The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Strategy on the Cheap

There are more ways than one to mismatch ends and means.

Published on November 1, 2007

The American Interest has been exerting itself for more than two years to explore the boundaries of U.S. strategic thought in a perplexing age. We continue to believe that what lies within the visible parts of the American intellectual spectrum today just won’t do, and that we’re in a mess largely because of it. That’s why the magazine has featured recently one strategy proposal that would enjoin the United States to acquire as many as sixty formal allies, and another that would enjoin it to have none at all.11. See Ivo Daalder & James Lindsay, “Democracies of the World, Unite” (January/February 2007); and Anna Simons et al., “The Sovereignty Solution” (March/April 2007). It’s also the reason this issue features Barry Posen’s essay, “The Case for Restraint”, along with diversely supportive and critical comments. The “U.S. Foreign Policy after George W. Bush” theme will also continue to grace our pages throughout 2008, covering specific geographical regions and functional challenges.

For some of us, as for Posen, the present mess has been a long time in the making—about 16 years or so. As Owen Harries pointed out long ago, if the Cold War was a big deal (and it was), then the end of the Cold War had to be a big deal, too, requiring us to synchronize our policies and the assumptions underlying them with a new reality. U.S. policy in many areas, however, is still afflicted by Cold War inertia. The zero-based or clean-slate reappraisals, which one would have thought the obvious drill for practitioners and serious observers of U.S. foreign policy, have rarely been undertaken within government, and most academic critiques have often been too abstruse to be practical or too shrill to be taken seriously. Not all critiques, in and out of government, have evinced such flaws, however, yet still the American ship of state has not much turned, or changed speed. Insofar as there is blame to apportion for the failure to take the true measure of post-Cold War circumstances, it lies not with critics but mainly with those who’ve been running the show.

The last year of the George H.W. Bush Administration, 1992, was the great lost year of American foreign policy. The Soviet Union had dissolved in December 1991, and the U.S.-led victory in the first Gulf War still reverberated loud and clear when it did. American officials had reason and opportunity to define new goals for new circumstances, and then match ends to means to achieve them. Except in a limited way in the Pentagon, however, where planning is hard-wired into DoD habits and acquisition cycles, this exercise simply did not take place. White House speechwriters blushing about “a new world order” was no substitute for actual thought, a fact that became apparent so quickly that follow-on speeches planned on the theme were abandoned for lack of anything much to say. Many principals of that first Bush Administration showed signs of literal exhaustion, spending many an hour staring out the window. Some found themselves in a world not only beyond their experience but also their imagination, and could only stutter at its novelty. Almost everyone assumed that the President would be re-elected, so what, anyway, was the hurry?

Then came eight years of Bill Clinton and his crew. It was a time besotted by a triumphalism ironically based on a materialist faith in the deus ex machina of globalization. With globalization advancing the secular trinity of American values, interests and power, policy became a management function, not the expression of a strategy. Indeed, there was not a genuine strategic thought in the house.

There was, however, an abiding assumption: that American power was greater after the Cold War and would grow greater still thanks to the onrushing global triumph of democracy and the Washington Consensus. It seems not to have occurred that the end of the Cold War might unleash global dynamics that would diminish U.S. influence and discount the utility of the kinds of power the United States had amassed in previous decades. If allies were no longer threatened, would they go their own way, some even inclined to balance against an otherwise unbalanced “number one” power? Would the employment of violence sink below conventional orders of battle? If market capitalism bestrode the world, wouldn’t new powers with new demands rise to challenge America? With global capitalism’s energies accelerated by new technologies, would rapid economic growth not generate social and political instability, as it always had before? And wouldn’t its chief exemplar and advocate be blamed for it? Did the phrase “creative destruction” ring a bell anywhere in Clintonville?

