The following essay by Prof. Joshua Rovner, SMU's John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security, first appeared in the Feb. 8, 2015, edition of Lawfare. He is the author of Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence.
February 11, 2015
President Obama fails all the time. That is the verdict of the op-ed pages, at least. His foreign policy is a muddle. His decisions to exit from Afghanistan and Iraq were disastrously premature. His responses to terrorism, Syria, Iran, and Russia revealed weakness. His response to the rise of China is a massive failure based on wishful thinking. America’s standing in the world is in steep decline because of all these errors.
Of course, the situation was no better in the last administration. Our summary judgment about President Bush is more or less summarized in the titles of two popular books from the time: Hubris and Fiasco. Our summary judgment of President Clinton was that he lacked any conception of grand strategy, concentrated on domestic policy at the expense of foreign affairs, and otherwise took a “holiday from history.” And we can go back much further. Indeed, read the news from any era and you may get the feeling that the United States is incapable of coherent foreign policy, that it is devoid of serious strategic thinkers, and that its whole history is a depressing catalog of blunders. Yet somehow we ended up as the world’s most prosperous and powerful country.
To be clear, the United States is certainly capable of blunders. Americans frequently misunderstand foreign crises but plow into them nonetheless. They are also capable of nationalist back-slapping and heroic myth-making that obscure the limits of American power. And sometimes they throw good money after bad in foolhardy attempts to rescue ill-conceived policies. We should not ignore these errors, however tragic and demoralizing. Exploring the causes and consequences of strategic failure is a necessary antidote to hubris.
But the United States has also done some things very well, blending activism and restraint in order to deal with present threats without getting mired in unsolvable long-term quagmires. It is historically secure and prosperous, and its position in the world is not simply a matter of geography or luck. For a number of reasons, however, we often fail to acknowledge our own triumphs. This has major implications. For analysts, the focus on failure makes it difficult to understand the sources of success. For policymakers, it encourages abandoning successful strategies and replacing them with bad ones. This leads to overreach, not because of victory fever but because of the inability to recognize victory in the first place.
Consider the conflict with Iraq during the 1990s. The decade began with the first Gulf War, which many worried would be an atrocious bloodbath. At the time, Iraq boasted the fourth-largest army in the world, battle-tested in the long war with Iran. Saddam Hussein was ruthless and aggressive, and the Iraqis had proven willing to suffer horrendous casualties rather than capitulate to their enemies. But Operation Desert Storm was a stunningly rapid victory with a historically low casualty rate for the U.S.-led coalition. In the process it destroyed the bulk of Iraq’s conventional military capabilities, and the sanctions that remained on Iraq over the next decade shattered Iraq’s economy and prevented it from rebuilding. During the 1990s, +weapons inspectors also located and destroyed Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons and caused Iraq to shelve its nuclear ambitions. Most important, Saddam Hussein’s behavior changed during that time. Before Desert Storm he harbored dreams of expanding Iraq’s regional power, but after the war he focused on holding on to power at home.
The irony was that as all this was happening, U.S. officials began to worry that Iraq was “winning the peace.” As long as Saddam remained in place, and as long as he spouted belligerent rhetoric, they feared that whatever gains they made against Iraq were temporary at best. Fears about the deterioration of the sanctions regime were overblown, and in any case even a complete collapse of sanctions would not have mattered much. Iraq’s economy was so thoroughly demolished by the end of the decade that Saddam had no chance of restoring its previous strength, regardless of whether he had unfettered access to international markets. Fears that Iraq would resuscitate its nuclear program were also exaggerated, because they downplayed the resources needed to achieve even a modest nuclear weapons capability. Nonetheless, despite abundant evidence that Iraq was a shell of its former self and that it posed no real threat to anyone, officials became increasingly convinced that stability and security in the Persian Gulf were only possible if Saddam was removed. So they removed him. What followed was a terrible civil war, which is now in its second decade.
