FORTS AND FIREBREAKS: America's International Military Commitments

Thursday, October 21, 1999

The Cold War is over, but America's overseas military commitments remain in place. What are we defending the world against? Should we bring the troops home and let the rest of the world fend for itself? Can we create a new blueprint for international involvement that makes moral and rational sense?

Recorded on Thursday, October 21, 1999

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I’m Peter Robinson. Our show today: America’s International Military commitments. During the Cold War, the United States had one Foreign Policy objective, stopping the Soviet Union. To that end we established military commitments around the world, Europe, Latin America, Asia. Today of course the Cold War has been over for a decade, yet our Cold War military commitments remain in place. Some argue this as a good thing. They believe it keeps the United States engaged with the rest of the world. They want us to keep our tens of thousands of troops in Europe as part of NATO. Our presence at Guatanamo Bay, Cuba, our military assistance to the government of Colombia, and others in Latin America, they want us to retain responsibility for defending Japan. Keep our troops in South Korea. Maintain our military alliances with Australia, New Zealand and so on. Others, notably Pat Buchanan, believe that it’s time to bring the international commitments to an end and bring the troops back home. What are the alternatives? A new international strategy that is rational and moral. Just what would that look like? With us today, two guests. Ken Jowitt is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor at the University of California in Berkeley. Daniel Moran is a professor at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California. Ken and Dan have a few ideas on how America can play the new international game.

After the first World War, Britain, seeing no major foreign threats to itself, cut its defense expenditures drastically and when Hitler came to power, Britain was unprepared. Since the Cold War, we in the United States have cut our armed forces by about a third and we cut defense spending, of the share of duty-free to its lowest point since before Pearl Harbor. Is the United States today, making the same mistake that Britain made after the First World War? Ken?

Ken Jowitt: No. I don’t think so at all. We probably spend more in defense than most of the world combined and since the end of the Cold War we’ve got the User Trust, in the Gulf War and now in Kosovo. So we both have more resources than Britain. We have in effect maintained our technological capacity and we practice with it.

Peter Robinson: So we’re in good shape.

Ken Jowitt: Yeah, I think we’re in good shape.

Peter Robinson: Dan?

Daniel Moran: We’re certainly not in condition analogous to England’s after the first World War which was enormously destructive, even for the winners. The Cold War had destructive characteristics for the United States in some ways, but we don’t--I mean the condition of the world economy in 1919 is nothing at all like the condition of the world economy in 1999. That by itself alters the frame of reference.

Peter Robinson: Let’s move to the question of just how extensive our commitments should be in this post Cold World War? Pat Buchanan--the man everyone loves to hate, has a book which, however much people may hate him, makes a couple of provocative points. And Buchanan writes, I quote him now, since the end of the Cold War,"….not one Cold War commitment from defending Japan and Korea to our duty to come to the defense of all of Latin America has been allowed to lapse. Not one. This is a betrayal of the founding fathers." Is Buchanan right? We’re over-extended?

Ken Jowitt: No. Actually, Pat Buchanan is the only person in the world that wants us to adopt a North Korean policy of [Ju che] which is basically mean self-archy, self-sufficiency, isolation and even if one wanted to do what Buchanan wants and I don’t, it’s just not possible. He wants us to be sort of a non-biodegradable national bunker and we’ve already been outflanked by email and nuclear weapons. So the real question is how you engage, not whether you don’t engage.

Peter Robinson: Pat Buchanan isn’t here so it’s unfair to keep trying to characterize arguments that's his. Let me just ask as my question. Why don’t we get out of NATO? If Kosovo is a problem the Germans have a great big economy. They can mobilize an army pretty quickly. It’s been more than fifty years since the catastrophe. Anybody who thinks that anytime a German bears arms, he’s another Naz--I mean that’s just ridiculous. Why don’t we let the Germans and the French and the British handle these problems. Wouldn’t you be happy with that?

