The Era of Austerity or the Era of Intervention?

2 February 2013, 1158 EST

Tuareg_rebel_in_northern_MaliA variety of commentators listened to President Obama’s Inauguration speech and, having heard few words devoted to foreign policy, declared that the second term of this Administration will be marked by less activism on the global stage.  The draw downs from Iraq and Afghanistan readily reinforce this view, as do a variety of academics peddling recommendations for a new grand strategy of restraint.  I am more circumspect, for inauguration speeches are by nature more domestic in focus.  More importantly, America’s national security interests have not changed fundamentally.

The Obama Doctrine of robust burden sharing—being multilateral when we can, unilateral when we must—will continue to cope with a world that may be in rapid flux but has little propensity to generate the stability and security that would justify a restraint-based grand strategy.  Al-Qaeda was quiescent in one form, but in its new decentralized affiliate-based form it is anything but.  With the global campaign against terrorism continuing amid a constellation of constrained economic resources, robust burden sharing is an appropriate grand strategy; moreover, it is here to stay (at least for the duration of this Administration and likely well beyond).

Opponents of the President have had a heyday with the unintentional phrase “leading from behind.”  Ever since an unnamed Administration official spoke these tongue-in-cheek words to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, critics have twisted them and/or ascribed their own meaning more along the lines of “retreat to the back.”  Some grew so agitated, they practically fell over themselves in their clarion call for robust American leadership practically at all costs—case-in-point a certain presidential candidate’s “No Apology” book that aptly captured this sentiment, and a certain senator’s delight in singing “Bomb-bomb-bomb Iran.”

These days all eyes are on the MENA region (Middle East, North Africa), ground zero for the Arab Awakening that seemed so promising a few short months ago.  Fast forward to the present and MENA is unstable and under threat from al-Qaeda affiliates, with the most important country Egypt in the throes of a bitter backlash to the results of its revolution.  A chorus of artless American observers have gone from opposing the revolution there (against the will of the Egyptian people) to demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood (who have already moderated in Tunisia and in Egypt under President Morsi are learning the costs of their own repressive gambits).

The point is we are only in Chapter 2 of this 10 year democratic novella, and who’s to say western liberal democracy will be the endpoint for MENA countries?  What we can bet the farm on is that they will be more democratic than they were before.  Yet, given the degree and duration of autocratic repression around the region, these countries may well ultimately end up less democratic than the West would hope.  And getting there will be fraught with considerable internal instability and occasional conflict.  Exhibit A:  the tragic irony of Egypt’s previously repressed President and Brotherhood brethren using the tools of repression on their opponents in ways that mirror how they were regularly repressed under Mubarak.  And most western reporting missed the fact that the Egyptian fans who were sentenced to death were all fans of the Port Said team (which has a bitter rivalry with the more dominant Cairo team); what was the Brotherhood to expect when a corrupt Cairo judge hands down such a sentance?  Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are also likely to feature some intermittently tragic reading.

The major action at the moment, however, is further west and south where the nastiest al-Qaeda affiliates are active.  Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen has been out of the headlines of late, but rest assured it will be back on our front pages soon enough.  Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been wreaking havoc particularly in Mali and Algeria, and somewhat less so in Libya.  AQIM hooked up with the Tuareg rebel force that came away from the post-revolution chaos in Libya with large stocks of arms and a fresh yearning for independence from the rest of Mali.  Voila, the first revolution of the Arab Awakening with a resolutely undemocratic aim—so successful that alarm bells started ringing across the West, to which the French responded more robustly than the EU as a whole or the U.S.

And the Obama Doctrine came right to the fore.  The French intervened with British and American help and at least initial success.  This surprised just about everyone, as Francois Hollande was expected to be much less prone to foreign intervention than Nicolas Sarkozy.  But the EU was dragging its feet on fielding its CSDP operation to train Malian military forces, and the U.S. training that had been taking place proved ineffective to the point of a U.S.-trained officer taking lead of the insurgent forces there.  The double catalyst of the Malian insurgency and the attack on western assets in Algeria proved sufficient for securing UK and U.S. assistance, which has come in the form of airlifts, intelligence, surveillance, and military trainers.  The U.S. actually spent a cool billion on the Libyan Operation more than a year ago.  Few recognized it at the time, but that NATO-led operation was a hell of a harbinger.

The French intervention is in our interests almost as much as in France’s, because we all need to avoid falling into what I call the Joint Security Trap.  As I wrote last year in “The West at the Crossroads:  Toward a New Transatlantic Bargain”:  “Were the Arab Spring to go awry and were an al-Qaeda affiliate to begin training/operating…in Europe’s direct neighborhood…[it would be] in the joint interests of the U.S. and Europe not to reduce their mutual security at this critical juncture…[if so they] would enter a joint security trap, a kind of prisoner’s dilemma in which both are being forced not to cooperate by choosing to degrade their own defense expenditures and thus end up mutually worse off.”

