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1Increasing military power through restraint
Avoiding an Earthly Hell
We must be judicious in our use of the military. We will fight only when it is in the vital interests of the United States, when our mission is clear, and when the exit strategy is obvious.
—Governor George W. Bush
The morning after George W. Bush made his farewell address to the nation, few media outlets took note of it. In fact, the only national paper to mention the 43rd president’s final speech on its front page was USA Today, and it confined the story to a small box that described another article hidden inside.
America’s newspapers were focused instead that morning on an airplane that had been taken down from the skies over Manhattan.
TV crews dutifully rushed to the crash site and almost immediately began warning Americans of a grave new danger that would threaten the safety of air travelers for years to come.
Tom Costello of NBC News told Morning Joe viewers that government officials were working furiously to address the problem and that the crisis had become so grave in the nation’s capital that cannons were being fired from the end of Reagan National Airport’s runways every three minutes.
The Times of London weighed in the next morning with a list of solutions government officials were considering to protect British passengers from this growing menace. The Times reported that some leaders had become so desperate that they were resorting to clandestine poisoning, dog attacks, and advanced radar technology.
Coincidentally, a few days earlier the U.S. government had released a report showing that for the first time in aviation history, the United States had gone two years without suffering a single casualty on a commercial air carrier. So just when Americans thought it was safe to once again climb aboard a plane without fear of attack, their confidence was jolted by a rising threat that now stalked the not-so-friendly skies.
We had again met our enemy in the air over New York City, and what was it?
As Tom Costello helpfully explained to viewers, the Canada goose population was on the migratory rise and its effect was being felt on runways across America. That phenomenon had ended in the miraculous water landing on the Hudson River of a US Airways flight.
How ironic it must have seemed to the man who saw his presidency defined by four plane crashes within an hour’s time that his farewell address to America was eclipsed by yet another plane crash in Manhattan. He must have felt some pride in the fact that the culprits seven years later were not a group of terrorists intent on destroying our way of life, but instead a group of birds trying to avoid a very loud object flying their way.
Predictably, few in the media noted the difference George W. Bush’s presidency had made to the safety of Americans from a terrorist attack. And while debates might rage for years to come over his approval of harsh interrogation techniques or how long enemy combatants could be locked up, those battles will be waged in law schools like Columbia and NYU, instead of inside the concourses of LaGuardia or JFK.
George W. Bush had made the protection of American citizens and the prevention of future terror attacks on U.S. soil his top priority. By that measure—the most important many apply to a commander in chief—the 43rd president did what few Americans thought possible in the weeks following September 11.
He kept Americans safe at home.
While President Bush accomplished that task, conservatives now must assess the cost of achieving that goal and determine how America’s actions over the past eight years have impacted their movement and, more important, U.S. foreign policy for the next generation.
Before discussing the most effective conservative approach to foreign policy in the future, we should first review how much of a break Mr. Bush’s approach has been from a conservative foreign policy tradition that was once defined by realism and restraint.
Why did conservative leaders respond to the events of that September morning the way they did?
Why did the same cautious Republicans who resisted Bill Clinton’s calls for military missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Sudan, and Iraq adopt George W. Bush’s preemption doctrine without question?
And why did so few conservatives criticize Mr. Bush’s Wilsonian pronouncement that the United States of America would lead a global democratic revolution that would end tyranny itself?
What exactly were conservatives thinking during Mr. Bush’s second inaugural address when the Republican president promised the world that U.S. troops would single-handedly bring freedom and peace to all corners of the globe?
Why did the same Republicans who quoted Colin Powell’s doctrine to justify their restrained foreign policy in the 1990s treat General Powell’s cautiousness toward Iraq with such contempt in 2002?
And how did a president who promised to conduct a limited, humble foreign policy reside over an administration that critics on both the left and right derided as utopian?
George W. Bush’s foreign policy goals in the 2000 presidential campaign were consistent with those of conservatives like myself who were swept into Congress in 1994. When we controlled the Armed Services Committee during the Clinton administration, prudence and restraint were our guiding principles.
Republicans saw Bill Clinton’s use of military force as undis-ciplined and reckless. As one Foreign Affairs article at the time stated, the Clinton cabinet seemed to view foreign policy as an extension of social work. We conservatives used our majority in Congress to attack that approach as unfocused, undisciplined, and Wilsonian.
For most conservatives, the Cold War was a necessary evil.
