America Primed

February 23, 2011 Topic: Grand StrategySecurity Regions: United States

America Primed

Mini Teaser: To write America’s great-power obituary is beyond premature. Herein lies a grand strategy for maintaining US power—from the Anglosphere to the Middle East.

by Author(s): Robert D. KaplanStephen S. Kaplan

THE PAST century has seen a multipolar world through the end of World War II, a bipolar world through the end of the Cold War and a dissipating unipolar world since. Economic multipolarity is already a reality. And, in military terms, America’s unipolar dominance over the air and sea-lanes will not last forever, given the rise of naval powers across Asia. Moreover, the advantages that accrue to terrorists and insurgents, for whom war is a way of life and who kill indiscriminately, have put tremendous strain on the U.S. security establishment. America’s prospects for global primacy appear bleak.

But in spite of the seemingly inevitable and rapid diminution of U.S. eminence, to write America’s great-power obituary is beyond premature. The United States remains a highly capable power. Iraq and Afghanistan, as horrendous as they have proved to be—in a broad historical sense—are still relatively minor events that America can easily overcome. The eventual demise of empires like those of Ming China and late-medieval Venice was brought about by far more pivotal blunders.

Think of the Indian Mutiny against the British in 1857 and 1858. Iraq in particular—ever so frequently touted as our turning point on the road to destruction—looks to some extent eerily similar. At the time, orientalists and other pragmatists in the British power structure (who wanted to leave traditional India as it was) lost some sway to evangelical and utilitarian reformers (who wanted to modernize and Christianize India—to make it more like England). But the attempt to bring the fruits of Western civilization to the Asian subcontinent was met with a violent revolt against imperial authority. Delhi, Lucknow and other Indian cities were besieged and captured before being retaken by colonial forces. Yet, the debacle did not signal the end of the British Empire at all, which continued on and even expanded for another century. Instead, it signaled the transition from more of an ad hoc imperium fired by a proselytizing lust to impose its values on others to a calmer and more pragmatic empire built on international trade and technology.1 There is no reason to believe that the fate of America need follow a more doomed course.

Yes, the mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the United States’ own, but, though destructive, they are not fatal. If we withdraw sooner rather than later, the cost to American power can be stemmed. Leaving a stable Afghanistan behind of course requires a helpful Pakistan, but with more pressure Washington might increase Islamabad’s cooperation in relatively short order.

In terms of acute threats, Iran is the only state that has exported terrorism and insurgency toward a strategic purpose, yet the country is economically fragile and politically unstable, with behind-the-scenes infighting that would make Washington partisans blanch. Even assuming Iran acquires a few nuclear devices—of uncertain quality with uncertain delivery systems—the long-term outlook for the clerical regime is itself unclear. The administration must only avoid a war with the Islamic Republic.

To be sure, America may be in decline in relative terms compared to some other powers, as well as to many countries of the former third world, but in absolute terms, particularly military ones, the United States can easily be the first among equals for decades hence.

China, India and Russia are the only major Eurasian states prepared to wield military power of consequence on their peripheries. And each, in turn, faces its own obstacles on the road to some degree of dominance.

The Chinese will have a great navy (assuming their economy does not implode) and that will enforce a certain level of bipolarity in the world system. But Beijing will lack the alliance network Washington has, even as China and Russia will always be—because of geography—inherently distrustful of one another. China has much influence, but no credible military allies beyond possibly North Korea, and its authoritarian regime lives in fear of internal disruption if its economic growth rate falters. Furthermore, Chinese naval planners look out from their coastline and see South Korea and a string of islands—Japan, Taiwan and Australia—that are American allies, as are, to a lesser degree, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. To balance a rising China, Washington must only preserve its naval and air assets at their current levels.

India, which has its own internal insurgency, is bedeviled by semifailed states on its borders that critically sap energy and attention from its security establishment, and especially from its land forces; in any case, India has become a de facto ally of the United States whose very rise, in and of itself, helps to balance China.

