The Ahistorical Way a Neoconservative Remembers the 1990s

Bill Kristol suggests in his most recent column that America spent the decade "not policing the world." Not so, says the historical record.

bill clinton full 1990s Reuters.jpg

The indefatigable Bill Kristol has written an article in The Weekly Standard that every American ought to read. There is no more clarifying example of how skewed the neoconservative perspective on military intervention is than the claim he makes about U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s. In his telling, politicians like Rand Paul want to harness war-weariness reminiscent of those post-Cold War days, when American voters no longer wanted to act as "the policemen of the world."

"That decade of not policing the world ended with 9/11," Kristol warns.

Let's look back Wikipedia's list of the events of the decade when, in Kristol's telling, America wasn't policing the world:

  • 1990: "On August 9, President Bush reported that he launched Operation Desert Shield by ordering the forward deployment of substantial elements of the U.S. armed forces into the Persian Gulf region to help defend Saudi Arabia after the August 2 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq."
  • 1991: "In response to the refusal by Iraq to leave Kuwait, U.S. and Coalition aircraft attacked Iraqi forces and military targets in Iraq and Kuwait in conjunction with a coalition of allies."
  • 1991 to 1996: "Operation Provide Comfort: Delivery of humanitarian relief and military protection for Kurds fleeing their homes in northern Iraq during the 1991 uprising, by a small Allied ground force based in Turkey."
  • 1991: "After widespread looting and rioting broke out in Kinshasa, Air Force C-141s transported 100 Belgian troops and equipment into Kinshasa, Zaire. American planes also carried 300 French troops into the Central African Republic."
  • 1992: "The United States began a series of military exercises in Kuwait, following Iraqi refusal to recognize a new border drawn up by the United Nations and refusal to cooperate with UN inspection teams."
  • 1992 to 2003: "The U.S., United Kingdom, and it's Gulf War allies declared and enforced 'no-fly zones' over the majority of sovereign Iraqi airspace."
  • 1992 to 1995: "President Bush deployed U.S. armed forces to Somalia in response to a humanitarian crisis."
  • 1993 to 1995: "On April 12, 1993, in response to a United Nations Security Council passage of Resolution 816, U.S. and NATO enforced the no-fly zone over the Bosnian airspace."
  • 1993: "President Clinton reported the deployment of 350 U.S. soldiers to the Republic of Macedonia to participate in the UN Protection Force to help maintain stability in the area of former Yugoslavia."
  • 1994: "Operation Uphold Democracy: U.S. ships had begun an embargo against Haiti. Up to 20,000 U.S. military troops were later deployed to Haiti to restore democratically-elected Haiti President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from a military regime which came into power in 1991."
  • 1994: "On April 19, 1994, President Clinton reported that the U.S. contingent in Macedonia had been increased by a reinforced company of 200 personnel."
  • 1995: "In August 30, 1995, U.S. and NATO aircraft began a major bombing campaign of Bosnian Serb Army."
  • 1996: "President Clinton reported the deployment of U.S. military personnel to Bangui, Central African Republic, to conduct the evacuation from that country of private U.S. citizens and certain U.S. government employees, and to provide enhanced security for the American Embassy."
  • 1997: "In an effort to ensure the security of American citizens in Cambodia during a period of domestic conflict there, a Task Force of about 550 U.S. military personnel were deployed at Utapao Air Base in Thailand."
  • 1998: "U.S. and British forces conduct a major four-day bombing campaign from December 16-19, 1998 on Iraqi targets."
  • 1998: "Operation Infinite Reach: On August 20, President Clinton ordered a cruise missile attack against two suspected terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a suspected chemical factory in Sudan."

During this same period, American troops remained in South Korea as a safeguard against North Korean aggression. The U.S. Navy was patrolling the world's seas. The Drug Enforcement Agency was operating in dozens of foreign countries. A trade embargo against Cuba was maintained. President Clinton attempted to forge peace between Israel and Palestine, and sent American warships to the Taiwan straight in response to Chinese weapons testing in the area. And U.S. military bases operated in Japan and Germany, among many other foreign countries.

That is not an exhaustive list.

As Daniel Larison puts it:

There is no way to look back at the 1990s and see a decade in which the U.S. was 'not policing the world.' ...One of the reasons that Bush initially campaigned on a "humble" foreign policy was the widespread perception that U.S. foreign policy during the '90s, especially during the Clinton years, had been anything but that. Bush was never all that serious about the "humble" foreign policy idea, and in any case he abandoned it almost as soon as he could. 9/11 didn't come about because the U.S. wasn't activist and meddlesome enough during the '90s.

If anything, it was the exact opposite.

This little episode should be remembered the next time Kristol or another neoconservative warns us about "isolationism." They look at a decade in which America fought in multiple wars, intervened on multiple continents, patrolled the world's seas, and took other military actions besides, and see a period wherein the U.S. military was deployed too infrequently for their taste.

Ponder one more passage from his piece:

It was (somewhat inexplicable) war weariness after the Cold War that led to a conviction in the 1990s, as Haley Barbour put it just last week, trying to accommodate the Paulistas, that "We're not the policeman of the world."  And thus we had the failure to finish the job in Iraq in 1991, the retreat under fire from Somalia in late 1993, inaction in Rwanda in 1994, years of dithering before confronting Milosevic in the Balkans, passivity in the face of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and weak responses to al Qaeda's attacks on U.S. embassies in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000.

Notice how, in Kristol's retelling, responding to the invasion of Kuwait by assembling an international force, sending it to the Persian Gulf, and forcibly ousting Saddam Hussein becomes an example of not policing the world. A vote for this man's agenda isn't a vote for peace through strength -- it is a vote for perpetual war, for his enthusiasm for it has never waned.

As the 9/11 Commission Report and common sense make clear, insufficient war-making in the 1990s didn't cause 9/11, nor was more war-making necessary to have prevented it. It is still worth noting that by Kristol's logic, the peace of the 1990s cost us almost 3,000 dead in a terrorist attack -- whereas during the aughts, the war-making that Kristol regards as sound policy resulted in 4,448 American military personnel killed in Iraq and 2,178 more killed in Afghanistan.

That isn't counting the allied troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; the record suicide rate among combat veterans; the private military contractors killed; the tens of thousands of civilians killed; or the tens of thousands of veterans with brain injuries and amputations or the epidemic PTSD.

If America really had to choose between a decade like the 1990s followed by a 9/11-scale terrorist attack, or a decade like the aughts without one, choosing the latter would be far costlier in terms of American lives lost, innocent lives lost, and innocents catastrophically injured. As it happens, that isn't the choice we face: It may well be that by waging the War on Terrorism as a global conflict that entails killing innocents in multiple countries with which we aren't officially at war, we are increasing the chances of a future terrorist attack on American soil. Kristol doesn't think so. But the man is proven wrong by subsequent events with stunning frequency.