As President Obama plans a trip to the Mideast this week, it is an opportune moment to reflect on what foreign policy lessons the U.S. has learned in the years since 9/11. The outcomes of military and diplomatic efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and elsewhere have demonstrated a single salient principle. During a new age of asymmetrical conflict, political factors far outweigh tactical concerns in the pursuit of foreign policy goals. If only the U.S. government could absorb and act upon this lesson our policy would be put on a newly rational footing. Unfortunately, in most arenas our leaders continue to confuse priorities in the discharging of affairs.
Every conflict has both tactical and political dimensions, and success is rarely achievable by exclusive attention to one or the other. If during World War II Allied leaders had not managed to forge and maintain a functional partnership, and if they had failed to sustain support for the war effort at home, advantages in ships, tanks and planes would not have sufficed to secure victory. By the same token, if operations like the Normandy invasion or the Manhattan Project had failed, strong alliances and robust domestic support for the war effort would have yielded few good results.
Each conflict is unique, however, and the relative importance of the political and tactical spheres is not constant for all cases. Thus despite dropping more explosives during the Vietnam conflict than were used by all sides during World War II, and inflicting vastly greater casualties on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong than were sustained by U.S. forces, the United States failed to achieve its objective of preserving a partitioned Vietnam. In general, the more symmetrical a conflict (that is, the more evenly matched both sides are in armaments and numbers), the more important its tactical dimension. By contrast, the more asymmetrical a contest, the more urgent its political factors.
Their failure to understand this basic truth was the great error of the neoconservatives who took over the policy apparatus of the U.S. in the wake of 9/11. For many years prior to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, think tanks such as the Project for the New American Century had been publishing papers asserting that, with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the U.S. as a solitary superpower, America could and should adopt a more aggressive military posture. Absent the Soviet deterrent, the U.S. was free to remake the map through the free and preemptive application of military force. The lessons of Vietnam no longer applied.
This was a complete misreading of both history and current conditions. During the Cold War the U.S. had been forced to fight exclusively asymmetrical conflicts because the prospect of "mutually assured destruction" made a direct conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. unthinkable. But the end of the Cold War likewise made a truly "symmetrical" contest between matched opponents impossible. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the U.S. was left with nothing but asymmetrical conflicts like Vietnam left to fight, a fact which the neocons never paused to consider as they laid plans for a "new American century."
The invasion of Iraq demonstrated just how relevant the lessons of Vietnam remained, and how much more urgent the political dimensions of foreign policy have become in an age of exclusively asymmetrical conflict. The tactical defeat of Saddam Hussein transpired with lightning speed, but the politics of the invasion, in all dimensions, were completely disastrous. Most strikingly, the political impact of the U.S. occupation within Iraq itself undermined the chances that the outcome of the invasion might serve U.S. interest in any sense. Though there were constituencies in Iraqi society that (for example) favored democratic governance and/or opposed Islamic extremism, they were weakened by their association with an unwelcome occupying power. By contrast, Al Qaeda, who had never enjoyed robust support in Iraq, gained a foothold as perceived opponents of American neocolonialism. After tens of thousands killed and wounded and trillions of dollars lost, it is not clear that anything has been achieved through the invasion that might not have been garnered eventually through diplomacy and sanctions.
Though a new regime has taken over in Washington, bringing a new set of habits and preferences, there is little sign that our leaders have developed a sound and systematic doctrine for the ongoing conduct of foreign policy. Despite successes in Pakistan and Libya, the Obama White House has remained defensive and reactive in the face of criticism at home and developments abroad. The wave of unrest and rapid change sweeping the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring obviously presents daunting and complex challenges for any government trying to formulate doctrine, but as the situation deteriorates in places like Syria the U.S. appears increasingly passive and ineffectual at a crucial moment in international affairs.
What is the cause for the current state of U.S. passivity? Just as during the Bush days, it stems from the failure to correctly prioritize the political and tactical dimensions of foreign policy. In assessing the potential impact of any policy, U.S. leaders (both the White House and its critics) continue to give undue weight to the tactical effects of any action, and to underestimate the importance of the political realm. Libya, for example, which should serve as a model for recent foreign policy success, has been discredited because of last year's tragic events in Benghazi. While it is true that the ouster of Qaddafi has given Islamists enhanced tactical strength and freedom of movement in Libyan society, the political impact of Qadaffi's fall continues to work to the detriment of groups like Al Qaeda. Though the death of a U.S. ambassador at the hand of extremists would never have been possible under the old regime, the throngs of Libyans who came out in the streets to mourn Chris Stevens, and the good will toward the U.S. they embody, would likewise not exist if the world had stood by and watched as Qaddafi destroyed the movement for a free Libya in the cradle.
The same myopic fixation upon tactical over political outcomes informs the world view of those who oppose U.S. support for the anti-Assad rebels in Syria. Because elements of the Syrian rebel army are Islamist, so goes this argument, we must refrain from supplying the rebels with arms for fear weapons will "fall into the wrong hands." But this assessment vastly overestimates the importance of weaponry in the long-term conflict between the U.S. and Islamist extremism. Weapons are plentiful and cheap, groups like Al Qaeda bent on causing havoc and terror will never find weapons in short supply. The 9/11 attacks themselves did not require more than a few airplane tickets and box cutters. By contrast, the political damage being done by U.S. passivity in Syria favors the cause of Al Qaeda far more than the acquisition of a few Soviet surplus assault rifles and grenade launchers ever could. The Assad regime is about to be overthrown by a popular uprising, and unless the U.S. commits to clearly and materially supporting that process it will, just as in post-Saddam Iraq, once again find itself on the wrong side of the popular will in post-Assad Syria. Should that occur, the forces within Syrian society that might advance the causes of democracy, secular rule, and regional peace will be substantially weakened.
We are in a new world with a new strategic dynamic, and it requires a new set of strategic priorities. If we continue to view every challenge through the simplistic lens of tactical concerns, we will continue to make mistakes of action as we did in Iraq and of inaction as we are currently making in Syria. Looking forward, an emphasis on the political over the tactical effects of policy should form the basic calibration of our compass for the conduct of foreign affairs.