by Simon Schama
The Bodley Head, 2008, 352 pp., $34
America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11, The Misunderstood Years Between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War on Terror
by Derek Chollet and James Goldgeie
PublicAffairs, 2008, 320 pp., $26.95
Barack Obama’s election victory has already inspired more than the usual share of introspection over American destiny. No matter what he accomplishes, his presidency secured epochal status even before it began. This of course has as much to do with what came before him as it does with the promise he signifies to America and the world, for the now departed Bush Administration and even the Clinton Administration are unlikely ever to be described as epochal. Should Obama himself take a longer view of what a presidential administration can do and conduct himself accordingly, his legacy might outshine many others. Or it might not, for that will depend not only on what he does but also on how history judges his successors.
Clearly, then, the reputation business is something less than an exact science. When assessing presidential legacies, lines tend to blur both backward and forward in time as imperfect memory and natural bias produce the rough intellectual equivalence of funhouse mirrors. Two recent books make this apparent. In the first, former Clinton Administration staff members Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier trace the history of American foreign policy debates in the 1990s. In the second, the popular and illustrious British historian Simon Schama examines more generally where the United States stands at this moment in history. Although the former reads like a policy memoir and the latter like a cross between a paean and a work of collective psychoanalysis, both impress with their earnestness. Quite apart from the Obama factor, both also suggest much about the recent past that underscores today’s liberal zeitgeist: sober and penitent, yet still hopeful.
Few Americans experienced the 1990s as anything like the interwar period of the 1930s, Auden’s “low dishonest decade.” The country reveled in a post-Cold War celebration of peace and prosperity that coincided with the baby boomers’ rise to political maturity. This was the first generation of Americans in the 20th century whose majority, apart from the thousands sent to fight in Vietnam, had never endured war or severe national hardship. It was no wonder, then, that this generation, despite the brave new world that burst forth in November 1989, acted as though it deserved a “holiday from history.” It has always thought it deserved a holiday of some sort.
History did not cooperate. This was nothing new for Americans, as Schama illustrates with a ruminative hodgepodge of portraits from the 18th century to the present. Writing in the Tocquevillian style of Daniel Boorstin and Luigi Barzini, Schama reminds us of his own longstanding Americanophilia. His mythical America—and by mythical I mean idealized as if by poetry rather than simply false—reveals the simplicity of his heart, just as his usual European subjects profit from the complexities of his head. Against the stereotype of the historical amnesiac, Schama’s American moves through time with an obsessive regard for his country’s history and, true to stereotype, his passion for guns, God and gold, all in the name of freedom and progress. The American, Schama tells us, really is an exceptional being—professing to stand apart from history yet “impregnated” with it, everywhere and always. No other nation or national culture would appear to be more concerned with leaving its indelible mark upon the world. If Americans seem nonchalant about their own history, it is a calculated nonchalance born of natural pride.
Bill Clinton and his presidency fit both the pattern and the times. Charming, mercurial, self-indulgent and self-absorbed, his chief talents were improvisational and he generally shone when illustrating a certain Churchillian witticism—doing the right thing after exhausting all the other options. Yet Clinton was frustrated. He did not get the hang of diplomacy until the end of his first term, he faced a recalcitrant and increasingly hostile Congress, and, worst of all, he could not, no matter how hard he tried, find the right slogan for a “post-containment”, post-Cold War world.
Indeed, Clinton’s insatiable appetite extended to the cultivation of his and his generation’s legacy, which he and the would-be memoirists he brought into government seem now in retrospect to have been contemplating from their first days in office. To many of them, Clinton’s election represented an opportunity to enjoy their own just desserts. They had spent the 1980s in loyal opposition and saw their brief moment in the sun as young appointees in the Carter Administration eclipsed by a dozen years of Republican rule. Clinton gave them the chance to shine again. They took their turn gleefully, but most ended up doing less than the weight of their offices suggested.
