“If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”
– Madeleine Albright, 1998.
“Madeleine understood that American power is the only thing standing between the rules-based global order and the rule of the sword.”
– Hillary Clinton’s obituary for Albright, 2022.
“For the defense industry, happy days are here again.”
– Loren Thompson, a consultant for Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon Technologies, 2022.
“Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws.”
– John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 1801.
There is no question that the late Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton are great American stories. Albright’s story is in the classic “only in America” category. Clinton’s story is—if the United States was actually a democracy—that she would have become our first female president with her victory margin of nearly three million votes. Unfortunately, Albright and Clinton also represent the tragedy of American foreign policy, which is the militarization of our national security orientation in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Obituaries for Albright in the mainstream media described the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as her “greatest diplomatic achievement.” At the ceremony in 1999 for the signing of the expansion of NATO into the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary), she shouted “To quote an old Central European expression: ‘Hallelujah!’”
NATO expansion was the return of the United States to the Cold War policy of containment; it played a major role in destabilizing the balance of power in Europe. We will never know the full impact of this expansion as well as the flirtation of membership for Ukraine and Georgia, but there is ample evidence of Russian anxieties over the new balance of power. Putin’s wanton destruction of Ukraine suggests that the expansion of NATO does not fully explain the Russia invasion of Ukraine, but the provocations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush must be part of any discussion of today’s war.
If the 1999 bombing of Belgrade was “Madeleine’s War,” then the 2011 bombing of Libya was Hillary’s. Substitute Clinton for Albright; Tripoli for Belgrade; Muammar Qadhafi for Slobodan Milosevic; and the Libya rebels for the Kosovar Albanians, then you have history repeating itself. The one constant is the anger of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who believed that NATO’s bombing of Belgrade was an international crime, and that Secretary of State Clinton lied to him about Washington’s objectives in Libya, which culminated in regime change. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed the use of air power in both Tripoli and Belgrade, citing the limits of air power, but the “best and brightest” civilians won the day. The Pentagon also opposed the “best and brightest” regarding our prolonged use of force in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
In his memoir, former Secretary of State Colin Powell discusses his “discomfort” in being trapped between President Clinton, who was uncomfortable with the use of force and UN Ambassador Albright, who favored intervention in Yugoslavia. Again, history repeated itself: 12 years later, President, who was uncomfortable with the use of force was persuaded by Secretary of State Clinton to use force in Libya.
Powell’s memoir also records that he thought he “would have an aneurysm” when Albright asked him “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it.” Albright, a student of history, was of course paraphrasing the famous exchange between President Abraham Lincoln and General George B. McClellan. Powell’s response to Albright was lapidary: “American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.” One of my former colleagues at the Center for International Policy, William Hartung, predicted in 1999 that the bombing of Belgrade would “spark a sort of postmodern cold war, in which Russia seeks ways to act against U.S. interests to assert its independence on the world stage and to assuage nationalist resentments at home.”
Albright also played on the “global game board” with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton. In 1997, at a meeting of the National Security Council, Albright suggested to Shelton that a pretext for using force against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein might be flying a U-2 reconnaissance low to the ground and eliciting a surface-to-air missile attack from Iraq. According to one of my Air Force students at the National War College, Shelton told Albright that he would pursue such an operation as soon as the members of the NSC learned how to fly a U-2. Shelton returned to the Pentagon, and related the bizarre request from the secretary of state to members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They ignored the request.
Sadly, there are few prominent political figures willing to challenge the conventional wisdom on U.S. national security and the resort to the use of force. Yale Professor Samuel Moyn argues in his recent book, “Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War,” that “We fight war crimes but have forgotten the crime of war.”
President Eisenhower outlined the problem in his farewell address six decades ago, but he made no comprehensive attempt to educate the American people regarding the need for change. Eisenhower’s prophecy regarding the power of the military-industrial complex has never been more apparent: the defense, intelligence, and homeland security components of the U.S. budget have become increasingly dominant. It has been said that Prussia was a state owned by its army. If you take into account America’s “civilian army” of contractors, consultants, and policymakers, could the same be said for the United States?