From Kuwait to Kosovo to Kabul, American firepower has been on the right side of history. The odyssey of a former dove.
From the Gulf War on, the hawks have been on the right side in all the major debates about U.S. intervention in the world’s troubles. The application of American military power — to drive back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, stop Slobodan Milosevic’s genocidal campaigns in the Balkans, and destroy the terrorist occupation of Afghanistan — has not just protected U.S. interests, it has demonstrably made the world safer and more civilized. Because of the U.S.-led allied victory in the Persian Gulf, Saddam — the most blood-stained and dangerous dictator in power today — was blocked from completing a nuclear bomb, taking control of 60 percent of the world’s oil resources and using his fearsome arsenal (including biological and chemical weapons) to consolidate Iraq’s position as the Middle East’s reigning force. Because of the U.S.-led air war against Milosevic, the most ruthless “ethnic cleansing” program since the Holocaust was finally thwarted — first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo — and the repulsive tyrant is now behind bars in the Hague. And in Afghanistan, the apocalyptic master plan of the al-Qaida terror network was shattered by America’s devastatingly accurate bombing campaign, along with the medieval theocracy that had thrown a cloak of darkness over the country.
These demonstrations of America’s awesome firepower were clearly on the right side of history. In fact, the country’s greatest foreign policy disasters during this period occurred because the U.S. government failed to assert its power: when President George H. W. Bush aborted Operation Desert Storm before it could reach Baghdad and finish off Saddam (whose army had only two weeks of bullets left) and when he failed to draw a line against Milosevic’s bloody plans for a greater Serbia; and when President Bill Clinton looked the other way while a genocidal rampage took the lives of a million people in Rwanda and when he failed to fully mobilize the country against terrorism after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the later attacks on American targets abroad — a failure that extended through the first eight months of Bush II.
Despite their eventual success, each U.S. military response in the past decade — even to the brazen sky terrorism that leveled the World Trade Center and devastated the Pentagon — has sparked passionate opposition in political, media and cultural circles. Conservative commentators like Andrew Sullivan, Charles Krauthammer and the Wall Street Journal editorial board have blamed current antiwar resistance on the left and its tradition of pacifism and criticism of American hegemony. And it’s true, any liberal who came of age during the Vietnam War, as I did, feels some kinship with these implacable critics of American policy, even a lingering sense of alienation from our own country’s world-straddling power. But most of us, at some point during the last two decades, made a fundamental break from this pacifistic legacy. For me, it came during the savage bombing of Sarajevo, whose blissfully multi-ethnic cosmopolitanism was, like New York would later become, an insult to the forces of zealous purity. Most liberals of my generation, however, feel deeply uneasy about labeling themselves hawks — to do so conjures images for them of Gen. Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay, it suggests a break from civilization itself, a heavy-footed step backwards, toward the bogs of our ancestors. What I have come to believe, however, is that America’s unmatched power to reduce tyranny and terror to dust is actually what often makes civilization in today’s world possible. I want to retrace my journey here, for those who might be wrestling with similar thoughts these days.
In truth, the opposition to assertive American foreign policy over the past decade has come from liberals and conservatives alike (as has support for interventionism), and while the Susan Sontags and Noam Chomskys have become convenient targets for pro-war pundits in recent months, the most effective critiques of American power since Vietnam have come not from Upper East Side salons and Berkeley’s ivory towers but from within the government itself, including even the Pentagon.
Ever since the Vietnam War, the foreign policy establishment has been suffering from what the astute analyst Robert Kagan calls a “loss of nerve.” This failure of will within the foreign policy elite — and Washington’s struggle to escape the shadow of Vietnam — is the theme of David Halberstam’s recent bestseller, “War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals.” As in his Vietnam classic, “The Best and the Brightest,” Halberstam builds his new book around portraits of key policymakers. But unlike his Vietnam book — which laid the blame for the debacle on arrogant interventionists like Robert MacNamara and the Bundy brothers — Halberstam’s new book is clearly sympathetic toward foreign policy boldness. The irony here has not escaped observers like Kagan, who in a withering essay in last month’s New Republic pinned much of the establishment’s loss of confidence on popular critics like Halberstam himself. According to Kagan, prominent writers like Halberstam “fixed it in the popular mind, and in the elite mind, that ‘the best and the brightest’ were dangerous. To be among the best and the brightest was to stand accused of criminal incompetence. And what did that mean about America? If our best and brightest could not be trusted not to destroy us, then we were doomed. Could American power be wielded with a measure of confidence? No, it was impossible to wield power at all. Was national greatness a possibility if the best among us were fools?”
