Power for What?

Copyright å© 1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Logically, at the cold war’s end, the United States should have begun a long-term scaling down of forces and commitments abroad. The cold war was a period of crisis demanding exceptional measures. Its end altered contemporary geopolitical circumstances, meriting a serious response from Washington.

It did not receive that response because of the confusion which accompanied so drastic a change—there was an intellectual and imaginative failure—and because retreat from engagement and power simply went against the bureaucratic and career interests of the US foreign policy community. In executive Washington, and in Congress too, it had been found very agreeable to exercise power.

The Gulf War thus launched a new American globalism. However, while there are undoubted popular gratifications in being the sole superpower, the public also saw the disadvantages, which is why, to the vexation of the policy community, the American people have since 1989 stubbornly withheld support, or granted it only parsimoniously, to international undertakings that promise cost or risk.

Rationalizing and defending America’s global presence thus have become an important concern for the directors of US policy, nearly every one of whose speeches stresses the necessity for “explaining to the American people and their elected representatives that a foreign policy of leadership and engagement is the best investment in security, prosperity, and freedom we can make.” These exemplary recent remarks by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright concluded by saying that “the work is never done.”

The task is never-ending because the global expansion of American power not only lacks a coherent rationale but has become, itself, an obstacle to the success of American foreign policy. It has proven a cause of the very instabilities that policymakers say American global deployment is meant to cure. This is an unrecognized general problem in America’s post-cold war foreign relations. The US is held to exercise global power for the sake of international stability; yet the United States’ global presence itself frequently causes instability.

The Middle East provides the most visible case of this. The United States deploys immense political and military resources in the region in order, it says, to protect its access to oil resources. The undeclared war currently being waged against Iraq and its regime, US involvement in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, the two-decades-old Iran boycott, Washington’s counterterrorism campaign and effort to treat terrorism as if it were something that could be bombed away (since Washington knows how to bomb, but not how to deal with terrorism)—all this in one way or another is connected with “securing” Middle Eastern oil.

Yet Middle Eastern oil doesn’t need to be secured, since it is not going away. The position of US oil companies may need to be assured, but that is another matter. It actually does not make much difference who is in charge of the oil, since those who have it must sell it to those who will buy, at a price that makes it worthwhile for the buyer to buy …

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