Two bruising wars have left America bankrupt and its military enervated. The U.S. military is still deployed in more than 150 countries. While our footprint might intoxicate Washington's elite and the military brass, our recent failures call into question whether America has over-extended itself.
China's military power has stealthily risen even as America's has declined. China has built its own stealth fighter and aircraft carrier. It flexes arms but refrains from punching. All along, it has fostered economic ties with resource-rich Africa. It projects power through proxies like North Korea, restraining them only after it has gauged the world's reaction. Pakistan, which previously was beholden to America, now disdains it, while pledging undying allegiance to China.
America tends to go into denial about the world becoming bipolar. Iraq and Afghanistan are considered victories at best, stalemates at worst, seldom outright defeats. Even after faltering, the American military is still thought of as in top shape. China's power is underestimated, a conclusion the Chinese seem happy to foster.
Washington seldom fails to weigh in on happenings in even the most obscure of countries. Presidents and secretaries of state are measured not so much by the impact of their policies, but by how many air miles they have logged traversing the globe.
A classic example is that of Hillary Clinton. Under her tenure, the Arab world virtually broke free of America's orbit. Pakistan become virulently anti-American. North Korea went ballistic. In all fairness to her, the president himself charts foreign policy. But the State Department had a strong presence in Egypt well before the country revolted against Mubarak (so did the CIA). Could no one from State, or even the CIA, provide advance warning of trouble brewing in Egypt, especially when near-by Tunisia had revolted against its own despot, Ben Ali, only a month ago?
America must change course. It needs to focus on areas strategic to its core interests, and drop those regions where it should not or cannot play a role. Here are some strategic areas:
China has got almost all of its neighbors worried. India to its southwest, against which it has built up Pakistan, is caught in a pincer between the two. No matter New Delhi's bravado, it will lose a two-front conventional war, and will be forced to go nuclear.
China's southern and eastern neighbors too are alarmed. It is embroiled in an islands dispute with Japan, which also considers North Korea Beijing's proxy warrior. India believes that China is encircling it with maritime bases across the Indian Ocean. Out of fear, it is reaching out to Japan, Australia, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
But any anti-Beijing front without the active and durable involvement of the Unites States is going to fall apart, because none of the above countries have the requisite naval strength to take on China, whether alone or in tandem. America wants to pivot to Asia, but whether it will drop anchor there depends upon how it estimates Chinese intentions and strength. Today's situation is somewhat analogous to that prevailing a hundred years ago, when a resplendent Britain would not, or could not, accept Germany's rise.
Further, all the countries threatened by China have built strong economic ties with it. At what point enmity trumps trade remains to be seen. Japan is probably the furthest along the loggerheads route with China.
China has indicated no overweening pretensions of becoming a world conqueror. Its immediate needs seem to be accessing raw materials to power its economy. But its economic miracle has already made it a power to be reckoned with. Sooner or later, it will aim higher.
Were their systems not so different, or were America and China not continually pushing them in opposite directions, the two Koreas would have reunited. It took the collapse of the Soviet Union for two similarly dissimilar Germanys to merge. Neither the U.S. nor China is going away in the near future, so the Koreas will stay separate. The U.S. can be accused of negligence in letting North Korea acquire nukes and missiles. Now neither threats nor treats deter its juvenile delinquent of a ruler.
Even though America has Japan's back, North Korea has Tokyo rattled. But can Japan not defend itself? Its own nuke is supposedly a turnkey away. Why does Japan still need America's security umbrella, a Second World War vestige that was designed to protect the world from Japan rather than Japan from the world?
America need not abandon Japan, but by lowering its presence, for instance, by quitting Okinawa, and by allowing Japan to arm itself, it will boost Tokyo's confidence. It will also send a clear message of intent to China, as well as to North Korea, that Japan is not to be trifled with.
The same holds true of South Korea. Now one of the most advanced nations in the world, why cannot it be allowed to develop its own nukes and missiles? North Korea bullies it because it sees it as a lackey of a superpower in decline. The minute South Korea arms itself, the North would back off.