Though he doesn’t concede his thinking has undergone any revision, Halberstam’s views have clearly changed with time. The heroes in “War in a Time of Peace” are the hawks in the Clinton administration — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Balkans negotiator and later U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and Kosovo air war commander General Wes Clark. Both Holbrooke, who served as a young diplomat in Saigon, and Clark, who commanded an Army company and was wounded four times in one battle, were shaped by Vietnam. But unlike other future political and military leaders who came of age in the crucible of that jungle war, neither of these men was incapacitated by it. Despite America’s failure in Vietnam, both men recognized how important it was for the country to play a strong global role — and their hawkish views of the Milosevic killing machine in the Balkans finally helped convince Clinton to strike back at the dictator, who despite all the dire predictions from GOP doves like Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich (and perennial Vietnam-era peace crusaders like Tom Hayden) promptly wilted.
But, as Halberstam makes clear, the hawks were an embattled minority during the Clinton years — as they were during most of the senior Bush’s administration. Whether it was the cynical James Baker, who famously concluded that America did not “have a dog in that fight” and thereby allowed the Balkans war to take its savage course, or the ineffectual Warren Christopher (“Dean Rusk without the charisma,” as Democratic Party insiders mordantly summed up Clinton’s choice for secretary of state), America’s foreign policy was led during these years by men who believed it must operate within very narrow constraints.
The man who gave this limited foreign policy a name was Colin Powell, whose high-level service has stretched from the first Bush administration to Clinton’s to that of the junior Bush. With its demand that no military action commence unless it faced certain and swift victory, the Powell Doctrine placed the bar so high it nearly assured U.S. paralysis. As one of George H. W. Bush’s presiding commanders, Powell had emerged from the Gulf War a national hero. But in fact, as Halberstam observes, it was Bush himself who had to push Powell and his other reluctant advisers into the war with Saddam. Powell had advised the president to forfeit Kuwait and draw a line of defense around Saudi Arabia. And after Saddam’s army was defeated, Powell urged Bush to conclude the war with Saddam’s regime still intact. As Clinton’s top military commander, Powell continued to play the “reluctant warrior” (a term Halberstam says was used against him by one critic but which he happily embraced), using his stature to intimidate the young, inexperienced president. He scared the Clinton team away from intervening against Milosevic — as he had the Bush administration — with his chilling predictions of a Balkans quagmire. “Under Bush, and again under Clinton, when the top civilians asked what it might cost to intervene militarily, Powell would show his lack of enthusiasm by giving them a high estimate, and they would quickly back off,” writes Halberstam. “The figure never went under two hundred thousand troops.” Powell was similarly dismissive of what air power could do against the Serb dictator — despite its decisive role during the Gulf War. “When I hear someone tell me what airpower can do, I head for a bunker,” he snorted after a meeting with civilian Bush officials. Years later, as the decade came to a close, Milosevic’s military machine would finally be broken by U.S. air power after just 10 weeks of bombing. By then, some 200,000 people had been killed in the region and 3 million made homeless.
Powell’s skepticism about armed action was widely shared within the military’s high command, which was more scarred by Vietnam than perhaps any other arm of government. Indeed, if hawkish commentators are looking for the headquarters of American pacifism, they need look no farther than the Pentagon. “There the memory of Vietnam was a little longer, because almost all of the top army people, unlike those at State, had served directly in that war and the experience had been a bitter one in almost all instances,” writes Halberstam. “The Pentagon had an all too personal understanding of what happens, first, when the architects of an interventionist policy underestimate the other side, and second, when so many of those in the political process who were its architects soon orphan their own handiwork and go on to other jobs, leaving the military to deal with a war that no one could get right.”
The most telling showdown between the hawk and dove factions of the U.S. government came during the Clinton administration debate on Balkans intervention, when then-U.N. Ambassador Albright — who as a child of Europe’s tragic history was painfully aware of the threat posed by Milosevic — confronted the cautious Powell. “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” she burst out. “I thought I would have an aneurysm,” Powell later recalled in his autobiography. “American G.I.s were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.” (This confrontation illustrates the political tension over military policy that has characterized the past decade. In the shrewd assessment of conservative commentator Bruce Herschensohn, as cited by Halberstam: “The Democrats always want a small army, but want to send it everywhere, while the Republicans want a very big army and don’t want to use it at all.”)
Though Albright’s view was to be proved the correct one, Powell’s concern for the lives of American soldiers is not easily dismissed. All too often, the officials and commentators calling for blood and fire have no personal experience of the frontline misery they are clamoring for — and frequently have surprisingly little empathy for those who will be put in harm’s way, including soldiers and civilians. Powell, who endured two rounds of duty in Vietnam, is painfully aware of what battle is like. Ultimately, the truest test of a hawk’s sincerity is whether he himself would volunteer to fight — or be willing to sacrifice the lives of his own children. Powell is right: G.I.s aren’t toy soldiers. And unless a hawk can say he is prepared to make this ultimate sacrifice, he’s on shaky moral ground.
Powell and the military elite weren’t the only ones scarred by Vietnam, of course — an entire generation of Americans was. When President Johnson began escalating the war in 1964, I was a 12-year-old student at a military academy in Los Angeles, the Harvard School. We drilled, took rifle practice and fought battle exercises with the expectation that, after graduation, we would serve our country as junior officers in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia. We attended solemn chapel services in memory of fallen alumni; their heroic names lived forever on school plaques. But as the war dragged on, and it became clear even to ROTC-trained teenagers like me that something was terribly wrong over there, that the majority of Vietnamese — for whom we were ostensibly fighting — did not seem to want us to win, some deep sense of patriotic mission that stretched back generations in my family and countless others was broken. Now, among the young men and women I knew, the honorable path was not to fight in this American war, as our fathers had when they were called to duty decades before, but to fight against it.
In recent years, it has once again become fashionable among the pundit class to denigrate those who protested the war and to venerate those who chose to serve. But the antiwar activists I knew and worked with did not make their choices lightly or selfishly. The decision to break with our country’s policy was a wrenching one for us, and we paid for it in various ways. Many of us, including myself, were sentenced to jail for our protests; some, like a close college friend, served two years in a federal prison for burning his draft card. I was prepared to join him if my number had been called in Nixon’s macabre lottery system. My early youth was a never-ending campaign of pamphleteering, marching and, as the war spread its poison, increasingly bitter run-ins with violent police assault squads. But the deeper cost was the disorienting sense of estrangement we came to feel from the country we had been raised to love. Ironically, we saw the same alienation in the young veterans we came to know as they returned from the war and turned against it. The stories have achieved mythological status and I’m sure some of them are true — but no one I knew ever spit on a returning soldier. These men were even more haunted by the war than we were; we felt they were brothers in the same nightmare. Some — like my friend who decided to go under pressure from his father, a conservative Florida mayor, but insisted on serving as a medic on a helicopter gunship — experienced things he could never put behind him and died a few years after the war ended, in a way that seemed suicidal. He had a Southern sense of valor, clearly intact under his wry veneer, that two decades after his death still brings tears to my eyes whenever he swims into memory. The point I’m trying to make is that antiwar activists were attempting to prevent casualties like this, senseless carnage that outlasted the war itself. And I came to regard these efforts as heroic. I still do.
The only members of my generation I have contempt for are those who loudly supported the war but found convenient ways to escape serving in it. I saw this syndrome develop while still a military student — as the war staggered on, suddenly the names of fallen graduates came to a halt. The conservative tycoons and politicians who sent their sons to the academy were finding face-saving ways for their offspring to dodge the war — the preferred escape hatch was enrollment in the National Guard. This allowed these “fortunate sons” (in the words of the acidic antiwar song by Creedence Clearwater Revival) to appear patriotic and not disturb their career trajectories, while saving their asses. It was an easy out made famous by two of the nation’s most prominent fortunate sons, Vice President Dan Quayle and the current occupant of the White House.
This contempt is shared by Powell, who, Halberstam notes, “despised the class distinctions that had determined who had gone to Vietnam and who had not, which he called ‘an antidemocratic disgrace.’” Powell wrote in his autobiography, “I can never forgive a leadership that said in effect: ‘These young men — poorer, less educated, less privileged — are expendable (someone once described them as ‘economic cannon-fodder’) but the rest are too good to risk.’ I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well-placed … managed to wangle slots in the Reserve and National Guard units.” This raises the question: What does Powell think of the war record of the president he currently serves as secretary of state?