Russia will be occupied for years regaining influence in its post-Soviet near abroad, particularly in Ukraine, whose feisty independence constitutes a fundamental challenge to the very idea of the Russian state. China checks Russia in Central Asia, as do Turkey, Iran and the West in the Caucasus. This is to say nothing of Russia’s diminishing population and overwhelming reliance on energy exports. Given the problems of these other states, America remains fortunate indeed.

The United States is poised to tread the path of postmutiny Britain. America might not be an empire in the formal sense, but its obligations and constellation of military bases worldwide put it in an imperial-like situation, particularly because its air and naval deployments will continue in a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan world. No country is in such an enviable position to keep the relative peace in Eurasia as is the United States—especially if it can recover the level of enduring competence in national-security policy last seen during the administration of George H. W. Bush. This is no small point. America has strategic advantages and can enhance its power while extricating itself from war. But this requires leadership—not great and inspiring leadership which comes along rarely even in the healthiest of societies—but plodding competence, occasionally steely nerved and always free of illusion.

AMERICA’S MACROSTRATEGIC environment is chockablock with assets unavailable to any other country. If nothing else, the United States has an often-overlooked and oft-neglected bulwark of allies: the Anglosphere. This is Washington’s inner circle of defense ties, and it finds no equivalent in its competitor nations’ strategic arsenals. The Anglosphere is perennially—and incorrectly—declared dead or in decline by the media and politicians. Nevertheless, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States remain extremely close in their military and intelligence relations and exchange vast volumes of sensitive information daily, as they have for decades. On terrorism, virtually anything and everything is shared. The National Security Agency and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters have been nearly inextricable since World War II. The same is largely true of the CIA and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. The various English-speaking nations, in practical terms, even assign individual parts of the world to each other, and each worries about the others’ security equities.

The linguistic and other cultural links between the United States and these other English-speaking countries are so deep that the sharing of sensitive information 24-7 is practically an afterthought, even as the media and politicians highlight the narcissism of comparatively small differences. Of course, the values and national purposes of the individual countries are unique, owing to different geographies and historical experiences; yet that is something America can quietly manage. Given how close the United States is to the Anglosphere in most ways, when these allies resist what America is attempting to do, that should constitute a warning that perhaps the policy coming out of Washington is either outright wrong or needs adjustment. (Canada’s balking in the face of U.S. bullying to hop on board the Iraq War train is an obvious case in point.) The Anglosphere, in addition to everything else it provides, is a reality check that can facilitate American policy making.

With a combined population of 420 million, with strategic locations off the continent of Europe (Great Britain), near the intersection of the Indian Ocean and western Pacific sea-lanes (Australia), and in the Arctic and adjacent to Greenland’s oil and gas (Canada), the Anglosphere, if not abused or ignored, will be a substantial hard-power asset for the United States deep into the twenty-first century. China and Russia enjoy nothing comparable.

OF COURSE even this set of assets is not enough to ensure American primacy—nor its sway over the West. And not all alliances are created equal. For example, Washington can less and less rely on NATO to serve as its linchpin in Europe. NATO is of limited help in Afghanistan, was irrelevant in Iraq and simply does not matter in the larger Middle East. The defense budgets of member states in Western Europe are generally below the NATO standard of 2 percent of GDP, even as these same countries now brace for the steepest cuts in military spending since the end of the Cold War. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as prudent and low-key a public speaker as one can imagine, has publicly chided Europeans for being too reluctant to use military force. Nor does NATO, whatever the fine print of its documents, really guarantee the territorial integrity of its new member states in Eastern Europe against potential Russian aggression. The United States does that, and the Balts, Poles, Romanians and others know it. Plainly, the Poles and Romanians sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan (and any number of various African countries where the United States has had military missions) not because they necessarily approved of these deployments or were enthusiastic about them, but as a quid pro quo for this implicit security guarantee.

Yet, American supremacy in the twenty-first century will require a strong position in Europe, and that means getting along well with the Europeans. As the underrated importance of the Anglosphere demonstrates, even as states themselves weaken in the course of globalization, powerful countries will still help determine the course of war and peace in coming decades. Thus, rather than concentrate primarily on organizations like NATO or on European nations across the board, the United States needs to intellectually reduce the challenges of projecting power on mainland Europe to three states: France, Germany and Poland. Geographically, these three cover the broad European plain from the Pyrenees to the former Soviet Union, and with 184 million people, contain nearly two-fifths of the EU’s population. France and Germany, as great powers for almost all of modern history, manifest a ballast of capability and a seriousness of purpose that is utterly absent anywhere in southern Europe, even as Poland, with its large and religiously cohesive population of close to 40 million, is emerging as a pivot state in its own right—on which the fate of Eastern and Central Europe will rest. Certainly countries like Norway and the Netherlands also boast strategic positions, doughty nationalisms and serious militaries, but they simply bring no demographic advantages to the table. If France, Germany and Poland go along on an issue, the rest of continental Europe will follow; and if it doesn’t, it won’t matter.

France’s military might, honed through decades of expeditionary warfare and deployments in Africa, makes the French armed forces reliable in any missions they take on. And they are first-class in offensive cybercapabilities and naval warfare. Not only that, the French have been on the same page as the United States regarding the danger of Iranian nuclear weapons. Paris has emerged, in fact, as a real ally with which Washington should seek a more intimate relationship regarding intelligence sharing. Germany’s military is man-for-man extremely capable, more so than many realize, while the Germans are major worldwide players in science and engineering. As for the Poles, they rely on the Americans for their security to the same degree that they rely on the EU for their economy.

France, Germany and Poland will only increase in significance precisely because the institutions of the EU will be—as the Greek financial bailout showed—preoccupied for years to come with the integration of the Mediterranean and Balkan peripheries into the eurozone, and thus the dream of a unified continent with a common foreign policy will be, in the near and medium term, stillborn.

Each of these three core states of mainland Europe has its own politics, which in the cases of France and Germany are further to the left than those of the United States and in important ways in opposition to Washington. However, if one takes the center point of any of their political continuums, they are tolerably close to America’s own ideals, so the United States can be assured of useful allies in the heart of Europe provided its own policies are pragmatic.

THE ONLY wrench in this three-pole approach to Europe is the great Russian bear. Moscow must be managed: both to contain its ambitions and to use its own vulnerabilities as a way to bolster U.S. influence. It is true that Germany’s quasi pacifism, combined with its very real economic interests, may lead it into an arrangement with Russia that would make Poland and the United States uncomfortable. Germany, after all, gets 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia. George Friedman, the founder of STRATFOR, a global forecasting firm, speculates that a de facto French-German-Russian alliance might emerge under the guise of a Germany working to pull Russia closer to Europe. Poland and the United States would balance against this development, even as Polish sovereignty is respected by a Russia that would have to accommodate certain Western European norms.

But this last scenario, among the worst anyone can come up with, is not at all dismal. Consider this: had power in Russia at a particularly fragile moment in 1917 not been wrested by the Bolsheviks, it is entirely possible—likely even—that (over the course of the twentieth century) Russia would have evolved into a poorer, slightly more corrupt and unstable version of France and Germany, anchored to Europe, where most of Russia’s population is in any case located. The seventy-year Bolshevik interregnum which created a non-European empire is now past, the strongly European configuration of Russian demography remains unchanged, and now–Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s fitfully modernizing national-security state has no ideology to impose outside its borders, nor troops available to permanently occupy Eastern Europe like it did during the Cold War. In short, Russia is demographically tied to the Continent but finds it hard to dominate it. Meanwhile, Germany, as its economy and power amplify, may be forced to become a normal regional actor able to balance against Russia; in the process it might lose its quasi pacifism. Moreover, Moscow, as a fading European power, presents the United States with options because of Russia’s own manifold insecurities.

