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Overusing The Big Stick

American preeminence created what Charles Krauthammer called a “unipolar moment” following the Cold War, but triumphalism gave way to disillusionment over fifteen years of war in the Middle East after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Iraq and Afghanistan showed in different ways the limits of military force. Where deploying hard power to sustain America’s role as global sheriff looked like a good bargain in the 1990s, opinion in the United States changed as costs grew. The American public, never particularly enthusiastic about foreign intervention, turned against it. Nation building seemed more needed at home than abroad. What role, then, should the United States play? How can it be pursued at reasonable cost? Differences over those questions as the post-Cold War era draws to close makes it an appropriate time to reassess American strategy and policy.

Threats Everywhere

Eliot A. Cohen, a leading strategist and former State Department official, insists that hard power remains preeminent for American foreign policy. The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power & the Necessity of Military Force makes a notable contribution by assessing threats and capabilities.  Cohen’s prescriptions for defending America’s international role however fall short. The forward policy against rivals he advocates risks confrontations on terms that press vulnerabilities rather than playing to strengths. Attentive to the trees of particular threats, Cohen overlooks the forest of hard choices required to match resources with aims. Indeed, crafting an effective grand strategy demands setting realistic objectives beyond the amorphous goal of sustaining American leadership.

Failures have damaged that leadership. Cohen recognizes “a general loss of confidence in America’s strategic acumen abroad” and “in its national security policy at home.” Mismanagement of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan coupled with inept messaging by the administration responsible alienated both foreign allies and the American public. Describing American errors in sharp language, Cohen admits he dropped cheap shots at critics and unsubstantiated arguments from earlier drafts of the book. Yet his assessment still falls short in the “coming to terms with America’s recent strategic past” that he admits looking to the future requires.

Cohen treats Afghanistan, Iraq and the war against terrorism sparked by the 9/11 attacks together. Condoleeza Rice expressed a wider sentiment in repeatedly observing that “if you were in the White House on that day, as I was, every day since has been September twelfth. And your great fear is that it may be September tenth.” Risk assessment increased dramatically as the tolerance for risk fell just as sharply. While Cohen does not say it, the situation made dispassionate thinking about contingencies and outcomes difficult if not impossible. He does note in the context of Iraq a desire to shake up the Arab world and open it to a very different—and presumably more liberal—future than authoritarian dictatorship or the Salafist Islam that fueled terrorism. Seeing war as a clarifying, if not transformative, act, helped American leadership avoid hard thinking about how and why intervention would achieve specific goals.

Terrorism and State Failure

The United States and its allies contained terrorism. Cohen offers the absence of anything close to the scale of 9/11 as evidence of success. Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq quickly overthrew dangerous regimes with limited casualties to establish what he optimistically calls “reasonably stable governments” that held contested elections. American forces “beat down multiple insurgencies.” Cohen adds that the war cost much less in lives, treasure and social conflict at home, than Vietnam. He also recognizes consequential failures.

Americans did not understand the societies where they fought. Not having foreseen the need to lead the rebuilding of institutions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States connived with others in imposing governing systems that proved ruinous. Failure to identify the enemy or admit hard truths about the role Pakistan and Iran played impeded stabilization efforts. Leaders did not prepare the American public for a long conflict. Mismanaging mobilization denied troops equipment they needed. Cohen also notes a rupture in civil-military confidence driven by mutual recrimination.

Interestingly, Cohen does not focus on the way political leaders failed to set realistic policy aims to guide military professionals in developing effective strategy. Hew Strachan has addressed the way operational thought took the place of strategy in Iraq. As with Germany during World War II, tactical and operational successes never received the shape that strategy provides. The consequent lack of direction precluded building upon them. Cohen observes in a different context that “dazzling tactical accomplishments can, and often do, mislead politicians and publics about the true strategic situation, and imply, if not promise, far more than they can be realistically expected to deliver.” Those words aptly describe early victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. Direction of the war in its larger sense marked the greatest failure since 9/11. Cohen recognizes the danger of substituting tactics for strategy and warns that the thinking part of the American military gets less support than it should, but he does not engage failures by civilians beyond admitting the Iraq War was a mistake. The way he frames policymaking after 9/11 as more reactive than reflective shows a failure to determine objectives that strategy requires.

Valuable Experience, Limited Resources

What can the United States bring to bear in the changing game of international politics? Cohen notes impressive strengths, despite a military edge that needs sharpening. They included experience in low intensity war, tactical competence, and the capacity to conduct larger operations across great distance, along with an infrastructure of alliances that serve as leverage to multiply capabilities. Other intangible assets from political institutions and economic productivity to favorable demographics underpin America’s hard power. Besides delays in modernizing the post-Cold War military imposed by wars in the Middle East, Cohen cites flaws in procuring weapons systems, a lack of flexibility driven by weight of inertia, and limitations in strategic thinking noted above as major problems. A slipping technological edge with facets of its higher defense organization stultifying and an inadequate concept of war limits the United States despite the size and reach of its military.

