Dealing with Despots


Poor Bill Clinton. He was all set to be the domestic president. But he got stuck with two wars and a public clamor for a third.

Unfortunately, the current foreign-policy debate doesn't exactly give the new president much guidance. The end of the Cold War made Clinton's rise possible. But it also removed the underIying structure of U.S. foreign policy, leaving both serious analysts and unserious pontificators confused. Like it or not, "reinventing government" starts with the Pentagon and the State Department.

In the post–Cold War era, U.S. interests lie in preventing the rise of expansionist despotic powers. This strategic goal distinguishes between countries that threaten their neighbors and those that do not. It recognizes the importance to the world, and to U.S. citizens, not of maintaining the stability of regimes—the road from despotism to liberalism leads through instability—but of containing aggressive oppressors.

And it accepts the historical position of the United States as a great power—economically, politically, geographically, and militarily. It is not the isolationist vision that an alternate history might have yielded. Such an alternate history would either deny America its current role in world trade or would rely on another liberal great power to preserve the international conditions that permit mutually beneficial exchange.

But a strategy based on containing despotism is not an open-ended commitment to right the wrongs of the world. It requires the United States to let some terrible evils go unpunished—to do nothing about Burma, for example. By distinguishing between unthreatening liberal regimes and threatening illiberal ones, such a strategy also runs counter to the bizarre notion popular among some foreign-policy "realists" that other free, commercial powers—notably Japan—present a strategic threat.

Foreign policy is not merely strategy, however. It also requires tactics—military and nonmilitary. Indeed, most debates center on tactical decisions, not ultimate goals. Diplomacy, for instance, is a central tactic of foreign policy, and it is a rare "noninterventionist" who opposes diplomacy.

Lately, the vast arsenal of American foreign-policy tactics seems to have narrowed to three: talk, bomb, and send in the Marines. The problem lies in the "lessons of Desert Storm." These appear to be we can do anything and air power rules.

Desert Storm has joined the Manhattan Project and sending a man to the moon as proof that anything is possible. If we can get Iraq out of Kuwait, we can get Saddam out of Iraq. We can free Bosnia. We can restore hope to Somalia and, if we'd only try, to America's inner cities. All that's missing, we're told, is the will.

The talk shows are full of armchair generals—Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson are especially egregious—demanding immediate, forceful intervention in Bosnia. Their demands are vague, but they seem to want some of those wonderful air strikes that worked so well in the Gulf.

Of course, Desert Storm was not easy, nor did it succeed by air strikes alone. And, as we were reminded in January, it is not over. Even successful military intervention requires an ongoing commitment to make its results stick.

The United States has many more options than air strikes or ground troops. Military force is not the only tool of foreign policy, and direct intervention is not the only type of military force.

During the Cold War, when we were forever conscious of the risks of direct confrontation, the United States honed a number of alternative tactics, some deliberately as part of military strategy, some inadvertently as part of cultural and commercial exchange. Those tactics are no less valuable in a post–Cold War era.

Consider Bosnia. Only three options seem to have crossed analysts' minds: stay out; send in the troops; and get rid of the arms embargo. Remembering a few years further back in history, however, suggests a fourth possibility: Arm the Bosnians. Revive, in post–Cold War form, the Reagan Doctrine. Treat Bosnia like Afghanistan.

Without the Soviets to worry about, Reagan Doctrine–style subversion would be easier. It could be overt and international, with sanctuaries for rebels and direct shipments of supplies. It would give the Bosnians a chance to help themselves. And it would recognize that although the United States has an interest in containing Serbia, it also has a responsibility to do so in the way least costly to U.S. troops and taxpayers.

Such intervention calls the bluff of the TV hawks. Arming the Bosnians means tying the United States to their actions and the resulting regime. It takes the notion of fighting expansionist Serbia out of the realm of moral posturing—where we can imagine American troops as superheroes swooping down to liberate prison camps—and into the real world.

In the not-so-long run, there are much bigger threats than Serbia. Within the next few years, China may become a seriously expansionist power. Given its population, geographic position, increasing wealth, and nuclear capability, that is a troubling possibility. Those of us who face West feel far more connection to the Asian Pacific than to the Balkans, however Caucasian their inhabitants may be.

The most valuable tactics against an expansionist China are not, at this point, military. They are cultural and economic—the dreaded forces of "bourgeois liberalism." China need not be subdued. It can be seduced.

Strategy dictates, then, that the Clinton administration not cut off trade with China, despite its violations of human rights. Trade corrupts the perpetrators of those crimes and opens the country to outside influences. It creates centers of wealth and power outside the central government.

It is tempting to analogize between economic and foreign affairs, to see the appropriate role of the U.S. government as similar in either case. The Clinton campaign did this often, suggesting that just as we had a plan in Desert Storm so we need a plan for the economy.

But the analogy is mistaken. Domestically, government should serve as a referee—allowing private players to compete freely within predictable rules. In such a system, individuals and private enterprises set their own strategies and make their own plans.

Libertarian isolationists, who rightly believe the government should allow private strategizing at home, make the opposite mistake. They point to bad foreign-policy strategy or disappointing outcomes to prove that the U.S. government should play very little role in foreign affairs. But the mere occurrence of error doesn't prove anything. Businesses adopt bad strategies every day.

In the international arena, liberal states cannot be mere referees. They must be players. International affairs isn't the NBA. It's the playground. It has no referees, only players who compete, argue, form teams, and discipline those who cheat. Even on the playground, however, it's helpful to have more than three plays. Before he starts fiddling with the economy, America's new point guard should work on his foreign-policy playbook.