Thursday, November 12, 2009
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
We are now at the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. We are also nearing the 18th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union itself. This is more than simply a moment for reflection — it is a moment to consider the current state of the region and of Russia versus that whose passing we are now commemorating. To do that, we must re-examine why the Soviet empire collapsed, and the current status of the same forces that caused that collapse.
One was economic backwardness. Economic backwardness gave the constituent parts a single common characteristic and interest. None of them could effectively compete with the more dynamic economies of Western Europe and the rest of the world, but each could find a niche within the empire. Economic interests thus bound each part to the rest: They needed a wall to protect themselves from Western interests, and an arena in which their own economic interests, however stunted, could be protected. The empire provided that space and that opportunity.
The second thing tying the empire together was the power of the security apparatus. Where economic interest was insufficient to hold the constituent parts together, the apparatus held the structure together. In a vast empire with poor transportation and communication, the security apparatus — from Czarist times to the Soviet period — was the single unifying institution. It unified in the sense that it could compel what economic interest couldn’t motivate. The most sophisticated part of the Russian state was the security services. They were provided with the resources they needed to control the empire, report status to the center and impose the center’s decisions through terror, or more frequently, through the mere knowledge that terror would be the consequence of disobedience.
It was therefore no surprise that it was the security apparatus of the Soviet Union — the KGB under Yuri Andropov — which first recognized in the early 1980s that the Soviet Union’s economy not only was slipping further and further behind the West, but that its internal cohesion was threatened because the economy was performing so poorly that the minimal needs of the constituent parts were no longer being fulfilled. In Andropov’s mind, the imposition of even greater terror, like Josef Stalin had applied, would not solve the underlying problem. Thus, the two elements holding the Soviet Union together were no longer working. The self-enclosed economy was failing and the security apparatus could not hold the system together.
It is vital to remember that in Russia, domestic economic health and national power do not go hand in hand. Russia historically has had a dysfunctional economy. By contrast, its military power has always been disproportionately strong. During World War II, the Soviets crushed the Wehrmacht in spite of their extraordinary economic weakness. Later, during the Cold War, they challenged and sometimes even beat the United States despite an incomparably weaker economy. The Russian security apparatus made this possible. Russia could devote far more of its economy to military power than other countries could because Moscow could control its population successfully. It could impose far greater austerities than other countries could. Therefore, Russia was a major power in spite of its economic weakness. And this gave it room to maneuver in an unexpected way.
Andropov knew that the West, and particularly the United States, would not provide help so long as the Soviet Union threatened its geopolitical interests even if doing so would be economically profitable. For this opening to the West to work, the Soviet Union needed to reduce Cold War tensions dramatically. In effect, the Soviets needed to trade geopolitical interests to secure their economic interests. Since securing economic interests was essential for Communist Party survival, Andropov was proposing to follow the lead of Vladimir Lenin, another leader who sacrificed space for time. In the Brest-Litovsk Treaty that ended Russian participation in World War I, Lenin had conceded vast amounts of territory to Germany to buy time for the regime to consolidate itself. Andropov was suggesting the same thing.
It is essential to understand that Andropov was a Party man and a Chekist — a Communist and KGBer — through and through. He was not proposing the dismantling of the Party; rather, he sought to preserve the Party by executing a strategic retreat on the geopolitical front while the Soviet Union regained its economic balance. Undoubtedly he understood the risk that restructuring and openness would create enormous pressures at a time of economic hardship, possibly causing regime collapse under the strain. Andropov clearly thought the risk was worth running.
After Leonid Brezhnev died, Andropov took his place. He became ill almost immediately and died. He was replaced by Konstantin Chernenko, who died within a year. Then came Mikhail Gorbachev — the true heir to Andropov’s thinking — who implemented Andropov’s two principles. He pursued openness, or glasnost. He also pursued restructuring, or perestroika. He traded geopolitical interests, hard-won by the Red Army, for economic benefits. Contrary to his reputation in the West, Gorbachev was no liberal. He actually sought to preserve the Communist Party, and was prepared to restructure and open the system to do so.
As the security apparatus loosened its grip to facilitate openness and restructuring, the empire’s underlying tensions quickly went on display. When unrest in East Germany threatened to undermine Soviet control, Gorbachev had to make a strategic decision. If he used military force to suppress the uprising, probably restructuring and certainly openness would be dead, and the crisis Andropov foresaw would be upon him. Following Lenin’s principle, Gorbachev decided to trade space for time, and he accepted retreat from East Germany to maintain and strengthen his economic relations with the West.
