Twenty years ago Michael Mandelbaum published a devastating critique of early Clinton Administration foreign policy. The article, which appeared in the January/February 1996 edition of Foreign Affairs, was entitled “Foreign Policy as Social Work.” It really stung because it was so perceptive, and the title so quotable. I remember that sting well because I had been intimately involved in two of the Clinton Administration’s ventures that formed the basis of Mandelbaum’s charge, the interventions in Somalia and Haiti. Mandelbaum’s new book, Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era, is an updating and extension of that article. There have certainly been some spectacular failures to add to his original list, most notably the unnecessary invasion and botched occupation of Iraq. Mission Failure provides valuable insights into why so many U.S. endeavors over this long period have yielded disappointing, on occasion disastrous, results. Yet Mandelbaum’s overarching analysis, accurate enough at the end of 1995, shows some strain when stretched over three administrations, a quarter-century of U.S. policy, and issues as wide-ranging as those covered in this latest volume.
Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era
Oxford University Press, 2016, 504 pp., $29.95
Mission Failure provides a broad survey of U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era, examining in some considerable detail the U.S. approaches to Russia, China, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Israeli/Palestinian relationship, the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State. All these efforts represent, in the author’s view, failures of U.S. policy. They also share several other qualities. First, they all represent some form of overstretch resulting from the emergence of the United States as the world’s only superpower, freed from the normal constraints of balance-of-power geopolitics. This overstretch in each instance took the form of promoting societal change, principally democratization, in societies unready for such a transformation. Mandelbaum also argues that the humanitarian and ideological impulses that drove policy during this quarter-century distinguished U.S. behavior sharply from that which guided the Republic through earlier epochs.
These broad generalizations bear some examination. Most but not all the cases covered in Mission Failure do deserve to be so described. Among the exceptions are Bosnia and Kosovo. “Foreign Policy as Social Work” appeared just as 60,000 NATO peacekeepers were entering Bosnia to enforce the accords reached in Dayton, Ohio. Over the next several years the United States and its allies would end the fighting in Bosnia, liberate Kosovo, nip an ethnic conflict in Macedonia in the bud, promote democratic transformations in both Serbia and Croatia, and bring a decade of Balkan wars to a definitive close.
Mandelbaum argues that Balkan nation-building failed, because Bosnia and Kosovo remain to this day corrupt, poor, and poorly governed. This seems an excessively high standard for foreign policy achievement. In the 1990s Southeastern Europe was aflame. Albania, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia all lapsed into civil and ethnic conflict. In Bosnia the fighting was as intense and bloody as the war underway in Syria today, albeit in a smaller society. Since 2000, Southeastern Europe has been peaceful. It is still the poorest and most poorly governed part of Europe, and Bosnia and Kosovo are still its least developed societies. But they and the region as a whole are more prosperous, better-governed, and more democratic than at any time in their history. Whatever the excesses of U.S. and West European rhetoric in the midst of these efforts at conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction, these results, by any reasonable measure, represent a notable achievement.
It also seems a stretch to argue that 25 years of U.S. policy toward China has been a failure because China has not become democratic. One can certainly find other aspects of U.S. China policy to criticize, but as regards democratization, successive U.S. administrations have agreed with Mandelbaum that this is a change beyond U.S. capacity to effect and have made no sustained effort to do so.
Mandelbaum’s critique of U.S. policy toward Russia is closer to the mark. The United States did make a serious, if, as Mandelbaum points out, a somewhat parsimonious effort to assist Russia in making the transformation to market democracy. The results have been disappointing. But Mandelbaum himself argues, correctly in my view, that the largest factor in turning Moscow away from the West was the expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders, following promises not to do so.
