border security, Center for a New American Security, chattering classes, Daniel Benjamin, Daniel Henninger, foreign policy establishment, geopolitics, internationalism, ISIS, Middle East, neoconservatism, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Politico, terrorism, The Wall Street Journal, Trump
For me, one of the biggest reasons for optimism for 2017 is the election of a president ready and willing to kick over the obsolete crockery of American foreign policy and grand strategy. President-elect Trump still has to come up with his own comprehensive answers to the question, “What would come next?” His signature foreign policy speech of the campaign made that clear enough. It contained elements both of the genuine, nationalist, down-to-earth “America First” approach that I believe is urgently needed, and of the grandiose internationalist, even neoconservative blueprint that I believe must urgently be scrapped.
It’s entirely possible that this tension will complicate the new administration’s foreign policy for years to come. One reason is a simple as personnel. Because the nationalist bench is so thin, finding enough bodies to staff all the senior jobs that need to be filled will require Mr. Trump to rely on many conventional thinkers. Another has to do with the inherent difficulty of big transitions. Barring a catastrophe, they rarely happen overnight – and in many cases shouldn’t.
But because the challenge is so formidable, the overhaul effort can’t start too soon, and Americans have just received several reminders that the place to start is with fundamental geopolitics – and specifically, with my own observation that America’s immensely favorable location on the globe is an almost completely neglected diplomatic asset that Washington should try to capitalize and maximize, not seemingly intentionally squander. Put simply, those two oceans matter decisively, and coupled with the nation’s staggering treasure trove of resources and continental scale, argue compellingly for seeking progressively less, not more, global engagement. And as I’ve written, nowhere is this truer than regarding the fight against global terrorism.
In my view, little could be clearer or more promising for a geographically isolated country like the United States than the need to focus anti-ISIS etc efforts on keeping terrorists out of the country. Will a border enforcement-centric anti-terrorism policy work perfectly? Of course not. Is it a better bet for American security than pretending that even defeating ISIS will rid the dysfunctional Middle East of extremism forever, or even a few years? Or imagining that in any foreseeable future, that sad region can be turned into something other than a swamp for breeding more jihadism? That’s a total no-brainer.
But as indicated in a recent column by The Wall Street Journal‘s Daniel Henninger, America’s chattering classes have a long way to go in learning this lesson. According to Henninger, the terrorist attacks that have hit the United States lately show that “This is what it means to live as a target. What are we going to do about it? Wrap ourselves in two protective oceans?”
Moreover, a Google search quickly turned up a May report by the Center for a New American Security that reminds how deeply ingrained in the bipartisan American foreign policy establishment this belief is. According to the authors – described as “an extraordinary [and thoroughly bipartisan] group of scholars, practitioners, and journalists”:
“The best way to ensure the longevity of a rules-based international system [itself kind of a dicey notion that desperately needs rethinking] favorable to U.S. interests is not to retreat behind two oceans, lower American standards, or raise the tolerance level for risk. The proper course is to extend American power and U.S. leadership in Asia, Europe, and the Greater Middle East….”
Nonetheless, some reasons for optimism appeared last year as well. One of the most notable: An essay in Politico by Daniel Benjamin – a former Obama administration counter-terrorism official. Writing in March, Benjamin observed sagely that “While the jihadist threat is genuinely global, it is by no means equally distributed. ”
And one main reason cited by the author?
“The United States still has the blessing of geography—two oceans that mean that outside extremists will need to fly to get here. As we found on Christmas Day 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab tried to detonate his underwear on a flight bound for Detroit, our aviation security, no-fly lists and intelligence need constant updating. But we have made major strides. By contrast, Europe, with its weak external borders, nonexistent internal borders and a migrant crisis that has brought close to a million and a half migrants into its borders, faces multiplying perils.”
And although clearly the United States has decided to “fight the terrorists over there,” Benjamin perceptively observes that it’s also made notable progress securing the border:
“One big reason why the chances of a Brussels or Paris-like attack are lower here is that we’ve been working flat out to reduce the threat for almost 15 years, since 9/11. With one of the worst extremism problems in the West, Britain has gone hard at this as well. But the same cannot be said for our Continental cousins. The United States has spent upwards of $650 billion on homeland security since 9/11. No comparable European statistic exists, but judging by law enforcement, border security and other agency budgets, the overall figures are much lower.”
I’ve been careful to argue that these two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, and that one form of military operation in the Middle East can contribute significantly to U.S. security – at least until border controls are even stronger. That’s a campaign of anti-ISIS harassment, conducted through the air and with special forces on the ground, aimed at keeping the group off balance enough to prevent the consolidation of an Afghanistan-like base for staging September 11-scale attacks.
A somewhat larger scale anti-ISIS effort has made important progress in disrupting the group’s capabilities over the last year. But the victory will be pyrhhic if takeovers of terrorist strongholds like Mosul and Raqqa generate claims of “mission accomplished.” Benjamin is right to warn against U.S. complacency. But that’s likeliest to be prevented if the hard, unglamorous, continuing work of better securing the border moves to center stage in Washington’s anti-terrorism policy.