The Price of Overstretch

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“Everything in strategy is very simple,” Carl von Clausewitz wrote almost two centuries ago, “but that does not mean that everything is very easy.” The author of On War said it is easy to chart the course of a war once begun, but “great strength of character, as well as great lucidity and firmness of mind, is required in order to follow through steadily,” and not to be thrown off course by numerous diversions.

Over two decades in these pages we have often lamented the absence of grand-strategic reasoning in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Ever since the end of the Cold War, successive administrations have displayed a chronic unwillingness or inability to use America’s enormous resources in a balanced and proportionate manner, in order to protect and enhance her realistically articulated interest. Bipartisan fixation on global primacy has resulted in the Iraqi debacle, the Afghan quagmire, and other avoidable crises—most recently in Venezuela—which are injurious to American security, reputation and well-being.

In January 2017 it appeared Donald Trump could resuscitate the national-interest-based paradigm which had commendably guided much of America’s foreign policy until the end of the Cold War. His victory was partly due to his opposition, during the campaign, to the bipartisan dogma of full-spectrum dominance. 

Almost three years later, Trump’s many compromises with the upholders of the old orthodoxy have led to his across-the-board retreat. The military-industrial complex has more lucrative contracts than ever. Instead of leaving what the president has termed an “obsolete” NATO, the U.S. supports its further eastward expansion. America’s relations with Russia are worse than at any time since Reagan’s first term, and handing Crimea to Ukraine—an impossible demand—is now a formal precondition for improved relations with Moscow. A war against Iran is a distinct possibility, for no rational reason and with likely calamitous consequences. The regime-change experiment in Venezuela has turned into an embarrassing farce.

Even within the flawed grand-strategic paradigm of global hegemony, which lamentably remains operational, it is possible to display a degree of skill in prioritizing and sequencing American “engagements.” In other words, it is possible to pursue an unreasonable strategy in a rational manner. The Trump team seems unable to function competently, however, even at the level of operational efficiency. It is aggressively trying to manage various pressure points around the world at the same time.

The U.S. will no longer “tiptoe” around Chinese behavior in Asia, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced in Singapore in June, suggesting that Beijing’s policies threatened stability in the region from the South China Sea to Taiwan. “Behavior that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end,” he said. Ten days earlier the USS Preble had sailed by the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, prompting an angry response from Beijing.

Talks between Venezuela’s government and its opposition opened in Norway’s capital Oslo on May 24. The dialogue started after an army uprising and street protests, which U.S.-supported opposition leader Juan Guaid? hoped would bring down Maduro, fizzled out on April 30. The U.S. response was remarkable. “The only thing to negotiate with Nicolas Maduro is the conditions of his departure,” a State Department spokeswoman declared on May 28. This is on par with the mantra “Assad must go,” repeated ad nauseam in Washington.

Not to be outdone, on May 28 U.S. Special Envoy on Ukraine Kurt Volker called Russian activity in eastern Ukraine an “occupation,” and accused Moscow of “a very provocative step.” A week later a bipartisan bill from the House Foreign Affairs Committee urged provision of U.S. anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. “We can better equip our ally [sic!] with sophisticated lethal weapons to defend itself and deter Russian aggression,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said. The Trump administration had previously cleared a sale to Ukraine of 210 Javelin anti-tank missiles and 37 launchers, having already supplied Kiev with Model M107A1 Sniper Systems.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton was busy May 29, blaming Iran for the attack on four oil tankers near the Port of Fujairah in the in United Arab Emirates on May 12, without offering evidence for the claim. He added that the additional 1,500 U.S. troops sent to the Middle East will “act as a deterrent” against “Iranian threats.” Weeks earlier the Trump administration had sent a carrier and bombers to the Persian Gulf.

Observing the suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade, French general Pierre François Bosquet stated, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie!” We may paraphrase him in the context of U.S. foreign policy: It is magnificent, but it is not strategy—it is madness.                               

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