Balancing China “to prevent it from establishing hegemony over its neighbors and attempting to reshape an international order in its image” is America’s greatest challenge. Spectacular economic growth had strategic consequences by enabling an effective modernization program that transformed China’s military. Despite weaknesses, like the lack of a strong cadre of professional non-commissioned officers, Cohen describes China’s sudden acquisition of military power as alarming its neighbors while intoxicating the country’s public opinion. An orientalist view of the inscrutable east bolstered by popularizations of China’s strategic literature amplifies perceptions of its capabilities, but its reliance on psychology and deceptions have limits. Hopes of disabling the United States at a single stroke by some “assassin’s mace” point to a “magical” aspect of strategic thinking that relies too much on capabilities unlikely to deliver as much as they promise. An image of masterly Chinese statecraft misses the way Beijing has antagonized its neighbors and pushed them toward the United States.

Nurturing the balancing coalition against China is the most important thing the United States can do. Cohen’s plans here sound a lot like the offshore balancing John Mearsheimer describes as the response to hegemonic aspirations. Providing the big stick American diplomacy needs means structuring naval forces to project power across the Pacific rather than keeping sea traffic open to Europe. Cohen makes a good point by offering an American way of war relying on strategic depth and resilience as a response, but military expansion involves problematic costs. Shifting resources from other priorities may not cover them. The consistency he urges in American policy to minimize the risk of war by miscalculation is easier to implement.

Cohen offers a different take on the threat from Islamic Jihad where the United States relies too much on military tools which reduces strategy to tactics. A better starting point involves recognizing the struggle as a protracted conflict resulting from deep crisis within the Muslim world and heightened by state failure across the Middle East. Responses must be proportional with a political element to highlight the brutality of jihad and thereby blunt its appeal. Military operations may be required, but Cohen notes here lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. Compromises with authoritarian regimes, including Russia and China, struggling against jihadists will be necessary, but unpalatable for those committed to human rights. Success in this struggle means reducing the danger from a threat to world order into a nuisance.

Cohen’s Basket of Deplorables

Russia, Iran, and North Korea pose a different challenge in their efforts to revise an international order they believe unfairly framed against them. Overmatched in conventional terms, dangerous states punch above their weight by skill at “subconventional war” and higher risk tolerance. Pakistan, playing a double game with Islamist groups, is a dangerous friend, possibly to be joined by Turkey under Tayyip Erdogan. These states erode international norms and keep conflicts simmering that can escalate with unpredictable consequences. Cohen sees a danger not only in how they perceive their own interests, but how they might interpret other countries’ actions.

Cohen’s basket of deplorable states is more a mixed bag than his framing suggests. Geography limits North Korea, a pariah state lacking foreign ties. Its main threats involve nuclear (and biological weapons) along with the capability of flattening South Korea’s capital in what would be a suicide attack. Pakistan’s ties with China may render it more dangerous from a belief that Beijing would support it against India. Cohen stressed Iran’s anti-Americanism and support for terrorist groups, but skips the fact that normal states, including India and European countries, are willing to trade with it. The response to these dangerous states should vary according with a preference for deterrence over preemption.

Russia poses a different case than Cohen suggests.  Its history, size, and geopolitical position touching on Europe, Central Asia and the Far East make it more than a regional power despite having an economy smaller than Italy. Keeping post-Soviet borders largely intact seem the main stakes for America and its European allies. As with China along its periphery, aggressive Russian moves defeat their purpose by provoking resentment and resistance. Occupying former Soviet territories would be like swallowing a porcupine. Cohen makes a good case for countering Russian capabilities, but that should be done with an eye to reducing tensions rather than coercing Moscow. Neither hard nor soft power can manage coercion let alone changes within Russia’s political culture. Attempting it would bring a risky game of brinkmanship that serves little purpose beyond delaying a pivot to Asia.

American strategy in the war on terror already postponed focusing on China. The peace dividend of the 1990s had long been spent by 9/11 and the vacation from history over that decade had ended without people quite realizing it.  Humanitarian intervention soured after Kosovo, even though a “responsibility to protect” justified the disastrous campaign in Libya that destabilized North Africa while antagonizing both Russia and China. Muammar Gaddafi’s fate gave the even more repellent Kim Jong Un a dangerous lesson in the risks of concession for dictators. A larger story reaching back into the 1990s gives credence to Cohen’s argument for enhancing strategic thinking among both military and civilian leadership in the United States.

Where Cohen Falls Short

Like the curate’s egg, Cohen’s take on hard power is good in parts. The net assessment he offers of both the United States and rival powers likely to challenge it raises important points that merit further consideration. Different challenges today require forces, weapons, and experience to match them with a better understanding of strategy. Cohen rightly warns against falling back on routine methods as default position when crafting strategy requires different thinking to match available means to ends. Unfortunately, he reaches too readily for the big stick and makes assertive policies a default of his own.

Choices never come up in Cohen’s narrative, but every decision to do act means not doing something else. While he dismisses containment and exit strategies as “a kind of strategic pixie dust” that oversimplifies problems to make them seem manageable, he reflexively turns to hard power as a counter to challenges. Cohen draws his title from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous phrase and opens by invoking his 1901 speech on national duties. Roosevelt, for his often bumptious manner, understood hard power as a diplomatic tool and prioritized a balance of power that served American interests. Perhaps that part of the former president’s legacy deserves more attention than it receives here.

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