A Strategy of Restraint: The Inevitable Future with No Current Backers

posen restraint

Taking a grand view of American history, one conclusion seems inescapable: Americans are by and large apathetic or even downright hostile to caring about foreign affairs. The Second World War and the resultant uncertainties of its Cold War aftermath were enough to generate some amount of popular if superficial involvement by the public-at-large due to the massive stakes. However, with the end of the large scary oppositional power bloc that was The Big Bad Commies, the innate nativism was in danger of creeping back. But how then to justify the continued presence of numerous military installations around the world?

The answer was that America, as *the* global power, now had a positive rather than negative role to play with when it came to grand strategy. No longer having to deny the freedom of action of other powers, it could now globally take the offensive. A perpetual offensive of world-building rather than mere postwar selective nation-building. Naturally, sensing opportunity and the chance to act unfettered abroad the business community and the media followed suit, singing the praises of this messianic new cause. Intellectuals backed them up with glorious predictions of humanitarian causes and mutual integration through shared economic and political values.

Well, despite a promising and perhaps necessary coalition against Iraq in the 1991 war, and a relatively easy (if dubious in value) Kosovo operation in 1999 (let us ignore the Somalia debacle and the complete apathy regarding Rwanda here out of charity) this didn’t exactly happen except in a few specific cases. There is no need here to go over events everyone knows, but needless to say the marriage of liberal ideologues and right wing hawks which is the neoconservative movement capitalized on the events of 9/11 to push for even further and more radical world changing efforts. After all, what could be more shaking to this triumphalist narrative of eternal progress than the idea that a small group of retrogrades could suddenly call its effectiveness into question? The crusade had found its righteous causus belli to rally the masses.

But from the beginning the strategic limitations imposed by this thinking was apparent. Iran offered to assist the United States against the mutual foes of the Taliban, and they were brusquely refused. A chance to engage and fix a toxic relationship was thrown out, partly because it hurt pride, and partly-one imagines-because it hurt the narrative. Only now, after fighting against effectively the same people in conflict after conflict, has the U.S. begun to ponder the usefulness of engaging with Iran.

The completely unilateral and totally unnecessary Iraq War followed soon after. Needless to say, less than 200,000 troops and some set up elections did not magically transform a fragile society into a marketplace of reasonable property owners discussing the archaic nature of sectarian division in their salons and drafting rooms. The ridiculous idea of ‘De-Baathification’ (firing the entire armed forces, effectively) was founded on the hubris that what America had to offer alone could overcome history with the power of ideas. Instead, it led to a further inflammation of radical insurgency, and eventually the asymmetrical warfare and even large scale city battles such as Fallujah.

Ever since then its been a downhill collapse of U.S. popular self-confidence and willingness to engage in such operations. And yet, the policy establishment is undeterred by flagging popular support. William Kristol, the buxom bimbo equivalent who takes center stage in the neocon cheerleader formation, now blames tepid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq for the rise of Daesh-completely ignoring the first vital step in their creation was the very interventionist and regime-change supporting policies he championed. Even if you are for action against Daesh (and this blog most certainly is) we should not forget where they came from and that it is America’s mess and that America should clean up after itself. And yet, despite seeing the radicalization of the rebels and the dangers faced by minorities, these types still champion intervention in the Syrian Civil War.

Into this world came the necessary backlash. Mearsheimer was the first big name to be raising the specter of necon/liberal hijacking of the American strategic establishment, and others have followed in his place. I myself went from a history undergraduate to a IR postgraduate because I wanted in on the backlash myself. One of the most recent is Barry Posen, whose ‘Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy‘ I have just finished reading.

I am not going to go through his arguments point by point so much as to point out what I see as the gist of them. Posen sees, like Mearsheimer, the United States as by far the most capable power in world history. But even this realization does not mean it is an infinite and eternally expanding world-changer. It still has limits, particularly if it wants to spend money on anything aside from defense. And these limits mean it can choose between a shaky, unstable but all-pervasive hegemony or a stable, easier, possibly less dangerous limited posture on how it sits on the throne. No one calls it this yet (that I know of) but for sake of description we could refer to this alternative method as ‘Hadrian’s Seawall.’

Posen is particularly focused on the lackluster role of America’s main allies, who are happy to save money by getting a free ride on the United States’ largess. This is hardly a new observation, but it is a valid one. Countries that face legitimate threats would have to raise defense spending with a U.S. scale-back. More ambiguous ones might decide a new ally is in order. The question is, to retain dominance how many of these allies does America need? Clearly not Georgia-even Bush wouldn’t intervene there- and now its disgraced former president Mikhail Saakashvilli wanders Brooklyn as yet another out of state trust fund hipster. No, really.

