The Superpower Myth: The Use and Misuse of American Mightby Nancy Soderberg
Are there limits to American power? The neoconservative brain trust behind the Bush administration don't seem to recognize any. After the cold war, many Americanson both sides of the aislehave come to mistakenly believe that the United States has become powerful enough to do whatever it wants, wherever it wants, without regard to allies, costs, or results.… See more details below
Are there limits to American power? The neoconservative brain trust behind the Bush administration don't seem to recognize any. After the cold war, many Americanson both sides of the aislehave come to mistakenly believe that the United States has become powerful enough to do whatever it wants, wherever it wants, without regard to allies, costs, or results. But as events in Iraq are proving, America may be incredibly powerful, but it is not all powerful.
Drawing on her eight years as a high-ranking official in the Clinton administration, Nancy Soderberg takes you behind the scenes in the highest echelons of government to examine how the president and his advisors responded to the challenge of shaping a new foreign policy for the post–cold war era. She cites personal recollections, recently declassified documents, and interviews with the principals involved in these decisions to provide insight into the decision-making process that all presidents faceoften in crisis situations without complete information and with lives hanging in the balance.
Soderberg carefully contrasts Clinton's approachas it evolved from a shaky start in Somalia and Haiti, through peacemaking efforts in Ireland and the Middle East, to a carefully crafted blend of diplomacy, force, leadership, and cooperation in Bosnia and Kosovowith Bush's embrace of the superpower myth, which holds that America is powerful enough to bend the world to its will, largely through unilateral force, whether that goal is spreading democracy, ending terrorism, avoiding nuclear war, maintaining homeland security, or creating peace. The only uncertainty the Bush administration feels it faces is when and where to act.
As The Superpower Myth makes startlingly clear, no country, in practice, could ever be strong enough to solve problems like Somalia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan through purely military means. In the future, America's power will constantly be called upon to help failed and failing states, and it is becoming clear that the complex mess of Somalia (and now Iraq) has replaced the proxy war of Vietnam as the model for what future military conflicts will look like: a failed state, a power vacuum, armed factions, and enough chaos to threaten an entire region. Using vivid examples from her years in the White House and at the United Nations, Nancy Soderberg demonstrates why military force alone is not always effective, why allies and consensus-building are crucial, and how the current administration's faulty worldview has adversely affected policies toward Israel, Iraq, North Korea, Haiti, Africa, and al Qaeda.
Powerful, provocative, and persuasive, this timely book demonstrates that the future of America's security depends on overcoming the superpower myth.
One of the greatest strengths of Soderberg's book is her insider's account of many of the seminal events of the 1990s. From 1993-96, Soderberg was a high-ranking official on President Clinton's National Security Council (where I also worked from 1993 to early 1994). She then served as a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations until 2001. These perches gave Soderberg a bird's-eye view of such critical issues as intervention in the Balkans and Haiti and U.S. efforts to combat al Qaeda and hunt down Osama bin Laden. Although she is sometimes a bit too easy on her former bosses, her narrative provides valuable material on the considerations and personalities that shaped policy. While her accounts do not offer stunning revelations, they do provide important new detail, illuminating, for example, the tortured debates over intervention in Bosnia and Clinton's effort to overcome the post-Vietnam aversion to limited war. (The Washington Post, April 3, 2005)
Unilateral big-stick carrying may seem well and good to the "hegemons" in the Bush administration, writes erstwhile Clinton advisor Soderberg, but it hasn't made the world safer or better.
In the tradition of Clinton and other Democratic leaders (John Kerry comes to mind), the author argues that the way for the White House to win friends and influence people abroad is to build strong international alliances and share the burden of promoting peace and order with our partners. The Bush administration had the chance to extend the Clinton approach in addressing recent events, she continues, and did so to some extent in Afghanistan. But it chose to do otherwise after the fall of the Taliban. The present administration's insistence on going to war in Iraq "will prove to be a test of the myth of the hegemon's view of America's role as a superpower," writes Soderberg, who contends that going it alone in the modern world leads to isolation and the accumulation of enemies. The Superpower Myth has some interesting moments, as when the author recounts the 1993 attack on American soldiers in Somalia so ably depicted in Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down (1999). Soderberg describes a livid Bill Clinton demanding to know what had gone wrong, letting a few heads roll as a result, then taking charge of his own foreign policy. Lessons learned: Don't allow Pentagon types to go unquestioned, and don't allow the United Nations to lead American troops into battle. The second lesson has become an article of rhetorical faith among politicos, but the first has been lost on the onetime cold warriors of Ford and Reagan vintage who now serve Bush II. The point is well taken, but Soderberg's arguments swim in a sea of dreary detail; her narrative is less a book than an extended white paper, with all the requisite problem-describing, pundit-quoting, and policy-recommending.