America thus need not provide all of the wherewithal to secure the Far East. Instead, it must see itself as a force multiplier for militaries of allies. It can thereby reduce its military footprint, while still retaining a strategic edge over China. By becoming vested in their own protection, America's allies would also shed their resentment of being "occupied" by US forces.
Nuclear deterrence has largely kept the peace for over four decades between enemies as rabid as India and Pakistan. The U.S. has pulled them apart the couple of times they have come to clashing during this period. India is increasingly frustrated by its inability to initiate war in response to terrorism originating from Pakistan.
But, in a perverse sort of way, it proves that nukes keep peace. There is no reason then why they cannot do so between any permutation of China and North Korea on the one side, and Japan and South Korea on the other, especially under the presence of an American nuclear overhang.
AfPak is another hot spot for America. There are more chances than not that AfPak will engender more 9/11s. In the exultation surrounding Bin Laden's demise, ignored is the capability of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Dick Cheney of al-Qaeda in Bin Laden's time, and now the man fully in charge. Zawahiri is canny enough to know when to stay low, and when to strike. Widely believed to be in Pakistan, America must realize that today's relative calm might just be that before the Zawahiri storm.
America needs to act covertly in AfPak. Drones are not covert. They can be indiscriminate in attack, as well as in provoking hatred. They also label us as a coward who refuses to fight men with men. Pakistanis are firmly convinced that America will ditch them if it extricates itself successfully from Afghanistan, so their interest lies in keeping America interested in Afghanistan. Pakistan therefore plays a double game, at once supporting the Taliban, but also appearing to serve American interests by becoming a mediator between America and the Taliban.
America can keep military "advisers" in Afghanistan, but if the spate of green-on-blue attacks is any indication, the new Afghan army has little love lost for us. After America departs, it will either quickly fold over to the Taliban, or maybe even desert en masse, except for its non-Pashtun elements.
Enmeshing Afghanistan in a wider regional net is a strategy that must be pursued. It worked to control Germany after World War II. Pakistan, India, Iran, and Russia all have interests in Afghanistan, and a modus vivendi must be worked out to durably calm Afghanistan. Pakistan is the biggest impediment here, for it seems to want to control Afghanistan all by itself. It is leery of India's ties with Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, as well as the influence that Iran has over Afghani Shias. Without Pakistan's full and transparent support for any multilateral initiative, one can assume it is as good as moribund. Only America can make Pakistan see sense.
Unfortunately, it can only do so much. It is already on the receding side in Afghanistan, and does not have much leverage over Pakistan anymore. AfPak then offers no easy solutions. It is going to be a day by day, month by month, year by year struggle to see that it does not do us substantial harm.
The Gulf is a third area of concern. Here our stranglehold has weakened, especially after the misadventure in Iraq. America has no option but to deploy its military might, without forgetting diplomacy. Iran is resurgent, no doubt about it. Before the Iraq invasion, the Shia crescent extended from Iran to Syria to Lebanon. Now it encompasses not just the above three countries, but all of Iraq, and parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Syria is a proxy killing field between the West, the Sunni Gulf states, and Israel on the one side, and Iran, the Hezbollah, and Russia on the other. Ironically enough, al-Qaeda is currently aligned with us, so deep runs the schism between the Sunnis and the Shias. Iran was encouraged when Hezbollah forced Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in 2006. With Assad now proving a tough nut, Iran is further emboldened.
What does Iran want? It harks back to the glory times of the Persian Empire, and wants to be treated as an emerging world power, not a pariah state. It is convinced that the West does not mess with recalcitrant countries with nukes (North Korea, Pakistan), but will not hesitate to send bulldozers into those without (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya). Thus is explained Iran's doggedness over its nuclear program.
Is it such a calamitous development if Iran becomes a nuclear power? Israel has enough nukes, and if Iran goes nuclear, the Sunni Gulf states will build or buy nukes in short order, even though they are covered by the American security umbrella. As America has brokered peace between India and Pakistan, so too could it do the same in the Middle East, the only catch being its poor leverage over Iran. One way to gain influence would be to stop treating Iran as a rogue state and lift sanctions against it, but there are no guarantees how Iran will reciprocate.
