AMERICAN EMPIRE

The Realities and Consequences of

U.S. Diplomacy

By Andrew J. Bacevich

Harvard Univ. 302 pp. $29.95

The oddest aspect of this stimulating book is not that Andrew Bacevich, an ardent conservative, relies for his inspiration on two icons of left-wing history, Charles A. Beard and William Appleman Williams. It is that Bill Clinton, whom the author clearly detests, turns out rather well.

American Empire is billed as a book about U.S. foreign relations from the end of the Cold War to the present, but it is chiefly about foreign policy as it pertains to matters military. Bacevich recognizes (and deplores) the economic fixation of the post-Cold War period, but he leaves the dynamics and particulars of that fixation aside. What bugs him and gives the book its polemical edge is instead his view that the U.S. drive to economic "openness" -- that is, an integrated capitalist world under Washington's control -- undermines the virtue of the American Republic, reducing the military in the process to the imperial role of high-tech policeman.

Bacevich has concluded that the standard right-wing account of the 1990s is wrong. After the Cold War, there was endless talk among conservatives about the lack of some new Big Idea that would render the U.S. project in the world strategically meaningful. Both the first President Bush and Clinton supposedly failed here. Where the former was too old-fashioned, Clinton was muddleheaded, desultory and venal. There is something to this, says the contrarian Bacevich, but overall it is wrong. The 1990s were, for him, merely the latest installment in the century-long U.S. drive toward expansion, and while Bush senior was certainly stuck in Cold War analogies, he did establish precedents for Clinton's ensuing policy, a policy that would reflect real (but regrettable) conditions at home and abroad. More distressingly for Bacevich, the new President Bush has on the whole continued in these footsteps. Rhetoric aside, U.S. policy throughout the era of commerce and putative peace after the Cold War actually became increasingly militarized, and militarized in a bad way.

The central event in Bacevich's alternative history is the U.S. intervention in Somalia in 1992-93. Initiated by Bush senior, a fact now often forgotten, this imprudent move to recast a poor African nation proved an unmitigated disaster for Bush's successor, Clinton. "Operation Restore Hope" restored hope for no one except the local warlords. More important, it caused 18 U.S. casualties, graphically displayed on prime-time television. The result was what Bacevich calls the Clinton Doctrine or, more pithily, "gunboats and Gurkhas."

From then on, the military would avoid traditional fighting, any situations in which soldiers might actually die. A postmodern version of colonial policing was effected instead. The colonial gunboats of old were now push-button weaponry, cruise missiles and precision bombs, launched from great and risk-free distances. The traditional war of interaction became purely one-sided action, the initiative resting entirely in the hands of the commander in the White House. If computerized gunboats were not enough, one could always subcontract dangerous work on the ground to local proxy forces along the lines of Queen Victoria's Ghurkas. Indeed, one could even subcontract the training of these subcontractors to private firms of retired officers from the U.S. military. War could be privatized.

Clinton's model fit technological and attitudinal shifts alike. In the 1990s, as Bacevich maintains, the idea that one might actually have to die for the flag became "absurd" for the American public. Inversely, while indifferent to military service itself, that same public became convinced that the United States should maintain forever absolute military superiority in the world. And, in fact, with a strongly expanding economy, the whole deal could be done fairly cheaply. The method was deployed against Iraq for limited purposes throughout the Clinton years. In 1999-2000 alone, for example, the United States launched 2,000 bombs and missiles against Iraq. "Operation Allied Force" in Kosovo in 1999, however, represented the strategy at its clearest. U.S. forces did not suffer a single casualty and did not enter the area until it was secure. Wall Street, meanwhile, went on booming. Wall Street was not booming when George W. Bush was launching his operations in Afghanistan, but essentially, according to Bacevich, they were only a continuation of the Clinton Doctrine: more gunboats and Ghurkas. The intense patriotism after Sept. 11 at home soon petered out in the usual domestic consumerist preoccupations.

Bacevich was writing before Bush's move toward another Iraqi war became fully apparent. This is a pity. The Iraqi project seems not to fit his Clintonian prototype. It will be high-tech, but it won't be cheap, and it won't be free of risk. Large numbers of U.S. troops will be involved, probably in the dreaded urban settings. The project is, however, fully in accord with that "single-minded determination to extend and perpetuate American political, economic, and cultural hegemony . . . on a global scale" that Bacevich sees as the governing principle throughout: the push, in short, to empire.

So why would a conservative lament this? The answer is that Bacevich is a communitarian of Catholic persuasion for whom empire and endless expansionism necessarily undermine true values. Real identity, as he says in another context, is "sacred, indelible, and rooted in place." Prising the world open in the name of universal right runs utterly counter to the idea of a republic of virtuous citizens. No less a figure than Pope John Paul II is invoked when Bacevich complains of "moral relativism, radical individualism, and conspicuous consumption," mutating products of the invidious counterculture of the 1960s but disturbingly (the author mumbles a bit here) also integral to postindustrial capitalism.

For Beard, the properly republican solution was redistribution of wealth at home; for Williams, it was some decentralized form of socialism. These solutions are ideologically unavailable to Bacevich, who, when push comes to shove, is really much more agitated about cultural "openness" and the decline of values than he is about the nature of economic expansion. This is why his valuable provocation ends in a crescendo of platitudes. We need, he says, to recognize the realities of empire and face the inevitable costs. We need "foresight, consistency and self-awareness." And so on. By now, surely, every fervent empire-builder is nodding sagely in agreement. Bacevich senses, I think, the blank futility of this finale and perhaps, too, that he is caught in a conservative cul-de-sac. *

Anders Stephanson is associate professor of history at Columbia University and the author of "Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right."