Ken Jowitt: More rather than less but not entirely. I think one of the great things about NATO is that it maintains an organizational and institutional connection between two similar cultures. Both Western. That happens to be the minority culture in the world today. So in the very real sense, I think NATO plays a cultural and political role as well as a distinctly military role.

Peter Robinson: It keeps us talking to the European.

Ken Jowitt: Keeps us more than talking to them. I mean after the second World War was a remarkable thing, the counsel in Foreign Relations had every known French, Italian, German; we created a social elite, a cultural elite and so on. The question is don’t we want to maintain some effective institutional, not simply sporadic connections with a culture, with an economy and with a set of nations that are like us. And if NATO is the only vehicle, than that makes it worthwhile in and of itself.

Daniel Moran: Yeah, I think it’s important. We and Europe share a common interest in not standing by while the other guy goes into business for themselves. And that’s what NATO gives us--

Peter Robinson: Let me move from NATO to--so we have good reasons to remain in NATO. Are the reasons behind our current policy toward Russia and China just as good?

Ken, you have written critically of the Clinton Administration for engaging in what you call "genuflections" to China and Russia. What do you mean by that?

Ken Jowitt: The Clinton Administration has a positive side to it and that is, it’s prudent. It realizes we live in a world now that’s almost like Genesis. It’s formless, it’s not like the Cold War when all you had to do is count to three to understand International Politics. There were Them, Us, and The Third World. And so Clinton is afraid of doing something precipitously anywhere because he cannot foresee what will be the unintended consequences--

Peter Robinson: And that’s prudent as people see it.

Ken Jowitt: That’s prudent. The problem is prudence goes to genuflections in this sense. I think that the Clinton Administration has decided that however bad a situation is, if the United States does anything, it will make it worse. And so what in effect we do with 1.2 billion poor Chinese, I don’t care what the growth rate is, it’s a poor, poor country with about seven missiles. That’s not exactly an immediate danger. It’s not a clear and present danger and yet we basically write off Taiwan which has become a democracy and it’s in our ideal, not material interest to in some way, even if ambiguously, protect it. We depend on China for North Korea. I don’t know what leverage China has over North Korea. It seems to me that the North Koreans do whatever they want. Russia, we have indiscriminately backed up Yeltsin. We’ve poured billions of dollars directly and indirectly which Russian Mafia government figures and it’s hard to distinguish between. Put in Cypress, Cypriot and in Swiss banks. I mean if we want to develop Cypress, why not send the money directly to Cypress? Why send it through the intermediary of these people. We make no quid pro quos. If we’re going to give the money why don’t they privatize agriculture?

Peter Robinson: China is not a threat?

Ken Jowitt: Not an immediate threat. No. The greatest threat--

Peter Robinson: 10 years, 20 years--you’re not worried about a long term threat?

Ken Jowitt: 10 years, 20 years from now I don’t think you just say I’ll wake up in ten years and deal with it. We deal with it as it goes on. The greatest threat China poses right now is to itself.

Peter Robinson: Russia?

Ken Jowitt: Russia--the greatest threat it poses is nuclear decay and disintegration and the possibility, not the probability of a civil war in that country, like in Pakistan that will employ nuclear weapons. Not nuclear weapons coming to us.

Peter Robinson: So the fear for Russia is not that they will somehow or other recoup and once again engage on an expansionist policy. The fear is chaos.

Ken Jowitt: Exactly right.

Peter Robinson: You buy that? You’re not worried about China or Russia as expansionist threats to us within, say the next five or ten years?

Daniel Moran: I think that basically right. I mean, in a sense some of this, the complicated part will always matter is what to do. It’s certainly true that we are very cautious about putting the pressure on China and--

Peter Robinson: Why? What do we fear?

Daniel Moran: I think in a sense we don’t know. We haven’t spent enough time watching China as a significant power, independent of the Cold War to know how they will react to certain kinds of situations. If a military confrontation with China, were it to arise by some process of misunderstanding, inadvertence would be very serious.

