Magazine May 4, 2020, Issue

American Foreign and Defense Policy: Between Scylla and Charybdis

(Roman Genn)
Rather than react, we must chart a course

Fifteen years before the coronavirus pandemic, I wrote a speech for a world-renowned physician who was coincidentally the majority leader of the United States Senate, and thus not without influence. He went, wholeheartedly, all-in, delivering it in the Senate, at Harvard Medical School’s most important annual lecture, at Davos, at the Bohemian Grove (where the only Bohemian to enthuse sufficiently to request a copy was Henry Kissinger), and elsewhere.

And, of course, Senator Bill Frist took it to the White House. He presented a strong — one might even say urgent — case for establishing joint research and vaccine-and-curative manufacturing centers judiciously spaced throughout the country; the doubling of medical- and nursing-school outputs; incentives for commercial pharmaceutical and medical-device research and production; increasing the number of hospital beds; providing for the stocks, structures, and reserve personnel for large-scale emergency field hospitals; and laying up stores of necessaries such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and, specifically, ventilators. Given that the laws of economics were not repealed, the ancillary effect of the supply surge in some of these medical goods — such as doctors, nurses, and hospital capacity — would have lowered their cost or at least slowed its rise. He asked for $100 billion per year. Had spending kept up at that level, which it need not have to assure adequate preparation, it would have amounted to only one-quarter of the monies shoveled into the furnace of COVID-19 in the last few weeks alone. He got a total of $2.4 billion over four years for the Strategic National Stockpile that of late has proved wholly inadequate.

This is the American way, a wing and a prayer. We count on the forgiveness of the vast wilderness and its once-perceived infinite resources. Fail, and you can pick up and go elsewhere, all the while enjoying the protection of God and the two great oceans. But those days are over.

Perhaps we have learned the necessity of preparedness for epidemics, but even in the midst of this emergency, and especially so, it is of supreme importance to recognize that the same principle applies to defense and America’s continuing sovereignty as we know it, something we cannot take for granted given the threats to it both internally, as a result of many species of decline, and externally, the subject below. It may seem strange to address the question of war in a time of epidemics, but just as 15 years ago had the address of epidemics been heeded we might not be in the position we are in now, we have the opportunity to avoid a different kind of catastrophe 15 years hence.

In the three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, American foreign and defense policy under four Democratic and three Republican administrations (one need not include the adult Bush and his adult presidency) has been a primarily reactive, deadly incompetent, crazy mix of unilateral disarmament, overextension, appeasement, misapprehension, and lack of prudent preparation. Having lost the knack of winning wars and maintaining alliances, politicians of both parties boast fulsomely about the military even as it has become decisively weaker both absolutely and relative to its expanding tasks and the growing strength of our adversaries.

As America reacts to one thing or another, each on its own, isolated terms, and often unsuccessfully, the underlying forces gathering to its disadvantage advance as if wholly unrecognized. Success usually requires doing what is painful and difficult, but, individually and collectively, Americans have developed consummate skill in shying from difficulty — from diet to debt, to work, risk, sacrifice, and prudence. We readily fall victim to a Scylla or a Charybdis rather than exercising the simple discipline that would allow us the reward of safe passage between them. And in like fashion we suffer failures, in order of ascending importance, in regard to the Middle East, Europe, Russia, China, and the state of America’s alliances and military. Sadly, in what follows, reference to roads not taken is born not of hindsight but in recollection of policy publicly advocated at the time.

After 40 years of irrelevance in the Middle East, Russia has reasserted itself to the detriment of all. It began with President Obama and continues under President Trump. Following Turkey’s hundred-year sleep, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in full megalomania bids to restore a supercharged Ottoman Empire with Turkey as the leader of a confederation of 61 Muslim countries and the first Islamic aircraft carrier. And for the first time in more than 2,000 years, Persia is once again facing the West from the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. These three malevolent forces are newly acting upon the ever-volatile cockpit in which Africa, Europe, and Asia collide. Over millennia, clashing empires shattered this battlefield into atomized tribes, clans, sects, disappearing kingdoms, artificial states, and constantly shifting alliances amid near-continuous warfare. As in the intricate mosaics of Islamic art, which are never solid fields of color, tile after tile flashes in alternating conflicts.

The United States focuses on one eruption or another without coherent strategies for dealing with or authoring underlying shifts, as once it did when it expelled Soviet influence and kept it at bay for generations. What might have been some recent alternatives to our regional approach? After invading Afghanistan we should have left within a few months, accepting both the benefits and limitations of punitive action. Only after 20 years are we now about to do that, despite the Taliban conquests and massacres that will follow. As in Vietnam, we will declare victory. And Hillary Clinton is Cleopatra.

In Iraq, because only as it moves does the American military go from strength to strength, we should have pivoted west and crushed the Assad regime against the Israeli anvil. Leaving compliant generals in Baghdad and Damascus, we could have seated our forces in Saudi Arabia’s highly developed northern military infrastructure linked to the sea and two days equidistant from Riyadh, Baghdad, and Damascus, with the explicit understanding that trouble and terrorism would bring us back. Thus the center of gravity in the Middle East could have been pacified and secured, our polity unshattered by division over counterinsurgency’s toll in blood, our undegraded echelons hermetically protected by the desert and ready for emergency deployment elsewhere, and our defense budget devoted to the major-power competition obviously on its way but foolishly dismissed as “next-war-itis.”

Though we continued to fail in Iraq and Afghanistan, by the end of George W. Bush’s second term, when it was absolutely clear that Iran would develop nuclear weapons come hell or high water, his parting gift should have been the destruction of the means for their creation. Even in the unlikely event that Iran would quickly choose to restart its nuclear program, a quarter century’s work destroyed would take a quarter century to rebuild, at which point it could receive another visit. 

What should not have been done was to rescue the Iranian economy from sanctions, release $150 billion to finance the subversion of at least four regional states, allow ballistic-missile development, and assure scheduled nuclear breakout. Even Neville Chamberlain was not so blind as directly to subsidize German arms and aggression. For such an unprecedented act, Barack Obama, John Kerry, and their fools-in-aid so willing to believe the ever-smiling Iranian negotiators (why could they possibly have been so happy?) will be indelibly enrolled in the annals of stupidity and betrayal.

But what prescription now for the Middle East, with the patient, as so often before, dead yet again? Turkey is playing off the U.S. against Russia as Egypt’s Nasser did in the Fifties. We should be decisive and seize the initiative, moving both to expel Turkey from NATO and to transfer American military bases there to Greece, Egypt, and Jordan. Then we will see how delighted are the Turks to fall into the embrace of Russia, their near and ancient enemy, and whether this might cause a change of heart, or, if not, regime.

At present, Russia is based in the Middle East only in the wreckage of Syria. Thus our object should be to check its overtures to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Israel by providing them with the military presence (inter alia, in a restored Sixth Fleet), aid, and support that the U.S. (GDP $22 trillion) can, and Russia (GDP $1.6 trillion) cannot. Iran will do and suffer anything to get nuclear weapons. Though appearing to buckle after the American killing of Qasem Soleimani in early January, it succeeded via misdirection in accomplishing its main objective, which was and is to buy nuclear time. Even if it fails to develop a reliable ICBM, as the U.S. and the USSR demonstrated in at least three separate programs, missiles can be launched by dropping them in the sea and using the pressure of surrounding water to steady them like a gantry. This way, Iran can loft lesser-range missiles from freighters in the Atlantic relatively close to the U.S. Several high-altitude nuclear detonations resulting in strong, widespread, electromagnetic pulses would be sufficient to destroy the country, and, alternatively, two or three major cities leveled by nuclear blasts would go a very long way toward doing so. Especially given Shiite messianic conceptions, the Iranian nuclear question is by far the most important matter in the Middle East, existential even for the United States. Apparently we dare not definitively resolve it, as we must, and soon.

So, in the absence of unambiguous success in the sanctions campaign, and sufficiently in advance of nuclear breakout, the United States should covertly propose to Iran’s two other major targets — Saudi Arabia and Israel — a massive, tripartite, short-duration, aerial campaign against Iranian nuclear infrastructure. Such an action would establish a new, unprecedented strong horse (the classic Middle Eastern term for the dominant nation or force) in firm control of the Middle East’s center of gravity. The strategic geography would make a ground war unnecessary on our part and virtually impossible for Iran beyond activating sure-to-be-reluctant proxies. An Iranian-initiated missile and naval war of injured pride would follow, but despite the damage to Saudi oil production it would neither go well for Iran nor last long. A major condition precedent for such a move, however, would be a president who had not severely restricted his freedom of action by deliberately alienating and inflaming his political opponents as the chief strategy for rousing his base.

The steady decline in Russia’s “soft” powers has left it increasingly dependent on raw military potential, especially nuclear. Despite this, the conventional wisdom discounts the Russian threat to Europe, in that, excluding Turkey, the combined NATO and EU population is roughly six times, and their GDPs 27 times, Russia’s. According to this logic, the similar discrepancy between Israel and what are commonly called the confrontation states should mean that Israel does not exist. And yet it does. The military balance in Europe is not what it seems. America’s attachment to its European partners is increasingly tenuous, its presence in Europe approximately 60,000 troops and a token number of aircraft in 2019, as opposed to a third of a million troops and 640 aircraft 30 years earlier. In the absence of adequate sea- and air-lift of military echelons and logistics from the U.S. to Europe (76 percent of the ships designated for this are so inadequately maintained that they cannot even leave port), American forces have become nothing more than what is commonly referred to by NATO strategists as a trip wire, for a nuclear response that will not occur, for example, should Russia reclaim, as it can in a single day, its three former colonies on the Baltic. 

Since the Cold War, NATO has doubled the length of its land borders contiguous to the Warsaw Pact then and Russia and Belarus now, while reducing its continental military capacity to a fraction of what it was. For example, in 1991, Britain, France, and Germany combined had, rounded, 1,250,000 regulars, 2,000 combat aircraft, and 10,000 tanks. Today, comparable figures are 500,000 regulars, 800 aircraft, and 700 tanks. The reduction is partially due to changes in tactics, to new weaponry, and to similar Russian decreases, but also to an inaccurate assessment of Russian capabilities and doctrine; the persistent delusion that diplomacy rather than deterrent force kept the peace in Europe during the Cold War; and the military-technical misjudgment that advances in precision-guided munitions (PGMs) justify Europe’s stand-down.

If, for example, a single plane can reliably hit ten times as many targets per sortie as its predecessor, the thinking goes, only a tenth as many planes are necessary, as ten will do the work of a hundred. But not only can a hundred planes operate in ten times as many places at once, the loss of a single plane in the reduced force would diminish that force by a full 10 percent, as opposed to only 1 percent in the force of 100. Further, in (relative to a major conflict in Europe) the far less taxing wars in the Middle East, PGMs have often been in short supply. While the U.S. mainly sat out the teensy war in Libya as it “led from behind,” NATO ran out after less than a month. As the Maginot Line and the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan illustrate, technology does not always adequately substitute for strategy, or quality for quantity.

The weakening of NATO in favor of diminished national militaries subject to differing authorities and doctrines presents Russia with a fragmented opposition supping on the poisons of modernism, self-abnegation, and the rejection of virtue, and thereby unwilling properly to defend itself. In the not-so-distant future, it is hardly impossible that totalitarian Russia, with a honed conventional force and a long-time, hyper-permissive nuclear doctrine that often blends nuclear with conventional war and flirts with concepts such as nuclear “escalation to de-escalate,” will succeed in separating Europe from the United States and edging it into its orbit one step at a time.

NATO never should have stood down to the extent that it did at the close of the Cold War, never should have expanded its area of responsibility, never should embark upon remote operations, and never should relinquish its centrality of command. The Trump administration’s unnecessary and promiscuous trade fights with Europe, public goading of its leaders, and denigration of NATO are purely negative. Rather, achieving adequate European defense expenditures — always and forever difficult — requires from the U.S. persuasive argument, incentives, disincentives, public appeal (propaganda if you wish), and diplomacy, not negotiating techniques disguised as infantile tantrums, which may actually be infantile tantrums disguised as negotiating techniques.

And one would think that the Europeans, noticing China’s octopus embrace such as they themselves once imposed on the rest of the world, feeling once again and in no small way the aggressive expansion of Islam, and facing the direct threat of Russian arms, would understand the deep and historically proven necessity of both the American alliance and attending to their own strengths. But, in an invitation to tragedy, they don’t. As Russia threatens to dominate an emasculated NATO and EU, Europe cannot be taken lightly or for granted, especially if China masters East Asia and makes vassals of our Pacific allies, and Iran continues to destabilize the Middle East. While the modern Democrats, “citizens of the world,” display affection for surrender on every front, President Trump thinks America can go it alone in geopolitical isolation. The results of both approaches promise to be very much the same. To wit, Atlanticism must be restored.

Twenty years ago in these pages I explained in detail why China would achieve rough military parity with the U.S. by this date. It seemed clearly in the offing if one took into account ancient Chinese principles adapted by the Meiji and, subsequently and amazingly, Israel; extrapolations of Chinese economic growth; and Deng Xiaoping’s stated reform and military policies. (See my “East Wind,” in the March 20, 2000, issue.) Though we are not quite there yet, we are close. Among many other indications, the Chinese navy is now larger than, if not yet superior to, our own; China is ahead in quantum computing and communications; we are unaware of the details of its nuclear arsenal and have failed to bring it into an arms-control regime that would provide at least some transparency and temporary restraint; and it is expanding its military reach and basing abroad as America’s contracts.

Although the economic growth making all this possible has been at least temporarily eliminated by the current world health and economic crises, it is generally three times that of the United States and applied to a hardly insignificant base: that is, a GDP two-thirds the size of our own. Though the United States has focused on economic relations with China while the far more threatening military dimension remains virtually unrecognized, the difficulties and imbalances are indeed a problem of national security and must be addressed. But the trade problem is the consequence of our own negligence and greed. Beginning in the Seventies, we knew that isolating ourselves from rapidly intensifying world trade, due to the revolutions in shipping technology and communications and the emergence of developing countries, would degrade the quality of our manufactures and exclude us from wider markets.

And we knew that the costs of labor at home and abroad would take decades or perhaps a century to equalize. At that time, the American tradition of innovation and mechanization unsurpassed, we were by far the world leaders in computers, communications, research, robotics, and investment capital. But rather than spurred by cheap foreign labor to automate and mechanize, we raced offshore to harvest short-term gains, something terribly destructive not only of the economy but of the character of the American experiment. The only solution now is to stimulate research, innovation, and mechanization on a grand scale while accepting the material sacrifices it will take to do so, for such things come at a cost. But, character unrestored, we now seek remedy not in competition and the free market but in fiat trade, by regulation, tariff, and decree, that has all the excessively supervisory presumptions of affirmative action or planned economies and, like them, is bound to fail.

China is aggressively reordering the world via an opportunistic alliance with Russia aimed at dominating Eurasia. Whereas a weaker Russia depends upon the decline of Europe and openings created by the endemic madness of the Middle East, China is powerful enough to bully the successful nations that surround it, bringing them into its habitual tributary system of suzerainty, thousands of years older than the Pax Americana. Distressingly but not surprisingly, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s attempt in November 2019 to elicit even symbolic unity vis-à-vis China from an audience of nervous Asian defense ministers fell completely flat. Blatantly asserting control over the South China Sea, China builds island military bases and sends fishing fleets and oil-exploration platforms into the waters of sovereign nations to its south, while, incredibly, harassing the rightful owners in their own waters. At one time, these depredations would have been deterred by the U.S. Navy. Now, however, quite apart from the risk of open military confrontation with a nuclear power, the U.S. Navy would not prevail.

With China in de facto control of and able to spike the Panama Canal, 40 percent of the Navy would be unable to reach the Pacific other than by running a persistent blockade off the southern capes should China choose to deploy its nine nuclear attack submarines in those inhospitable waters. American ships that got through, and the two Pacific fleets, would then have to steam vast distances and pass many choke points before even reaching the area of operations. On the way and in tight passages, warships, auxiliaries, and convoys would be the targets of China’s 48 other attack submarines, blue-water combatants, land-based aircraft, and swarms of missiles specifically designed to kill ships. Only then would our insufficiently supported vessels, greatly reduced in number and within range of thousands of China’s fighter planes and bombers, attempt to exercise their powers. America has lost the South China Sea, only for lack of immediate and resolute countermeasures. Now the only remedy is not the stated aim of keeping it open but rather to close it by blockade.

For China, Japan is obviously a much harder case than Southeast Asia, but the same process has begun in the East China Sea. Now rapidly catching up to the most advanced U.S. naval technology, once its systems are matured, China, with 100 major shipyards, will have the option of the kind of surge that allowed U.S. naval superiority in World War II, and we, with six, will not. Our few Western Pacific bases, more or less unhardened, are vulnerable to Chinese missiles, bombers, and special operations. Nothing would have better stimulated China to cooperate in denuclearizing North Korea than if we had properly fortified existing bases, established others in the same mold, and embarked upon a naval and air buildup. Instead, we threatened to tariff iPhones and strained to make Xi Jinping buy more soybeans.

Further, underlying every geostrategic calculation involving China is its known, stated, and sufficient nuclear deterrent. However, it manufactures, stores, and deploys nuclear armaments in an astounding 3,000 miles of tunnels opaque to Western intelligence services. Given that all nuclear states subscribe to varying nuclear doctrines, China may not share the American conception of nuclear sufficiency. Crediting a different calculus involving absorption of greater damage, overwhelming retaliatory capacity, bluff, risk, and psychological manipulation, China may someday unveil, courtesy of its hidden infrastructure, a massive nuclear arsenal that would shock and intimidate the rest of the world. Which is why the Trump administration, having been advised to bring China into a verifiable arms-control regime, should not treat such an initiative, as it has, offhandedly.

Though the oceans cannot provide absolute security, and never have, they can be leveraged to great advantage. In the Cold War, despite intercontinental bombers and ICBMs, American naval superiority was immensely advantageous in fighting and deterring conventional war, and during the world wars it was our chief guarantor. Great utility still inheres in the oceans if it is understood in light of what soon may come.

Given China’s rise, its expedient alliance with Russia, and its reach across Asia into a senescent, enervated Europe, the United States — while retreating neither from Asia nor from the Old World — would do well to assure the possibility of retrenchment into the Western Hemisphere and the transformation of this resource-rich half of the world, with combined populations of a billion and GNPs recently and perhaps restorably of $28 trillion, into a fortified, unassailable base.

In view of modern conditions, how could a new version of the Monroe Doctrine be possible? Although in 1823 the Atlantic helped to insulate America from the European powers, the field of maneuver in, for example, Brazil was equally inaccessible to both our tiny navy and the large fleets of our rivals. It took a lot of chutzpah to come up with such a policy, and yet, granted British support, we stood by it.

China penetrates Latin America via diplomacy writ small and capital writ large. In absolute terms our economy has before the disruptions been 150 percent of China’s, in per capita terms more than six times larger (thus allowing a greater margin of resources to be diverted). Weak, Russian-sponsored Latin dictatorships are infected splinters that should have been attended to previously and now cry out for it. If Russia is able to muscle us aside in its near-abroad, we should certainly be capable of returning the favor. We have the advantage not only of geography. Our Latin population can be an asset in forging benevolent and respectful alliances in this hemisphere, and the general correlation of forces makes it entirely possible to crowd out China and Russia by means of fair and mutually advantageous trade, economic aid and development, a free and democratic model of governance, and restoration of the naval and air supremacy that we are in the process of sacrificing because of muddled thinking and self-doubt. A new Monroe Doctrine would not entail a young nation in the age of imperialism paradoxically flirting with the system in defiance of which it was born. We don’t anymore need cheap bananas, but a bastion against swelling totalitarianism could be a saving grace in things to come.

The U.S. will fail to meet accumulating challenges abroad unless it repairs its alliances, restores its military strength, and newly secures the Western Hemisphere, none of which is at present a concern of the political parties except to oppose, tepidly endorse, or let die. If one aspires to build a skyscraper in New York and it doesn’t work out, the problem vanishes as, in the context of a stable legal and economic system, one moves on to the next thing. But whether enemies or friends, countries hang around, and among nations there is no protection other than in strength and maneuver. President Trump took office schooled in commercial real estate and unaware of the balances of power that determine international latitude of action. He promptly took to whirling about, pressuring and attacking allies, rivals, and enemies alike. Rather than alienating Europe, Canada, Mexico, and every free nation in the Pacific, he might have assembled them in a united front to address China’s rogue behaviors. Instead, he embarked upon a blind lashing-out that, among other things, sabotaged the increase in economic growth he had achieved through tax and regulatory reforms. The U.S. has experienced its greatest successes in winning and deterring wars when substantively allied with other powers, and its greatest failures otherwise, which is not to deny that at times we must stand alone.

As it has with Southeast Asia, China is set to Finlandize South Korea and Japan. Abandoning national loyalties (pace valiant little Britain) for a defenseless, supranational bureaucracy, Europe is set to fall to demographic suicide, Russian expansion, and uncontrolled immigration. Only with the reinvigoration of NATO and our Pacific alliances will it be otherwise, and this we cannot bring about without reversing our steep military decline.

The average peacetime military expenditure from 1940 to 2000 was 5.7 percent of GDP. In the past 20 years, the comparable average in the base military budget — i.e., not including emergency overseas contingency funding — has been 3.03 percent. There is only one outcome rationally to expect after cutting that budget by nearly half. Delusions in all quarters notwithstanding, worn by two decades of low-intensity war, the American military has fallen behind in nuclear deterrence, critical technologies, readiness, manning, training, and morale. Our personnel are overburdened, our ships rusty, arsenals depleted, bases poorly protected, air force contracting, defense-industrial base disappearing, and funding insufficient. It is all a matter of record. Is correction politically impossible? If so, survival as the kind of sovereign nation we have been since the beginning is impossible. For, unaddressed and as always, extortion from without will stimulate the rise of collaborators from within.

To depart from myopic and solely reactive foreign and defense policies so as to look ahead proactively will require rare statesmanship, the defeat of the radically drifting Democrats as constituted at present, and the restoration of informed, intelligent, and adult Republican leadership. Though at the moment we have only Scylla and Charybdis, the wide, calm waters between them beckon and abide.

— This essay is sponsored by National Review Institute.

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