Those of who have been attempting for some years to have a “debate on the deep foundations of [American] grand strategy”, not only in the academy but also in the press and on television, have evidently been wasting our energy. According to Barry Posen, this debate has remained outside “the U.S. mainstream today.” If by the “mainstream” he means The Oprah Winfrey Show, he may well be right. But I, for one, have been writing about the limits of American power since before September 11, 2001 in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, not to mention The Atlantic and the New Republic. It would be easy to list at least a dozen other writers who have addressed the mismatch between the goals of American foreign policy and the means at the disposal of any administration, and who have suggested alternative strategies. Few, if any, have failed to recommend restraint in some form or another.
Where Posen is certainly right is that the current crop of leading American politicians are reluctant to debate grand strategy. Just as it was mandatory during the Cold War for those seeking elective office to denounce Soviet Communism, so too, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has it been politically risky to question the proposition that the United States faces an existential threat from Islamist terrorism, and from “rogue” and “failed” states that supposedly sponsor them.
There is, however, an exception whom Posen overlooks. At least one candidate for the presidency has urged Americans to “get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance” comparable with prostitution, illegal gambling and other forms of organized crime. He says his aim is “to reduce it” to a level where it isn’t on the rise, “isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and isn’t threatening the fabric of your life.” If he were elected, he insists he would do a better job of cutting off financing, exposing terrorist groups, working cooperatively across the globe, improving our intelligence capabilities nationally and internationally, training our military and deploying them differently, specializing in special forces and special ops, working with allies and, most importantly, “restoring America’s reputation as a country that listens, is sensitive, brings people to our side, is the seeker of peace, not war, and that uses our high moral ground and high-level values to augment us in the war on terror, not to diminish us.” If all that sounds rather familiar to readers of Barry Posen’s piece, it is because it is essentially Posen’s prescription. The candidate in question is of course John Kerry. And all the quotations above are taken from an interview he gave to Matt Bai less than a month before the 2004 election.11. Bai, “Kerry’s Undeclared War”, New York Times Magazine, October 10, 2004. No prizes for guessing why no current presidential candidate is using that kind of language: Appeals to pragmatism failed last time around.
Posen asserts that there is a cross-party consensus in favor of “a U.S. grand strategy of international activism.” Democrats, he suggests, differ from Republicans only with respect to tactics. Indeed, he follows Andrew Bacevich in tracing this consensus back to before 9/11.2 Ever since the end of the Cold War, he argues, the United States has been trying to “transform both international politics and the domestic politics of other states in ways that are advantageous to the United States.” He shares my own view, advanced more than three years ago, that American leaders have exaggerated the power they wield by attaching too much importance to their unrivalled economic and military resources. In Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2004), I pointed to three deficits that fundamentally limited the resources the United States could actually deploy on regime-changing or nation-building campaigns: the financial deficit, the manpower deficit and the electorate’s attention deficit. Posen makes similar points. He is certainly not the first to announce the passing of the “unipolar” moment.
Nor is he the first analyst to suggest new external checks on American power. Posen cites four. First, the explosive (and to many Americans incomprehensible) “re-emergence of identity politics, especially amalgams of religion and ethno-nationalism” in countries like Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. Second, the return of “symmetrical warfare” with the dissemination of weapons like “Explosively Formed Penetrator” (EFP) mines or rocket-propelled grenade launchers, which have greatly increased the vulnerability of American forces engaged in patrolling activities. Third, the effect of globalization in creating “a steady supply of urbanized citizens at the lower end of the income scale” who will be “vulnerable to political mobilization on the basis of identity politics.” And fourth, the backlash against American activism even among traditional allies, which is eroding the international legitimacy of the United States. Note that this last external check is itself a consequence of defective American strategy.
So much for the American predicament. What of Posen’s alternative grand strategy based on American self-restraint? The terms he uses are themselves revealing. The United States needs to be more “reticent” about its use of military force, more “modest” about its political goals overseas, more “distant” from traditional allies, and more “stingy” in its aid policies. Good luck to the presidential candidate who laces his next foreign policy speech with those adjectives: “My fellow Americans, I want to make this great country of ours more reticent, modest, distant and stingy!”
Let us, however, leave aside this quintessentially academic and operationally useless rhetoric. What exactly does Posen want the United States to do? I count six concrete recommendations. The United States should:
1) Abandon the Bush Doctrine of “preemption”, which in the case of Iraq has been a policy of preventive war. Posen argues that this applies even in cases of nuclear proliferation. By implication, he sees preventive war as an inferior option to deterrence, though he does not make clear how exactly a nuclear-armed Iran would be deterred, least of all if his second recommendation were to be implemented.
2) Reduce U.S. military presence in the Middle East (“the abode of Islam”) by abandoning “its permanent and semi-permanent land bases in Arab countries.” Posen does not say so, but he appears to imply the abandonment of all these bases, not just the ones in Iraq, but also those in, for example, Qatar. It is not clear what would be left of Central Command after such a drastic retreat. Note that this would represent a break with the policy not just of the last two Presidents, but with that of the last 12.
3) Ramp up efforts to provide relief in the wake of natural disasters, exemplified by Operation Unified Assistance after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004. No doubt the American military did some good in the wake of the tsunami, but Posen needs to explain why a government that so miserably bungled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina less than a year later should be expected to be consistently effective in the wake of natural disasters.
4) Assist in humanitarian military interventions only “under reasonable guidelines” and “in coalitions, operating under some kind of regional or international political mandate.” Does Posen mean that he would favor sending American troops to Darfur at the same time as he is withdrawing them from other “abodes of Islam?” He does not say.
5) Promote not democracy abroad but “the rule of law, press freedom and the rights of collective bargaining.” Here again I am experiencing cognitive dissonance. The government that sought systematically to evade the Geneva Conventions in order to detain indefinitely and torture suspected terrorists as an upholder of the rule of law?
6) Stop offering “U.S. security guarantees and security assistance, [which] tend to relieve others of the need to do more to ensure their own security.” This is in fact the most important of all Posen’s recommendations, though he saves it until last. He envisages radical diminution of American support for other members of NATO. Over the next ten years, he writes, the United States “should gradually withdraw from all military headquarters and commands in Europe.” In the same timeframe it should “reduce U.S. government direct financial assistance to Israel to zero”, as well as reducing (though not wholly eliminating) assistance to Egypt. And it should “reconsider its security relationship with Japan”, whatever that means. Again, this represents a break with traditional policy so radical that it would impress even Noam Chomsky, to say nothing of Osama bin Laden (who would, indeed, find little here to object to).
Posen, in other words, has proceeded from relatively familiar premises (the limits of American “hyperpower”) to some quite fantastic policy recommendations, which are perhaps best summed up as a cross between isolationism and humanitarianism. Only slightly less fantastic than his vision of an American military retreat from the Middle East, Europe and East Asia is Posen’s notion that it could be sold to the American electorate—just six years after they were the targets of the single largest terrorist attack in history—in the language of self-effacement. Coming from a man who wants to restart mainstream debate on American grand strategy, that is pretty rich.