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In search of a GOP foreign policy

Uncertainty and ambiguity are not strategic principles

foreign_policy_cartoonAs the 2016 campaign shapes up one of the most contentious intra-party issues is national security but it is hardly likely to get a serious consideration.

The current national security policy of the United States is broken and a serious debate is needed on what is to replace it.

During Obama’s first term, particularly during the slow-motion conquest of the Arab world by Islamic extremists under the warm and fuzzy name of “Arab Spring” there were two distinct threads running through Obama’s national security policy. First, the hen party that pretended to lead American national security policy were heavily invested in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine (why do we have a Irishwoman, Samantha Power, involved in setting our national security policy? Can Harvard train so few native-born idiots that we must import them?). If you look at the reason given for our intervention in Libya and Syria it is the treatment of the citizens of those nations by their own regime. That the citizens in question had engaged in armed rebellion and would happily kill us if they took control of those nations never seemed to have entered the calculus. The second part was a “war on the cheap” mentality. The idea that a handful of drone strikes and possibly some US airstrikes coupled with encouraging allies, like Qatar, to run weapons to the various insurgencies would be cheap and easy way to overthrow dictatorships that were either hapless (Libya) or unfriendly (Syria). This has strategy has been shown to be bankrupt, morally and intellectually. The successor regimes we’ve installed are more oppressive and violent than the ones we removed (for instance, Egypt). At least 150,000 people have been killed and over 2 million turned into refugees by our meddling in Syria. We look to be on the verge of breaking that record in Iraq. On the other hand, none of our enemies fear us and none of our allies respect us so one can’t say that Obama has accomplished nothing.

But what is to replace it?

Writing in today’s The Federalist, former Congressman Chuck DeVore responds to Marco Loyola writing in National Review by offering a policy built around two principles: national consensus and strategic ambiguity. This idea has a certain logic to recommend it, but it doesn’t bear up under analysis.

But, in making his case for a robust, consistent foreign policy based on tried and true great power principles, Loyola overlooks one key ingredient: U.S. foreign policy must not only strive to protect the national interest, it must also be sustainable in the face of American public opinion (Loyola has treated the matter of public opinion in foreign policy in other pieces).

This is difficult to disagree with but it is even more difficult to see how this happens. Except for a relatively short period in our history between 1945 and 1989 the American public has rarely agreed on very much in the realm of national security policy particularly when it came to the use of military force, which is the central focus of Mr. DeVore’s essay. The War of 1812, now often styled our “second War of Independence” was not supported by much of the United States and was referred to as Mr. Madison’s War. The Mexican War found support mostly in the southern states. This did not, however, stop the United States from carrying out a fairly vigorous array of military operations. Without any great national debate, often with no more than the order of the president, we thumped the Barbary pirates, fought various Indian tribes, invaded Mexico several times, occupied Puerto Rico, Samoa, Haiti, Cuba, and the Philippines, and intervened in Argentina, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic.

The existential threat posed by the USSR, specifically its nuclear arsenal, provided the basis for a consistent national security policy that prevailed over successive changes of administration. However, by the time of Reagan’s second term this consensus was fraying. Reagan came near impeachment over the Iran Contra Affair, which was brought on by a Democrat Congress not supporting his efforts to combat and roll-back communist insurrection in Central America, and the nuclear freeze movement showcased the extent to which a large number of Americans were no longer willing to confront the USSR. Once the Soviet Union folded there was no national consensus, and more importantly no political consensus – a consensus between the two major political parties — on what defined our national interest.

A quick look at both parties today tells you there is no political consensus on the US relationship with Israel, with the EU, with China, with Russia, or even with state sponsors of terror like Iran and North Korea. Without a political consensus it is unlikely that American public opinion will galvanize around any course of action before it is too late to do anything but react to situations. Most of us want a pony, too, but we probably aren’t going to get it.

To illustrate this, DeVore raises the hoary objection to nation building though apparently without a firm grasp about what he’s talking about:

As for nation-building, since when did it become a moral obligation to attempt to build a version of America in a far off land that had threatened American interests or produced terrorists? The challenge with nation-building is the effort it takes to sustain it in a hostile environment.