After Gorbachev made that decision, the rest followed. If Germany were not to be defended, what would be defended? Applying his strategy rigorously, Gorbachev allowed the unwinding of the Eastern European empire without intervention. The decision he had made about Germany amounted to relinquishing most of Moscow’s World War II gains. But if regime survival required it, the price had to be paid.
What followed was liberalization only in the eyes of Westerners. It is easy to confuse liberalism with collapse, since both provide openness. But the former Soviet Union (FSU) wasn’t liberalizing, it was collapsing in every sense. What remained administratively was the KGB, now without a mission. The KGB was the most sophisticated part of the Soviet apparatus, and its members were the best and brightest. As privatization went into action, absent clear rules or principles, KGB members had the knowledge and sophistication to take advantage of it. As individuals and in factions, they built structures and relationships to take advantage of privatization, forming the factions that dominated the FSU throughout the 1990s until today. It is not reasonable to refer to organized crime in Russia, because Russia was lawless. In fact, the law enforcement apparatus was at the forefront of exploiting the chaos. Organized crime, business and the KGB became interconnected, and frequently identical.
The 1990s were a catastrophic period for most Russians. The economy collapsed. Property was appropriated in a systematic looting of all of the former Russian republics, with Western interests also rushing in to do quick deals on tremendously favorable terms. The new economic interests crossed the new national borders. (It is important to bear in mind that the boundaries that had separated Soviet republics were very real.) The financial cartels, named for the oligarchs who putatively controlled them (control was much more complex; many oligarchs were front men for more powerful and discreet figures), spread beyond the borders of the countries in which they originated, although the Russian cartels spread the most effectively.
Had the West — more specifically the United States — wanted to finish Russia off, this was the time. Russia had no effective government, poverty was extraordinary, the army was broken and the KGB was in a civil war over property. Very little pressure could well have finished off the Russian Federation.
The Bush and Clinton administrations made a strategic decision to treat Russia as the successor regime of the FSU, however, and refused to destabilize it further. Washington played an aggressive role in expanding NATO, but it did not try to break up the Russian Federation for several reasons. First, it feared nuclear weapons would fall into the hands of dangerous factions. Second, it did not imagine that Russia could ever be a viable country again. And third, it believed that if Russia did become viable, it would be a liberal democracy. (The idea that liberal democracies never threaten other liberal democracies was implanted in American minds.) What later became known as a neoconservative doctrine actually lay at the heart of the Clinton administration’s thinking.
Russia Regroups — and Faces the Same Crisis
Putin sought to restore the center in two ways. First, he worked to restore the central apparatus of the state. Second, he worked to strip power from oligarchs unaligned with the apparatus. It was a slow process, requiring infinite care so that the FSB not start tearing itself apart again, but Putin is a patient and careful man.
Putin realized that Andropov’s gamble had failed catastrophically. He also knew that the process could not simply be reversed; there was no going back to the Soviet Union. At the same time, it was possible to go back to the basic principles of the Soviet Union. First, there could be a union of the region, bound together by both economic weakness and the advantage of natural resource collaboration. Second, there was the reality of a transnational intelligence apparatus that could both stabilize the region and create the infrastructure for military power. And third, there was the reversal of the policy of trading geopolitical interests for financial benefits from the West. Putin’s view — and the average Russian’s view — was that the financial benefits of the West were more harmful than beneficial.
By 2008, when Russia defeated America’s ally, Georgia, in a war, the process of reassertion was well under way. Then, the financial crisis struck along with fluctuations in energy prices. The disparity between Russia’s politico-military aspirations, its military capability and its economic structure re-emerged. The Russians once again faced their classic situation: If they abandoned geopolitical interests, they would be physically at risk. But if they pursued their geopolitical interests, they would need a military force capable of assuming the task. Expanding the military would make the public unhappy as it would see resources diverted from public consumption to military production, and this could only be managed by increasing the power of the state and the security apparatus to manage the unhappiness. But this still left the risk of a massive divergence between military and economic power that could not be bridged by repression. This risk re-created the situation that emerged in the 1970s, had to be dealt with in the 1980s and turned into chaos in the 1990s.
