The Responsibilities of Leadership

Published June 1, 1995


GW: Are there going to be circumstances where the initial reaction of the American public is, “We don’t want to touch this with a ten-foot pole,” but a discerning political leadership would then have to say, “That’s a reasonable first impression, but let me explain to you why it in fact is imperative that we engage in this”?


EA: There are going to be a lot of those.


GW: So how do we decide what “those” are?


EA: First, I think we can assume that, in virtually every such situation, the American people’s reaction is likely to be, “Don’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.” That has been, in essence, the American people’s view for two hundred years—including, we now tend to forget, at the height of the Cold War, when every involvement tended to produce a call for an end to that particular involvement or to any involvements abroad.

Still, there are going to be exceptions, and one exception may be geographic. The initial instinct that we shouldn’t get involved is going to be tempered if the mess in question is in the Caribbean Basin, because of the obvious implications for our security, for our drug policy, for our immigration and refugee policy. And perhaps one can say the same thing in the case of oil: if another Saddam Hussein, or maybe the same Saddam Hussein, were about to take over Saudi Arabia, I don’t think you’d have too much trouble convincing the American people that we’d have to do something about that. But aside from those two exceptions, I think the initial reaction of the people is almost always going to be, “Don’t do it.”

Now what this means is that we need presidents who are strong people with strong foreign-policy views and a strong foreign-policy team, in order to overcome two powerful forms of resistance: popular opinion, and the opinion of the president’s military advisors, who are certainly going to say, “Don’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.” The military leadership’s reluctance will feed the popular reluctance, and vice versa. So you’re going to need the strength of character that, to give him his due, George Bush showed in the Persian Gulf crisis. People like General Colin Powell were saying, “Don’t do it.” Lots of members of Congress were saying, “Don’t do it.” And we needed a president who could look all those people in the eye and say, “You’re wrong.” The hard part, of course, is distinguishing those cases when the president is indeed right and all those other people, including his military advisors, are indeed wrong.

But you were asking about typologies. There are at least two questions, the political question and the military one. The military question is simple to ask and hard to answer: “Is the mission feasible? And is it feasible at the likely cost?” In the case of Somalia, the mission was obviously feasible, but the game wasn’t worth the candle to the average American. People just didn’t care enough about who ran Somalia, and whether it was run justly or unjustly, to make it worth a couple of hundred American combat deaths.

When you ask whether it is worth doing at the price that it’s likely to cost, you bump into the political question: “Why are we doing this? Of what possible interest is it to us that this one comes out right?” These questions are exceptionally difficult to answer, because they require you to project history forward. That was the crux of the problem facing Britain and France when Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936. Who is this guy? What is he up to? Is it better to take him on now, or five years from now?

But the questions don’t stop with our interests. You have to try to figure out the immediate situation and its likely evolution with and without our military intervention (or our allies’, or our proxies’). Will the war in the former Yugoslavia expand to Albania, and then involve Greece and Turkey? That sort of projection is what’s needed. You then have to relate that to the question of American interests and the likelihood that our lack of military intervention now will make the necessity of intervention more likely later. And those are only the questions about the immediate situation.

There is another set of questions that has to do with American leadership. “What’s the impact of our acting or not acting on our position in the world? On our ability to confront other problems five thousand miles away? What’s the impact on the Western alliance? On American morale?” Some people, like Pat Buchanan, say we shouldn’t even be asking such questions, because those questions are the root of our whole problem. The problem, they say, is that you’ve decided, a priori, to be a world leader, and thus you’ve started down the primrose path; now you’re going to find that you have to intervene everywhere, because if you don’t, you’ll compromise your ability to intervene anywhere.

Well, that’s not a stupid argument. I think it’s wrong, particularly when taken to extremes. But it’s not stupid.

My assumption is that American leadership is important; that there are American interests that transcend any given situation; and that the world is a better place, for us and for everyone else, under American leadership than under an American regime that says, “We refuse to get involved in foreign problems.”

Buchanan sees, or perhaps better, intuits, that the Bush Administration fell, intellectually, into a trap: if your goal is to maintain the international system, then you’ve got a formula for endless involvement. Why do we have to sustain the system? If everybody benefits, why do we have to pay all the costs? And what is that system? Is it a morally neutral system? Defining it as “the” international system, rather than talking about the defense of democracy and liberty, made Bush and Buchanan interesting contrapuntal figures.

What does the phrase “maintain America’s world leadership” mean? It means the ability to get the outcome you want in a lot of different and potentially threatening situations. What needs to be reaffirmed, and continually re-explained to the American people, is that the defense of America’s interests includes an interest in the spread of democracy.

We should also refine some of our language for debating these questions. “Military intervention” now means, send in the ground troops. But why not articulate a clearer vision of the use of air power, which could be helpful in situations where we don’t want to use ground troops? Using air power is not, in all cases, chickening out; it can be a practical way of matching the willingness of the American people to get involved to the exigencies of a particular situation.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, I would also argue that we need more of a covert capability, not less. If the American people have been historically reluctant to avoid foreign entanglements, yet world politics requires a capability to achieve our purposes in many situations (or at least to make our influence felt), then one way to do that is through covert action. “Covert action” doesn’t mean things you do secretly because people wouldn’t support them if you did them publicly; it means the ability to do things at a somewhat lower cost that would not be politically sustainable if you did them at a higher cost. And it means doing them in ways that may protect the role of some very nervous allies.

“Covert action” can be a form of chickening out, and during the Cold War, there were many occasions when we failed to match our rhetoric by our actions. But covert action worked in Afghanistan and Angola, and it worked to some extent in Nicaragua. (The revisionists will say that this is a terrible thing, but the fact remains that it also worked in Iran, after Mossadegh threw out the Shah in the fifties.) Yet now the policy goal seems to be to cripple the CIA, and especially its covert-action capability. The people who are running the agency today are mostly people who have been trying to dim the lights over there for years. What they are doing amounts to a radical politicization of the CIA, and it’s remarkable that there hasn’t been more controversy about that.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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