Op-Eds by Jim

Remember the Nixon Doctrine

November 28, 1995
by James Webb, The New York Times

The Clinton Administration’s insistence on putting 20,000 American troops into Bosnia should be seized on by national leaders, particularly those running for president to force a long-overdue a debate on the worldwide obligations of our military.

While the Balkan factions may be immersed in their struggle, and Europeans may feel threatened by it, for Americans it represents only one of many conflicts, real and potential, whose seriousness must be weighed, against one another, before allowing a commitment of lives, resources and national energy.

Today, despite a few half-hearted attempts such as Gen Colin Powell’s “superior force doctrine,” no clear set of principles exists as a touchstone for debate on these tradeoffs. Nor have any leaders of either party offered terms which provides an understandable global logic as to when our military should be committed to action. In short, we still lack a national security strategy that fits the post cold war era.

More than ever before, the United States has become the nation of choice when crises occur, large and small. At the same time, the size and location of our military forces are in flux. It is important to make our interests known to our citizens, our allies and even our potential adversaries, not just in Bosnia but around the world, so that commitments can be, measured by something other than the pressures of Interest groups and manipulation by the Press. Furthermore, with alliances increasingly justified by power relationships, similar to those that dominated before World War I, our military must be assured that the stakes of its missions are worth dying for.

Failing to provide these assurances is to continue the unremitting case-by-case debates, hampering our foreign policy on the one hand and on the other treating our military forces in some cases as mere bargaining chips. As the past few years demonstrate, this also causes us to fritter away our national resolve while arguing about military backwaters like Somalia and Haiti.

Given the President’s proposal and the failure to this point of defining American stakes in Bosnia as immediate or nation-threatening, the coming weeks will offer a new round of such debates. The President appears tempted to follow the constitutionally questionable (albeit effective) approach used by the Bush Administration in the Persian Gulf putting troops in an area where no American forces have been threatened and no treaties demand their presence, then gaining international agreement before placing the issue before Congress.

Mr. Clinton said their mission would be “to supervise the separation of forces and to give them confidence that each side will live up to their agreements.” This rationale reminds one of the ill-fated mission of the international force sent to Beirut in 1983. He has characterized the Bosnian mission as diplomatic in purpose, but promised, in his speech last night, to “fight fire with fire and then some” if American troops are threatened. This is a formula for confusion once a combat unit sent on a distinctly non-combat mission comes under repeated attack.

We are told that other NATO countries will decline to send their own military forces to Bosnia unless the United States assumes a dominant role, which includes sizable combat support and naval forces backing it up. This calls to mind the decades of over-reliance by NATO members on American resources, and President Eisenhower’s warning in October 1963 that the size and permanence of our military presence in Europe would “continue to discourage the development of the necessary military strength Western European countries should provide for themselves.”

The Administration speaks of a “reasonable time for withdrawal.” which if too short might tempt the parties to wait out the so-called peacekeepers and if too long might tempt certain elements to drive them out with attacks causing high casualties.

Sorting out the Administration’s answers to such hesitations will take a great deal of time, attention and emotion. And doing so in the absence of a clearly stated global policy will encourage other nations, particularly the new Power centers in Asia, to view the United States as becoming less committed to addressing their own security concerns. Many of these concerns are far more serious to long-term international stability and American interests. These include the continued threat of war on the Korean Peninsula, the importance of the United States as a powerbroker where historical Chinese, Japanese and Russian interests collide, and the need for military security to accompany trade and diplomacy in a dramatically changing region.

Asian cynicism gained further grist in the wake of the Administration’s recent snubs of Japan: the President’s cancellation of his summit meeting because of the budget crisis, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s early return from a Japanese visit to watch over the Bosnian peace talks.

Asian leaders are becoming uneasy over an economically and militarily resurgent China that in recent years has become increasingly more aggressive. A perception that the United States is not paying attention to or is not worried about such long-term threats could in itself cause a major realignment in Asia. One cannot exclude even Japan, whose strong bilateral relationship with the United States has been severely tested of late, from this possibility.

Those who aspire to the Presidency in I996 should use the coming debate to articulate a world view that would demonstrate to the world, as well as to Americans, an understanding of the uses and limitations – in a sense the human budgeting of our military assets.

Richard Nixon was the last President to clearly define how and when the United States would commit forces overseas, in 1969, he declared that our military policy should follow three basic tenets:

Honor all treaty commitments in responding to those who invade the lands of our allies.

Provide a nuclear umbrella to the world against the threats of other nuclear powers.

Finally, provide weapons and technical assistance to other countries where warranted, but do not commit American forces to local conflicts.

These tenets, with some modification, are still the best foundation of our world leadership. They remove the United States from local conflicts and civil wars. The use of American military to fulfill treaty obligations requires ratification by Congress, providing a hedge against the kind of Presidential discretion that might send forces into conflicts not in the national Interest. Yet they provide clear authority for action required to carry out policies that have been agreed upon by the government as a whole.

Given the changes in the world, an additional tenet would also be desirable: The United States should respond vigorously against cases nuclear proliferation and state-sponsored terrorism.

These tenets would prevent the use of United States forces on commitments more appropriate to lesser powers while preserving our unique capabilities. Only the United States among the world’s democracies can field large-scale maneuver forces, replete with strategic airlift, carrier battle groups and amphibious power projection.

Our military has no equal in countering conventional attacks on extremely short notice wherever the national interest dictates. Our bases in Japan give American forces the ability to react almost anywhere in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, just as the continued presence in Europe allows American units to react in Europe and the Middle East.

In proper form, this capability provides reassurance to potentially threatened nations everywhere. But despite the ease with which the American military seemingly operates on a daily basis, its assets are limited, as is the national willingness to put them at risk.
As the world moves toward new power centers and different security needs, It Is more vital than ever that we state clearly the conditions under which American forces will be sent into harm’s way. And we should be ever more Chary of commitments, like the looming one in Bosnia, where combat unit, invite attack but are by the very nature of their mission not supposed to fight.