In a spectacle that has almost become armchair routine, U.S. military forces continue to hurl destruction on Serbian forces from a dizzying pinnacle of technological superiority.
Modern bombs are guided to their targets by a unique constellation of spy and navigational satellites, advanced cruise missiles, and stealth aircraft-weapons that no other nation is even close to possessing. Air Force and Navy planes and ships gain control of air and sea, shooting down enemy fighters that dare take to the sky and warning Serbian patrol boats to stay in port or risk annihilation.
Back home, anxious Americans watch-safely from their living rooms-the familiar videos of guided bombs destroying faraway buildings juxtaposed with images of brutal ethnic cleansing and massacre, and wonder what to make of it all. Few probably stop to think that U.S. military forces are simultaneously engaged in a smaller-scale but similar air campaign in the skies over Iraq, or that just 90 days ago, an air assault nearly as massive as the one over Kosovo rained down on Baghdad and Iraq. Or that 90 days before that, cruise missiles fell on Afghanistan and Sudan to punish terrorists. All in a day's work for the world's only superpower. Turn on the tube and see whom we're thrashing tonight.
"We're in a historically unusual period in that the United States is the only global superpower, which means that, unlike most nations, our interests are not defined by our geography. U.S. policies have a worldwide impact, and what happens around the world has a bearing on American security and well-being," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser and a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "If that makes us look hegemonic, so be it. Americans should be willing to face the fact that in a sense we are hegemonic."
Indeed, the preponderance of U.S. influence and military power has become the central organizing principle of the post-Cold War world, directly affecting international relations between U.S. allies, enemies, and potential rivals alike. When warm spots go hot, nothing much seems to matter, in terms of a fix, until U.S. forces arrive on the scene and threaten with their presence, or actions. As growing concerns over the war in Kosovo have revealed, however, U.S. military power may be as much a burden as a blessing. In this CNN age, U.S. leaders increasingly feel compelled to act to counter humanitarian catastrophes simply because they can. Moreover, as Kosovo has revealed, there's a danger that the United States' position atop the technological mountain might blind policy-makers to the intractable nature of ethnic and tribal warfare that is so evident on the ground.
Another growing problem with U.S. technological advancement is that it threatens to leave behind even close NATO allies who cannot keep up or easily fight in concert with superior U.S. forces. And since they cannot, America becomes the arsenal of first resort rather than last. Some lawmakers further worry that the United States' unsurpassed ability to respond to international crises has outstripped the statesmanship and strategic foresight necessary to prudently limit and steer those actions.
"The core of the problem with Clinton statecraft are two pronounced flaws: strategic incoherence and self-doubt," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., senior member of the Armed Services Committee and presidential candidate, said in a recent speech. "The first refers to the lack of a conceptual framework-in other words, what we want the world to be and how we can make it so.
"The second fault I find with the Administration is self-doubt. Often evident in Administration policies is a mystifying uncertainty about how to act in a world where we are the only superpower," said McCain. "When the Administration stands mute and undecided about where and how they want to lead the world, they exhibit, to friend and foe alike, an identity crisis, an image of America in existential crisis: Who are we and why are we here?"
Global Reach, Historical Burdens
The end of the Cold War left the U.S. military arrayed in a ring of bases framing the Eurasian continent. The nation's political leaders could have chosen to bring the troops home. Such a neo-isolationist approach would have signaled a return to the balance-of-regional-powers model of international politics reminiscent of the early 1900s, which was arguably responsible for the world wars that proved the scourge of the 20th century. Instead, by leaving that global structure largely intact, U.S. leaders essentially adapted an earlier British precedent.
Indeed, not since the mighty Royal Navy patrolled the British Empire in the 19th century has one nation enjoyed such overwhelming military superiority. The only real difference is that the instruments of global reach have changed. The British struck with relative impunity at those who challenged them, because, as Hilaire Belloc said, "We have The Maxim Gun, and they have not." And not only the Maxim machine gun, but also the great fighting ships, that the lesser warships of lesser nations dared not even engage. Today the United States enjoys a position equivalent to the one Great Britain held then. It possesses unmatched tools of war, from its stealth B-2 bombers that can strike any spot on the globe, to its cruise missiles and smart bombs, to its hugely powerful and globe-straddling carrier fleets.
"When experts say the United States is the world's only superpower, they mean we're the only nation that can project and sustain, anywhere on the globe, the kind of power we're seeing unleashed on Serbia. We take air superiority for granted, and much like the Royal Navy that enforced Pax Britannica in the 19th century, no one moves about the world's oceans today except at the sufferance of the American Navy. Other nations can only fantasize about that kind of capability," said Andrew F. Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
But fantastic strength carries its own danger: the delusion that it must prevail. As Krepinevich notes, history is rife with instances of global powers humbled by overmatched adversaries in undeveloped nations. Just as the British found themselves bogged down in South Africa during the Boer War at the end of the 19th century, so, too, may the determined savagery of the Serbians in Kosovo threaten to test the limits of U.S. high-tech warfare and national will at the close of the 20th century.
