The War Nobody Won 3

Skepticism, even derision, greeted this oracular screed. Luce re¬canted—particularly in the face of a reply from the eminent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who warned against the “egoistic corruption” of nations propelled by such expectations. But the conviction voiced by Luce—the gospel of America’s duty to preserve global order— persisted. It acquired fresh urgency after World War II, as the specter of monolithic Communism haunted the United States. Over and over again, successive presidents would explain their foreign policy in cosmic language. “The world today looks to us for leadership,” said Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower spoke in similar terms. So did Kennedy, promising in his inaugural address that America would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of lib¬erty.” Johnson’s goal, as he described it, was to “bring peace and hope to all the peoples of the world,” and Richard Nixon portrayed himself as the architect of an international “structure of peace.”
America thus proceeded on assumptions shared by the government and the public in an atmosphere of bipartisan consensus. The great strategic debates of the postwar period—such as “massive retaliation” versus “flexible response”—focused on means rather than aims. Ac¬cordingly, the United States did not stumble into the Vietnam quag¬mire blindly, nor was it propelled toward the conflict by a cabal of warmongers in the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department or the Central Intelligence Agency in collaboration with Wall Street and corporate America. Legions of civilian and military bureaucrats went through a slow, cumbersome and often agonizing process as they studied data and drafted plans and options, which the president carefully weighed along with domestic political factors before making choices. His judgments were also swayed by preconceptions based on past experiences or even personal idiosyncrasies. So, while the for-mulation of policies for Vietnam was not haphazard, neither was it scientific. Yet the decisions, however they were shaped, reflected the view of most Americans that they could not shirk their responsibility as global custodian.
The disaster in Vietnam dimmed that view, leaving Americans baf¬fled and ambivalent about their role in the world. And, over the ensuing years, other reverses further punctured their dream of preem¬inence. In 1973, the Middle East oil producers boosted the price of petroleum, thereby demonstrating the vulnerability of the United States and other industrial societies. Americans also saw themselves lagging behind other nations in such fields as technology, education, public health and urban renewal. Burdened by a huge federal budget deficit, a consequence of its profligate spending, the United States soon became reliant on foreign purchases of treasury notes and bonds to avoid bankruptcy. By 1989, for the first time since the end of World War I, foreign investments in America had surpassed American in¬vestments abroad. Once the world’s leading creditor, the United States had become the world’s leading debtor.
But more than any other episode, the Vietnam debacle, the only defeat in America’s history, had deflated its overweening belief in its supremacy. In January 1991, when President George Bush unleashed a U.S. offensive against Iraq following its occupation of Kuwait, he did so only after mobilizing United Nations support in an effort to dramatize that America was not acting alone. Announcing the attack, moreover, he sought to exorcise the specter of Southeast Asia by pledging that “this will not be another Vietnam”—a conflict in which, as he put it, U.S. troops were “asked to fight with one hand tied behind their back.” Nevertheless, his deployment had been preceded by sharp divisions in both Congress and in American public opinion that recalled the controversies that split the nation during the Vietnam war. And even after hostilities erupted, the country was sober and uncertain as widespread doubt and anxiety tempered the manifesta¬tions of patriotism. The days were gone when Americans, convinced of their invincibility, felt comfortable and confident in the posture of international gendarme.
At the end of February, however, the mood of America changed overnight from one of apprehension to a mixture of relief and jubi¬lation as the U.S. and allied forces in the Persian Gulf won one of the most spectacular campaigns in history. After only six weeks of fight¬ing—and just four days of ground warfare—they liberated Kuwait and drove into southern Iraq, killing, wounding and capturing more than a hundred thousand Iraqi troops, at a cost of only about two hundred American lives. President Bush proclaimed victory and, in a burst of pride, declared, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syn¬drome once and for all.” But he hastened to add that the triumph did not herald a revival of the period before Vietnam, when the United States had sought to resolve crises everywhere—since, he explained, its massive display of military might in the Middle East would deter future conflicts. “Because of what has happened,” he said, “we won’t have to use U.S. forces around the world.”
Strategic specialists like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meanwhile cautioned against concluding from the sensational success in the Persian Gulf that the United States could henceforth return to its past role of global policeman. A vocal champion of intervention against Iraq, he now warned that Americans had to discard the notion that they could “deal with every issue simultaneously” or rebuild the world “to American specifications.” Instead, he wrote, the nation “must be selective, husbanding its resources as well as its credibility.” Other commentators similarly emphasized that the United States, con¬fronted by a daunting array of social and economic problems, could not plausibly saddle itself with limitless responsibilities. So, while Americans had every reason to celebrate the achievement in the Middle East, they had few reasons to assume that they were again the preem¬inent international power. Thus their euphoria did not diminish the validity of Daniel Bell’s observation fifteen years before: “The Amer¬ican Century foundered on the shoals of Vietnam.”

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