This is a straw man. Nation building doesn’t attempt to build a version of America but rather provide space for civil society of the local variety to take root. Nation building is not counterinsurgency and doesn’t necessarily involve combat operations. The military’s doctrinal manual on Counterinsurgency, FM 3-24, has this to say about nation building:

Unfortunately, the success of major combat operations, an unambiguously military activity, does not ensure a lasting, sustainable peace. In fact, barring genocide, no recent major war has led to lasting peace without a significant period of reconstruction and stabilization—stability operations—following a peace agreement. Even World War II, the epitome of the use of military force to compel enemies to do our national will, did not result in lasting peace without a sustained stabilization effort. On the other hand, the lack of a clear, adequately-resourced stability plan for Iraq fed the insurgency that has consumed far more lives and money than the major combat operations that toppled the former regime.

One only has to look at our southern border today and ask if we are better off spending the time, money, and effort dealing with the problem of violence and the deterioration of civil society in some Central American countries the way we are rather than by addressing those problem in the countries of origin.

Then DeVore goes on to make, in my view, a rather stunning policy prescription:

But, might U.S. policy going forward be served by a different paradigm, one that seeks to keep America secure at a minimal cost in blood and treasure while at the same time increasing potential adversaries’ anxiety over the likelihood of American action?

What if the United States fought a short war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then left, promising to return if either region produced a threat to American lives or U.S. interests?

The obvious answer is that while we are all in favor of spending the minimum necessary to secure ourselves and our interests the idea of keeping your opponents guessing about what we will do is a decidedly dunderheaded way to go about it. Arguably, we did this in Iraq and it worked out real well for us. Unfortunately, anxiety is only created among our allies. In fact, it is exactly this kind of policy that got us into the Korean War, though DeVore misses it in his somewhat distorted alternative history of that conflict. Not only did the US withdraw from Korea in 1949 but Dean Acheson gave his now infamous “perimeter speech” that pointedly excluded Taiwan and South Korea from the US defensive perimeter in the Pacific. We left in place our defense agreement with Korea. As a result, the North Koreans decided to have a go. The result of leaving the North Koreans in doubt about our intentions was over 1.5 million dead and millions more wounded and displaced. On the whole it was a fairly expensive way of making the North Koreans find out what we would do when leaving a troop presence there would have answered the same question.

Would we have been better off withdrawing from Europe in 1945, leaving the Soviets uncertain about our actions? Possibly, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how the 45 year military presence in Western Europe was not only warranted but much cheaper than the likely alternative. Is an Israel or Hamas uncertain of U.S. response a better alternative to those entities when certain of U.S. response? How about a nuclear Iran, something that will inevitably be in existence under the next U.S. president? Are their neighbors safer if Iran is unsure or U.S. response?

What DeVore advocates is simply Obama’s national security policy under a Republican administration. All things being equal, I’m sure Obama favors national consensus. In fact, he succeeded in building such a consensus in regards to Libya and tried fairly hard to develop a consensus in favor of US intervention in Syria. He has also left our adversaries unsure about our actions. As a result, what should have been a nation firmly within the US orbit, Iraq, is on the verge of disintegration with most of it held in thrall by our enemies: Russia, Iran, and Islamic extremists. Obama’s version of ambiguity is “leading from behind.” Because our intentions in regards to Russian aggression in Ukraine are unclear our allies in Europe are cutting their own deals. None of this would have changed under DeVore’s proposal other than perhaps the decisions in Libya and Syria.

By insuring ambiguity and eschewing the use of US soft power to develop civil societies amenable to existing peacefully with their neighbors because of a knee-jerk aversion to the words “nation building” we are stuck, then, with a policy of isolationism, which is just silliness under a different label, or a non-stop series of punitive expeditions to protect U.S. lives or interests when someone, somewhere miscalculates about our intentions. Not to say the latter can’t work. The Roman, Byzantine, and British Empires all employed this method to an extent.

The GOP right now has the flexibility to examine a variety of national security policy and national security policy alternatives in anticipation of having the presidency, the House and the Senate in 2016. There are no cheap answers and no easy answers. Our choices in the world are stark, either we make our interests known and actively defend those we will become a second tier power. If we pursue the route advocated by Mr. DeVore we will accelerate our slide into irrelevance and provoke wars that could have been easily avoided.

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