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The Importance of American Leadership Assignment

What I mean by leadership is just that: identifying, organizing, and leading coalitions of like-minded friends and allies in the service of shared interests. It does not mean doing everything by ourselves, any more than it means acting only when it serves our immediate, narrowly defined self-interest. The hallmark of leadership is “engagement,” joining with others rather than going our own way or acting for those who will not meet their own responsibilities. Such leadership rests on a foundation of American self-interest — shaping the international order in ways that advance our interests and reflect our values; but we must exercise that leadership in a way that makes clear to all that we are not embarked on a quest for hegemony or aggrandizement.

The essence of U.S. leadership is presidential leadership. In foreign policy even more than domestic policy, only the president can set this country’s objectives, establish priorities among them, and integrate them into a coherent whole. Likewise, only the president can identify, organize, and lead the international coalitions. But perhaps most important is the recognition that success at home is indispensable to effectiveness abroad, that the first task in exercising international leadership is to fashion and sustain support in the Congress and among the American people. That too, is a job which only the president can do.

Nothing illustrates more vividly the case for American leadership than the Gulf War. The first major post-Cold War opportunity to fashion a new world order presented itself soon enough when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Desert Storm stands as a classic example of the need for, and results of, effective American leadership. The same experience demonstrates that a central component of any serious contemporary strategy for the prevention of deadly conflict is continued American engagement.

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We could have acted unilaterally to defeat and reverse Iraqi aggression in the sense that we had the military wherewithal to do most of the job ourselves (although, as noted above, it would have been immensely more difficult and costly). And though I felt certain that I could count on our staunchest allies, I was prepared to go it alone if that proved necessary. It was clear, however, that both the immediate situation and the aftermath of the war would benefit immensely if we acted as part of an international coalition. That is, my actions were guided by the belief that not only whether we succeeded, but also how we proceeded, would both shape the immediate results and establish precedents that would have more long-lasting implications for the future prevention of deadly conflict.

The end of the Cold War made possible the engagement of the United Nations in the Gulf crisis. Conversely, the Iraqi invasion posed a critical test for the United Nations, one it had to pass or suffer severe damage to its capacity to deal with the emerging problems of the post-Cold War world. At the same time, it was clear to me that standing up to Saddam was not a job for the United Nations to do itself. The United Nations was never designed to mount major military operations, and it surely would fail if it tried. (It goes without saying that I never would have put our large force under any UN command.) I also knew better than to yield to the temptation — to which our country sometimes has succumbed — to use the United Nations as a dumping ground for problems that are too hard or messy for us to deal with, and then blame the United Nations for not solving them; nor would I make the opposite error of subordinating our vital interests to the “will” of any international organization.

What was needed instead was for the UN Security Council to demand that Iraqi aggression be reversed and punished, and to authorize its member states to ensure that those demands were honored. It would then fall to the nations of the world to determine whether they had the collective will and wherewithal to enforce the Security Council’s resolutions, or whether their caution and inaction would instead reduce those resolutions to empty rhetoric. I considered it to be the responsibility of the United States to ensure that the answer was the former, and not the latter, by organizing and leading the Gulf War coalition.

The role played by the Soviet Union was central. First, the Soviets could block all UN resolutions by exercising their Security Council veto. Second, no matter what resolutions the Security Council approved, it was essentially up to Moscow — as Iraq’s long time political sponsor and military supplier — whether Baghdad’s isolation would be complete or whether the international community would split on how to respond to Saddam. Third, Moscow was faced with a very difficult political situation. Not only was the Soviet Union owed billions of dollars by Baghdad, but its hundreds of citizens in Iraq serving as civilian and military advisors were hostage to Iraqi intimidation. These very real-world circumstances made it that much harder for Moscow to take a courageous stand against Saddam.

In the end, the Soviet Union stood tall under the courageous and visionary leadership of President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. In doing so, they made possible a response to Iraqi’s invasion of Kuwait that remains a shining example of what can be accomplished when great nations transform what was once a confrontation among adversaries into cooperation among friends. The old habits of the Cold War were jettisoned, to be replaced by new-found practices of cooperation. The UN Security Council finally was allowed to operate the way its designers had intended it to respond to threats to international peace and security. (I also should note that the Security Council resolution authorizing member states to use “all means necessary” to end Iraqi aggression was critically important in subsequently getting our own Congress to acquiesce in the use of force.)

