The Delusions of American Strategy

The Delusions of American Strategy

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


As for “business opportunities,” China is promoting a mercantile import substitution policy in key industries such as software and semiconductors while subsidizing state-managed Chinese competitors. The policy discourages domestic companies from purchasing U.S. hardware, restricts American websites and apps, and engages in cyber-theft of codes, intellectual property and technology. Chinese hackers have stolen technology from private companies, four million U.S. government workers and more than twenty million Americans. Cyber attacks could cripple power stations, banking systems, cellphone networks and hospitals. In September, President Barack Obama warned of a cyberwar with China unless the latter curtails its activities.

China also aims to supplant the same international economic institutions that helped make Asia prosperous, the IMF and the World Bank. It has created an "Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank" and a "New Development Bank," neither observing the environmental, labor and procurement standards of traditional development banks. Furthermore, China is dangling financial and trade incentives to resurrect the old Silk Road trading route that once linked China and the Mediterranean. That could mean Pakistan and its neighbors will become Chinese vassals in the fallout of our Afghan war


Beijing, of course, is not without serious economic and social problems. But like other expansionist powers, it seeks to divert domestic dissatisfaction into external chauvinism. China watchers told us that China’s assertive new leader, Xi Jinping, would reduce domestic inequities and challenge Party corruption. However, his “anticorruption” campaign focuses chiefly on purging his rivals. Xi has emerged, Evan Osnos writes, “as the most authoritarian leader since Chairman Mao.” Xi is served by advisers (allegedly as corrupt as his opponents) who have tightened access to Western officials, and whose trademark is hostility to the United States. During Obama's visit last fall, Chinese state-controlled media banged out a drumbeat of anti-American conspiracy theories. All the while, its spies were reading State Department emails.

A “princeling,” Xi has vowed to “hold high the banner of Mao Zedong Thought forever.” Xi was both an activist in and a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where he learned to eschew its aberrations.

Both World Wars offer disturbing analogies. Before World War I, a rising Imperial Germany built a navy to rival Britain's. Before World War II, an one-party, totalitarian state portrayed itself as a victim of history, modernized its economy, stirred up nationalist grievances, covertly built an offensive military, made territorial claims against its neighbors and enforced them through blitzkrieg.

The Chinese leadership is far more nuanced and patient in seeking “lebensraum” than Nazi Germany, and today's world is more willing to accommodate a rising China than the Kaiser's Germany. Beijing’s two-steps-forward, one-step-back conduct suggests that its conjectured “protracted war” (Mao’s phrase) will, unlike that we have been examining, be subtle and deceptive if it is actualized. Michael Pillsbury recently documented that China sees its march to hegemony as a “marathon.” Can we afford to engage in two conflicts that promise to last for decades?


What Is to Be Done?

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