The Delusions of American Strategy

The Delusions of American Strategy

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


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.

Our mischief in Ukraine followed a steady enlargement of NATO (whose purpose was to contain the Soviet threat), appending the western neighbors of a prostrate Russia, notwithstanding U.S. assurances to the contrary. Vladimir Putin could thus persuade his subjects they were being surrounded, exploit latent nationalism and thereby split his democratic opposition, buttress his decrepit and demoralized army, and move towards an alliance with a rising, ambitious China, boasting a world-class military and five times Russia's gross domestic product. Wishing to “pivot to Asia,” we created another distraction to accompany our Middle East obsession.


Astigmatic Paradigms

The Octopus disseminated a distorted view of the Middle East conflict. We have been trained to perceive countries seeking to democratize or “radical” opposing “moderate” states. A veteran observer, Anthony H. Cordesman, has stated on the front page of the New York Times that America had long restricted selling

“advanced weapons… to Arab nations… to ensure that Israel keeps a military advantage….

But because Israel and the Arab states are now in a de facto alliance against Iran, the Obama administration [allows] the sale of advanced weapons in the Persian Gulf, with few public objections from Israel.

…‘Israel’s strategic calculation is a simple one,’ said Anthony H. Cordesman… The gulf countries ‘do not represent a meaningful threat’ to Israel… ‘They do represent a meaningful counterbalance to Iran.’”

But the main threat to Israel comes not directly from “countries” but from “non-state actors” like Hamas, Al Qaeda and especially Daesh. Religious revivalism more than national ambitions animate this struggle.

We continue to identify “evildoers” by the utterances of monarchs and supreme leaders instead of by interests and actions. That has produced, not a “stately quadrille,” but a cacophonous jitterbug into which we insist on cutting in, breeding more fanatical enemies.

We have converted the world’s most powerful nation into a beguiled, bloodied and broke Don Quixote. If Americans are as deluded as he, it is not because they overdosed on obsolete tales of chivalry. Instead, they have misread the region through the outdated astigmatic spectacles of a sensationalist media.

In his seminal Public Opinion (1922), Walter Lippmann framed the term “system of stereotypes.” Because the modern world had become “too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance,” the public was snagged in a “pseudo-environment” based on "the news." Thus policymakers and policy takers, passive couch potatoes and pigheaded pundits, were now condemned to experience their epoch by proxy, ensnared in “systems of stereotypes” or what post-structuralists dub “paradigms.” Such spurious world pictures govern policy today far more than in Lippmann’s day.

Even delusions require a fact or two, and Iraq offered evidence that Saddam’s regime was totalitarian and expansionist. Yet paradigms serve only when treated as hypotheses, then tested and revised. That is the way of science, as opposed to conjecture.


Looking in Another Direction

Terrorism never presented an existential threat to any state, still less one as powerful and wealthy as America. The existential threat we face resides elsewhere. While the Middle East obsessed us, economic and geopolitical action shifted to the Pacific.

There is an alarming gap between the American view of China and that of its neighbors. The former sees “business opportunities,” the latter are terrified by China's military build-up and brazen territorial claims. The New York Times editorial board, not known for hawkish opinions, notes:

“China is investing in new systems, including submarines, surface ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles, that could be used to further intimidate neighbors or deny the United States access to Asian waters to defend its allies.”

The respected Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has compared Western inattention to China’s oceanic claims to the West’s failure to resist Hitler’s demands for Czech lands. Japan's Prime Minister alarmed the 2014 Davos meeting by observing that Germany and Britain went to World War One notwithstanding their close economic ties—such as those today between China and Japan (and America). Last year, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi shocked observers by authoring, with visiting President Obama, an accusation against Beijing’s provocations in the South China Sea. Modi proposed a security compact among the United States, India, Japan and Australia.

Last November, China announced its first overseas outpost and a sweeping plan to make its military a force to project power. The outpost, in the East African nation of Djibouti on the Red Sea, across from Yemen, contradicted Beijing’s policy banning overseas bases. The sole U.S. military base in Africa is also located in Djibouti, employed as a staging ground for counterinsurgency operations. Some military analysts foresee a China-U.S. conflict in the region.

Notwithstanding the dangers posed by China at sea, Beijing’s real purpose may be to draw U.S. resources to the Pacific, while China focuses on the Eurasian landmass. Last year, President Xi Jinping announced construction of a road-rail-pipeline corridor to the port of Gwadar, Pakistan. Many China watchers consider this new “Silk Road” as but a single stride in a “long march” across Eurasia.

Alfred McCoy, the distinguished University of Wisconsin historian, contends that high-speed, high-volume railroads, capable of transporting not only commodities but soldiers and tanks, are part of Beijing’s plan to convert Eurasia into an empire “stretching 6,500 miles from Shanghai to Madrid.” McCoy (anything but a warmonger) contends Beijing would thus shift the locus of geopolitical power from the maritime periphery, dominated first by the British and then the American navy. The prospect of such a geopolitical revolution suggests we need to broker a deal to persuade Ukraine-obsessed Europeans to wake up. If Europe is distracted and Russia is allied with China, the latter will plow through Eurasia like a power running back.