Any new Russian empire will be a weak reincarnation of previous ones, limited not only by Chinese influence in the Russian Far East but by Chinese political and economic influence in Muslim Central Asia as well. Newly vibrant states like China, India, Turkey, Poland and Kazakhstan are already containing Russia after a fashion. America’s goal must be to support Russia’s consolidation of its own Far East, so that China will feel less secure on land and consequently be unable to so completely devote its energies to sea power. Balancing against Russia in Europe and yet helping it abroad is the kind of subtle strategy that would help guard against any one nation achieving the level of dominance elsewhere that America already enjoys in the Western Hemisphere.

THE SOON-TO-BE-COMPLETED Amur highway in the Russian Far East linking Chita to Khabarovsk, 1,240 miles away, is about one thing: Russia’s fear of China. The new road, necessary to bring the Far East closer to Moscow, follows the Chinese border most of the way. This frontier region, known as Amuria to the north of the Chinese border and Ussuria to the east of it, has been fought over for centuries—czarist Russia against Qing (Manchu) China since the mid-seventeenth century, when Russian freebooters entered the region, to be followed by Muscovite soldiers and later by diplomats at a time when the Manchus were distracted by their conquests of Taiwan and parts of the mainland. This process culminated in 1860 when a decaying Chinese dynasty was forced to accept the transfer of three hundred fifty thousand square miles of territory into Russian hands, creating the current frontiers. Of course, now that China is strong and Russia comparatively weak, this border is coming under pressure from Chinese settlers and corporations seeking to move north to take advantage of the region’s oil, natural gas, timber and other resources. There is an inevitable—and perennially—tense relationship between Russia and China, obscured only for the moment by their tactical, somewhat anti-U.S. alliance. In July 2009, Chief of the Russian General Staff Nikolai Makarov made a slide presentation, and one of the slides reportedly said, “NATO and China . . . are the most dangerous of our geopolitical rivals.”2

Russia and China no longer mass troops on their borders; in fact, Putin recently opened an oil pipeline from the Russian Far East to Chinese Manchuria. Nevertheless, because the two countries can never really trust each other, the geopolitical opportunities for the United States in Eurasia are basic and structural. With no challenger in the Western Hemisphere, Washington will be free into the middle decades of the twenty-first century to keep any one power from gaining primacy in the Eastern Hemisphere.

THE STATUS quo dynamic America presently lives under is for the Chinese armed forces to become, at a minimum, a major regional power. More likely, Beijing will turn into a global power that will reduce America’s own air and naval reach in relative terms. There is practically no case of a nation building up its economic capacity over decades (as China is doing) without also developing a commensurate military capacity. China is only following the turn-of-the-twentieth-century United States in this regard. Whereas Americans take their blessed continental and oceanic geography for granted, the Chinese have a very consciously developed sense of space. This is because the current People’s Republic occupies the territory of the most expansionist Chinese dynasties of yore, comprising the arid, mineral-rich tableland in the west and the arable, riverine cropland of the coastal east. And yet at the same time, the Chinese carry within them the bitterness of immense violations of their sovereignty by Japan, Russia and Western nations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The result is a fierce territoriality, which today has led, for example, to an obsession with the South China Sea. At times, Beijing has even moved its navy into the blue water beyond the first Pacific island chain, which runs from Japan’s southern tip through Borneo.

