By Adam Wunische
The unrivaled and unchallenged exertion of American military power around the world, or what’s known as “primacy,” has been the basis for U.S. Grand Strategy over the past 70 years and has faced few intellectual and political challenges. The result has been stagnant ideas, poor logic, and an ineffective foreign policy. As global security challenges have evolved, our foreign policy debate has remained in favor of primacy, repeatedly relying on a select few, poorly conceived ideas and arguments. Primacy’s greatest hits arguments are played on repeat throughout the policy and journalism worlds and its latest presentation is in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, written by its chief foreign policy correspondent, titled, “America Can’t Escape the Middle East.” The piece provides a case study in how stagnant these ideas have become, and how different actors throughout the system present them without serious thought or contemplation.
Hyping the threat of withdrawal
The WSJ piece trotted out one of the most well-worn cases for unending American military deployments in the region. “The 2003 invasion of Iraq proved to be a debacle,” it rightly notes. However, there’s always a “but”:[B]ut subsequent attempts to pivot away from the region or ignore it altogether have contributed to humanitarian catastrophes, terrorist outrages and geopolitical setbacks, further eroding America’s standing in the world.”
Primacists often warn of the dire security threats that will result from leaving Middle East conflict zones. The reality is that the threats they cite are actually caused by the unnecessary use of force by the United States in the first place. For example, the U.S. sends military assets to deter Iran, only to have Iran increase attacks or provocations in response. The U.S. then beefs up its military presence to protect the forces that are already there. Primacists use the security threats that are responding to the unnecessary use of U.S. military force to justify why the U.S. shouldn’t stop, or in fact increase, the use of force.
These stale arguments claim there will be consequences of leaving while conveniently ignoring the consequences of staying, which of course are far from trivial. For example, veteran suicide is an epedemic and military spending to perpetuate U.S. primacy continues at unecessarily high rates. The presence of U.S. soldiers in these complex conflicts can even draw us into more unnecessary wars. The United States can engage the world in ways that don’t induce the security dilemma to undermine our own security; reduce our military presence in the Middle East, engage Iran and other states in the region diplomatically and economically, and don’t walk away from already agreed upon diplomatic arraignments that are favorable to all parties involved.
Terrorism safe havens
And how many times have we heard that we must defend some undefined geographical space to prevent extremists from plotting attacks? “In the past, jihadists used havens in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Iraq to plot more ambitious and deadly attacks, including 9/11,” the WSJ piece says. “Though Islamic State’s self-styled ‘caliphate’ has been dismantled, the extremist movement still hasn’t been eliminated—and can bounce back.”
The myth of the terrorism safe havens enabling transnational attacks on the United States has persisted despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and significant scholarly research that contradicts it. The myth persists because it provides a simple and comforting narrative that’s easy to understand. September 11th was planned in Germany and the United States, the ability to exist in Afghanistan under the Taliban without persecution didn’t enable 9/11, and denying this space wouldn’t have prevented it.
Terrorists don’t need safe havens to operate, and only gain marginal increases in capabilities by having access to them. Organizations engage in terrorism because they have such weak capabilities in the first place. These movements are designed to operate underground with the constant threat of arrest and execution. The Weatherman Underground in the United States successfully carried out bombings while operating within the United States itself. The Earth Liberation Front did the same by organizing into cells where no cell knew anything about the other cells to prevent the identification of other members if members of one cell were arrested. Organizations that engage in terrorism can operate with or without safe havens.
Although safe havens don’t add significantly to a terrorist groups’ capabilities, governing your own territory is something completely different. ISIS is a commonly used, and misused, example for why wars should be fought to deny safe havens. A safe haven is a country or region in which a terrorist group is free from harassment or persecution. This is different from what ISIS created in 2014. What ISIS had when it swept across Syria and Iraq in 2014 was a proto-state. This gave them access to a tax base, oil revenues, and governing resources. Safe havens don’t provide any of this, at least not at substantial levels. The Islamic State’s construction of a proto-state in Syria and Iraq did give them operational capabilities they wouldn’t have had otherwise, but this isn’t the same as the possible safe havens that would be gained from a military withdrawal from Middle Eastern conflicts. The conditions of ISIS’s rise in 2014 don’t exist today and the fears of an ISIS resurgence like their initial rise are unfounded.