That the Cold War no longer was the defining issue in our lives mattered enormously in explaining this result, but that obvious fact should not be allowed to obscure two other things that helped persuade the Soviet Union to play such a constructive role. The first was that the Cold War not only was over, but that we ended it in a way that did not leave the Soviets with an enduring sense of bitterness and humiliation: had we gloated about our victory, had we danced on the ruins of the Berlin Wall, it is much less likely that the Soviet Union would have joined with us against its former ally in August 1990.

The second important factor was the close relationship I had established with Mikhail Gorbachev, a relationship matched by those Jim Baker had with Eduard Shevardnadze and my other senior advisors had with their Soviet counterparts. I am convinced that this network of relationships — both national and personal — was indispensable in persuading Moscow that the interests it had at stake in the Persian Gulf ultimately converged with our own, and that our two countries ought to work in close concert.

In fact, I think this point is generalizable. I constantly “worked the phones,” calling around the world in the days and weeks following Saddam’s invasion. Jim Baker, Dick Cheney, and Brent Scowcroft did the same. As I made these calls, it was brought home to me time and again that the personal relationships the president has with his counterparts can make all the difference when the chips are down. They are critical when the United States calls on its friends and allies to join with it in making tough decisions that are unpopular with the leaders’ key constituencies. That experience also underscored the fact that personal relationships are long-term investments. They constitute invaluable sinews of leadership that must be developed and strengthened over time, nurtured precisely when they are not needed so that they are there, available, and strong when they are needed.

With benefit of hindsight, much of what happened following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait — from the immediate, decisive reaction of the United States, to securing the condemnation of the international community, to the large-scale application of military force by a broad-based coalition — has been treated as self-evident, if not inevitable. But that 20/20 hindsight ignores how controversial those decisions were at the time. Not only that, it also makes the mistake of viewing what was at stake as reduced to a single U.S. interest.

Beyond question, preserving secure access to energy, both in the short term and over the longer term, was of critical importance both to us and to every other modern industrialized nation. But even that issue was not the narrow one of Iraqi control of Kuwaiti oil reserves. There would be far-reaching implications for the oil markets and consumption worldwide that would depend on how the entire Gulf region — starting with Saudi Arabia — assessed the implications of the Iraqi invasion and our response to that act of aggression.

More important, oil was far from the only issue. The future of the Middle East peace process and, more broadly, relations between Israel and the Arab nations, also was at stake. In addition, a precedent was established — both inside the region and beyond — for what future would-be aggressors could look forward to if they chose to follow in Saddam’s footsteps. That is, there would be a price to pay; they could not wreak havoc with impunity. Just as important, I hoped that a precedent was being set for the role the United States would play as the post-Cold War world was beginning to take shape.

All these stakes — not just oil — were put on the table when Iraq crossed into Kuwait. The world watched to see what the United States would do — not only whether it would defend its vital interests but also whether it would stand up for what it believed in. For all these reasons, I knew immediately that we could not simply stand by and let Saddam’s aggression succeed.

Our response, Operation Desert Storm, reflected the integration of American interests and American values, not a choice between them. It was vivid evidence that U.S. leadership is and will remain indispensable both for protecting our interests and for achieving a world order that better reflects our values. Moreover, from a purely pragmatic perspective, it underscored that our moral authority is an indispensable element of our leadership. That is why I find debates about whether we should pursue a foreign policy grounded in “realism” or instead one guided by “idealism” often miss an essential point. To be effective, the exercise of American leadership in the post-Cold War world must be noble as well as self-interested, because if we are seen to be motivated only by our immediate, narrow interests, we will increasingly find ourselves isolated and alone.

The effective exercise of American leadership requires both the capabilities that we as a superpower uniquely possess, and the will to use those capabilities. But leadership and strength alone are not enough. Leadership is the handmaiden of good policy, not its substitute. The hallmarks of good policy, in turn, are credibility, consistency, and selectivity.

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