I. The Current Confusion
Newt Gingrich’s piece in National Review, “We’re Losing the War Against Radical Islam,” deserves a wide audience; after all, it’s our country, and our civilization, that’s at risk. As the former Speaker of the House wrote, “After 35 years of conflict, dating back to the Iranian seizure of the American embassy in Tehran and the ensuing hostage crisis, the United States and its allies are losing the long, global war with radical Islamists.”
And so, Gingrich continued, what is needed is a whole new and better approach: “Congress has a duty to pursue the truth and to think through the strategies needed and the structures which will be needed to implement those strategies.”
Meanwhile, for its part, the Obama administration seems to think that things are going fine. Indeed, on March 29, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest taunted one of the leaders of the Republican opposition:
“If John Boehner thinks U.S. troops should be on the ground in Yemen, fighting, or that we should reoccupy Iraq, or that the United States should bomb Iran to keep them from having a nuclear weapon — if he feels that way, he should have the courage of his convictions to say so. The President . . . does not believe it is in the best interest of the United States to commit ground troops.”
Boehner, sitting in Gingrich’s former chair, has not, in fact, said that the US should be fighting in Yemen, or reoccupying Iraq, or bombing Iran. But the Republican response to Obama has been sufficiently diffuse—we might think of the difference between the views of, say, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Rand Paul—so that Democrats such as Earnest can pick and choose which Republican positions they wish to respond to.
Yet beyond the partisan cutting and thrusting, Gingrich has a point: America needs policies that are serious, effective, and sustainable. And historical experience, as well as common sense, tells us that such an effective policy can come only from a robust and far-reaching debate—ratified, of course, by the voters. As we shall see, the annals of American national-security policy provide ample, and encouraging, precedent, not only for systematic deliberation, but, even more importantly, for effective follow-through.
We can further note that a new policy, if there is to be one, will almost certainly come from the next commander-in-chief—the next president. It’s the president who has access to the whole of the executive branch, as well as the bully pulpit.
And so with Gingrich’s point in mind, let’s review what US presidents have been saying heretofore about the threat from radical Islam.
II. The Missed Opportunities of the Last 35 Years
We can start with Jimmy Carter, who was president when the Iranians seized our embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. The 39th President had little to say that was memorable or effective—on anything.
As for the 40th President, Ronald Reagan, we should bear in mind that the Iranian hostage crisis ended on the very day he became president—perhaps that’s not a coincidence!
Of course, Reagan will be remembered forever as the US chief executive who won the Cold War—and that kept him plenty busy until his last day in office. The president who launched the Strategic Defense Initiative that so panicked the Soviet Union in 1983, and who said, in 1987, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” and made it happen—it’s for those achievements that the Gipper will be remembered.
Yet of course, in the 80s, even as the Cold War was reaching a climax, the threat of Islamic radicalism was rising as well. And here, the Reagan record is mixed: On the one hand, there was the 1983 disaster of the Beirut truck-bombing of the Marine barracks, which led to the ignominious end of the attempted peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. And on the other hand, the Reaganite policy of supporting, in effect, both sides in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 had the highly beneficial impact of bleeding two enemies of the US. And yet the media, not fathoming the full cleverness of what Reagan was doing, dubbed it the Iran-Contra “scandal.”
The first president of the post-Cold War era, of course, was George H.W. Bush. He adroitly brought Reagan’s victory in the Cold War to a peaceful denouement, and yet at that very same time, he had to confront new challenges in the Middle East; the most profound of these, of course, was Iraq’s swift conquest of Kuwait in 1990.
Bush’s response to Iraq’s aggression was a textbook example of successful alliance politics: The coalition that expelled Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 included dozens of countries, with the tacit support of dozens more, including Russia and China.
In his State of the Union address to Congress and the nation on January 29, 1991, in the middle of Desert Storm, Bush laid out an optimistic vision about the future of international cooperation:
“What is at stake is more than one small country; it is a big idea: a new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind — peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law. Such is a world worthy of our struggle and worthy of our children’s future.”
Those words, “new world order,” of course, had a resonance—perhaps more resonance than Bush 41 wanted. But stripped away of the conspiratorialism, the basic idea was to start with existing security institutions, such as the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and build out from there to create coalitions of order-enforcers.
