Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Why American reluctance endangers the world

Four extremely competent intelligence services this week - American, French, British and Israeli -now agree that Syria’s President Bashar al Assad probably used chemical weapons on rebels inside his own country. Yet despite Washington’s rhetoric and talk of the Syrian regime crossing a “red line”, the United States has not moved any closer to intervening in the festering conflict.

Many people, including many in the Syrian rebellion, are disappointed with America’s inaction in the Levant. The expectation for moral citizens everywhere is that American military force should be used to defend the weak and downtrodden.

What better use is there for the military of a democratic country than to stop evil men? Standing idly by as Mr al Assad slaughters his own people is morally outrageous, and now with the potential use of chemical weapons, Washington’s continued inertia is surely entirely unforgivable.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he and
President Barack Obama are wary about
intervening in Syira - Mark Wilson / Getty Images
The reality is that Washington has learned much about fighting land wars in Asia over the past decade. The United States is more than happy to disengage from the world.

The moral thing for Washington to do in Syria would be to intervene and stop the bloodshed. But doing so would be ignoring the lessons of history. What is truly frightening about the current discussions in Washington is that the reluctance to remain aloof in the Levant might translate into a gradual rolling up of U.S. security interaction in other parts of the world as well.

Even though America’s ability to crush foreign conventional military powers is unquestioned, with all the bluster and trillions of dollars spent, it is hard to call their recent military adventures truly successful. The United States brushed Iraqi, Libyan, and Afghan forces easily aside, but history shows it is much more difficult to use those troops to build a country after the bombs have stopped falling.  

America looks at Syria and remembers their pain of the last decade. They remember the costs of grabbing the metaphorical broom to sweep evil from the earth. And now that America’s decade of war winds down into a disperse, low-intensity, isolated conflict Washington is responding by disengaging slowly from the world again.

That Washington has not, and probably will not, send an occupying force into Syria to quell the violence can at least in part be explained by their history. America has moved through cycles of engagement and disengagement for many decades.

Depending on their interests and any threats to those interests, Washington is comfortable rousing the U.S. military if they are needed. Going to war is easy; withdrawing troops is the difficult part. Washington has struggled to achieve this in the past.

American inaction in Syria is extremely worrying, but the issue is deeper than the way it is portrayed in the media.

A huge part of power and control is in appearing to others to possess that power and be in control. At the state level, a nation’s military record of victory speaks louder than the potential strength of that military. In a similar way, parking an expensive car in the driveway is only a possession if that vehicle never roars around a racetrack.

What is most disturbing for the world is that Syria is not likely to be the last conflict America refuses to involve itself in. It is only the most current major security issue.

Given their history, the United States refusal to use overwhelming force in the Levant is understandable, but plenty of other simmering regions around the world are watching Washington’s decisions extremely intently.

The United States is battle-weary and suffering economically, so refusing to enter new conflicts is wise. But it must be remembered that American military power is an enormously important stabilising glue, which in many ways holds the present globalised world system together.

Like it or not, the United States makes it possible to trade over the world’s oceans freely and without fear of large-scale piracy or blackmail from recalcitrant states. The U.S. Navy patrols the oceans each day of the year, at their own expense, so that trading nations do not have to allocate their own resources to do the same.

The United States essentially stumbled into empire after the Soviet Union collapsed and has been figuring out how to deal with this reality ever since. Yet with empire comes responsibility.

USS George Washington (CVN 73) underway
near Guam at sunset - Image U.S. Navy
Because the United States offers explicit and implicit security guarantees to the entire world system, developed countries in the Pacific and Europe do not need to spend their own money on indigenous militaries.

Washington picks up the defence tab each day. If America were to significantly decrease this spending and remove overseas troops from their host countries, the world system would shake.

Barely contained aggression in the Korean peninsula would undoubtedly rekindle. Thousands of stationed American troops deterring the North are enough to preclude war today, but Pyongyang still rattles sabres regularly and removing American forces would tip the balance considerably against the South.

To take another example, reducing American warship patrols could loosen constraints around some Asian countries, leading to heightened tensions as they race to establish military dominance.

Competition in the South and East China Seas could easily evolve into shooting wars between an expanding China and neighbouring Asian states. Each country lays claim to mutually strategic territorial waters but none can increase current pressure in today’s environment.

It may not be immediately obvious, but the American military achieves real humanitarian good each day. The United States might blunder into poorly-conceived wars, but significant pain and suffering is avoided because American soldiers give up their best years to stand guard in foreign countries.

The security vacuum America might create by drastically disengaging from the world would see an appreciable rise in hostilities, rather than a decrease. This is the dilemma America finds itself in at the beginning of the 21st Century.

No matter what one thinks of the United States, the global system can really only remain an interconnected system if America maintains a protective military engagement with the world.

After all, the alternative to a unipolar world is not a bi-polar world. The reality would be a multi-polar world in which each nation struggles to control its own patch. Much more suffering would arise from this and we have only America to thank that such horrors do not haunt our lives.

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