I continued to wear my antiwar record as a badge of honor years after Vietnam, eliciting predictable sneers from conservatives and mandatory respect in liberal circles. The lessons of Vietnam guided me during my opposition to President Reagan’s murky war in Central America, even through the Persian Gulf War, which I again marched against, as a bloody crusade on behalf of Big Oil. Years later, I came to see the Gulf War as more than this, as I educated myself about the ghastly regime in Baghdad and the horrors it had inflicted on its own people as well as enemies. By the time Milosevic and his henchmen began bombarding defenseless cities and filling concentration camps and mass graves with undesirables, while his European neighbors and U.N. “peacekeepers” endlessly dithered, I had come fully round to a conviction I had not embraced since I was a boy: America is not only capable of using its unrivaled power for good — it must. When waves of American bombers began striking at Serbian military installations and power plants in spring 1999, I felt a kind of unmitigated pride I hadn’t remembered since those long-ago days when I watched old World War II movies without a sense of irony. As Halberstam documents, President Clinton had to be pushed and prodded into taking decisive action — by aides like Albright and Holbrooke, by Gen. Clark on the military side, by trusted allies like Tony Blair — and finally by the unrelentingly belligerent Milosevic himself. But when Clinton finally did, it was his finest moment as commander in chief.
The transition from dove to hawk is a political, intellectual and personal journey that many others in my generation have been making in recent years, some since Sept. 11. The length of this collective trek came home for me this morning on the way to work, as I listened closely for the first time to the lyrics of Neil Young’s new song, “Let’s Roll,” inspired by the words of United Airlines Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer as he and his brave comrades rushed the cockpit. Thirty years ago, I was equally stirred by Young’s bitter “Ohio,” his antiwar anthem about the Kent State student protesters who were cut down by “tin soldiers in Nixon’s army.” (It was the one time the fortunate sons in the National Guard saw action during Vietnam, to kill their fellow citizens.) But it’s the simplicity of Young’s current song that sums up the world today: “No one has the answers/but one thing is true/You’ve got to turn on evil/ when it’s coming after you … Time is running out, let’s roll.”
For years after Vietnam, I wanted America to step back from the world, and what I regarded as its arrogant — if not imperial — need to impose its own sense of order on history. But I have come to share the view of Robert Kagan, that “if you are the president of the United States, you do not find trouble, trouble finds you.” Or as Richard Holbrooke told Halberstam, speaking of Clinton’s early desire to focus almost exclusively on domestic issues (believing this was the electorate’s message in choosing him over the internationalist Bush): “What Clinton did not yet understand was that foreign policy never lets an American president go.” There are inevitably times when the darkest powers of the human heart find the means and opportunity to threaten not just the world’s peace but its sense of decency. And while international coalitions or U.N. peacekeeping forces would, in a better world, be the best way to respond to these explosions of evil, the sober truth is that — from Kuwait to Kosovo to Kabul — only the United States has demonstrated the force and the will to do so effectively.
I am no foreign policy expert, as is surely plain by now. But I believe it’s incumbent on all America’s citizens to learn as much as our busy lives allow about the world — and not just leave it to our best and brightest — because the United States’ unique leadership role assures that all of us will feel the impact of the globe’s crises, no matter how remote they might initially seem. I have developed my own criteria for when I think American intervention is justified; that is, when it’s worth the cost in blood and treasure, not only for the U.S., but for the people we are trying to rescue. In my mind, there are three cases when resorting to military force is necessary: 1) When the United States is directly attacked — which it was not only on Sept. 11 but in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, as well as the explosions aimed at the U.S. embassies in Africa and naval ship in Yemen; 2) When an aggressor threatens regional stability and world peace — such as Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and Milosevic’s assaults on Bosnia and Kosovo; 3) When a nation launches a campaign of genocidal extermination against its own people or those of its neighbors — as Milosevic did against the Muslims of the former Yugoslavia and the Hutu tribe did against the Tutsis in Rwanda.
Bloodbaths like Rwanda strike many Americans as not worth the cost of intervention, since they do not directly threaten our national security. But we do indeed have a dog in these fights. These orgies of violence are crimes against humanity — and unless they’re stopped and their perpetrators brought to justice, they degrade the world we live in and embolden future Pol Pots and Interhamwes, the machete-wielding vigilantes who hacked to death nearly a million of their Rwandan neighbors in a 100-day spasm of gore, while the U.S. did nothing and U.N. soldiers fled the country. The tragedy of Rwanda, as a 1999 “Frontline” report on PBS documented, was that this low-tech genocide could have been stopped with a minimal show of force. Instead it was a “triumph of evil,” as “Frontline” titled its report, “which the philosopher Edmund Burke observed happens when good men do nothing.” When demonic visionaries are allowed to put their Grand Guignol theories into practice, the moral universe that all of us inhabit shrivels.
