by Jim Lobe
Late last month, I published a post entitled “Hillary’s Foreign Policy: A Liberal-Neoconservative Convergence?” that featured the announcement of a new report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) to be rolled out May 16. I was traveling that day, so I missed the formal launch and only got around to reading the report this past weekend.
It was even worse than what I had anticipated.
The report, entitled “Extending American Power: Strategies to Expand U.S. Engagement in a Competitive World Order,” is based on the deliberations of a bipartisan task force of 10 senior members of the foreign policy establishment augmented by six dinner discussions with invited issue and regional “experts.” The task force was co-chaired by former Assistant Secretary of State (under Madeleine Albright) Jamie Rubin and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Bob Kagan, who also apparently doubled as the principal co-authors.
Others, far more expert and experienced in grand strategy, will no doubt comment about the report’s overall analysis and implications. (Indeed, Daniel Davis, who characterized the report as “neoconservative,” despite the participation of Clintonite liberal interventionists like Rubin, Julianne Smith, Michele Flournoy, and former top Clinton aide, James Steinberg, has already done so at the National Interest website, and I am expecting Steve Walt to eviscerate it at his Foreign Policy blog. [It appeared Thursday here.) But both the liberal super-interventionist Washington Post editorial board (“It will demand courage and difficult decisions to save the liberal international order”) and the thoroughly neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), which sent out key excerpts to its followers Monday morning, have endorsed the report. So, this bears out my prediction that the report will effect a convergence between those two parts of the foreign-policy establishment.
The question, of course, is whether this convergence is where Hillary Clinton would put herself if she were elected president. I suspect so; she just can’t afford to say so given the electorate’s persistent war-weariness and its increasingly negative views on international trade agreements. As I pointed out in the earlier report, Flournoy may have a lock on the Pentagon, and Steinberg was one of Clinton’s closest advisers when she was secretary of state.
You can read the report yourself for details, but a few general observations before I move on to its Middle East section which I found truly blinkered, not to mention scary, may be in order.
- The entire report constitutes a criticism of both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. As Rubin put it in introducing the report, “There was a sense [among the participants] that, for the last 16 years, the United States has been in a state of [either] overreach or under-reach.”
- In all 22 pages of the report, which is all about how to maintain and expand the “rules-based international order,” there is not a single mention of the United Nations. The word “multilateral” also fails to make an appearance.
- Those omissions, as well as the report’s virtually exclusive focus on Eurasia, struck me at times as a kind of softer version of the notorious 1992 draft Defense Policy Guidance (DPG) prepared under then-Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and denounced at the time by then-Sen. Joe Biden as a “Pax Americana.” In recalling the golden age of American internationalism, the report notes, for example, that, “…[President] Truman’s achievements were the fulfilment of a grand strategy based on the idea that no adversary should be allowed to gain control of the preponderant resources of Europe or Asia in peacetime or wartime.” Of course, the DPG was based on the explicit premise that the U.S. must prevent or preempt the possibility that a peer rival to challenge U.S. military supremacy could emerge anywhere in Eurasia. Here’s the language of the new report: “From a resurgent Russia to a rising China that is challenging the rules-based international order to chaos and the struggle for power in the Middle East, the United States needs a force that can flex across several different mission sets and prevail…” Although the language here is not as clear as the DPG in terms of the necessity of maintaining unquestioned military superiority to deter or overcome any possible challenge to it in Eurasia, the spirit of the document seems quite consistent with the one that created such a scandal 25 years ago. “…[T]he task of preserving a world order is both difficult and never-ending,” the report concludes, echoing the DPG’s view that the maintenance of global peace and security rests squarely on Washington’s shoulders and no one else’s.
- Although the report consistently gives lip service to “strengthening all the elements of American power: diplomatic, economic, and military,” it’s abundantly clear that building up the military worldwide is Priority Number One. And it’s not a question of available financial or budgetary resources, according to the group. It’s a matter of political “will”— a neocon obsession for the last 40 years.
- Although Russia is depicted as an irredeemable adversary that must be confronted on virtually every front—from the Baltics to Ukraine to Syria—the report repeatedly insists that Washington should encourage China’s “peaceful rise” and “facilitate [its] continued integration with the international economy so as to blunt its historical fears of ‘containment.’” Nonetheless, Washington should substantially increase its military capabilities and presence around China—by, for example, forging “new defense partnerships with the Philippines or Vietnam” and India (which the authors see as a major new geopolitical trump card for Washington) as “the best way to demonstrate its determination to continue enforcing a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific region.” How this may blunt China’s historical fears of containment is not explained other than to assert that “[h]istory suggests” that rising powers will be deterred from challenging the reigning hegemon when confronted with decisive military power and the “will” to use it.
