Wednesday, January 30, 2013
This article originally appeared on The Truman Doctrine on 29 January 2013.
For decades America has been arguing that in order for America to do less, our allies will have to do more. We have been cajoling our international partners to take more action in the world. There are signs it is starting to work, though the efforts have a certain shakiness that can be expected when using skills with which one is somewhat out of practice. Despite being met with scepticism and derision abroad, this is something the U.S. should welcome.
Following the end of WWII and the end of the Cold War, America’s major allies were content to let Uncle Sam take the lead. Some, such as Germany and Japan, remain constitutionally hamstrung from taking part in interventions for other than defensive purposes. There has been some softening in this position. German troops do patrol Afghanistan and Japanese troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan until 2007. American influence following WWII created this condition we’re asking them to push aside.
The United Kingdom has shown willingness to use military force to defend interests. Britain fought alongside America in the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the broader ‘War on Terror’. However, Prime Minister David Cameron recently announced further troop reductions, cutting out 5,300 soldiers, making the British military 75% smaller than it was at its Cold War peak. There is debate as to whether the UK should remain a nuclear-armed power or discontinue its programs. Every other EU state is reducing its expenditure on national defense as well.
The end of the Cold War caught America and its allies flatfooted. Failure to adapt culturally, technologically, and bureaucratically led to the intelligence failures that made 9/11 possible ten years on. The same conditions were repeated in Europe and were exacerbated, in some cases, by a souring of political relations with Washington over the Iraq War. Economic conditions since 2008 have not made it any more attractive to increase spending on national security despite the continued threat of Islamism and America’s strategic ‘shift to the east’.
But there are signs that America’s allies are answering the call. Britain and France were the early drivers behind action in Libya, though European military equipment wasn’t as reliable as it should have been and America had to sell them the ammunition. Britain and France have also been vocal regarding action in Syria. France has taken the lead in fighting Islamists in Mali with British logistical support. This hasn’t gone smoothly either with a shipment of supplies held up by maintenance problems with British aircraft. UK PM David Cameron has called for renewed vigilance in the worldwide fight against Islamism following the Algerian terror attack, though doing so after announcing a third round of military cuts.
Despite bumps in the road, the signs are encouraging. America has spent the last decade at war in several places thousands of miles away, in inhospitable terrain, fighting on the home turf of an enemy that cannot be easily identified, often with interference from ‘fair weather’ allies. The U.S. spends more on its national security than any other country, and our troops are the most experienced and professional anywhere. Though the U.S. has certainly had its own bumps in the road, we’re much more experienced in planning and executing military operations.
Hopefully, our allies will work out their kinks now that they’re getting back into the game. After 43 years, France has re-joined NATO. Europe has been carrying its load on the diplomatic front in negotiations and sanctions with states such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Intelligence cooperation continues even with ‘dove’ states such as Germany and Japan. But it would be naïve from a national security perspective to believe that America should continue to carry the weight of the world when it comes to confronting common enemies. No state should be wholly dependent upon another state to provide it security. This has been the condition among America and its allies since the end of the Cold War.
Despite America’s calls for more help from its allies, some criticize this as evidence of a ‘lead from behind’ approach by President Obama. Republicans have cited European-spearheaded operations as a sign of weakness. Yet, at every turn, America has provided support to ensure these operations succeeded. We provided much of the intelligence, coordination, and logistical support. America, the experienced and senior partner, has been the glue that ensured success. Allowing our allies to take the lead and flex their muscle, something we’re asking them to do, is not a weakness. It should be welcomed as a sign of strength.
But there are problems, defense budgets foremost among them. America may be facing its own defense cuts due to a self-laid trap. This is a problem America will have to sort out alone. But Europe should turn toward defense integration. Most EU countries are unable to spend large amounts to create, expand, or maintain a functioning military with all the same costly weapons platforms the U.S. can. We may soon face a European continent with outdated air forces, no heavy armor corps, and undertrained and underequipped troops. Such a force is not worth paying for.
Imagine British, Polish, and Italian infantry supported by Belgian and Dutch tanks and artillery and a Spanish and French air force, all supported by German and Austrian logistics, or a similar constellation, led by a pan-European command structure. This would be more cost-effective force and create a viable fighting force to match the U.S., as opposed to a collection of tiny under-budgeted and outdated national forces.
America and its allies should not make their budgets or long-term strategic plans based upon the idea that we are entering into an era that will be more peaceful than has been our past. We should welcome more vigilance by our allies, not cite it as evidence of decline. Sharing the burden between America and its allies and in turn our allies sharing their burden between themselves is a strategy that prepares for what we may–but hopefully will not—face in future.
