America in Recline

Obama's foreign policy leans back from the world.

The centuries-long dispute over whether and how much the United States should intervene in world affairs may at last be headed toward a resolution. A prominent early view, held by many of the founding fathers and aptly summarized by John Quincy Adams, enjoined Americans not to "go abroad in search of monsters to destroy." In the 1930s, the "America First" political movement clearly grew from this perspective. The most recent exposition of the case for a far less activist foreign policy has come this month in the form of MIT Professor Barry Posen's admonition in Foreign Affairs to limit commitments, downsize the armed forces, and "pull back" from the world.

The other side of the debate articulates a view about the crucial need to remain fully engaged in international affairs and has a similarly deep lineage, most notably going back to the Monroe doctrine (1823), which aimed to carve out a de facto hemispheric no-go zone for European colonial powers. President John F. Kennedy's call to in 1961 to "pay any price, bear any burden" in the cause of protecting liberty is also in sync with this perspective. As is the "lean forward" argument currently being advanced by Stephen Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth -- though they are much more cognizant of the need to be attentive to cost issues.

Somehow, over the course of his first term, Barack Obama has skillfully blended the best of both sides of the debate, along the way advancing a very cool doctrine that I would sum up as "lean back." It is very much in the spirit of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's concept of finding the middle way between sharply opposing views -- that is, to "synthesize" them. This is exactly what the Obama doctrine does. It respects the need to remain engaged in the high politics of world affairs, but it does so in an extremely economical fashion.

This notion of leaning back is best exemplified by the small-scale but worldwide war that the Obama administration has been waging against al Qaeda with a quiet ferocity over the past four years. And not just with drone strikes. The campaign is, for the most part, conducted by small bands of special operations forces and commanded overall by Admiral William McRaven -- the man who, among many other accomplishments, planned and oversaw the raid that got Osama bin Laden. The elite forces that he leads, along with dedicated professionals from our 16 intelligence agencies, have undertaken the task of detecting, tracking, and disrupting terrorist networks. Al Qaeda is the principal, but hardly the only, target of this "guerrilla war against guerrillas."

Leaning back, in essence, means bringing most of our large conventional forces home -- maybe even demobilizing some of them, as Posen suggests. But we don't leave entirely; our weight just shifts when we lean. There will still be presence in many places around the world -- perhaps even in more places, given that so much can be done these days by so few, thanks to the power of networking that links small combat teams with our incomparable air and naval strike assets, both manned and unmanned. And the units we do keep on the ground will work closely with local allies. This is true of the hundred special operations troops now in Uganda, who are helping to track down and destroy the Lord's Resistance Army. It will be the case in Afghanistan as well when the vast majority of our forces leave by the end of next year -- if not sooner.

Sometimes leaning back will allow interventions to occur without any American troops on the ground. This is because of the interesting, counterintuitive property of the lean-back concept: The reduced U.S. military presence both ends the "free ride" (as Posen puts it) that allies have enjoyed and makes their forces more effective with a little leavening of American logistics, intelligence support, and drone strikes. This approach is working well for French and Malian forces right now; they are driving Islamist rebels before them, soon right out of northern Mali. Earlier, this lean-back approach worked in Libya as well, and it is clearly the strategic tack being taken in the Syrian conflict. Interventions of this sort are preferable to, say, the Iraq model, where over a trillion dollars were expended, tens of thousands of American lives were lost or shattered, and, now that we have left, al Qaeda is back and an Iran-friendly government holds power.

The beauty of leaning back is that it completely scales down the cost structure of American foreign policy and security strategy -- but it does so in a way that allows not only continued but possibly even expanded international engagement. My long-time research partner at the RAND Corporation, David Ronfeldt, sees matters this way: We can be both scaled-down and "scaled out" -- that is, more widely deployed. Back in 1999, we recommended such an approach be taken during the Kosovo War, by adding a few of our at-the-ready Special Forces teams to the fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The choice was made not to do so in that particular war, but two years later our initial operations in Afghanistan, limited to about 200 Special Forces soldiers on the ground, won a stunning victory with this approach. It is a mode of operation that can be applied almost anywhere in the world, a point that should assuage the concerns about disengagement raised by Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth.

The truth of the matter is that we cannot afford to continue the longstanding Powell doctrine that calls for the employment of "overwhelming force" in our interventions. Besides, massive numbers and huge firepower failed in Vietnam, and efforts to "overwhelm" had very mixed results in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the end of overwhelming force does not require withdrawal from the world. There is now the option of deploying smaller, more precision-oriented units, enabling the United States to remain actively engaged wherever its interests and/or moral impulses demand. There is no need to pull back, and there is a way to avoid the undue costs that come with just leaning forward in the usual way. This new way is the path of "leaning back." President Obama is sometimes criticized for being too cool, but in the strategy business he knows enough to lean back. A commander-in-chief can never be too cool.

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National Security

Deconstructing Afghanistan

What would Jacques do?

