By the late 1970s the pendulum was beginning to swing back toward more active military participation in foreign affairs. The faltering of détente, an across-the-board Warsaw Pact buildup in Europe, and the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan all suggested that the Cold War was far from over and that U.S. foreign policy still needed the support of a strong U.S. military establishment. The response was a U.S. peacetime military buildup of unprecedented proportions. Begun toward the end of Carter's presidency, it gathered momentum under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to become the largest such effort in American history. Among the programs that Reagan initiated were the creation of a 600-ship navy to give the United States a more effective global power-projection capability, offensive strategic forces that would be more survivable in a general nuclear war, and the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars" to its critics) to explore the feasibility of rendering intercontinental ballistic missiles "impotent and obsolete."
Whereas Carter sent U.S. forces into harm's way only once, during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, and even then with great reluctance, Reagan did so time and again with rarely a second thought. His operating premise was that a successful and effective foreign policy and readiness to use military power went hand in hand. Insisting that military involvement overseas was unavoidable, he often turned to the Defense Department to conduct operations in direct furtherance of American policy. This included providing a buffer between the warring factions in Lebanon, escorting neutral tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf, punitive raids against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, counterinsurgency operations in Central America, and the rescue of American civilians following a Marxist coup on Grenada in 1983.
Reagan also drew heavily on the military and Pentagon professionals to help staff his administration. His first secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., was a retired four-star army general who had recently served as NATO Supreme Commander. Haig first came to prominence during the Nixon administration as Henry Kissinger's deputy at the National Security Council. During his year and a half as secretary of state under Reagan, Haig was often in the forefront of suggesting military pressure when diplomacy appeared to falter, especially in trying to counter Soviet and Cuban adventurism in the Caribbean, Central America, and Africa. Of the six national security advisers that Reagan had, two—Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter and Lieutenant General Colin L. Powell—were active-duty military officers. A third, Frank C. Carlucci, was a former deputy secretary of defense. Meanwhile, military officers "on loan" from the Pentagon continued to occupy key positions on the National Security Council staff; and after a succession of civilian heads, Reagan in 1987 named retired army Major General William Burns to direct the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
Not surprisingly, Defense Department influence rose appreciably during the Reagan years, though not always in ways that yielded predictable outcomes. Indeed, in certain respects, the department found itself ill-prepared for the more demanding role that Reagan thrust upon it. The unpopularity of the military after Vietnam and years of flat defense spending had left what many at the Pentagon considered a hollow force by the beginning of the 1980s. Although the Joint Chiefs of Staff planning mechanism was now capable of generating an enormous array of military options from which the president could choose, the effective implementation of these plans was often hampered by the lack of trained personnel, reliable equipment and spare parts, interservice friction, and limited access to foreign bases. For these reasons, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger (1981–1987) and the Joint Chiefs were often averse to taking risks abroad, at least until the Reagan buildup had gathered its full momentum.
A further concern within the Pentagon was that stepped-up military involvement overseas would draw hostile reactions from Congress and the American public. Fearing another Vietnam, the Joint Chiefs cautioned against committing U.S. combat troops in Central America and insisted upon limiting U.S. military participation to a relatively small-scale assistance program, occasional exercises, and support of CIA-directed covert operations. The Joint Chiefs were likewise leery of becoming drawn into Lebanon, and when a terrorist bombing incident in October 1983 killed 241 U.S. servicemen, they believed their worst fears were confirmed. U.S. troops withdrew shortly thereafter. In a well-publicized speech of November 1984, entitled "Uses of Military Power," Secretary Weinberger laid down specific criteria that he thought should govern U.S. military commitments abroad. At the minimum, Weinberger argued, the armed forces should have a firm declaration of support at home, a clear-cut mission, and an agreed exit strategy from any operation in which they might become involved.
With so much at stake, Weinberger took a proactive stance toward foreign affairs that frequently led to friction with the State Department and the National Security Council. Like many of his predecessors, Weinberger required that State-Defense contacts have his prior approval. Adopting a broad view of his responsibilities, he insisted that the Defense Department should have a voice in practically every major foreign policy decision, not just those that might involve the use of military forces. As a direct consequence, he and Haig quarreled often and openly, so much so that the policy process seemed at times to grind to a halt. Weinberger's relations with Haig's successor, George C. Shultz, were only slightly better. In interdepartmental deliberations Weinberger fought hard for his views, often with success.