Peter Robinson: It would?

Daniel Moran: Oh sure. I mean certainly from the point of the United States--

Peter Robinson: You just started to say a bunch of poor people with seven missiles, we ought to be able to roll ‘em--

Ken Jowitt: Whom the Vietnamese defeated in 1979.

Daniel Moran: Well, they’re not going to be arriving in Los Angeles any time soon. But--

Peter Robinson: If China represents such a small threat, has our Taiwan policy been a mistake? Let me give you both a scenario and it’s a scenario drawn from just a couple of years ago. Taiwan engages in a re-election and its president starts making noises about Taiwan is a country in its own right. All of this is very elliptical and so forth but the mainland Chinese get offended even so and they begin lobbing missiles in the strait of Taiwan. The United States, Bill Perry was then Secretary of Defense, sends two carrier groups off to Taiwan to show that the United States is concerned about this. It’s quite interesting what happens. The two carrier groups go to Taiwan but they never enter the strait into which the Chinese are lobbing missiles. And I have heard it argued that we now have effectively established Chinese hegemony over the Strait of Taiwan.

Daniel Moran: The nimitz does transit the Strait of Taiwan. I’ve looked at this matter in great detail.

Peter Robinson: Nevertheless, we did not when they were acting up. Was that a prudent thing to do?

Daniel Moran: The Chinese announced that they were going to engage in exercises.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Daniel Moran: They engaged in the exercises. We react. The exercises end on the day they said in advance they would end, and that was it. When something like that happens, both sides have to figure out what it was that just happened. Did they react in any way to what we did? We certainly didn’t threaten them in any overt way, on the other hand, this was the first time in twenty odd years that an American carrier had passed through the straits of Taiwan. So--

Peter Robinson: But not on that occasion. Not while the exercises were going on.

Daniel Moran: The Nimitz transits the strait in a lull in the exercise. I mean, realize this is not a continuous missile barrage. It appears over a period of weeks and there’s sort of pauses.

Peter Robinson: You’re satisfied that that wasn’t a genuflection. We did what we should have?

Ken Jowitt: Yeah, I think we did what we should have. I think there’s an essential principle, and a situation of principle. The essential principle is we should have the lowest possible threshold for going to war to defend democracies. That should be our--that’s in our national interest, is basically to defend democracy. On the other hand, you have to look at reality. If China had 7,000 thermo-nuclear missiles that weren’t rusty and could actually reach us, one would have to make a judgment at that point, would we be willing to risk the United States of America over Taiwan.

Peter Robinson: You said the Clinton Administration had engaged in genuflections toward China and what I want to know is what you would have done differently?

Ken Jowitt: I wouldn’t have made a trip to China as Clinton did and basically write off Taiwan. That says in 1972, we said there’s one China not to worry, this was a little misunderstanding--

Peter Robinson: But his public statements have been too conciliatory--

Ken Jowitt: Public statements were acquiescent.

Peter Robinson: Acquiescent. You buy that?

Daniel Moran: I think we always have this problem with China. We always seem to be talking out of both sides of our mouth. I think it is--our actions and our words do not match up in this case very well, at least part of the time and I don’t--I mean the fact is, I couldn't swear we've written off Taiwan one way or the other. Or that we’re prepared--

Peter Robinson: And you consider the ambiguity creative? We should be ambiguous about it?

Daniel Moran: I think ambiguities are common in international affairs. I mean they reflect the real life of states.

Peter Robinson: Let’s move on to the principles that Ken Jaod has formulated for the post-Cold War World. Tell me about forts and firebreaks.