In the case of Iraq, this “posse” approach worked brilliantly: Saddam Hussein was not only overwhelmed militarily, but also isolated politically. The result was a quick victory for both America and this “new world order.”
Bush’s successor in the White House, Bill Clinton, had the same basic idea: The UN and NATO, led by the US, would take action to right wrongs. And so, for example, the Clinton administration used the UN and NATO—mostly NATO—to resolve the various conflicts in the Balkans stemming from the breakup of Yugoslavia. However, in a different part of the world, Africa, the effort to bring order to Somalia—begun under Bush 41 and brought to “Blackhawk Down” debacle under Clinton—proved the limits of the model.
In other words, it was one thing to take the NATO alliance and apply it to a European problem, but it was quite another to attempt the American “sheriff” model in Africa.
Indeed, there was little evidence that the Bush-Clinton vision had much reach in Asia, either. And yet in the heady days of the 90s, when some talked about the “end of history,” many Americans seemed convinced, well beyond any available evidence, that all the world agreed with them and their vision. And so in a joint press conference on October 29, 1997 with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, President Clinton spoke grandly of a “strategic partnership” between the US and the People’s Republic of China. For his part, Jiang chose not to argue the point at that time, perhaps because China was still in the process of digesting illicitly gained US missile-technology secrets. That sordid episode—really, in many ways, a campaign-finance scandal— ended in a defense contractor, Loral, paying the largest fine in US history for violating the Arms Export Control Act. And yet even so, after the millions were levied, the punishment seems infinitesimal in relation to the security breach.
Of course, the events of September 11, 2001 soon turned attention back to the Middle East. Indeed, 9-11 made clear to all that Islamic radicalism was a terrible new force in the world. The rise of Al Qaeda underscored the reality that history was not ending, and that the world was not converging on a common set of democratic-capitalist values.
In that period of tumult and crisis, Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, struggled to make sense of the new situation. To his credit, Bush 43 understood that something new was needed. And yet it must also be said that he came up with some curious and unpersuasive answers. For example, in his speech to West Point on June 1, 2002, he asserted that the US was so dominant militarily that other countries would see that it was “pointless” to seek to compete with us. That is, other countries could worry about other concerns, such as getting rich, but Uncle Sam would be the policeman for the world. And yes, that was an improbable reading of international psychology, as well as geopolitical history. As Bush declared:
“Competition between great nations is inevitable, but armed conflict in our world is not. More and more civilized nations find themselves on the same side, united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos. America has and intends to keep military strengths beyond challenge. Thereby making the destabilizing arm races of other eras pointless and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.”
Bush’s vision of other countries meekly allowing the US to hold military sway in the world was, of course, not accepted by the Chinese and the Russians. Indeed, the result of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 was that other hostile and potentially hostile countries, including China, Russia, and Iran, actuallyincreased their military spending. And of course, the insurgents in Iraq increased their anti-American efforts as well.
In his Second Inaugural Address, on January 20, 2005, Bush took another stab at defining US policy in the changing world. And the message of this new speech was, if anything, even more eccentric. The US would take it upon itself to end tyranny everywhere:
“It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
“Ending tyranny in our world” is perhaps a nice enough dream, or pipedream, but given the sorry and stubborn history of oppression in the world, “ending tyranny” hardly constituted the beginnings of a realistic or feasible US policy. Indeed, in that same ’05 speech, Bush further betrayed the radical underpinnings of his thinking when he offered this pyrotechnic policy simile:
“By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well—a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.”
Needless to say, such loose talk about the “untamed fire of freedom” did not sit well with many conservatives. The next day, January 21, 2005, Peggy Noonan—who as a White House speechwriter for Ronald Reagan proved that she knew a thing or two about effective presidential rhetoric—wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Bush’s speech was “over the top,” and that the commander-in-chief was suffering from “mission inebriation.”
As an aside, more than six years after he left the White House, it’s fair to say that Bush 43’s presidential legacy is still in flux. But this much is clear: During the time he was in the White House, the American people went from strong support for Bush to strong opposition against him; the Republicans were trounced in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Indeed, it might even be fair to say that Barack Obama in the White House is the most consequential legacy of Bush 43.
Still, at least Bush was trying to make sense of the world around him. By contrast, Barack Obama, as we know, has barely bothered to lay out a vision. Why this sloth? Why this laziness? Perhaps, having been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize before he ever did anything in office, the 44th President got the idea that diplomacy and statecraft didn’t require much thought. He seemed to think, for example, that his personal history with Islam—as the son and step-son of Muslims—would give him a better rapport with the Muslim world. And yet that undeniable cultural simpatico doesn’t seem to have helped him much.