The current decisions the Russians face can only be understood in the context of events that transpired 20 years ago. The same issues are being played out, and the generation that now governs Russia was forged in that crucible. The Russian leadership is trying to balance the possible outcomes to find a solution. They cannot trade national security for promised economic benefits that may not materialize or may not be usable. And they cannot simply use the security apparatus to manage increased military spending — there are limits to that.
As a generation ago, Russia is caught between the things that it must do to survive in the short run and the things it cannot do if they are to survive in the long run. There is no permanent solution for Russia, and that is what makes it such an unpredictable player in the international system. The closest Russia has come to a stable solution to its strategic problem was under Ivan the Terrible and Stalin, and even those could not hold for more than a generation.
The West must understand that Russia is never at peace with itself internally, and is therefore constantly shifting its external relationships in an endless, spasmodic cycle. Things go along for awhile, and then suddenly change. We saw a massive change 20 years ago, but the forces that generated that change had built up quietly in the generation before. The generation since has been trying to pull the pieces back together. But in Russia, every solution is merely the preface to the next problem — something built into the Russian reality.
In last week’s global security and intelligence report, we discussed the recent call by the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasir al-Wahayshi, for jihadists to conduct simple attacks against a variety of targets in the Muslim world and the West. We also noted how it is relatively simple to conduct such attacks against soft targets using improvised explosive devices, guns or even knives and clubs.
The next day, a lone gunman, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, opened fire on a group of soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. The victims were in the Soldier Readiness Processing Center, a facility on the base where troops are prepared for deployment and where they take care of certain processing tasks such as completing insurance paperwork and receiving medical examinations and vaccinations.
Even though the targets of Hasan’s attack were soldiers, they represented a very soft target in this environment. Most soldiers on bases inside the United States are normally not armed and are only provided weapons for training. The only personnel who regularly carry weapons are the military police and the base civilian police officers. In addition to being unarmed, the soldiers at the center were closely packed together in the facility as they waited to proceed from station to station. The unarmed, densely packed mass of people allowed Hasan to kill 13 (12 soldiers and one civilian employee of the center) and wound 42 others when he opened fire.
Hasan is a U.S.-born Muslim who, according to STRATFOR sources and media accounts, has had past contact with jihadists, including the radical Imam Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki is a U.S.-born imam who espouses a jihadist ideology and who was discussed at some length in the 9/11 commission report for his links to 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. Al-Awlaki, who is currently living in Yemen and reportedly has contacts with al Qaeda, posted a message on his Web site Nov. 9 praising Hasan’s actions. Despite Hasan’s connections to al-Awlaki and other jihadists, it is unknown at this point if he was even aware of al-Wahayshi’s recent message calling for simple attacks, and therefore it is impossible to tell if his attack was in response to it.
However, one thing that is certain is that investigators examining Hasan’s computer hard drive, e-mail traffic and Internet history will be looking into that possibility, along with other indications that Hasan was linked to radicals.
We noted last week that by their very nature, individual actors and small cells are very difficult for the government to detect. They must somehow identify themselves by contacting a government informant or another person who reports them to the authorities, attend a militant training camp or conduct correspondence with a person or organization under government scrutiny. In the Hasan case, it now appears that Hasan did self-identify by making radical statements to people he worked with, who reported him to the authorities. It also appears that he had correspondence with people such as al-Awlaki, whom the government was monitoring. Because of this behavior, Hasan brought himself to the attention of the Department of Defense, the FBI and the CIA.
The fact that Hasan was able to commit this attack after bringing government attention to himself could be due to a number of factors. Chief among them is the fact that it is tactically impossible for a government to identify every aspiring militant actor and to pre-empt every act of violence. The degree of difficulty is increased greatly if an actor does indeed act alone and does not give any overt clues through his actions or his communications of his intent to attack. Because of this, the Hasan case provides an excellent opportunity to examine national security investigations and their utility and limitations.
The Nature of Intelligence Investigations
If, during the preliminary inquiry, the investigating agents find probable cause that a crime has been committed, the FBI will open a full-fledged criminal investigation into the case, similar to what we saw in the case of Luqman Ameen Abdullah and his followers in Detroit.
