The Military Is Dominating U.S. Foreign Policy

By Nathan, James A. | USA TODAY, May 1996 | Go to article overview

The Military Is Dominating U.S. Foreign Policy


Nathan, James A., USA TODAY


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ONE MIGHT HAVE THOUGHT that the long eclipse of the State Department ended with the Cold War. During that era, those agencies responsible for commanding coercive instruments grew in importance. The Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA were the "players," not "relics" like the Department of State. With the Cold War over, one might have guessed that the need for country expertise, language skills, and the art of diplomacy would resurface.

Yet, even as the Cold War drew its last breaths, the ascendancy of the military persisted. Indeed, in 1991, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin seemed willing to best the State Department in peace as the Defense Department had been doing ably during the Cold War. When Aspin's stock soon fell, his deputy, William Perry, was promoted to Secretary. He proved an even more forceful advocate of military policy than Aspin.

Energetic advocacy can not, by itself, translate into policy dominance. The Pentagon and the Defense Secretary have labored under twin burdens: one brought on by budgetary stringency; the other, self-imposed. Since 1983, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's strong disinclination to use force--unless it is supported by a clear domestic consensus--has become a doctrinal (and not just self-limiting) truth.

Nonetheless, the Pentagon retains its primacy. One reason, of course, is that the Republican Congress has been openly hostile to the President's initiatives and foreign policy representatives. More important, perhaps, the military's well-voiced reluctance to take casualties has become a first principle of national security policy. Force nearly has been anathematized in the corridors of the Pentagon. Perhaps, one might conjecture with some logic, the military's self-imposed inhibitions would have benefited the classic instrument of policymaking, the Department of State, if Secretary of State Warren Christopher had been an effective and assertive advocate. More important, though, is the truth that, as National Security Advisor Anthony Lake stated in 1995, "diplomacy without force is doomed."

Diplomacy's poor estate has not been helped by the abundance of embarrassing about-faces during the Clinton years. In Haiti, force was threatened and then unceremoniously withdrawn, then threatened again, only to be retrieved from the brink by the intercession of former Pres. Jimmy Carter. There were similar desultory feints over the nuclear capability of North Korea. China's pugnacity has been greeted by apparent bureaucratic bewilderment. Senior State Department officers struggled to make human rights concerns part of the policy calculus. Yet, at the very time the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights was in Beijing in 1994, trying to pressure the Chinese on human rights, the Secretary of Commerce was on Capitol Hill testifying against considering China's human rights abuses a sufficient reason to hesitate on renewing its "most favored nation" status. China's militant stand on Taiwan has caused a further breach. …

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