Weinberger was especially active in shaping the administration's stand on arms control and related issues. While framing an intermediate-range ballistic missile negotiating policy in 1981, he convinced President Reagan, over the objections of the State Department, the Joint Chiefs, and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, to hold out for a total global ban on theater-range ballistic missiles, a goal eventually realized in 1987. Weinberger also encouraged Reagan to persevere with the Strategic Defense Initiative, which critics dismissed as unworkable, but which Weinberger regarded as an exceedingly valuable military asset. Unlike Shultz and others in the administration, Weinberger was highly averse to seeing it bargained away. Although not as hostile to arms control as some of his critics maintained, Weinberger believed in negotiating from a position of strength and was dubious of being able to reach fair and reasonable agreements with the Soviets until the United States had improved its strategic posture.
While Weinberger sought to clarify the ground rules for the military's role in foreign policy, others sought to make it more responsive to such problems. Defense reform had been in the air since the debacle in Vietnam, and by the 1980s it took the form of a concerted effort in Congress to improve the performance of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the joint command structure, under which the worldwide deployment of U.S. forces operated. Long criticized as unreliable and ineffectual, the JCS was a prime candidate for legislative reform. Even many senior military officers agreed that the system was inefficient and sorely in need of an overhaul. In the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, Congress attempted to address these concerns by providing for a stronger and more active JCS chairman, with full control over the Joint Staff. The joint commands received added authority to participate in the budget, procurement, and planning process, and there was to be increased training and emphasis on "jointness" throughout the armed forces.
The intent of the Goldwater-Nichols reforms was to create a more unified and responsive defense establishment, although it was not until the Gulf War of 1990–1991 that the new machinery received its first major test. The war confirmed that in planning and executing such operations, the Department of Defense was probably better prepared and better organized than at any time since its creation. With the resources accumulated during the Reagan buildup, it was all the easier to prevail. Simply having a large, well-equipped defense establishment may not have made a military response to Iraq's seizure of Kuwait any more likely than the use of other options. But it certainly proved to be an asset that President George H. W. Bush and his advisers fell back on when the time came to take action. Knowing that they had such assets readily available undoubtedly increased their sense of confidence and resolve to see the crisis through.
The Gulf War was the last hurrah for the large military establishment built up over the Cold War. The collapse of communism across Eastern Europe, starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and culminating with the dissolution of the Soviet Union late in 1991, signaled a fundamental geopolitical change. Henceforth regional security problems began to replace the threat of global war as the focus of American military planning. The principal architect of this shift in U.S. strategy was the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman from 1989 to 1993, General Colin Powell, whose concept of a smaller, more mobile "base force" helped guide the Defense Department through its post–Cold War downsizing. Subsequently, the department came to operate under what Secretary of Defense William J. Perry (1994–1997) described as a policy of "preventive defense." In practice, this meant trying to head off problems before they arose through Defense support of such measures as dismantling the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal, curbing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and NATO's Partnership for Peace program with the former Soviet satellite states.
By far the most demanding post–Cold War foreign policy tasks that the department encountered were those associated with peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. Little anticipated when the Cold War ended, they proliferated rapidly in the 1990s and ranged from the policing of Iraqi air space (a carryover from the Gulf War) to refugee and famine relief in Africa and power-brokering in Haiti and the Balkans. For the Defense Department these were somewhat new or unique responsibilities that required a delicate weighing of diplomacy and military power, often under the aegis of a multinational or United Nations command. One such mission was the protection of UN famine relief workers in Somalia, which led to a bloody firefight in October 1993 between U.S. special forces and troops loyal to Somali strongman Mohamed Farah Aideed. Thereafter, the Joint Chiefs urged using technology in place of manpower in similar operations to reduce the risk to U.S. forces, advice the Clinton administration readily accepted. When called upon to help evict Serb troops from Kosovo in 1999, it insisted upon doing so at a distance, with a NATO-directed air campaign to apply the necessary pressure.
The beginning of the twenty-first century saw an emerging debate over the military's future role in American foreign policy. Many military planners and analysts still believed that the proper primary function of the armed forces was to guarantee the national security with ready warfighting capabilities, and that doctrine, training, and procurement should be tailored accordingly. An opposing group, citing the growing U.S. involvement in peace enforcement, drug interdiction, and other low-intensity types of conflicts, argued for a more flexible force, with lighter, less sophisticated weapons, more mobility, and closer coordination with international organizations. The debate is ongoing and how it will play out remains to be seen. Either way, however, it seems clear that, as long as the United States is involved in the world arena, military and foreign policy will remain inextricably linked and that the Defense Department will continue to be a major factor in both the policy process and the conduct of American affairs abroad.