Not that it made any difference, but I argued at the time for a U.S. strategy of relative restraint.22. “NSC-68 Redux?”, SAIS Review (Winter/Spring 1999). Believing in the self-executing protection of its vast power, the United States was absentmindedly expanding its commitments while shrinking its capacity to fulfill them—an accident-prone, Locarno-like strategic formula if ever there was one. I urged a definition-in-principle of the circumstances in which our interests could be sufficiently imperiled to warrant the use of force, and the exclusion (not out loud for all to hear, but in our own private counsels) of everything else as a sideshow. If we were slashing the defense budget and sharply reducing the size of the armed forces, vivisecting the capacities of the State Department, USAID, the U.S. Information Agency and other non-military policy assets, and ignoring the need to rethink government organization and processes, then we had to husband resources for serious matters and not dissipate them on international “social work.”33. The phrase is from Michael Mandelbaum’s “Foreign Policy as Social Work”, Foreign Affairs (January/February 1996).

That definition-in-principle was not hard to devise: The United States should reserve its maximum effort (that is, effort that could include military force) only for those situations in which (1) irreconcilably anti-American regimes (particularly WMD-capable or proliferation-prone ones) could (2) put at risk critical U.S. interests and allies in (3) strategically sensitive parts of the world. Based on these criteria, there was no rationale for using military force in the Balkans or on behalf of redeeming Haitian history; but plenty of reason to keep a potentially revaunchist Russia in its post-Soviet borders and stop North Korea and especially Iran or Iraq, given their location, from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

When George W. Bush campaigned for President speaking of a “humble” foreign policy, with experienced realists at his side, it seemed that the perils of overextension and the irritant of hubris—that horrid “indispensable nation” cant—might end. Humble it might have been, too, for all we’ll ever know, but then came September 11, 2001. For a reason still not entirely clear, a group of seasoned leaders lost their intellectual and emotional balance, most of them aiding and abetting serial presidential misjudgment on a huge scale. What started out humble was transmogrified into the globalization of the Monroe Doctrine by the President’s second Inaugural Address, and what has happened since is in essence easy to describe: The maximal expansion of American goals has run smack into the truth about American power after the Cold War. We simply cannot implement a policy of such surpassing ambition with the tools to hand, and we certainly cannot do so by ourselves.

This is the dilemma Barry Posen has described. To manage it he calls not for increasing the means to achieve our ends, but for reducing the ends to accord with our means—a strategy of restraint. Warnings and objections have been raised, however. Two stand forth clearly from the foregoing comments, and an understated third problem needs more investigation, as well.

First is the matter of leadership. Most assume that the world needs leadership, and that only America can provide it. A strategy of restraint must not be allowed to degenerate into a strategy of retreat; a great power must bear great burdens; only a democracy can define a worthy global mission; too much restraint is inappropriate for tumultuous times that require the shaping power of a beneficent America. This is no trivial complaint. The burden rests on those who think the world would settle naturally into stable equipoise, Adam Smith-like, even without leadership. Every unmanaged power balance has collapsed into mayhem and madness in war and civil chaos, the damage contained only to the extent that human efficacy has been so pathetically sub-global. It is protectively sub-global no longer.

This observation does not answer the objection, it only changes the question: Does America have what it takes to lead absent a conventional Soviet-scale counterpart to organize and discipline its power? Can the world abide a leading nation once dubbed “adolescent”, a “nation with the soul of a church” expressing a form of “secular messianism armed”, whose government acts like too many Americans do at home: consuming more than it invests, spending more than it saves, and buying (or trading) largely on credit?44. Quoted passages come from James Kurth, G.K. Chesterton and Michael Kelly, respectively. American exceptionalism seems based on an assumption of ever expanding hearth equity—real estate values for individual homeowners, a divinely mandated, New World manifest destiny for the nation as a whole. It is an optimism premised on a faith that citizens of other states do not and cannot be expected to share—and yet that is in effect what successive American leaders have asked them to do. Granted that the world needs a leader; but is America a leader it can follow or afford?