Not surprisingly, sloganeering featured heavily in the official tenure of many “policy intellectuals” whose expertise had been in drawing distinctions between themselves and the powerful. With few exceptions—the main ones being William Perry at Defense, an engineer by profession, and the investment banker Robert Rubin at Treasury—Clinton’s appointees left little in the way of lasting results. They came to realize too late that policy by pronouncement only went as far as the next election.
Defense Secretary William Perry speaks at the Pentagon in 1994. [credit: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images]
Chollet and Goldgeier offer up a persuasive rendition of the official mind during these years. Their title is broader than its subject, which is the ongoing tussle between Clinton and his opponents over foreign policy and, more often, its depiction in the media. It describes particularly well the resurgence of neoconservatism as a reaction, on the one hand, to Clinton’s bouts of indecision and, on the other, to the paleo-conservative attack on internationalism. In time, this became a struggle between those for and against globalization, which, their history holds not altogether implausibly, Clinton embraced, paleo-conservatives decried, and neoconservatives perverted.
From the perspective of a speechwriter or pamphleteer, that narrative makes a good deal of sense. But it overlooks several important aspects of the period that are only now coming into focus. Schama’s longer view illustrates them quite well.
First is the extensive militarization of American foreign policy, which Chollet and Goldgeier depict unquestioningly. It dated back many decades, as Schama reminds us, but the strange thing is that it continued, even deepened, during the post-Cold War years. This was by no means inevitable; indeed, it was hardly anticipated. It came less from necessity than from inertia. Cold War diplomacy had been so successful that it was taken for granted in its aftermath, despite the obvious fact that the challenge that had given rise to it—Soviet communism—no longer existed. History may not have ended, but the Clinton Administration’s capacity for strategic innovation, if it ever existed, did.
This is why many of the debates between “liberals” and “conservatives” that Chollet and Goldgeier characterize as doctrinal were really about tactics—or what British imperialists used to call “forward” and “backward” policies. These small-bore arguments pitted proverbial hawks against doves, each determined to score points for reasons that had mainly to do with the psychology of individuals and constituencies; they only looked more important than they were because what was really more important escaped their field of vision. The measure of foreign policy leadership too often came down to a willingness to order military action: “Do we or don’t we use force?” really did mark the extent of serious debate. (Unfortunately, it mostly still does.)
Such thinking turned out to be a short-lived luxury. Chollet and Goldgeier come around to describing the President’s doctrine in a chapter called “the indispensable nation in a globalizing world.” Here Clinton appears to grasp the reins of his presidency, determined to extend its benefits the world over. First he had to slay a few surviving dragons of the past: Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Slobodan Milosevic gave him lucky victories; Muhammad Farah Aideed and Saddam Hussein were less compliant. In each case, however, the authors underplay the actual facts on the ground in favor of debates taking place in Washington. To cite just one example, the critical diplomacy of Secretary Perry and a few others in swaying the Russians to help pull NATO’s chestnuts out of the fire in the Balkans is given the briefest of mentions. Success in these cases came down to more than Clinton’s having finally found his voice back in the White House.
Missing from this account, too, is any indication that the Clinton Administration possessed what Schama would call an historical consciousness. It failed to appreciate the central mission of American power after the Cold War, which was less to lead (or rule) for its own sake than to forge, as per President George H.W. Bush’s Wilsonian invocation, a new international order to replace the one that had just disintegrated. Clinton may have given the impression of doing this piecemeal, from the bottom up, as it were, but both he and his successor subtracted more than they added.
No doubt many are better off without Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein yanking chains and killing people rather too frequently even for aspiring autocrats. But, as with Vietnam, one always has to ask, “was the sacrifice worth it?” And by “sacrifice” we have to mean not simply the costs of lives and treasure in these “wars of choice”, but also the shift of focus away from the truly important to the merely urgent.
The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, but, like their former boss, Chollet and Goldgeier seem far less interested in the essential than in the episodic and emblematic. As the latter overtook and jeopardized the former in reality, so they do the same in America Between the Wars. Thus their history barely mentions the task Clinton never managed to grapple with: namely, the reformulation of consensus among the major world powers over the ways and means of global governance. The major threats to international peace—political, ideological, socio-economic and technological—continued to worsen as consensus became more elusive. This did not have to happen. In this respect, perhaps, the Clinton Administration was every bit as unilateralist in consequence, if not in intent, as its successor.
