Of course, it can’t. It can’t because the unitive character of the US state is dissolving. What we are faced with are a mix of inchoate inputs (President Trump’s obsession to ‘undo’ Obama-ism; a passionate love-in with Israel; a Saudi ‘bromance’; a ‘Russiagate’ internal civil insurgency; and an ever ravenous industrial-military complex) – and a tight coterie of generals trying to manage the various ‘war-lords’ of Washington, from neo-cons to Wall Street.
So, on the one hand, on Syria, we have the ‘don’t-lose-Turkey’ brigade fighting it out with the ‘we-stand-by-the Kurds’ colonels from Central Command. Presidential Tweets come and go with their ever shortening half-lives, and with departments of state openly dissenting from the White House, and opining their own ‘American interest’. (Just one example: Trump tells Erdogan in a phone call ‘we are not empowering the Kurds’, yet Centcom flatly says ‘we are’; and, ‘what’s more, will continue so to do’.)
The old notion of competitive policy-making, converging towards an agreed US national consensus, seems to be over. The outcome is from out of a jostling mix, just ‘what is’.
Overall, however, it is clear that Trump, now settling into ‘presidential mode’, has fallen for ‘my generals’ (as he likes to call them). They have wide discretion, and have got authority to delegate to mid-level commands (a key demand from ‘we-did-not-lose-in-Vietnam’ revisionism). And these – the quartet of generals – are, de facto, the adults managing the US foreign policy ‘market place’ in which the White House is but one stall-holder, and in which even mid-level military commanders can, and do, press their view of US interests.
But, with increasing ‘quartet’ confidence, it seems that US foreign policy is evolving stage-by-stage in one particular direction. This evolutionary progress is important – in the case of Iran policy, for example – because one might assume that US policy is about getting an ‘improved’ JCPOA (access to all military sites, permanent extension of ‘sunset clauses’, a missile moratorium and ‘acceptable’ regional behaviour). But what if the US aims are already metamorphosing in a very different direction? If we are miss-reading US foreign (i.e. military) policy, then a lot of time and money is being wasted.
That is to say: if the true US policy is long-term COIN attrition for Iran – with a view to weakening Iran, and finally to changing its government – then Europeans trying to accommodate (i.e. appease) Washington, by seeking a parallel agreement to JCPOA, are wasting their time. And so too are the European enterprises now seeking to invest in Iran.
And there are good reasons for thinking US policy is indeed a forever COIN approach to Iran (and Russia), because that is precisely what their three policy documents, taken together, imply – and because the quartet of generals running (in a manner of speaking) foreign policy, all believe in ‘generational’ wars against states which oppose the US ‘interest’.
We were launched with the NSS (US National Strategy Statement), which essentially put an ‘America First’ gloss on Bush’s 2002 NSS: that no rival would, or should, be permitted to challenge US political or financial primacy. The 2018 NSS version was notable mainly for its ‘America First’ exculpatory account of how other states had taken unfair economic advantage of the US, and how America would no longer play the world’s economic patsy: America, in brief, was set upon recovering its former economic splendour through hard-nosed deal-making.
The National Defence Strategy (NDS), the second policy statement, however, marked a further evolution: It paints the US military as “emerging from a period of strategic atrophy” with its competitive military advantage over other actors “eroding.” Meanwhile, the American homeland is described as “no longer a sanctuary” from terrorists, cyber attacks, or “political and information subversion.” It continues: “For decades the United States has enjoyed uncontested, or dominant, superiority in every operating domain. We could generally deploy our forces when we wanted, assemble them where we wanted, and operate how we wanted. Today, every domain is contested”, and China and Russia as “revisionist powers” threaten the “free and open international order” created by the US and its allies after WW2 “to better safeguard their liberty and people from aggression and coercion.” China and Russia specifically are accused of “undermining” that international order from within, “by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously undercutting its principles, and ‘rules of the road.’”
The direction of travel is plain: Russia and China have gone from being just ‘power rivals’ to “revisionist powers”. This is a term that has a quite precise meaning in power transition theory. It means states that will use military force to change the status quo, rather than to continue within the prevailing international order and seeking to change it from within. In plain English, it would be like calling them seditionists.
