BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
U.S. Army General George S. Patton is one of my personal heroes. In the opening of the great Francis Ford Coppola film eponymously named after him, the viewer is first introduced to a dramatized version of Patton’s famous West Point speech. Dressed in full battle regalia, Patton marched up to the podium and proceeded to inform his rapt audience of graduating West Point cadets that the “point of war is not to die for your country. The point of war is to get the other, poor dumb bastard to die for his country!”
Similarly, the point of U.S. foreign policy should not be to commit the United States to endless engagements that have far higher costs than they do benefits for the United States. The goal of American grand strategy should be to get other people to do the fighting and dying for our interests–and still get the enemy (the “other poor, dumb bastard”) to die for his country!
The Fifty-Year Wound
Yet, this simple principle has not been a factor in most U.S. foreign policy debates because of the horrific legacy of the Cold War–what the brilliant Derek Leebaert referred to as America’s “fifty-year wound”–and all of the distortions it caused within the United States.
Since the Cold War, when the world was laid low following the devastation the preceding Second World War had wrought, the American foreign policy establishment–the graybeards–became accustomed to having the United States do the proverbial heavy lifting when it came to working with America’s allies.
For instance, in order to boost Japan’s domestic stability (in order to stave off a much-feared Communist revolution there), the United States willingly entered into bad deals that, in the short term, built up Japanese industry. This trend was repeated with German industry and that of other allies–at America’s expense.
However, in the long-run, the foreign policy community was essentially on autopilot and failed to update its trade agreements with these Cold War era allies, so much so that, even after the Soviet threat dissipated and these American allies were fully functional, modern states, the United States continued undercutting itself.
Fighting a Long War in a Representative Democracy is Tough
Although, the concept of the United States securing its interests by empowering its allies to resist a common threat was a necessary and cost-effective idea. After all, historically Americans are understandably remiss to see their sons and daughters fighting in endless wars in distant lands that few can find on maps.
Generating–and maintaining–public support for such military engagements is extremely difficult, as every campaign the United States military has waged since the Vietnam War has proven. It is far easier to get others to die for America, so long as we provide a modicum of support (and, with the Cold War over and the Communist threat vanquished, these other countries should actually pay us for that support).
In fact, this was the basis of globalist Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “arsenal of democracy” approach to foreign policy during his nearly four terms in office. We would supply the means that would allow for American allies to achieve the ends.
True, ultimately, the “arsenal of democracy” approach eventuated in the United States having to engage in full-fledged world war. However, Washington committed itself to war at a place and time of its choosing (Pearl Harbor notwithstanding, it was fairly clear that FDR was looking to involve the United States in, at the very least, the European theater of the Second World War; he just needed to figure out how he would accomplish this. The Japanese Empire provided him the perfect excuse to fulfill his policy goals).
What’s more, despite the ubiquity of the American military presence globally, considering that most conflict areas are far over-the-horizon (mostly in Eurasia and Africa), transporting and maintaining American forces indefinitely “outside the wire” is an incredibly costly endeavor.
This is especially true with today’s advanced, though costly, All-Volunteer Force (less than one percent of the American population serves). Therefore, not only are losses tragic on a human level, but they are also highly costly: replacing that lost talent is not easy. In other words, the lives of American allies are far less costly to the American people, and their need for American support could provide a lucrative business opportunity that would contribute to America’s economy.
Further, since whatever threat our allies would be defending themselves against would be more of a direct risk to our allies than to the United States, American allies would necessarily need to do the heaviest fighting (and dying). At present, this is not always the case. More often than not, American forces expect to be on the frontlines in every conflict ranging from defending South Korea from a potentially nuclear-armed North Korea to possibly defending the Baltic states from another round of Russian invasion.
It’s Not Isolationism
Obviously, the United States cannot simply shred all of its existing commitments. However, it can insist that America’s allies–particularly the wealthier and more advanced of America’s allies–prepare to potentially fight without immediate American intervention. Besides, it’s good for everyone to see how indigenous forces would perform against their rivals (especially for policymakers in Washington).
