Learning Lessons

David Tucker

December 1, 2000

After some searching and much discussion, President-elect Bush has filled the last important policy-making job in national security in his new administration, the Secretary of Defense. He has chosen Donald Rumsfeld, who held the job a quarter of a century ago. If confirmed, he will have a prominent place in the Bush Administration not only because he will hold an important office but because Mr. Bush criticized the defense policies of the Clinton administration during the campaign. Mr. Rumsfeld will have to show that the Bush administration can do better.

One way in which the Bush administration will try to improve on the work of its predecessor will be by doing less in an area where its predecessor always seemed ready to do more. The President-elect and Vice-President-elect Cheney, as well as Colin Powell, nominated to be Secretary of State, and Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s choice as National Security Advisor, have all made clear that they will be less inclined than the Clintonites to commit the United States and its Armed Forces to peacekeeping and humanitarian missions such as those in Haiti, Somalia or the Balkans. Mr. Rumsfeld, whose most recent experience in national security was working on national missile defense and space, no doubt made clear to Mr. Bush that he also did not care for these messy earthbound operations.

He and his colleagues in the new administration have good reason to think as they do about these operations. The Clinton administration exhausted the US military in these efforts and accomplished very little. The operation in Haiti, for example, was called Uphold Democracy. The Clinton administration declared it a success but there is still no democracy in Haiti. Recent elections there were a farce, the political process manipulated by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the man the Clinton administration put back in power.

The degree of reconciliation that has occurred in Somalia probably would have occurred without Clinton’s decision to expand our commitment there, a decision that ultimately led to the loss of 18 soldiers in a single day, effectively bringing the operation to an end. We have been keeping the peace in Bosnia for five years. Little progress in reconciliation has been made. The situation is even more strained in Kosovo, where our forces have been since the war ended there in June 1999. Even worse, fighting has started again recently between Kosovars and Serbs in a border area between Kosovo and Serbia.

The lesson that the future Bush administration has drawn from this dismal history is to avoid peacekeeping, humanitarian and other smaller-scale military operations. Someone who knows them well and worked with them in past administrations reportedly said of Cheney, Powell and Rumsfeld that "all three are very reluctant to use force unless it is in the interests of our national security. They have clearly learned the lesson of history."

However wise the resolve to avoid these operations, history also teaches that they cannot all be avoided. Every administration, even those inclined to avoid them, has been compelled to undertake them. And every administration has been largely unprepared to do so, usually with very bad consequences. Mr. Rumsfeld became Secretary of Defense for the first time in the Ford Administration after his predecessor was dismissed in part because of problems that developed in the effort to rescue the crew members of the USS Mayaguez who were seized by Cambodian forces in 1975. In the Carter Administration it was the failed effort to rescue the hostages in Tehran; in the Reagan Administration, the bombing of the barracks housing Marines on a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.

If the Bush administration wants to improve on the defense record of the Clinton administration in these messy small-scale military operations, it will have to do more than avoid them. It will have to learn to do better those that are unavoidable.

In this regard, it can learn a lot from the experience of the Clinton administration, which engaged too frequently in these operations but thereby gave the U.S. government an opportunity to learn how to do them better. The military, in particular, is more proficient at them than when Cheney, Powell and Rumsfeld were last in office. Other valuable experience in these operations, particularly in how to make all the agencies of the Executive Branch function together, is also embedded in the permanent corps of civil servants in the Defense and State Departments. If the Bush administration can combine its inclination to avoid these operations, undertaking only those that truly touch our interests, with this knowledge of how to do them better, it may well improve on the performance of its predecessor.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor at the United States Naval Postgraduate School.