Second is the question of practicality. Some who sympathize with Posen doubt that a strategy of restraint can be implemented, or doubt the specific paths he has chosen to do so. As Niall Ferguson points out, no candidate threatening to become president in January 2009 analyzes the world as Posen does, and none has made restraint in foreign policy a rhetorical theme. This cannot be a coincidence; it says something about how politicians read the present pulse of American patriotism. But that’s not Posen’s fault, and not all of his proposals fall entirely outside the ambit of determined new leadership. If, for example, new U.S. and Israeli leaders agreed to eliminate over time U.S. economic aid to Israel while stabilizing U.S. military assistance in a revised mix of loans and grants, domestic politics in either country probably could not wreck it. After all, as Theodor Herzl himself put it, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

America can and will lead responsibly once it has exhausted all the other possibilities, as it is now well on the way to doing. A less-is-more approach to leadership is also the correct one, it seems to me. New leadership can overcome inertia; if we believed otherwise, we might as well close up shop. My unease with Posen’s proposal turns on something else: his faith in the self-executing power of deterrence in the Middle East. It is perhaps a small point relative to the scope of his argument, but it turns out to be one with deep sources and large policy implications, hence worth a closer look.


Despite their very different contexts, debate among American strategists before both Gulf Wars—1991 and 2003—bore one common element: disagreement over whether the United States could deter a nuclear-armed Iraq. As a rule, those who believed we could opposed war, while those skeptical that deterrence would work favored military action to prevent a nuclear-armed Iraq from coming into being (though not necessarily to favor the second war we actually got, when and how we got it).

This disagreement reflected a deeper divide about what deterrence is and how it works—a divide now transposed onto the Iran policy debate. Those who believe in the robustness of deterrence weigh the risks of U.S. military action and decide firmly against it, as Posen himself has done.55. Posen, “We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran”, New York Times, February 27, 2006. Those who are skeptical that deterrence will work—“work” broadly defined, as parsed in passing by Josef Joffe, Ruth Wedgwood and Niall Ferguson—see the calculus of relative risk differently.

The divide over deterrence has philosophical roots: In short, it pits positivists against idealists. Those who believe in the robustness of nuclear deterrence see a universal logic inherent in the nature of the weapons themselves. In this view, different styles of reasoning arising from cultural differences are trumped by the obvious horrific consequences of a nuclear exchange. That’s how Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1990), could write on the eve of the first Gulf War that it would not matter if Iraq gained nuclear weapons because “45 years of postwar history has demonstrated that acquiring such weapons in a nuclear-armed world is inescapably self-deterring.”6 It’s how Stanley Hoffmann could write that


deterrence, which has worked against far greater powers, remains an effective substitute for preventative war. Israel could deter Iraq, and the United States as well as other nuclear states could provide a nuclear guarantee to countries threatened by Iraq’s nuclear capacity.7


It’s why many have believed that deterrence against Iraq in 2003 and against Iran in future is easy as these things go, and every other approach to such problems more risky by comparison.

But what if nuclear weapons are not inherently self-deterring? What if deterrence is better understood as a collective psychological act shaped not only by the (limited) human capacity for rationality, but also by the interplay of emotion, moral logic, small-group dynamics and even culture? What if deterrence is not so easy after all?

Robust-deterrence thinkers often invoke history to justify their position: Nuclear weapons have never been used in anger since at least two states possessed them, despite many tense times and ideologically driven agendas. True, but what the historical record really shows is robust-deterrence thinkers’ misreading of the reasons for the world’s good fortune.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Cold War.88. Some of the section below is derived from my “Culture & Deterrence”, Foreign Policy Research Institute E-Note, August 27, 2006. We American children of the Enlightenment are persuaded of the universal validity of certain political propositions, and, luckily enough, these propositions happen to be ones we ourselves hold dear. Our penchant for abstract universalism collided just after World War II with a rising social science establishment hell-bent on “hardening” its image, if not its actual work habits, as scientific. The result was a theory of politico-military behavior in the nuclear age that was believed to be both universal in application and scientific in nature. Like a child who thinks the names for objects inhere in the objects themselves, we believed we were discovering objective truths about the meaning of nuclear weapons. What we were actually doing was imagining such “truths” and thus bringing them into being, all in our own culturally idiosyncratic way.