And so under Obama’s “leadership,” the US position in Libya, for example, has gone from bad to tragic to non-existent.
Meanwhile, Yemen, too, spirals into chaos and disaster. And yet bizarrely, the White House assures us that everything is going according to its plan. Even Vox.com, a hub of Obama apologetics, had to admit in a March 27 headline: “These Obama administration quotes about Yemen are almost too cringe-worthy to read.” That is, the White House’s pronouncements on Yemen have been so at variance with reality that even the most loyal of Obamaniks can’t pretend they haven’t noticed.
Yet interestingly, even as the Obama policy, such as it is, has collapsed, there’s hope, of a kind, in the Middle East. That is, the Sunni nations—not really our friends, but perhaps close enough, sometimes—have come to the realization that Uncle Sam is not going to do anything constructive in the region. And so, as Virgil noted in February, they have started accepting the idea that they might need actually to fight in their own defense.
In particular, Saudi Arabia is leading a 10-nation Sunni Arab coalition that is currently carrying out air strikes against Shia rebels in Yemen. These Yemeni rebels are Shia Muslims, supported by Iran, and so the Saudis, joined by other Sunnis, are intervening to crush them. From an American strategic point of view, this is not a bad outcome, even if the Obama administration lucked into it. Indeed, as Virgil pointed out in March, there’s a lot to be said for Arabs fighting Arabs. One challenge, though, will be for Americans to get used to a high degree of uncertainty. Do we have the patience to live with the ambiguity of a murky and indecisive conflict? Are we older and wiser now?
In particular, Republicans might ask themselves: Do we really want to win in 2016 and then see American forces recommitted to regular ground combat in the Middle East? It’s one thing if a few US advisers are coaching our friends in the fine points of fighting—and perhaps helping the Sunnis recapture the strategic Bab el-Mandeb at the mouth of the Red Sea, the link between Europe and Asia via the Suez Canal—it’s quite another if lots of Americans are coming home in body bags. Is chasing ISIS around the Middle Eastern desert really the mark of a successful policy? As The New York Times’ Tom Friedman asked earlier this month, “Why is it in our interest to destroy the last Sunni bulwark to a total Iranian takeover of Iraq?”
We might note that while it counts as a fresh experience for some Middle Eastern nations, such as Saudi Arabia, actually to fight on their own behalf, the idea of proxy warfare is as old as the region itself. For example, the Saudis have long routinely subsidized surrogates, or proxies, to fight, die, and kill in various struggles—including the Sunni opposition to the American presence in Iraq. Indeed, to this day, many suspect that Saudi Wahhabism is helping to subsidize ISIS.
And at the same time, in that same country of Iraq, the Iranians were inspiring Shia forces, as well, to oppose the Americans. Yes, in Iraq, American service personnel were getting killed at the behest of both Saudis and Iranians, operating separately to advance their own interests in Mesopotamia. And both countries could shed American blood without risking any of their own. Yes, proxy wars are the way to go—if it’s the other guy suffering the losses.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the Taliban have proven so durable as an enemy because they have been getting extensive aid from neighboring Pakistan—plus, again, money from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf oil-ocracies. And that’s the main reason why we have had so much trouble in our various counter-insurgency efforts: Our enemy has been getting lots of help from people we have often thought of as friends.
We might observe that military history—including the sad history of US intervention in Vietnam—shows that it’s almost impossible to win a counter-insurgency war if the insurgents can be easily resupplied from an adjoining country. Unless and until the US can gain the capacity to fully isolate the enemy, we shouldn’t expect success. That was true in the past, and it will be true in the future.
And so Republicans, some of the seemingly giddy at the prospect of a decisive showdown in the Middle East, might do well decrease their long-term expectations. After all, the 2016 national elections, which might well include a decisive repudiation of Obama, will be followed quickly by the 2018 midterm elections. So should Republicans expect success if they are once again the War Party? And not only that, the Quagmired War Party?
As memories of Bush 43’s experiments in muscular but naive freedom-building remain in the American consciousness, future Republican policymakers would do well to remember that fighting ground wars in the desert should be a last resort, not our first resort.
