No one knows more about foreign policy disasters than former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In addition to his role in developing America's strategy during the Vietnam War, his resume includes witnessing, participating in, or helping to plan a host of violent milestones, including the infamous 1937 Japanese raid on Shanghai, the overnight incineration of 80,000 civilians by U.S. bombers in Tokyo in 1945, 13 years of strife at the World Bank, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban missile crisis.
Those who fail to learn from history may be doomed to repeat it. But it's equally true that those who fail in history seem doomed to write books about it. Certainly that's the case with McNamara, whose career over the past decade or so has consisted largely of regaining his wise man status by apologizing for all his past mistakes. He was at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars last Wednesday, pitching the new book he wrote with Brown University professor James Blight, Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing and Catastrophe in the 21st Century.
Why would anyone turn to the McNamara for advice on keeping the peace? The old warrior says he has learned his lesson, and has formed a radical approach to international relations. What's so new about it? Sadly, not much. In fact, McNamara and Blight revealed that their vision looks a lot like the status quo.
McNamara's answer draws heavily on the one Woodrow Wilson formulated after World War I: The U.S. needs to have "empathy" for other nations and to cooperate fully with them to avoid conflict. "We would not have been in Vietnam had we followed that," he told the crowd. "There was not a single major ally—not Japan, not Britain, not Germany, not France—who believed what we were doing was right.."
McNamara's conclusion? Simple: "We must never use our economic, political or economic power unilaterally." Get rid of all the nukes, not to mention the veto juggernaut on the U.N. Security Council. He said he even supported an international court for war criminals that would bring violators to justice.
Sounds good, but McNamara and Blight revealed the weakness of their own position when responding to a comment offered by Stanley Kober, a research fellow at the Cato Institute. Kober pointed out that had someone exercised a little unilateral extremism against Hitler, the 1940s might have been a happier time for European Jews. What about that, he asked? "That's a very good question," McNamara ventured. "I probably can't answer it to your satisfaction, but I'd say one thing: There are exceptions. There would be exceptions."
Blight readily agreed: "When nobody will do it, when they can't get their act together—the U.N. is famous for not getting its act together—then damn it, somebody's got to do it and there's only one country that has projectible military force in all four corners of the world and its got to be the United States."
So McNamara and Blight believe in definitive rules–except in cases that are obvious exceptions. They believe in multilateralism–except when the U.S. must act unilaterally. That really helps clarify the muddle that is international politics.
The situation gets even stickier when McNamara admits that his own role in Vietnam might land him in trouble with the very international war crimes court he supports: "Then somebody says to me, 'Damn you McNamara! Hell, you're a war criminal. You used Agent Orange, it killed all kinds of civilians.'" Is that a crime? Maybe not. McNamara said you can't blame the U.S. general who ordered the 1945 incendiary raid on Tokyo because he was pursuing official U.S. policy. To hold him accountable would be "hindsight."
McNamara's comments and continuing self-delusion suggests another sort of hindsight. The history of failed international cooperation stretches from the Delian League in ancient Greece to Wilson's Fourteen Points. One helped to pave the way for the Peloponnesian War, the other helped set the stage for World War Two. The U.N. has since failed to stop slaughter, whether in Korea or Cambodia or Rwanda. Even if they think really hard about it, the Tutsis won't have any empathy for the Hutus, and Joe Sixpack in Topeka doesn't care much what the average Belgian thinks about a missile shield.
Just when do we strike out on our own? If the answer is to take them all on a case-by-case basis and reject the need for cooperation when we figure it's justified, how is that different than our current messiness with the U.N.? The short answer: It's not. McNamara's latest thoughts may contain precious little foreign policy wisdom, but they do reveal an uncomfortable truth about those who fancy themselves wise men: They know far less than they think.