The Delusions of American Strategy

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

By the end of 2015, we had spent over $3 billion fighting Daesh, at the current rate of $9 million per day. Clearly we must shepherd our resources. Those will be precarious unless we build a dynamic twenty-first-century economy with a modern infrastructure, an efficient government and a thriving middle class instead of a privileged oligarchy and an army of indentured mercenaries. Equally, we need a coherent long-term strategy to stop being persistently polarized and despoiled of our blood and treasure.

Videos of burnings and beheadings are asymmetric weapons for recruitment and provocation. An American media “Reformation” would provide, on bandwidth belonging to the public, comprehensive and creative reporting instead of chorusing our age’s “yellow journalism.” Our politicians and pundits might refrain from calling this regional conflict a “threat to our freedom,” (noting that Daesh focuses on the “near enemy”) and discourage reflexive Islamophobia by elucidating the differences between Islam, Islamism and violent jihad. This violates our current pieties, but if we are to cope with our current challenges we must abandon them. The 1916 election campaign, as appalling as much of it is, might move us in that direction.

We ought modestly to concede that Islamic jihadis are not the first holy warriors, by reviewing the book of Joshua, the Crusades, the Catholic conquest of Latin America or the sectarian atrocities of Northern Ireland. We need the assistance of Muslims to detect IS wolf packs in Europe and the United States.

Instead, the Octopus has discredited agencies charged with protecting us. Our surveillance should focus on returning Western jihadis and current wannabees, instead of terrifying citizens into fancying they live under “Big Brother.”

Meanwhile, those who canonize the Founding Fathers might study those men of science and enlightenment. Our pious ignore the last words to his country of our preeminent founding father, who in his Farewell Address warned that

“…attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other….”

What would he and his republican comrades make of our oily attachment to Gulf autocrats?

American interests, however, will be not be served by isolationism. There is another way to proceed, suggested by the British policy we’ve reviewed. Instead of “spreading democracy,” even as we become a plutocracy, pursue "offshore balancing." Contain both Iran’s terrorist proxies and the Gulf’s, sometimes by playing one off against the other. For instance, renewing diplomatic relations with Iran would bolster American leverage as a balancer. Sanctions brought Iran to the bargaining table. Instead of arming despots, we should be sanctioning them. Offshore aircraft and missile carriers could supplement smart diplomacy.

Offshore balancing also could discourage Chinese adventurism, reassure Pacific allies, provide a trip wire, and forestall a Japanese overreaction. We must help Europe and Russia reach a détente, instead of encouraging their animosity. If China does intend to dominate the Eurasian landmass, Euro-Russian cooperation could hinder that.

In chapter 19, Don Quixote and his pragmatic squire descry, down a distant road below them, huge clusters approaching one another. The Don, always devising acts of chivalry from a bygone age, imagines that the nebulae are Christian and Muslim armies. Sancho Panza realizes that actually two herds of sheep are passing one another. The Man of La Mancha abjures such realism and slaughters several “Muslim” sheep before their shepherds knock his teeth out. The unbowed warrior insists that a sorcerer turned the armies to sheep to thwart his knightly errand.

Cervantes was not only mocking dated, if popular, chivalric romances, but also the scholastics who insisted, despite the discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, that their obsolete view of the world remained intact. Our own mad knights similarly defend their ruinous missions and dream of new jousts against global "evildoers." Quixote damaged only himself, but today’s paladins jeopardize their country.

Will they chase a paradigm over a geopolitical cliff? Winston Churchill allegedly once said “Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else." Those who obsessively invoke Churchill have tried everything else. It is for our current and/or next president to do the right thing.

Worried about global jihadis and self-professed caliphates? Sanction entities that fund jihadis, pursue an international accord against ransoming hostage takers and prepare a counterterrorist unit (as Vice President Biden urged regarding Afghanistan in 2009) that could summon precise air strikes, but only against global terrorist training camps. Produce natural gas, wind, sun and even nuclear power. Rebuild our nation’s infrastructure. Pivot to Asia. Keep Moscow out Beijing’s grasp. Stay strong, but be wise.

Robert S. Leiken’s Europe’s Angry Muslims (Oxford University Press) is now appearing in paperback in a second revised edition.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Marines

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