Still, high above all the little proxy wars that might be fought around the Middle East, the issue of Iran looms over everything else.
We can start by observing, yet again, the reality of proxy wars. It is revealing, for instance, that Iran is protesting the Sunni military effort in Yemen, citing that as a possible stumbling block to a nuclear deal. Of course, Republicans would do well to conclude that whatever the Iranians fear is probably something that the US should embrace.
Yet in its seemingly endless solicitude for Iran, the Obama administration may seek to tamp down the Sunni campaign in Yemen. In fact, Obama himself has shown shown a Captain Ahab-like obsessiveness about achieving an Iran deal, and that obsession seems destined to work out no better for him than it did for Ahab.
In the meantime, Republicans should remind Democrats that no deal is better than a bad deal. And so for example, if it’s true that the Iranians have outsourced some of their nuclear work to North Korea, then it would be foolish for the US to put any credence in a deal with Iran over, say, centrifuges in Iran. That is, who cares what happens in Iran if the real action is in North Korea?
So Republicans are right to oppose the Obama administration’s Iran deal, but the GOP would do well to coalesce around a superior alternative strategy. There’s nothing wrong, and everything right, for example, with anti-nuclear efforts that maintain a degree of diplomatic deniability, such as the Stuxnetcomputer virus, which has slowed the Iranian nuclear program considerably. And the US and Israel should continue to be creative—and ambitious—in their efforts to stymie Iran’s nukes.
Yet plenty of Republicans, from the comfort of their armchairs, are eager to escalate to outright war, even if that would shatter the sanctions regime and give Iran the international “sympathy vote.” Yet if, in the end, the Iranians can get a nuke from North Korea (or Pakistan), then it’s not so clear that we can expect Iran to stay de-nuked. Indeed, we must realize that nuclear knowhow is not that rare anymore. So unless the US is willing and able to subdue and permanently occupy Iran—a country of 77 million people, the size of Alaska—it’s hard to see how we can stop Tehran from eventually joining the nuclear “club.”
Of course, we should never give up on technological “fixes” to the Iran problem: It might be the case, for example, that the Pentagon’s Prompt Global Strike—the determination that the US should have the technical wherewithal, using Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV), to deliver a conventional payload on a target anywhere in the world within an hour—could be stretched into active and sustained de-nuclearization of Iran. But of course, the Iranians might figure out a counter-measure to that, especially if they could get help from the two other countries also working on HGV, namely, Russia and China. (More on the potential geopolitics of such technology sharing in Section IV.)
In the meantime, the US and Israel should be looking at improving their missile defense programs; defense against incoming missiles is obviously as good an idea as anti-aircraft systems.
And if/when Iran gets nukes, it’s still not obvious that they will rush to fire off their weapons at the US or Israel, knowing that they would suffer massive retaliation; one lesson of the Cold War is that deterrence works. And yes, it’s possible to envision all sorts of terror-scenarios, but many of them were hashed out in the Cold War, too, and we made it work; by dint of great effort, as we shall see, we stayed safe.
Indeed, it might be better for the US to remember other lessons from the Cold War and work to keep Iran off balance. Lisa Daftari, an Iranian-American, writes in The Washington Times that the best way to curb Iran is to launch political and propaganda activity aimed at undermining the regime from within. Americans might recognize such efforts as akin to the successful Reagan policy of undermining the USSR in Poland in the 80s, as detailed by Peter Schweizer in his 1994 book, Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yes, we have done it before. We have confronted major strategic challenges, and prevailed. So perhaps it’s worth taking a closer look at that past success, and where it came from.
III. Success in the Past
Few Americans alive today have any adult memory of the period from 1945 to 1950, and so it takes a little bit of an historical turn of mind to go back to the events of seven decades ago.
After the Allied victory over the Axis in World War Two, most Americans understandably had a favorable view of our allies in the war, including the Soviet Union. The US had, after all, given the USSR more than $11 billion in aid to help its war effort; adjusted for inflation, that would be $150 billion today.
Yet in the five years after VE- and VJ-Day, America came to a momentous conclusion: The Russians were not our friends, they were our enemies. And while the US and USSR never engaged in open warfare, the hostile intentions, on both sides, were clear enough: Our two countries had different, and conflicting, visions of who should control, for example, Eastern Europe. We might note that in the months after the fighting ended, many American GIs, for example, saw up close the horrors of Operation Keelhaul, one of several operations aimed at forcing the repatriation of Soviet POWs and DPs back to the USSR. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens would prefer imprisonment or even suicide to life in Stalin’s Russia made a deep impression on many Yanks. Back in the US, the cause of the “captive nations”—which had gone from enslavement by the national socialists to enslavement by the communists—became the cause of many Americans, especially those who could trace their ancestry back to Prague, or Warsaw, or Riga.
In fact, the US was slow to react to the Soviet threat, and the years 1945 to 1950 featured many failures. The notable failures, as we have seen, included the Soviet consolidation of control over Eastern Europe, as well as the communist victory in China. Indeed, in the same year, 1949, that Mao’s forces gained control of China, the Soviets also managed to explode an A-bomb—using mostly secrets that their spies had pilfered from the US program.
On the other side of the ledger, the US managed some successes, too: Operation Paperclip was one of several programs to bring German scientists to the US, where their expertise in, for example, aeronautics and rocketry proved invaluable. Yes, Operation Paperclip was a cynical exercise in the exploitation of ill-gotten science, but it was enormously important that the US get the benefit of the knowhow of, say, Wernher von Braun—and not the USSR. So a program that had Von Braun working in Alabama, not Siberia, was a double win for the Americans.
In addition, the Employment Act of 1946, creating the White House Council of Economic Advisers and the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, put the country on a course of maximum economic growth and employment. Then and now, many on the right might mock the pretension of government planners and Keynesians who think they can grow the economy with government action, but the experience of the booming US economy during World War Two suggested otherwise. Moreover, we can respect the earnest desire of officials back then to avoid a slip back into Depression. Indeed, the thinking went, a weak economy might not only impoverish America and the world, but also leave desperate people vulnerable to communist enticement.
Speaking of planning for success against the Soviets, the 1947 National Security Act helped Uncle Sam apply the lessons learned in World War Two: The Act organized the old Departments of War and Navy into a single Department of Defense, and also created the CIA and the National Security Council. That same year, 1947, brought the Marshall Plan as well, the visionary effort to rebuild the economies of Western Europe. The happy result was the restoration of anti-communism on our side of the Iron Curtain; even the socialists, in countries such as Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s Britain, were staunchly anti-communist.
Meanwhile, on the homefront, there was the feeling that the US had to do better, lest we give propaganda victories to the Reds. And so, for example, President Truman’s civil rights agenda of 1948 was billed, in part, as a necessary element in our worldwide campaign to improve the image of American race relations; we were in no position, the argument went, to speak to the emerging countries of Africa so long as the news from the US was marred by reports of lynching.
And yet the big events of 1949—the explosion of a Soviet A-bomb and the communist victory in China—left the leadership of America convinced that we had to do better. Maybe we weren’t losing the Cold War in ’49, but we weren’t winning it, either.
So on January 31, 1950, President Harry Truman ordered his national security team to “undertake a reexamination or our objectives in peace and war.” The result was a new document drafted for the National Security Council on April 14, 1950, known to history as NSC 68. Over the course of more than 60 pages, the document, mostly written by State Department staffer Paul Nitze, laid out a stark portrait of the threat posed by the USSR, asserting that the US must plan to build up its strength:
“In summary, we must, by means of a rapid and sustained build-up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world, and by means of an affirmative program intended to wrest the initiative from the Soviet Union, confront it with convincing evidence of the determination and ability of the free world to frustrate the Kremlin design of a world dominated by its will.”
Yes, NSC 68 put forth a protracted project that the US, in keeping with the strategic patience counseled by State Department diplomat George F. Kennan in his famous “Long Telegram” of 1946. But it was the best course: to wear the Soviets down. As the NSC document continued,
“Such evidence is the only means short of war which eventually may force the Kremlin to abandon its present course of action and to negotiate acceptable agreements on issues of major importance.”
The enactment of NSC 68 was no panacea for the Cold War. Just two months later, on June 25, 1950, we were taken by surprise by the North Korean invasion of South Korea. Yet after initial defeats, the US rallied and saved South Korea’s independence.
But the effort was not cheap, in either blood or treasure. More than 36,000 Americans died in the three years of fighting, and from 1950 to 1953, defense spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product nearly tripled—from five percent to more than 14 percent. (By comparison, today, defense spending accounts for around four percent of GDP.)