Because these truths were thought to be universal, we assumed the Soviet leadership understood nuclear weapons just as we did. It followed that we could plan the political impact of our military efforts because Soviet leaders would react to them just as we would. Robert McNamara thus postulated that once a strategic plateau was reached between U.S. and Soviet strategic forces, negotiations could cap that plateau and then lead to sizable and stabilizing reductions. McNamara assumed that the Soviet leadership shared the view that nuclear weapons had no rational battlefield use and that any notion of strategic superiority was meaningless, not just because the weapons were unusable but because neither side would allow the other to attain lopsided advantages. When Soviet acquisition, deployment and negotiating behavior did not reflect these widely shared anticipations, some began asking why.

Nathan Leites of the RAND Corporation had been thinking about the sources of strategic reasoning for a long time. He postulated that every national leadership cadre had an “operational code”, a general orientation to strategy shaped by the intertwined logic of a given language and the whole gamut of religious and historical metaphors that enable societies to make sense of the world and act purposively in it. Leites understood that, in Walter Lippmann’s words, people do not first see and then define, they first define and then see. The Soviets would not necessarily see the world as we did, react to events as we would, or assess our motives accurately—nor we theirs, unless we had first deciphered their operational code.

At first, most American strategists ignored Leites, or else did not understand him. More than most people, Americans seem to have trouble with the idea that, as Erving Goffman once put it, “social life takes up and freezes into itself the conceptions we have of it.” Not until the late 1970s did the U.S. strategic analytical community accept the existence of distinctive strategic cultures. It did so not a moment too soon, for Soviet leaders were pursuing the strategic nuclear competition according to their own “truths”, and were doing much too well at it for comfort. The adjustment in U.S. thinking about deterrence occurred for several reasons: It had become impossible to explain Soviet behavior in ways that harmonized with our supposed universal understanding of strategic logic; Chinese strategic behavior and language looked odd compared to ours and the Soviet Union’s; and the case for taking cultural factors seriously was finally being made by Russia experts in a way that strategic military analysts could understand.99. Notable case in point: Robert Legvold’s “Strategic Doctrine and SALT: Soviet and American Views”, Survival (January/February 1979).

Those who still argued the positivist case for robust deterrence on the eve of the first Gulf War had gotten stuck in a kind of intellectual amber, still professing belief in objective and universal truths about deterrence. Most seem to have done so because faith in the stability of mutual assured destruction provided a catchall reason to oppose all or nearly all proposals to augment or modernize the U.S. strategic arsenal. That was bad enough, but they compounded this error by assuming that what had worked for the U.S.-Soviet relationship would also work for seemingly lesser-included cases (a superpower deterring one or more smaller nuclear powers) and even in the future for structurally different cases (a small nuclear power deterring one or more other small nuclear powers). There are at least five reasons to question this assumption.1010. As argued in my “Will Saddam Get the Bomb?” National Review, May 13, 1991.

First, U.S.-Soviet deterrence was a straightforward bilateral proposition; no other nuclear powers played in the same weight-class. Deterrence in a nuclear-armed Middle East, which could come to include half a dozen states after an initial rogue-state breakout, would have to be as omni-directional as Middle Eastern antagonisms. Calculations of sufficiency would not readily balance, for states might seek arsenals equivalent to not one but several potential antagonists. That would stimulate arms races and lower the threshold for miscalculations and accidents in crises, and there is little any outside power could do about it once the proliferation mousetrap has sprung. The risk of fissile materials theft and diversion would be much higher than in the U.S.-Soviet case, and the anticipation of additional proliferation further convoluting the strategic environment would add yet another destabilizing ingredient. This is so especially because first-generation nuclear weapons and delivery systems are relatively unreliable and vulnerable to preemption. Since deterrence depends on mutually survivable forces, not mutually vulnerable ones, to whom does all this sound like a formula for stability and peace?

Second, everyone presumed that a deterrence failure in the U.S.-Soviet case would mean massive, if not total, societal destruction because of the megatonnage involved and the unreliability of any built-in escalation brakes. Not so in the Middle East, with much smaller arsenals and a reluctance to shoot off all of one’s assets lest a third party take advantage after the fact. Less-than-ultimate stakes will logically produce less-than-perfect caution.