Mission Failure observes that the latitude the United States enjoyed after 1990 as the sole superpower led Washington to undertake ventures it might have avoided in the past. My own research substantiates this.1 Throughout the Cold War the United States engaged in some form of foreign military intervention every decade or so, sending troops into the Dominican Republic, Lebanon (twice), Grenada, and Panama. During the Clinton Administration the frequency of such ventures rose to once every two years: Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. George W. Bush ran in 2000 on a platform of no more nation-building. He then invaded three new countries in this first three years in office: Afghanistan, Iraq, and, in 2004, Haiti once again.
The end of the Cold War did not just unleash American interventionism. Throughout its first 45 years of existence the United Nations mounted a new peacekeeping mission on an average of once every four years. During the 1990s, this frequency rose to one new mission on average of every six months. These were all endorsed by the entire Security Council and paid for by the entire UN membership.
Mandelbaum argues that all the post-Cold War endeavors covered in Mission Failure were spurred by humanitarian or ideological considerations, and that the prominence of these motivations represented a sharp break from all prior American practice. Both these assertions are too categorical.
It is probably true that humanitarian concerns played a greater role in U.S. and indeed many international interventions in the post-Cold War era. Yet with the notable exception of Somalia, there were also less altruistic motivations. The Haiti interventions of 1994 and 2004 were both designed to stem the outflow of unwanted refugees. This same incentive, stemming the flow of refugees, contributed to European support for the NATO interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. The principal U.S. concern in Balkans was the effect that multiple and then still multiplying ethnic conflicts might ultimately have on the wider consolidation of peace and prosperity in an increasingly integrated Europe, which remained the area of the world most important to U.S. security and prosperity.
Humanitarian concerns played no role in the decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, the decision to turn away from Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal, a major U.S. victory, illustrated the exclusively geopolitical interest of the United States—or more properly its disinterest—in Afghanistan throughout the first decade of the post-Cold War era and beyond.
Perhaps the best demonstration of the limited role that purely humanitarian considerations played in U.S. decision-making was the Clinton Administration’s choice to ignore the genocide in Rwanda in order to concentrate on planning an intervention in Haiti. I know because in the spring of 1994 I was working in the State Department on military options for Rwanda, when I was told to drop what I was doing and begin to plan for Haiti.
As for the unprecedented nature of these interventions, it is worth recalling that beginning with the Spanish America War in 1898 the United States mounted more than a dozen armed interventions throughout the Caribbean ending in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989. These operations were generally intended to end civil conflicts and improve the quality of local governance. Humanitarian reasons were often cited, and played a particularly important role in securing domestic support for the U.S. invasion and liberation of Cuba. Needless to say, the United States also had major commercial interests and, in the case of the interventions associated with the creation of the Panama Canal, very significant geopolitical considerations.
Mandelbaum acknowledges that the United States did not stage any of its post-Cold War interventions in order to make these societies democratic. He argues, however, that Washington subsequently promised to do so. He characterizes this as mission creep and insists that even if democratization was not the impetus for the intervention, it became the mission and therefore the criterion for success. Again this seems an artificially high bar for determining whether any specific effort was worthwhile.
Mission Failure correctly notes that none of the countries the United States invaded over the past quarter-century have proved good candidates for democracy. All were pre-modern, patrilineal, patronage-driven societies where ties of kinship, immediate and extended, would always take precedence over loyalties to abstract principals and new institutions. Yet having invaded a country in order to overthrow an existing order or stop an ongoing civil war, what choice does any intervening authority have but to try to establish a new government and help it gain control of its territory and population?
Nor is there an obvious alternative to basing that new regime upon popular sovereignty and representative democracy. This was not a uniquely or even principally a U.S. preference. Since 1990 Russia and China have routinely joined every other Security Council member in mandating that the United Nations support the emergence of democratically elected governments in post-conflict societies. No one casting these votes expected the resultant governments to be exceptionally honest or highly competent. What was intended, and achieved more often than not, was that the new governments would be better than their predecessors and no worse than the governments of neighboring states at the same level of economic and social development.
