Out of the national trauma of September 11 has emerged a new grand strategy for American foreign policy, comparable in scale and ambition to the strategy of containment that guided American foreign policy for much of the Cold War. Championed by neoconservatives in and around the Bush administration, this grand strategy--which I call muscular dominance--has won the acceptance of neo-liberal hawks associated with the Democratic Party as well. The troubled occupation of Iraq, together with the unfolding drama over the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, may eventually force a rethinking of the emerging strategy, but for now there is more than a tentative bipartisan consensus on three fundamental tenets of America foreign policy.
First, terrorism and rogue states, especially those seeking weapons of mass destruction, constitute the greatest threat to American well-being and world order. These unconventional threats require going beyond our traditional reliance on deterrence and containment, and may in some cases warrant preventive military action, as in the case of Iraq. Second, the Middle East has replaced Europe and East Asia as the fulcrum of geopolitics, the zone wherein the shape of world order will be forged. Remaking the Middle East, above all by bringing democracy to the Arab and Islamic nations of the region, therefore, must be America's overriding mission, since it is only by remaking these societies that the United States can be secure. And third, the United States must remain the world's dominant military and economic power, not only to discourage the emergence of other rival powers but to maintain world order. As the world's dominant power, the United States has not only special responsibilities but also special rights that for the sake of world order should not be constrained by traditional alliances or multilateral institutions. In a unipolar world defined by American supremacy, the United States must have the flexibility to work through ad hoc coalitions and the freedom to use international institutions as it sees fit.
The bipartisan consensus that has formed around these fundamental tenets is important because grand strategy does matter. Grand strategy represents a road map delineating our most important foreign policy goals and the most effective instruments and policies for achieving those goals. It contains a vision for America's role in the world based in part on America's domestic needs and in part on the international challenges the country faces. It thus establishes priorities and gives focus to an otherwise volatile foreign policymaking process that can be driven by national mood swings and the CNN effect. In this sense, it also adds an important element of predictability and stability for other countries. But these virtues can also be vices if they lock the country into misguided actions and the misallocation of scarce diplomatic and foreign policy resources.
Despite the occasional excesses carried out in its name, the postwar grand strategy of containment on balance served America and the world well. It helped build a community of democratic nations, provided a framework for common security, and established the political and diplomatic underpinnings for a world economy that spread middle-class prosperity to North America, Europe, and parts of East Asia. But the same positive attributes are absent from muscular dominance, for it threatens to divide us from the rest of the West, insert us more deeply into an Islamic civil war, and exhaust the United States politically and economically, all the while distracting us from ensuring the economic foundations of world order.
The Chimera of Terrorism & Rogue States
As the evil genius behind September 11, Osama bin Laden deserves some acknowledgment for today's bilateral consensus in favor of the war on terrorism. But it is just as possible to argue that Osama bin Laden, whether wittingly or not, has set a strategic trap for the United States that emotionally, and indeed morally, has been very difficult to resist. After September 11, no politician or strategic thinker could be or would want to be considered soft on terrorism. Terrorism easily lends itself to worst-case thinking, which explains why it was so easy for the Bush administration to paint Saddam Hussein as part of the terrorist threat, even though it was not at all plausible that he would give weapons of mass destruction he probably did not possess to a group of terrorists that he himself despised and distrusted. It also lends itself to the blame game--no government official could survive blame for having failed to protect the country from a terrorist attack.
Thus it was understandable that in response to September 11, the Bush administration would eagerly and the Democrats somewhat more reluctantly embrace the war on terrorism. But it is one thing to be vigilant against terrorism and to expand international intelligence, police, and military cooperation to counter it, and quite another to make it the overriding preoccupation of American grand strategy and to redeploy American military, diplomatic, and economic resources accordingly.
The power of terrorism is just that: its ability to provoke disproportionately counterproductive and irrational responses that only make one less secure or less free in the long run. It is nearly impossible not to give into the temptation, but it is strategically wise not to do so. By virtually any rational standard, terrorism does not warrant a fullscale war, let alone to be the defining feature of American grand strategy.
In its annual report to Congress on terrorism, the State Department has acknowledged that terrorism is at its lowest level since 1969. In 2002, there were just 199 recorded terrorist incidents, none of which took place on American soil. In fact, as foreign policy columnist William Pfaff has noted, the overwhelming majority of the incidents occurred in four places: in Colombia, where the target was usually a U.S.-owned oil pipeline; in Chechnya, the site of a longstanding separatist war; in Afghanistan, where a low-scale war continues; and in Israel and the occupied territories, the result of the second Palestinian intifada and the Israeli crackdown. Even the classification of these incidents is subject to question, since they appear to be more the product of nationalist and separatist violence than they do the work of a global network of terrorists. (1)
An independent study of cross-border terrorism by Todd Sandler of the University of Southern California comes to similar conclusions. According to his study, the number of terrorist incidents has fallen markedly from the 1980s, from an average of more than 500 per year to fewer than 400 per year on average in the last decade. Indeed, only 29 percent of all terrorist attacks since 1968 have occurred since 1990. And while terrorism has become somewhat more deadly, it still causes far fewer deaths or casualties than other international phenomena, such as disease, famine, or war. Even including September 11, the average number of casualties per incident was just 3.6, while the average number of deaths was below 1.0. (2)
In short, the specter of a growing global terrorist threat that has been the central motivating force behind muscular dominance does not square with the facts. Yet since September 11, these widely divergent terrorist acts have become the rationale for a vast expansion of American military power as well as the war in Iraq, including the establishment of new bases across the arc of crisis from Central Asia to Southeast Asia. The central purpose of these new military operations has been, in the president's words, "to take the battle to the terrorists," to create a "forward defense" even more ambitious than the one devised against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The ultimate effect on American security of this new forward defense is open to debate. But it can be reasonably argued that by increasing the American military foot-print in a number of traditional yet troubled regions it will only expand the threat to American interests and American personnel. That in any case has been the lesson of American bases in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, and seems to be the case in Iraq too, where attacks on American soldiers continue to grow from a variety of sources. Ironically, one of the rationales for the Iraq war was to be able to move American bases from Saudi soil, in part because of their increasing vulnerability to terrorist attack. But Iraq may become the ultimate destination of choice for Islamic jihadists because it offers a target-rich environment in an Arab country where law and order is lacking. Thus, the end result of America's war on terrorism may be to increase the range of threats to American lives and interests well beyond the al-Qaeda network, almost ensuring that the number of terrorist acts will increase in the year ahead.
This is not to say that September 11 did not call for a forceful response against the al-Qaeda network. But the nature of the threat did not warrant reshaping American foreign policy priorities or expanding American military power in the Islamic world. As William Pfaff has argued, it is not clear how expanding America's already extensive system of bases will prevent the kind of terrorist attacks that were made against the United States, or might be made again. These attacks were carried out by small groups of highly motivated, politicized, and radicalized young men, living and operating mainly in Western urban settings. While they have had some logistical support from al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, such groups, as Pfaff points out, are not vulnerable to military attack from bases in Central Asia, or even Iraq. (3)
Before embarking on the war in Iraq, American policymakers would have done better to have recalled the old Confucious-like saying, "Never use a cannon to kill a mosquito." The most successful efforts to reign in the...