The war on al Qaeda followed a similar pattern. The United States rapidly and decisively shattered Osama bin Laden’s original organization. This was important, because vintage al Qaeda was unique among terrorist groups: it was rich, well organized, led by a charismatic figure, and dedicated to killing large numbers of American civilians. Dismantling that group was the most important task in the aftermath of 9/11, for which the Bush administration deserves a great deal of credit. Unfortunately, that administration was unwilling to settle for a limited victory. Instead, it launched a quixotic nation-building effort and became deeply involved in the fractured politics of Afghanistan. At the same time it decided to pursue an open-ended “war on terror” rather than a straightforward war on al Qaeda. By targeting far-flung terrorists with no direct connection to the perpetrators of 9/11, it set the stage for an ambiguous conflict with no end in sight.
The tendency to ignore success also has implications for U.S. foreign policy and great power politics. Consider the Obama administration’s handling of the Ukraine crisis. Russia’s decision to annex Crimea and support separatists in Eastern Ukraine led the Obama administration to enact a series of escalating sanctions against Moscow, but it was cautious about intervening in a way that would put it squarely in the ongoing conflict. At the time, some criticized the administration for timidity and argued that Vladimir Putin was outmaneuvering the president and undoing the post-Cold War order in Europe. But the Obama administration’s approach has worked. Russia’s actions spooked investors, leading to a stock market and currency crisis and a staggering wave of capital flight. Recent estimates suggest that as much as $150 billion left the country last year, and U.S. sanctions compounded Russia’s economic pain. On top of all that was the collapse in oil prices, which has made it extremely difficult for Moscow to weather the storm. Among other things, the loss in revenue will probably force Russia to scale back its ambitious military modernization program. And while Russia’s economic and military power is eroding, its aggressiveness breathed new life into NATO and made its neighbors desperate to strengthen ties to the United States. Thus, Russia simultaneously weakened itself and united its rivals.
The Obama administration appears to have recognized Russia’s self-defeating behavior for what it was. While critics worried that Putin was “running circles” around the White House, the administration’s patient approach has exacted a huge toll from Russia at minimal cost. Of course, this means that Washington is willing to tacitly accept that Crimea will never go back to Ukraine. There is also risk involved: a desperate Putin might gamble for resurrection by lashing out against NATO allies along Russia’s western border. But the administration has clearly drawn the line in the Baltics and is working to deter Russia from going forward there. So far this combined strategy—economic sanctions against Russia plus deterrent threats to protect the alliance—has allowed Washington to avoid a costly intervention while letting Russia exhaust itself.
Limited success isn’t enough for some, however, and prominent critics continue to call for more robust U.S. efforts to assist Kiev, including providing military assistance. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration or its successor will be able to resist this pressure.
Dealing with China may prove to be the biggest test of all. U.S. success in East Asia is one of the great underappreciated triumphs of the last half century. Successive administrations have managed to deter China from attacking Taiwan, while simultaneously restraining Taiwan from declaring independence. Such a provocation would likely shatter the framework of triangular deterrence that has sustained the peace for decades. Although each case is unique, U.S. relations with all of its Asian allies rely on this basic concept. The United States offers them protection while taking steps to discourage them from doing anything that might lead to a serious crisis with China. As a result, understanding how the United States succeeded in standing between Taiwan and China is critical for developing the United States’ diplomatic approach to the region as a whole.
There are reasons to believe that Washington will change course, however. For instance, U.S. officials might conclude that the past offers little guidance given China’s growing economic and military strength. New circumstances might require an unequivocal declaration of U.S. support in order to reassure increasingly nervous allies. While this is not an unreasonable argument, it risks overstating the degree to which China is actually catching up to the United States. China has clearly made important gains, but it also faces gigantic economic and demographic problems, and there is evidence that the United States is actually increasing its overall lead. If this is true, than the Obama administration and its successors need not abandon the approach that has served it so well for so long. But as with the other cases, everything depends on whether they are able to recognize success in the first place.
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