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America’s new strategy

March 31, 2013

AFTER a decade dedicated to the “war on terror” and two long and costly land wars, the US has already shifted strategic gears. It has left Iraq, mission largely unaccomplished; will withdraw most if not all its troops from Afghanistan; have a smaller footprint in the Middle East and Europe; fight terrorism mostly from the sky and through surrogates; lead from behind in regional conflicts; and pivot to Asia to contain a rising China.

According to a March 25 New York Times report, ‘Rethinking US Security Strategy’, by Hans Binnendijk, the new US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, has asked the Pentagon to review and develop a new US national security strategy. Apart from the aforementioned elements “already on the table”, the new strategy will compensate for the anticipated defence budget cuts by adopting one of two proposals for greater “burden sharing” between the US and its “allies and partners”.

One concept is “offshore balancing” — which would withdraw most US forces from Europe and the Middle East and exert US influence through “regional powers”. The second concept is “forward partnering” — which would continue the “stress” on forward force deployments but with a new purpose: “to enable America’s global partners to operate together with US forces and to encourage partners to take the lead in their own neighbourhoods”.

Apart from America’s traditional European and Asian allies, these partners would include “emerging democracies, like Brazil, India and Indonesia and “regional organisations, such as the African Union, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council…”.

The first concept is reportedly opposed by some as implying a significant erosion of US global influence. The second — forward partnering — may secure easier consensus in Washington.

But there are deep flaws in many of the assumptions underlying the proposed strategy. Most importantly, the US is unlikely to be able to rely on the will and capability of its presumed partners and allies.

While “leading from behind” has been advertised as a winning strategy in Libya and Mali, and its emulation advocated for Syria, the fact is that the Libyan operation revealed the restricted fighting capabilities and cohesion of the European powers. France’s Mali intervention will be short. Chadian soldiers were the only effective African partners. Beset by financial woes, Europeans are slashing defence budgets and have no stomach to fight in faraway places.

In Asia, the alliances being built by the US around China are likely to provoke the very Chinese reaction they aim to avoid. Only Japan could add weight to a US-led Asian alliance. But, as witnessed in the recent islands stand-off, Japan is chary of a confrontation with China. The South Korean military alliance is as much a liability as an asset for the US. Recent developments have added to the danger of an unintended conflict on the peninsula in which the US could become involved.

Smaller Asian countries, like the Philippines and Vietnam, if encouraged to confront China, will be shown up. This happened to Manila recently. Such incidents will erode US influence in these states.

Other significant Asian military powers — India, Indonesia and Australia — will “partner” with the US only when it suits their own regional interest. China is their largest economic partner. All three wish to maintain good relations with both the US and China. Even India’s ambitions to emerge as China’s equal have been tempered by its recent economic slowdown and its more immediate goal: to establish its dominance in South Asia and adjacent areas. India will be extremely cautious about provoking China, even if it enjoys US support.

US partnerships with chosen regional powers (called “regional influentials” in the Carter administration’s version of a similar strategy), will be opposed by their local rivals.

A few years ago, the attempt by the so-called G-4 to secure permanent seats on the Security Council provoked regional resistance, pitting Germany against Italy, India against Pakistan, Brazil against Argentina, Mexico and Colombia, Japan against China and South Africa and Nigeria against Egypt, Algeria and Kenya. American anointment of elite regional military powers could crystallise regional conflicts rather than contain them.

More fundamentally, is it essential for the US to “contain” China militarily as it did the Soviet Union? Where is the Chinese threat to America? What of the costs this will impose on the mutually dependent US and Chinese economies and on global growth? How will this affect the cooperative solutions needed to meet global challenges, such as climate change and world poverty?

Attempts to preserve the present US global pre-eminence are already evoking the anticipated responses. Last week, China made common cause with a disgruntled Russia. The common thread holding the Brics countries together is resistance to US and European domination of global affairs and institutions.

While its “new” strategy may precipitate new problems, the US has not found solutions for the challenges it confronted or provoked during the last decade.

In the absence of political solutions to local issues in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Sahara, killing terrorists with drones and in special operations is likely to reinforce rather than decimate Al Qaeda and its affiliates. A permanent “Fortress America” is not the “exceptional” country that Americans desire.

Nor does the new strategy, as outlined in the NYT article, address America’s deep problems with the Arab and Muslim world. This will require ending partisan support to Israel and acquiring the ability to partner with the “Islamists” who are winning elections in a growing number of Muslim countries. It will also require an informed strategy to steer a path between sectarian and regional schisms in the Islamic world.

Military strategies are important guideposts for policy and tactics. It is thus paramount that strategies be based on accurate assumptions and analysis of current and emerging circumstances. Mistakes can be costly — as the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have so vividly demonstrated.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.