May set a think-tank denizen's pulse racing, but won't do much for general readers with a concern for America's role in the world. (Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2004)
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Read an Excerpt
The Superpower Myth
By Nancy Soderberg
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-65683-6
Chapter OneThings Fall Apart
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned. -W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"
It was March 13, 1993. The principals-the cabinet-level officials responsible for national security policy-gathered in the Situation Room on the ground floor of the West Wing. Having grown up with the movie Dr. Strangelove, I assumed the Situation Room would be a large hall covered with maps, high-tech gadgets, and phone lines connected not only to the Russians but to other key world leaders as well. In fact, the room is small and unassuming, large enough for a rectangular shiny wooden table that seats about ten people comfortably and another twenty chairs along the wood-paneled walls. The table has one chair taller than the rest, in theory reserved for the president but most often used by the chair of the meeting, usually the national security advisor. The Cabinet Room is the only other room with a taller chair reserved for the president-one of the few vestiges of British royal tradition.
This particular principals' meeting turned out to be one of the most memorable-and, at over four hours, one of the longest-of my time at the White House. Three of the many issues discussed, the Middle East, Haiti, and Bosnia, required decisions on difficult questions, especially whether and how to use ground troops. As the third-ranking official at the National Security Council, my job was to help manage the foreign policy agenda. First as staff director, then as deputy assistant to the president, I sat in on most of the National Security Council (NSC) meetings throughout Clinton's first term, and then regularly from my position at the United Nations for the second term.
That day, Clinton, who had been president less than two months, made his first decision to deploy troops-to the Golan Heights, should there be a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. The group discussed the continued threat of Saddam Hussein and briefly discussed but rejected the use of force to return Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide to power. For the first time, the group grappled with inserting U.S. ground troops into Bosnia, in this case following an agreement among the parties. In addition, the principals had their first discussion about the use of force to bring about compliance by President Slobodan Milosevic of the former Yugoslav Republic, with the demands of the international community. The meeting began the process that would eventually lead to the use of force to back up American diplomacy more than two years later. It would also begin to develop a new foreign policy for America as the lone superpower, one that deployed not only America's vast, unrivaled military power but also its economic, diplomatic, and even moral strength.
The discussion set up a personal and policy dynamic that was to last through each of the participant's tenure in the administration. National Security Advisor Anthony (Tony) Lake tried to keep the conversation moving toward a conclusion. His very subtle humor offered comic relief to those sophisticated enough to get his jokes. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin raised repeated questions about the advisability of drawing the military into messy situations. His bombastic manner and failure to always be fully up on his brief alienated his colleagues and many at the Pentagon. He would often, however, be the first to ask the tough questions. For instance, that day he asked the key question, "Is the United States prepared to go to war in the Balkans?"
Chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell threw cold water on plans to involve the United States in the Balkans or any other "nonstrategic" situation, opposing the use of air power to achieve political aims and, at times, holding back key bits of information. The CIA Director James Woolsey offered "doom and gloom" scenarios that often failed to take into consideration key nuances. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright repeatedly pushed for more robust uses of force. Leon Fuerth, the vice president's national security advisor, would raise seemingly arcane points but, after navigating a very circuitous route, laid down important issues for consideration and pushed, with Albright, for the use of force to back up diplomacy. Deputy National Security Advisor Samuel (Sandy) Berger was always good for a bit of needed humor and for reminding his colleagues of the overall objectives of the president. While the principals did not realize it at the time, the discussion on whether to offer U.S. troops to support a Middle East peace agreement would prove to be the easiest discussion regarding that deployment.
If I were Israeli, I'd make damn certain there were Americans up there
Sitting to Lake's right, Secretary of State Warren (Chris) Christopher brought the group up to date on his negotiations in the Middle East. The United States had long played a leading role in trying to forge peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors. In 1979, then president Jimmy Carter had brought Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat together at Camp David. Yet, progress had eluded both presidents Reagan and Bush.
