During the Cold War, the United States preferred to husband, rather than expend, its military power. The idea was not to fight but to defend, deter, and contain, a cold peace infinitely preferable to nuclear cataclysm. When U.S. policymakers strayed from this principle, attempting to unify the Korean Peninsula in 1950 or deploying combat troops to Vietnam in the 1960s, the results proved unhappy in the extreme.
Husbanding did not imply timidity. To impart credibility to its strategy of containment, the United States stationed substantial forces in Western Europe and Northeast Asia. For allies unable to defend themselves, U.S. garrisons offered reassurance, fostering an environment that facilitated recovery and development. Over time, regions deemed vulnerable stabilized and prospered.
Beginning in the 1990s, however, official thinking regarding the utility of force changed radically. The draft “Defense Planning Guidance” prepared in 1991 under the aegis of Paul Wolfowitz, then U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, hinted at the emerging mood. The mere avoidance of war no longer sufficed. Describing an international order “shaped by the victory of the United States” over communism and in the just-concluded war against Iraq, the document identified opportunities to “shape the future security environment in ways favorable to [the United States].”
Shaping the future—here was an enterprise worthy of a superpower charged with fulfilling history’s purpose. Lending such expectations a semblance of plausibility was an exalted appreciation of American military might. By the early 1990s, concepts such as “defend and deter” seemed faint-hearted, if not altogether cowardly. One army field manual from that era credited U.S. forces with the ability to achieve “quick, decisive victory on and off the battlefield anywhere in the world and under virtually any conditions.” Once considered a blunt instrument, force was now to serve as an all-purpose chisel.
Rarely has a benign-sounding proposition yielded greater mischief. Pursuant to the imperative of shaping the future, military activism became the order of the day.
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