The American Way of Strategy (by Michael Lind)


Reviewed by James Mann
Sunday, November 12, 2006


U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life

By Michael Lind

Oxford Univ. 294 pp. $24

Amid the chaos of Iraq, America is entering into a new period of intellectual ferment over its national security strategy. What are our goals and interests overseas? How should we pursue them? What sort of military do we need?

In a sense, we have come full circle: This country had a comparable debate three decades ago, spurred by Vietnam. One response, symbolized by Sen. George McGovern's famous 1972 slogan "Come Home America," was to try to reduce U.S. involvements and troop deployments overseas. An opposite school of thought, embraced by the rising young Ford administration officials Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, held that the United States should respond to Vietnam by rebuilding its military strength so that it could be used -- even for wars of choice -- to assert American preeminence in the world. Now that we have rediscovered the costs and limits of the use of force, it's again time to reevaluate how we deal with the world.

Michael Lind's The American Way of Strategy represents an early and thoughtful attempt to sketch a post-Iraq foreign policy. The virtue of Lind's book is its sweeping ambition. He writes in evident outrage over the policies of the Bush administration, but his book is not about the debacle in Iraq or how to respond to Islamist terrorism. It is not even about the renewed dispute between the great foreign policy traditions of realism (a la Henry Kissinger) and idealism (a la Woodrow Wilson). Instead, Lind, a fellow at the New America Foundation, scours history for tenets that have guided U.S. foreign policy in the past and that should be applied in the future. The result is uneven; Lind is sometimes brilliant and occasionally silly. But his ideas are insightful, and he provides a fresh perspective on a wide range of issues, from regime change to globalization.

Lind's central thesis is that the United States went astray after the end of the Cold War by seeking to dominate the world in a way that is both overly expensive and unnecessary. Historically, he asserts, the goal of U.S. strategy has been to preserve "the American way of life." This is a vague phrase, reminiscent of Fourth of July speeches; Lind turns out to mean not motherhood and apple pie but civil liberties, separation of powers and, more broadly, a free, educated citizenry and a prosperous middle class. He argues that our greatest security threat is not any particular country or foreign force but the prospect that, in overreacting to dangers such as al-Qaeda, we will destroy our way of life. He sketches several dour possibilities -- for example, a garrison state in which Americans hand over their freedoms in exchange for security, or a "castle society" in which the wealthy give up on government and instead buy private protection.

Lind argues that instead of trying to dominate the globe, the United States should wield its influence in a "concert of powers," including China, India, Russia, Britain, France and Germany. The single biggest failing of the book is that it doesn't explore this model of cooperation further or acknowledge that, in practice, things are not so simple. After all, the Clinton administration initially attempted to let European governments take the lead in stopping ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and was virtually begged by the Europeans to stop being so modest; the second-term Bush administration has tried intermittently to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions through a concert of powers, but so far without much success.

Lind interprets virtually everything the United States does overseas these days as an outgrowth of its eagerness to prevent the emergence of rival superpowers. In the most questionable section of the book, he views with utter cynicism America's attempt to stop North Korea's nuclear program. "U.S. fear of an independent Japan, more than the unlikely prospect that North Korean weapons would make their way into the hands of Muslim jihadist terrorists, was the major, if seldom acknowledged, reason for the repeated war scares in Washington over the prospect of North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons," he writes. War scares? In fact, the Bush administration has (fairly) been criticized for saying too little about North Korea's nuclear advances, in order to cover up for Washington's failure to stop them. Later on, when Lind describes what his concert of powers might do, one goal is preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. So is it worthwhile to try to stop the North Korean nuclear program, or isn't it?

What makes Lind's views so unusual is that while denouncing the U.S. intervention in Iraq, he remains a defender of the Vietnam War. One of his previous books was entitled Vietnam: The Necessary War , and Lind here again defends the conflict, which cost some 58,000 American lives. "The stakes for the United States during the Cold War conflicts in Asia were far higher than the stakes in Kosovo or in Iraq," he explains. So Lind emerges as both a determined Cold War hawk and an equally passionate post-Cold War dove. It takes quite a bit of theorizing to explain how he arrived at these positions. His book is not always persuasive, but he deserves credit for some unconventional thinking.

James Mann, the author of "Rise of the Vulcans," is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

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