The exception that proves the rule was the liberation of Kuwait back in 1991. U.S. and allied troops drove out the Iraqi forces and handed the country back to its Emir, who in turn reimbursed the United States for several billion dollars of expenses. No one in the United States, the international community, or Kuwait argued for the imposition of democracy. Kuwait had a preexisting source of authority that was considered legitimate at home and abroad. But in none of the cases treated in Mission Failure did a similar authority exist.
In late 2001 I led the Bush Administration’s efforts to form a successor regime to the Taliban. Democracy was nowhere in my instructions. My job was to produce a broadly based, reasonably representative government capable of holding the country together and willing to collaborate with the United States in hunting down remaining al-Qaeda elements. It was the United Nations that secured Afghan agreement to a road map toward democracy and shepherded them along it over the next several years. During this same period the United States was advising Hamid Karzai that he would need to govern with and through the warlords who controlled much of his country, warning him that U.S. forces were not going to back up his authority if it were challenged.
Similarly, the Dayton Agreement was designed to end a war in the Balkans, not usher in a functioning democracy. Kosovo, for its part, was governed for a decade after NATO’s arrival by United Nations bureaucrats. In later years the United States has been roundly criticized by many Afghan and Balkan experts for prioritizing peace and stability over democracy in both Afghanistan and Bosnia.
Mission Failure cites George W. Bush’s second Inaugural address as a particularly strikingly example of post-Cold War U.S. democratic evangelism. The Bush team did indeed persuade themselves that democracy was the best antidote to radical Islam. But there was also a more cynical reason for their conversion. By 2005 democratization was the last possible excuse for having invaded Iraq, once the absence of WMD and links to active terrorist networks had been acknowledged. Unfortunately there also proved to be a paucity of democrats in Iraq.
Mission Failure attributes the lack of U.S. success in brokering an Israeli/Palestinian settlement to a failure of nation-building, in this case a failure to promote the emergence of a competent Palestinian government. This is certainly one way of explain the impasse. Yet, surely, if any third party had the capacity and the responsibility to support the emergence of a viable Palestinian state, it was Israel, the occupying power, not the United States.
Mission Failure either ignores or glosses over the many U.S. successes during the past quarter-century in promoting democracy. Mandelbaum acknowledges that the Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellites made successful transitions, but argues that these societies were primed to do so by reason of their history, culture, and level of development. Yet democracy also advanced during this period in dozens of other countries in Latin America, Asia, and even Africa. In 1990 Freedom House categorized 69 countries as electoral democracies. By 2014, that number was 122. States meeting Freedom House’s more demanding definition for “free” rose from 61 to 88 while the number of “partially free” increased from 44 to 55.
So democratization has taken root in rocky soil. Mission Failure is quite good in explaining what went wrong in places like Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but it then undercuts that fine-grained analysis by suggesting that these specifics are ultimately unimportant because the missions were doomed to failure from the beginning.
The reader will learn a great deal about U.S. policy over the past quarter-century from this volume yet be left with an unduly bleak assessment of what has been accomplished. Invading Iraq was probably the single worst decision in the history of U.S. foreign policy. And this was not the only U.S. mission that failed. Yet, despite chaos in much of the Middle East and the wider increase in terrorist attacks, the world today is much more peaceful, much more prosperous, and much more democratic than it was 25 years ago. Global indices of longevity, per capita GDP, and freedom are up, way up, while the frequency and intensity of both civil and interstate war are down. Given that the United States has been throughout this era the world’s most influential nation, it must have been doing something right. The reader will have to turn elsewhere to discover what.
No one has had more direct experience with, or written more perceptively about, the events—and the kinds of events—that I address in Mission Failure than James Dobbins. So he speaks with authority, and I appreciate his fair-minded assessment of my book.
In general, he takes a more favorable view of the U.S. role in these events than I do. Our respective assessments differ most sharply on the two humanitarian interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s. It is true that no serious fighting has taken place in Bosnia and Kosovo since the wars there ended, which is certainly a welcome development. Yet the interventions, in my view, do not qualify as U.S. successes, for two main reasons.