The most signal international development the American media has failed to adequately cover is China’s emergence as a sea power, even as the influence of generals and particularly admirals is increasing in Beijing’s political circles. Now the South China Sea is to the Chinese what the Caribbean was to the Americans a hundred years ago (an international waterway that the United States came to dominate with the building of the Panama Canal). The South China Sea is the Pacific gateway to the Indian Ocean—the major oceanic interstate linking the hydrocarbon fields of the Middle East with the factories of East Asia. Over 80 percent of China’s oil imports and one-third of the world’s annual maritime trade flow through the Strait of Malacca at the South China Sea’s southern extremity. It is also home to some of the largest untapped stores of oil and natural gas in the world, while possession of its islands is disputed among China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

But the fact that the United States dominated the Caribbean in a previous epoch will not give China the right to do likewise in the South China Sea. The world has changed. Military and information technology have conquered distance, leading to a closed and claustrophobic strategic environment. We are entering an age when everyone can exercise everywhere in international waters, provided certain norms are obeyed. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in January 2010, the United States welcomed a Brazilian-led international force in Haiti, in the heart of the Caribbean, something it never would have done in decades past. And if the Chinese develop a blue-water navy, as they are bent on doing, and that navy pushes out beyond the first and second Pacific island chains in order to exercise near Hawaii on some distant morrow, America may have to accept that too. What Washington should not accept is Beijing staking out vast tracts of the South China Sea as its own. Preserving the balance of power in East Asia requires a sturdy U.S. naval presence to reassure allies, so that America can leverage them against China.

The danger for Washington is a crisis in East Asia in which the Chinese military urges action. In the future a weak civilian leader in Beijing might be overwhelmed by internal military pressure; America must balance respect for Chinese sovereignty with clear red lines. Indeed, China’s territorial difficulties in Xinjiang and Tibet will almost certainly continue, but because this will present little challenge to the Eurasian order, America must guard against responding in ways that provoke a nationalist popular reaction within China. Concomitantly, Washington must lay down markers for military acts in the Pacific that it will not tolerate: the U.S.–South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea to protest North Korea’s torpedo attack on a South Korean warship was one such clear statement. Of course, another red line would be if the PRC’s military signaled an intention to carry out a landing on Taiwan—but the island is one hundred miles from the mainland, not the twenty Normandy is from England. Such an amphibious assault will for years be beyond China’s capabilities. Given that there are one thousand five hundred short-range ballistic missiles focused on Taiwan from the mainland, even as 270 commercial flights a week link the two, Beijing is quietly incorporating the island into its sphere of influence. Thus Washington and Taipei must make a Chinese military assault so costly that Taiwan will be able to wrest a pivotal degree of independence from China far into the future.

The only way the United States will be able to encourage like-minded others to balance against China is if America itself practices restraint. For all these countries will have Beijing as their principal trading partner, and thus will never be in a mood for risk. The Anglosphere combined with prosperous allies in the Pacific with strong navies and air forces (whether it be the Japanese, South Koreans or Singaporeans—which are not postnational and consequently not prone to European-style quasi pacifism) give the United States a favorable security environment. Preserving it means rarely straying far from the comfort zone of its partners.

THE DEGREE to which the Pentagon and the State Department can shift their gazes to East Asia, as President Obama apparently, and correctly, wants to do, will directly affect America’s standing as a great power. The goal must be to get troop levels down low in Afghanistan, as they already are in Iraq, so that the United States can concentrate on the maritime domain from the Horn of Africa around the rimland of Eurasia to the Sea of Japan.

Nevertheless, a power that never gets in front of its allies will eventually reduce itself to irrelevance. It is now necessary to take risks both to decrease the threat of transnational terrorism and to help extricate the United States from a war in Afghanistan that is squandering energies better spent shoring up American power elsewhere. Despite some improved cooperation with Pakistan in military and intelligence matters, evinced by more successful drone attacks in recent years and the use of Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, Washington’s current relationship with Islamabad is unacceptable.

Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, particularly military aid, even as it directly and indirectly allows or supports al-Qaeda, Taliban, Uzbek, Uighur and other terrorists in its borderlands. Pakistani authorities learned too little from the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed 173 people and wounded 308, and were carried out by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET or Army of the Righteous). While Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) made some tactical adjustments in its dealings with Lashkar-e-Taiba, it did nothing to keep LET from launching another attack on India—which could lead the two nations to the brink of nuclear war. As U.S. and NATO troops die in Afghanistan and American taxpayers provide billions of dollars in aid, Islamabad is simply not in a position to tell Washington it is incapable of cracking down more forcefully on the Taliban, al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups.

A complete reassessment of assistance to Pakistan should not wait until after the next attack—on the United States or on India. Much more pressure must be brought to bear on Pakistani leaders by quietly threatening them with dramatically enhanced military assistance to India while concomitantly slowing aid to Islamabad if the Pakistani elite cannot deliver in terms of more help in the borderlands.

This may sound like dreadful counsel given the recent floods in the country, with attendant human suffering that can only be alleviated by massive aid, but to the degree that purely humanitarian assistance cannot be disaggregated, America is, nevertheless, compelled to carry forth this course of action.

Islamabad is run by a politically overbearing military obsessed with—and completely invested in—the conflict with India, and by a rapacious civilian elite that steals all it can and pays almost no taxes. The rot starts at the very top. Though the number of Pakistanis living in poverty has dropped by almost half in the last decade, civil society is emerging only partly owing to the country’s leadership, not wholly because of it, and this is happening despite assassinations and extremist violence. Even so, Pakistan is not a failed state; it is a country that continues to abuse its relationship with Washington at the highest levels of national security. It lurches from economic crisis to economic crisis supported by U.S. taxpayers’ money. (America has given Pakistan $15 billion in aid since 9/11, with President Obama approving an additional $7.5 billion over the next five years.) The country did not collapse when the military went after the Pakistani Taliban; it is unlikely it will collapse if Islamabad goes after the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. And the Pakistani army can easily divert the manpower and other resources. Though its members may make protestations to the contrary, if the Pakistani elite were faced with a stark choice between stalwart cooperation or a curtailment of the aid gravy train, the chances appear good that it would buckle. The country’s elite is greedy but not stupid. Pakistan gave up the Taliban once before, in the aftermath of 9/11, when U.S. pressure was overwhelming. It is time for such overwhelming pressure to be brought to bear again. Again, the point is not a wholesale shift in regime behavior, just more help on a few specific issues.

The Pakistani national-security apparatus may not know exactly where Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri are hiding. But it most certainly could find out if it went at the problem hard enough. And though the Pakistani government does not control the actions of the Taliban, a crackdown by Islamabad will go a long way to determining whether the Taliban is able to hold sway in southern and eastern Afghanistan as the United States begins to withdraw troops. Washington needs decisions by Islamabad that help motivate the Afghan Taliban and others hosting and supporting al-Qaeda to end that support. America needs more intelligence on—and full access for U.S. special-operations forces in—North Waziristan, where high-value al-Qaeda targets are presumed hiding with the connivance of the Haqqani network. We also need special-operations access to Quetta in Pakistani Baluchistan, the reported headquarters of the Afghan Taliban leadership.

A further tilt toward India is necessary if Pakistan refuses to take the actions needed against the Afghan Taliban and others who harbor al-Qaeda. Certainly, New Delhi neither seeks nor desires a formal strategic partnership with Washington. Out of national pride, and because of its own tense relationships with China and Pakistan, India needs to remain officially nonaligned. But that will not stop New Delhi from accepting more help from the United States, especially as India now wants to wean itself off Russian arms and replace them with better quality American equipment. Washington should require no quid pro quo from India to make it even more powerful in the region; this is about more than public pronouncements and diplomatic atmospherics, this is about quietly delivering arms, transferring technology and supplying intelligence data to one nation to punish another for taking billions of American dollars without providing the crucial help we require in return. In fact, given the burgeoning U.S. relationship with India, the process on which Washington would build has already begun.

