Dean Stam: Realpolitik and the Middle East


What will America’s next war look like? The challenge of divining our best course in Syria presses the question.

As our nation learned through hard experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a conundrum that often confronts U.S. leaders who propose to engage in the world’s conflicts.

Whether they seek to avoid entangling alliances, as George Washington counseled, or to intervene in the wars of others, like Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush, presidents who try to remake the world in America’s image most often fail when the effort is advanced through force.

The prolonged civil war in Syria thus confronts U.S. policymakers with a familiar choice. It is complicated by aggressive intrusion by Russian forces eager to reassert the interests of anti-American plutocrat Vladimir Putin. As President Barack Obama weighs options for combatting radical Islamic terrorists, we should again define the interests of Western civilization.

One path leads directly back into the Middle East quagmire, featuring cyclical violence and ethnic cleansing. This is a path Obama has tried hard to avoid. The other path leads away from major new U.S. military commitments.

Restraint is not “isolationist.” It is, rather, grounded in a bipartisan strategy of containment and deterrence. In this respect, it is similar to the efforts that served our country well during the Cold War - when we faced a graver threat in the Soviet Union than we do in the Islamic State.

Today, the U.S. military capabilities have been degraded by continuous warfare. The Obama administration has curbed defense spending, especially in the Navy, and the bipartisan brake on defense investments made by the Congress-driven budget sequester have harmed readiness especially.

Skeptics of non-intervention argue that the rise of the Islamic State, an organization that threatens the heart of the Middle East, requires American leadership. This is incorrect.

The endless wars of the Middle East are not worth decades of American intervention, including ground troops. “Show me an objective worthy of war,” the uber-realist Otto von Bismarck cautioned, “and I will go along with you.”

Absent a worthy and attainable objective in Damascus, we should choose strength through restraint, valor through discretion, while rejecting calls for new combat engagements in the region’s endless sectarian strife.

The challenges of confronting dangers emanating from both the Middle East - and the ongoing Russian occupation of Ukraine - should spur Americans to debate more thoughtfully what can be done to protect our national interests.

Western civilization and its values threatened by terrorists and autocrats is not new. From Pol Pot to Hitler to Slobodan Milosevic and Kim Jong Il, such bad actors have ample precedents.

Historically, leaders in the West have relied for security on a continuous application of realpolitik grounded in containment and deterrence.

A grand strategy of securing peace and stability through the imposition of democracy on others - backed by aid dollars - has only occasionally met with success. Japan, South Korea and the Philippines following the American victory in World War II are examples. Another wave of democratization in Eastern Europe followed the West’s Cold War triumph. In both examples sustained democratization was the effect, not the cause of Western intervention.

When the West’s democratic missionary impulse is the cause of intervention, it has sown the seeds of the West’s greatest foreign policy blunders, from Vietnam and Pakistan to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Policy history is clear. When the free world has focused on defense of values and the restoration of institutions capable of sustained governance, Washington has enjoyed success.

By contrast, when the U.S. has tried to impose the values and beliefs that lie at the core of our national identity - freedom of expression, equal rights and rule of law - on states without the institutional prerequisites for good governance, the effort has failed.

This is a struggle as old as the republic. George Washington recognized the temptations that a democratic power will always face in a world of competing states and peoples. He warned explicitly against entangling foreign alliances, against going abroad in search of demons to destroy.

Americans have done great works defending our values among the like-minded, regardless of ethnicity or history. Claims to American exceptionalism notwithstanding, we have suffered our worst defeats when trying to expand that sphere universally.

As we consider the challenges ahead, our goals need to be modest and realistic. We must avoid macho partisan campaign rhetoric about who is “tough on terrorism.” We must forswear false dichotomies caricaturing opposing views as isolationist or interventionist.

We must instead focus on our own security and interests through policies grounded in containment and deterrence. Freedom and democracy cannot be imposed - especially on those who do not openly covet it - with the barrel of a gun.

Allan Stam is dean of the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran.

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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