Voice

Yes, Russia Is Our Top Geopolitical Foe

Why Mitt Romney is right about Moscow.

The boldest gambit of the presidential contest thus far has to be Mitt Romney's assertion that Russia is America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe." The GOP candidate first blurted this out months ago, and he has been pilloried by the Dems for Cold War-era "old think" ever since. Some believe this view may even undermine the traditional perception voters have of Republicans being more adept than Democrats at national security affairs.

For all the flak he's taken, Romney reaffirmed his views about Russia last week. He no longer assigns Moscow a number -- much less No. 1 -- but Mitt has made it clear that, in his view, "everything we try to do globally they try and oppose." In particular, he cites the Russians' obstructive behavior when it comes to alleviating the conflict in Syria and the proliferation crisis with Iran.

Longstanding Russian support in the war on terror and the key role Moscow plays in the Northern Distribution Network that sustains the allied intervention in Afghanistan seem to have slipped his mind.

But no matter. Romney is still right about Russia. So far just in his instincts, as it seems he has not yet fully crystallized his thinking. As to the kind of thinking called for, he has made this clear: We must assess the world from a geopolitical perspective. This is most refreshing, given the utter lack of interest today among American institutions of higher learning in the intersection of geography and foreign policy.

The field of geopolitics went into eclipse in the 1940s, in the wake of Nazi Germany's pursuit of a territorially oriented foreign policy based on increasing Lebensraum by force of arms. As an academic discipline, it has never recovered from this malign association in people's minds. One can only hope Romney's Russian gambit stimulates a resurgence of more legitimate interest.

For in classic geopolitical terms -- that is, by giving attention to territory, resources of all sorts, and their influence on beliefs, behavior, and policy -- it is quite clear that Russia is the major counterweight to American power and influence. A huge country that straddles what the great geographer Halford Mackinder called the Eurasian "heartland" is sure to operate with substantial effect in the world. A country with thousands of nuclear weapons, still-substantial armed services, and a cornucopia of natural resources will have its innings in high politics.

Romney's assertions about Russia should be seen less as stale strategic thinking and more as a critique of Barack Obama's looming "Pacific shift," which implies that China has moved into position as our top geopolitical foe. Yet Beijing, in the throes of modernization and heavily weighed down by a massive population, increasingly urgent energy needs, and a troubled political transition -- see: Bo Xilai and other travails of succession -- can hardly be seen as our new No. 1 geopolitical foe.

Furthermore, China's military is still decades away from having any kind of ability to project force over meaningful distances. The 100-mile width of the Taiwan Strait could just as easily be a thousand miles, given China's lack of force-projection capability. Even the quite large People's Liberation Army is full of question marks, with few substantive changes evident since it got such a bloody nose during the 1979 war with Vietnam.

To be sure, the Chinese navy is very innovative, with its emerging swarms of small, short-ranging missile boats. And Chinese hackers are among the best in the world. But these capabilities hardly form the leading edge of a global military power.

So Romney, by keeping focused on Russia, may actually be demonstrating his chops as a geo-strategist. Given Russia's greater capabilities, and intentions so clearly and so often inimical to American interests, the smart geopolitical move now would be for Washington to embrace Beijing more closely, giving Moscow a lot more to think about on its eastern flank. This was a strategic shift that worked well for President Richard Nixon 40 years ago, when he first played "the China card"; it might do nicely again today.

Such an initiative makes sense, given that U.S. trade with China amounts to more than half a trillion dollars annually -- more than ten times the level of Russo-American economic interaction. And Beijing also serves as a major creditor. It simply makes little sense to provoke China, as Obama's announced Pacific shift already has. If Romney is right about the return of post-Soviet Russia as the world's bête noire, then any American Pacific shift should be more about alliance with, rather than alienation of, Beijing.

The biggest downside of Romney's insight into Russia is that, with the truth now out in the open, Moscow might become testier, more willing to act in open opposition to American interests. But confrontation need not be the only way ahead. Recognition of Russia's geopolitical importance might also lead to a more tempered American approach to the world, with less trumpeting about Washington's "global leadership role." This in turn could lead to a better working relationship with Russia.

That Russia and the United States were each destined for greatness in international affairs, their fates intertwined, was noted as early as 1835 by that shrewd social observer, Alexis de Tocqueville. At the very end of the first volume of his classic Democracy in America, Tocqueville said of these two countries: "Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world."

This prediction has been well borne out by the history of the past century or so. Now Mitt Romney is, in effect, arguing that Tocqueville is still right -- and that we neglect his profound insight at our increasing peril.

DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Three Wars on Terror

Ronald Reagan and the battle for Obama's strategic soul.

One of Barack Obama's earliest acts as president was to discard the phrase "war on terror," yet he has been waging just such a campaign these past four years -- with a skillful mix of subtlety and ferocity. Several major al Qaeda plots have been thwarted by aggressive, innovative intelligence programs, often conducted in a deeply networked fashion with our allies. In addition to the killing of Osama bin Laden, many other operatives in the late terrorist capo's organization have found themselves on the receiving end of commando raids or Hellfire missiles, from Waziristan to Yemen -- and beyond. Those not yet in the crosshairs have gone to ground, or dare to move about only sparingly, furtively.

