The Danger In "Leading From the Front"

6 December 2014, 1456 EST

Kerry ISIS

The conventional wisdom about the gradual U.S. ramp up for the military campaign against ISIS is just that, all too conventional. Blistering criticisms from the Right—that the ramp up was too slow and that the President is to blame for leaving Iraq too soon—have both proved hollow. They have been fading as the U.S. and its allies have been successfully degrading ISIS. During the last two months of their successful election campaign, Congressional candidates essentially dropped this criticism from their attack ads and stump speeches. But the notion that the U.S. displayed weakness in the gradual roll out of its anti ISIS operation persists.

However, there was and still is a danger that the U.S. ramped up too soon. One of the primary strategic problems over the last five austerity addled years has been the sizable reduction in defense spending by a series of western allies (although the capabilities reductions, which matter more, have been much smaller and in some cases augmented). As important as maintaining capabilities is, there is also the necessity of strategy, which includes the willingness to use force if necessary. The U.S. attempt to “lead from the middle”, which involves allies sharing security burdens, could be impeded if allies interpret the U.S. taking the lead against ISIS as “leading from the front.” The danger is that this could result in a new round of allies reducing their spending and/or capabilities, which would be a serious setback to American national security interests.

This concern has been somewhat assuaged by the contribution to the initial wave of U.S.-led attacks by additional allies, both traditional western allies and Gulf allies from the region. In total around twenty allies are participating in anti ISIS operations. The UK, France, Canada, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, Poland, Australia, Turkey, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia either joined in the bombing raids or provided crucial logistics support (most did both). And a range of countries—the UK, France, Canada, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, Czech Republic, Croatia, Albania, and the U.S.—have supplied heavy arms to the Kurds in Iraq, which have helped Kurdish Peshmerga forces to push ISIS out of several key cities and towns and not a few key pieces of infrastructure. The EU gave the green light for any member states to assist with arms, and activated its Emergency Response Coordination Centre. A larger list of countries have supplied humanitarian aid.

Nonetheless, the concern remains. The U.S. previously made a strategic blunder when under the Clinton Administration the U.S. re-extended its security blanket to Europe after the end of the Cold War in full. It was a major opportunity for burden-sharing that was missed. When economic austerity arrived a decade into the 2000s, the U.S. had a difficult time persuading allies to share their joint security burdens. Numerous allies assumed the U.S. would be there to step in if necessary—as it always had—allowing them to begin paring back their defense budgets. Progress has nonetheless been made in the last two years, such as in the Libya operation and the Mali operation, in which both the French and the British played lead roles or shared the lead roles with the U.S. with other allies joining in.

Various domestic critics accused the Obama Administration of “leading from behind,” and various key governments around the world concluded that the U.S. was withdrawing from its pivotal global role when it formulated but then decided not to follow through with plans to intervene in Syria. The anti-ISIS intervention in Iraq and Syria demonstrates once more that these criticisms are unfounded. In fact the Obama Doctrine—multilateral when we can, unilateral when we must—has been consistent overall thus far. By “leading from the middle” the U.S. has gradually persuaded key allies, partly with diplomacy and partly by example, that they too must make critical burden sharing contributions to carrying out the West’s joint security tasks.

For example, during the ongoing Ukraine crisis top American allies defied numerous predictions and have remained steadfast in standing up to Russian aggression—to the point of hurting themselves economically and causing themselves domestic political trouble. In particular Angela Merkel’s government has taken the lead European hard line in the face of German public opinion. Certainly the downing of the Malaysian airliner, with sizable European citizen losses, helped to stiffen European spines. This is not to argue that the U.S. and Europe have successfully penalized Putin for the aggression to date and, more importantly, deterred him from additional annexations—short of direct intervention this will only be achieved by arming Ukraine properly—but at least the NATO Summit successfully reassured East Central European allies and put a new Readiness Action Plan in place, which has also involved increased air policing and forward basing of U.S. and western European military personnel and hardware on eastern European bases. The new NATO rapid reaction force will have a core of German, Dutch, and Norwegian troops—and noticeably no American ones.

The hard work of John Kerry and top U.S. diplomats/officers in persuading allies to share the anti-ISIS burden has thus far been successful. There was even a PR coup of the female UAE pilot participating in the initial bombing runs. But there remains a key concern that this will not last, and that key allies will once more step back and let the U.S. carry most if not nearly all of the burden, perhaps paring back their capabilities and/or spending further.

The U.S.-UK-France triad needs to be vigilant in keeping other allies not only engaged, but not taking the opportunity to save a few hundred million in defense spending while all eyes on are the operations. “Leading from the middle” is important to keep in place, even when economic growth returns to Europe, North America, and Asia. It should take its place as a core pillar of the greater western alliance from this point forward, for in essence the U.S. and Europe have jointly pivoted de facto to Eurasia, the Middle East, and Asia simultaneously. Security commitments to and engagement of each of these regions will need to remain in place for years to come.