The Delusions of American Strategy

Washington looks for 'existential threats' in all the wrong places.

Numerous Israeli security officials advised us not to invade Iraq in 2003. Henry Kissinger recently stated, "If I had known everything then that I know now, I probably would not have supported [the Iraq invasion].” He explained that what he didn’t know was “the extent of the cleavage between Shia and Sunni.” Prior to the invasion no one was better briefed or more persistently courted than Kissinger. So clearly, America’s preeminent diplomat was not alone in what he “didn’t know.” But our vice president and other neoconservative firebrands insisted: “The road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad.” Now it may lead through Cairo.

After 9/11, we embraced the wrong paradigm. Had it been understood then that the Shia-Sunni “clash of civilizations” structured the theater of action—not totalitarianism—we might have avoided an ongoing fifteen-year debacle. Western intervention has not and will not end this struggle but intensify and prolong it.

There is another option.


Offshore Balancing

That is what Britain pursued since the reign of Elizabeth I, refraining from sending troops into the continental carnage. Even during its own sectarian war and long after, Britain maintained Elizabeth’s policy of “offshore balancing,” pursuing diplomacy and indirection to prevent any power, whether Bourbon France or Hapsburg Spain, Protestant or Catholic, from dominating Europe’s mainland. The Thirty Years’ War ended in exhaustion and the sparks of the Enlightenment. The best outcome for the United States, Israel and the greater Middle East today is an analogous deadlock and a Muslim Peace of Westphalia.

Forbearance permitted Britain to focus on nation building, to build unparalleled scientific, technological, financial, agronomical, manufacturing and military muscle. When the Thirty Years' War expired from mutual exhaustion, the Enlightenment occupied European terrain, yielding progress on all fronts—commercial, scientific, technological, philosophical and political—from unprecedented innovation and prosperity to the American Constitution.

Britain’s offshore balancing orchestrated the so-called “stately quadrille.” Europe’s great powers now regularly shifted partners in a diplomatic dance that averted continental hegemony. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Britain was the “the workshop of the world” and had long “ruled the seas.”

Conversely, American policymakers incite “indispensable” interventions. We allied with Saddam against Iran. After 9/11, we refused to declassify evidence of Saudi involvement and instead invaded Iraq. We declared Assad must go, and then we sought (inevitably fecklessly) to forge an unholy phantom alliance of Sunni governments against Assad’s main enemy, Sunni-Salafist Daesh. While Sunni princes finance IS by night, we quixotically imagine enlisting these monarchies as allies by day, as if Shia Iran were not the power most clearly interested in opposing Daesh. Our one constant is our romance with oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which opposed the “totalitarians” in Moscow and Tehran. So we inadvertently took sides in a sectarian war.

This confusion and ineptitude has two sources: vested interests and faulty paradigms.


Vested Interests

9/11 begat a counterinsurgency Octopus, with a squishy head and several lucrative arms. These include more than three thousand private companies and federal agencies in over ten thousand locations, with a million employees specializing, often redundantly, in “homeland security” and “counterinsurgency.” The Octopus has blotched the Beltway with “complexes” that enjoy the square footage of three Pentagon Cities. Its cephalopod tentacles coil around cable news, whose ratings soar with each beheaded hostage and maimed soldier.

The Octopus gave us the squishy notion of a “Global War on Terrorism” without being able to distinguish enemies from allies, or to define our national interests in that global war. Convoying the Octopus is a school of droning pundits and warrior-politicians with high-flying rhetoric but dismal records on the ground.

If that weren't sufficiently distracting, we plunged into a dispute with Russia over Ukraine—a country politically, ethnically and religiously split for a millennium. Instead of preserving Ukraine as a bridge between Russia and the West, the democracy-everywhere-now chorus (another arm of the Octopus) helped to overthrow the latest of Ukraine’s corrupt oligarchical rulers (customarily thrown into prison after, or even before, completing their terms), converting a paltry passive geopolitical backwater into a neo–Cold War battlefield.