Third, U.S. and Soviet caution in strategic relations stemmed from a fact we tend to take for granted: Both leaderships actually cared about those they ruled. But we saw repeated demonstrations of mass murder inside Iraq by the Sunni ruling elite in Ba‘athi times (Halabja being only the best known) without regard for the injury done to the state as a whole. We saw the April 1982 massacre perpetrated by the Syrian regime in Hama, and one could multiply examples without difficulty. The fragility of the civil bond between rulers and ruled in multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian and highly stratified Middle Eastern societies might weaken significantly the fundamental social basis of deterrence.

Fourth is the related specter of what Yekhezkel Dror once called “crazy states” or, rather, states with crazy leaders. Saddam Hussein was a malignant narcissist who could not have cared less about the slaughter of innocents. Mao and Stalin were mass murderers with exotic personalities, too. Not that democracies never produce scary leaders, but on the whole, top-heavy political systems more readily allow madmen or fanatics to reach the pinnacle of power. And neither madmen nor fanatics are reliable stewards of nuclear deterrence because neither care two figs about ordinary people, particularly those of a different ethnicity, sect or class.

A special case in point concerns religious fanatics. During the Cold War this problem never arose, despite the fact that many described Marxism-Leninism as a secular religion, and not without reason. Religion and ideology, however, are not the same: They don’t motivate and mobilize people in the same ways.1111. See Anna Simons, “Making Enemies, Part Two”, The American Interest (September/October 2006). Religious culture is organic to society; no one has to enforce it day to day. Ideology is not; if its ersatz high priests and their coercive apparatus fall away, so does belief in the ideology and behavior motivated by it.

So yes, it’s true, as Fareed Zakaria and others have pointed out, that Chinese Communist Party leaders once made some pretty scary statements about nuclear war, all without any subsequent resonance in reality. Thus, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran speaks in apocalyptical terms, we are urged not to take him seriously either. But when Ahmadinejad talks about the imminent return of the Hidden Imam (his version of the end of history), and when radical Muslim clerics justify the incidental killing of other Muslims in terrorist attacks—because “Allah will know his own” so that the innocent will become instant martyrs in paradise—they give every appearance of meaning what they say. How does one deter those willing to turn a country, or at least a religious sect, into a suicide bomb? These people do not sound anything like Chinese Communists trying to make the most of a weak strategic hand in the early 1960s.

Fifth, extended deterrence is an even weaker reed than deterrence itself. The idea that nuclear powers could protect non-nuclear allies was a standard plank of Cold War strategies. It worked despite the fact that protected allies were never entirely confident about it, and despite the fact that it was both a risky and expensive business for all the diverse weapons and human tripwires it relied on. Even so, extended deterrence was never based on firepower alone. It was based as much or more on willpower. The credibility of U.S. extended deterrence depended on persuading Moscow that we cared as much about an ally’s population as we did about our own. That was credible because Western democracies shared not only interests but also core principles in common.

Can extended deterrence work in the Middle East? The United States probably could have deterred a nuclear Iraq had one arisen before March 2003, and it can probably deter a nuclear Iran in perpetuity from undertaking any direct attack against the United States (or Israel). But that’s not the hard part. The tougher and more realistic question is: Even assuming regional governments would want such pledges, could a U.S. nuclear umbrella over Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia really be made credible to local predators, notwithstanding the unarguable superiority of U.S. nuclear military power over any local nuclear state? And could Israel, as Stanley Hoffmann suggested in 1991, really deter Iraq from attacking Kuwait? Maybe, maybe not; but to assume that this would be as easy as the United States protecting its democratic allies during the Cold War from usually conservative Russians is to abdicate even the pretense of serious analysis.

It is also worth thinking hard about the possibility that a nuclear-armed Iran, Egypt or Iraq (in the fullness of time, why not?) might not only not be deterred by the United States from attacking a third party in the region, but could deter the United States from coming to the victim’s aid. This is the problem of “inverted deterrence.” Past case in point: If Iraq had possessed nuclear weapons in 1991, would the United States have sent an expeditionary force to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait? Again, maybe, maybe not; but surely our calculations would have been deeply affected. Future case, perhaps, in point: If Iranian leaders order their Lebanese proxies to attack Israel, or if Iranian forces seize a chunk of western Afghanistan near Herat for ostensibly defensive reasons, would the United States act to stop and defeat such actions if Iran had nuclear weapons? The balance of interests very often trumps the balance of power in such contexts. As potential U.S. costs rise in sending expeditionary forces into the teeth of even an inferior nuclear capability, our willingness to do so will decline—or so virtually all local parties will assume. They will make their deals with the devil, and U.S. influence in the region will plummet. A would-be regional hegemon need not fire off a nuclear weapon to make effective political use of the capability.

