IN THE West Wing episode “The Women of Qumar,” the White House concludes a $1.5 billion arms sale to the fictional country of Qumar on the Persian Gulf in exchange for an extended lease on a base for the U.S. Air Force. C. J. Cregg, the president’s press secretary, is livid about the deal because of the Qumari government’s nasty treatment of women. (The parallel with the conduct of the governments of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain was not terribly subtle.) As a woman herself, Gregg views a close relationship between the United States and an odious regime as utterly unacceptable. In the climatic scene she confronts the president’s national-security adviser, also a woman, about the deal. The national-security adviser justifies the arrangement as strengthening the U.S. military’s position in that part of the world. Gregg will have no part of such an excuse, and she wrings an admission out of her colleague that the military base was not essential; it was merely “convenient.”
That level of justification should never be acceptable in the real world. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that U.S. administrations adopt that standard routinely. The convenience standard for backing corrupt, thuggish rulers is especially worrisome given Washington’s excessively interventionist foreign policy. Indeed, there are many initiatives that are considered necessities within the context of that policy that would come nowhere close to clearing the bar if the United States had a more restrained and cautious policy largely confined to the defense of vital American security interests. While there may be times when, for legitimate security reasons, it is necessary to make ethical compromises, it is nonetheless imperative to establish some standards to determine when a situation warrants making that sacrifice and when it does not. Three factors must be considered. First, how crucial is the U.S. interest at stake? Second, how seriously is that interest threatened? Finally, just how odious is Washington’s prospective partner? The first consideration is the most important, but the others are far from minor.
In determining what kind of interest—security, economic or political—is involved and how important it is to the well being of the American people, it is essential to define the pertinent terms. Unfortunately, that is something U.S. officials often fail to do at all, or at best do in a perfunctory, slipshod fashion. But not all interests are created equal; some are vastly more important than others, and threats to less important ones mandate greater restraint about making ethical compromises.
Determining the nature and level of national interests is a complex exercise, and the following is merely a rough guide to that task. In general, though, interests can (and should) be divided into four broad categories: vital, secondary or conditional, peripheral, and barely relevant. Each category warrants a different level of response from the United States and a different degree of association with potential authoritarian partners.
UNFORTUNATELY, IN both the Cold War and the so-called War on Terror, U.S. leaders have had a tendency to lump almost everything into the “vital interest” category. That is unfortunate on several levels, not the least because such thinking provides a rationale for unnecessarily embracing repulsive regimes. The reality is that for any nation, but especially for the United States, vital interests are few in number. National survival is obviously the most important interest, but the preservation of political independence, domestic liberty and economic well-being from external threats all are part of the mix as well. How secure those vital interests are depends heavily on both the threat environment and the capabilities of the adversary in question.
The United States may be the most secure great power in history. Not only does it benefit from having two vast oceans on its eastern and western flanks, which renders a large-scale conventional attack on the American homeland virtually impossible, but it also has the luxury of dealing with an assortment of weak, and for the most part friendly, neighbors throughout the hemisphere. There is no country that even approaches being a serious military peer competitor in America’s neighborhood. For all the talk of Brazil’s rise, even that country has an enormous distance to go before it could achieve the status of economic peer competitor. In the Western Hemisphere, the United States is, and is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, the utterly dominant strategic and economic player.
Even viewing the security environment on a global basis, it is difficult to identify many credible threats to America’s vital interests. Although there are a handful of rising powers (most notably India and China), the United States still has a sizable economic edge and an enormous military advantage. Moreover, both of those rising powers have a considerable stake in maintaining decent relations with the United States. Indeed, New Delhi’s strategic interests substantially overlap those of Washington. The situation with Beijing is more complex and ambiguous, and there are some issues that could lead to significant bilateral tensions. China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan remains a point of conflict, as do Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Even so, there are important factors, especially the mutually lucrative trade relationship, that serve to mute those tensions.
