Using American Power Prudently

AP Photo/Hadi Mizban

A U.S. army soldier attends a live fire exercise outside Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, November 22, 2011. 

This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era
By Michael Mandelbaum
Oxford University Press

America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Random House

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman argues that the next president must read Michael Mandelbaum’s latest book, Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era, to avoid mistakes of the last several years and have a more successful national-security policy. Our next president should also read Andrew Bacevich’s latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

Between them, Mandelbaum and Bacevich have written more than 20 books on U.S. national-security policy. While these authors often overstate their case, they offer useful insights. Taking their critiques seriously will help prevent our next chief executive from reflexively following the advice of the foreign-policy establishment that Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, refers to as the Blob.

While Mandelbaum and Bacevich come to many of the same conclusions, they differ on how we arrived at our current situation. For Mandelbaum, the problems began when the Cold War ended and the main focus of U.S. national-security policy shifted from containment and war to transformation and governance, something that began with the creation of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq in 1991. This policy involved not only military interventions but also nonmilitary actions, in an attempt to change the internal politics of countries like China and Russia by such policies as linking trade to human rights and democratization.

Mandelbaum does admit that these military missions were often successful in ridding the world of some horrible leaders in places like Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. However, the failure was in the political missions that followed. Why? Because the political transformation was up to the locals, but they were not up to it.

The answer to the dilemma posed by Mandelbaum is to ensure that before using military force, unless it is an existential threat, the next president should also consider what happens “the day after,” and whether the U.S. has the will to see the political mission through—something we have not done adequately between the end of the Cold War and the Obama administration, when the president not only withdrew from Iraq but did not intervene in the Syrian civil war and focused only on defeating ISIS militarily.

For Bacevich, the mistake was assuming, beginning in the late 1970s and continuing after the Cold War, that many of the challenges in the greater Middle East, which the U.S. had previously outsourced to other nations or handled by using diplomats and spies (as in the Iran coup of 1954), now demanded a direct U.S. military solution. As Bacevich points out, in using its military power in the region, the U.S. had a choice between a policy of containment (as it did during the Cold War) or crush (eliminate the problem through sustained military action). Instead, in too many cases, the U.S. chose a midway course, which he labels aggravation. As a result, with politicians and military leaders declaring victory too quickly, and the public too quickly withdrawing support in the face of hardship, U.S. forces rarely stayed long enough to finish the job. Thus in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. is still waging limited, seemingly endless, wars.

Why did we allow ourselves to embrace the policies that led to the fiascos in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya? According to Mandelbaum, though the reasons Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush gave for these missions were different, they ended up in the same place. For Clinton, we conducted military operations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo to protect the people from the depredations of local despots. Bush launched the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to defend the security of the United States after September 11. However, both ended up trying to transform these societies. The foreign-policy establishment favored sustaining an expansive international role, even after the end of the Cold War, because they mistakenly believed that American values and institutions had universal utility, and that the U.S. should spread both as widely as possible, regardless of the cost or the likelihood of success. This would play out badly in the Middle East.

According to Bacevich, four questionable assumptions underlay this policy. First, that our leaders properly understand the historical forces at work in the Middle East. Second, that the U.S. has the wisdom to control or direct those forces—and the means to do so. Third, that U.S. military power offers the most expeditious means for promoting universal freedom. And fourth, that it’s inevitable that America’s purposes will ultimately win acceptance, even in the Islamic world. None of these has been borne out by events.

For Mandelbaum, the U.S. needs to confront real threats to its security, like the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, China’s drive to reassert dominance in East Asia, and Putin’s military adventures in Eastern Europe. Mandelbaum argues that by devoting so many resources and too much attention to other missions that could not succeed, the Bush administration allowed more pressing threats to develop and grow. For example, in 2003, when North Korea crossed a crucial threshold on its way to developing a nuclear weapon, by withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and began to remove fuel rods, the Bush administration was so preoccupied with Iraq that it did not contemplate, much less take, military action. Similarly, the Bush administration, chastened by the trauma of Iraq, did not threaten to use military force when Iran expanded its bomb-making capability.

In addition to the failure of Iraq policy, Mandelbaum flags two other foreign-policy failures—NATO expansion and the stalemated Israel-Palestine peace process. In expanding NATO eastward to the Russian border, Mandelbaum argues, the U.S. gained nothing while provoking Russia. NATO was hardly necessary to ensure democracy in its new members, the rationale the Clinton administration claimed as the reason for the expansion. (NATO has included autocratic regimes in Greece and Turkey.) Not only did this expansion alienate the Russians, as George Kennan, the father of containment, predicted; it also broke what many Russians believed was the promise that if they allowed Germany to unify, NATO would not expand into Eastern Europe. Part of the reason Russia invaded Georgia and Ukraine was the public pronouncement in 2008 by the Bush administration that it was open to granting NATO membership to those countries.

The mistake the U.S. made by involving itself in the Arab-Israeli peace process was the failure to recognize that the basic cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict was the Arab and Palestinian refusal to accept Israel’s presence in the Middle East. Therefore, according to Mandelbaum, it made no sense for the U.S. to spend so much political capital trying to mediate a solution.

While some of Mandelbaum’s arguments make sense, he oversteps in at least two areas. In the Arab-Israeli peace process, U.S. involvement keeps the situation from becoming even more volatile and partly offsets the influence of Arab and Muslim extremists and what they see as U.S. bias toward Israel—particularly since the U.S. provides Israel with billions of dollars of military equipment each year. Second, while it is true that trying to transform societies after American arms prevailed is a futile undertaking, it is a stretch to claim that these efforts not only prevented us from dealing with the more important threats from Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, but actually caused them. In fact, since 2013, President Obama has turned his attention to these threats.

For Bacevich, the real questions are why the world’s mightiest military has achieved so little in the greater Middle East; and, since we haven’t won, why we do not stop waging these wars. The answer to the first question is that unlike in the Cold War, our purposes and military policies were never aligned. Not only is the Middle East resistant to shaping because of its Muslim culture, but our interventions made things worse.

For Bacevich, one key reason for the continued U.S. military involvement in these Middle East conflicts is that Americans are for the most part insulated from the wars’ harmful effects. Without a draft and without increased taxes to pay for these wars, the burden for waging them is placed on a small part of the population, and the trillion-dollar cost that results from these adventures is passed on to future generations.

Bacevich gets a lot right, but not everything. First, he fails to distinguish the different variants of Islam in the many Muslim countries we have invaded, and fails to note the struggle between radicals and modernists for the future of the Middle East. Second, in 1980, at the time of the launch of the Carter Doctrine, there was a legitimate concern about both our access to the region’s oil and about Soviet advances there, especially after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Third, he claims that we intervened because of the absence of an anti-war party. But while many Democrats did support the invasion of Iraq and Libya and want to get more militarily involved in the Syrian civil war, there are several prominent anti-war Democrats who oppose both interventions. In fact, half of the Democrats in the House voted against the Iraq War, and Obama was chosen as the Democratic nominee in 2008 partly because of his opposition to that war. Moreover, since coming into office, the president has withdrawn from Iraq and ended the combat mission in Afghanistan.

Where Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and combat veteran who lost a son in Iraq, really gets it right is when he claims that Americans are insulated from the wars’ effects. Imagine what Americans and their elected representatives would have done if President Bush had activated Selective Service and raised taxes before requesting a vote on the invasion of Iraq? Many more members of Congress would have read the classified version of the national intelligence estimate, which we now know really undermined the case for war, and would not have voted to authorize it.

If the next president is to avoid these mission failures and end the wars in the greater Middle East, she or he must confront dangerous myths, perpetuated by many of those who served as cheerleaders for the senseless invasion and occupation of Iraq. In this view, espoused by Ivo Daalder and Robert Kagan, among others, only America can lead and therefore must increase spending on defense (even though it already spends more on defense than the next seven nations combined) and continue to try to reshape other countries.

In confronting this myth, she or he must recognize that, as James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, recently noted, the U.S. cannot fix the problems that are plaguing the Middle East. We must use our military forces sparingly and multilaterally, and only as a last resort. Finally, the U.S. should put more focus on the nonmilitary tools of national-security policy, enhance our homeland security, and place more emphasis on nation-building at home in order to truly enhance our national security.


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