ISSN 2330-717X

America’s Default Setting – Analysis


When the US doesn’t know what else to do but politics seems to require some form of action, the US defaults to its military and intelligence capabilities.  This is really not a substitute for actual policy and without fitting into a comprehensive, sustained strategic framework usually makes things worse.

By Gerard M. Gallucci*

The Middle East from Libya through Afghanistan is in crisis with much of it in full chaos.  Instability generates worsening regional dynamics threatening wider war as well as a refugee flow on the verge of undoing a united Europe.  Russian President Putin recently placed the blame for much of this on the United States and he has a point (although Russia’s own intervention in Syria is unlikely by itself to achieve any positive result).  Since the end of the Cold War, America – and therefore the West in general – has been adrift without any overall strategy for helping to maintain world peace and achieve greater and more equitable prosperity.  As the West benefits most from the current world order, this strategic vacuum threatens its own security and continued prosperity.

The Cold War gave purpose to US national security policy, made it simple.  Whatever the Soviets were doing, the US had to be there doing the opposite.  This “strategy” governed US foreign policy from Latin America, through Europe, Africa and the Middle East and into Southwest and Southeast Asia.  After the Cold War ended, American policy drifted rudderless until regional crises of ethnic conflict pushed it into dealing episodically with peacemaking (limited interventions), peacekeeping (mostly through passing the job to the UN) and reaffirmed support (mostly verbal and selective) for democracy and human rights.

Meanwhile, the US continued to maintain – at great expense – the world’s largest and most technically advanced military.  This was domestically popular and generated jobs.  It also generated political support for all those politicians who championed a “strong military.”  Despite apparent intelligence community failures, including 9/11 and false Iraq WMD estimates, its budget – mostly contained in that of the Department of Defense – tops up over $600 billion per year.  For various reasons, there was little corresponding support for a robust foreign policy and the political class did not bestow the same resources on its foreign affairs mechanisms.

With 9/11, Washington was handed another simplifying “strategy” to guide its national security policy, the “global fight against terrorism.”  The US would track down terrorists wherever they were and take down the regimes that provided them support.  This led to armed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq (though the intelligence linking Saddam to Al-Qaeda was false) and eventually Libya.  Syria had long been an on-again, off-again partner of the US.  But the “human rights” strain of American policy – led astray by notions of a supposed “Arab Spring” – led Wahington to encourage opponents of Assad the Younger into armed revolt.  The same caused the US to abandon longtime Egyptian ally Hosni Mubarak only to see his eventual replacement with a more brutal version.  The net effect was the regional chaos (and refugee flows) that Putin was talking about.

Washington has rarely used diplomacy to deal with its perceived security challenges.  The recent successful negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program is a welcome exception.  President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are to be congratulated for seeing the wisdom in working with allies and Russia and keeping at it until reaching an agreement.  Obama took a political risk in this because of the strong resistance in much of the American political class to accepting diplomatic outcomes when military options seem more direct.  But in part, the opposition to the Iran deal resulted from Obama’s own failure to articulate a clear guiding strategy for US foreign policy beyond that of avoiding “stupid” wars.  Avoiding stupid wars is a good idea.  But without a political and strategic vision for going beyond that to deal more comprehensively with the many challenges of the 21st Century, America falls back to its default setting relying on a panoply of military and intelligence approaches.

This default setting includes direct military intervention on the ground (Afghanistan and Iraq), bombing from the air (Serbia, Libya and now Syria), drones and paramilitary operations (various places), overt and covert support (equipment and training to proxy actors) and massive electronic spying on everyone.  When the US doesn’t know what else to do but politics seems to require some form of action, the US defaults to its military and intelligence capabilities.  This is really not a substitute for actual policy and without fitting into a comprehensive, sustained strategic framework usually makes things worse.  In Syria right now, the US seems clueless.  Russia – at whatever future cost it will have to pay – has reportedly blunted advances recently made by rebels receiving support through the CIA.  There clearly must be a political and diplomatic approach to resolving the Syria crisis that will somehow include Assad and perhaps even the Caliphate (or at least the former Baathists within it).

The range of ways for dealing with the Other goes from seeking to understand him to trying to kill him.  America’s default setting consists of the cluster of approaches at the killing end of the spectrum.  Diplomacy begins with trying to understand the Other and then finding ways to influence his perceptions, interests and behavior and perhaps gain mutually acceptable arrangements.  America needs to make up its mind about what kind of world it wishes to live in and how it can best get there.  This will require thinking hard about what the rest of the world wants and how we can all work it out together with the least amount of conflict and lingering resentments.

*Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He now works as an independent consultant and as adjunct professor for national security policy at the Daniel Morgan Academy in Washington, DC.

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TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

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