One of the large problems in national security investigations is separating the wheat from the chaff. Many leads are based on erroneous information or a misidentification of the suspect — there is a huge issue associated with the confusion caused by the transliteration of Arabic names and the fact that there are many people bearing the same names. Jihadists also have the tendency to use multiple names and identities. And there are many cases in which people will falsely report a person to the FBI out of malice. Because of these factors, national security investigations proceed slowly and usually do not involve much (if any) contact with the suspect and his close associates. If the suspect is a real militant planning a terrorist attack, investigators do not want to tip him off, and if he is innocent, they do not want to sully his reputation by showing up and overtly interviewing everyone he knows. Due to its controversial history of domestic intelligence activities, the FBI has become acutely aware of its responsibility to protect privacy rights and civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and other laws.
And the rights guaranteed under the Constitution do complicate these national security investigations. It is not illegal for someone to say that Muslims should attack U.S. troops due to their operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, or that more Muslims should conduct attacks like the June 1 shooting at a recruiting center in Little Rock, Ark. — things that Hasan is reported to have said. Radical statements and convictions are not illegal — although they certainly would appear to be conduct unbecoming a U.S. Army officer. (We will leave to others the discussion of the difficulties in dealing with problem officers who are minorities and doctors and who owe several years of service in return for their education.)
There are also many officers and enlisted soldiers in the U.S. Army who own personal weapons and who use them for self-defense, target shooting or hunting. There is nothing extraordinary or illegal about a U.S. Army major owning personal weapons. With no articulable violation of U.S. law, the FBI would have very little to act upon in a case like Hasan’s. Instead, even if they found cause to extend their preliminary inquiry, they would be pretty much limited to monitoring his activities (and perhaps his communications, with a court order) and waiting for a law to be violated. In the Hasan case, it would appear that the FBI did not find probable cause that a law had been violated before he opened fire at Fort Hood. Although perhaps if the FBI had been watching his activities closely and with an eye toward “the how” of terrorist attacks, they might have noticed him conducting preoperational surveillance of the readiness center and even a dry run of the attack.
Of course, in addition to just looking for violations of the law, the other main thrust of a national security investigation is to determine whom the suspect is connected to and whom he is talking to or planning with. In past cases, such investigations have uncovered networks of jihadist actors working together in the United States, Canada, Europe and elsewhere. However, if all Hasan did in his correspondence with people such as al-Awlaki was exercise his First Amendment right to hold radical convictions, and if he did not engage in any type of conspiracy to conduct an attack, he did not break the law.
Another issue that complicates national security cases is that they are almost always classified at the secret level or above. This is understandable, considering they are often opened based upon intelligence produced by sensitive intelligence programs. However, this classification means that only those people with the proper clearance and an established need to know can be briefed on the case. It is not at all unusual for the FBI to visit a high-ranking official at another agency to brief the official on the fact that the FBI is conducting a classified national security investigation involving a person working for the official’s agency. The rub is that they will frequently tell the official that he or she is not at liberty to share details of the investigation with other individuals in the agency because they do not have a clear need to know. The FBI agent will also usually ask the person briefed not to take any action against the target of the investigation, so that the investigation is not compromised. While some people will disagree with the FBI’s determination of who really needs to know about the investigation and go on to brief a wider audience, many officials are cowed by the FBI and sit on the information.
Of course, the size of an organization is also a factor in the dissemination of information. The Department of Defense and the U.S. Army are large organizations, and it is possible that officials at the Pentagon or the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command (still known by its old acronym CID) headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va., were briefed on the case and that local officials at Fort Hood were not. The Associated Press is now reporting that the FBI had alerted a Defense Criminal Investigative Service agent assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in Washington about Hasan’s contacts with al-Awlaki, and ABC reports that the Defense Department is denying the FBI notified them. It would appear that the finger-pointing and bureaucratic blame-shifting normally associated with such cases has begun.
Even more severe problems would have plagued the dissemination of information from the CIA to local commanders and CID officers at Fort Hood. Despite the intelligence reforms put in place after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government still faces large obstacles when it comes to sharing intelligence information with law enforcement personnel.
Criminal Acts vs. Terrorism
However, with Hasan being a member of the armed forces, the victims being soldiers or army civilian employees and the incident occurring at Fort Hood, the case would seem to fall squarely under the mantle of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). From a prosecutorial perspective, a homicide trial under the UCMJ should be very tidy and could be quickly concluded. It will not involve all the potential loose ends that could pop up in a federal terrorism trial, especially when those loose ends involve what the FBI and CIA knew about Hasan, when they learned it and who they told. Also, politically, there are some who would like to see the Hasan case remain a criminal matter rather than a case of terrorism. Following the shooting death of Luqman Ameen Abdullah and considering the delicate relationship between Muslim advocacy groups and the U.S. government, some people would rather see Hasan portrayed as a mentally disturbed criminal than as an ideologically driven lone wolf.
Despite the CID taking the lead in prosecuting the case, the classified national security investigation by the CIA and FBI into Hasan and his possible connections to jihadist elements is undoubtedly continuing. Senior members of the government will certainly demand to know if Hasan had any confederates, if he was part of a bigger plot and if there are more attacks to come. Several congressmen and senators are also calling for hearings into the case, and if such hearings occur, they will certainly produce an abundance of interesting information pertaining to Hasan and the national security investigation of his activities.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Making sense of U.S. President Barack Obama's strategy at this moment is difficult. Not only is it a work in progress, but the pending decisions he has to make -- on Iran, Afghanistan and Russia -- tend to obscure underlying strategy. It is easy to confuse inaction with a lack of strategy. Of course, there may well be a lack of strategic thinking, but that does not mean there is a lack of strategy.
Strategy, as we have argued, is less a matter of choice than a matter of reality imposing itself on presidents. Former U.S. President George W. Bush, for example, rarely had a chance to make strategy. He was caught in a whirlwind after only nine months in office and spent the rest of his presidency responding to events, making choices from a menu of very bad options. Similarly, Obama came into office with a preset menu of limited choices. He seems to be fighting to create new choices, not liking what is on the menu. He may succeed. But it is important to understand the overwhelming forces that shape his choices and to understand the degree to which whatever he chooses is embedded in U.S. grand strategy, a strategy imposed by geopolitical reality.
Empires and Grand Strategy
American grand strategy, as we have argued, is essentially that of the British Empire, save at a global rather than a regional level. The British sought to protect their national security by encouraging Continental powers to engage in land-based conflict, thereby reducing resources available for building a navy. That guaranteed that Britain's core interest, the security of the homeland and sea-lane control, remained intact. Achieving this made the United Kingdom an economic power in the 19th century by sparing it the destruction of war and allowing it to control the patterns of international maritime trade.
On occasion, when the balance of power in Europe tilted toward one side or another, Britain intervened on the Continent with political influence where possible, direct aid when necessary or -- when all else failed -- the smallest possible direct military intervention. The United Kingdom's preferred strategy consisted of imposing a blockade -- e.g., economic sanctions -- allowing it to cause pain without incurring costs.
At the same time that it pursued this European policy, London was building a global empire. Here again, the British employed a balance-of-power strategy. In looking at the history of India or Africa during the 19th century, there is a consistent pattern of the United Kingdom forming alliances with factions, whether religious or ethnic groups, to create opportunities for domination. In the end, this was not substantially different from ancient Rome's grand strategy. Rome also ruled indirectly through much of its empire, controlling Mediterranean sea-lanes, but allying with local forces to govern; observing Roman strategy in Egypt is quite instructive in this regard.
Empires are not created by someone deciding one day to build one, or more precisely, lasting empires are not. They emerge over time through a series of decisions having nothing to do with empire building, and frequently at the hands of people far more concerned with domestic issues than foreign policy. Paradoxically, leaders who consciously set out to build empires usually fail. Hitler is a prime example. His failure was that rather than ally with forces in the Soviet Union, he wished to govern directly, something that flowed from his ambitions for direct rule. Particularly at the beginning, the Roman and British empires were far less ambitious and far less conscious of where they were headed. They were primarily taking care of domestic affairs. They became involved in foreign policy as needed, following a strategy of controlling the seas while maintaining substantial ground forces able to prevail anywhere -- but not everywhere at once -- and a powerful alliance system based on supporting the ambitions of local powers against other local powers.
On the whole, the United States has no interest in empire, and indeed is averse to imperial adventures. Those who might have had explicit inclinations in this direction are mostly out of government, crushed by experience in Iraq. Iraq came in two parts. In the first part, from 2003 to 2007, the U.S. vision was one of direct rule relying on American sea-lane control and overwhelming Iraq with well-supplied American troops.