In historian Walter Russell Mead’s terms, I have gone from being a Jeffersonian to a Wilsonian. In his new book, “Special Providence,” Mead provides a highly useful map of the schools of thought that have guided American foreign policy throughout the country’s history, dividing them into the two above, as well as Jacksonians and Hamiltonians. Mead’s graceful analysis, which seeks out the wisdom and flaws in each of these schools, has won strong praise from astute foreign policy practitioners like Richard Holbrooke and fellow historians like Douglas Brinkley and Ronald Steel, and deservedly so. His provocative theoretical architecture and lively writing style give average Americans the opportunity to examine the assumptions behind the country’s foreign policy decisions, from the calamitous to the heroic.
Jeffersonians, as Mead defines them, shun foreign entanglements, particularly wars, which they perceive as the greatest threats to our precious and fragile democracy. Named after our third president, who feared for the future of our democratic experiment in a perilous world, Jeffersonians dread the corruptions of a militarized society, recoiling at Cicero’s admonition to a Roman jury, that “the law shuts up when weapons speak.” Among the Jeffersonian school’s more illustrious proponents, according to Mead, have been some of the “most distinguished and elegant strategic thinkers in American history — men like John Quincy Adams and George Kennan — as well as passionate and proud democratic isolationists” and anti-imperialists like Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, Ralph Nader, historian Charles Beard, libertarian thinkers such as the scholars at the Cato Institute and, he reveals in the book’s conclusion, Mead himself. Jeffersonians cringe at the Wilsonian argument that tempests like Kosovo and Rwanda cry out for our intervention, that “the American national interest in an orderly world coincides with the country’s moral duty.” In contrast, Jeffersonians, who see the world as dangerous and unreformable, heed Adams’ eloquent 1821 declamation that America should not go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
The Jeffersonians’ greatest weakness — and it’s a glaring one, Mead concedes — is their tendency to be on the wrong side of history. The Jeffersonian camp, which urged American neutrality far too long into the rise of the fascist juggernaut, was deeply discredited by World War II as well as by its opposition to the Cold War. Jeffersonians rose to prominence again with the failure of U.S. policy in Vietnam, but their ascendancy was short-lived. “In the 1980s many Jeffersonians had convinced themselves that American power was fated to decline,” observes Mead. “The obvious upsurge in American international standing and economic power of the 1990s took them aback. Largely isolated in opposing the Gulf War, Jeffersonians took another blow when the war ended in an easy victory with neither the heavy casualties nor the political problems that many of them had predicted. When the Balkans interventions did not end in unmitigated, clear disasters, Jeffersonian croaking about the dangers of intervention, the arrogance of power, and the costs of imperial overreach had lost most of their credibility. Jeffersonians continued to cry wolf in the 1990s, but fewer and fewer people listened.” If he had not already sent his book to the publisher, Mead would surely have added the Jeffersonian bleating about an Afghan military morass and massive civilian casualties to his list of this school’s intellectual failures.
The Wilsonians and Hamiltonians are the two internationalist camps in Mead’s map, and he says they represent the current thinking of the foreign policy establishment. But since the Hamiltonians concern themselves almost exclusively with the creation of a global financial order within which American business can prosper, rather than with military matters, we need not dwell on this school here. The Wilsonians, named for the president who believed the United States had a moral and practical duty to spread its values through the world, are according to Mead “more interested in the legal and moral aspects of world order than in the economic agenda supported by Hamiltonians.” The origins of this school predate President Woodrow Wilson himself, observes Mead, stretching back to the Christian missionary movement of the 19th century which lobbied Washington to adopt progressive policies toward China, Siam, the Ottoman Empire and other far-flung outposts. But it began its triumphant reign during the Woodrow presidency.
“Fashionable though it has long been to scorn the Treaty of Versailles, and flawed though that instrument undoubtedly was, one must note that Wilson’s principles survived the eclipse of the Versailles system and that they still guide European politics today: self-determination, democratic government, collective security, international law, and a league of nations,” writes Mead. “Wilson may not have gotten everything he wanted at Versailles, and his treaty was never ratified by the Senate, but his vision and diplomacy, for better or worse, set the tone for the 20th century. France, Germany, Italy and Britain may have sneered at Wilson, but every one of these powers today conducts its policy along Wilsonian lines. What was once dismissed as visionary is now accepted as fundamental. This was no mean achievement, and no European statesman of the 20th century has had as lasting, as benign, or as widespread an influence.”
Wilson’s own war may not have brought about the world he envisioned, but most subsequent Wilsonian interventions through the 20th century and into the 21st — from World War II to the Balkans to Afghanistan — have helped extend the rule of peace, justice and democracy. And the commitment to “nation building” in war-ravaged countries, which is an essential corollary to the Wilsonian philosophy of military engagement, has also brought harmony to the world, from post-war Japan to Kabul’s new U.S.-supported transition government. President Bush himself, who scorned Clinton nation-building in Haiti and the Balkans during last year’s presidential campaign, has since Sept. 11 become an ardent convert to this strategy, as well as an overnight fan of Wilsonian-style multinational consultation.
Wilsonianism’s greatest difficulty is determining where to draw the line on its humanitarian impulse. As Mead points out, in a benighted and violent world, the calls for American action can be endless. He paints a chilling picture of what a society dedicated to serving as the world’s policeman can become: “A global hegemon leads a hard and busy life. Are the tribes revolting in Kabul? Is a coup brewing in Manila? Is piracy on the upswing in the South China Sea? Are Arabs bombing Israelis (or vice versa) in the Holy Land? A global hegemon must determine if any of the thousands of crises that occur in any random decade post a threat to the hegemonic order … Moreover, the capital of a hegemon is invariably a place of secrets, many of them dirty. There are secret agreements with allies, the secrets of military planning, the secrets of a vast and active intelligence community and a web of agents. Many of the hegemon’s allies are not particularly nice. In most of this sad world’s bloody struggles, both sides are crooked, both drenched in blood, and neither attracted to the cause of liberty, virtue or anything else that goes beyond personal and clan ambition. Inevitably the hegemon enters into arrangements with murderers and thugs; inevitably the hegemon seeks to make its allies more effective at murder and thuggery than their opponents.
“This is no Jerusalem, no ‘City upon a Hill’”, a dismayed Mead cries out. “This is Babylon; it is Nineveh. It is the Augean stables, not an honest republic.”
Serving as the world’s centurion also repeatedly puts the global power’s own citizens in the line of fire. And, particularly in a society like the United States that has abolished its military draft, this life-threatening service falls disproportionately on that class of society that Colin Powell calls “economic cannon fodder.” Mead has a different way of characterizing this group. Most of those who serve in the American military come from what he calls the Jacksonian wing of American society — the descendants of Scotch-Irish warrior clans who settled largely in the South and on the American frontiers (now the Sunbelt) and the subsequent waves of immigrants who adopted this group’s ardent pro-Americanism and rugged individualism. The motto of this populist and patriotic school, named for the war hero and champion of the common man, could well be “Don’t Tread on Me.” Jacksonians believe “that the U.S. should not seek out foreign quarrels, but when other nations start wars with the United States, Jacksonian opinion agrees with Gen. Douglas MacArthur that ‘There is no substitute for victory.’” This culture, whose heroes over the years have been men like Gen. George Patton, Ronald Reagan, Ross Perot, George Wallace and John McCain, puts a high premium on self-reliance, courage, honor and military service, which, Mead writes, is viewed by Jacksonians as a sacred duty. When the rest of America “dodged the draft in Vietnam or purchased exemptions and substitutes in earlier wars, Jacksonians soldiered on, if sometimes bitterly and resentfully. Failure to defend the country in its hour of need is to the Jacksonian mind evidence of at best distorted values and more probably contemptible cowardice. An honorable person is ready to kill or to die for family and flag.”
Jacksonians also believe in all-out war once the firing begins, and they have low regard for international law and organizations, particularly ones that limit U.S. action. “Jacksonians believe that there is an honor code in international life, as there was in clan warfare in the borderlands of England, and those who live by the code will be treated under it,” writes Mead. “But those who violate the code, who commit terrorist acts against innocent civilians in peacetime for example, forfeit its protection and deserve no more consideration than rats.”
This would account for the daisy-cutter firepower directed at al-Qaida’s caves and the high popularity of the Bush administration’s military tribunals for captured terrorists. Author Michael Lind has argued that Jacksonianism is the most popular political philosophy among the American public at large, much stronger among ordinary Americans than it is among the elite, and he is certainly right. Mead, in fact, contends that the first President Bush lost his job when he stopped being a Jacksonian in his war against Saddam and declared victory without finishing the job, out of Hamiltonian deference to our Saudi oil suppliers (who feared an unstable, and perhaps even worse, democratic government in neighboring Baghdad) — one more indication to Jacksonian voters that Bush was more concerned with his new world order than with average Americans.