Moreover, even if a major power or an alliance of major powers did seek to challenge the United States, it is difficult to see how they could menace America’s survival, political independence, domestic liberty or economic health. A direct threat to any of those interests seems far-fetched. Even a campaign to so substantially alter the global distribution of power that the shift could pose an indirect threat to America’s vital interests is an extremely remote danger. That scenario would require a hostile power or an alliance of hostile powers being poised to dominate multiple regions that have crucial security and economic assets. Specifically, in today’s world, such an adversary would have to be capable of gaining control of Europe and East Asia and the South Asia/Persian Gulf region.
U.S. policymakers feared precisely that kind of outcome during World War II with the alliance between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and Washington fretted about a similar danger during the late 1940s and early 1950s when the Soviet Union’s power was ascendant. Whatever the legitimacy of those worries in earlier decades—and the danger was substantially overblown—the notion of an adversary or adversaries dominating all three regions today or in the foreseeable future is the stuff of paranoid fantasy.
The mere emergence of a global peer competitor—much less an outright global adversary on the scale of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union—is improbable for the next several decades. In the unlikely event that such an adversary emerges, the United States is more than capable of dealing with the challenge. Despite its recent economic malaise—and the self-inflicted wounds caused by the federal government’s fiscal mismanagement—the United States still has the largest and most impressive economy in the world, accounting for more than one-fifth of global output. Washington’s military advantages are even more daunting. No nation can come close to fielding conventional forces that rival America’s.
Washington’s advantage in nuclear weaponry is equally apparent. The only country that has an arsenal comparable to that of the United States is Russia. And Russia’s economic, political and demographic problems make that country a one-dimensional, anemic peer competitor. China deploys a meager arsenal of a few hundred nuclear weapons, most of which are configured to be useful only in a second-strike (i.e., a response to a nuclear attack) scenario. It would take at least a decade, and probably much longer, for China to deploy a nuclear capability that came close to matching America’s.
A direct military challenge by a would-be peer competitor is far-fetched and would require a suicidal mentality by that country’s political leadership. America’s other adversaries are strictly second-tier or even third-tier powers, such as Iran and North Korea. Such countries are totally outclassed by Washington’s conventional military power, and although Pyongyang is attempting to barge into the global nuclear-weapons club (and Tehran may still harbor ambitions to do so), any arsenals that they might develop would be miniscule compared to the vast U.S. stockpile. Indeed, their purpose in developing a small nuclear-weapons capability appears to be primarily to deter the United States from making them the target of the kind of coercion that Washington employed against such nonnuclear adversaries as Serbia, Iraq and Libya.
What about the possible threat that terrorism (either state-sponsored or nonstate) poses to America’s vital interests? Experts who highlight that threat note the logic of deterrence that applies to states may not be relevant to nonstate actors. America’s vast military superiority, including its strategic nuclear deterrent, they argue, would mean little, since there would often be no return address for a retaliatory strike. Furthermore, terrorists are much more likely than leaders of nation states to be suicidal, since they benefit little or nothing from the status quo and, therefore, have far less to lose by engaging in rash actions.
Some pundits and policy experts contend that the leadership of certain countries, especially Iran, might be similarly indifferent to the consequences to themselves or their populations of launching an attack on the United States or U.S. allies, such as Israel. But there is little evidence to support that thesis, and considerable evidence to refute it, especially in the case of Iran. Meir Dagan, the former chief of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, told 60 Minutes in 2012 that the Iranian government, while ruthless, behaves in a rational fashion. Tehran’s conduct over the past three-and-a-half decades supports that conclusion. Despite vowing never to make peace with Saddam Hussein’s government after Iraqi forces attacked Iran in the early 1980s, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did agree to a peace accord at the end of that decade. Tehran did so when Khomeini and other Iranian officials concluded that the costs of continuing the war would exceed any probable benefits, and that a favorable outcome, even after more years of warfare, was anything but certain. That behavior reflected sober calculation, not suicidal impulses. Attacking the United States, which has thousands of nuclear weapons, or even Israel, which experts estimate possesses at least seventy or eighty such weapons, would constitute the height of folly.