Credibility doesn’t work how you think it works
For those arguing to maintain the ongoing forever wars, American credibility will always be ruined in the aftermath of withdrawal. Here’s the WSJ piece on that point: “When America withdraws from the Middle East unilaterally, the Russians internalize this and move into Crimea and Ukraine; the Chinese internalize it and move into the South China Sea and beyond in the Pacific.”
Most commentators have made this claim without recognition of their own contradictions that abandoning the Kurds in Syria would damage American credibility. They then list all the other times we’ve abandoned the Kurds. Each of these betrayals didn’t stop them from working with the United States again, and this latest iteration will be the same. People don’t work with the United States because they trust or respect us, they do it because we have a common interest and the United States has the capability to get things done. As we were abandoning the Kurds this time to be attacked by the Turks, Kurdish officials were continuing to share intelligence with U.S. officials to facilitate the raid on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi because both the United States and the Kurds wanted Baghdadi eliminated and only the United States had the capability to get it done.
Similarly, the idea that pulling out militarily in one region results in a direct chain of events where our adversaries move into countries or areas in a completely different region is quite a stretch of the imagination. Russia moved into Crimea because it’s a strategic asset and it was taking advantage of what it saw as an opportunity: instability and chaos in Kiev. Even if we left troops in every conflict country we’ve ever been in, Russia would have correctly assessed that Ukraine just wasn’t important enough to spark a U.S. invasion. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, did the United States invade Cuba? What alliance did the Soviets or Chinese abandon before the United States entered the Korean War? Assessments of credibility, especially in times of crisis (like that in Ukraine), are made based on what leaders think the other country’s interests are and the capabilities they have to pursue those interests. There is no evidence to support—in fact there is a lot of evidence that contradicts—the idea that withdrawing militarily from one region or ending an alliance has any impact on assessments of a country’s reliability or credibility.
Not all interests are created equal
Threat inflation isn’t just common from those who promote a primacy-based foreign policy, it’s necessary. Indeed, as the WSJ piece claimed, “There is no avoiding the fact that the Middle East still matters a great deal to U.S. interests.”
The exorbitant costs of the U.S.’s numerous military engagements around the world need to be justified by arguing that they secure vital U.S. interests. Without it, Primacists couldn’t justify the cost in American lives. Whether the military even has the ability to solve all problems in international relations aside, not all interests are equal in severity and importance. Vital interests are those that directly impact the survival of the United States. The only thing that can threaten the survival of the United States is another powerful state consolidating complete control of either Europe or East Asia. This would give them the capabilities and freedom to strike directly at the territorial United States. This is why the United States stayed in Europe after WWII, to prevent the consolidation of Europe by the Soviets. Addressing the rise of China—which will require some combination of cooperation and competition—is America’s vital interest today and keeping troops in Afghanistan to prevent a terrorism safe haven barely registers as a peripheral interest. There are U.S. interests in the Middle East, but these interests are not important enough to sacrifice American soldiers for and can’t easily be secured through military force anyway.
Most of these myths and arguments can be summarized by the claim that any disengagement of any kind by the United States from the Middle East comes with consequences. This isn’t entirely wrong, but it isn’t really relevant either unless compared with the consequences of continuing engagement at current levels. We currently have 67,000 troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan and those troops are targets of adversaries, contribute to instability, empower hardliners in Iran, and provide continuing legitimacy to insurgent and terrorist organizations fighting against a foreign occupation. One article in The Atlantic argued that the problem with a progressive foreign policy is that restraint comes with costs, almost ironically ignoring the fact that the U.S.’s current foreign policy also comes with, arguably greater, costs. A military withdrawal, or even drawdown, from the Middle East does come with consequences, but it’s only believable that these costs are higher than staying through the perpetuation of myths and misconceptions that inflate such risks and costs. No wonder then that these myths have become the greatest hits of a foreign policy that’s stuck in the past.
Adam Wunische is a researcher covering Afghanistan and Pakistan with the Quincy Institute. He is also a PhD candidate at Boston College and an instructor at the George Washington University teaching classes on international security and military effectiveness. He served in the U.S. Army and completed two deployments to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamWunische.