The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Restraining Order

The author of “The Case for Restraint” responds to his critics.

Published on January 1, 2008

Editor’s Note: The November/December 2007 issue of The American Interest featured Barry R. Posen’s essay “The Case for Restraint”, which was followed by comments from the editor and members of the editorial board. Posen’s reply to those comments is below.

I cannot respond fully to the mix of support, constructive criticism and acerbic witticism that greeted my essay in these pages. I see five main arguments in these responses. First, the United States cannot restrain itself; its behavior is natural and normal. Second, my general and specific guidance will find no support either in the U.S. public or policy elite. Third, the changed relationship with specific regions that I suggest will leave those regions worse off from a security point of view; the states there will be unable to manage; and that this will ultimately redound to the disadvantage of the United States. Fourth, there are plenty of good things the United States can do with its power, if it behaves with just a bit of moderation. Fifth, the potential destructive power of nuclear weapons in the wrong hands overshadows any political gains the United States might accrue from restraint, and indeed necessitates that it actively suppress the diffusion of the technology that permits the acquisition of nuclear weapons to any state with which it has disagreements.

I argued in my essay that the United States has indeed been unable to restrain itself. I note that the interaction of great U.S. power, the re-emergence of identity politics and the forces unleashed by globalization have produced not only a fractious world, but one that the United States is sorely tempted to administer. Is this response wise? Josef Joffe observes that “great powers seek order beyond their borders, and rightly so, because they have other vital interests.” By the time he, Walter Mead, Lilia Shevtsova and others are done listing all of America’s interests, it is pretty hard to separate the vital from the merely interesting.

This impulse to administer is not good for U.S. security. It weakens rather than improves the U.S. power position, because others have become capable enough to force us to spend our power lavishly and faster than we can accrue more of it. Though it may reduce the power of some, our military activism increases the propensity of others to build up their capabilities. Finally, the U.S. propensity to intervene in the affairs of others generates hostility. Costs are not commensurate with the benefits. Fukuyama, Harries, Wang, Geremek and Mohan seem to agree to some extent.

Would the U.S. public and elite support the policy of “restraint” I advance? My goal in the essay was to sketch the framework of an alternative grand strategy for the United States. It was not to sell the strategy to the American people, nor to write political speeches for American politicians. Niall Ferguson did not explain why I should be in that business. The perch in academia that American society has provided me makes my comparative advantage unvarnished analysis, not political salesmanship. There is plenty of the latter around. Scholars and analysts who share my views, and there are many, are trying to develop an alternative to the mistaken course the United States has pursued. There can be no change until that alternative view develops some polarity, so that by the strength of its arguments, and the accuracy of its critique, it draws the support of others. Assertions that this cannot happen seem emotional; they lack a certain conviction.

The foreign policy views of the U.S. public and its leaders may indeed change in due course because both are sensitive to costs. Here it is necessary to remind critics and readers of the facts of our unnecessary Iraq adventure, facts that James Q. Wilson omits from his defense of the project. The United States has spent nearly $450 billion already in Iraq, and there is more to come. Nearly 4,000 U.S. soldiers are dead. Thousands more are seriously wounded. It is likely that more than 150,000 Iraqis have died as a consequence of the U.S. invasion and occupation. Some 25,000 Iraqis are incarcerated in U.S.-run detention centers; they are unlikely to love us when they are sprung, which must happen at some point. U.S. ground forces are tired, and may have lost a bit of their “qualitative edge.” Opinion of the United States in exactly the populations from which al-Qaeda recruits has deteriorated. Al-Qaeda has recovered its footing during our Iraq diversion, and has profited from it. How Republicans or Democrats will bring this adventure to an end remains a mystery, so the costs will likely continue.

These costs have taken the air out of U.S. public support for the war in Iraq, and they have weakened the Republican Party’s claim to the national security mantle among the U.S. electorate. And yet, the public still seems a bit somnolent. Iraq alone will not be enough to move them, and I concede this point. It is likely, as my critics suggest, that U.S. activism will proceed apace. This will probably bring new costs to the United States. At some point the national security elite that has produced and keeps producing costly blunders will lose credibility with the American people, and even American politicians may notice and start searching for an alternative strategy.

Several of the critiques fear the regional consequences of some of my recommendations. My purpose is to get those who have been doing too little to do more, and those who have been doing too much to do less. For example, if the United States reduces its massive security subsidy to the safe and rich democracies of Europe, something bad will happen to them—they will have to spend more on defense. Some expect that instead they will trust their futures to the tender mercies of Vladimir Putin. I doubt it. Britain, France, Germany and Italy are more than capable of deterring and containing Russia. They are richer, produce better military hardware, and train highly competent officers and soldiers. Two of them are nuclear powers. They are members of an alliance in waiting—the European Union—which has, since 1999, taken steps to organize itself militarily. I wish to accelerate those steps and I know only one way to do it: cease U.S. military leadership of Europe, which means disassembling the NATO military structures.

Similarly, U.S. support subsidizes mistaken Israeli policies—mistaken for Israel and for the United States. Israel is a great democracy, but as vibrant as that democracy is, the debate on holding the territories is missing a vital element, and that is cost, particularly opportunity cost. I want to get Israeli democracy working toward a settlement, and thus I wish to start a debate in Israel about the allocation of scarce strategic resources to alternate strategic ends—a debate on priorities. Itamar Rabinovich suggests that I want to deny Israel a military edge. Not true. Israel could still have a military edge; Israel would just have to pay more for it, and thus the security costs of occupation would need to be weighed more carefully against the security benefits. Francis Fukuyama suggests that the United States should instead “condition” aid to Israel on progress toward a settlement with the Palestinians. This is too subtle, and we would quickly be caught up in endless discussions about what constitutes progress, as we have before.

A fourth critique is raised by G. John Ikenberry and Stephen Krasner, who argue that the United States has used its power in the past to produce beneficial outcomes for us and for others, and can do so again if we exercise a bit of self control. Though Owen Harries shares my main diagnosis, he also worries that several serious problems in the world can only be addressed by some degree of U.S. leadership. I once favored this position, associated mainly with my friend Robert Art and his “grand strategy of selective engagement.” Selective engagement, or “opportunism”, as Krasner calls it, suffers from one key problem, however: It has many criteria for saying “yes” to any number of new global projects, but no criteria for saying “no”, other than a hoped-for rule of prudence.

NATO expansion is a good example of this problem. It was prudent to keep NATO around just in case the demise of the Soviet Union produced some serious instability. The Partnership for Peace, too, was a prudent mechanism for managing the transformation of the former east European Soviet satellites into genuinely independent countries. Nobody argued, however, that these states were major strategic assets, yet NATO soon offered them full membership, and took on the role of defending them. If the United States ever has to make good on this promise against a revived Russia, distance alone will make their defense difficult and dangerous. Worse, NATO’s appetite seems to grow with the eating. Some now discuss bringing Ukraine into the alliance—a Texas-sized country with nearly 1,500 miles of border to defend with Russia and Belarus, and much of it more than 500 miles away from the nearest NATO territory today. We should also note that though NATO fought no wars when it contained the mighty Soviet Union, it fought two in the Balkans simply to protect its post-Cold War reputation, which should hardly have needed defending given the magnitude of the Cold War victory.

Ikenberry believes that the United States should use its superior power to build institutions that will live by rules that protect American interests. Institutions are useful, but they are not cure-alls, and they can become traps. First, because the United States has so much power it will insist on institutions that work its way, and, though these rules may serve U.S. interests, other members will balk continuously at the inequities. The NPT is a good example. Second, these institutions are unlikely to survive a transition in the power relations that gave them birth, and they will not protect U.S. interests after our power wanes. Ikenberry and I simply disagree about this. Third, one thing leads to another: It is difficult to insist on U.S. rules in an institution if the United States cannot argue that it is the superior power. The “indispensable nation” must thus regularly prove its indispensability.

The final issue—what should the United States do about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and Persian Gulf—is raised at greatest length by Adam Garfinkle, but others, including Fukuyama, Ferguson, Ikenberry, Wilson, Wedgwood and Rabinovich, echo the refrain. They ask, how can the United States protect its interests in the region from off shore, against a nuclear Iran? I do recommend an offshore position for the United States in this region, because U.S. forces in Arab lands annoy the people who live there and put arguments in the hands of U.S. enemies. They ask, what are foreigners, and non-Muslims at that, doing there? What regimes are they propping up with their military presence?

The United States does have interests in this part of the world, though which of those interests military power can and cannot achieve must be considered carefully. Most oil leaves the Gulf by ship, and it is in the U.S. interest that passage be relatively free from interdiction. The U.S. Navy ought to be able to manage this from the sea, though at some cost given the difficulties of littoral warfare. The United States has an interest in the resources of the Gulf remaining politically divided, for an “oil empire” might be strong enough to make some mischief. And U.S. forces, from offshore, but assisted by austere reception facilities for reinforcement, ought to be able to handle this potential threat, which could be posed by Iran. The benefits probably exceed the costs of these military commitments.

Some might wish for the United States to be able to ensure that Saudi oil flow under all conditions, including civil war or revolution in that country. We do not know if U.S. military power can accomplish this, but the record of constant sabotage against the northern Iraqi oil fields is a cautionary lesson. In any case, U.S. forces have departed Saudi Arabia precisely because their presence was incendiary politically, and it is difficult to believe that we could pump and export Saudi oil against the wishes of the population.

But can the United States secure Arab states from nuclear coercion by Iran without having troops ashore? I see no reason why containment and deterrence of even a nuclear-armed Iran cannot work. The United States is much stronger at the nuclear and the conventional levels of military power, and the Iranians will be unable to change this. If the United States does have an interest in Saudi Arabia’s independence, then it should be able to express that interest whether or not it has troops on Saudi soil. The Saudis will surely help the United States convey this message by word and deed. There are proliferation risks, true; the Saudis and others may want nuclear weapons if Iran gets them. But even from off shore, the United States is their best security provider, and if the United States opposes a Saudi nuclear program, they will probably not pursue it at the cost of losing that strategic relationship. Saudi Arabia would need to get through a “window of vulnerability”, and who would defend it during this period?

Garfinkle raises a second nuclear issue: Nuclear deterrence may not work against some other cultures. Some leaders may seek national martyrdom, and nuclear strikes against other nuclear-armed powers will speed them on their way. As I understand it, Islam is a disputatious religion where any number of viewpoints can be found, so I could study Shi‘i theology for many years and not rule out a suicidal impulse. So let us look at experience. Ayatollah Khomeini stopped the war with Iraq when Iranian deaths reached between a half million and a million on the grounds that the war had become too costly. It is trivially easy for the United States or Israel to inflict much heavier casualties on Iran by way of retaliation.

Assuming that others, by reason of culture, or level of economic development, cannot master the rudiments of nuclear deterrence leads ineluctably to a single-minded focus on nuclear proliferation in our grand strategy. The United States should do what it can to discourage and to slow the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but diplomacy and economic coercion will not work with all candidate proliferators. It follows that the United States would then have to engage in a series of preventive wars to forestall the emergence of new nuclear powers, and to avert changes of government in extant nuclear powers that might put people we mistrust in charge of the weapons.

Such a policy would have profound political consequences for the United States abroad and at home. Put bluntly, the objects of U.S. military action will fight any way they can for as long as they can; the rest of the world will not thank the United States for a series of disruptive wars; the American people will ultimately resent the heavy taxes needed to pay for these fights; and the American soldier will be worked to exhaustion. Containment and deterrence have worked for the United States in the past against bigger and tougher customers than Iran, and they are a wiser strategy than preventive war, should diplomacy fail.

Barry R. Posen is Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.