The United States will wake up from its COVID-19 nightmare to renewed national security horrors if our leaders fail to take the right lesson from the pandemic: the best policy is one of early recognition and preemptive action.
While America focuses inward, international crises that predate the pandemic are getting worse, with negative implications for U.S. national security. In Syria, the pandemic is supercharging a catastrophic humanitarian situation, with Russia and Turkey at each other’s throats in the war-torn country. This sets up disaster scenarios for NATO. In Western Africa, COVID-19 threatens already fragile states, and extremists wait to exploit the chaos.
Our increasingly unsettled world is filled with local conflicts turned larger and discrete conflicts that are now merging. Look at Libya. Its war started as a revolution against longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi. NATO intervened to prevent slaughter, contributing to Gadhafi's fall. NATO stepped back, unwilling to risk entanglement to safeguard Libya’s transition, and others filled the vacuum. Libya now hosts many conflicts, including an intra-Middle Eastern struggle over power and Islamism, a competition for Mediterranean undersea resources, and Russia’s multi-front campaign to break NATO. Foreign weapons and fighters have flooded in. Turkish and Emirati drones spar in Libya’s skies while Russian, Syrian, and Sudanese mercenaries fight below. Meanwhile, Libya fragments and civilians suffer.
Enter ISIS and al Qaeda. There is a destructive synergy between extremist movements and disruptive states that seek to revise balances of power. Disrupters fight multi-sided proxy wars that prolong and worsen conflicts, destroy responsive governance, and deepen popular grievances. These are the conditions that foster Salafi-jihadist insurgent groups, which must forge relationships with aggrieved populations. Think Hezbollah supporting Lebanon’s underprivileged Shiites, or al Qaeda supporting Syrian Sunnis against Bashar al Assad’s regime. These groups can recover from catastrophic losses as long as their support base faces an existential threat. ISIS, for example, lost its caliphate but is already preparing for a comeback in Syria and Iraq.
A vicious cycle is at work. The presence of Salafi-jihadist groups provides justification for disruptive states like Russia and Iran to intervene and mask the true intent of their actions. Take Russia’s air campaign in Syria. The Kremlin’s “counterterrorism” campaign helped Assad attack the legitimate alternatives to his rule, not ISIS. Assad even freed jihadist prisoners to validate the fiction that all his opponents are terrorists. These states and their proteges — whether Assad or Libya’s Khalifa Haftar — use counterterrorism language to preserve a façade of legitimacy. This makes it easier for war-weary American leaders to stay away, arguing that someone else is shouldering the counterterrorism fight.
Today’s pandemic makes clear that America can’t insulate itself from the world’s dangers. While this doesn’t mean that the United States should intervene in every far-flung war, Washington does have an interest in ensuring that conflicts don’t morph into proxy battles fueling transnational extremist movements. The Syria and Libya wars are already creating conditions for potentially serious challenges to Mediterranean security and NATO -- challenges for which the United States is unprepared. There are many other potential geopolitical crises. Several Middle Eastern and African states face mounting internal pressures that inadequate or counterproductive pandemic responses will likely exacerbate. These include protest movements in Lebanon and Iraq; fragile transitions in Sudan and Algeria; ethnic tensions in Ethiopia; and increasingly lethal Salafi-jihadist insurgencies in Nigeria, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. At least one of these states will likely collapse, opening another battlefield for proxy conflict and Salafi-jihadist expansion.
Like the pandemic, these problems are foreseeable. In both cases, Americans will be safer if leaders have a strategy to seal off localized crises and prevent them from becoming larger conflicts between external players. This would require a policy framework that takes a long-term view of U.S. interests and global stability and explicitly subordinates short-term political, security, and economic objectives to achieve those goals. Pre-emption must include early diplomatic and foreign assistance-based interventions, prioritized according to an analysis and forecasting framework that identifies the most likely dangerous hotspots. Washington should also recommit to its allies and (to an extent) its partners, recognizing that doubts about America’s support are partly responsible for states using proxy wars to defend their interests. With this commitment, Washington must be more willing to pressure, and when necessary punish, partners when they engage destructively in third-party conflicts. (For example, Egypt or the United Arab Emirates’ military support for Libya’s Haftar.) The long-term damage caused by granting partners impunity to wage proxy war is worse than any short-term damage to the bilateral relationship.
If policymakers learn anything from COVID-19, it is that better management of growing overseas threats is infinitely preferable to dealing with them at home. America’s leaders need to get serious about preparing for the inevitable and preventing foreign conflicts from getting so dangerous that they create a crisis that changes our way of life.
Emily Estelle is the research manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are the author's own.