The Free-Lunch Foreign Policy


Washington. -- Bill Clinton is the victim of a devilish bait-and-switch. As a Democratic candidate for president, he was told he had to prove his freedom from the taint of McGovernism and his belief in a strong foreign policy. Nasty subtext: As a man who avoided military service, he had to prove his willingness to fight.

So he did it. And now the trap is sprung: he stands accused, by many of the same people, of recklessly endangering American blood and treasure.

It serves Mr. Clinton right, in a way, for not knowing his own mind. But the politics of Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti reflect a citizenry that also does not know its own mind, and other politicians who are happy to have it both ways on questions of war and peace.

If America is of a mind to retreat from the world, leave other countries to their fate and abandon any pretense of leadership, that is a respectable -- even appealing -- option. But few opponents of involvement in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti put it that clearly. Instead they say they favor "preventing starvation" but not "nation-building," or that some particular problem is better handled by others, or that the policy is too ill-defined.

Legitimate criticisms can be made of the Clinton policy in Somalia. But those who say they favored the American involvement there until its purpose changed are copping out. The purpose was always and remains preventing starvation. That is a more ambitious task than Presidents Bush and Clinton anticipated.

The change has not been in the purpose of the intervention but in the apparent burden of achieving it. It's fair to say, "Sorry, we now realize that burden is too great." It's not fair to say, "We accomplished our mission," or, "Don't worry -- the U.S. is leaving but the U.N. will finish the job without us."

What all this suggests to me is the final triumph in foreign affairs of the free-lunch politics that have long infected domestic policy. We want all our government benefits; we just don't want to pay for them. We want to strut as the world's superpower, so long as there is no risk or cost attached.

The foreign policy free lunch began with Ronald Reagan's defense build-up, paid for with borrowed dollars. The so-called Reagan Doctrine -- which called for the use of surrogate armies to fight guerrilla wars on our behalf -- was conceived as a way for America to pursue an aggressive foreign policy while risking only foreign blood.

Then there was the Grenada Illusion. Americans had never even heard of Grenada when we awoke to learn of our magnificent victory there. The illusion was that real wars can be fought in hindsight and that important military victories can be virtually cost-free.

In the Persian Gulf War, although the money came from foreigners, President Bush did put thousands of American lives on the line, and got most Americans to approve. Whether that approval would have survived substantial American casualties was never, fortunately, put to the test.

The result, though, actually enhanced the free-lunch syndrome. It encouraged both tendencies deplored by the opposing sides in the current intervention debate: an overeagerness to get involved in distant nations' affairs (because the liberator of Kuwait can do anything), and then a tendency to panic and want out at the first hint of casualties (because the U.S. should be immune from this sort of thing).

The position that, with the end of the Cold War, America can retreat from its world responsibilities is arguable and tempting. So is the position that we should continue to lead the world.

What is demeaning and harmful is the widespread belief that we can have it both ways.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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