Christopher saw new opportunities for peace on two tracks: between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and Syria. Reserved, courteous, disciplined, and a little stiff, Christopher always dressed in a suit and tie. Passed over for secretary of state by Carter, Christopher had kept the post in his crosshairs for twelve years. I barely knew him as he had played virtually no role in foreign policy during Clinton's campaign. To my surprise, during the transition Clinton asked him to be secretary of state.
Building on his predecessor's policy, Christopher had been working to get an interim agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis that would give the Palestinians some form of increased self-rule and would mandate an incremental withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied territories. It now looked as though progress were possible. On the peace process with Syria, the Israelis were showing new flexibility and appeared willing to consider returning the Golan Heights, taken in the 1967 war. That meant the possibility of peace between Israel and Syria.
Christopher explained that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin was prepared to take "significant steps" before April 28 that might help induce the other Arabs to come around. The Israelis were looking at Palestinian elections to "choose someone there and give some legitimacy," as well as land "usage and management, but not sovereignty during the interim stages." As negotiations went forward, there could be some improvement in human rights conditions. Christopher also said Rabin had put dual citizenship on the table. While the proposal needed to be further developed, Christopher described it as "very encouraging."
Those in the room nodded in agreement. "The two main tracks are mutually reinforcing," said Lake, referring to the Syrian and Palestinian tracks. He then asked about the politically sensitive issue of the status of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which in 1993 remained on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. "I don't envision dealing with the PLO," replied Christopher. "They know what they have to do. The Brits and the Belgians have started negotiations with the PLO.... I wouldn't close the door forever. If we could find a way to deal with them, it would be simpler. But we can't do so until it is OK with the Israelis." Little did he know that in six months-to the day-PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat would walk into the White House.
On the Syrian track, Christopher was continuing discussions regarding peace between Israel and Syria in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Christopher explained cautiously that he thought there was a chance to get Syrian president Bashir al-Assad to agree to peace with Israel "in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan." Christopher laid out the U.S. approach, "full withdrawal for full peace." He was seeking an umbrella agreement that would set out these guidelines, followed by sequential steps to achieve the peace. But there was a catch, noted Christopher. "Assad understands the apex of full withdrawal for full peace. Therefore, it is necessary to tell him we're prepared to guarantee security through the UN-where the United States will play a major role for providing security on the Golan Heights. The sine qua non is a U.S. general in charge." That meant thousands of U.S. troops on the Israeli-Syrian border. Christopher wanted the authority to make Assad just such an offer.
President Clinton and Vice President Gore had joined the group to discuss the deployment of U.S. troops in the Golan. Listening carefully to Christopher's explanation, both Clinton and Gore agreed that Christopher should make the offer to Assad. Clinton was concerned about the congressional reaction, knowing how little support existed for the deployment of U.S. troops abroad. "If I tell him [Assad] I'll enforce security on the Golan Heights," Clinton asked the group, "do I need to have talked to Congress?" The principals decided they did not have to inform Congress further, as the Hill had already been briefed on letters of assurance on border security "according to U.S. Constitutional practices." While perhaps a stretch, no one wanted to risk a leak on an issue of this magnitude. A nasty debate in Congress over the deployment of troops to the Golan could have scuttled the deal.
Describing Rabin as a "flinty, taciturn man," Christopher said that Rabin really wanted "answers, especially regarding security arrangements on the Golan." Clinton also understood the troops had to be "real combat troops, not blue helmets," referring to UN peacekeepers. "If I were Israeli, I'd make damn certain there were Americans up there."
Offering to put U.S. troops on the Golan to guarantee security on the border between Israel and Syria was the first decision Clinton made to deploy troops abroad. It was the simplest decision he would face regarding U.S. troops-and also one that would not be implemented, as Assad ultimately never made the deal. There was no disagreement on the benefits to the United States of an Syrian-Israeli peace, long considered a strategic U.S. goal. No one winced when Powell later came back with an estimate of a U.S. battalion in the Golan for twelve years at the cost of "a couple of million" a year. The president's response to Powell's estimate was, "I think it is worth it."
