lose sight of this in other considerations, the largest one being that our containment of Communist aggression (esp. Soviet Russia) resulted in the collapse of the USSR. But, Fromkin would want us to understand, along the way, along this path that resulted in the defeat of Communism as a serious threat, we were contained on more than one occasion. Even in Cuba we were contained. We make much of forcing Khrushchev to remove his atomic weapons, but we fail to draw attention to the continuing presence of Soviet Forces in Cuba. They remained in Cuba throughout the Cold War in violation of our Monroe Doctrine.

Our military actions in opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Saddam regime in Iraq can be seen as being in our “National Interest” but only if some statesman like Roosevelt is availed to explain it to the American public. That didn’t happen so we as a nation are befuddled by much of what went on. We can see the Afghanistan war as important. It was an act of revenge, of getting the forces that got us on 9/11. But what was our rationale for our war in Iraq? I believe it was a good decision but only because I studied the matter on my own. There was no Roosevelt out there telling the American people what I had to learn on my own. Why weren’t these matters explained to our public? We should have been putting for our reasoning in better terms than, for example, Colin Powell did at the UN before the UN rejected America’s bid for UN support in Iraq.

Have we lost our ability to explain ourselves to ourselves? It would seem so. Consider the first action against Saddam when he invaded Kuwait. How was that in our “national interest”? I don’t think we had a formal “treaty” with Kuwait, so we can’t lean too heavily on a treaty obligation, but Kuwait did understand (as so many nations in this present world understand) that any protection would come from us. And if someone said we went into Kuwait for the oil, well, they would be correct in a sense. Most of Kuwait’s oil went to Japan, but we should realize that it is in our “national interest” to protect Japan’s “vital interests” which includes their flow of oil. If we won’t keep oil flowing to Japan, then Japan is going to have to do it themselves, and after their militaristic adventures in the early part of the 20th century they don’t really want to. And having been on the unpleasant receiving end of those military adventures, Japan’s neighbors don’t really want to them to. So with little fuss or fanfare we initiated a “police action” and chased Saddam’s army out of Kuwait. Our “national interest” was protected by means of protecting Japan’s “national interest.”

In Fromkin’s prologue he writes that he will attempt to use the conflict in the former Yugoslavia to answer questions of “when, why, and how should the United States send its troops overseas in an attempt to resolve conflicts if they do not threaten the nation’s physical security?” Fromkin writes on page 195, “It is a political truism that ‘the United States cannot be the world’s policeman.’ As a matter of fact, whether or not it should be, the United States already is the world’s policeman.” Fromkin’s little book, outdated though it might be in some respects, does provide us with insight into our American dilemma: We cannot be the world’s policeman, and yet we are.

Perhaps we need to move back toward our isolationist roots and take a position something like the following: Yes, we recognize that we have the most powerful military fighting force in the world, but it is expensive and we intend in the future to use it with more reluctance and selectivity. Perhaps there may be occasions when we will be expected to be the “world’s policeman,” but we no longer want to initiate such policing actions. From now on we hope to behave like our Jacksonian forebears. We will fight, but you who want our aid are going to have to talk us into it. Bring, you nations who want our aid, your reasons and indicate the level of support you and your allies expect to provide. We led in the fight against Communism during the Cold War, but those days are over and we expect our ongoing military activities to be more narrowly defined.

What would we lose by such an approach? We would lose world leadership but I have read a fair amount of our world’s recent history and haven’t been impressed with our “world leadership” so far. We would lose our ability to engage in adventures like the humanitarian adventure in Kosovo and the strategic adventure against Islamic militarism in Iraq

What would we gain by such an approach? We would have our status as the World’s Policeman put on a more secure and stable footing. Yes, we are the only nation capable of being World’s policeman, but we aren’t going to “initiate” policing action. If someone in the world wants our help, let them call us: US911. And just like many ambulance services are doing today, “if you call for our ambulance, you are going to have to pay a fee.” Also, we plan to walk away from all victories. The requestor will have to arrange for maintaining the peace after we leave. For after fighting, we intend to return back between our oceans.

No comments: