INTROSPECTION | America's Grand Strategy by Michael Belil

INTROSPECTION | America's Grand Strategy by Michael Belil



By Michael Belil

Introduction

Following the quagmire in Iraq, an uphill battle in Afghanistan, and with a rising China a more assertive Russia, and a destabilized and highly sectarian Middle East; the United States is at a critical juncture in which it determines what ideas its grand strategy should be based on. Grand Strategy is comprised of the ideas for employing a state’s resources to achieve long term policy objectives. While ideas help form the direction or course of a grand strategy a state chooses to employ, it is a state’s relative capabilities and resources that determines the means to achieving strategic objectives. In this article I seek not to lay out the entire grand strategy debate, but to look at one part of it. I will examine US grand strategy as it pertains to the Middle East along with a developing a strategy to counter the Islamic State, and mitigate extremism, diffuse anti-Americanism, lower the threat of a terrorist attack at home and secure the commons. The two primary grand strategies are restraint based predominantly on defensive realism, and liberal hegemony which is primarily based upon liberalism. The alternative strategy will be based upon neo-classical realist theory, in some places drawing upon constructivist theory and learning theory. 



Restraint an Answer to American Activism

Prof. Barry Posen, MIT
In his book Restraint, Barry Posen argues that military adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan was counter-productive if not detrimental to America. Deep engagement in the Middle East since 9/11 has fostered more extremism and anti-American sentiment in the form of US military invasion, support of dictators and reckless drivers such as Israel and the former Nouri al Maliki regime in Iraq.  Furthermore, perfect safety is a chimera and attempting to pursue it is a fool’s errand. Posen suggests that US commit as little troops as possible while keeping Al Qaeda on the defensive. Here I must point out that Posen’s book was published before the rise of the Islamic State and therefore does not take into account the current situation in the Middle East. The Islamic State is arguably more dogmatic in their beliefs, while at same time possessing proficient hybrid warfare capabilities and control of an area the size of a small country. Furthermore, many formerly Al Qaeda aligned groups such as Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as Tehreek-e-Taliban in Pakistan have all declared loyalty to Daesh. The Islamic State took Al Qaeda’s model of jihad and flipped it on its head. Unlike Al Qaeda, IS focuses inward, building its resources, strength and support base, training its fighters not just in unconventional warfare, terrorist tactics or guerrilla warfare, but conventional, mechanized warfare, and infantry tactics, fighting local competitors including other Islamist and non-Islamist jihadi groups and apostate regimes. 

Posen suggests in the past, the United States has fought terror in an overly expensive, counter-productive fashion that has generated more bad than good. Moreover, he posits that for US Middle East diplomacy to be successful, “…the United States must show by its actions that it is not the enemy of the Islamic World.” Personally, I agree with a great deal of these assertions about past US mistakes, however my disagreement is based upon how Posen implements these lessons in his preferred Middle East security strategy. Furthermore, he contradicts himself when he calls for US diplomacy to show the Muslim World that America is not its enemy when he argues for special operations raids and drone strikes as “the preferred option.” Aside from cumbersome “big army” forces that fostered anti-America sentiment in Operation Iraqi Freedom, drone strikes that started under President Bush and hit new highs under President Obama have exacerbated the problem. Furthermore, special operations raids and drone strikes aren't strategy, but tactics. While direct action raids are an important component, solely removing insurgents from the battlefield, or engaging in leadership decapitation has a relatively limited effect on strategic objectives and political objectives as opposed to tactical and operational objectives.

A Hybrid Strategy

 As Posen aptly points out, “Identity politics based on religion, ethnicity, or nation must be taken seriously.” We should seek to develop an overarching strategy for containing the Islamic State that reflects identity politics as well as the overall sectarian geopolitical dynamics of the region. The Middle East strategy will be mostly political and diplomatic in nature that tries to alleviate sectarian and ethnic division in Iraq and then to re-build American legitimacy in the region. This policy will address the reckless drivers that Posen talks about, for example, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the former Maliki regime. As it pertains to sectarianism in Iraq, ethno-federalism offers an alternative past attempts at governing. Ethno-federalism advocate Liam Anderson argues, “Iraq’s long-term survival hinges on designing a federal system that protects Sunni Arab regions against a Shia-dominated central government and maintains current levels of Kurdish autonomy…Better to unite a single Kurdish region (which is written in stone) with one or two Sunni regions, and multiple Shia regions in the south.” Anderson concedes that ethno-federalism is no panacea, but is rather a “…workable compromise solution to the problem of ethnic conflict in the absence of viable alternatives.” 

In addition, if implemented in Iraq as Anderson suggests, ethno-federalism can begin to restore a balance of power in the Middle East that is both beneficial for the diverse peoples of the Middle East as it is for US interests. Barry Posen has since argued for a “light containment” of the Islamic State, letting local actors like the Kurdish Pershmerga, Iraqi Army and moderate Sunni and Shia militias do their own fighting. Concerning US military involvement, we should argue for a harder containment strategy, which still does not call for massive commitments in US blood and treasure, but time and patience working with partners in Iraq. As it pertains to a viable military strategy, recently US Special Operations Command released a white paper detailing a strategy called “political warfare” For a “political warfare” strategy to work, “U.S. policy makers require a suite of complementary options enabling them to counter and deter hybrid and asymmetric warfare practiced by state and non-state adversaries. 

As hybrid and asymmetric warfare rely on surrogates, proxy forces, insurgents and supporting influence operations, effective U.S. policy responses require capabilities to 

a) Comprehensively mitigate the effect of subversion, Urban Warfare (UW), and de-legitimizing narratives in partner countries targeted by adversaries; and 

b) Dissuade adversaries from conducting hybrid warfare by increasing the cost of such activities to the point that they become unsustainable. 

The former effort involves strengthening the capabilities, capacity, and legitimacy of partners, while the latter involves aggressively countering subversion and UW waged against friendly states, proactively employing coercive diplomacy, legal-economic measures, and UW against adversaries, and aggressively prosecuting a battle of narratives to undermine adversary legitimacy among critical populations.” Furthermore, “given its diplomatic and economic content and its focus on achieving political ends, Political Warfare is likely best led by agencies beyond Department of Defense - DOD. Indeed, Political Warfare can only succeed if it is conducted in a way to “elevate civilian power alongside military power as equal pillars of U.S. foreign policy.”

In the third part of alternative Middle East security strategy, we should emphasize internal balancing, in the form of innovation comprising improvement of civil-military relations, and a restructuring of the defense budget. James Fallows, of the Atlantic unpacks these issues and argues, “America’s distance from the military makes the country too willing to go to war, and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts. This distance also means that we spend too much money on the military and we spend it stupidly, thereby shortchanging many of the functions that make the most difference to the welfare of the troops and their success in combat. We buy weapons that have less to do with battlefield realities than with our unending faith that advanced technology will ensure victory, and with the economic interests and political influence of contractors. This leaves us with expensive and delicate high-tech white elephants, while un-glamorous but essential tools, from infantry rifles to armored personnel carriers, too often fail our troops.” 

An example of one of these “white elephants” is the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, which was supposed to be a better, more versatile and cost-effective alternative to the F-22 Raptor, but according to defense journalist Tyler Rogoway has been plagued by design flaws including, “…its air frame being handicapped by the STOVL requirement and the absurd costs involved with the jet that obliterates a true high-low capability mix.” Moreover, “…the all-in costs of this airplane are now estimated to be as much as $1.5 trillion, or a low-end estimate of the entire Iraq War.” Posen is averse to costly high risk defense expenditures, and thus the F-35 is one such program that he would surely agree should be handled differently. While the sunk costs of the program as well as diplomatic commitments to sell the plane once in production have already happened, by eliminating the program now –  and perhaps shifting production efforts to the similar stealth air superiority F-22 which had ceased production in 2011 prospective future costs in the $1.5 trillion range can be averted. 

In terms of military politics, William Lind, a military historian who developed the concept of 4th generation warfare argues, “The most curious thing about our four defeats in Fourth Generation War—Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—is the utter silence in the American officer corps. Defeat in Vietnam bred a generation of military reformers … Today, the landscape is barren. Not a military voice is heard calling for thoughtful, substantive change. Just more money, please.” In The Atlantic in 2012, Thomas Ricks wrote, “Hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness.” This didn't just diverge from the norm set by and for America’s generals, but also “an important factor in the failure” of our most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fallows persuasively argues this change comes from a major disconnect between the military and the American public, “…because…at its safe remove, (it) doesn't insist on accountability. Partly it is because legislators and even presidents recognize the sizable risks and limited payoffs of taking on the career military.” He concludes, “And yet however much Americans “support” and “respect” their troops, they are not involved with them, and that disengagement inevitably leads to dangerous decisions the public barely notices.” The lack of politically engaged citizens, civil-military understanding and cooperation has led to a detrimental “lionization of military officials,” which according to retired Lieutenant Colonel Jack Ruby is a major reason for lack of oversight and reform. Dwight Eisenhower’s speech on the military-industrial complex in 1961 had particular foresight, “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry…The total influence -- economic, political…is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist…Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals…”

Prof. Michael Glennon, Tufts University
Along similar lines, Michael Glennon at Tuft's applies the “double government” theory to America and suggests the, “…U.S. national security policy is defined by the network of executive officials who manage the departments and agencies responsible for protecting U.S. national security and who, responding to structural incentives embedded in the U.S. political system, operate largely removed from public view and from constitutional constraints…judicial review is negligible; congressional oversight is dysfunctional; and presidential control is nominal. Absent a more informed and engaged electorate, little possibility exists for restoring accountability in the formulation and execution of national security policy.” Neo-classical realist insight from Norrin Ripsman on the other hand tells us that the military-industrial complex does not have significant influence over foreign security policy. This is because actors within the Military Intelligence Community (MIC) may offer a substantial payoff for pursuing their preferred policy, but this payoff is often offset and by a counter-vailing coalition who prefer a different policy, thus allowing the foreign policy executive to “…select its preferred policy without forgoing the bulk of the payoff.” Furthermore, despite the MIC and its interest groups unity on issues such as defense spending and use of force, interest groups in another sector can in affect, balance against the defense sector and offer the foreign policy executive another reward. That being said, Ripsman also says domestic actors can influence policy choices not by offering rewards, but by shaping the perception of external realities abroad and defining the national interest. “In this sense, they can act as epistemic communities, shaping the mind-set of the national security executive.” Ripsman primarily talks about the role think tanks such as the Brookings Institution and the Council of Foreign Relations as epistemic communities. I build off his argument that epistemic communities can shape perception of external realities, but argue that the military-industrial complex acts as an epistemic community that coupled with “lionization” of military officials can be source of powerful influence when it comes to shaping the ideas behind national security policy and the means with which to pursue them. Returning to Glennon’s double government argument, where he argues that presidential power is nominal, I argue that it can be constrained. Stephen M Walt supports Glennon’s “double government” theory because it “…explains why U.S. foreign policy is prone to recurring failure and resistant to genuine reform…”

In his book talk at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia, Barry Posen was asked about the difficulties of bringing in his ideas of restraint into mainstream political discourse in which American exceptional-ism is a powerful idea that can guide or rather misguide foreign policy. He responded that there are two versions of “our mission,” the first being the “city on the hill” (isolationist) version and the other a Wilsonian (activist) version. Second, there is growing support both on the right and left in America, for a less activist foreign policy. Third, according to Posen, there is some “fertile ground” on which the seeds of restraint can be planted, but there is still a major uphill battle to push back against liberal hegemony. Alternative grand strategy is a selective engagement/ selective retrenchment strategy (SESR) as opposed to Posen’s restraint. While we argue that America should remain selectively engaged, especially in the Middle East, We should also contend that it is counter-productive to conflate military activism in the Iraq War with selective engagement as an idea by itself. Furthermore, argument based along similar lines as Barry Posen, that there is a major uphill battle that policy entrepreneurs face as a result of how deeply embedded liberal hegemony has been since 1945. Poor civil-military relations, fruitless and costly defense expenditures and unchecked influence of the MIC as an epistemic community on defining foreign security policy interests and means all add to the durability of embedded ideational frameworks. Therefore, defense reform designed to combat these aforementioned obstacles is imperative to mitigate relative economic decline, and even more so to create a domestic environment that can better facilitate an improved ideational framework that defines US interests in a way that aligns ends and means. In the spring of 2011, Barack Obama asked Gary Hart, the Democratic Party’s most experienced and best-connected figure on defense reform, to form a small bipartisan task force that would draft recommendations on how Obama might try to recast the Pentagon and its practices if he won a second term. Gary Hart, James Fallows, Andrew J. Bacevich, John Arquilla and Norman R. Augustine sent a report to Obama that fall, but never heard back. Defense reform is as central to a restraint strategy as it is to mine. Hart wrote to the President:

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War…our military remains fundamentally unchanged from its Cold War organizational schemes. We…continue to maintain a military structure, spending patterns, and habits of thought that owe too much to threats and technologies of a bygone age and reflect too little the strategic challenges and technological opportunities of the decades ahead… (And) we cannot continue to outspend the rest of the world, combined, on military forces when our economy represents one quarter of the world’s output and requires sustained domestic investment to preserve and increase economic leadership and opportunity for the American people. A restructured 21st century military should cost no less nor no more than is required to defend our country…Evolving threats are specifically designed to avoid our fortified points…

These seemingly fortified points that evolving threats are able to exploit are ones that my strategy SESR will address, especially in the Middle East. Moreover, Hart’s study group’s defense reform recommendations will form the foundation for part four of my SESR strategy. These reforms will help facilitate the other parts of my strategy. Hard ball diplomacy and restraint to rein in reckless drivers will yield benefits for the United States, as well as help diffuse sectarianism in the region. It was quite alarming that after 14 years of a “global war on terror” CIA Chief John Brennan is just now saying, “We have to…come to terms with how we’re going to deal with these ideologies and movements…We have to find a way to address some of these factors and conditions that are abetting and allowing these movements to grow.” General Nagata, the chief of US special operations in the Middle East similarly concedes, “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.” The Islamic State’s takfirist ideology is an important source of motivation for IS fighters.

 In addition, Sunni people who have been treated as “second-class citizens” have become disillusioned with the Iraqi government and are therefore are pushed towards allying themselves with extremist Sunni groups like IS. Issam Eido discusses how IS a sort of microcosm of the political, religious and social state of the Middle East and Ummah as a whole. Eido states, “Despite its recent birth, ISIS can function as a microcosm of the complexities of our region, as well as the intellectual contradictions. Despite its nihilism, IS full of meaning. Despite its absurdity, it is laden with symbolism and potential interpretations. Since ISIS was born with a fringe nature, shaped in crisis and apocalypse, and has subsequently developed in a similar context…”  According to Eido and other scholars, there are reasons that refute the commonly held perception of ISIS as Salafist. These reasons consist of the fact that ISIS operates outside most structures established by Salafist Ulema. Second, IS has not presented a coherent theological and political posture, and apparently the most influential jihadists are not members of ISIS. Another argument made in Eido’s dialectic, is that IS is analogous to the “Brotherhood of the Obedient” that began to rebel against Saudi King Abd al Aziz after he allied with the British. Eido builds upon this and asks if IS is analogous to the “Brotherhood of the Obedient” why would Saudi Arabia support and fund them?  Our argument based on a remarkably similar situation to the conflict between the Ikhwan and the Aziz Regime and Daesh and the current Saudi Government. Both the old and new regimes implement a “pragmatic Wahhabism” and allow foreign influence either British or American in the Kingdom.  Like the Ikhwan of old, the Daesh implement extreme Takfirist ideals in that if people did not follow the ways of their version of strict Wahhabi Islam, the penalty was death. In terms of recruitment, those who have joined the ranks of ISIS from all parts of the Muslim World, according to Eido, “…believe they either have come to the “land of the caliphate” or are determined to do so, in hopes of eternal salvation and as retaliation against the nationalist sentiments at the hands of which they have been suffering in their own respective states. 

Understanding the Islamic State is imperative in order to establish a new narrative, and following through with a new narrative is even more crucial in order to re-build credibility in the region. Ethno-federalism should be implemented in Iraq as the best option in a sea of bad options for restoring the country and greater balance of power in the Middle East. “Political warfare” is a viable, cost-effective and whole of government strategy that can help restore US civil-military coherence, counter the Islamic State, and help in containing it and slowly pushing it back into Syria. Neo-classical realism along with some constructivist theory will underpin the strategic and policy recommendations of this article's introspective aspect. 


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