• U.S.

Give Force a Chance

5 minute read
William Kristol

“Many in the U.S. are now learning that democracy cannot be imposed by military force.”

–German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaking at an international security forum in Munich on Feb. 10

It’s always good to be reminded by our German friends that democracy can’t be imposed by military force. Perhaps the Japanese would like to weigh in too? Actually, they wouldn’t. Living next door to nuclear-armed dictatorships, and not having succumbed as thoroughly to postmodern otherworldliness, the Japanese democracy is in fact building up its military and strengthening its U.S. alliance. Still, the German Foreign Minister was simply expressing, in a particularly un-self-reflective way, an increasingly common point of view on both sides of the Atlantic.

Indeed, on the same day Steinmeier was speaking in Munich, Barack Obama was launching his presidential campaign in Springfield, Ill. His speech had two paragraphs on foreign policy. In the first, Obama acknowledged the importance of a strong military in the key task of this generation–to “confront” and “track down” terrorists. In the second, he urged that “we bring an end to this war in Iraq” by sending our combat troops home. “It’s time,” he said, “to admit that no amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreement that lies at the heart of someone else’s civil war.” Obama anticipated the obvious objection that giving up on the attempt to resolve someone else’s civil war isn’t the same thing as actually bringing that war to an end. So he concluded with this sentence: “Letting the Iraqis know that we will not be there forever is our last, best hope to pressure the Sunni and Shia to come to the table and find peace.”

But this is less a hope than a pipe dream. Obama, like many other Americans, wants to get our troops out of Iraq, whatever the consequences. And some in Congress are so worried that the Bush Administration is even thinking of using military force against Iran that they’re discussing legislation prohibiting Bush from doing it. So it’s worth asking straightforwardly, Is a propensity to rely on military force a vice to which we Americans are prone? And doesn’t the Bush Administration need to learn a lesson about the danger of using military force in pursuit of foreign policy goals?


The problem of U.S. foreign policy for the past century hasn’t been too great a willingness to use military force–or too great a confidence about its efficacy. If anything, it’s been the opposite. An earlier American intervention in World War I could have averted countless deaths and various political calamities. American intervention against Nazi Germany in the 1930s, or American support for intervention by our allies, could have averted World War II. Are we proud that it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and a German declaration of war against the U.S., for us finally to enter the war against Hitler? Then, even with the lessons of Munich fresh in mind, we were slower than we might have been to react to Stalin’s aggression in Central and Eastern Europe. We foolishly (if inadvertently) suggested early in 1950 that we might not take action to protect South Korea, inviting aggression from the North. We pursued a policy of gradual escalation in Vietnam. Still, our performance during the cold war was, on the whole, robust–in our willingness to build up our military and to use, and threaten to use, force.

So the Berlin Wall fell. Soon after, we intervened to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. But that was apparently it. The end of history had arrived, after all, and we began spending the peace dividend and making excuses for ignoring what was happening elsewhere in the world. We were slow to act in the Balkans, we pulled out of Somalia, we stayed out of Rwanda, and we were uninterested in what was going on in Afghanistan.

Then came Sept. 11, and everything changed–for a while. We intervened in Afghanistan and went to war to remove Saddam, a brutal dictator with a history of developing weapons of mass destruction and fostering terrorism in the heart of the Middle East. We then thought we should try to stay to help these nations achieve decent and democratic governments. We are still engaged in this difficult task, and we have made mistakes in its pursuit.

Now many Americans want to give up–and many of them agree with the German Foreign Minister that the lesson of Iraq is that we need to be more wary of using military force. This would be the wrong lesson to take away. For if we revert to timidity in the face of threats and passivity in the face of dictators, we could present to the world the sorry spectacle of a great nation unwilling or unable to draw the sword on behalf of justice.

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