Further, could U.S. policymakers deter not one but two, three or four nuclear-armed states in the region, not just from attacking us and our allies, but also from attacking each other? This is not a far-fetched question: Imagining a regional environment with one and only one WMD-capable authoritarian Middle Eastern regime is a little like eating only one potato chip—very hard to do. Or are local “little” nuclear wars amid all that oil and gas a problem the United States need not worry about?


These are the kinds of questions robust-deterrence proponents need to ask themselves, and get “yes” for an answer in nearly every case. If they cannot do so, and especially if they won’t even ask the questions, then they commit the same sin of which Posen accuses the last few U.S. Administrations: thinking it possible to assure strategic stability on the cheap. The Clinton and Bush Administrations failed to match resources to ambitions, having willed the ends but not the means. But to repose so much confidence in the surety of deterrence in an environment like the Middle East amounts no less to a mismatch of ends and means.

Much of what Posen recommends for U.S. Middle East policy is sound. The “freedom agenda”, at least as the Bush Administration has gone about it, is counterproductive and should be abandoned if it cannot be wisely refined. The high U.S. profile in the region is also counterproductive and should be gradually reduced as much as possible—though honest people will differ on what “as much as possible” means in practice. We and the Arabs tend to irritate each other even when we don’t mean to. We’re polar opposites on the tradition/innovation scale, the communalist/individualist scale and the sexual mores scale—so the less gratuitous interaction, the better.

That said, we can’t ignore the prospect of an Iranian bomb and the more widely WMD-proliferated regional environment it would likely spawn. And that’s true even if one thinks the Middle East not as strategically important as is commonly assumed; it’s still quite important enough.12. No sound strategies are to be had “on the cheap”, not the ones we’ve been living with the past 16 years, nor any that posit robust deterrence as a panacea for the future. As restrained as we may wish to be, there are some obligations that our interests and principles will not allow us to shirk, and this very hard one is among them. Even the President of France understands this (I never thought I would be able to make such a statement).

Let’s just hope that this time, whatever U.S. leaders in this or the next administration decide to do, they do it competently. Grand strategy aside, we’re running out of “screw-up” room.

1. See Ivo Daalder & James Lindsay, “Democracies of the World, Unite” (January/February 2007); and Anna Simons et al., “The Sovereignty Solution” (March/April 2007). 2. “NSC-68 Redux?”, SAIS Review (Winter/Spring 1999). 3. The phrase is from Michael Mandelbaum’s “Foreign Policy as Social Work”, Foreign Affairs (January/February 1996). 4. Quoted passages come from James Kurth, G.K. Chesterton and Michael Kelly, respectively. 5. Posen, “We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran”, New York Times, February 27, 2006. 6. Rhodes, “Bush’s Atomic Red Herring”, New York Times, November 27, 1990. 7. Hoffmann, “The Price of War”, New York Review of Books, January 17, 1991. 8. Some of the section below is derived from my “Culture & Deterrence”, Foreign Policy Research Institute E-Note, August 27, 2006. 9. Notable case in point: Robert Legvold’s “Strategic Doctrine and SALT: Soviet and American Views”, Survival (January/February 1979). 10. As argued in my “Will Saddam Get the Bomb?” National Review, May 13, 1991. 11. See Anna Simons, “Making Enemies, Part Two”, The American Interest (September/October 2006). 12. There has lately been a lively and useful debate on this topic: See on the one side Philip E. Auerswald, “Does the Middle East Matter?” The American Interest (May/June 2007) and Edward Luttwak, “The Middle of Nowhere”, Prospect (May 2007); on the other Niall Ferguson in The Telegraph of June 17, 2007 and Josef Joffe in the August 27, 2007 Wall Street Journal.

Adam Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest.