How to Craft a Better US Foreign Policy
The era of squandered dominance--what came before and why it was better.
Note—I started writing this with the best of intentions—as you can see from the opening immediately below, I really wanted to get into the era of squandered dominance, However I really only discussed the 1990s—which I consider a much better (and bi partisan) era of US foreign/strategic policy. Sorry!
This is the second part of what I hope will only be a three part series on how US foreign/strategic policy can be improved (which is desperately needed). With the failure of the US to understand what was happening in the Middle East, indeed to seemingly actively miss what was happening, we have but another disaster that has typified the last 23 years. In a true bi-partisan fashion administrations of both parties, going back to the George W. Bush presidency, have ended up squandering disastrously the era of US unipolar dominance. Indeed, its hard to think of a nation that has so badly fumbled its period of dominance as the USA has over the past few decades. Hopefully we can learn from it, and recalibrate US policy in the coming years, and not stop making the same mistakes over and over.
If you recall, last week I ended up delving into one specific example of American failings, the belief that the US can control things it cant really—which leads it to both get enmeshed in things it should not, and at the same time misunderstand what the US can do with its ‘power’ (or overestimate might be a better word). Here is the link to that piece.
Dont Knock the 1990s: Bi-Partisan Restraint
Im going to start this by saying that the 1990s with both George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton, showed a far greater sophistication and understanding of both the possibilities and crucially the limits of US foreign/strategic policy. It may have been because of a legacy of Cold War experience, but for whatever reason, when the US used force under both of those Presidents, it did so with greater success than it has ever done since. Indeed if you look at the two greatest examples of the use of force by Bush and Clinton (Desert Sword/Storm in 1990-1991 for Bush and Serbia/Kosovo campaign of 1999 for Clinton) you will see some important similarities that actually allowed for both to be successes and, crucially, not get the US enmeshed in nation-building, mass-long term military commitments and then catastrophic failures). Why did they work. I would say there were 3 major reasons that both campaigns were, within the context of the use of military force, quite successful.
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In neither case did the US act alone—but in fact in both cases the US acted as part of a wide coalition with broad international support. Even if the US did most of the fighting, it was careful to do it as part of a wide coalition of Allies and partners.
The US in both had a better idea of what it could achieve (limited aims) and crucially what it could not. The endings of these campaigns were not perfect—but crucially what they did not lead to was massive mission creep.
The US avoided nation-building exercises—as (building on the first point) actually the most important aspect of the end of each was the construction of stronger alliance relationships that helped make the world more secure and less-warlike.
Working as Part of an International Team
In both cases its really remarkable how the US, again which supplied most of the force, put effort into maintaining a wide coalition of support. In the case of Desert Storm (or the First Gulf War) it was arguably the largest global coalition that the US would ever lead. It was also put together with the proper national and international backing. The Bush administration received wide bi-partisan support in Congress and overwhelming support in the UN for action. It then convinced more than 40 different nations to send military forces as part of the plan to liberate Kuwait. And, it was not just the US working with its European allies—there was wide regional support as well from across the Middle East and even some contributions from Asia. Indeed, when you look at this coalition it both amazes and makes one regret what happened afterwards.