The use of American troops to help implement peace in the Middle East was far less controversial than whether to deploy troops in the nonstrategic areas in conflict in 1993. These tougher decisions, ones that, unlike Syria, would ultimately be implemented, involved the use of force to back up American diplomacy in what New York Times columnist Leslie Gelb termed "teacup wars," those areas deemed during the cold war as not worthy of U.S. involvement, such as Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. Yet, as a superpower now free from the burden of containing the Soviet Union, the United States was increasingly called upon to do something to stem these conflicts. Clinton understood the need for U.S. leadership in such crises and during the campaign had challenged President George H. W. Bush to restore democracy to Haiti and end the war in the Balkans. He now struggled to find a way to do so as the new president.
Not your father's Democrat
In developing his foreign policy positions, Clinton had to redefine not only America's role in the post-cold war era but also Democratic foreign policy after nearly a quarter century of Republican presidents. The only hiatus had been Jimmy Carter's four-year presidency that, in foreign policy, was largely remembered for the success of the Camp David peace accords, but also for a perceived weakness because the Soviets had in 1979 invaded Afghanistan on his watch and because of his unsuccessful efforts to free the American hostages in Iran. The Democratic Party was perceived as weak on defense and unwilling to use force. On the other hand, Nixon's recognition of China, Reagan's increase in defense spending, tough Central American anticommunist policies, and invasion of Grenada created an image of toughness, and President George H. W. Bush's 1989 invasion of Panama and 1991 ouster of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, together with the recent collapse of the Soviet Union, had all helped to shape the image of a successful Republican foreign policy. In fact, Republicans seemed invincible.
During the campaign, Clinton trailed President Bush 15 percent to 63 percent in perceived ability to conduct foreign policy. Clinton sought to neutralize that deficit by taking many centrist positions, not only because he believed them appropriate but also because he hoped to win back the so-called Reagan Democrats who had abandoned the Democratic Party for more than a decade. Clinton called for "the world's strongest defense, ready and willing to use force, when necessary." Recognizing the concern of conservatives that the United States not overextend its forces, he advocated the selective use of U.S. influence, saying that "America's challenge in this era is not to bear every burden, but to tip the balance." Although he did propose modest cuts in defense spending to "plow those savings back into jobs right here at home," Clinton endorsed force modernization and increased support for soldiers and their families. He supported many of Bush's positions such as aid to the former Soviet Union, engagement in the Middle East peace process, and arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Clinton aggressively and successfully challenged the Republican foreign policy on a range of issues, especially its failure to adapt to the new international relations wrought by the end of the cold war. He likened the Republican claim of having won the cold war to the "rooster taking credit for the dawn." He pressed for "an America that will never coddle tyrants, from Baghdad to Beijing, an America that champions the cause of freedom and democracy, from Eastern Europe to Southern Africa, and in our own hemisphere in Haiti and Cuba." On Haiti, he had pledged to reverse Bush's policy of returning Haitian refugees and to work for the restoration of the deposed President Aristide. On Bosnia, he had challenged his predecessor's unwillingness to use America's economic and military strength to pressure the Serbs to end their aggression against the Muslim population. Both positions would take years to implement-and although we did not yet realize it-U.S. ground troops. First, the new team had to find its footing.
Clinton's foreign policy team drew largely from the ranks of Carter's team-the only Democratic president since 1968. Thus, the newly appointed officials had been out of power, and in many cases out of Washington, for twelve years. They were not attuned to the rigors of the new twenty-four-hour news cycle or the harsh partisan politics that pervaded the Congress. The team had the right instincts but faced a steep learning curve in the new ways of Washington. Most importantly, they faced the daunting task of charting a new American foreign policy in the post-cold war era.
The ultimate reserved Protestant New Englander, Tony Lake brought to the campaign an intense intellectual rigor and a centrist approach to the use of force, which was appreciated by Clinton. Slight of build, with wispy graying brown hair, and large academic glasses, Lake was a well-liked and respected professor of international affairs at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. A self-described neo-Wilsonian, Lake believed that the United States should use its moral, military, economic, and political strength to engage and promote a more just, stable world. As a young Foreign Service officer, Lake had requested to go to Vietnam. He rose quickly through the ranks and served as head of Policy Planning at the State Department under Carter. Lake had been given the plum task of serving as Henry Kissinger's special assistant in the early 1970s but had resigned over the Cambodian invasion and other issues. Kissinger subsequently tapped his phone. Lake's slightly stern way put off some people, yet his intellect and loyalty to his staff and colleagues earned him respect and support.
Excerpted from The Superpower Myth by Nancy Soderberg Excerpted by permission.
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