As the Washington Post‘s Michael Gerson and his fellow pundits have no doubt learned, they’ve got the greatest jobs in the world. They can write the most vapidly unoriginal – and indeed downright foolish – columns and still not only get handsomely paid, but serve the socially useful purpose of pithily summarizing the conventional wisdom of the (FILL IN DESIRED TIME PERIOD).
That’s why the former George W. Bush speechwriter’s September 8 article is so important, especially in the run up to President Obama’s scheduled speech tonight on defeating (I assume) the threat of ISIS terrorists. Gerson’s contribution? Reminding readers that whatever military measures the president decides on, they will be totally consistent with the principle that has shaped American foreign policy since Pearl Harbor: “We fight ’em there, so we don’t face ’em here.”
Gerson no doubt views the merits of this approach as glaringly obvious – as does the rest of the thoroughly bipartisan American foreign policy establishment. And the nation’s experience over the last seven decades, along with simple common sense, does seem to vindicate the wisdom of engaging America’s enemies far from U.S soil rather than on it. Strangely, however, the real lessons of U.S. foreign policy during and after the Cold War are much more complicated.
For example, escalating the Vietnam War was universally justified with the Domino Theory, which also held that if we didn’t fight ‘em there, we’d face ‘em here. Nowadays, almost everyone realizes that the Vietnamese communists were never interested in coming here.
The story of U.S. alliances, especially NATO, shows how the “fight ‘em there” rationale could boomerang disastrously, at least in theory. American NATO strategy during the Cold War was to indeed fight the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies in Europe, to prevent them from launching an attack on the United States – at some point. But there was always a big problem: The European allies were never keen on having their homelands devastated in yet another massive conventional military conflict. They greatly preferred that a war literally be fought over their heads – by the United States and Soviet Union lobbing intercontinental nuclear missiles at each other.
As a result, however, the allies also continually reminded Washington that a way was needed to deter a Soviet attack in the first place by convincing Moscow that the United States really would sacrifice New York to save Paris. The solution U.S. leaders came up with was creating a tripwire – whose setting off would automatically bring Armageddon. The “device” chosen was the stationing not only of several U.S. troops, but their families, in harm’s way.
The plan made the most sense when the United States held clearcut nuclear superiority over the Soviets – even though Washington never told the public that alliance policy was based on denying America any choice in the matter of waging all-out nuclear war (i.e., of “facing ‘em here”). When this nuclear superiority was lost, the plan made a lot less sense from the American standpoint, and the United States and NATO’s European members spent literally decades trying to square the deterrence/warfighting circle.
And even though the Cold War is long over, the United States has been maintaining the same kind of tripwire in South Korea – greatly increasing the odds that American territory will feel the effects of “fighting ‘em there” despite the complete absence of any other threat from Pyongyang to the United States itself.
The successful campaign fought after 9-11 by the United States to oust the Taliban from power in Afghanistan seems a classic example of the need to “fight ‘em there” to prevent them from coming here in the form of a new terror strike. Deprived of its Afghan sanctuary and hounded by American and allied forces, Al Qaeda has lost for the time being its ability to mount anything like this operation. Even though U.S. efforts to nation-build in Afghanistan predictably flopped, the rout of the Taliban, and its successful harassment campaign so far, constitute a major military victory.
But the (continuing) need for combat operations in Afghanistan also makes clear that the “fight ‘em there” — and everywhere they might pop up — strategy suffers from major shortcomings. And its flaws become all the more important upon recognizing that, although the U.S. foreign policy establishment seems completely clueless on this point, the nation has vastly superior alternatives, at least in principle.
For “fighting ‘em there” is a strategy that depends on much over which the U.S. government has little control, and cannot hope to have significantly greater control: for starters, public opinion in a region that is deeply hostile to America and the West, as well as economically and socially backward; the byzantine and typically cutthroat domestic politics of prospective regional allies; their equally byzantine and cutthroat external rivalries. And let’s not forget that the Middle East is halfway around the world from the American homeland. Ditto for whatever other failed states might generate or host a large-scale terrorist threat.
Geography in particular is telling American leaders that a much better strategy would focus on variables over which Washington unmistakably has much greater control: for example, the security of its own borders, which could and should be tightened substantially to deny terrorists access. In other words, whatever successes these forces achieve “there” would matter much less to Americans if they’re simply not able to come “here.” If we’re worried about extremists gaining more control over Middle East oil supplies – as we should be – our own energy policy should be much easier to control that waging war thousands of miles from our shores. And if we fear that these challenges are still too difficult to meet in the near future, we should become that much more determined to start rising to them ASAP.
In the meantime, some form of military response to ISIS is essential. (I presented a brief description on Monday.) But over the longer-term, American leaders need to realize that “degree of control” matters at least as much for Middle East success as “fighting ‘em there” — and everywhere. I strongly doubt that President Obama will even mention this point in passing tonight. Therefore, I strongly doubt that he’ll be able to avoid plunging the nation into another Middle East quagmire.