The Emerging Doctrine of the United States

Over the past weekend, rumors began to emerge that the Syrian opposition  would allow elements of the al  Assad regimeto remain in Syria and participate in the new government.  Rumors have become Syria’s prime export, and as such they should not be taken  too seriously. Nevertheless, what is happening in Syria is significant for a new  foreign doctrine emerging in the United States — a doctrine in which the United  States does not take primary responsibility for events, but which allows  regional crises to play out until a new regional balance is reached. Whether a  good or bad policy — and that is partly what the U.S. presidential race is  about — it is real, and it flows from lessons learned.

Threats against the United States are many and complex, but Washington’s main  priority is ensuring that none of those threats challenge its  fundamental interests. Somewhat simplistically, this boils down to  mitigating threats against U.S. control of the seas by preventing the emergence  of a Eurasian power able to marshal resources toward that end. It also includes  preventing the development of a substantial intercontinental nuclear capability  that could threaten the United States if a country is undeterred by U.S.  military power for whatever reason. There are obviously other interests, but  certainly these interests are fundamental.

Therefore, U.S. interest in  what is happening in the Western Pacificis understandable. But even there,  the United States is, at least for now, allowing regional forces to engage each  other in a struggle that has not yet affected the area’s balance of power. U.S.  allies and proxies, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan, have been  playing chess in the region’s seas without a direct imposition of U.S. naval  power — even though such a prospect appears possible.

The roots of this policy lie in Iraq. Iran and Iraq are historical rivals;  they fought an extended war in the 1980s with massive casualties. A  balance of power existedbetween the two that neither was comfortable with  but that neither could overcome. They contained each other with minimal external  involvement.

The U.S. intervention in Iraq had many causes but one overwhelming  consequence: In destroying Saddam Hussein’s regime, a regime that was at least  as monstrous as Moammar Gadhafi’s or Bashar al Assad’s, the United States  destroyed the regional balance of power with Iran. The United States also  miscalculated the consequences of the invasion and faced substantial resistance.  When the United States calculated that withdrawal was the most prudent course —  a decision made during the Bush administration and continued by the Obama  administration — Iran consequently gained power and a greater sense of  security. Perhaps such outcomes should have been expected, but since a forced  withdrawal was unexpected, the consequences didn’t clearly follow and warnings  went unheeded.

If Iraq was the major and critical lesson on the consequences of  intervention, Libya was the smaller and less significant lesson that drove it  home. The United States did not want to get involved in Libya. Following the  logic of the new policy, Libya did not represent a threat to U.S. interests. It  was the Europeans, particularly the French, who argued that the human rights  threats posed by the Gadhafi regime had to be countered and that those threats  could quickly and efficiently be countered from the air. Initially, the U.S.  position was that France and its allies were free to involve themselves, but the  United States did not wish to intervene.

This rapidly shifted as the Europeans mounted an air campaign. They found  that the Gadhafi regime did not collapse merely because French aircraft entered  Libyan airspace. They also found that the campaign was going to be longer and  more difficult than they anticipated. At this point committed to maintaining its  coalition with the Europeans, the United States found itself in the position of  either breaking with its coalition or participating in the air campaign. It  chose the latter, seeing the commitment as minimal and supporting the alliance  as a prior consideration.

Libya and Iraq taught us two lessons. The first was that campaigns  designed to topple brutal dictators do not necessarily yield better regimes.  Instead of the brutality of tyrants, the brutality of chaos and smaller tyrants  emerged. The second lesson, well learned in Iraq, is that the world does not  necessarily admire interventions for the sake of human rights. The United States  also learned that the world’s position can shift with startling rapidity from  demanding U.S. action to condemning U.S. action. Moreover, Washington discovered  that intervention can unleash virulently anti-American forces that will kill  U.S. diplomats. Once the United States enters the campaign, however reluctantly  and in however marginal a role, it will be the United States that will be held  accountable by much of the world — certainly by the inhabitants of the country  experiencing the intervention. As in Iraq, on a vastly smaller scale,  intervention carries with it unexpected consequences.

These lessons have informed U.S. policy toward Syria, which affects only some  U.S. interests. However, any U.S. intervention in Syria would constitute both an  effort and a risk disproportionate to those interests. Particularly after Libya,  the French and other Europeans realized that their own ability to intervene in  Syria was insufficient without the Americans, so they declined to intervene. Of  course, this predated the killing of U.S. diplomats in  Benghazi, Libya, but it did not predate the fact that the intervention in  Libya surprised planners by its length and by the difficulty of creating a  successor regime less brutal than the one it replaced. The United States was not  prepared to intervene with conventional military force.

That is not to say the United States did not have an interest in Syria.  Specifically, Washington did not want Syria to become an Iranian puppet that  would allow Tehran’s  influence to stretch through Iraq to the Mediterranean. The United States  had been content with the Syrian regime while it was simply a partner of Iran  rather than Iran’s subordinate. However, the United States foresaw Syria as a  subordinate of Iran if the al Assad regime survived. The United States wanted  Iran blocked, and that meant the displacement of the al Assad regime. It did not  mean Washington wanted to intervene militarily, except possibly through aid and  training potentially delivered by U.S. special operations forces — a lighter  intervention than others advocated.

The U.S. solution is instructive of the emerging doctrine. First, the United  States accepted that al Assad, like Saddam Hussein and Gadhafi, was a tyrant.  But it did not accept the idea that al Assad’s fall would create a morally  superior regime. In any event, it expected the internal forces in Syria to deal  with al Assad and was prepared to allow this to play out. Second, the United  States expected regional powers to address the Syrian question if they wished.  This meant primarily Turkey and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia. From the  American point of view, the Turks and Saudis had an even greater interest in  circumscribing an Iranian sphere of influence, and they had far greater levers  to determine the outcome in Syria. Israel is, of course, a regional power, but  it was in no position to intervene: The Israelis lacked the power to impose a  solution, they could not occupy Syria, and Israeli support for any Syrian  faction would delegitimize that faction immediately. Any intervention would have  to be regional and driven by each participant’s national interests.

The Turks realized that their own national interest, while certainly affected  by Syria, did not require a major military intervention, which would have been  difficult to execute and which would have had an unknown outcome. The Saudis and  Qataris, never prepared to intervene directly, did what they could covertly,  using money, arms and religiously motivated fighters to influence events. But no  country was prepared to risk too much to shape events in Syria. They were  prepared to use indirect power rather than conventional military force. As a  result, the conflict remains unresolved.

This has forced both the Syrian regime and the rebels to recognize the  unlikelihood of outright military victory. Iran’s support for the regime and the  various sources of support for the Syrian opposition have proved indecisive.  Rumors of political compromise are emerging accordingly.

We see this doctrine at work in Iran as well. Tehran is developing nuclear  weapons, which may threaten Israel. At the same time, the United States is not  prepared to engage in a war with Iran, nor is it prepared to underwrite the  Israeli attack with added military support. It is using an inefficient means of  pressure — sanctions — which appears to have had some effect with the rapid  depreciation of the Iranian currency. But the United States is not looking  to resolve the Iranian issue, nor is it prepared to take primary responsibility  for it unless Iran becomes a threat to fundamental U.S. interests. It is content  to let events unfold and act only when there is no other choice.

Under the emerging doctrine, the absence of an overwhelming American interest  means that the fate of a country like Syria is in the hands of the Syrian people  or neighboring countries. The United States is unwilling to take on the cost and  calumny of trying to solve the problem. It is less a form of isolationism than a  recognition of the limits of power and interest. Not everything that happens in  the world requires or justifies American intervention.

If maintained, this doctrine will force the world to reconsider many things.  On a recent trip in Europe and the Caucasus, I was constantly asked what the  United States would do on various issues. I responded by saying it would do  remarkably little and that it was up to them to act. This caused interesting  consternation. Many who condemn U.S. hegemony also seem to demand it. There is a  shift under way that they have not yet noticed — except for an absence that  they regard as an American failure. My attempt to explain it as the new normal  did not always work.

Given that there is a U.S. presidential election under way, this doctrine,  which has quietly emerged under Obama, appears to conflict with the views of  Mitt Romney, a point I  made in a previous article. My core argument on foreign policy is that  reality, not presidents or policy papers, makes foreign policy. The United  States has entered a period in which it must move from military domination to  more subtle manipulation, and more important, allow events to take their course.  This is a maturation of U.S. foreign policy, not a degradation. Most important,  it is happening out of impersonal forces that will shape whoever wins the U.S.  presidential election and whatever he might want. Whether he wishes to increase  U.S. assertiveness out of national interest, or to protect human rights, the  United States is changing the model by which it operates. Overextended, it is  redesigning its operating system to focus on the essentials and accept that much  of the world, unessential to the United States, will be free to evolve as it  will.

This does not mean that the United States will disengage from world affairs.  It controls the world’s oceans and generates almost a quarter of the world’s  gross domestic product. While disengagement is impossible, controlled  engagement, based on a realistic understanding of the national interest, is  possible.

This will upset the international system, especially U.S. allies. It will  also create stress in the United States both from the political left, which  wants a humanitarian foreign policy, and the political right, which defines the  national interest broadly. But the constraints of the past decade weigh heavily  on the United States and therefore will change the way the world works.

The important point is that no one decided this new doctrine. It is emerging  from the reality the United States faces. That is how powerful doctrines emerge.  They manifest themselves first and are announced when everyone realizes that  that is how things work.


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