Though my family roots are in this Scotch-Irish culture, I fell out with this tradition over Vietnam. I don’t believe that an American citizen has a moral duty to fight every war its government declares if it goes deeply against his conscience — but he should be prepared to pay the price with a prison sentence if it comes to that. I also parted company with the Jacksonians on the Balkans war, which they saw as irrelevant to American interests, an example of Wilsonian do-gooderism gone amuck. We’ve come together again on Afghanistan and al-Qaida. But, as Mead points out, Wilsonian support for wars doesn’t count as much as that of Jacksonians in the American political spectrum. It’s the martial energy of the Jacksonians that political leaders need to enlist to successfully prosecute wars: “Every American school needs Jacksonians to get what it wants. If the American people had exhibited the fighting qualities of, say, the French, in World War II, neither Hamiltonians, Jeffersonians or Wilsonians would have had much to do with shaping postwar international order.”
Jacksonians have greater moral authority when it comes to making momentous war decisions because they and their children do the preponderance of fighting and dying. But this is not the way it should be. Placing the burden of military service on a warrior subculture is an unjust division of labor that, as Powell has argued, should be repellent to our democracy. This is why I have come to believe we need to bring back the military draft, stripped of the loopholes for “fortunate sons” that made a mockery of it during the Vietnam War. World War II ennobled America, not just because it was a righteous cause, but because it was fought by a democratic cross section of the country, from hillbillies to Hollywood stars, like bomber pilot Jimmy Stewart.
This brings us back to a question I raised earlier, one that is particularly painful for me as the father of two sons. If commentators — or any citizens — call for American troops to go to war, I think they must be willing to enlist themselves or if they’re too old for duty, be willing to picture their own sons or daughters in uniform. My boys are years away from fighting age, but as long as America serves its current global role, I know there will be wars awaiting them when their time comes. I don’t think they should automatically enlist, regardless of the nature of the war. I’ve talked to my oldest son about Vietnam and why I opposed the war, and I hope he will deeply search his own conscience before he makes up his mind. I don’t believe in “my country, right or wrong.” But if the cause is compelling and just, I also hope he does the right thing and serves his country.
When my sons crumple in pain on the playing field, my heart loses its rhythm until I see they’re all right. When they’re sick and their breathing grows clotted at night, I sleep my own restless vigil. Both are prone to florid nosebleeds, and I can’t even stand to see this blood pour from them. How could I ever agree to put their lives at risk, these two young souls whose destruction would mean the end of the most precious part of my life? How could any war be worth the life of your son — or your neighbor’s? If you’re debating the merits of a war in your head, and you don’t get to this question, you haven’t gone far enough.
Shortly before he released the patriotic “Let’s Roll,” Neil Young appeared in the somber, candlelit telethon “America: Tribute to Heroes.” The song he chose to sing that evening was the peace anthem “Imagine,” in which John Lennon urges us to think of a world where “there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill and die for/and no religion too.” So clearly old Neil is wrestling with a lot of conflicting feelings these days too.
The song has always moved me, and Young’s high, plaintive voice after all the nationalistic and religious killing and dying going on, made it seem particularly sad. But the fact is I can’t imagine life without my country. My sense of myself, what I believe in, is so wrapped up with being an American that I can’t disentwine them. Maybe that’s a failure of imagination; maybe John’s world is a higher one that future generations will someday inhabit, “and the world will live as one.” But all it took for me was one look at the burning New York skyline to know that America was worth fighting and dying for.
Jacksonians conjure their own images when they think of America, some of which I share (Fourth of July barbecues, Saturday night high school football games, the flag snapping in the breeze) and some of which I don’t (gun shows, SUVs lumbering through traffic, the smug look on Bill O’Reilly’s mug). But I always swell with pride when my eyes fill up with the urban panoramas of great American cities, like New York or my own San Francisco. These jostling streets of polyglot races and creeds and fashion statements, of naked ambition and soaring dreams — what historian Ann Douglas hailed as “mongrel Manhattan” — are democracy’s greatest advertisement for itself. And they’re why New York’s highest towers became a target for the most atavistic forces at work in the world today. Yes, the Jeffersonians have a point — global powers like America, with military, diplomatic and corporate outposts from Mecca to Timbuktu, inevitably invite resentment and hostility. But the terrorists striking at New York and Washington were not just making a political statement, they were making a cultural one. The World Trade Centers truly were the world — just recall all the seven-continent faces of the people who worked there as they appeared in the New York Times obituary pages. The worldliness of American democracy — its openness to every type of human aspiration, even fundamentalism — is an affront to those who think better in caves.
So yes, some things are as precious as life itself, such as our way of life. The beacons of freedom, justice, equality and human tolerance turn out to be not as inextinguishable as most of us in America grew up thinking. They can be put out, and they’re put out in different places all over the world. And when this darkness encroaches too far, we must risk our lives, even our sons’ lives, to push it back. America is a light to the world — even to the ex-Taliban fighters and madrassa students who dream of coming here to live and prosper — because each generation has been willing to fight to keep it alive, or in the case of many of my generation, to fight their government when they saw it had gone grievously wrong.
When it comes to destroying Osama bin Laden and his holy band of civilian-slaughterers, I’m an ardent Jacksonian. President Bush has it right: pursue them to the ends of the earth, until they’re captured or dispatched to their feverishly awaited Paradise. I’m a Wilsonian when it comes to rebuilding Afghanistan and working actively with other countries in the region like Iran, India and Pakistan to promote peace and democracy. (And so far Bush’s team seems to have it right here as well. Memo to right-wingers who still oppose nation-building: Check out the American eagle on the presidential seal — it clutches arrows in one of its talons and an olive branch in the other.) And I’m a Jeffersonian when it comes to vigilantly defending civil liberties at home, which from Cicero’s day to our own always come under threat in wartime. Here I part sharp company with the administration.
As Mead observes, the interplay between America’s four schools of foreign policy thinking has made the country strong throughout our history. It is this supple give and take that has bestowed the “special providence” on our country that, Otto von Bismark remarked, God reserved “for fools, drunks and the United States of America.” Yes, we might have ended up like the French during World War II without the Jacksonians’ warrior spirit, but the republic might have completely shattered during Vietnam or slid into a nuclear war if the Jeffersonians had not finally forced the government out of it. There are surely many other Americans like me, who while firmly in one camp, continue to draw guidance from the others.
To his credit, for instance, New York Times columnist William Safire tempers his Jacksonianism with a principled commitment to Jeffersonian liberties. His opposition to Bush’s assault on the rule of law since Sept. 11 has been among the most eloquent and impassioned from the press. Conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan has also broken ranks with his political comrades on some issues since the war began, endorsing the Bush administration’s modified Wilsonianism as it “has improvised an imaginative if precarious series of bilateral and trilateral alliances, each designed to solve a particular problem” arising out of the fight with terrorism. Sullivan has also acutely recognized the “theocon” element of the Republican base represented by the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as a growing problem for the GOP since Sept. 11. “It is hard to fight a war against politico-religious extremism if you are winking at milder versions in your own political coalition,” he noted in a smart essay on “The War and the Right” in the New Republic. “In a war with terrorist theocracy, America’s political secularism — allied with its civil religiosity — seems one of the Constitution’s sterling achievements, and not one that many Americans would want unraveled any time soon.”
As the war in Afghanistan draws to an end — hopefully with the imminent capture or demise of the al-Qaida leadership — America faces its next global decision. Should we follow through on President Bush’s ambitious call for an all-out war on terrorism, in particular seeking to destroy once and for all Saddam’s regime? Or will this Jacksonian impulse to escalate the war cost too much blood and sorrow for an already extended Fortress America?
Mead would counsel that the Iraq debate should occur within a broader and long overdue national discussion about the global role of America. Ever since the decline of the British Empire following World War II, the U.S. has served, in Col. House’s phrase, as “the gyroscope of world order.” But many Americans have not fully appreciated the costs of running a global system, says Mead — although it came home for us on Sept. 11. “Blackhawk Down,” the new movie based on Mark Bowden’s bestseller, surely raises the same question for the American public: When is it appropriate for the U.S. to use its troops? Certainly, Somalia teaches us, not when our soldiers are being used as nation-builders in a country gripped by warlords and chaos. Or does it? Afghanistan appeared to many skeptics to be the same dark alley. And yet in this case the majority of the country, after 20 years of fighting and tyranny, turned out to be more than ready to be relieved of its agony, even under the shuddering impact of American bombs.
Serving as the world’s only superpower need not be the thicket of a thousand piercing thorns that Mead and other Jeffersonians fear. In truth, the U.S. has been very discriminating about where it has intervened in the past decade or so. As Mead acknowledges, the Pentagon itself has become a bastion of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian thinking, the two schools most reluctant to stick their noses in the world’s business. The only clear example of an intervention debacle during these years has, in fact, been Somalia.
But even as I write these words, the drums of war are growing loud again, sounding out “Baghdad.” And my first response to them comes from my Jeffersonian past: not again, not another war; when will Americans finally get to lay down their military burden, why should it be up to us to relieve the world of one more evil dictator, is he really the horseman of the apocalypse the war drummers say he is? The drums quieted briefly as America celebrated Peace on Earth. But they’re beating again, and Americans will soon have to decide whether to heed them.
Coming soon: Part 2, Iraq
Salon founder David Talbot is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years,” and most recently, “Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love.” More David Talbot.
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