What struck me most about Posen’s work is that many of the signs of this scale-back already seem apparent on many fronts. The Obama administration has begun the much vaunted ‘pivot to Asia’ in strategic priorities, and despite nebulous expansions of black ops in Central Africa and Yemen there are noises from policy makers that the Middle East is to be reduced in priority, and the oceans-especially of the Pacific and Indian-will be focuses of the future. But there is at least as much backlash to these necessary structural readjustments.

This is where I found flaws with Posen’s work. Overall, I liked the book and think its necessary reading. What he neglected to do however is to examine *why* people oppose the necessity of his ideas at least being injected into public debate. He gives too much credit to his opponents in assuming that they care about strategy, their country, or even are thinking rationally. Maybe I shouldn’t be hard on him, after all, deconstructing the motivations behind bad strategy is my niche (maybe in the future, I hope) so perhaps he left me a gift. But one of the curses of mainline realism is that it assumes policy makers are rational actors or that domestic concerns don’t influence their strategy as a dominant concern.

In this case I think both of those factors are at play. Many in the business community benefit from U.S. influence expansion even if their own country does not. Think what America got from the Iraq War-now compare it to what Haliburton got. There is still loot to be gained from regime change, even if soldiers are no longer allowed to ransack homes. Once upon a time raids were launched by poor countries against rich ones, nowadays that paradigm could be said to have been reversed in many case studies. There are resources which the removal of a strong (if nasty) state opens up. Even state breakdown and chaos creates non-state actors which can be influenced through bribery. Hell, even some benign NGOs would be bereft of donations without new trendy conflict zones opening up, though obviously they do not hope for these invasions in the same way some private entities do. Such non state actors wield great influence over lawmakers, and so push for more hawkish policies. In D.C. connections are everything-and who is better connected than a lobbyist?

But even this, I think, could be reigned in as it requires cooperation from people who do not benefit so much from this arrangement. Even the media’s most milquetoast commentators are wising up to this. Alone, it could not mold policy in such an overt way. No-there is another ingredient missing: True Belief.

Faith is a hell of a drug. And the truth is, given the (relative) transparency of the American system you could not get average people to go along with securing diverse resources for increasingly international companies unless many of them truly believed that they were doing good. Indeed, that it was necessary and if we don’t do so we will have to fight them over here…or something.

Officially, legally, and constitutionally America is not a Christian nation-and certainly not a specifically protestant one. But culturally that is still the dominant attitude in society. A strident missionary creed is held by leftists and rightists alike, the religious and the secular, but through it all is this idea that ‘Our values are righteous, the world is black and white, and we are the ones to win it for the light.’ Needless to say this trope treats all fights as worthy, moral, and on a higher level than base strategic interest. It is a view so ingrained very few are immune to its apparent charms. This had always been a part of the American character, and the era of isolationism merely meant it was often directed elsewhere, but it was fully unleashed in the 90’s onto the foreign policy world.

But that hypnotic gaze which has attracted so many is that of the gorgon. It is outside the scope of this blog to debate whatever merits this view has (or doesn’t) on domestic or philosophical points alone, but on foreign policy it is nothing but a stumbling block at best and a deadly poison at worst. Many policy makers behave in ways which eschews long term thinking for short term applause lines. Pessimism (a vital ingredient in strategic thinking-perhaps a separate post later on that topic) is eschewed for saying the right things about ‘American Exceptionalism‘ or the blind faith in democracy and free markets to fundamentally reshape the world. Of course, the world doesn’t move in a clean linear path. Alliances, revolutions, social and economic trends, all of it creates reactions and counter-reactions. A despotic country becomes a democracy and a democracy can become frail or unstable-necessitating a despotism replace it. Powers rise and fall. History has shown every example of someone claiming that ‘now everything political will be different!’ to be a charlatan or unhinged. There are indeed things to be learned from history, and one of them is the fallacy of declaring it over. It usually comes down to famous last words before the tragic overreach. America is no more capable of being the missionary who attempts to recreate the world to reflect their values than Britain, China, or Rome were in the past-and the last two of those were so successful in the long term because they actually made no attempt to impose universal order outside of their cores anyway. It is merely the ultimate of superpowers-an extremely impressive achievement but one whose effects are still tied up in the greater world’s histories, rivalries, and passions. No matter how powerful, a country younger than many of the rivalries it seeks to police is not going to have any insightful or positive impact in remote conflicts outside core interests. Yet many remain convinced that this is necessary if even just for the self-esteem of the state itself. It is often an emotional and irrational commitment.

In addition to finishing Posen’s book another thing happened today in the realm of politics by the way:

Hillary Clinton

Which could very well mean that as necessary as a discussion on U.S. strategy incorporating the ideas of ‘Restraint’ could be, we are likely to see a race where all the major contenders are, to varying degrees, in the neoconservative camp. Right now, the signs do not look great for an open or refreshing debate on geostrategy in either political party.

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