Lessons of the Nineties - American Foreign Policy during the 1990s Provides Lessons for the Current Fight against Terrorism

By Shapiro, Edward | The World and I, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Lessons of the Nineties - American Foreign Policy during the 1990s Provides Lessons for the Current Fight against Terrorism


Shapiro, Edward, The World and I


Edward Shapiro is professor of history emeritus at Seton Hall University. He is writing a book on the Crown Heights (Brooklyn) riot of 1991.

 Book Info:WAR IN A TIME OF PEACE
Bush, Clinton, and the Generals
David Halberstam
 Publisher:New York: Scribner, 2001
543 pp., $28.00

In a trenchant and eloquent examination of recent American foreign policy, published in September, 2001, David Halberstam concludes with a prediction made by a number of senior military intelligence analysts. They believed that "the greatest threat to an open society like America came from terrorists, rather than the military power of rogue states, which offered exceptional targets themselves. The real danger ... was the ability of a terrorist, not connected to any sitting government, to walk into an American city with a crude atomic weapon, delivered, as it were, by hand in a cardboard suitcase."

Halberstam, the author of that classic examination of Vietnam-era hubris The Best and the Brightest, did not anticipate that the cardboard suitcase would, in fact, be an airplane, but his emphasis on terrorism was prescient. Unfortunately, he continued, Americans did not take the terrorist threat or, for that matter, any other overseas threats very seriously. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Desert Storm victory in 1991, Americans felt secure surrounded by the moat comprising the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. "Foreign policy," Halberstam notes, "was not high on the political agenda, primarily because whatever the forces that might threaten the future of this country were, they were not yet visible." September 11 changed everything.

War in a Time of Peace was published almost simultaneously with the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. These assaults made visible the forces threatening the United States and resulted in foreign policy dominating the nation's political agenda to an extent never seen before. It is thus impossible to read this book without asking what lessons the 1990s have provided for our war on terrorism. Perhaps the first of these is that we elect presidents with little experience in foreign affairs at our peril. George W. Bush is another in a long list of presidents elected for domestic reasons, but whose legacy may yet be determined by foreign entanglements. The major issue in the election of 1912, for example, was how to control the growing power of big business. Little was said during the campaign about diplomacy, and yet Woodrow Wilson's major role was as president during World War I. A decade and a half later, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to provide a "New Deal" for America and guide it out of the Depression. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, his leadership during World War II appears far more important than his part in combating the nation's economic collapse. John F. Kennedy promised to get the country "moving again" and Lyndon Johnson offered a "Great Society," but the reputation of both administrations was to be determined largely by America's involvement in the Vietnam War.

Though a sign at Bill Clinton's campaign headquarters declared, "It's the economy, stupid," his administration's policies in the Balkans, Haiti, and Somalia--the focus of Halberstam's volume--came to be more important than fiscal or monetary policy. Now President Bush, who was elected for domestic reasons and, prior to September 11, had exhibited little concern with what took place outside America's continental borders, faces the nation's greatest crisis in half a century. Halberstam makes the lesson clear: For a country to elect a president with little interest in or knowledge of foreign policy, as it did in 1992 and '96, is a risky proposition. This is particularly true when that individual has little understanding of the role of military force in furthering America's national interests, a discomfort with the military (a sentiment that the military reciprocated), and a naive view of the way nations behave. …

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