Ken Jowitt: I argue that the political geography of the world has changed radically. It used to be a highly connected one. No matter what happened, whether it was in Zaire or it was in Chile, it basically was a Soviet-American contest. So you had a world of very sharp edges. You have a world now of diffuse and blurred margins. The world is not highly connected. It’s highly disconnected. Conflicts don’t have anything to do with each other for the most part. What’s going on in the Congo and Kabila and Haiti and Prevao, they don’t even know each other’s names. So the question is, how in effect do you deal with what has become a desegregated world? My answer is local containments, not one global containment. So I give an example, you had Kosovo, you had Bosnia. If we had supported Macedonia from the beginning, a multi-culture, a word I absolutely detest, but a multi-cultural form of democracy--

Peter Robinson: Tell us where Macedonia is.

Ken Jowitt: Macedonia is right below Kosovo and Serbia above Greece next to Albania.

Peter Robinson: And it is one more of those chunks that used to be Yugoslavia.

Ken Jowitt: Now here you have a population about 1½ million-2million, nobody knows because there’s no real counting. The fact of the matter is that is a wonderful place for us to defend. Strategically because of the location, politically because it was committed to democracy and economically because it’s a small entity and it was feasible for us to deal with.

We allowed Greece to veto our doing it because Greece didn’t want to recognize Macedonia. We’re afraid to upset the Greeks and exacerbate possibly the Greek terrorist thing.

The point I want to make is we should identify strategically placed, particularly small nations that are firebreaks. That if we defend them, conflicts in the area will not metastasize. They will not spill over. We failed to do that in Macedonia and ended up having to go to war in Kosovo. Had we in effect created a highly stable Macedonia, I think it would have contributed greatly to our options in the area, to the pressure that we could have placed on the Serbs--

Peter Robinson: Now when you talk about creating a highly stable Macedonia, let me know what you’re talking about. You’re talking about the kinds of nation building enterprises foreign aid, sending an extra, or are you talking about military presence there? You want airfields there?

Ken Jowitt: I’m talking one about military presence without any question. I am not talking about in effect trying to recreate the world in the image of Indiana, which is Clinton’s idea, that the whole world is going to be a democracy. Kosovo is going to be a democ--I mean it is a Frankensteinian foreign policy, to try to duplicate Berkeley in Bosnia.

Peter Robinson: Yes--Indiana you had me. Berkeley, I’d oppose.

Ken Jowitt: Multi-culturalism, that’s what basically the argument is. It’s failing and we have to coerce it. So I’m not for going out and trying to convert the world in the image of the United States. What I do think makes sense is that we should be closer to Vietnam. We should be closer to South Korea. Why? Because they happen to be close to China. We should be closer to Poland and Turkey--

Peter Robinson: Diplomatically closer to these places--

Ken Jowitt: And also we now are closer to Poland through NATO. We’ve always been close to Turkey. These, I think, are both symbolic and substantial points that let potentially dangerous powers know that we exercise leverage in the area, that it isn’t simply talk. And so I think we can look at these as fire breaks in regional settings.

Peter Robinson: You like that idea?

Daniel Moran: In general yeah, I must say I’m not sure exactly how better support from Macedonia would have prevented or deterred Slobodan Milosevic from acting in Kosovo.

Peter Robinson: Answer the question, sir.

Ken Jowitt: I think the answer is as follows. At best it would be indirect. I think Dan is right. If you look at what we did with the Dayton accords, with the Dayton accords, we said we’re going to rely on a murderous dictator, a demi-gog and a populist to in effect enforce these accords--

Peter Robinson: In Bosnia.

Ken Jowitt: Yeah. Were we present? If we had in effect said NATO guarantees Macedonia. If we had put NATO troops in Macedonia, I think he would have got the idea that Western Europe and the United States are making substantial credible commitments in this area. Now would it directly have undermined him? No. Nothing directly undermines him unless you go to war with Serbia and destroy him. But I think it would have made it clear to the area and stabilized the area--

Peter Robinson: We’re looking at a diplomatic point not a military point--

Ken Jowitt: Well, I would station--

Peter Robinson: If we had been in Macedonia we could have gotten into Kosovo more quickly, are you saying.