The NDS insistence to maintain the ‘rules of the road’ stands as warning that the West’s cultural adjunct must remain sacrosanct too (no “political and information subversion” of it will be tolerated). It recalls Tom Friedman’s words, "[Adam Smith’s] ‘hidden hand’ of free markets will never work, without a hidden fist”. The second pillar, the NDS makes very clear, is the cultural adjunct – without which, neither of the first two pillars will not stand, either.
And then, there is the third strand to this policy ‘journey’: the Nuclear Posture Review:
“To varying degrees, Russia and China have made clear they seek to substantially revise the post-Cold War international order and norms of behaviour. [i.e. they are “revisionists”, intent to overturn global society].
“Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use force to alter the map of Europe and impose its will on its neighbors, backed by implicit and explicit nuclear first-use threats … Russia and China are pursuing asymmetric ways and means to counter U.S. conventional capabilities …Both countries are developing counter-space military capabilities to deny the United States the ability to conduct space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3); and positioning, navigation, and timing. Both seek to develop offensive cyberspace capabilities to deter, disrupt, or defeat U.S. forces dependent on computer networks.”
It is in order to respond to this stated threat that the US is to revise, and update completely, its nuclear arsenal. The NPRproposes that the US build a complete new generation of nuclear missile submarines to replace the Ohio class submarines; a new ground launched intercontinental ballistic missile to replace the ageing Minuteman III missile; and a new strategic bomber. It further proposes expanding the number of ‘extreme’ scenarios under which the United States might consider the first use of nuclear weapons in non-nuclear scenarios: They “include, but are not limited to, attacks on the US, allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure.” Also mooted (but not explicit in the final version of the NPR), is the lowering the nuclear threshold through the construction of a new range of low-yield weapons for use in certain conventional scenarios.
The Nuclear Review also hints at pre-emptive military action: “the longer we ignore threats from countries determined to proliferate and develop weapons of mass destruction, the worse such threats become, and the fewer the options we have.” It is not hard to guess that this sentence was written with Iran in mind – and with North Korea standing as the empirical evidence for the de-merit of procrastination. The North Korean outcome (whatever it be), evidently may become the pre-cursor to US policy on Iran.
Secretary Mattis said yesterday (before the House armed services committee) outlining the Defence and Nuclear Reviews that: “If deterrence fails, we must win”, thus neatly tying defence policy to President Trump’s NSS America First gloss, that America simply must “start winning” again.
And here lies the key: “winning”. Because winning, and restoring America’s military credibility and Trump’s demand to recover America’s former prosperity are intertwined. Both the President and his generals feel aggrieved that America has been ‘hard done by’. I wrote last week about the Vietnam historical revisionism that is shared by Generals Petreus, Mattis and McMaster that the Vietnam war was never ‘lost’ by the military, but rather was weakly ‘abandoned’ by pusillanimous military Chiefs of Staff, and civilian politicians.
These policy documents and Reviews seem to confirm that American policy is about showing that the US military can win (despite the Vietnam albatross) – albeit over ‘generational war’, against ‘generational enemies’ (such as Russia, North Korea and Iran) – and can resurrect its former commanding height over the global economy. It can, in short, ‘win again’.
It is, in sum, a Promethean ‘world project’: reaffirming the global status quo on its three pillars: market capitalism, western cultural secularism, and a revamped military ‘fist’.
What is missing is any jot of acknowledgement of American actions as contributor to the American ‘plight’, or (in any form) of sharing some responsibility for it. Secondly, the realism of such a project – at this time – is nowhere addressed (the NPR, for example rather blithely suggests that a complete revamp of America’s nuclear and delivery arsenal will not cost much).
At the end of WW2, the US contributed nearly half of global GDP. Now, it represents only some 14% of global GDP on Purchasing Power Parity calculations. Government debt is $21 Trillion, and America’s ability to service its debts is entirely contingent on it being able to maintain a low interest rate global environment. But the blow-out of expenditure with a new nuclear race, with a major upgrade in conventional military spending, and on civilian infrastructure expenditure – whilst cutting taxes – inevitably, will lead holders of US debt to question whether a diminished US, is not overreaching itself (politically, culturally and militarily). The post-war era is long gone, but the authors of these policy documents do not seem to have noticed.
The attempt somehow to revive the circumstances of the post-war US ‘hay-day’ almost certainly will fail, but in the attempting – and the tenor of all these reviews, as can be seen above, is assertive, if not plain aggressive – the desire for untrammelled US primacy may take us into new wars (sadly), or to financial crisis – or to both.