By Ken Feltman
Every age has a keyhole to which its eye is pasted.
– Mary McCarthy
The 9-11 attacks had two unanticipated results for the United States. The first is now well known: The U.S. started down the path toward two difficult wars. The second is unappreciated: The U.S. abandoned its strategy for international preeminence.
Many Americans do not realize that their country has a strategy for preeminence. But the U.S. does have such a policy, recently ignored though it may be.
In the nine years since al Qaeda attacked, the focus of the U.S. has been in the Islamic world. The U.S. has spent huge sums on two wars and beefing up intelligence and homeland security. While piling up those expenses, the U.S. neglected the overarching strategy that has guided American foreign policy since Great Britain ceded leadership of the world’s democratic market-based economies following World War I.
While the U.S. tried to assess the 9-11 attack, the world stood still. But when the U.S. committed to intervention in Afghanistan and then Iraq, the door was opened and America’s economic and political competitors walked through. They have made significant gains at America’s expense. So long as the U.S. is fixed on militant Islam as the enemy of most importance, economic and political competitors will consolidate and try to expand their gains.
Following the British
The U.S. strategy is modeled on the British strategy in Europe: Retain control and independence by maintaining a balance of power. After waves of invaders from the Viking northeast had overrun the British Isles for centuries, invaders from across the English Channel increased their raids. The English Channel is more challenging than the North Sea. Britain fell to William of Normandy, whose winter crossing of the channel was considered a miracle, but then held against invasion. British diplomacy reinforced the natural barrier to prevent conquest from without. After Britain defeated Napoleon, the British navy ruled the seas and world trade for a century.
The U.S. took up where war-depleted Britain left off and changed the strategy from a continental to a global one. After World War II, as Europe rebuilt, President Truman’s Marshall Plan linked West Germany to NATO and the economies of the West, blocking further Soviet expansion. American occupation and economic assistance subdued Japanese nationalism and gave Japan access to Western markets. That alarmed China but the U.S. blocked China from control of the Korean peninsula and Taiwan and discouraged Chinese expansion in the Asian sub-continent and Western Asia. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the U.S. responded to the challenge with a race to the moon. Eventually, Soviet dominion over Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and parts of Asia dissolved.
The essential element of the strategy was to block potential regional powers from asserting regional power that could grow to world power. The strategy involved coalition building, regional military alliances, shifting American weight from side to side and using force to disrupt the plans of regional aspirants before those powers could consolidate their strength. This U.S. strategy was cloaked in the ideology of global democratization and human rights.
The key to this strategy was its global nature. The emergence of a challenger anywhere – the Soviet Union during the Cold War – threatened American preeminence everywhere. The U.S. worked to contain any emerging power. Then came 9-11.
A shift of focus
The single most important result of 9-11 was the shift of the United States from a global to a regional concentration. Other nations and powers have taken advantage and now pose challenges to the United States. Rather than adapting the global strategy to include counter-terrorism, the United States became obsessed with a single region.
Within that region, the U.S. implemented the balance-of-power strategy, playing off one nation against another. The U.S. did the same with ethnic and religious groups throughout the region and particularly within Iraq and Afghanistan, attempting to take advantage of internal divisions by shifting American support to create a balance of power. Meanwhile, ambitious nations within the region, and especially without, realized their opportunity.
The Russians are using the American absorption to reconstruct their geopolitical position. When Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008, the U.S. did not have deployable forces for a prudent intervention. The Chinese are building a bigger navy to extend their perimeter. They continue to develop cyber-attack technology and are scrambling world-wide to secure resources. Pirates infest waters and threaten sea lanes that the U.S. cannot patrol. Despots subjugate their citizens and harass their neighbors in many parts of the world.
Allies questioned the wars and now question the focus
Some allies question the invasion of two countries to remove their leadership. They say that the response seems out of proportion to the threats as we now understand them. At the time, however, no one knew what the terrorists could do. President Bush confronted an intelligence failure and had to proceed with incomplete and flawed information. Analysts assumed that a terrorist force capable of destroying two skyscrapers could and would attack again. In fact, the attack did not use new, innovative technology, which often in history has marked the beginning of a new power center. Not only was the attack “low tech,” al Qaeda did not follow-up. The U.S. response, perhaps misguided, certainly clumsy, occasionally clever, may have focused on an al Qaeda that had used up its resources on 9-11. But no one could be sure.
The United States is a global power and must have a global view. The U.S. has challenges beyond the Middle East, where the issue is often presented as whether the U.S. can win the current conflict. But that is not the salient issue. The issue is whether continuing an aggressive posture in Afghanistan, and a reduced presence in Iraq, will distract the U.S. from threats elsewhere in the world. Generals cannot answer that question. That question is for the President and Congress to decide. In short, the U.S. must balance Afghanistan against what might be lost elsewhere as the U.S. focuses on radical Islamists.
Are the rising threats now more ominous than the continuing threats from Islamists? Should the United States return to a more global approach with a long-term strategy of containing terrorism while not neglecting other threats, current and developing? Or should the focus remain the obliteration of al Qaeda, the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups? Whatever is decided, do we have the resources?
Democratic, free-market nations await America’s answer. Perhaps, after nine long years, the issue is not what to do in Afghanistan but how a global power can return to managing all of its global interests.