The results were unsatisfactory. The United States found itself arrayed against all Iraqi factions and wound up in a multipart war in which its forces were merely one faction arrayed against others. The Petraeus strategy to escape this trap was less an innovation in counterinsurgency than a classic British-Roman approach. Rather than attempting direct control of Iraq, Petraeus sought to manipulate the internal balance of power, aligning with Sunni forces against Shiite forces, i.e., allying with the weaker party at that moment against the stronger. The strategy did not yield the outcome that some Bush strategists dreamed of, but it might (with an emphasis on might) yield a useful outcome: a precariously balanced Iraq dependent on the United States to preserve its internal balance of power and national sovereignty against Iran.
Many Americans, perhaps even most, regret the U.S. intervention in Iraq. And there are many, again perhaps most, who view broader U.S. entanglement in the world as harmful to American interests. Similar views were expressed by Roman republicans and English nationalists who felt that protecting the homeland by controlling the sea was the best policy, while letting the rest of the world go its own way. But the Romans and the British lost that option when they achieved the key to their own national security: enough power to protect the homeland. Outsiders inevitably came to see that power as offensive, even though originally its possessors intended it as defensive. Indeed, intent aside, the capability for offensive power was there. So frequently, Rome and Britain threatened the interests of foreign powers simply by being there. Inevitably, both Rome and Britain became the targets of Hannibals and Napoleons, and they were both drawn into the world regardless of their original desires. In short, enough power to be secure is enough power to threaten others. Therefore, that perfect moment of national security always turns offensive, as the power to protect the homeland threatens the security of other countries.
A Question of Size
There are Obama supporters and opponents who also dream of the perfect balance: security for the United States achieved by not interfering in the affairs of others. They see foreign entanglements not as providing homeland security, but as generating threats to it. They do not understand that what they want, American prosperity without international risks, is by definition impossible. The U.S. economy is roughly 25 percent of the world's economy. The American military controls the seas, not all at the same time, but anywhere it wishes at any given time. The United States also controls outer space. It is impossible for the United States not to intrude on the affairs of most countries in the world simply by virtue of its daily operations. The United States is an elephant that affects the world simply by being in the same room with it. The only way to not be an elephant is to shrink in size, and whether the United States would ever want this aside, decreasing power is harder to do than it might appear -- and much more painful.
Obama's challenge is managing U.S. power without decreasing its size and without imposing undue costs on it. This sounds like an attractive idea, but it ultimately won't work: The United States cannot be what it is without attracting hostile attention. For some of Obama's supporters, it is American behavior that generates hostility. Actually, it is America's presence -- its very size -- that intrudes on the world and generates hostility.
On the domestic front, the isolationist-internationalist divide in the United States has always been specious. Isolationists before World War II simply wanted to let the European balance of power manage itself. They wanted to buy time, but had no problem with intervening in China against Japan. The internationalists simply wanted to move from the first to the second stage, arguing that the first stage had failed. There was thus no argument in principle between them; there was simply a debate over how much time to give the process to see if it worked out. Both sides had the same strategy, but simply a different read of the moment. In retrospect, Franklin Roosevelt was right, but only because France collapsed in the face of the Nazi onslaught in a matter of weeks. That aside, the isolationist argument was quite rational.
Like that of Britain or Rome, U.S. grand strategy is driven by the sheer size of the national enterprise, a size achieved less through planning than by geography and history. Having arrived where it has, the United States has three layers to its strategy.
First, the United States must maintain the balance of power in various regions in the world. It does this by supporting a range of powers, usually the weaker against the stronger. Ideally, this balance of power maintains itself without American effort and yields relative stability. But stability is secondary to keeping local powers focused on each other rather than on the United States: Stability is a rhetorical device, not a goal. The real U.S. interest lies in weakening and undermining emergent powers so they don't ultimately rise to challenge American power. This is a strategy of nipping things in the bud.
Second, where emergent powers cannot be maintained through the regional balance of power, the United States has an interest in sharing the burden of containing it with other major powers. The United States will seek to use such coalitions either to intimidate the emerging power via economic power or, in extremis, via military power.
Third, where it is impossible to build a coalition to coerce emerging powers, the United States must decide either to live with the emerging power, forge an alliance with it, or attack it unilaterally.
Obama, as with any president, will first pursue the first layer of the strategy, using as little American power as possible and waiting as long as possible to see whether this works. The key here lies in not taking premature action that could prove more dangerous or costly than necessary. If that fails, his strategy is to create a coalition of powers to share the cost and risk. And only when that fails -- which is a function of time and politics -- will Obama turn to the third layer, which can range from simply living with the emerging power and making a suitable deal or crushing it militarily.
