No Need to Sacrifice

Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security - From World War II to the War on Terrorismby Julian E. Zelizer, Basic Books, 583 pages, $35.00

American politics and American foreign policy partake heavily of certain pieties. At the intersection of the two one finds above all the piety that they should not intersect. Politics, as the saying goes, ought to stop at the water's edge. Except, as the historian Julian Zelizer demonstrates in his new book Arsenal of Democracy, things have never worked that way. Nor is it clear how they ever could if the United States is to remain both a democracy and a world power. Since the early decades of the 20th century, America has played an important role on the world stage. In order to do so, it has built a vast national-security apparatus -- including a far-flung military, global intelligence operations, and research into new weapons technologies -- whose extent and use are necessarily the subject of political controversy.

Indeed, Zelizer's account makes it clear that political motives were at the root of even the relatively brief period of bipartisan collaboration between President Harry Truman and congressional Republicans in the late 1940s that gave rise to the misleading cliché about politics stopping at the "water's edge." Combining anti-communism abroad with a progressive approach at home helped Truman hold the Democratic coalition together despite a growing divide between North and South within his party. At the same time, Republicans suffering politically from the taint of "isolationism" found it convenient to collaborate with Truman in order to rehabilitate themselves.

When the alliance outlived its political usefulness, it was swiftly abandoned. Communist victory in China and military problems on the Korean Peninsula began the Republican right's McCarthyite assault on Truman. Democratic pushback included tactics less edifying than those seen in Good Night and Good Luck, the 2005 film about CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow. For example, Democrats distributed a research packet including "a list of thirteen Senate votes in which Republican isolationist votes 'paralleled' the positions of the American Communist Party line by preventing the administration from acting against communist expansion."

Zelizer's inspired choice to write a foreign-policy history primarily from the perspective of bare-knuckled politicking rather than high-minded disputes about America's role in the world casts many events in a new light. We learn, for example, that the Jackson-Vanik Amendment of the 1970s did nothing for the Soviet Jews it was supposed to help but achieved a great deal for companies whose interests were threatened by arms-control agreements.

The book is very much an old-school narrative history, with little in the way of theorizing. Sparing us the effort to shoehorn messy reality into a pat schematic is mostly a blessing, though it does leave the book gasping a bit at the end. "The history of national-security politics shows that politicians often make bad choices and those choices can have devastating political consequences" is not much of a conclusion. But Zelizer's blend of primary and secondary sources provides the basis for a compelling story and offers enough information for readers to draw conclusions of their own.

Most notably, while foreign policy was central to the politics of the Cold War era, politics does not appear to have deeply altered the conduct of the Cold War. What is surprising here is that for all the Sturm und Drang of the political debate during this period, policy hardly changed. Left-wing critics of the underlying premises of the Cold War held some seats in Congress and got a presidential nomination in 1972 but were never in a position to put their ideas in place. Conservatives had more political success, and right-wing critics of the logic of negotiations and peaceful coexistence were major players on the national stage. But despite promising the "rollback" of communism, Dwight Eisenhower essentially continued Truman-era policies. Ronald Reagan beefed up spending on defense but used military force with restraint. Major changes in policy came in the middle of presidential administrations -- Lyndon Johnson's escalation in Vietnam, Richard Nixon's trip to China, Jimmy Carter's initiation of a defense buildup, Reagan's embrace of Mikhail Gorbachev -- at least as often as they came as a result of a new administration.

International relations, in other words, followed an autonomous path even while feisty political debates played out in Congress and on the campaign trail. No one who had the responsibility to wield power could overcome the constraints of a bipolar world in the nuclear age.

All this changed when the Cold War ended. During Bill Clinton's administration, perceived political constraints at home were more likely than constraints abroad to shape American policy toward such adversaries as Iraq, Serbia, and the Taliban. And under George W. Bush the long-festering conservative alternative to Truman's liberal internationalist consensus finally got a full airing. Zelizer convincingly makes the case that though the rise of neoconservatives -- Democrats and ex--Democrats with right-wing views on foreign policy -- was an interesting sociological development, there was nothing particularly "neo" about Bush's foreign policy. A paranoid, belligerent nationalism (what Zelizer politely terms "conservative internationalism") had long been a mainstay of the conservative movement, and the Bush doctrine outlined in the 2002 National Security Strategy "tapped into ideas about regime change that were common in conservative circles since World War II."

While other authors have explored the intellectual roots of Bush's national-security thinking, Zelizer hones in on another thread -- the right's search for a sacrifice-free national security. During the 1920s and 1930s, mainstream right-of-center thinkers sought to avoid sacrifice by advocating a foreign policy that didn't involve global military commitments. Pearl Harbor and the Iron Curtain made that isolationism untenable, but as Zelizer shows, a core element of the view persisted in the post-war right and found expression, from the beginning, in hostility to foreign aid. That same strain of thought also continues to find expression in a predilection for airpower and a dislike of commitments involving "boots on the ground" and widely shared sacrifice at home. The Nixon-era abandonment of the draft was, on this view, driven not only by anti-war activism but also by long-standing conservative anti-draft sentiment and the belief that a professional military would be easier to use.

What this sacrifice-aversion means in practice has been subject to change over the years. Eisenhower reduced conventional military forces and tried to rely on relatively cheap nuclear weapons to secure the nation. Nixon ended the draft and sought to shift to more reliance on proxies. Reagan innovated and simply put defense hikes on the national credit card. Bush essentially rolled all these themes together and gave America tax cuts and a debt-financed war, sold on the theory of regime change on the cheap, accomplished by a combination of whiz-bang air power ("shock and awe") and local proxies (Ahmed Chalabi). The results were, of course, disastrous and, as Zelizer writes, "revealed that regime change and nation building could not be separated, and without a commitment to both, the outcome was unlikely to be successful."

The ensuing collapse of the Republican brand does not, however, appear to have resolved the underlying dilemma of the mismatch between the things America wants to do and the burdens America wants to bear to do them. In Afghanistan, for example, the Obama administration's approach is predicated precisely on the Bush-style premise that military spending doesn't need to be paid for. When Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin proposed financing Obama's plans through a special "war tax," the idea was pronounced dead on arrival and treated as an anti-war propaganda stunt rather than a serious policy proposal.

In the post-Cold War era where politics drives foreign policy rather than the other way around, this seems to be a fairly stable equilibrium. Presidents will pursue an activist course, with the nature of the activism determined by their own predilections, but the public must not be asked to bear any burden. The question is how long can this be sustained. During the Cold War, objective considerations of international relations constrained American options, even as relatively small oscillations around the mainstream view were the subject of contentious argument. Today, no country can even remotely match American military might, and none is likely to do so for decades.

But how long can this last? Contemporary deficits are affordable chiefly because the Chinese government has decided it's in China's interests to make them so. Currency manipulation by the world's No. 2 power is a shaky basis for American global military activism. The current trade and budgetary dynamic is unsustainable and at some point will come to an end. At that point, spending on the military will necessarily be thrown into competition with other budgetary priorities. The upshot should be a brand-new era in the politics of foreign policy undertaken on a radically different basis than what's prevailed for the past 70 years.

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