- At two points in the report, the authors explicitly reject the notion of an “off-shore balancing strategy” in any part of Eurasia. Those hundreds of overseas bases we maintain obviously cannot be given up lest the U.S. be seen as retreating into isolation and plunging the world into chaos.
On the Middle East
As to the Greater Middle East, four regional “experts” were brought in to brief the task force at one of their dinners: former Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs (and founding director of the AIPAC spin-off, the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs, or WINEP) Martin Indyk; Elliott Abrams, W’s top Middle East adviser and perennial Netanyahu defender; Dennis Ross, a WINEP Distinguished Fellow who has often been described as “Israel’s lawyer” among fellow U.S. diplomats involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations; and Vali Nasr, an Iranian American who serves as dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Needless to say, with the exception of Nasr, this group of “experts” was not particularly diverse. Nor, with the possible exception of Nasr, is it likely that any of them speaks Arabic, which is pretty remarkable when you consider that Arabic is the primary language of the overwhelming majority of the people who inhabit the region in which we are asked to believe the four are “expert.”
On the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), the report’s recommendations as a whole are unsurprising. They called for a substantial scaling up of the international effort to “uproot” IS from wherever it operates with the U.S. in the lead by “increasing significantly its military contribution across the board…” – a process which the Obama administration appears to be applying already.
Similarly on Syria, Washington must “establish a more stable military balance” by giving a much higher priority to arming, training, and protecting a “substantial Syrian opposition force” and by creating a “an appropriately designed no-fly zone” to create a safe space for opposition civilians and fighters “in much the same way that it did for the Kurds in Northern Iraq after the first Gulf War.” Moreover, to “complement these and other efforts, it is also essential to assist in the formation of a Sunni alternative to ISIS and the Assad regime,” according to the report, which fails completely to address what to do about Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s powerful affiliate in Syria, or how minority Alawites, Shiites, and Christians might react to such a “Sunni alternative.” This strategy is not only supposed to lead to a political settlement that will result in Assad’s departure but also succeed in reducing the flow of refugees seeking safe haven in Europe. The authors unfortunately also fail to address the length of time that will be required to achieve these goals.
Unsurprisingly, any new administration must, according to the report, “make absolutely clear that the U.S. commitment to the security of the State of Israel is unshakeable now and in the future [emphasis added],” presumably despite the continuing rightward trajectory it appears to be on (former Prime Minister Ehud Barak called it “fascist(ic)” a few days ago). On Israel-Palestine, the task force effectively reaffirms the failed policy of the past 20 years by insisting that the “the United State can play an important role in assisting the two parties to move forward toward [a two-state] agreement, but only when both sides are ready, willing, and able to negotiate in good faith and to make and abide by the necessary compromises.” Bibi Netanyahu couldn’t be more pleased.
But it’s clear that the overriding concern of the task force in the region is Iran, which is generally depicted as just as irredeemable as Russia if not more so. On the positive side, the task force doesn’t propose tearing up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) but instead argues for a “hard-nosed enforcement strategy” combined with “stronger efforts to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout the region, from its support to terrorist groups like Hezbollah to its efforts to sow instability in the Sunni Arab states.” From there, the authors’ undisguised hostility toward Tehran pours forth with specific policy recommendations that, frankly, could have been written as a joint paper submitted by Saudi Arabia and Israel with the overriding goal of “defeating Iran’s determined effort to dominate the Greater Middle East.” Here’s the whole passage:
As a starting point, Iran’s continued effort to modernize its ballistic missile capabilities should not proceed without consequences. Existing law calls for sanctioning those responsible for modernization activities specifically prohibited by U.N. Security Council resolutions. The administration should demonstrate its resolve by continuing to impose such sanctions as necessary regardless of Iranian threats to unravel the nuclear accord.
In recent years, Iran, working with local Shiite allies, has gained significant influence in several Middle East countries. It is the primary backer of Bashar Assad in Syria, where it now deploys substantial military forces; it maintains strong ties with the Shiite-led government in Iraq; it provides weapons and support to Houthi rebels in Yemen; and it exercises substantial power in Lebanon through Hezbollah. With Russia’s recent military intervention alongside Iran in support of the Assad regime in Damascus, Tehran’s power has only increased further.
In light of these destabilizing developments, the United States must adopt as a matter of policy the goal of defeating Iran’s determined effort to dominate the Greater Middle East. To respond to this regional challenge and to ensure an effective enforcement strategy for the nuclear agreement, the United States must strengthen its policy in several respects.
