There are two important lessons of history for an imperial strategist who wants to avoid the trap of overreach.
The first is not to risk engagement in a new theater while an old crisis remains unresolved. Philip II of Spain sent the Armada to her doom while the rebellion in the Low Countries was still in full swing. Napoleon turned against Russia without ejecting the British from the Iberian Peninsula first. Hitler left the job in the Mediterranean and North Africa unfinished when he launched the Barbarossa campaign.
The second is not to risk power projection far from home without an assurance of support from reliable allies in the theater. The Athenians’ Sicilian expedition ended disastrously because their local allies were weak and prone to change sides. Hannibal marched across the Alps and initially scored three great victories, but in 15 years of operations in Italy he was unable to put together an effective anti-Roman coalition. More recently, the U.S. failure to win hearts and minds in Vietnam was a key cause of defeat.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter is a major advocate of American primacy, which is a newly popular term for the old imperialist notions of “benevolent global hegemony” (William Kristol and Robert Kagan, 1996) or “full-spectrum dominance” (George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy). The concept is delusional, based as it is on the pernicious notions of American exceptionalism and indispensability. It imposes a wholly ideological, deterritorialized understanding of this country’s interests. It produces disasters with grim predictability, from Kosovo to Iraq, from Libya to Afghanistan. Its advocates are loath to admit that any lessons of history apply to their craft of creative destruction (Michael Ledeen), and they reject the “reality-based community” in order to create their own reality.
On September 29, while addressing sailors aboard the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego, “Ash” Carter declared that the United States intended to “sharpen our military” capability in the Asia-Pacific region. Alluding to China’s attempts to claim sovereignty over a major portion of the South China Sea and to militarize some recently created artificial islands, Carter asserted that the U.S. “remains the region’s strongest military and security partner of choice.”
The message to Beijing was clear: America has opted for a policy of containment, bolstered by her local allies. The problem is that the policy was announced only weeks after Carter had openly opposed John Kerry’s attempts to reach a political understanding with the Russians to end the Syrian crisis. Carter’s underlings at the Pentagon publicly declared that they would defy any such agreement, anathema as it was to those who insist that Putin must be confronted always and everywhere, and that “Assad Must Go.” The Carter line was underlined by the “mistaken” air raid on Deir ez-Zor on September 17, which killed at least 62 Syrian government soldiers battling ISIS.
Such a radical upping of the ante vis-à-vis Russia created a “new reality” fraught with danger. The decision was flawed, immoral, and reminiscent of the Benghazi mind-set. Regardless of the policy’s merits, a rational actor opting to confront Russia in the Middle East would seek to maintain the status quo in the Far East and Southeast Asia, as per Lesson One above.
The mistake was compounded by Carter’s violation of Lesson Two: The U.S. is no longer the “security partner of choice” for at least one key regional ally, the Philippines. The country’s maverick president Rodrigo Duterte had directed a string of insults at the United States and Barack Obama, which led to the cancellation of their bilateral meeting at the ASEAN summit in Laos, and his declaration that U.S.-Philippine military exercises in October were the last for years to come. At the same time Duterte has taken a conciliatory position in relation to China, which is unsurprising in view of his country’s dependence on Chinese trade and investment.
Taiwan is ambivalent for the simple reason that Beijing’s quest for South China Sea hegemony corresponds with the fulfilment of nationalist objectives that the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang have in common. Malaysia is staying quiet because any potential dispute with China is far less important than trade and regional stability. And Brunei is a major oil producer but a minor geopolitical player demographically, territorially, and militarily. Carter’s only potential active ally is Vietnam, China’s regional foe. A pivot to Hanoi would require an ideological and geopolitical shift that might make sense to a realist, but it is hardly imaginable for the believers in Washington’s primacy.
Washington must recognize that China’s burgeoning economic power will inevitably be adjusted to her geostrategic position. Single-minded containment would be ill advised on its own merits. Coupled with the simultaneous decision to escalate the Syrian gambit, it is outright reckless.