Staying the Course, Win or Lose

By Robert Kagan
Thursday, November 2, 2006

BRUSSELS -- Here in Europe, people ask hopefully if a Democratic victory in the congressional elections will finally shift the direction of American foreign policy in a more benign direction. But congressional elections rarely affect the broad direction of American foreign policy. A notable exception was when Congress cut funding for American military operations in support of South Vietnam in 1973. Yet it's unlikely that a Democratic House would cut off funds for the war in Iraq in the next two years.

Indeed, the preferred European scenario -- "Bush hobbled" -- is less likely than the alternative: "Bush unbound." Neither the president nor his vice president is running for office in 2008. That is what usually prevents high-stakes foreign policy moves in the last two years of a president's term. In 1988 Ronald Reagan had negotiated a clever agreement to get the dictator Manuel Noriega peacefully out of Panama, but Vice President George H.W. Bush and his advisers feared the domestic political repercussions of cutting a deal with a drug lord at the height of the "war on drugs," so they nixed the plan. The result was that Bush had to invade Panama the very next year to remove Noriega -- but he did get elected.

This President Bush doesn't have to worry about getting anyone elected in 2008 and appears to be thinking only about his place in history. That can lead him to act in ways that please Europeans -- for instance, the vigorous multilateral diplomacy on Iran and North Korea. But it could also take him in directions they will find worrisome if that diplomacy fails.

There is a deeper reason this election, and even the next presidential election, may not change U.S. foreign policy very much. Historically, and especially in the six decades since the end of World War II, there has been much more continuity than discontinuity in foreign policy. New administrations change policy around the margins, and sometimes those changes prove important -- George H.W. Bush temporized about the Balkans; Bill Clinton temporized and then sent troops. Clinton temporized about Iraq and then bombed. George W. Bush temporized and then invaded. But the motives behind American foreign policy, and even the means, don't differ all that much from administration to administration. Republicans berated the Democrats' "cowardly" containment until they took the White House in 1952, then adopted that strategy as their own.

This tendency toward continuity is particularly striking on the issue that most divides Americans from Europeans today: the use of military force in international affairs. Americans of both parties simply have more belief in the utility and even justice of military action than do most other peoples around the world. The German Marshall Fund commissions an annual poll that asks Europeans and Americans, among other things, whether they agree with the following statement: "Under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice." Europeans disagree, and by a 2 to 1 margin. But Americans overwhelmingly support the idea that war may be necessary to obtain justice. Even this year, with disapproval of the Iraq war high, 78 percent of American respondents agreed with the statement.

This broad bipartisan conviction is reflected in U.S. policies. Between 1989 and 2003, the United States engaged in significant military actions overseas on nine occasions under Bush I, Clinton and Bush II: Panama in 1989, Somalia in 1992, Haiti in 1994, Bosnia in 1995-96, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq three times -- 1991, 1998 and 2003, an average of one major military action every year and a half.

The reasons for this prolific use of military force have to do with the nation's history -- Americans have been fighting what they considered just and moral wars since the Revolution and the Civil War. And it has to do with Americans' relative power. It is no accident that the United States began to use force more frequently after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Those who imagine that the Iraq imbroglio may change this approach could be right, but the historical record suggests otherwise. Less than six years after the defeat in Vietnam, Americans were electing Reagan on a promise to restore American military power and engage in a concerted arms race with the Soviet Union.

Even today leading Democrats who oppose the Iraq war do not oppose the idea of war itself or its utility. They're not even denouncing a defense budget approaching $500 billion per year. While Europeans mostly reject the Bush administration's phrase "the war on terror," leading Democrats embrace it and accuse the administration of not pursuing it vigorously or intelligently enough. Nor do leading Democrats reject the premise of the United States as the world's "indispensable nation" -- a notion that most Europeans find offensive at best and dangerous at worst.

In this respect, there is even less debate over the general principles of American foreign policy than during the Vietnam era. In those days, opponents of the war insisted that not just President Richard Nixon was rotten but that the "system" was rotten. They did not just reject the Vietnam War, they rejected the whole containment strategy of Dean Acheson and Harry Truman, which, they rightly claimed, helped produce the intervention in the first place. They rejected the idea that the United States could be a benevolent force in the world.

Today Democrats insist that the United States will be such a force as soon as George W. Bush leaves office. Although they pretend they have a fundamental doctrinal dispute with the Bush administration, their recommendations are less far-reaching. They argue that the United States should generally try to be nicer, employ more "soft power" and be more effective when it employs "hard power." That may be good advice, but it hardly qualifies as an alternative doctrine.

Many around the world will thrill at the defeat of Republicans next week. They should enjoy the moment while they can. When the smoke clears, they will find themselves dealing with much the same America, with all its virtues and all its flaws.

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, writes a monthly column for The Post. He is the author of "Dangerous Nation," a history of American foreign policy.

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