According to Chollet and Goldgeier, Clinton assured George W. Bush that he did all he could do to kill Osama bin Laden. Bush’s reaction is unrecorded. No matter. September 11 confirmed the now-received wisdom (unmentioned in the official 9/11 Report) that the attacks succeeded because of the worst possible combination of American leadership: a creative, even imaginative President without the authority or conviction to act where it counted, followed by one whose disciplined and effective foreign policy team, at least at the outset, was hampered by a willful incapacity for original or independent thought.
This constitutes an oddity in the light of history. Interwar periods generally feature impressive innovation amid degeneration (like the Rainbow Planning exercises undertaken by the U.S. military on the eve of World War II). If we have seen impressive innovation since 1989, it isn’t obvious. (The image on the book’s dustjacket shows a candle burning at both ends, which is apt.) Besides, the “war” the authors cite as the far bookend of their period of interest—9/11 and all that—could turn out to be prologue to something far worse. Punctuating history is no simple matter.
If these books are any indication, historians of the future may come to see the Clinton/Bush decades as a single era in common and the two Presidents as more alike than different, just as few distinctions are made today between Harding and Coolidge or, for that matter, any of the Presidents between Grant and McKinley. After all, what you see is partly a function of how far back you stand.
The 1990s were promising years that saw a culmination of American power. Yet, unlike earlier postwar intervals, the United States had hardly any rivals at all this time. Perhaps it was only to be expected that so much of its authority, and even power, would be squandered by the end of the second Bush Administration. It was not entirely Bush’s fault, although surely his Iraq misadventure will go down in history as a major contributor. No, the rot set in a good deal earlier, and the “wars” of the past two decades themselves may someday be seen as symptoms rather than principal causes of American dissipation. Even now, a few cynics have begun to wonder whether 1989 marked a victory after all.
Here Schama’s version of American history may prove salutary. In his best chapter, titled “Fervor”, he equates American religion with the love of liberty, the country’s credo being nothing less than a faith in its own God-given promise. It is no accident that his book was written between visits to campaign rallies, and Schama unabashedly depicts Barack Obama as apotheosis of the American past, present and future. Optimism and can-doism are what make the trajectory of “American democracy in the long arc of history” remarkably both linear and cyclical at the same time. They arise because Americans again and again rise up themselves, seize opportunity and take their country—and the world with it—to a higher level of greatness. Whether or not Obama capitalizes upon a second (or by some accounts, a third) major chance for America to reinvent itself, then, is largely up to him.
That is evidently what failed to happen in the 1990s and well into the subsequent decade, despite—or rather because of—good times. It was not that America’s leaders were lazy, inept or even, according to many of their contemporaries, uninspired. Rather, it was that they somehow failed to captivate and mobilize the American people to become something greater than the sum of their parts, and thereby lay the necessary groundwork for another half-century of peace and prosperity. Clinton and Bush each allowed the devils of his nature to prevail over his ambition and the responsibilities of office, with the pitiful indecision and mendacity of the former matched in futility only by the quick-fire stubbornness and myopia of the latter. Each appealed to the baser instincts of his backers and critics. Each, though politically astute, was immature in certain critical ways and prone to distraction and drift. Each allowed the wrong people to linger in the wrong jobs for too long. Each lost the respect and loyalty of the voting public, not to mention the country’s foreign allies and friends. And each came to prize endurance above all other qualities amid the degeneration of his presidency.
It would be easy, then, to pronounce each man’s legacy as one of recklessness and lackluster leadership. But that needn’t be fatal. Schama shows us that we have been there before—indeed, that we’ve seen far worse. Have faith, he says, in America’s traditions, its many talents, its perennially bright outlook on the future. Happy days will come again, even without another big crisis. Come to think of it, that really would make for an exceptional “interwar” period—and only, he might add, in America.