Obama's counter-terrorism strategy has extended to other malefactors as well, from madmen like Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army to the Libyan state terrorist, Moammar Qaddafi. Kony is being hunted by local African forces of order, which are themselves being assisted by about a hundred American special operators. Qaddafi was taken down when Obama engineered and enabled a NATO air campaign that began by preventing a slaughter of innocents in Benghazi, then went on to effect regime change in Tripoli -- in a far less costly manner than was undertaken in Iraq by George W. Bush.

Indeed, the difference in the approaches taken by our two most recent presidents really speaks to there being two different wars on terror. Bush chose to attack other nations in his attempt to create a less permissive international environment for terrorist networks. Obama has decided to take the more direct approach: going straight after the networks.

Bush's strategy proved exceptionally costly and highly problematic in Iraq, and even his initial success in "going small" in Afghanistan was all too soon overtaken by a stalemate-inducing impulse to send large numbers of troops there. Obama's concept of operations, on the other hand, has been working well, and will never break the bank or exhaust our military -- especially in the wake of his realizing, and reversing, the folly of surging more troops into Afghanistan, as senior military leaders persuaded him to do early in his presidency.

It is tempting, on the eve of the 11th anniversary of 9/11, to believe that the problem posed by terrorist networks is at last well on its way to being solved -- and this may be the case. But this is a moment to remember, in a cautionary way, that there was an earlier war on terror, crafted by Ronald Reagan and his close advisers in the mid-1980s, that began subtly and skillfully, too -- yet which soon foundered.

In the weeks and months after the October 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 242 Americans, Reagan and his team became deeply concerned about the terrorism problem. But it was the abduction and torture of the CIA's Beirut station chief, William Buckley, in March 1984 that truly brought matters to a head. Secretary of State George Shultz called a Saturday meeting of terrorism experts, led by Brian Jenkins of the RAND Corporation, and the team brainstormed until a strategy emerged, one that called for something that strongly resembles the kind of campaign that Obama is now pursuing. Rather, the resemblance is in reverse, as Reagan's plan came first.

Soon after that weekend conclave of experts, President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 138 -- most of which is still highly classified. Christopher Martin's declassified history of political and military policy during this period points out that the directive called for "secret FBI and CIA paramilitary squads and use of existing Pentagon military units -- such as Green Berets and the Navy SEALs -- for conducting what amounted to guerrilla war against guerrillas...a de facto declaration of war."

The signal success of this first war on terror came in a campaign against the Abu Nidal Organization -- the al Qaeda of the ‘80s -- which was conducting terrorist hits for hire on behalf of Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Some of the network's hidden finances were detected and, instead of freezing or seizing these funds, they were covertly moved about in ways that convinced Abu Nidal that many of his operatives were embezzling. He had about a hundred of his agents bumped off, which did little good for the morale of the others. Soon the organization was all but defunct.

Despite this success, and for all of Reagan's enthusiasm and Shultz's support, little else came to pass. This was because many senior military leaders worried about the ethics of Reagan's war on terror -- specifically that the use of paramilitaries and special operators would lead to what then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger called an "unfocused revenge approach" that would lead to the deaths of innocents. Besides, the Pentagon preferred more conventional uses of force -- like the massive air raid on Libya in 1986 in retaliation for the bombing of a Berlin discotheque frequented by GIs. Soon there was a Weinberger Doctrine that codified this conventional approach, a later corollary to which, the Powell Doctrine, demanded that this kind of force be applied "overwhelmingly."

Weinberger won what William Safire called "the battle for Reagan's strategic soul," and nothing like the clever coup against Abu Nidal was ever repeated. Thus the pressure on nascent subversive networks eased, and the hydra's teeth were sown, soon to bring forth a new generation of 21st century terrorists. And the Weinberger/Powell approach was slavishly followed -- for the most part -- in the wake of 9/11, embroiling the United States in the two costly nation-building debacles that have characterized its second war on terror.

Barack Obama has, as noted above, done much better by hewing close to the concept that Reagan initially embraced. But, as was the case with Reagan, there is now a similar battle going on for Obama's strategic soul. For all the nimble, networked operations he has overseen, Obama did allow senior military advisers to talk him into surging large numbers of conventional forces into Afghanistan -- at great cost and, at best, with mixed results. He also acceded to a status-of-forces agreement made by his predecessor, allowing senior political advisers to talk him into living with the consequences of a complete withdrawal from Iraq -- where keeping even a slight residual force of special operators would have done wonders in deterring the resurgence of violence that now threatens to undo all the progress of the past decade.

In the battle for Reagan's strategic soul, the conventional thinkers won out because they convinced him that there was far too much of the "dark side" in the Shultz-inspired plan. In the battle for Barack Obama's strategic soul, the "overwhelming force" approach has not yet carried the day -- and with luck it won't. Here's hoping that Mephisto wins this one.

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