When al Qaeda attacked what it saw as the leading Christian power on Sept. 11, Bush found himself thrown into the third stage very rapidly. The second phase was illusory; sympathy aside, the quantity of military force allies could and would bring to bear was minimal. Even active allies like Britain and Australia couldn't bring decisive force to bear. Bush was forced into unilateralism not so much by the lack of will among allies as by their lack of power. His choice lay in creating chaos in the Islamic world and then forming alliances out of the debris, or trying to impose a direct solution through military force. He began with the second and shifted to the first.
Obama has more room to maneuver than Bush had. In the case of Iran, no regional solution is possible. Israel can only barely reach into the region, and while its air force might suffice to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, and air attacks might be sufficient to destroy them, Israel could not deal with the Iranian response of mining the Strait of Hormuz and/or destabilizing Iraq. The United States must absorb these blows.
Therefore, Obama has tried to build an anti-Iranian coalition to intimidate Tehran. Given the Russian and Chinese positions, this seems to have failed, and Iran has not been intimidated. That leaves Obama with two possible paths. One is the path followed by Nixon in China: ally with Iran against Russian influence, accepting it as a nuclear power and dealing with it through a combination of political alignment and deterrence. The second option is dealing with Iran militarily.
His choice thus lies between entente or war. He is bluffing war in hopes of getting what he wants, in the meantime hoping that internal events in Iran may evolve in a way suitable to U.S. interests or that Russian economic hardship evolves into increased Russian dependence on the United States such that Washington can extract Russian concessions on Iran. Given the state of Iran's nuclear development, which is still not near a weapon, Obama is using time to try to head off the third stage.
In Afghanistan, where Obama is already in the third stage and where he is being urged to go deeper in, he is searching for a way to return to the first stage, wherein an indigenous coalition emerges that neutralizes Afghanistan through its own internal dynamic. Hence, Washington is negotiating with the Taliban, trying to strengthen various factions in Afghanistan and not quite committing to more force. Winter is coming in Afghanistan, and that is the quiet time in that conflict. Obama is clearly buying time.
In that sense, Obama's foreign policy is neither as alien as his critics would argue nor as original as his supporters argue. He is adhering to the basic logic of American grand strategy, minimizing risks over time while seeking ways to impose low-cost solutions. It differs from Bush's policies primarily in that Bush had events forced on him and spent his presidency trying to regain the initiative.
The interesting point from where we sit is not only how deeply embedded Obama is in U.S. grand strategy, but how deeply drawn he is into the unintended imperial enterprise that has dominated American foreign policy since the 1930s -- an enterprise neither welcomed nor acknowledged by most Americans. Empires aren't planned, at least not successful empires, as Hitler and Napoleon learned to their regret. Empires happen as the result of the sheer reality of power. The elephant in the room cannot stop being an elephant, nor can the smaller animals ignore him. No matter how courteous the elephant, it is his power -- his capabilities -- not his intentions that matter.
Obama is now the elephant in the room. He has bought as much time as possible to make decisions, and he is being as amiable as possible to try to build as large a coalition as possible. But the coalition has neither the power nor appetite for the risks involved, so Obama will have to decide whether to live with Iran, form an alliance with Iran or go to war with Iran. In Afghanistan, he must decide whether he can recreate the balance of power by staying longer and whether this will be more effective by sending more troops, or whether it is time to begin withdrawal. In both cases, he can use the art of the bluff to shape the behavior of others, maybe.
He came into the presidency promising to be more amiable than Bush, something not difficult given the circumstances. He is now trying to convert amiability into a coalition, a much harder thing to do. In the end, he will have to make hard decisions. In American foreign policy, however, the ideal strategy is always to buy time so as to let the bribes, bluffs and threats do their work. Obama himself probably doesn't know what he will do; that will depend on circumstances. Letting events flow until they can no longer be tolerated is the essence of American grand strategy, a path Obama is following faithfully.
It should always be remembered that this long-standing American policy has frequently culminated in war, as with Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson and Bush. It was Clinton's watchful waiting to see how things played out, after all, that allowed al Qaeda the time to build and strike. But this is not a criticism of Clinton -- U.S. strategy is to trade time for risk. Over time, the risk might lead to war anyway, but then again, it might not. If war does come, American power is still decisive, if not in creating peace, then certainly in wreaking havoc upon rising powers. And that is the foundation of empire.