Mission Unlimited

The Mission: Waging War and Keeping the Peace with America's Military By Dana Priest, W. W. Norton & Company, 384 pages, $26.95

A principal deficiency of the argument against the Iraq War was that the war's opponents, like the first Bush administration, would have left a brutal tyranny in power. Who wanted to side with Saddam Hussein? A crucial shortcoming of the pro-war argument was that the United States was unprepared to handle the challenges of a war's aftermath. Why topple a contained dictator only to create further misery and instability, followed by the reassertion of malevolent institutions, personnel and habits?

This striking phenomenon of an America eager and able to unseat shameful regimes (some, former clients) but unwilling and perhaps unable to build replacement democracies was showcased in Afghanistan, for anyone interested. But the catch-22 remains largely overlooked. As long as the domestic costs are so slight and the duties are shouldered by so narrow a demographic -- the soldiery represents around 1 percent of the U.S. population -- we probably won't have a robust civics debate about what American global power should aim to do and what it realistically can accomplish.

One thing seems clear: There's no military solution. Ask virtually anyone about any of the world's challenges and that's the mantra they will likely intone. And yet, as Washington Post reporter Dana Priest emphasizes in her new book, the Pentagon serves as U.S. policy-makers' all-purpose default instrument. Such militarization resulted from the Cold War, of course, but when the Cold War ended, inchoate programs for fostering democracy and market reform abroad seemed to come to the fore, under the aegis of the State Department's USAID program and the Treasury Department's efforts through the International Monetary Fund.

In fact, according to Priest, the addiction to the military mushroomed during Bill Clinton's presidency, despite his anti-war past and the fiasco over gays in the military, because the early Clinton White House proved indecisive on foreign affairs. Then an intern and a special prosecutor drove Congress to distraction. And all the while, the State Department further atrophied. In the 1970s and '80s, the department's budget declined 20 percent, and U.S. diplomatic personnel shrank 22 percent.

The Pentagon did better. Priest neglects to provide the numbers, but the State Department's outlay today barely tops $8 billion. Pentagon finances approach $400 billion, not including the Iraq War and subsequent occupation. The upshot is that the resource-rich military's "mission" has expanded not just to anti-terrorism but to drug interdiction, natural-disaster relief and the escorting of children to kindergarten.

The post-Cold War United States cries out for both military transformation and demilitarization. Fat chance, on either account, especially the second. In the meantime, Priest offers an exceptionally timely and firsthand, albeit nonanalytic, look at the Pentagon's willy-nilly nation building, primarily seen through the eyes of America's commanders in chief, or "CinCs" (pronounced "sinks").

CinCs came into being in 1958 as part of protracted efforts to overcome the service rivalries that had contributed to being surprised at Pearl Harbor. Service rivalries persisted, however, and so in 1986 the CinCs were granted greater authority, including the power to direct all operations in their "theaters." Operationally, of today's five regional CinCs, two can be traced to the American occupations of Germany (Europe) and Japan (Pacific). A third (Southern) grew from U.S. involvement in Latin America. A fourth (Central) was born with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The last (Northern) arose in connection with homeland security, which came after Priest did much of her reporting. Beginning in 1999, she interviewed the then four regional CinCs, all now retired: Gen. Anthony Zinni (Central), Adm. Dennis Blair (Pacific), Gen. Charles Wilhelm (Southern) and Gen. Wesley Clark (Europe), who, by dint of position, also served as supreme allied commander of NATO.

In a book full of men wounded in Vietnam, Zinni gets the starring role. "Countries turned to him to stop chronic civil wars, uproot terrorism, cure starvation and arrest what they saw as the dangerous course of American isolationism," Priest gushes. "He met with African kings and princes, emirs, presidents and prime ministers, defense chiefs and military officers. Zinni chuckled that he had become a modern-day proconsul, descendant of the warrior statesmen who ruled the Roman Empire's outlying territory."

Priest loses her head in the fantastic pomp of the CinCs, who travel "unmatched in grandeur by those of any other U.S. government official except the president and a few cabinet secretaries." But she also notes their quotidian power derives from populous training programs for foreign military officers and sheer territorial sweep. The bailiwicks of ambassadors, not to mention most CIA station chiefs, consist of a single nation. Zinni's "CinCdom" -- which Tommy Franks inherited in 2000 -- encompasses 25 countries, from the former Soviet Central Asia (moved from "Europe" to "Central" in 1999) to the Horn of Africa. The Pacific Command carries responsibility for 43 countries, with 60 percent of the earth's population, and "Europe" stretches in a vast arc from the South African Cape to the Russian Far East. The overshadowed Southern CinC still employs more experts on Latin American matters "than the Departments of State, Commerce, Treasury, and Agriculture, the Pentagon's Joint Staff, and the office of the secretary of defense combined."

Not surprisingly, these "kingly CinCs" -- as the imperious Donald Rumsfeld branded them -- see the world as a connected whole and strive to "shape" it in peacetime. But as Priest's accumulated anecdotes demonstrate, activist CinCs got ensnared in their regions' and Washington's labyrinths.

Less illuminating are Priest's middle chapters recounting what appear to be subtly controlled "visits" to super-secretive U.S. Special Forces, but in the book's final section, on the Balkans, her pastiche throws up additional insights. She reminds us that Bosnia never got a unified body to coordinate civilian reconstruction, with predictably lamentable results, foreshadowing Afghanistan. Iraq does have a unified civilian authority, but thus far without an appreciable difference. In Kosovo, the National Security Agency set up state-of-the-art electronics in camouflage tents to eavesdrop on Pristina and Belgrade, but "couldn't see what was happening down the block."

Still more revealing, Priest catches the anger and distrust some American grunts felt toward their Kosovar Albanian wards, a Muslim population. Rarely do we hear so frankly from rank-and-file implementers of nation building, though who knows how representative such comments are? Neither the troops nor their superiors had any familiarity with the local languages and history, not to mention with police functions. "The Army has since spent millions training troops about searches, civilian crowd control, traffic checkpoints, and respect for others," she points out, but "the mission remains baffling to many soldiers." Priest captures uniformed men and women on the ground making U.S. foreign policy, or struggling to do so.

The past decade has seen a dramatic shift in American impulses. The Clinton syndrome of being terrified of using military force yet eventually opting for humanitarian intervention yielded to a Bush syndrome of idolizing military action while abhorring nation building. With Iraq, Bush radicals are being confronted by the unwanted consequences of their muscularity, and Clinton alumni are again being shown the limits of do-goodism. Remarkably, however, even as the right deeply divides (remake the world versus cautiously select engagements), many lefties and righties have found common imperialist cause save for method (act with the rest of the world or without it).

But effective mechanisms for consolidating interventions remain elusive. Priest, rather than reflecting on the limits and ill effects of even the best-intentioned foreign tutelage, bemoans only the overreliance on the Pentagon -- as if it weren't structural. "Twelve years of reluctant nation-building," she admonishes of the Cold War's aftermath, "and the United States still hadn't spawned an effective civilian corps of aids workers, agronomists, teachers, engineers -- a real peace corps -- to take charge of postwar reconstruction in Afghanistan or anywhere else."

The "mission," indeed.