Obviously there exists a hierarchy of needs, and meaningful improvement in people’s lives as a first priority should demand flexibility on our part—or else it will be harder to compete with the Chinese. The expansion of middle classes worldwide will by itself lead to greater calls for democracy: for as people’s material lives improve they will increasingly demand more political freedoms anyway. We do not need to force the process. If we do, it will be we who are the ones being ideological; not the Chinese, who have the civilizational confidence and serenity to accept political systems as they already are.
Yet, even at our worst, our political system is open and capable of change in the way that China, and that other great autocratic power, Russia, are not. A world in which the United States is the dominant power will be a more humane world of more personal freedoms than a world led by China.
I concentrate on China in this essay because China constitutes a much stronger economy, a much more institutionalized political system, and a more formidable twenty-first-century cultural genius than Russia. Therefore, China should be the yardstick or pacing power by which our diplomatic, security and defense establishments measures themselves: merely by competing with China we will make our own institutions stronger. Such competition is all that might be left to jolt our bureaucracies out of their ongoing decrepitude and decline. Indeed, the profusion of travel orders, security clearance paperwork, unnecessary receipts, and so forth, even as the hacking of our systems continues, are all ways in which we deliberately deceive and defeat ourselves. Paperwork arises out of the lack of trust. The more paperwork, the less trust that exists within a bureaucracy. The Pentagon is a prime example of this. We should always remember that there is no regulation or procedure to instill basic common sense.
September 11, 2001 might have provided the jolt that we desperately needed. But the younger Bush administration misused it. And even if it had not, 9/11, as significant as it was, was a one-time security event that cannot compete with a decades-long competition with China.
COMPETITION WITH China can teach us about priorities, which are the mainstays of grand strategy.
One priority should be to effectively get out of the Middle East. Every extra day that the United States is diverted and bogged down in the Middle East with significant numbers of ground troops helps China in the Indo-Pacific and Europe even, where China is working to establish powerful commercial shipping footholds in places like Trieste on Italy’s Adriatic shore and Duisburg in riverine Germany; to say nothing about promoting its 5G digital network. I don’t mean to say that we should pull all our forces out of the Middle East tomorrow. I mean that our goal should be to reduce our military footprint as quickly as practically possible, whenever and wherever possible.
For example, the United States has had combat troops in Afghanistan for almost two decades with no demonstrable result. The future of Afghanistan will be decided by competing ethnic alliances within that country, and Indians and Iranians squaring off against Chinese and Pakistanis. The Indians and Iranians will build an energy and transport corridor from Chah Bahar in southeastern Iran north through western Afghanistan into former Soviet Central Asia. The Chinese and Pakistanis will try to build another such corridor from Gwadar in southwestern Pakistan north, parallel with the Afghan border, to Kashgar in western China. In particular, Pakistan, which will always require Afghanistan as a rear base against India, must, therefore, struggle against India in Afghanistan. India, whose own imperial past encompasses the eastern half of Afghanistan, will do everything possible to thwart Pakistan there. Russia, which lies just to the north of Afghanistan, will also play a role because of its interest in smothering radical Islam. A great game is about to ensue in Afghanistan in which the United States will play absolutely no part, regardless of how much blood it has shed there, because it lacks a geographical basis for it, and therefore has little or no national interest at stake.
All we can do is help stabilize Afghanistan so that the Chinese and others can more safely continue to establish mining and other operations in the country. In any case, building a strong central government in Afghanistan may prove chimerical since none has ever existed in Kabul. The city has traditionally functioned as a central point of arbitration for the various warlords and tribal leaders that have exercised effective control in southern Central Asia. Covering the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, I saw vividly how the Soviets lost because the mujahidin enemy, a diverse collection of tribal-based groups which viciously distrusted each other, provided the Soviets with no useful point of attack. Afghanistan’s very disorganization defeated the Soviets, just as it has been defeating us.
Iran, of course, so populous and well-educated, and fronting not one but two hydrocarbon-rich zones (the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea), is the demographic, economic and cultural organizing principle of both the Middle East and Central Asia. But what happens inside Iran will be internally driven. Iranians have a civilizational sense of themselves equal to that of the Indians, Chinese and Japanese. Even dramatic American diplomatic actions, like signing a nuclear deal with it, and later abrogating that same deal, can have only a marginal effect on Iran’s confoundedly-complex domestic politics in a country of over eighty million people. Despite periodic street demonstrations which will continue, the very institutionalized strength of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and other regime organizations make Iran perhaps the most stable big state in the Muslim Middle East.
As for Iraq, the inching forward of political stability there, however messy and fragile, has had relatively little to do with what the United States has done; or has not done. In fact, improvement in the Iraqi political situation has, for the most part, occurred despite American actions; not because of them. One American president destabilized Iraq by toppling its totalitarian ruler. The next American president further destabilized it by suddenly withdrawing American troops. Thus, from the anarchy of Iraq after Saddam Hussein came for a time the tyranny of the Islamic State. It was the experience of living under the Islamic State that convinced many Sunnis that they were better off allying with Shiites than with radicals of their own sect. It is this fact that has given Iraq some measure of hope and stability. True, American special operations forces helped a moderate Shiite leader defeat the Islamic State. But this moderate Shiite leader was subsequently defeated at the polls. In short, Iraq will determine its own destiny, influenced by Iran, the great power next door. American influence will remain marginal, whether or not we have any troops there. I say this as someone who initially supported the invasion of Iraq, which I have come to bitterly regret.
As for Syria, Bashar al-Assad has reconsolidated power in the only part of Syria that ultimately counts: its main population centers. Israel, buttressed by massive American military and economic aid, will be able to deal with the Iranian presence in Syria on its own. If the Russians want to get bogged down in Syria for the sake of their decadeslong investment in the Assad family regime, good luck to them. And by the way, Israel, unlike the United States, has a workmanlike, albeit problematic, relationship with Russia which it can employ as a go-between with Iran. The United States benefits very little by diverting time and resources to Syria.
The United States needs to end its adventures in the Middle East begun immediately after 9/11. Of course, the Chinese hope we never leave the Middle East. For if we deliberately defeat ourselves by remaining militarily engaged in the Middle East, it will only ease China’s path to global supremacy. Indeed, China would like nothing better than a war between the United States and Iran. China is already Iran’s largest trading partner and is pouring tens of billions of dollars into port, canal, and other development projects in Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula, proving how America’s military involvements in the region have gotten it virtually nowhere.
NO PLACE in the Muslim Middle East can serve as a litmus test of how we are doing vis-à-vis China the way that India and Taiwan can. They are the pivots that will go a long way to determining the strength of the American position in the Indo-Pacific: the first-among-equals when it comes to global strategic geography.