First, whatever the dangers to U.S. interests in Europe that the potential flow of refugees from the Balkans posed (and they were surely far more modest than the actual impact of the refugees from Syria has been), the Clinton Administration declared that it was intervening not to protect American interests but to promote American values. It sought, it said, to establish the legitimacy of military intervention to prevent internal (rather than cross-border) violence and to strengthen the principle of interethnic tolerance. It accomplished neither goal. Indeed, as I argue in Chapter 2 of Mission Failure, by lending tacit support to the ethnic cleansing of Serbs it undercut those principles.
Second, Bosnia has remained more or less stable since the end of 1995 because, contrary to the initial U.S. war aim, the Bosnian Serbs got what they wanted: The Dayton Accords produced a partition in all but name. The Serbs fought to avoid becoming a minority in a Muslim-dominated country and in this they succeeded. Moreover, what made a stable outcome possible was, alas, ethnic cleansing, which divided Bosnia into more ethnically (in truth, nationally) homogeneous sectors than had been the case when it was part of Yugoslavia. The same thing happened in Kosovo, except that it was the Serbs who suffered ethnic cleansing, regrouping in the north of the country along the border with Serbia. And this does not take into account the contribution that the two U.S. Balkan wars made to the deterioration of relations with Russia, a far greater interest than anything having to do with Bosnia or Kosovo, which the ill-considered eastward expansion of NATO triggered.
Bosnia’s relative postwar stability represents, I believe, not the achievement of any of the Clinton Administration’s stated goals there but rather a successful instance of a different kind of international operation: peacekeeping. Peacekeeping works when the warring parties have decided that they wish to stop fighting—the Serbs and Croats in the case of Bosnia because both had achieved their principal aims, the Muslims because they could not continue without U.S. support, which the United States made clear would not be available—but where none of the parties trusts the others to behave peacefully. In these circumstances the armed forces of parties outside the conflict can serve as a buffer and a source of reassurance, which is what U.S. and European military and civilian personnel have done in Bosnia. The United Nations has mounted a number of useful peacekeeping operations outside Europe. For such missions a U.S. military presence is not required and in most cases probably not advisable.
We also have a difference of emphasis on the spread of democracy around the world in the latter part of the past century. (I address this development at length in my 2007 book Democracy’s Good Name: The Rise and the Risks of the World’s Most Popular Form of Government [PublicAffairs, 2007].) I agree that the United States assisted this trend, but only indirectly: by serving, along with other countries, as an example and by protecting, during the Cold War, thriving democracies in Europe and Asia from a predatory, undemocratic power, the Soviet Union. Explicit democracy-promoting programs had little impact.
Moreover, democracy-promotion is a subset of the two missions that the United States undertook in the post-Cold War period: nation-building—creating a sense of national community among different peoples; and state-building—establishing the institutions of modern government where they do not exist. It was those missions that failed. A stable, functioning government in Afghanistan or Iraq would have counted as a success, but that goal was not, or at least thus far has not been, achieved.
Finally, while Mission Failure is a work of history, not of policy analysis let alone of policy prescription, readers and reviewers have taken it to be making the case against initiating similar missions in the future. That is a fair inference, but it raises a question. I argue that the post-Cold War U.S. efforts at nation- and state-building turned out to be both impossible and unnecessary: They took place in countries in which the United States did not have major strategic interests. But what if such efforts should come to seem necessary?
Syria is a case in point. While it does not much matter to the United States who rules in Damascus, or whether there is one Syria, or several, or none, the terrible events there are beginning to affect what does matter. The conflict is spawning anti-Western terrorism, strengthening Iran, the country that does threaten U.S. interests in the Middle East, and generating a flow of refugees that is disrupting Europe—with the exception of North America the region of the world most important to the United States. What is to be done in Syria, and in other places where political collapse and communal violence threaten major U.S. interests? What happens if nation- and state-building become missions that the United States cannot accomplish but must attempt? For the answers to these questions, U.S. policymakers could do no better than to turn to James Dobbins.
I agree with Michael that nation-building is difficult, costly, time-consuming and likely to disappoint. I also agree with his final point that such missions may nevertheless sometimes prove necessary. That is why I think it so important that we learn from our experiences. If one condemns every prior effort as foredoomed, then the only lesson is not to do it again.
Michael argues that the United States did not achieve its war aims in Bosnia. First of all, it is something of an exaggeration to suggest that the U.S. went to war in Bosnia. U.S. aircraft participated in 21 days of rather desultory NATO bombing. This was followed quickly by a peace conference and a settlement. When the official U.S. records of this period are opened I doubt they will show any significant erosion of the actual U.S. aims between August 30, when the bombing began, and November 21, when the Dayton Accords were initialed.
As a result of that settlement and the deployment of a NATO peacekeeping force the ethnic cleansing did stop. Over time a significant minority of refugees returned home, while others chose not to. Many were eventually able to reclaim their old homes, and either reoccupy or sell them, at their discretion. It is true that the half-decade of ethnic cleansing that had been conducted while the U.S. had stood by doing little was never fully reversed. But insisting that the Bosnia mission was a failure because the highest U.S. aspirations were not met is a bit like arguing that the United States did not win World War I because it failed to make the world safe for democracy.
In general I agree with Michael as regards the utility of peacekeeping, although I do believe there are instances where U.S. participation can be useful, even essential. Bosnia and Kosovo were such cases. Those two operations are usually classified as peace enforcement reflecting the fact that some degree of compulsion was applied in order to get the settlement that the intervening forces subsequently oversaw.
It is also something of an exaggeration to talk about Serbs being subjected to ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Most of the Serbs who left did so with the retreating Serb armed forces before there was much opportunity for Kosovar Albanian retribution. It is fair to say that many left in fear of ethnic cleansing, but few experienced it. Most of the Serbs who stayed have remained unmolested. Slow Serb integration in Kosovo’s political, economic, and cultural life is largely the result of Serb, not Kosovar, resistance—resistance in which the Kosovo Serbs have been supported by the Serbian government.
I think that Michael underappreciates the role that U.S. moral pressure and material incentives can play in the promotion of democracy. The United States was directly and intensely involved in the popular campaign to overthrow the Milosevic regime, materially supporting opposition parties and free media, coalescing comparable efforts from all of Serbia’s neighbors, imposing heavy economic sanctions while at the same time promising substantial economic assistance to any democratic successor regime. The United States played a role in ending the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. U.S. and EU assistance and the willingness to extend EU and NATO membership to the countries of Central and Southeastern Europe has also been very important to consolidating democracy in there. (I concur with Michael that NATO expansion also had a negative effect on prospects for democratization in Russia.)
I believe, and I expect Michael would concur, that the efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo were less unsuccessful than those in Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq. So if these were our high watermark, what can we learn? I would argue that the deployment of robust, well-prepared stabilization forces with a clear mandate to establish a secure environment was one key to the relative success of these two missions and its absence to the greater failure of several of the others. So was the willingness of U.S. authorities to work with all the regional states, including, in the case of Bosnia, with the two leaders personally guilty of the genocide the U.S. was seeking to stop, the Presidents of Serbia and Croatia.
Putting Bosnia and Iraq in the same category as missions that were unnecessary to start and failures in the end deprives history of the nuance needed to distinguish between more and less successful endeavors in the past. Michael mentions Syria as an example where nation-building might be necessary. If we could make Syria look like present-day Bosnia and the Middle East look like the present day Balkans, I think most of us would be very pleased. Frankly, I am not sure this is possible, but if attempted, I would certainly urge looking toward the Balkan operations for some positive lessons.
1See Dobbins et al., America’s Role in Nation Building (RAND, 2003); and Dobbins et al., The UN’s Role in Nation Building (RAND, 2005).