The Compass

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Does the U.S. Have No Choice But to Go Broke Policing the World?

It would be nice to ignore problems in faraway lands, but in the age of al-Qaeda America simply does not have that option as often as we might wish. Organized and armed terror groups can exploit chaos or even take power themselves; the United States for its own protection cannot allow global jihadis to establish safe havens or to take over national governments.

Obama’s splendid little war in Libya has created serious long term strategic problems for the United States and saddled us with commitments and responsibilities we do not want, do not need but cannot shirk. Every day the news brings more evidence that, like it or not, we’ve got more work to do in the Middle East, and it is exactly the kind of expensive, frustrating and dangerous grunt work that President Obama took office promising to end. - Walter Russell Mead

Here's the problem with this: if Mead's first paragraph is correct (and I don't think it is) then his second paragraph is incorrect. As noted early, Libya's armed uprising against Gaddafi began before Obama's splendid war and even if Gaddafi crushed it, it was likely that pockets of destabilizing resistance would remain in the country - just the kind of pockets al-Qaeda thrives in. (It's also odd for Mead to complain about this, since he wants to duplicate precisely this kind of dynamic in Syria.) Is Mead suggesting that Obama's failure was involving the U.S. in Libya in the first place, or not sending in 300,000 U.S. troops to provide post-war security?

The broader question is: "in the age of al-Qaeda" can the U.S. not afford to look away at problems like Libya and Mali? And by "not look away" I'm assuming Mead means, not send in drones, the CIA and the State Department to wage a covert and/or proxy war against Islamist forces.

Perhaps Washington can, in fact, look away. Not turn a blind eye, but not plunge in guns blazing until there's a clear indication of threat.

Most Islamists movements are piggy-backing on local insurgencies and unrest. They may hate the West, but how many of them share the bin Laden vision of attacking the U.S. homeland? How many of them could attack the U.S. homeland, even if they wanted to? These are tricky questions to answer, but they should be answered before plunging in. The default assumption that every Islamist group is ipso-facto plotting the next 9/11 on U.S. soil is a recipe for expensive over-reach.

The minute the U.S. begins training local proxies, dropping bombs on houses and generally butting into a local fight, it makes enemies and, as Mead notes, takes on a series of expensive and potentially deadly commitments. Sometimes, this can work to our advantage: the campaign in Somalia, where a U.S.-trained African Union force has made substantial gains against al-Shabaab, seems to be a model in this respect. The "blowback" - thus far - has been minimal and militant forces have been on the run.

But just because Islamists have taken up in some deserted corner of the world shouldn't mean the U.S. runs in frantically. The world is filled with chaotic spaces. It is literally impossible for the U.S. to police them all, or to send enough cash and guns to local forces to do the policing for us - even there are even willing locals ready to assist us. The U.S. would go broke faster than stability would return to these areas sufficient to stop a major terrorist attack - which is almost impossible to stop anyway, given how few people are required.