The danger that pouring even more arms into India will only strengthen the hand of the Pakistani military internally is a good lawyer’s argument. But when one looks at the fine print, one sees that the military already runs almost everything it wants in Pakistan, overtly and covertly, while it willingly leaves the economic mess and many other vexing nonmilitary issues to the civilians.

Some will also say such a bold policy would drive the Pakistanis further into the arms of the Chinese. But Beijing already gives Islamabad stores of aid, and will have little appetite for additionally replacing U.S. largesse.

The American public will not tolerate sustained high troop levels and the same level of casualties in Afghanistan for the indefinite future. Yet the United States can only start to withdraw from Afghanistan, without its current regime being toppled shortly thereafter, if Islamabad fundamentally alters its policy. Pakistan’s military and ISI will not do that without the application of more political and economic pressure. And without substantial troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, Washington cannot devote the resources it must to East Asia to adequately compete with a rising China. If the United States keeps doing what it is doing in Afghanistan, and Pakistan keeps doing what it is doing—helping the Americans up to a point, while craftily abetting a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan after a decent interval following a substantial U.S. pullout—then there really will be a legitimate comparison with the fall of Saigon in 1975.

IF AMERICA is to move its grand-strategic focus at least partially away from the Middle East to stave off decline, it must not only withdraw from Afghanistan but also avoid a war with Iran—which would be counterproductive to the wider goal of U.S. preeminence. It is simply not in the American interest to launch a military campaign to prevent a nuclear Iran. And a campaign it would be: days, perhaps weeks, of bombing targets from air and naval platforms; targets (many of which are deep underground and near densely populated areas) that would in some cases have to be bombed a second and third time. A successful assault would have to set back the Iranian nuclear program a considerable number of years, incur a minimal number of casualties and avoid unconventional, asymmetric reprisals against U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf. A successful U.S. attack must also avoid a steep upsurge in Iranian-inspired violence and instability in Iraq, and would have to lead, at least eventually, to positive political evolution in Iran itself. All of this is problematic. And it would only serve to further embroil Washington in the region.

Moreover, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a worst-case scenario. Tehran would have a few uncertain weapons, though perhaps with a confident missile arsenal of various ranges, and an early-warning system the United States and Israel could penetrate at will, even as they would bear down on Iran with all the might of their own, far-vaster nuclear arsenals. In addition, a nuclear Islamic Republic would further weaken the influence of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and force them to rely on Israel and the United States for deterrence, even as they might develop their own nuclear arsenals as a response.

An Egypt and a Saudi Arabia forced to rely implicitly more on Israel for deterrence against Iran are more likely to put pressure on the West Bank Palestinians to conclude a peace deal with the Jewish state (though, it must be said, prospects for Middle East peace are slim under almost any circumstance). As much as liberal internationalists and neoconservatives rightly trumpet the broad benefits of democracy during this unprecedented time of democratic upheaval, it has been only Arab autocrats who have thus far come to an accord with Israel. Autocrats can act boldly, even as they can efficiently purge dissenting members of their own circles who disagree with new policies, exactly as Egypt’s President Anwar el-Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein did in making peace with Israel. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s ability to act likewise is questionable.

Indeed, the ascent of Iranian influence is not an altogether bad development. It was lethargic Sunni Arab dictatorships, nominally pro-American, whose societies supplied the social and political conditions for the emergence of the 9/11 terrorists. The toppling of Saddam Hussein, and the consequent rise of Shia Iran as a regional power, has finally shocked sclerotic Arab leaders into actions that benefit U.S. interests: moving a bit nearer to Israel and working more closely with America. An Iranian Shia power that balances against a Sunni Arab world, democratic or not, would be an ideal outcome were Iran to go through a whole or even partial political transformation. Shia power in the future will not necessarily speak with one voice, given the prospect of ongoing tensions between Tehran and Baghdad. For even a weak Shia state in Iraq will offer a political and theological alternative to the Islamic Republic. (This is not to justify the costs of invading Iraq, only to mention the few benefits that have emerged from the effort.) And Turkey, whose Islamic democracy makes the United States uncomfortable, still has an appeal to the Arab masses on the basis of religion rather than ethnicity which serves a useful purpose: it implicitly checks Iran.