The article appeared on Truman Doctrine and PolicyMic in December, 2012.
At times America has hesitated to act when it should or could have. Earlier action against Iran could have halted their nuclear program, as in the case of Israel’s strikes against Syria’s and Iraq’s nascent nuclear programs. Decisive action could have prevented genocide in Sudan or the proliferation of nuclear technology to Pakistan and North Korea. Many question if we have hesitated too long to act in Syria, against spreading Islamism in Africa or in closer conflicts such as the cartel wars in Mexico. However, U.S. interventions in the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya were swift, clearly defined and decisive.
At times over the last few decades it has been hard to answer the question of what America seeks to achieve in the world. Our overarching national security goal should be to secure American victory. It may seem a semantic point at first, but there is a major difference in thought between protecting America and its interests and pushing America and its interests forward. It is the difference between reaching acceptable compromises to live with our foes or defeating our opponents finally and decisively.
Many Western countries are guilty of drawing lines in the sand and when the line is crossed they just draw a new one. Israel has been drawing red lines regarding Iran’s nuclear program and stepping back every time. Some have recently argued the U.S. should draw a line alongside them. It arguably erodes credibility to characterise certain conditions as ‘unacceptable’ and then accept them. However, the important point is not that we should fight when our line is crossed, but that we should be more considered about when and where we draw them.
There is just as much danger in pushing your chips forward too early, or not pushing forward enough of them, as there is in hesitating too long. Iraq and Afghanistan are illustrations of this point. Iraq was a war commenced on false pretences which never had clearly defined goals and drew focus away from Afghanistan, a war which could have been won in the beginning but was allowed to drift into today’s stalemate. Both of these conflicts suffered from insufficient troop numbers, divided focus, and unclear goals.
It is for these reasons that America should be hesitant to draw red lines when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program now. We should not allow sabre rattling and rhetoric to draw us into a fight before we are ready or before it is necessary. The propaganda spiral moved America to war in Iraq with the argument we couldn’t afford to wait. Had we waited and asked more questions it may have become clear how unnecessary it was and how profligate it became. Once the propaganda cycle has begun in earnest, it becomes very hard to back away from the precipice. We should not be in a rush to reach this point of no return. It may pull us into a third conflict before we have ended or recovered from the other two.
And that would indeed be a great tragedy. A truly nuclear armed Iranian military presents a greater national security threat to the United States than Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden ever did. If or when that point is reached, we should be rested and ready to devote our full strength and attention to confronting it. The spectre of a nuclear armed Iran is not just a straw man. Iran and the U.S. and its allies have been fighting proxy wars in the Middle East for 30 years. Iran is already directly and indirectly responsible for the death of thousands of Americans and our allies in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and in acts of terror elsewhere. Those who portray Iran as an innocent victim of U.S. or Western aggression simply defending itself or being made a target because they challenge our hegemony are wrong.
The truth is that Iran is much further from this point than often portrayed. There are disagreements as to the amount of fissile material Iran has and America and its allies have already scored big hits against their refinement capability using the embargo and the Stuxnet virus. But refinement is only a part of the process. Nuclear warheads require a delivery vehicle with a complex guidance capability — an intercontinental ballistic missile system. Though this technology is easier to master and obtain than nuclear technology on the market, it can be effectively curtailed by embargo. Iran has not had much success with its missile tests.
But waiting to act should not be understood as hesitancy to act decisively. It is a strategic pause we should take advantage of to plan and prepare to confront this threat when or if it becomes necessary. If the Iranian regime is indeed set upon obtaining nuclear weapons and draw indisputably closer to reaching that point, we will have to confront them decisively and eliminate the capability. They have not reached that point. We should use the period between now and then to take our troops out of combat elsewhere and prepare for this more necessary fight if it comes. If it comes, it may likely be a tougher fight than any we’ve faced in the Middle East yet and an opportunity to show we have learned from our strategic and planning mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There is still the possibility it will not be necessary and a diplomatic solution may be reached. It should always remain preferable to us to confront and dissolve these conflicts without a fight. Taking the time to do so is not a sign of weakness, but of strategic caution and, in any case, gives us a strategic pause. We should not rush to failure. In any case, we have the upper hand in the conflict from the outset and should not be in a hurry. When tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of lives are in the balance, the nick of time will do. The time to militarily confront Iran may come. Now is not that time.