First, Tehran should understand that Washington is not expecting the nuclear agreement to lead to a changed relationship with the government of Iran. The nuclear agreement should not be linked to Tehran’s expectation of some kind of détente or broader opening to the United States. If Iran chooses to change its dangerous policies toward the region, Washington will welcome such changes. But that is not part of the accord, and the prospect of such change will not affect U.S. determination to guard against any violation of the agreement, large or small.
Second, Washington’s declaratory policy should reflect the fact that the United States is now, and will always be, determined to deter Iran from becoming a full-fledged nuclear weapon state. This is not a partisan matter. Whether Republican or Democrat, the next president of the United States will not hesitate to respond with military power should Iran attempt to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Third, the United States should adopt a comprehensive strategy, employing an appropriate mix of military, economic, and diplomatic resources, to undermine and defeat Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Greater Middle East. Whether in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, or Bahrain, Tehran’s advances and longer-term ambitions should be regarded as a threat to stability that it is in the U.S. interest to counter and deter.
The next administration must make abundantly clear that it has no interest in pursuing an off-shore balancing strategy, such as the “new equilibrium” some have suggested, which envisages a significant U.S. military drawdown from the region. On the contrary, the Persian Gulf should be deemed a region of vital interest to the security of the United States. As such, U.S. military forces in the region should be sufficient to ensure the security of Gulf allies and the Strait of Hormuz against potential Iranian aggression. At the same time, Gulf allies should have access to sufficient defense articles and services to deter Tehran even if U.S. forces are not present or immediately available to assist.
We also reject Iran’s attempt to blame others for regional tensions it is aggravating, as well as its public campaign to demonize the government of Saudi Arabia.
Now, this last sentence is pretty rich, given the very public efforts made by the Saudis to demonize Iran. As to responsibility for regional tensions, it’s the Saudis, after all, who effectively invaded Bahrain to sustain a Sunni monarchy in the face of demands for democratic reform by the Shia majority, who sponsored the counter-revolution against the Arab Spring, have been supporting radical Sunni groups in Syria and Iraq, and have led an extremely destructive military campaign that has probably tipped Yemen, which was already on the brink of failed statehood, into a humanitarian catastrophe and disintegration. On the question of threats to stability in the region, it would seem that the kingdom is at least the equal of Iran at the moment.
The Problem with the Kingdom
To be sure, the report doesn’t totally absolve the Saudis but suggests instead that its sins lie mainly in the past. It goes on:
That is not to excuse past activities of key allies like Saudi Arabia that have facilitated the rise of jihadi terrorist organizations and their supporters. On the contrary, as a consequence of their financing of efforts to spread Wahhabism to mosques and madrassas all over the Islamic world, Saudi elites, official and private, bear much responsibility for the growth of extremist ideologies that promote intolerance and Jihadi terrorism. While we applaud the Saudi law enforcement and intelligence work that has been directed against ISIS, al Qaeda, and others in recent years, the Saudi leadership should nevertheless devote equivalent efforts and resources to counter all the groups its support helped to radicalize in the first place.
Talk about a slap on the wrist! Perhaps the task force would like to take a look at The New York Times front-page feature Sunday, entitled “Making Kosovo Fertile Ground for ISIS: Saudi Aid Transforms a Tolerant Society Under U.S. Watch.” Seems pretty current to me.
What is remarkable here is the deeply embedded assumption that Riyadh is an ally, if perhaps a little wayward at times. Such an ally must be defended (and sold billions and billions of dollars of weapons it doesn’t know how to use effectively), presumably as a “vital interest to the security of the United States,” against alleged Iranian aggression and hegemonic designs. Conversely, there is absolutely no recognition in the report that Tehran and Washington may have common interests in, say, Afghanistan or Iraq. No acknowledgment that the turmoil in which the entire region has been caught up may require a new security structure in which, in Obama’s words, Tehran and Riyadh “find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”
As noted above, I’ll leave the rest to others more knowledgeable about grand strategy, but this part about Iran and the Gulf strikes me as almost bizarre and, in any event, very dangerous. That some of those responsible for this report could become top policy-makers in a Clinton administration is pretty scary.
Meanwhile, to the extent that this report represents its institutional views, CNAS deserves a new name: Center for an Outdated American Security.
Photo: Robert Kagan, Robert Zoelick, Kurt Campbell, Michele Flournoy, and Jamie Rubin (via Julianne Smith/Twitter)