Picking Fights


Al Gore will fight for you. And not only you. He will also fight for desperate, beleaguered, downtrodden people all over the world, oppressed by dictators, menaced by neighbors, beset by ethnic strife and civil war.

OK, technically, Gore will be sending other people to do the actual fighting, in the fine tradition of leaders with grand visions of America's role in the world. "We must always have the will to defend our enduring interests and values," says the man who would be commander-in-chief.

As if "interests" were not vague enough, Gore insists that U.S. military intervention is justified if the president decides that important "values" are at stake, even when there is no plausible threat to national security. This is a fancy way of saying that he would use military force whenever he felt like it.

To get a sense of how promiscuous a Gore administration would be in its use of the armed forces, consider his response to the Bush campaign's suggestion that "peacekeeping" in the Balkans shouldn't be a U.S. responsibility. Gore called pulling U.S. troops out "risky," saying it would be a "damaging blow to NATO."

To Gore, apparently, sending soldiers to another continent so they can stand between people who have been killing each other for centuries is not risky. The risk lies in removing them from that situation, because declining to take part in the open-ended project of building peaceful nations out of warring ethnic groups could jeopardize NATO.

The logical response, the one you'll never hear from George W. Bush, is: So? What, exactly, is the point of NATO when the enemy it was established to fight no longer exists?

"The Balkans is the new NATO mission," explains Terence Taylor, assistant director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in a recent New York Times story. "The United States has infantry and tanks in Germany. And if it is not going to send them to the Balkans, what are they there for, anyway?"

A good question. The nations of Western Europe are prosperous and powerful, perfectly capable of defending themselves. This was true even when there was a Warsaw Pact to worry about, all the more so now that the Soviet Union is gone and its former satellites are lining up to join an alliance that has lost its reason for being.

NATO's quest for a new identity gave us the war in Yugoslavia, where its forces killed civilians to show that such behavior would not be tolerated. This was not a promising start. The prospect of further U.S. participation in operations of this sort is another argument against keeping 100,000 American troops in Europe.

And while we're on the subject of inexplicable military deployments, it's appropriate to recall that the U.S. still has 37,000 troops on the Korean peninsula, nearly half a century after the Korean War. These soldiers are supposed to guarantee U.S. involvement in any war started by North Korea.

Even leaving aside Pyongyang's recent moves toward rapprochement, South Korea, with twice the North's population and nearly 30 times its GDP, is well positioned to defend itself. Likewise Japan, which hosts 47,000 U.S. troops.

Far from reconsidering these costly commitments, the U.S. is poised to take on new ones. The fall of communism, which should have led to a less interventionist foreign policy, has instead fostered ad hoc, unprincipled uses of military force, unmoored from considerations of national security.

Although George W. Bush decries "vague, aimless, and endless deployments," his main concern seems to be the damage they do to morale. It would be nice to hear him talk more explicitly about what the armed forces should and should not do, especially since it was his father who promoted the idea that humanitarian concerns are enough to justify intervention.

When he sent troops to Somalia, President Bush said the U.S. had to act because it could. "The people of Somalia…need our help," he said. "Only the United States has the global reach to place a large security force on the ground in such a distant place quickly and efficiently and thus save thousands of innocents from death."

If the U.S. military really is on call throughout the world in case of emergency, it will never run out of missions, no matter how secure our country is. That prospect does not seem to trouble Gore. It ought to bother his opponent more.