Commentary

Fixing Foreign Policy: How the U.S. should wage the war on terror

For more than half a century, the U.S. military was an instrument of Washington’s foreign policy in far-flung regions of the world. The idea of retaliating for an attack on American territory was barely on the radar screen.

Not so now. U.S. forces have fought Al Qaeda terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan and helped overthrow the Taliban government that made that country a haven for Osama bin Laden and his followers. Those actions were entirely appropriate, and the United States should take the next stage of the war into Pakistan, where most of the remaining Al Qaeda fighters have regrouped.

But we must stay focused on the threat posed by bin Laden’s network. In particular, we should not use terrorism as a pretext to settle old scores against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has made contradictory statements about the scope of the military’s mission. At times, officials seem to focus on those responsible for the September 11 attacks. On other occasions, they suggest that America’s goal is a war against terrorism per se — even terrorists who aren’t targeting the United States. In his State of the Union address, President Bush went even further, singling out Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “axis of evil” and implying that those countries’ efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction were part of a global terrorist threat.

America badly needs to clarify its objectives. A war against Al Qaeda and any other organization or government that targets the United States is different from a general crusade against all organizations that use terrorist tactics against some adversary. The latter would be an extraordinarily broad and difficult mission. Yet even that mission would be narrower than a crusade against all terrorist organizations, plus all evil regimes that might possess weapons of mass destruction. A prime requirement of any good security strategy is that its objectives be realistic and attainable. Neither the second mission nor the third meets that test.

Equally troubling is Washington’s failure to adjust its overall security strategy to meet the new threat posed by groups such as Al Qaeda. There has been no willingness to rethink old commitments and obligations. Instead, all the existing missions have been preserved and the new one simply added to the list.

That is a terribly myopic approach. At the end of the Cold War, the United States should have conducted a detailed audit of its security commitments around the globe, determined which were no longer relevant, and developed a strategy appropriate for the new era. The refusal to undertake such a reassessment was a major failing of U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s.

With the events of September 11, such a reassessment is no longer merely desirable. It is imperative. It is clear that even a narrowly defined anti-terrorist campaign will be a major American concern for several years. Obsolete or nonessential commitments are a distraction that the nation can ill afford, financially or otherwise.

A new, more relevant approach should do three things:

Encourage multiple centers of power. Many officials appear afraid of a global environment with several economic and military great powers and an assortment of mid-sized regional powers. But rather than resisting a return to a more historically normal condition of multipolarity — a process that is occurring gradually in any case, regardless of American preferences — Washington should accept that change and turn it to America’s advantage. The presence of other significant political and military players in the international system can provide us with important security buffers, especially if those players are stable and democratic.

Ideally, such states would forge effective regional security organizations — a more robust European Union, for example. In most cases, though, regional multipolarity would involve more-informal balance-of-power arrangements.

Even that outcome would usually serve American interests. Indeed, the mere existence of multiple powers — even if some of them are not especially friendly to the United States — makes it less likely that a hegemonic threat comparable to the Soviet Union could arise again. Regional powers would be the principal firebreaks against disorder and aggression in their respective spheres of influence, a development that would provide significant indirect security benefits to the United States.

Reject the “light switch” model of engagement. American involvement in world affairs can take a variety of forms. Yet whenever critics suggest pruning Washington’s overgrown global security commitments, defenders of the status quo reflexively cry “isolationism.” That reaction reflects what might be called the light switch theory of American engagement, in which there are only two possible positions, on or off. Either the United States continues pursuing an indiscriminate global interventionist policy that puts our soldiers at risk in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and the like, or we turn into “Fortress America” and “wall ourselves off from the world.”

The contention is either disingenuous or obtuse. No serious analyst advocates creating a hermit republic. It is possible to adopt a security policy between the extremes of global interventionism — essentially the current policy — and Fortress America. Moreover, there are different forms of engagement in world affairs, of which the political-military version is merely one. Economic ties are increasingly important, as are diplomatic and cultural connections.

There is no reason why the United States must have identical positions along each axis of engagement. It is entirely feasible to have extensive economic and cultural relations with the rest of the world and to have an active and creative diplomacy without playing the role of the world’s policeman, much less the world’s armed social worker. It is only in the areas of security commitments and military intervention that the United States needs serious reductions in its level of engagement.

Set priorities. Even a country as large and powerful as the United States cannot dictate outcomes everywhere and on every issue. Our attention and energy should be focused on significant adverse changes in the international system — in other words, on developments with the potential to threaten America’s own security and well-being. We cannot afford to get bogged down in an assortment of petty conflicts, all in the name of preserving Washington’s global leadership. There is a difference between parochial squabbles and serious security threats. Policy makers should learn it.

In most cases, subregional and internecine disorders will not impinge on vital U.S. interests. Washington can therefore afford to view them with detachment, intervening only as a balancer of last resort when the conflict cannot be contained by other powers in the region — and is expanding to the point where American security is threatened.

From the standpoint of American interests, what usually matters is the conduct of the dozen or so major powers — nations with significant military or economic capabilities. As long as those states remain at peace with one another and no menacing would-be hegemon emerges, the only remaining threat to America’s security is the risk of terrorist attack. Events involving minor countries may create annoyances, but they do not disrupt the overall stability of the international system. Put bluntly: China’s behavior should matter to the United States, but whether Kosovo becomes independent, Somalia holds together, or injustices occur in Burma should not.

A more cautious global political and military role would allow the United States to decommission superfluous military units and cut the defense budget even as it fights its terrorist adversaries. Moreover, by refusing to be on the front lines of parochial conflicts, America would reduce its risk exposure — including the risk of terrorist reprisals.

Making these changes would have been wise even before the events of September 11. The terrorist attacks have made them more urgent. It borders on the absurd for military leaders to complain about a lack of personnel to wage the war against Al Qaeda while 100,000 American troops sit uselessly in Western Europe, another 100,000 are deployed in Japan and South Korea, and thousands more are tied down in babysitting missions in Bosnia and Kosovo. To wage war against its terrorist adversaries, America must clear the decks of outdated or misguided military commitments.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 13 books on international affairs.