Yet NSC 68 had another strength: it was sustainable. Support for the ideas behind it was by no means unanimous, but it was broadly based. While the actual document was drafted by Democrats, most Republicans could get behind it because they appreciated its hawkishness. And forward-looking elements in both parties recognized that they could work within the ambit of NSC 68 to make progress in other areas, including technology, infrastructure, and education.
As an aside, we might recall that both NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) emerged from this era. And while plenty of boondoggles have been associated with both government agencies, plenty of successes emerged, too, including the moon landing and the Internet.
The proof that NSC 68 was durable came in 1953, when a new president, from a different party, took office, and yet the basic outlines of NSC 68 as a guiding policy did not change. Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, inaugurated in January 1953, immediately launched Project Solarium, intended to re-examine US national security policy. After months of deliberations and simulations—considering everything from a pre-emptive strike on the USSR to a return to 1930s-style isolationism—the Eisenhower national security team produced a new document, NSC 162/2, which, ultimately, was not that different from NSC 68.
Indeed, a decade later, when the White House changed hands yet again, the Cold War policy of containment continued. In his 1961 Inaugural, John F. Kennedy declared that the US would continue to bear the burden of, as he called it, the “long twilight struggle.” And JFK appointed the author of NSC 68, Paul Nitze, as his Secretary of the Navy. Later, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Nitze as Deputy Secretary of Defense; Nitze later held senior appointments in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations as well. In 1985, President Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom; in his remarks, the 40th President rightly recalled Nitze’s work on NSC 68:
“He was a principal architect of our security strategy after World War II, helping us understand what it would take in resources and commitment to meet the new challenges emerging in the postwar world.”
To be sure, this bipartisan Cold War consensus was not admired by all. We must recognize that both the anti-anti-communist left and the isolationist-libertarian right were hostile to containment; both of these ideological wings converged on the idea that NSC-68 was the playbook for a “garrison state.” Indeed, some critics, inhabiting a nether space with, say, Noam Chomsky and Ron Paul, delighted in denouncing the “the warfare-welfare state.”
Yet NSC 68 worked. Its basic ideas, carried forward for four decades, were proven in the only arena that really matters—the real world.
IV. The Next NSC-68: Toward a True Grand Strategy for the US in the 21st Century
So today, as Newt Gingrich and others have argued, we need a new and newly-relevant strategy.
Some say that the US can continue to be the unilateral policeman of the world. As The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens declares in his new book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Social Disorder, yes, the US should be the world’s policeman. As Stephens writes, the permanent American mission, he insists, should be “reassuring the good, deterring the tempted, punishing the wicked.”
That sounds nice; indeed, in its worldwide scope it sounds a bit like NSC 68.
But there’s one huge difference between the world of 1950 and the world of 2015—that is, the relative size of our economy as compared to the rest of the world. In 1950, the US economy accounted for almost half the world’s economic output, and it was at least triple the size of the Soviet economy. To put it bluntly, we could afford to oppose communist expansion in Europe and Asia—simultaneously.
But things are different now. In 2014, China overtook the US to be the world’s largest economy. Yes, the US is still way ahead on a per capita basis, but the exercise of national power is a collective, not individual, undertaking. Indeed, as The Telegraph (UK) noted on March 28,:
“Since adopting market-based reforms in the late-1970s, China has grown on average by 9.8 per cent a year, compared with 2.5 per cent in America. Back in 1980, the economy was just one 10th that of the US – and still just half, as recently as 2004. Last October, though, the International Monetary Fund quietly published estimates showing China’s annual GDP at $17.6 trillion compared with $17.4 trillion in America.”
In other words, China has come on strong in recent decades, and if present trends continue, China will expand its lead.
Yes, China’s growth has slowed recently—its growth in 2014, down to 7.4 per cent, wasn’t quadruple that of the US, but only triple. Meanwhile, according to one report, the Chinese are on their way, by 2017, to having the most robots in the world.
So a new NSC 68—a policy program that is not only wise, but sustainable—will have to begin with a revised understanding of world power relationships. We could win an economic war of attrition with the Russians, and we did. But if we similarly struggle with the Chinese and their larger economy, we could quite possibly lose. As in, be defeated—and we don’t want that.
