The Bush administration's response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait demonstrates an unmistakable intention to preserve America's hyperactivist Cold War strategy in a post-Cold War era despite vastly altered world conditions. That attitude has emerged on other occasions. In his 1990 report to Congress, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney argued that the United States must strive to "attain the same basic strategic objectives with a somewhat smaller defense budget." The president himself has sought to justify the preservation of venerable Cold War alliances by stressing a new U.S. mission to prevent "instability and unpredictability."
Making the United States the guardian of global stability is a blueprint for the indefinite prolongation of expensive and risky U.S. military commitments around the world. The international system has always been characterized by instability and unpredictability, and there is little evidence that the future will be materially different. Struggles between status quo and revisionist powers are nothing new, and territorial adjustments (frequently by force) have been the norm in international affairs for centuries. Iraq is not the first, nor will it be the last, nation to expand its territory and influence or to exploit regional power vacuums. When policy makers invoke simplistic comparisons of a mundane Third World tyrant like Saddam Hussein with Adolf Hitler and reflexively cite the overused Munich analogy as policy guidance concerning Iraq's absorption of Kuwait, they ignore that lengthy historical record.
Instability per se in distant regions does not threaten America's security. Indeed, in a post-Cold War world there may be many local or regional disputes that are (or at least should be) irrelevant to the United States. U.S. leaders must learn to distinguish between vital and peripheral security interests, unlike the Cold War tendency to regard even the most trivial geopolitical assets as essential. To be considered a threat to a vital interest, a development should have a direct, immediate and substantial connection with America's physical survival, its political independence or the preservation of its domestic freedoms. The possibility of higher oil prices arising from a stronger Iraqi position in the Middle East does not meet that standard. Threats to truly vital interests are relatively rare and should be even less common in a post-Cold War setting, in which no potential adversary is capable of making a bid for global domination.
In that context, the preservation of America's Cold War system of alliances and commitments is ill-advised. Not only are such entanglements expensive, they are profoundly dangerous. As one defense expert has noted, alliances are lethal "transmission belts for war," converting what should be minor, localized conflicts into wider confrontations between great powers. There are various flash points around the world where obsolete Cold War era commitments could entangle the United States. In addition to the volatile Persian Gulf, the tense situations involving Pakistan and India, Syria and Israel and the two Koreas are the most visible examples.
With the decline of the Soviet threat and no other would-be hegemonic power on the horizon, a global network of U.S.-dominated alliances makes little sense. The rationale for undertaking such expensive and risky obligations throughout the Cold War was to prevent Soviet global domination. Because even minor conflicts frequently involved Moscow's clients, U.S. policy makers believed that an adverse result would automatically strengthen the Soviet Union and correspondingly weaken the United States. It was always a questionable assumption, but with the end of the Cold War even that rationale for U.S. engagement on a global scale has disappeared. Perpetuating extensive obligations merely to prevent vaguely defined "instability" or discourage the outbreak of local quarrels comes perilously close to having clients simply for the sake of having clients. If the United States insists on policing the planet as the self-appointed guardian of the status quo, it may need an even larger and more expensive military establishment than it maintained throughout the Cold War.
The Persian Gulf crisis is symbolic of a fundamental choice confronting U.S. leaders and the American people: Shall this country define its vital security interests less expansively now that the Cold War has ended, or shall it bear the costs and risks of intervening in a multitude of conflicts around the globe? Americans have borne great risks and burdens throughout the Cold War period, and they now deserve to reap the benefits from the end of that long, difficult struggle.
The writer is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.