After more than a decade of nation-building in Afghanistan, with at best mixed results, perhaps it is time to take an opposite tack: "deconstructing" that sad land. This would entail some very bold policy shifts, beginning with a willingness to see our very "structures of thought come undone," as Jacques Derrida, the great philosopher of deconstruction, once described the first step in the process. In practical terms, this would mean challenging the guiding notion of democratization that has, thus far, cost us and our allies several thousand casualties and about a trillion dollars -- to little effect.

The key to deconstruction is to search out the inherent contradiction that lies at the heart of virtually every strong belief. As another leading theorist of deconstruction, Paul de Man, once put the matter, the central task is to "undo assertions...by means of their very own elements." For example, Derrida thought deeply about Ernest Hemingway's conclusion, in his Death in the Afternoon, that bullfighting is the ultimate sport. Derrida then formulated a key question, "How often does the bull win?" He concluded that any sport in which one side lost almost every time -- for centuries -- was no sport at all.

It doesn't take too much reflection to see that beliefs about Afghanistan fit the deconstructionist pattern of being "undone by their very own elements." Starting from the beginning, there is the belief that Afghanistan is an isolated land filled with xenophobic people. Yet from ancient times, this "land of the high flags," as Zoroaster labeled it, was a crossroads of rich commerce, its peoples drawn from an admixture of Aryans, Chinese, Indians, and Mongols -- among others.

Another long-held belief, that Afghanistan is the "graveyard of empires," has been misleading from the beginning. Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan with a relative handful of troops, and the Greeks stayed for a few centuries. Indeed, "Kandahar" is but a variant of "Alexander." And for many centuries after the adventurous Greeks, outsiders often ruled for long periods. The remarkable work of Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield makes quite clear that difficulty in exerting external control over Afghanistan is, in historical terms, a quite recent phenomenon.

Taking the deconstruction process up to the current situation, the single most telling contradiction lies at the heart of the Western "democracy project" in Afghanistan. If I may channel Derrida briefly -- he passed away in 2004 -- I think he would observe our efforts and ask: "If you are trying to nurture democracy, why is it that you regularly embrace the results of fraudulent elections? If your goal is the emergence of a civic culture, why, after all your efforts, is Afghanistan rated the most corrupt country in the world?"

There are other long-held assertions that seem to come undone by their very own elements as well. One is the idea that peace and security will come to the country from the center in Kabul and spread outward. This belief flies in the face of a long history of decentralized governance, with power widely distributed outward, toward the edges of the society. Even Alexander found it useful to cultivate and develop alliances with local tribes.

Another problem confronts the faith of those who believe staunchly in the "Afghanization" of the military effort to secure the country that has been underway for several years now. A deconstructionist view of this effort would point to the 31 battalions created thus far, and note that only one of them is capable of independent action. So-called insider attacks on allied forces training them would raise deconstructionist eyebrows as well. The overall conclusion Derrida or de Man might reach would be that the whole process is turning Afghans, some of the world's best natural warriors, into some of the world's worst soldiers.

There are inherent contradictions in the development process as well. Take, for example, the routine "flipping" of construction contracts -- i.e., the winning bidder on a particular project sometimes simply takes a cut off the top and passes on what's left to a party willing to do the job for less. There are known cases of several flips on a single contract, leading to the paving of roads that wash away with the first hard rain. And when projects are completed and things actually do work, as with electrification efforts and improved cell phone connectivity, the dams and towers that provide these social goods are often held hostage and "taxed" by the Taliban. "Pay up or we'll blow them up."

Deconstructing Afghanistan in this fashion performs the kind of service that Derrida sought to provide with his concept: it improves the clarity of vision and deepens understanding of the daunting challenges that bedevil almost all meaningful endeavors. In this instance, the deconstruction process should lead to a willingness to question and debate the strategy to be pursued as the Afghan endgame unfolds.

Just how might strategy change? Recognition that the democracy project in Afghanistan has fallen prey to cronyism and corruption might lead to an extra effort to ensure the integrity of elections in 2014 -- and to abide by their honestly derived results. Understanding that centralized power will be resisted might lead to a willingness to rely more heavily upon provincial actors around the country to provide security -- much as was the case during the peaceful 40-year "rule" of Zahir Shah, Afghanistan's revered last king. Indeed, his fall ushered in the current 40 years of political strife and war that have been visited upon Afghanistan. At the great jirga of 2002, after the Taliban were driven from power, leaders from around the country called for the return of Zahir Shah -- but we insisted on democracy, not monarchy.

In terms of the final strategic military question the West faces -- how many troops, if any, to leave behind after 2014 -- deconstructionist thought would almost certainly embrace the point that "surges" of soldiers have done little to improve the situation. Paradoxically, a small military presence, closely linked to Afghan tribal forces operating from the edges, will likely do far better than the big battalions.

Were Jacques Derrida still with us, he would no doubt find Afghanistan a fertile vineyard in which deconstructionists could toil. For those of us who see the value of analyzing matters using his methods, there is even more: a chance to correct costly errors and avert a looming debacle. But this will only happen with the emergence of a willingness to see the many fatal contradictions in our core beliefs about Afghanistan -- and about the Western role there as well.