Imagine if Washington had been honest about the general fighting capabilities of either the South Vietnamese military (the heroism of individual South Vietnamese troops or units notwithstanding) or the Afghan National Army today, how differently might have Washington’s strategic calculus changed in those campaigns?
Then, of course, there is Washington’s utter failure of imagination when it comes to dealing with foreign threats. We are blessed to live in a world in which so many enemies and allies alike are wealthy and capable states…that all hate each other. We are doubly graced by providence with America’s fortuitous geography. The United States does not need to wade into every single brush war from Eritrea to Malaysia.
What’s being advocated here, though, is not isolationism. It is realism; cold, hard, shrewd, amoral. It is exactly what’s needed in today’s constrained budgets and multiple global threats. This policy allows America to retain its dominant position in the world without getting bogged down in three, four, or five brush wars at a time.
Balancing the Modern Middle East Rather Than Liberating It
Take, for example, the Middle East. At present, there is an age-old Sunni-Shiite civil war tearing that geostrategically vital region apart. Both the United States and its Israeli allies have, at various times over the last few decades, gotten caught up in this horrific fight. However, generally, the region has been defined since the Sunni-Shia split several hundred years ago by that intra-religious fight.
Now, the United States has opted to wade into this conflict on the side of the Sunni Arab states. This is somewhat understandable, given that the Sunni Arab states have long been considered American clients in the region. Yet, the United States has done this notably by removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq in a bizarre mixture of hopes (none of which transpired).
First, the United States wanted to ensure Saddam didn’t have WMD.
Second, the United States needed to reduce its presence in Saudi Arabia (which was aggravating Muslim attitudes throughout the region) but it still needed to have access to the region. Toppling Saddam and replacing him with a friendlier government theoretically would have yielded that option.
Third, the United States needed to contain Iran.
Fourth, the George W. Bush Administration pressed ahead with the ridiculous “Freedom Agenda” with a missionary zeal. By exporting democracy to Iraq, the Bush Administration hoped to inspire democracy throughout the region. The “explosion” of democracy in the Arab World would, in theory, undercut the appeal of the jihadists, and prevent the region from being lost to the United States.
Well, democracy certainly did “explode” throughout the region. It empowered the three groups of people that the Freedom Agenda was meant to disempower: the jihadists, the Arab strongmen (such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad), and Iran. Did no one in the Bush Administration after 9/11 think that it might have been better to reach out to Saddam Hussein and see if he could be flipped to be used as a blockade against both Iran and any further Sunni jihadism in the region?
Failing that, if regime change was irrevocable, why couldn’t the United States have done a better job of building a regional coalition? And, if America’s allies in the region refused to support such an endeavor (or did so tepidly) why was no reassessment made of the mission?
Today, Iran has been loosed from its containment, courtesy of the Iraq War and subsequent precipitous pullout that the Obama Administration blithely embarked on. Yet, paradoxically, the Sunni Arab states (which usually turned a blind eye to the threat of terrorism and to the wishes of their American “friends”) are now highly sensitive to Washington’s desires. Why? Because they (particularly Saudi Arabia) are directly threatened by a revanchist, potentially nuclear-armed Iran.
This is a pristine opportunity to get two groups of people (the Sunni Arab states, who are somewhat our friends) and Iran (our avowed rival in the region) to kill each other. As these two forces destroy each other, the United States could debilitate the Sunni jihad against the West; force the Sunni Arab leadership to hew much closer to Washington’s line; and deal a decisive blow against radical Iran.
How has Washington responded to these fortuitous events?
Well, they’ve deployed 5,000 troops to fight in Syria indefinitely. Initially, U.S. forces fighting in Syria were merely waging war on the dreaded Islamic State. Now that 98 percent of the ISIS “caliphate” existing between Iraq and Syria has been decimated, the Pentagon wants to keep–and possibly increase–U.S. force presence in Syria to engage in a proxy fight with Iran!
But, this misses the point entirely. Yes, the United States needs to slow the growth of the Iranian regional hegemony, but it also must do so without letting the Sunni Arab states off the proverbial hook. After all, the Sunni Arab states continue to proliferate jihad across the world. Weakening the forces responsible for the jihadist support within the Sunni Arab states by keeping those forces focused on their “infidel” Shiite co-religionists will be key in this regard.
Further, it forces greater integration of Israel into the region, since Israel has an advanced military, a potent economy, and is equally threatened by Iran as the Sunni Arab states are. Even now, the desperate Sunni states are reaching out to Israel to formalize an alliance–and the Trump Administration is thankfully encouraging this behavior. In the long-term, Israel’s greater integration into the region would mollify potential hostilities in the future (since it was the Sunni Arab states, rather than Iran, that spent the last half century trying to push the Jews of Israel into the sea).
America’s greatest hope would be for the region to gang up on Iran, as Iran pushes back. As Iran pushed back, the United States would empower its regional allies as Washington sat back and let those allies do the bulk of fighting and dying.
Both the Israelis and Sunni Arab states would disallow any daylight to form between themselves and Washington, and it would further empower Washington’s bid to maintain supremacy in the region (as opposed to weakening it by getting U.S. forces bogged down in another Iraq War-style conflict).
As for the Obama Administration’s executive agreement with Iran over their nuclear program: the only upside of that otherwise terrible deal was that it put the fear of losing America in the minds of the Sunni Arab states. It forced them to quit double-dealing and start concentrating on empowering their own defense. It also made the leaders of those countries more amenable to Israel. And, regarding Washington, nothing rekindles a dying romance like long-distance.
Besides, even if the United States did have to intervene in the midst of a Sunni Arab/Israel vs. Iran regional war, just as with the Second World War, it is likely that the United States would have a much easier time fighting such a war compared to the previous bouts of “counterinsurgency” and nation-building operations the U.S. military was made to engage in by Washington.
In this scenario, the combatants would have obliterated each other to such a degree that whoever remained standing after the conflict ended, would inevitably have to heel to American wishes.
Using America’s Military to Best of Its Ability
Despite what the social justice warriors of America believe, the U.S. military is the world’s greatest killing machine; it is not a big, green meals-on-wheels machine. We should only use it when maximum force is needed, at the precise time that would allow for that force to tip the proverbial scales in America’s favor.
The U.S. military must be used as it was meant to be used: as a blunt instrument against a fully formed foe. A majority of Americans neither understand nor support the idea of preventative war, such as the kind that was waged in Iraq in 2003. They also disapprove of the concept of humanitarian war (at least, as it is practiced).
As Vietnam proved, there’s nothing worse than getting involved in a major, protracted conflict, and losing key elements of popular support. That dooms whatever war one is fighting to failure, as the voters become increasingly upset over the conflict, and they make political decisions in elections based on that anger.
As political leaders rise opposed to the war, the unpopular campaign is hamstrung from Washington, and ultimately, a strategic defeat is suffered (at least in the eyes of the world), which only serves to further weaken America.
A balance of power paradigm that pits one group of foreign states mostly serving American interests against another, is the best way. Enough of over-committing U.S. forces to the field of battle at the outset of any potential conflict. Play all sides until the best deal can be reached.
Get your allies to do the hardest fighting while you gather strength and wait to see how the proverbial pieces fall. Once you see it, then engage, just as we did in the Second World War. Get your enemies (and some questionable allies) to destroy themselves in the bloodbath, though, before you wade in and mop up the carnage, setting yourself up nicely in the postwar environment.
As for fighting: The United States isn’t opposed to fighting. The country has been engaged in warfare of some kind for 222 out of its 239-year existence (that’s roughly 93 percent of American history). It’s not about being afraid to fight. The issue is when to fight and how (also, why, particularly in the case of the Middle East).
American policymakers cannot formulate a cogent answer to those questions. At least, not until the wonderfully disruptive Age of Trump.
Answering these questions forms the basis of the Trump foreign policy. Whether President Trump will manage to achieve this controversial (though entirely sensible) foreign policy is unknown, considering the bureaucratic inertia that the Trump Administration is fighting to overcome in Washington, D.C. today.