U.S. global involvement was the only option available for the containment of the Communist threat. But after the Soviet Union fell, Republicans I served with in Congress believed that the United States should engage in less military adventurism while narrowing its focus abroad.
So cautious were many conservatives involving the use of military power that Democratic policymakers like President Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, accused GOP leaders of standing in the way of humanitarian missions run by military units.
She was right. We did. And we were proud of it.
No conservative I worked with on the Armed Services Committee in Congress was comfortable with President Clinton’s eagerness to dispatch troops to Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, or Kosovo. We were especially troubled with the Balkans crisis, believing that the lessons of Vietnam taught American leaders not to get involved in civil wars where there were no direct U.S. national security interests.
Conservatives repeatedly pressed Clinton administration officials to state what overriding national interest justified the risking of U.S. casualties. The best answer the White House could provide at the time was that not getting involved in the Balkans civil war would damage our reputation within NATO.
That answer was far from sufficient for most conservatives, who feared getting involved in a three-sided civil war. Obviously, those prudent concerns would fade quickly once a Republican was sworn in as commander-in-chief.
“We are not the world’s 9-1-1,” GOP lawmakers would regularly admonish Clinton aides who repeatedly ignored our warnings of an overstretched military.
A NARROW FOCUS. A DEADLY AIM.
Conservatives would also use their perch in the majority to lecture Clinton officials on the finer points of what, for some of us, was the Magna Carta of conservative foreign policy: the Weinberger Doctrine.
Named after Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger’s approach to foreign wars was clear, concise, and restrictive. It was framed by the bloody disasters of Vietnam and Beirut, in which two truck bombs struck separate buildings that killed hundreds of U.S. Marines.
Secretary Weinberger said American combat troops should only be deployed when:
it is vital to U.S. national interests
our troop commitment is full and overwhelming
the objectives for our troops are clearly defined
leaders will be willing to reassess constantly troop levels and end goals of the operation
Americans support the war before engagement
U.S. combat troops are sent in only as a last resort
Weinberger’s guidelines were taken as gospel by many conservatives throughout the 1980s and outlasted his time in office. When troops rolled into Kuwait in 1991 for the First Gulf War, former Weinberger aide Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
General Powell’s statements at the start of those combat operations showed that he had clearly adopted his boss’s approach to warfare.
When asked to describe his military strategy against the Iraqi army, the general was blunt.
“First we’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it.”
And that is exactly what Powell’s military machine did.
After the Gulf War, General Powell outlined his own guidelines for U.S. troop deployment. Like Weinberger before him, Powell argued that American troops should go to war only as a last resort. But when we did engage militarily, the force applied should be decisive.
“We don’t want a fair fight” was Powell’s mantra.
While most Republicans cheered the general’s approach, a strand within the conservative movement—dubbed “neoconservatives”—sided with liberal humanitarian hawks like Secretary of State Albright, who were more liberal with the use of American troops overseas in the cause of “limited” wars.
General Powell would remain at odds with both groups.
After leaving the White House for the first time in the mid-1990s, Powell recalled one memorable exchange with Albright, who became exasperated with the general’s reluctance to send Americans to war.
“What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about,” Albright asked Powell, “if we can’t use it?”
Powell remembered later that he “almost had an aneurysm.”
After collecting his thoughts, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs patiently explained to the secretary of state that “American GIs are not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.”
The New York Times later quoted Secretary Albright as saying that her aggressive worldview was shaped by Britain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler at Munich. Because of that experience, when it came to troop deployment, her first instinct was to “go in.” But because Colin Powell and the band of brothers he served with in Vietnam continued to carry the scars of that failed war, their first instinct had always been caution.
Exercising prudence in foreign policy was also the instinct of a popular governor from a large Southern state. His view on how America should engage in world affairs was clear and restrictive, and owed much to Colin Powell.
During a presidential debate with Al Gore, Jim Lehrer asked Governor George W. Bush whether the United States should engage in nation building. The Texas governor’s response was every bit as indignant as Colin Powell’s retort to Secretary Albright.
“Maybe I’m missing something here,” Governor Bush shot back at Lehrer, “but we should encourage people who live in those lands to build their own nations.” Bush continued, “Our military is meant to fight and win wars. And when it gets overextended, its morale drops.”
The 2000 GOP nominee then gave Americans a condensed version of the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine: “We must be judicious in our use of the military. We will fight only when it is in the vital interests of the United States, when our mission is clear, and when the exit strategy is obvious.”
It was as clear a description of conservative foreign policy as that that existed at the turn of the century.
And then came September 11.