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America’s Strategic Mess Is Creating A Dangerous Void – OpEd

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By Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib*

While most observers were expecting a breakdown following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the world was amazed at the speed with which the prophecy was fulfilled.

Some say it was a mistake, but the truth is that when the same mistake happens more than once, it is no longer a mistake but a flaw in decision making — and the US decision-making process has been majorly flawed because it lacks an overarching strategic framework. So, even when the US scores a win, it is limited and short-lived.

Policies are crafted in a haphazard manner driven by partisanship. Barack Obama wanted to stop the war his predecessor started. His decisions catered more to public fatigue with the fighting than to the advice of his generals on the ground. Moreover, he wanted to be true to his campaign promise.

Obama sensed the general mood. The American people were fed up sending their young men and women to Iraq, and felt increasingly disturbed by America’s deteriorating image around the world, especially since there were no weapons of mass destruction, the main reason behind the war.

But, in fact, the so-called surge worked well, reconciliations were made, violence was reduced, order was established, and reconstruction was carried out and paid for by Iraqi oil. However, the layman did not see this, and Obama catered to the average American preferences rather than to the overall national interest. The US withdrawal, conducted hastily and with no proper security structure put in place before consolidating the gains of the surge, led to the rise of Daesh.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, rode the anti-Obama wave. He wanted to undo everything his predecessor did and, in turn, Joe Biden is working on dismantling all of Trump’s policies. One might argue that a reset every four or eight years is a good thing, allowing a periodic review of policy.

However, this review is rarely, if ever, based on strategic considerations. Instead it is based on populism, as in the case of Obama’s decision to withdraw prematurely from Iraq, or on a personal grudge, as in the decisions by Biden and Trump to undo the work of their predecessors.

That is why there is no consistency in any policy. Decisions are taken in the hope of immediate solutions or pseudo-solutions, regardless of their long-term effects. During the Cold War, different presidents had less leverage on policy since they were bound by a strategic framework around which there was a political and popular consensus: Containment of communism. An overarching strategy guided US policy and, hence, there was consistency. The US wanted its allies or so-called allies to be stable and prosperous in order to prevent communism from spreading. Nation-building was a strategic necessity. The Marshall Plan that followed the Second World War did not come out of a void but was based on an overall strategy of confronting communism.

A bipolar world was much more orderly than the unipolar world we witness today. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has not found a foe from which it can derive a strategic framework for its policies. China, Russia and Iran are in no way a replacement for the Soviet Union.

China might become a replacement further down the road if it adopts a more assertive foreign policy. However, so far, it is mainly looking after its economic interests around the world and has not shown that it is seeking to export its communist model.

Iran has an anti-US ideology, but its reach is restricted to the Middle East, unlike the Soviet Union, which sponsored communist regimes around the world. Russia, on the other hand, has overplayed its capacity, and has been able to flex it muscle only to fill the void the US willingly left.

As a result, there is no genuine existential threat that offers the US a basis for its foreign policy. During the Cold War, the average American saw in the communist expansion in Africa or Asia a direct danger to his Midwest hometown, but today the average American does not share the same worldview. There is no clear existential threat that can define the national interest. The 9/11 attacks created an existential threat as terrorism reached the US mainland and, hence, world affairs became of central importance.

However, the sentiment created by the terror strikes cannot be compared to general perception of communism. To start with, terrorism is a fluid concept, Osama Bin Laden was one man, and Al-Qaeda is a clandestine organization, unlike the Soviet Union, which was a well-defined country with clear objectives as well as a strong conventional army and a nuclear arsenal.

The absence of an existential threat means there is less interest and engagement in world affairs, and US foreign policy is reduced to optics.

This is severely affecting stability around the globe. Despite the criticism Biden is facing for his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, the reality is that the US is bound to make similar mistakes since it has no strategic foundation for its decision-making process. Each president wants to take decisions that improve his rating in the hope of winning a successive term.

However, policy stops at that — it is not deep-rooted and has no real substance. Biden’s slogan is that America is back, but America is more absent than ever. Despite former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s efforts to re-establish American “swagger,” Trump’s policy was more isolationist than all of his predecessors’ approaches and the trend will likely continue.

As the US loses interest in world affairs, more decisions like the withdrawal from Afghanistan are likely to be made. At best the US will work to mitigate some of their effects. But policy most likely will continue to be crafted in a piecemeal manner, with no strategy underpinning it. With this flawed decision-making process, we are likely to see more chaos as the US withdraws from the world scene without putting a viable alternative in place to fill the void it leaves behind.

Unless a game-changer in world affairs alters the current trend in foreign policy, more curtailment is inevitable while the US struggles to maintain the appearance of a great power.

  • Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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