TCS Daily


The Alternatives Are Dangerously Insufficient

By Michael Brandon McClellan - June 23, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is part II of a three-part series. Read part I of the series here. Part III will be published next week.

Criticizing a grand strategy as ambitious as the Bush administration's is easy. Providing an alternative grand strategy that does not undermine American security is hard. In fact, no one has done so.

With the June 30th transfer of sovereignty in Iraq almost upon us, and the November Presidential Election just around the corner, Americans need to analyze the Bush administration's adopted strategic framework of neo-conservatism in an appropriate context -- namely what are the alternatives? If not the neo-conservative prescription of regime change followed by democratic construction, then what? After all, building democracy in the Middle East has proven to be an exceptionally difficult task. American soldiers have died and will continue to do so. Billions of dollars have been spent, and the costs of building Iraq into a free and stable polity will continue to tax the public purse. Furthermore, the neo-conservative framework has come with substantial diplomatic costs -- in many places around the world, anti-Americanism is as fashionable as it has ever been. American voters must ask, is building democracy in the Middle East really necessary? The simple answer is yes, and a look at the alternatives will help reveal why.

Charles Krauthammer has likely adopted the most concise and effective taxonomy for categorizing the arguable strategic frameworks for fighting the War on Terror. I will accordingly use his classification system to analyze the strategic merits of the three primary alternative paradigms to the Bush administration's grand strategy. The alternative schools can be generally named 1) the "isolationists" advocating a strategic withdrawal from the Middle East and elsewhere, 2) the "liberal internationalists" who seek to emphasize multi-lateral diplomacy, and 3) the "pure realists" looking to manage the international environment by playing one evil off against another. None of these paradigms can survive the scrutiny of real world application in 2004. As will be shown below, they are dangerously insufficient to guide America in the War on Terror.

Isolationists: The Strategic Withdrawal Paradigm

The strategic withdrawal paradigm is advocated by certain prominent conservatives such as Pat Buchanan, and libertarian foreign policy thinkers such as those employed by the Cato Institute. This paradigm advocates that the current US position in the Middle East is elective, unsustainable, and counter-productive. America should stop propping up friendly oil-supplying regimes as well as Israel, and simply withdraw from the region. The Middle East will likely erupt in violence and implode upon itself, but it will no longer be an American problem.

American troops will no longer be in the Muslim holy land to enrage Bin Laden and others like him. With a dramatic weakening of the American presence in the Middle East, America will actually strengthen its security by eliminating the policies that so infuriate the Arab street and their monarchical or dictatorial masters. The US would no longer be aiding the "Zionists", and with time, the image of the American "Great Satan" could eventually erode in the collective Arab mind. More importantly, US blood and treasure will no longer be expended trying to bring democracy to those who do not want it, and propping up dictators who do not deserve it.

If only it were so! Unfortunately, as the Dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Joseph Nye has written, "Even if the United States had a weaker foreign policy, such groups [like al Qaeda] would resent the far-reaching power of the American economy. American corporations and citizens represent global capitalism, which some see as anathema. Moreover, American popular culture has a global reach regardless of what the government does. There is no escaping Hollywood, CNN, and the Internet." In other words, there is absolutely no guarantee that militarily withdrawing from the Middle East would soften the suicidal ardor of America's Jihadist enemies.

What a US military withdrawal from the Middle East does guarantee, however, is that terrorist organizations will have access to resources, training facilities, and weapons of their choosing. Such withdrawal would be the battlefield equivalent of surrendering the commanding heights in order to entrench at the base of the mountain. America's oceans that have made the isolationist paradigm somewhat feasible in the past would offer little protection from a nuclearly-armed al Qaeda. Modern technology renders the Middle East a day's plane flight away, and a much shorter flight for a ballistic missile. Such factors mandate that the Middle East's problems are America's problems.

Even momentarily and preposterously placing aside the developed world's compelling economic interest in petroleum, and America's deep cultural and religious ties with Israel, allowing terrorists to have an unmolested haven in the Middle East would be strategic suicide. Such a policy would run directly contrary to 3 of the 4 pillars of the 4D strategy delineated in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism of 2003, namely the defeat, deny, and diminish elements. "Strategic withdrawal" is a misnomer. It is not strategic and it is not an option.

Liberal Internationalists: The Multilateral Diplomacy Paradigm

Often advocated under catch phrases like "soft power" or "multilateralism", liberal internationalism is the preferred paradigm of much of the foreign policy establishment, elite academia, and the Democratic Party. With the fervor of a proselytizing religion, this paradigm places its faith in the United Nations, international law, and multilateral diplomatic engagement.

The liberal internationalist paradigm rightly asserts that waging the global War on Terror should ideally be done with as many partners as possible. However, it also insists that the only legitimate proactive or preemptive use of force is that which obtains UN Security Council approval. Otherwise, Article 2(4) of the Charter allegedly prohibits all violations of state sovereignty. Indeed, a fundamental tenet of the UN Charter is the non-discriminatory principle of the "sovereign equality" of nation states, regardless of whether those states are ruled by autocratic dictators, monarchs, or religious zealots.

In the context of de-colonization and the Cold War, such concepts likely contributed to stability by mandating international respect for the artificial borders drawn in European colonial offices decades earlier. However, in the context of the War on Terror, the real usefulness of liberal internationalist principles is highly questionable.

While a commitment to UN-sanctioned multilateral action may be beneficial at face value, there are serious flaws with conducting the War on Terror according to the self-interested whims of the Security Council. Essentially, effective Security Council action necessitates collective action between ideologically divergent powers that face different strategic realities. Due to the often contrasting geopolitical interests of the permanent Security Council members alone, such collective action is often impossible.

Given the veto-bearing Russian, Chinese, or French economic or ideological aversions to authorizing military action in the Middle East, the ultimate Security Council action will almost certainly be inaction. Thus, uniformly submitting the War on Terror to Security Council approval almost certainly maintains the Middle Eastern status quo -- the same status quo that brought forth, or at least permitted September 11th to occur. And, it need not be stated again that radical Islamic terror has the potential to bring far worse than that day of infamy.

Principles like sovereign equality have historically proven useful as a means of providing stability and laying down "rules of the game" by which nations can legitimately interact. However, as eminent Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis recently observed in his book, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, "[The] United States will identify and eliminate terrorists wherever they are, together with the regimes that sustain them. Respecting sovereignty is no longer sufficient because it implies a game in which the players understand and respect the rules. In this new game, there are no rules." This reversion to the Hobbesian law of the jungle is of course not the preference of the United States, but of the terrorists who eschew any and all rules of engagement.

In other words, the strategic reality has changed -- in the Middle East, the status quo is not peace-preserving, but peace-destroying. Nor is it a regional problem. September 11th brought the problem of the Middle Eastern status quo into every American living room. The Arab world is facilitating the growth of a fundamentally dangerous radicalism willing to impose its extremist vision through violence upon the world.

Throughout much of the 1990s, liberal internationalism was the predominant guiding paradigm of US foreign policy. Paradigms, however, must ultimately be judged by their efficacy. If the War on Terror must strategically diminish the Middle Eastern conditions that currently endanger the world, and deny terrorists the assistance of state actors, strict adherence to liberal internationalism offers little assistance.

Pure Realists: The Playing Evil Against Evil Paradigm

Pure realism recognizes neither friends nor enemies, merely interests. Reminiscent of Cardinal Richelieu's "Raison d'etat" or Otto von Bismarck's "Realpolitik," the realist paradigm aims to manipulate the international environment to maximize security. Americans have resorted to pure realism in the past, but generally only in the context of a superior, overriding cause. In the Herculean struggles of both World War II and the Cold War, US foreign policy makers accepted the maxim that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," and temporarily allied with Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, rightist strongmen throughout the third world, Saddam Hussein, and even radical Islamic fundamentalists like Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan.

In the similarly great struggle to eradicate Islamic terrorism, such policies warrant a serious look. Enlisting Middle Eastern authoritarians to fight against terrorist organizations could wage quick and substantial dividends. If such dictators and monarchs are comprehensively on America's side, then regime change becomes patently unnecessary. Few polices better deny terrorist sanctuary than to turn the autocrats, and all the odious apparatus of their secret police and neo-Gestapo to work in America's favor.

Perhaps with enough economic incentive and logistical support, such regimes could do America's "dirty work" for us. This would please many here in the US who express concern over extended deployment of US troops overseas in combat areas. It would also likely please the great majority of the members of the United Nations (not to mention the international legal community), as the US would be working through the Middle Eastern status quo, duly respecting the sovereign equality of states in a non-discriminatory fashion -- be they monarchical, dictatorial, or otherwise repressive.

As attractive and effective as such a paradigm initially may appear, it suffers from several key, and likely dispositive downsides. First, the US already gives a great deal of assistance to many Middle Eastern regimes. The Royal Family in Saudi Arabia, Mubarak in Egypt, and Musharraf in Pakistan all receive substantial military and economic aid, not to mention in the case of Saudi Arabia, countless additional billions in petrol dollars. However, such purportedly friendly autocrats preside over some of the most hostile populations in the entire Middle East. Each day, countless "madrasas" and mosques in these "friendly" nations preach the radical Wahhabi message of hatred for Christians, Jews, and America. Al Qaeda finds little better recruiting grounds than right under the noses of America's most trusted Middle Eastern Muslim "allies."

In reality, such regimes are likely incapable of truly eradicating the radical uprising beneath them. Most importantly, dissent in the repressive Arab world emerges from the one institution that cannot be banned -- the mosque. Whereas political dissent is impossible throughout most of Arab society, the mosque is a radical safe-haven. Accordingly, the autocrats like the House of Saud have reached a "devil's bargain" with the Wahhabis -- giving a certain amount of slack in exchange for no general revolution. Still there is tension and an occasional terrorist attack, as these unelected, decadent, largely despised Saudi royals surround themselves with an ever growing array of US-armed body guards. Their position is tenuous, and a concerted effort to truly eradicate the radicals could and likely would mean the Royal Family's doom -- leading to their summary execution, or worse.

To deflect the hatred of a rising number of their subjects, the Saudis and other autocrats permit a continual manufacturing of falsehoods regarding the United States and Israel. Both nations are generally blamed for the wide array of domestic and foreign problems, whereby the repressive state escapes the onus it is due. Perhaps the most remarkable such fabrication regards the conspiracy, widely believed and repeated in the Middle East, and vehemently if not frighteningly revealed to me one morning by a young, Muslim, Bangladeshi cab driver on the way to Dulles International Airport, that September 11th was manufactured by a joint CIA/Mossad covert action, aiming to turn the world against the Arabs. Indeed, a CNN poll conducted across nine Muslim countries in February, 2002 found that 61% of those polled believed that Arabs were not responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11th. If such outlandish, reality-ignoring theories can be accepted by a sympathetic immigrant here in the US, what chance is there for those who live outside of the world of the free press, where such propaganda is spoon-fed, with government sanction, on a daily basis?

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, comprehensively and openly siding with the autocrats unquestionably allies the United States with enemies of freedom in the Arab world. We therefore risk not only turning more Arabs towards the only viable alternative of radical Islam, but we risk further legitimizing Islamic terrorists as "freedom fighters" against a repressive status quo -- upheld by the United States. While al Qaeda/Taliban-style theocracy would undoubtedly offer a merely different form of oppression for those who rally to its banner, in the short run it offers an enticing, proactive alternative. Like the liberal internationalist vision, the "pure realist" vision would largely eviscerate the entire "diminish" element of the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. While the US might enjoy considerable short term gains in the war against terror, the probability that such a policy would "breed" infinitely more terror in the long term is great indeed. Because winning the War on Terror involves not only eradicating terrorist cells, but winning a larger war of ideas, the United States would risk much by abandoning the fundamentally American position of promoting democratic freedom abroad.

None of the above frameworks can serve as an effective grand strategy for the United States. The integrated nature of the modern world mandates that the Middle Eastern problem of exporting radical Islamic terrorism is both a global problem, and an American problem. If the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993, the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the USS Cole did not drive the point home, September 11th undoubtedly did. Immigration, free trade, economic integration, and modern technology render the isolationist option untenable and obsolete. America cannot simply withdraw and hope to be left alone. It is strategically and economically impossible. Likewise, the Middle Eastern geopolitical reality of tyrannical autocracies presiding over ruthless religious zealots renders multilateral diplomatic engagement to a position of little utility in implementing long-term change. Those who abide by the law of the jungle will not voluntarily accept the rule of law in the absence of force. Moreover, the United States can only play one evil against another for so long. Pitting tyrants against terrorists will not extinguish the fires of Middle Eastern violence and hatred; it will stoke the flames in perpetuity.

As will be shown in Part III of this three-part series, the neo-conservative "democratic realist" framework singularly offers a long-term vision for winning the War on Terror and changing the Middle East. In that framework, Iraq is the central front.


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