Two weeks ago a U.S. policy maker complained to me that the French had refused a U.S. offer to help on their Mali operation, though since then the French accepted (and the U.S. got over its initially rejected request that the French pay for U.S. airlift).  More revealing is the response of the British.  Prime Minister Cameron is fresh from a trip to Libya and Algeria where he sounded almost Churchillian in stating his and his country’s commitment to helping MENA governments fend off their threats both internal and external.  The UK has come through with airlift for French forces/equipment, surveillance aircraft, 300+ soldiers to assist the French in a non-combat role, and 200 military advisers to help train Malian forces.

This is quite a turn-around from all the doom and gloom about the free fall of European defense spending and the shadow cast over the continent by Cameron’s threat to hold a UK referendum on whether to stay in the EU.  It was not widely reported on here, but after the success of the Libya Operation Cameron and Sarkozy did a joint “victory tour” of sorts around the Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya where they drew large openly grateful crowds of newly free citizens.  They each returned in sky high spirits to huddle with their buoyant political advisers in the Elysee Palace and Number 10 Downing Street—until their defense chiefs came in, that is.  Cameron in particular was thought to be positively giddy about all his diplomacy during the Libya Operation with the Americans, the French, the Belgians, the Italians, and in particular with four different Middle East governments who participated in unprecedented form in the NATO operation.

Then came the grim news from defense chiefs, the subtext being there would be no follow-up anytime soon with the large-scale cuts both leaders had previously ordered up.  One British general was even quoted as being duly concerned about the ability of the UK to keep the Olympic Games secure.  Yet while the Eurozone crisis has caused EU member states to cut some $45 Billion from their defense spending since 2008, the shared fiscal austerity has set into motion a host of European efforts to pool their defense capabilities—what the Europeans call pooling and sharing and what NATO refers to as smart defense, i.e. getting more with less.

In a recent conversation I had with a National Security Staff member and an American defense capabilities expert, we marveled at the number of pooling and sharing ventures that are underway in Europe (so many that we came to the conclusion that no one in or out of government there or here even knows how many ventures there are and the degree of their progress).  As of yet there is no European consensus on going as far as I suggest in my aforementioned defense paper—to building what I call a modest, expeditionary European fighting force—but the sum total of these ventures represents a significant step in this direction.

We now have fresh word from Tokyo that newly installed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is already having a marked effect on Japanese capabilities, as his government has just ordered a sizable increase in defense spending.  It is too early to say whether Japan will take the fateful step of being willing to use these capabilities, but already this government has sent fighter jets to patrol its islands to which the Chinese have loudly staked a claim.

So much for all the prognosticators who predicted that as the U.S. shares its security burdens others will fail to step up.  This the direct effect of the Obama Doctrine in action.  True, the Japanese are threatened by China while the Europeans are threatened by Islamic insurgents in MENA, but if the Bush Doctrine were still in place they would not be using what capabilities they have to secure themselves (and us too by the way) or increasing them.  In the Atlantic Basin Sweden and Poland have actually increased their defense spending, while Denmark and Finland have held it steady compared to their EU counterparts.  Whereas in the Pacific Rim Australia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Singapore are also all in the process of augmenting their capabilities.

It has been something of a surprise to me that no one that I know of has written about the series of critical precedents were set in the course of the Libya Operation’s first phase:  the most robust UN Security Council resolution to date; a double “Arab ask” vis-à-vis the invitation for Western intervention by both the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council; a NATO about face, going from alliance consensus “never again” to mount a multi-year out of area Afghanistan-style operation to essentially the precise opposite in Libya; a re-emerged Responsibility to Protect doctrine that saw the UN pull in France to help remove a recalcitrant leader in the Ivory Coast; European partners stepping forward in capability terms that proved decisive to the operation; and the four Middle East governments that participated robustly in the operation along with eight European governments, all sustained by a round of diplomacy the likes of which have not been previously seen.

In geopolitical terms, this was/is new strategic territory for the West and its allies. It has no modern precedent, but despite the seeming obvious significance of these firsts in Washington these days you can’t get a piece of commentary published on the Libya Operation unless you criticize it.   My point is not that we should be overly optimistic, not in the least.  But in strategic terms there are opportunities that are worth pursuing to see what we can make of them; otherwise, this could well turn about to be the era of pessimism.

I am going to continue to call for an overhaul of the West’s security architecture, specifically a plan to coordinate the transatlantic defense cuts with an agreement to begin combining what is left.  The crux of this would be an augmented European military capability, which would build on the positive developments in the European defense arena that are all too often overshadowed by the negative ones (i.e. the cuts).

I will be doing future posts that delve more deeply into the Obama Doctrine, the Joint Security Trap, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the rise of China, but for now I salute the French and the British for helping make the Obama Doctrine an early success and doing some good for the locals in Mali, Libya, and elsewhere.  The Malian people are free from the sheer reign of terror meted out by the AQIM insurgents, and with the support of ECOWAS inter alia Mali and the Sahel sub-region stand a decent chance of being able to roll up AQIM in the near term and maintain a modicum of security in the region.