Ira Chernus  


In the final weeks of the presidential campaign, an unexpected difference has emerged about the proper use of U.S. military forces. Governor Bush wants the U.S. to use its troops more unilaterally, and he wants them used primarily for fighting. Vice-President Gore is more inclined to act cooperatively with allies and to use troops for peacekeeping. This difference revives a debate that most of us thought was settled nearly fifty years ago.

In the early 1950s, it was called the Great Debate. The argument was whether the u.s. should send troops to Europe and commit itself to taking actions in concert with NATO allies. Senator Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio) led the forces against it. The Taftites were not isolationists. They wanted the U.S. deeply involved around the world. But they wanted the U.S. free to act alone whenever it wanted to. They feared that alliances would become entangling and expensive.

The Truman administration was determined to see the U.S. build up Europe and the entire "free world" by commitments to act together with its allies. Many Republicans shared Truman's view, including Dwight D. Eisenhower. He ran for president in 1952, he said, primarily to prevent Taft from getting the Republican nomination. Eisenhower shared the Taftites' fears of excessive military spending. But his way of keeping costs down was to create more military alliances, to place more of the burden of fighting upon our allies. Once Ike became president, Taft’s views seemed irrelevant to U.S. policy. They remained largely a historical curiosity, until the Bush campaign began promoting its own version of unilateralism.

Many of Bush’s advisors worked for his father, former president George H.W. Bush. Surely they have been thinking about the coalition the elder Bush forged to win the Persian Gulf War. By the time that war ended, the U.S. owed major diplomatic chits throughout the world, especially in the Middle East. What looked at first like immense freedom of action turned out to be just the kind of limitation on our freedom of action that the Taftites warned about 50 years ago. So now the younger Bush wants a policy closer to Taft's. And he would expand the military budget more slowly than the Democrats, in the Taftite spirit.

But there is one crucial difference. In Taft's day, the NATO allies had little strength beyond what the U.S. could provide. We could pretty well ignore their concerns. Today the European Union is an immense force to be reckoned with in every respect. In the future, when Germany has recovered from the shock of reunification, European force will likely be even harder to ignore.

So the Bush people seem to be proposing a compromise. The U.S. will cede control of Europe to the Europeans. In return, we will get troops out of Europe and assume the right to unilateral action in Asia, Africa, and Latin American. Now that the Cold War is gone, Bush's advisors want to turn the clock back to pre-Truman days, when FDR dreamt of the "four policemen" ruling their spheres of influence. In Bush’s vision, however, there will be only two spheres: Europe policed by the NATO powers and everything else policed by us.

Policing is indeed the issue. The new Great Debate on military policy is essentially about how best to protect the globalized economic system. That system is constantly widening the gap between rich and poor. The have-nots already show signs of resistance, aided by middle-class supporters who take to the streets wherever the guardians of the global system gather. This coalition of resistance is bound to grow.

The Democrats want us involved all over the world, in every possible way, to protect the emerging global economy, despite its inequities. The Republicans want our responsibilities more narrowly defined, and our freedom to act more stoutly asserted, in defense of globalization.

A totally different approach comes from a third candidate, the Green Party’s Ralph Nader. He would restructure the global system to narrow the gap between rich and poor. With much less resistance to suppress, the diplomatic problems of policing would dissolve. And the U.S. military, with little to do, could be radically downsized.

Henry Wallace ran for president as a the third party candidate in 1948, representing the same left side of the spectrum that Nader represents today. He was no more a socialist than Nader is. But he wanted to avoid the Cold War. He wanted the U.S. to offer the world less military power and more economic and social justice. Democratic red-baiting defeated Wallace handily, leaving the GOP and the Democrats to hold their Great Debate about how to wage the Cold War. The lesson then was the same as it is today. Debates over minor differences become "great" only when genuine alternatives cannot be heard.