Ken Jowitt: Number One, I was against simply the air war. I think that was an extraordinarily strategic and ethical mistake, frankly a combination of the two and Macedonia certainly would have given us the position logistically and communication-wise, to do what we couldn’t do once the war started. We had no basis--

Peter Robinson: Ken says the air war was a mistake. But wasn’t it sending ground troops into a virtual impossibility politically? As I read the situation, one of the reasons we engaged in an air war over Kosovo and did not send in troops was because of the lessons -- the so called lessons of Vietnam. Keep American soldiers away from the front. Don’t take casualties. Rain bombs from the sky. Advance your ends through technology rather than by putting human beings on the ground.

Let me cite two historians. John Keegan, British Historian has said that he believes that if a draft were imposed today, like the one that was used to send troops to Vietnam, America would simply disobey it. The culture in this country has changed that much. We don’t have the resolve, the determination to send troops abroad. The American people simply would not put up with it, item one.

Item two -- William Manchester has written a beautiful moving book. A memoir of his experience as a soldier during the second World War in the South Pacific and in writing about this, he wonders whether he could picture young men at 18 and 19 hitting the beaches and advancing under withering enemy fire the way his generation did.

So the question is, does America have the resolve to sustain the conflict. Dan?

Daniel Moran: The two issues are completely separate. I mean, the issue of whether we have resolve and the issue of peacetime conscription are not linked.

Peter Robinson: They’re not linked?

Daniel Moran: No. But--I mean the question of resolve is the tough one in politics, isn't it. I mean, I think that Ken makes a good point. If we had pre-positioned significant NATO troops including Americans on the ground in Macedonia, would this have impacted Milosevic’s conduct? It depends entirely on the presence those troops has to match up to some kind of believable political will to use them and he would have to calculate that we really would do it. Because it’s perfectly possible to have those troops there and watch whatever happens, happens.

Peter Robinson: Why wasn’t it an ethical mistake to engage only in an air war against Kosovo?

Ken Jowitt: Well primarily because I think it sterilized war for us. I don’t want to take away the risk that those pilots took. But the fact of the matter is we were able in effect with impunity to create havoc and destruction on a civilian as well as military population without in effect engaging in the risks that make the most violent endeavor human beings can engage in war safe for us. And I think it exacerbates the point that you allude to and that is the lack of resolve in the United States to fight. I mean if you continually set a precedence where war will not involve casualties, I think that you create a psychology that has a very high threshold for then engaging in a war where there are bound to be casualties so that more and more people are willing to in effect avoid a draft.

Peter Robinson: You’re not saying that we should have sent some ground troops in hoping to take a few casualties?

Ken Jowitt: No. I’m saying--no, I don’t believe in casualties for their own sake. I think that if you have a war, that what we should’ve done in both Iraq and Serbia was destroy what both presidents identified as being the major perpetrator, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. So what we did was go to war, expend enormous resources, displace enormous numbers of people that we were purportedly trying to help. Now having to reconstruct it without the motive for us to do it and the guy who started it is still sitting there at night having bad Serbian wine. So I think it was not really a well executed war.

Peter Robinson: Let’s turn now to the policy indications of high tech weaponry. You're high up in the procurement staff in the Pentagon, and you say to yourself, as a lot of the generals in this current generation say, the lesson of Vietnam is don’t take casualties, therefore let us hunt extremely hard to take advantage of our technological edge over everybody else in the world and hunt extremely hard for ways to employ this technology and far from worrying that we may be creating a psychology in which you’re setting a high threshold for an encounter in which there will have to be casualties. You simply accepted that that psychology already exists.

Daniel Moran: The psychology does exist in the sense that our approach to situations like Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq whatever, is very risk averse.

Peter Robinson: Too risk averse?

Daniel Moran: Well, what I wanted to say was simply that regardless of what inferences that one might want to draw from Vietnam, even if Vietnam had never happened, there would still be an argument to make that your willingness to make sacrifices and accept casualties has to be somehow proportionate to the interests at stake in the conflict. So there’s a sort of basic logic to limited war that has nothing to do with any particular experience America may have had. The fact is that if you’ve got the capacity--

Peter Robinson: Should we have sent the troops north to Baghdad at the end of Desert Storm and gotten Saddam Hussein?