"Go back to our own experiences in Somalia in 1993, or the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983, or Vietnam in the 1960s," said Krepinevich. "In the late 19th century, the British were likewise the world's greatest power, yet it took them three bloody years to subdue essentially irregular forces in the Dutch Boer War. The lesson of history is there's much more to war than technology."
Donald Kagan, Hillhouse professor of classics and history at Yale University, also sees useful parallels-and implicit warnings-between U.S. military pre-eminence today and the experience of the British in the 19th century. A sort of modern-day "benevolent hegemony"-one not of empire but of Western democratic ideals, he says-might deter the bloodletting that the end of Cold War colonialism has loosed in so many places around the world. Like the British in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, the United States is likely to find the job of enforcing stability in such a world to be a risky, expensive, and ultimately exhausting chore.
"Like our own military forces, the Royal Fleet was very busy around the world while people in Britain sat happily at home largely unaware," said Kagan, who warns that such military pre-eminence can ultimately breed arrogance. "There is a trap involved. It's relatively easy to reach out militarily without having to suffer the casualties, pain, and misery that go with war. But you can end up deluding yourself about the true extent of your power. There's always someone too tough to be intimidated, and who will require a great power to do the tough and dirty stuff, like ground warfare."
Betting on Standoff Warfare
Despite the unexpected ferocity of the Serbian ethnic-cleansing campaign against the Albanian Kosovars, Clinton Administration officials continue to insist this week that they have no intention of sending U.S. or NATO ground forces into a hot war in Kosovo. With the announced deployment of additional U.S. aircraft to the region this week-including more B-1B and B-52 bombers, EA-6B electronics countermeasures aircraft, and mid-air refuelers-Administration officials signaled their belief that Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic can either be forced back to the peace table or brought to his knees with air strikes alone. It is notable that such a strategy hasn't worked with the West's other favorite villain, Saddam Hussein.
The foundation for standoff warfare and America's global military reach is what the Pentagon calls an interlinked "system of systems" that in many instances was developed and honed to the stringent requirements of nuclear war, and which stretches from nuclear submarines hundreds of feet beneath the ocean's surface to satellites thousands of miles away in outer space.
The U.S. Air Force has its most advanced command-and-control and surveillance aircraft deployed in the Balkan region, the AWACS (Airborne Early Warning and Control System) and JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System). Able to track hundreds of aircraft, both friendly and hostile, the AWACS can supply NATO pilots with instant information on what they may be up against as they fly to their target. The JSTARS, first deployed during the Persian Gulf War, can track large columns of vehicles on the ground from hundreds of miles away. The Pentagon also recently announced the deployment to the region of the Predator, an unpiloted drone able to linger over hostile areas for hours and transmit video of the situation on the ground in Kosovo.
Information gathered by these surveillance platforms is distilled by supercomputers and fed into the Pentagon's Global Command and Control System, a satellite and fiber-optic, cable-based system. Armed with this sort of information, U.S. aircraft-some with nearly unlimited range when aided by mid-air refuelers-can launch satellite-guided munitions whose tracking coordinates can be adjusted even as they fall to their targets. Should the assault need to be intensified, or if heavy ground forces are eventually required, the U.S. alone among all nations has the necessary strategic air- and sea-lift and logistics capability to sustain such large-scale operations.
When experts talk about U.S. military supremacy and global reach, they refer to the sum total of all these systems operating as a synergistic whole. "When you add all our capabilities together, the result is an ability to project power with unmatched speed, range, lethality, precision, and relative invulnerability," said retired Maj. Gen. Charles Link, a former chief Air Force planner in the mid-1990s. "That's why I believe people who are criticizing the air campaign in Kosovo are being a little too impatient. Even if we make the political decision to insert NATO ground forces, we should do it only after seriously depleting Milosevic's forces [from the air]."
The peril inherent in unmatched military supremacy, of course, is that in the descent from such technological heights to the primeval killing fields of Kosovo, U.S. leaders could loose sight of some fundamental truths about war. Indeed, there are troubling echoes of past mistakes in talk of graduated air strikes, which are carefully calibrated to achieve political ends, and in the insistence-only on the very eve of war-that Americans should recognize their vital interests in corners of the globe they can't find on a map. The lesson war teaches again and again is that victory in mortal struggle is decided by national will, not technological superiority.