A divided Middle East, coupled with an Arab world weakened by domestic strife, has much to recommend itself for the future of American power. And demographic, cultural and other indicators point to a positive ideological and philosophical shift in Iranian politics in the future. This prognosis, coupled with the difficulties inherent in a wholly successful U.S. strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, leads to the containment of a nuclear Iran—should sanctions and industrial sabotage not work in the long run—as the least-bad option, and the one least likely to embroil the United States even deeper in the Middle East.

THESE STRUCTURAL strategy changes are key to the maintenance of American power, but a successful foreign policy rests on leadership. Because so many decisions hang on a thread of subtlety, leadership is more an art and sensibility than a science. Since the end of the Cold War, no administration has so fluently mastered the challenges of waging limited war, of constructing new alliances and of managing epochal change than that of the elder Bush. It methodically put together a broad coalition to reverse Saddam’s territorial aggression against Kuwait, and then smartly limited the war’s aims, leaving a weakened Saddam in power rather than making Washington responsible for governing millions of Iraqis. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was not the work of George H. W. Bush, but the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire that followed might well have been. The hallmark of the forty-first president was to manage change, not to provoke it; history had already been set in motion by larger forces. Rather than loudly cheer the fall of Communism and do a victory lap around Eastern Europe, the elder Bush was restrained, silent almost, while quietly urging the Soviets not to react. Bush knew that the democratic independence of Eastern Europe ultimately rested on Soviet intentions. Had Bush exhorted change more than he did, he would have risked a military backlash from Moscow. The great accomplishment of his administration was the dog that did not bark. And as we know from Iraq, realism is only appreciated after the lack of it has made a situation demonstrably worse. Had Bush the elder listened to his critics and cut ties with Beijing after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, China might not have continued on its path toward capitalism in the way that it has.

Restraint was shown everywhere—but so was a boldness at key junctures that only looks obvious in hindsight. Bush never wavered on German reunification within NATO and never wavered on removing Iraqi troops from Kuwait by force, even though both policies were controversial at the time. Thus was the assertion of American primacy coupled with extreme self-control a formula well suited for the coming decades. Bush was not perfect; his constitutes a leadership standard that, if not great, was good enough. After all, he did not intervene when fighting erupted in Yugoslavia, and that may well have been a mistake, with serious humanitarian consequences. American realism is only realistic if it contains an idealistic element, otherwise what is to separate it from Chinese foreign policy? In Bush’s defense, it was not unreasonable for him to see if the Europeans would take the lead on this first crisis on the Continent since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a crisis whose strategic significance for the United States was not immediately apparent.

U.S. power can only be preserved by a form of tough but restrained leadership most appropriately modeled on the final presidency of a World War II veteran. The realistic scenario for the world system—one that evolves linearly from current events—features highly complex and unstable regional cold wars descending upon the Middle East and East Asia (the upshot of Iranian and North Korean nuclear-weapons programs), involving multiple powers in each theater. Such a circumstance would continue until regime changes in Tehran and Pyongyang take place. Because the United States is in a strong position to weather these conflicts, the key component for husbanding American power will be an advertised preparedness to wage limited war in defense of its allies without actually having to do so. A casualty-averse society, yet one with overwhelming military might and, therefore, global responsibilities, will have its future determined by its ability to coerce without the actual use of force.

1 Francis G. Hutchins, The Illusion of Permanence: British Imperialism in India (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967), 196–97; Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 137–38 and 151–53; Robert D. Kaplan, Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground (New York: Random House, 2005), 368.

2 Simon Saradzhyan, “Russia’s Red Herring,” International Relations and Security Network, May 25, 2010.

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