Fortunately, there’s no need for a policy of confrontation with China. Indeed, as argued in Breitbart last year, it’s possible to envision a “Murdoch Doctrine” of cooperation with Beijing, starting with areas of common agreement, such as aviation safety—the disappearance of the Malaysian Airways plane in the Pacific Ocean last year involved mostly Chinese—and extending to broader issues of counter-terrorism. China, after all, is home to some 50 million Muslims in its western provinces, and it faces its own significant problem with jihadi violence. Perhaps, instead of being critical of Chinese security measures, the US can be helpful.
Yes, a truly smart Grand Strategy for the U.S. in the 21st century would include some sort of arrangement with the Chinese so that we could work together to contain the threat of Islamic jihadism. The Chinese might not be quite as preoccupied with “human rights” issues as we have been, but perhaps, when it comes to counter-insurgency it’s we, not they, who have something to learn.
So our Grand Strategy might begin with a Grand Coalition with the Chinese on anti-Jihadism. The US and China will probably never agree on many big issues, but it’s possible that we could agree on the value of squelching Muslim radicalism.
Indeed, many Muslims agree on the value of squelching radicalism within their faith. As we have seen in the admirable cases of Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s President el-Sisi, some Muslim leaders are willing to stand up and fight the terrorists. And when they do, they are fighting them according to their rules, not ours. So a New NSC 68 would take their “ground truth”—that is, local understanding—into account. If we can’t do everything ourselves, we need to learn how to cooperate better with our friends.
Speaking of friends, it’s possible to look ahead to the next half-century and see the world divided into perhaps four major blocs: the US, Europe, India, and China.
Looking at each bloc in turn, first we should be cultivating China; as noted, we could be working with Beijing on, for example, the Radical Islamic Question. And come to think of it, that could be our message to the Europeans, including the Russians; whatever our differences might be, our common interest in opposing Muslim craziness should keep us together. And that same message—we must unite against Muslim radicalism—should work, too, for Hindu India.
In other words, the US could be working with regional “sheriffs” in different parts of the world; each sheriff-country policing its region. This approach—an international division of labor—is in keeping with the true definition of strategy, which requires a sober assessment of both ways ends and means.
Also, as we have seen, NSC 68 back in 1950 devoted a lot of attention to strengthening the US on the home front. And so today, we need to think hard about how America will remain strong enough for the exertions ahead.
So yes, we can start with energy production—and lots of it. Since one of our goals is to grind down oil-exporting Iran, there’s no better way to do so than with cheap energy. And what about global warming—oops, climate change? How should we account for that? Well, if “climate change” is real, and if it’s truly caused by carbon dioxide—as opposed to, for example, fluxes in solar radiation—then we have a hydraulic engineering problem on our hands, not an existential crisis. If the water level rises a foot or two in the next half-century, that’s a problem best handled by the dikes that we build then, not by the strict austerity we impose now.
And speaking of technological fixes, a New NSC 68 will make ample provision for the rapid use of new technology, such as the newest kinds of 3-D printers. We need a political climate—of taxes, regulations, and smart investments—that encourages wondrous technologies to be invented here in the USA, and also to settle here, creating permanent American jobs. It’s out of this nurturing climate that we will get the breakthroughs we need in, for example, robotics and robotic-mass production. Out of robotic production will come the fleets, and swarms, of war machines that we need in the future.
We can further recall that NSC 68 helped to create the structure for a united and strong population. And so today, we might note that contrary to the oft-repeated PC propaganda line, multicultural diversity is not our strength—it’s our weakness. In his day, Paul Nitze knew that Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire failed in part because of their unruly and restive populations. More recently, we have seen the same problem in the former Yugoslavia and, yes, the former USSR. And today, we see it in such perennial under-performers as Brazil and Nigeria.
No national-security plan is worth much if it isn’t grounded in concrete steps of implementation, based on a feasible plan of action. NSC 68 had all that going for it, and more; it had the energetic commitment of an America on the rise. To put the matter another way, a strong country made possible a strong security plan.
Today, America is richer than ever, in an absolute sense, but, in a relative sense, it is not as pre-eminent, economically or militarily, as it was in 1950. So it will be a challenge to hammer out a new plan that intelligently links our objectives to our means. Can we do it? Can we sustain it? And if we can, will we show the patience and perseverance that characterized America during the Cold War? Today, it’s hard to know the answers to these questions. All we know for sure is that in NSC 68 and its implementation, we have a gold-standard precedent to learn from.