So…what should we be doing in foreign policy now?

So…what should we be doing in foreign policy now?

At least it looks mighty. (RIMPAC Naval exercise, Central Pacific, 2012. US Navy photo/MCC Keith Devinney)
At least it looks mighty. (RIMPAC Naval exercise, Central Pacific, 2012. US Navy photo/MCC Keith Devinney)

The pessimism out there is palpable, and for good reason.  They’re all right.  Richard Fernandez: Olympus has fallen.  Bryan Preston: We are so screwed.  Stephen Green (VodkaPundit): Pastis in our timeNational Review: On Syria, from bad to worse.  Victor Davis Hanson: Putin – Saruman Come Alive.*  Peggy Noonan: Team Obama, people who know nothing – really nothing – about history.  Kori Schake (Foreign Policy): Obama speech remarkably – alarmingly – flabby.  Ann Coulter: Syrial losers.  Jackie Gingrich Cushman: Obama on Syria: Following from behind.  Hal G.P. Colebatch (American Spectator): Obama as Queeg: A few cruise missiles short in the leadership arsenal.

On it goes.  Daniel Henninger: The Laurel and Hardy Presidency:

The past week was a perfect storm of American malfunction. Colliding at the center of a serious foreign-policy crisis was Barack Obama’s manifest skills deficit, conservative animosity toward Mr. Obama, Republican distrust of his leadership, and the reflexive opportunism of politicians from Washington to Moscow.

…this week [Obama] turned himself, the presidency and the United States into a spectacle. We were alternately shocked and agog at these events. Now the sobering-up has to begin.

The world has effectively lost its nominal leader, the U.S. president. Is this going to be the new normal? If so—and it will be so if serious people don’t step up—we are looking at a weakened U.S president who has a very, very long three years left on his term. …

… left alone, the global market in aggression won’t clear. Like a malign, untreated tumor, it will grow. You can’t program it to kill only non-Americans. The world’s worst impulses run by their own logic. What’s going to stop them now?

What, indeed?  Henninger doesn’t offer any answers.   (And he’s wrong about “conservatives” and “Republicans” being singular stalkers of the bomb-Syria quest – if not about the implied negativism and lack of constructive content in their political approach.  Almost no organized faction in America thinks it’s a good idea to bomb Syria.)  But he does ask the right question.  So, OK, Olympus has fallen.  What the heck do we do now?

That’s harder to see than what has gone wrong, which at this point is convoluted but still parsable.  Let’s take a moment to review, not-quite-James Michener-style, how we got to where we are.  It matters; it matters why we crashed into a brick wall, and why it’s all unsustainable.

The backstory

World War II ended, the Cold War developed, and a globally connected world’s main power dynamic became that of clashing “superpowers.”  The main sociopolitical dynamic became what I will call “borrowing for justice”:  nations proclaiming it “justice” to indenture their future taxpayers to the hilt, so politicians could distribute favors today to complacent, increasingly dependent constituencies.

Even under this regimen – even heavily burdened by the state – liberal capitalism still ran rings around illiberal socialism, and eventually, Soviet socialism imploded and one of the two superpowers collapsed.  In the ensuing twenty years of relative “peace,” Western nations may have spent money on small wars, but their spending to capitalize and maintain their military forces has plummeted to levels not seen since the mid-1930s, as a percentage of GDP.

But the “peace dividend” turned out to be not so much the savings on military hardware as a heedless, leisure- and prosperity-enabled enthusiasm for increasingly globalized regulation.  The bureaucratic approach to human life – appoint regulators, subject as much as possible to centralized regulation, punish and extort the non-compliant – has gradually come to replace borrowing for justice as the most active, energetic sociopolitical dynamic of our time.  And regulation, that heady rush, arrogates to itself a supranational charter, proposing to decide for all mankind everything from whether we may own firearms to what living quarters and health care we shall have, what kinds of businesses and jobs we may create, and what kinds of energy we shall use.

The vision for this has been there for a long time now, from before Woodrow Wilson and before Marxist socialism.  But it takes an extraordinarily quiescent geopolitical landscape to make this regulatory impulse seem feasible across international boundaries.  Even the European Union has not found it easy going.  Still, the Western left has written its post-Cold War political script with regulatory supranationalism as the basic plot.  It is the eschaton being immanentized in a post-modern, post-socialism-vs.-capitalism environment.

Obama’s “czars” were always a step ahead of him in this regard.  Where he has Alinskyite tendencies – protest, maneuver, undercut the existing order – his czars have for the most part been zealous regulators: bureaucrats with a positive (not necessarily a morally good, but a proactive) agenda.  Seen in that light, Samantha Power and Susan Rice are humanitarian-force czars, in charge of proactively administering the compliance of other nations with a supranational regulatory order.

I find this conceptual outline more explanatory than any other about why Team Obama reverted so reflexively to the proposal for a Tomahawk-slap punishment of Bashar al-Assad.  It isn’t actually in character for them, as a use of national power; all things being equal, we’d expect Obama to seriously propose negotiating Assad’s chemical weapons away from him, before hoeing the well-worn row of a light bombing.

But when Team Obama is punishing non-compliance, in the guise of a regulatory bureaucracy, it can be quite determinedly, even viciously, punitive.  Team Obama takes regulatory compliance seriously, in a way it doesn’t take the conventional, strategic use of international power.  “Of course,” Team Obama would say.  “Of course, punishing regulatory non-compliance is a proper use of bombs and missiles, just as it is a proper use of law enforcement, the courts, the penal system, the executive’s authority, and the tax code.  You don’t negotiate with regulatory miscreants.  You hit ‘em hard.”

The problem is that the quiescent global environment isn’t actually out there to be administered in this fashion.  Someone in the rest of the world always has a reason for being non-compliant, and has to be addressed in those old, conventional terms of raw power, if you want your plan to stick.  Bashar al-Assad has no intention of losing his civil war just because Barack Obama declares him to be out of compliance with a supranational regulation.  Assad’s patrons Russia and Iran bring the same recalcitrance to the regulatory-supranationalist dynamic.

Reality check

Regulatory supranationalism is only as enforceable as the reach of the strongest nation’s national power.  And that reach depends on the old-school pillars of national power: conventional military power; cultivated, voluntary consensus (alliances, treaties); and realistic “red lines,” based on defensible declarations of interest.

These quantities are always in a do-loop with each other; it’s just usually easier to see one element of the loop than the others at any given time.  What the American people have seen about the Syria crisis is that Obama’s “red line” is well out of sync with the level of our military power and the defensibility of our interest, given the absolute character of those elements today.

My sense is that the people have seen this more instinctively than through the lens of specific expertise.  But their vision is remarkably clear, for all that.  America is out of position in 2013 to enforce regulatory compliance on Syria.  The apparatus of power isn’t there; the consensus manifestly isn’t there (almost everyone in Europe has fallen away); and the interest in question is out on a limb, due to these unpropitious factors in the loop, waiting for gravity to kick in.

If we had done things differently since 1945, we might be in a position to enforce compliance on Assad in 2013.  But we borrowed for justice instead of capitalizing our military forces.  With the election of Obama, we Americans put our chips on regulatory supranationalism instead of on the conventional use of national power.  The latter could be used effectively to squeeze Assad out of Syria, whereas the former cannot, and indeed – because it proposes to substitute regulatory for political accountability – has no intention to.

By the same step – electing Obama – Americans chose to accept punitive regulation of our national economy, to the extent that we don’t have the option today of outgrowing our current fiscal woes, and undertaking to borrow for justice and recapitalize our military at the same time.  We are in a regulatory straitjacket of our president’s making: one he has no intention of undoing.

We made the Obama choice, in turn, because we had decided some decades before to enforce ignorance in our population – indeed, to enforce a false narrative – about history and human nature.  All these choices and dynamics are inseparable, and it is essential that we understand that.  We cannot correct just one of them.  We are beyond the point of marginal amelioration.

That, ultimately, is the reason why the Syria crisis has been such a spectacularly appalling crash and burn.  Because of everything we’ve been doing, we have been way out on a limb for some time now.  Because of the sum total of the character of his administration, and due at least partly to the character of the people that elected him – not solely, in other words, because of who he is – President Obama is an avatar of all that is unsustainable, unrealistic, and false about America’s current political course.

So…what do we do?

Daniel Henninger is right: we have more than three years to go before we can elect a new president.  Is there any national-security option for us that is not completely beyond the abilities and character of the Obama administration?

Let’s look at the problem in light of the three pillars of national power.  The temptation is strong to look first at military power.  But all things have not been equal for some time now, and the most important pillar to consider today is actually what our interests and “red lines” truly are.  If we don’t review those, we will just keep crashing and burning as we collide with one indefensible, superannuated “interest” after another.

Conditions today are not such that the United States has the option of enforcing abstract forms of regulatory compliance on other nations.  The question is what we must propose to enforce, and out of that, what we can enforce.  We have to have our eyes open going in, understanding that we cannot enforce an uninterrupted continuation of the post-1991 status quo.  Things will change.  Americans and our interests will be less safe abroad; our allies will experience a similar shift. Having no better options, they will not defect from us precipitately, but we can look forward to a period of discontent and fractiousness in this regard.


I see the following requirements as irreducible:

1.  Defense of the borders and economic interests of the United States.

2.  Freedom of navigation on the high seas and in vulnerable chokepoints.  This has been a perennial American interest, one of the earliest that we defended with force, and it is still foremost among those we must enforce at a distance from our own shores.  Along with maritime navigation, freedom of civil operations in international air space is a similar U.S. interest.

3.  Missile defense for America and her allies, including the allies threatened by missiles that cannot reach North America.

4.  Defense of the Western hemisphere against intrusions by outside terrorist groups (including the narcotics and other money-making operations of Hezbollah and Hamas in Latin America).  We need to critically review our anti-terrorism posture in the Eastern hemisphere, although I doubt Obama will do that.  He has some justification for considering it a relatively low-cost success; that said, since early 2011, the shifting focus of radical Islamism, away from terrorism against the West and toward gaining political power in the Middle East, has had as much to do with minimizing threats to the United States as has the drone and Special Forces campaign against al Qaeda overseas.

5.  Deterring forcible or non-consensual “settlement” of territorial disputes, such as those between China and the other claimants in the South China Sea; between China and Japan; between Russia and Japan; between Pakistan and India; between Turkey and Cyprus; and between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.


From a geographic standpoint, President Obama’s declared emphasis on the Pacific Rim is not actually a bad starting point.  The Pacific Rim is Russia’s back door and China’s front door; in an environment in which we cannot do everything, there are worse approaches than frustrating both of those Asian powers in their Pacific adventures.  We cannot simply reestablish dominance there, but we can achieve balance and pushback.  We can keep Russia and China both from settling the Far East to their satisfaction.  We can make it cost them time, money, and political capital to even make headway.

That will help minimize the resources they can bring to South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.  They are going to keep making inroads in all those places; the best we can do is consolidate our existing alliances, and make inroads of our own there as well.  Our position is actually the worst in the nearest geographic area: Latin America.  That is unfortunate, and may not change much for the better between now and 2017.

We do have relatively good position still in the Middle East, although we are no longer in a position to intimidate Iran through gradual build-up and ultimatum, nor will Obama arrange for us to be in the next three years.  That said, if we retain our ties with Jordan, including the option of stationing military forces there, and make it clear that we regard the security of Israel, Egypt, and the Gulf Cooperation Council nations, along with the Israel-Egypt peace accord, as U.S. national interests, we can maintain a useful if not fully adequate level of deterrent credibility.

We may or may not have to give up on Iraq and Afghanistan.  That will depend on a number of factors, including how hard local terrorists push against the status quo and against our orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Obama is incapable of executing a difficult retreat with deliberation and credibility; unless Congress and the people somehow force a much wealthier, better-resourced military on him, we can only hope he doesn’t have to try.

If local forces do push hard enough, the best we can do is reconsolidate the offshore-presence position we maintained in Southwest Asia from 1980 to 2003, with – hopefully – a residual air basing capability in one or more of the Gulf nations.

There is no question that many things are left out of this brief survey.  Chief among them is positively encouraging the development of liberalism and consensual political traditions abroad (with an adjunct to that being the assertive enforcement of humanitarian conditions).

But the limitations of Team Obama – including its flawed vision of what military force is good for, and its unrealism about force as a guarantor of humanitarian goals – are limitations on our national options.  We should certainly use the non-military elements of national power to press for humanitarian objectives; I assume Team Obama will do that.  We cannot realistically expect Team Obama to employ military force effectively to advance humanitarian goals or create the conditions for political liberalization abroad.  (We know from their deliberations about strategy in Afghanistan, from late 2009, that Obama’s senior advisors oppose in principle the idea of securing territory as a foundation for establishing consensual political environments abroad.  They took this as axiomatic in their approach to Libya in 2011 as well.)

Even the minimal program outlined here is somewhat beyond the Obama administration’s abilities.  If we have to drop anything, I assume it will be interest #5 – deterring non-consensual settlements of territorial disputes – along, perhaps, with dropping robust as opposed to minimal or pro forma prosecution of #4, and any plans beyond a rapid exit from Afghanistan.


America still has the best alliance system any nation has ever had.  We need to keep it.  In the Far East, we will want to develop a new, improved basis for our alliance with Japan, with which we have had uneasy relations in the Obama years.  We don’t have to back Japan’s every play to tacitly recognize evolving Japanese leadership in certain obvious areas.  Our support of Japan’s island claims, for example, should take the form of acknowledging and respecting Japanese prerogatives more than purporting to enforce an overarching U.S. guarantee of international conditions.  The latter is more than we can manage today; if Japan settles the point, e.g., with China in the Senkakus, it will be Japan, an ally who has our support, settling the point.

And that’s just fine.  Things have to shift anyway.  There should be no alarm in Washington about a “Japan that can say no”; when Japan feels confident in saying no, we will find fewer things than we might think that we and Japan will disagree on.  It is in any case always better to have a strong ally than a merely compliant one.

It is an unalloyed good that Australia has just elected a conservative government.  This bodes well for our Pacific alliances and overall position.  One of the useful things Obama has done is get America’s foot in the door with Myanmar; adding that to our active relations with Vietnam and Singapore, and our allies South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines, puts us in a good, well distributed position around China’s maritime perimeter.  We cannot do better than improve that position through strengthening our ties with India.

In the Middle East, there is still a great deal of momentum in our partnerships and alliances, from routine military exercises to basing agreements and scheduled ballistic-missile-defense deployments.  Ideally, we would keep Iraq as a friend in the region; if Iran and/or Sunni terrorist factions make that difficult, it may be more than Team Obama can manage.

It is less clear what stresses may be put on the NATO alliance in the next three years.  I am not so certain that radical Islamists will make it a priority to mount terrorist attacks against NATO nations.  Weak and dithering as NATO has appeared in the last few weeks, the more important factor is what Islamists really want to accomplish – and I believe what they want today, in the wake of the Arab Spring, is to establish power in the territories of the Middle East.  They will focus their resources on Libya, Syria, and Lebanon, and probably expand their insurgencies in Egypt, Iraq, and even Jordan.  If Team Obama can’t bring itself to support the relative moderates in power in the latter nations, it could at least refrain from actively undermining them.

It is possible that NATO will escape pressures that could be fatal to the alliance’s de facto unity of purpose over the next three years.  Pressure from Russia is likely to be subtle, peripheral, and economic.  It is not beyond America’s power to keep faith with the nation of Georgia; Obama may even do it, although everything NATO wants out of our southeastern flank – radars and ballistic-missile defenses in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania – is likely to be slow-rolled or even stymied.  Still, the nations lying between Russia and Greece, and between Russia and Syria, very much want NATO involvement in their area.  The big question will be whether Britain, Germany, and France have governments willing to press for the appropriate forms of engagement.

America has lost important ground in our Central American ties under Obama.  But we can make the recent discussions with Mexico about bolstering security on Mexico’s southern border work to our advantage.  Mexico’s borders are a key place to stop Islamist terrorists approaching the United States, and we may win more cooperation from Central America through a joint effort with Mexico than we would approaching the problem bilaterally with each nation.

There is more that we should be doing in Latin America, but within the limitations imposed by an administration that still sees the region through the lens of the 1986 movie Salvador, there may not be a lot more that we can do.

As a general comment about leveraging and tending our alliances, I believe there are three realms in which the U.S. must retain the lead, even in a severely resource- and leadership-constrained environment.  Obama may or may not do it; none of them comes naturally to him or his advisors.  But what America should retain discretion over is leadership in maritime security, ballistic-missile defense, and strategic nuclear weapons.

That said, if Australia, for example, prefers a stronger maritime-security profile in Southeast Asia than Obama does, I am happy to see Australian leadership respected.  The same is true for BMD leadership by Israel, Japan, or our European allies.  To some extent, for the time being, we will have to rely on our allies for the determination and imagination that America’s own leaders do not have at present.

Military readiness

What can be done about the alarming decline in our military readiness?  In the absence of pro-military leadership from Obama, not a lot.  He has already demonstrated, by letting things get as bad as they are, that it doesn’t bother him for our military readiness to decline.

Defense procurement, and “operations and maintenance” (O&M), are taking by far the biggest hits of any federal programs from budgetary spending and sequestration cuts.  Defense spending is what we are cutting to avoid having to make cuts elsewhere (e.g., to unemployment, food stamps, and Obama’s “stimulus” distributions to his favored constituencies).

Republicans in Congress have demonstrated, meanwhile, that they are willing to accept the defense spending cuts as the price of opposing Obama on raising the debt ceiling.  In essence, defense spending is everyone’s lowest priority.  If Republicans can regain control of both houses of Congress in the 2014 election, they may be able to force a marginal reprioritization on the president in his final two years.  On the other hand, the real possibility exists that a Republican Congress could pass a budget each year that Obama would decline to sign.

It is quite possible that for the next three years, decisions to spend on defense capabilities will be as ad hoc and driven by horse-trading as decisions to spend on everything else have been in the previous three years.  We have spent those years rolling from one continuing resolution to the next, whereas the standard for defense spending, managed in various forms over the previous 70-odd years, had been presidential budgetary guidance based on national strategy.

This latter standard will not be our reality again before 2017.  If Obama wants something in particular, he will ask for it, and see what Congress will give him.  But the armed services can probably expect mainly to navigate from shortfall to shortfall, with little guidance on what things they are to leave undone in order to operate down to an inadequate level of funding.

In this environment, I would expect Team Obama to prioritize keeping up the Navy and Air Force presence in the Middle East and Far East, along with the highest-profile joint exercises with allies (e.g., with South Korea, Israel, Thailand, the Philippines; with Mediterranean NATO; the “RIMPAC” exercise in the Pacific).   Missile defense is important to the allies, and will not be going away.  Obama will want to retain the Special Forces and stand-off/drone-warfare capabilities he has favored relying on for contingencies.  The Army is likely to take some of the biggest hits, assuming the already programmed out-year spending cuts kick in as scheduled.

The sum of it all

What this all amounts to is an environment in which America cannot expect to “project power” on the discretionary model we have used for the last twenty years.  At most, we will be able to defend selectively, in a very few of the highest priority locations and situations.  Our discretion will be quite limited; for the most part, we will be able to do only what our allies are willing to join us in.

Given these real constraints, we will have to do what we can with maritime policing and influence, and accept our inability to involve ourselves meaningfully ashore, anywhere except the locations where we are already involved.  If nothing changes in our defense funding prospects, we will have to disengage from large-footprint land commitments other than South Korea.

Whatever we can manage to do using no more than the attenuated naval and air force level of 2013 (including ad hoc schedule perturbations for the carrier force, gaps in coverage, and less-than-combat-ready air forces), we can expect to be able to sustain.  That will include a minimal BMD capability in Europe and the Far East, and the capability, at least some of the time, to quickly conduct small-scale air and missile strikes, in locations close to the sea and to air bases we and our allies can access.

We can’t make these capabilities suit all the contingencies that might arise.  They don’t suit the Syria crisis, with its demand for a political resolution and its potential for outward-rippling consequences.  If used judiciously, they do suit the priority of deterring China in the South China Sea, or ensuring the safety of shipping in the chokepoints of the Middle East, or containing at least the first-order spillover from an Iranian reaction, if Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

Between now and January 2017, that is probably the best we’re going to be able to do.


* I can’t help myself, I just have to say it:  Christopher Lee made a way better Saruman.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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