Our strategic incompetence
The U.S.’s ineffective foreign policy can’t be covered up by our power forever.

A convoy of vehicles carrying United Nations inspectors leaves the Masna'a border crossing between Lebanon and Syria in eastern Bekaa region of Lebanon September 30, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • strength can't cover our strategic incompetence

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  • America's check-the-box mentality allows today’s crisis to become tomorrow’s international conference.

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Last weekend, Bashar Assad's government formally met its first deadline in the Russian-brokered plan to have Syrian chemical weapons turned over to international authorities. Just hours before the deadline, Damascus turned over a list of chemical weapons. That undoubtedly buys it points with the Obama administration, which was willing to delay the timing for this first stage. However, as foreign news outlets have reported, the list is far from complete, despite Secretary of State John Kerry's much-touted demand that a full and comprehensive accounting be provided in just a week's time.

Worse still, in the days leading up to the declaration, Syria was credibly accused of yet again moving around its chemical-weapons stores. So far, however, this hasn't perturbed either the Obama administration or America's mainstream media. While the blogosphere breaks news about the moving around of weapons, CNN optimistically reported that an unnamed U.S. official said that the proffered Syrian list "was more complete than what [U.S.] officials had expected."

In other words, the administration fully expected to be lied to, but went ahead anyway with a diplomatic process that ties its hands and will entangle it in months of suspect negotiations. Now, Washington is accepting a meaningless U.N. resolution that demands that Syria surrender all its chemical weapons, but shrinks from authorizing the use of force if Damascus refuses to comply. Such a weak-willed international statement perfectly suits both Assad and his main patron, Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government and media are eager to publicize the "overtures" of new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, despite the existence of little solid evidence that he intends to change any of Tehran's hardline policies. Indeed, President Obama has rushed to call Rouhani, and the two sides are to begin "substantive talks" on Iran's nuclear program. All this came about once John Kerry met his Iranian counterpart in New York and optimistically praised the "very different tone" that Iran was using with the Americans. This would be the same Iranian regime whose arms shipments to insurgents led to the deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, an act of war for which it has neither apologized nor admitted its guilt.  

The real issue here is the fantasyland in which U.S. diplomacy increasingly finds itself. For all we know, the Syrian agreement may well work out, and Rouhani may indeed be committed to peace. But believing that requires a superhuman suspension of disbelief. Instead of increasing stability throughout the world, the United States has attempted to accommodate aggressive regimes. Both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein stand as exceptions to Washington's efforts to get along with some of the most disruptive actors since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Over the past two decades, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have all consistently lowered the standards of U.S. diplomacy, particularly in relations with North Korea (which went from a basket case to a fully nuclear basket case), Afghanistan (which went from a rescued state to the land of "green on blue" killings), China (which feels ever freer to bully its neighbors), Iran, Russia, and now Syria. Moreover, in the past 20 years, our friends and allies have been whiplashed by unserious U.S. red lines, Washington's desperate outreach to authoritarian regimes, and muddled goals.

Destabilizing actors have steadily increased their provocative behavior over the past several decades, privately sensing American weakness. While neither Beijing nor Damascus wants to see if Washington is ultimately credible (i.e., could be pushed into a forceful response to various provocations), there is little doubt that our day-to-day credibility is damaged. In some cases, that will only abet courses of action that states have already determined are in their best interests; an example is China's pressing of its maritime territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. In others, such as Russia's, it allows a country with otherwise little credibility and strength to find unexpected ways to gain influence and create instability.

Yet what is most worrisome is the attitude of American officials and diplomats, who seem to believe that as long as they've agreed to some kind of negotiating process, as long as they've kept the diplomatic option alive, they've done their job. That check-the-box mentality allows today's crisis to become tomorrow's international conference, thereby relieving the responsible American officials from having to actually come up with a policy in America's best interests for solving the problem. Yet our adversaries understand that today, diplomacy is merely the continuation of conflict by other means.

Every college and university worth its salt has a "grand strategy" program today (indeed, I taught in one when I was at Yale). Yet for all the hundreds of twentysomething strategists we produce every year, not to mention the endless conferences and edited volumes on "American strategy," we are becoming less and less adept at strategic planning and are falling dramatically behind in diplomatic skill. There is a damning dearth of creative thinking among our foreign-policy mandarins, an inability to clearly articulate the consequences of American choices, an unwillingness to decide American goals, and a lack of initiative to figure out the middle ground between diplomatic accommodation and military action. Occasional flashes appear, such as the Bush administration's financial sanctions on the Kim regime's bank back in the mid 2000s. Yet those are almost always surrendered on the altar of negotiation.

An America that has chosen to reduce the capacity of its armed forces and avoid new foreign entanglements as much as possible needs perforce to rely on its brains. That means creative risk-taking and refusing to consistently accept the least-common-international-denominator approach. Above all, it means being realistic, and understanding that most authoritarian regimes around the world wish us ill, even when they come bearing diplomatic gifts.

Should we ever slip from our perch atop the global pecking order, we will quickly find that our strength can no longer cover for our strategic incompetence. So far, there is scant evidence that either political party understands that.


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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on wsj.com. His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

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