Too much is at stake for the Middle East to be embroiled in an all-out war. Iran is so unpredictable that no one knows how it will behave in the event of air strikes against it, even if they are limited. It could clog the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of all sea-borne oil passes. It could launch counter-strikes against Israel and the Gulf States, and even terror strikes around the world. America is no position to commit troops for another ground campaign. Air strikes against Iran are unlikely to destroy all of its nukes. Israel has already struck militarily against Syria, but the results have been symbolic at best.
For all of the above reasons, we are stuck with diplomacy to rein in Iran, and pacify the Middle East. Iran, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Russia need to sit down and hash a solution on how to calm the region. There is no need to drag in the UK, which is seen as nothing but a mouthpiece of the U.S. France too carries little weight in the region, even though it might like to think otherwise. Germany is another pretender. There is also no reason to overwhelm the conference with Saudi-lackeys like Kuwait and the UAE, or Iranian-acolytes like Syria and Lebanon (Hezbollah).
Let's turn our attention to Europe. NATO was set up to tackle an expansionist Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is long gone, but NATO remains. The Russia of today is more integrated with Europe, both economically and geographically, than America can ever hope to be. NATO has lost its raison d'être. It now involves itself in action against the Third World, where many see it as a front for the bullying white man. Europe is no longer a theater of military action. Is it not high time to scale down NATO?
Even American generals prefer commands in the Middle East and the Pacific, than in Europe. And why does America continue to maintain military bases in Germany, whose establishment was meant to protect the world from Germany and not the other way round. Germans see their presence as a sign of ongoing humiliation, especially since they have manifested their pacifist credentials time and again.
America has hardly ever engaged with Africa on a substantive basis. The Chinese are all over the continent, aiding, trading, and developing. Hundreds of thousands of them have moved to Africa to live on an ongoing basis. Americans would simply refuse to do what they are doing. When Americans go and live abroad en masse, as they do in the Gulf, they erect Americana-inspired enclaves, which shut the outside world out, and keep the inside in. China is rapidly displacing even the French from French-speaking Africa. It is safe to say that for all practical purposes, Africa is lost to America.
South America is at best tangential to America's interests. Sure, it is in our backyard, but it poses no military threat to us, nor does it have any substantial mineral resources. Occasionally an irritant like Chavez crops up, which should best be seen for what it is.
China, AfPak, and the Gulf thus remain our areas of strategic interest. We should focus our military accordingly, and exit places not critical to us. This will allow our fatigued military to recuperate and rejuvenate. It will also force our military planners to come out with more sophisticated force-multipliers, which emphasize quality over quantity. Our allies too will become more self-reliant.
An over-extended military encourages America to react to every crisis. Instead it must stop being seen as the choice of first resort by its allies. America too must realize that diplomacy often works better where it tends to jump in with all guns blazing. But for diplomacy to work, America's diplomatic corps needs to be revamped. All too often, critical assignments are given as presidential sops to those who know little about diplomacy, what to say about the places where they are dispatched to. The system of ad hoc appointments has demoralized the professional foreign service.
In England, France, Germany, Russia, India, and many other countries, the foreign service is considered an elite service. Very rarely is an ambassadorial assignment given to a political appointee. The professionals are trained over decades in the art of diplomacy and world affairs. They speak multiple languages, and ensure continuity long after a particular government demits office. America must build a similar diplomatic corps.
America is making the same mistakes that England did in the last century: over-extending its military and diplomatic footprint, as well as underestimating an emerging rival's strengths and intentions. The twentieth century has been widely hailed as America's, but for much of it, America was neither the preeminent military nor industrial power. To expect that America will own the twentieth-first century almost exclusively would be subjecting oneself to delusions of grandeur.
In spite of our campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, there does not seem to have been a systemic reevaluation of our foreign policy from the time of the demise of the Soviet Union. Pollyannas assert that we are strong as ever, Cassandras warn that we are weakened beyond repair. A considered mix of militaristic judiciousness and diplomatic finesse may not make the twenty-first century America's alone, but it could succeed in keeping us as first among equals for decades to come.