Daniel Moran: The question depends entirely on what you think America’s interest in the region is.

Peter Robinson: That’s why I’m asking you.

Daniel Moran: Well--

Peter Robinson: We would certainly have had to take casualties to do it.

Daniel Moran: What do you think the chances are that we could reorganize the government of Iraq in a way that would be stable, cost effective and in our interest. My impression is, pretty slim. So on that basis what we did probably matches up, perhaps in an ugly way, but nevertheless fairly accurately to our real interest in the region which is to prevent any of the stronger regional countries from being able to dominate their neighbors and also from being able to sort of monopolize world petroleum--

Peter Robinson: Do you want to put people on the ground?

Daniel Moran: But to change a government. To reorganize the politics of a nation, this is a grave matter and I can only tell you that you want to be real careful before you do something like that, because there’s no way you can see the end of that road from the beginning.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask you a closing question. Between 2000 and 2010, will the United States have been forced to commit ground troops in a line of fire anywhere in the world?

Ken Jowitt: Well there’s approximate possibility with Korea.

Daniel Moran: If things go wrong in Korea, American forces don’t have to be sent. They’re there.

Peter Robinson: How would things go wrong? What is the manner in which things go wrong?

Daniel Moran: Somebody described North Korea as a combination of cannibalism and rocketry. I mean things go wrong, I mean God, just rip the lid off the place. It’s going to be like nothing you’ve ever seen.

Peter Robinson: Are the North Koreans have a mind to try to invade the south?

Daniel Moran: I don’t think they necessarily have to make a sort of complicated state level decision about it. If the authority of the country, or the extent that it exists collapses, the military might do all kinds of things.

Peter Robinson: You think they have nuclear missiles already?

Daniel Moran: I think that they--I’ve got to tell you--I really don’t think I should answer that question. I’m sorry.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Do you think you should answer that question?

Ken Jowitt: It’s easier, because I have no expertise. I doubt it. The thing I’d like to be able to say is the CIA should know. But seeing as how they didn’t know what the Indians and the Pakistanis were doing, I doubt that they know what’s there. I seriously doubt that they have delivery systems for a nuclear weapon.

Peter Robinson: Within ten years will we have been forced to engage in combat--I’m trying to avoid the phrase go to war in Korea.

Daniel Moran: That’s one of the probable places. I mean it’s unlikely we’re going to have ground forces in Mexico. But even though Mexico is a much greater threat to the political stability of the United States than North Korea.

Peter Robinson: On account of--I’m trying to wrap this show up, but you keep giving me things that I can’t let lie.

Daniel Moran: If you look at Mexico right now, it’s probably has the single most corrupt ruling party that’s trying to reform itself, a la Gorbachev he failed, a la South Africa which seems to have succeeded, Zedillo is trying to reform without a doubt the single most corrupt, I think, party in the world today.

Peter Robinson: But how does that pose a threat to us? We’ve got millions of Mexicans going north

Daniel Moran: Well, you see, if you look--that’s absolutely right. If you have an economy that is not solvent, you have a level of corruption that is extraordinary, you have a level of car jacking murder and strife in Mexico that’s unbelievable. Between United States and Mexico, we share production, pollution, population and drugs. They make them, we use them. And if there is a breakdown in that society, 20 million Mexicans are not going to Guatemala.

Peter Robinson: There’s a call for you from the Mexican Consulate. Your Visa is [unintelligible].

Daniel Moran: I never been and have no immediate intention.

Peter Robinson: Ken Jowitt, Daniel Moran, thank you very much. In the ancient world according to Greek mythology, Atlas bore the weight of the world on his shoulders. In today’s world, according to our guests, that’s America’s job. I’m Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.