by Stephen Bryen
What is America’s strategic interest? When does it make sense for the United States to use force?
The use of force by a democratic nation, even if a superpower, is a serious matter. No matter how you look at it, the use of military power is abusive and destructive and costs innocent lives.
Even so, the United States has been involved in lots of wars since the end of World War II. Some of these wars have been acknowledged such as Korea or Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Others, in Asia, Africa and the Middle East are hidden wars where the American role is, to a degree, covert. Others still are indirect, in the sense that allies or clients of the United States are the ones at war, getting material support from the United States.
The issue of strategic interest has risen most recently on the question of renewing America’s intervention in Iraq, in bombing ISIS in Syria, in supporting al-Nusra and other so-called “rebels” in Syria, and in threats to provide military help to the Ukraine.
Most of these recent interventions or threatened interventions differ a bit from past interventions as they do not involve what could be called America’s core strategic interests.
Of course it will be argued that ISIS poses a threat to the United States and America’s allies, so using force against ISIS is consistent with America’s national security needs.
Unfortunately the US while opposing ISIS is also supporting other radical Islamist factions such as al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda spin-off.
Thus the US is promoting a policy in the Middle East that is confusing and contradictory. It can’t be that supporting al-Nusra is any more in our interest than bombing ISIS. Why, if ISIS and al-Nusra are threats, don’t we go after them all?
The answer is that the US also has wanted regime change in Syria –in other words ending the minority Alawite regime of Bashar Assad in favor of a Sunni governance that will be made up of Islamic radicals. How does that promote US strategic interests in the region?
One could argue that the US plunged into the mess with good intentions, starting with the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya. But supporting the Arab Spring has turned out not to have resulted in anything the US administration could have wanted. Libya is a country in the midst of a civil war, made more confusing by tribal and ideological factions who are at each others’ throats. Where it will end is anyone’s guess, but the prognosis is not good. Meanwhile Qaddafi’s large arsenal has been emptied and a good part of it was funneled off to Islamic radical organizations in Africa and in the Middle East, including Hamas in Gaza. The US was closely involved in the siphoning off process, until it realized that MANPADS and other weapons could threaten US clients in Africa and in the Middle East. Accordingly Israel had to destroy a waypoint warehouse in the Sudan to limit the damage. Had Israel not done so, probably at the US suggestion (although this is speculative), it is unlikely that civil aircraft could operate in Africa and the Middle East, exposed as they are to surface to air portable missiles.
Egypt has at least for now temporarily recovered from the Moslem Brotherhood which, the US supported foolishly, not grasping the ideological and radical implications. Losing Egypt, after it was plucked from the Russians after the Yom Kippur War, would be a huge black eye for US foreign policy, and represent a major risk to Saudi Arabia, still economically important in the region. While the US may portray itself as the Saudi Arabian savior, deals with Iran have conveyed to Saudi Arabia’s leaders that the US is not a reliable partner and cannot be counted on should an insurgency break out in the Kingdom. For that reason the Saudis have taken the threat in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s back door, very seriously. There in Yemen there is a war between Saudi-led interests on the one hand and Iran on the other. Egypt is helping the Saudis, as they have done in years past in Sudan.
Whatever good intentions, America has to take significant responsibility for jettisoning old alliances and for encouraging radicalization. Now the US is hovering with troops and airplanes and bombing and intelligence support and threats to the Russians (not the Iranians or Hezbollah which are far worse than the Russians). One day we are “negotiating” with the Russians about Aleppo where the Sunni Islamists (Aleppo is 85% Sunni) are fighting with weapons it has got either through the black market or from deliveries by the US and its regional friends, and on another day we are accusing the Russians of war crimes and genocide. These threats ratchet up the chance for big power mistakes and engagement in a region where neither really should be in direct contention with the other. Indirect competition there has been since the close of World War II. But direct confrontations raise the spectre of broader warfare in a contest where neither side really has any core interests in play.
Meanwhile, and with even less justification, the Congress, stimulated for sure by an administration hostile to Russia and very pro-Ukraine, is promoting direct military arms support to Ukraine. This follows US and European pressure on a roughly divided Ukraine to get Ukraine into the EU first and NATO after. No wonder the Russians saw this as confrontational and dangerous to Russian security. The wrapping round of European Russia would almost be complete by integrating Ukraine into the EU; the Russians know what that means. What is surprising is that the Russian attack on Ukraine has been better tempered than their attack on Aleppo, which is to say they are employing salami tactics, warfare through proxies and political games. All of this has made it hard to find a pathway to a peace deal, since this is one of those cases where Washington’s instinct, to demand regime change (in Russia?) is not in the play book.
The Russians take America seriously. There is not any doubt that in their mind Washington is shifty, unreliable and dangerous. So now, thoroughly alarmed, they practice evacuating millions of people in an “exercise” simulating a nuclear attack. Remember it was not America that was invaded by the Nazis and lost 20 million people. Who in the midst of this attack moved their families across the Urals along with their industry, to keep the war effort going. While it is many years since the Nazi catastrophe, Russians remember and still praise the resiliency and heroism of those days. And for them, as rotten a dictator as he was, and murderer that he was, Stalin still commands respect in Russia.
What can we say then about American foreign policy and America’s strategic interests? We can, for sure, say that our leaders are making a mess and digging a hole that may be too deep to climb out of in future.
If anything the United States should know its limits and reduce its adventurist approach based on fictions and fantasies that have proven dead wrong.