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Morality and US Grand Strategy

March 2, 2013

By Jane Powers

Originally posted on


In recent months, a number of essays have been written by some of the most prominent scholars in international relations, all on the same topic: US grand strategy. The question that these scholars have sought to address is whether the US should adopt a more restrained strategy, avoiding intervention and counterinsurgency programs, and downsizing its military, or whether the US should continue to assert itself in every region of the globe, maintaining its huge military and sprawling network of bases, and its chronic habit of intervention.

Two essays appear on this topic in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs. The first piece, written by MIT professor Barry Posen, is called “Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy.” The second piece, written by Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth, is called “Lean Forward: In Defense of American Engagement.”

These two pieces are very important, as they define the parameters of acceptable opinion within the US political establishment. Therefore, these two essays expose much of what is wrong with established political thought and its underlying assumptions. These flaws can be uncovered just by examining Posen’s piece, which represents the dovish end of the spectrum.

Posen’s main argument is that the US’ post-Cold War strategy, which he calls “liberal hegemony,” has become counterproductive and unsustainable. Posen writes:

It makes enemies almost as fast as it slays them, discourages allies from paying for their own defense, and convinces powerful states to band together and oppose Washington’s plans, further raising the costs of carrying out its foreign policy…. the Pentagon has come to depend on continuous infusions of cash simply to retain its current force structure – levels of spending that the Great Recession and the United States’ ballooning debt have rendered unsustainable.

Instead, Posen proposes the US adopt a more restrained strategy: “Washington should not retreat into isolationism but refocus its efforts on its three biggest security challenges: preventing a powerful rival from upending the global balance of power, fighting terrorists, and limiting nuclear proliferation.”

So what would a “restrained,” strategy that still seeks to prevent a “powerful rival from upending the global balance of power” look like? Unfortunately, it would look very similar to the strategy we have now. Posen makes it clear that the difference in a restrained strategy would be primarily quantitative, not qualitative.

The US would still have a military presence that extends around the globe:

Because the Pentagon would, under this new strategy, swear off counterinsurgency, it could cut the number of ground forces in half. The navy and the air force, meanwhile, should be cut by only a quarter to a third, since their assets take a long time to produce and would still be needed for any effort to maintain the global balance of power. Naval and air forces are also well suited to solving the security problems of Asia and the Persian Gulf.

China would still need some level of containment:

Given concerns about China’s rising power, not all U.S. forces should leave the region…The U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force should keep the bulk of their forces stationed in and around Japan in place, but with appropriate reductions. Elsewhere in Asia, the U.S. military can cooperate with other states to ensure access to the region should future crisis arise, but it should not seek new permanent bases.

Also, the US would still need to keep order in the Middle East: “Washington still needs to reassure those governments that fear that a regional power such as Iran will attack them and hijack their oil wealth, since a single oil-rich hegemon in the region would no doubt be a source of mischief.” Posen goes on to cite the first Gulf War as an example of a military venture that the US would undertake under his restrained strategy.

The problem with Posen’s thinking is shared with the entire US political establishment: morality is not a factor in his arguments. Posen doesn’t have any moral problem with “liberal hegemony” – wars, proxy wars, and authoritarian allies that leave millions of people dead and maimed. Posen’s problem with liberal hegemony is that right now, its too costly, or that it encourages free riding, or that it gives the US a bad reputation. These critiques aren’t principled, as Posen himself points out at the end of his piece: “Perhaps current economic and geopolitical trends will reverse themselves, and the existing strategy will leave Washington comfortably in the driver’s seat, with others eager to live according to its rules.” Posen is living in the world of strategy. He is playing a game of battle ship and he’s decided that his ship’s current strategy is becoming counterproductive. Maybe later on this strategy will be viable, but not now. Ultimately, he still seeks power for his ship.

The problem with Posen’s approach is that, in reality, morals exist. We have to make strategic and moral decisions. Take Posen’s words on the Iraq war, for example:

Officials in the Bush administration convinced themselves that a quick application of overwhelming military power would bring democracy to Iraq, produce a subsequent wave of democratization across the Arab world, marginalize al Qaeda, and secure U.S. influence in the region. Instead, Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds stoked the violence that the United States labored to suppress, and Shiite and Sunni factions fought not only each other but also the U.S. military.

To Posen, the Iraq war was merely a strategic blunder. Good intentions gone awry. The only thing that can be learned from this mistake is in the realm of strategy. Posen fails to consider how many Iraqis were killed, maimed, and poisoned as a result of the war.

Author Barry Sanders summarized death toll figures in his book The Green Zone:

Epidemiologists at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, along with a team of Iraqi physicians conducted a national cross-sectional cluster sample survey of mortality in Iraq in 2006. Their study concluded that the number of ‘excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of war’ had reached 655,000. They published their results in the British Medical Journal ‘The Lancet’ in October 2006. According to the study’s authors, between May 2003 and June 2008, 50 percent of Iraqi children under fifteen years of age were killed by coalition air strikes… And the well-respected British group, Opinion Research Business Survey, calculated the number of civilian deaths, as of October 2006, at a low of 733,158 to a high of 1,446,063.

This was not just a strategic blunder, rather a moral catastrophe of genocidal proportions. To Posen, it was not worth mentioning. Those who take morals seriously would work to eliminate institutions like the Pentagon that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis over the last decade, not just restrain it.

However, it wouldn’t be completely accurate to accuse Posen and the US political establishment of being without morals. Certainly some sort of value judgment is required to advocate for one state over another. What values does the US political establishment have? As demonstrated by Posen’s arguments, these values are assumed, and not stated (and certainly shared by the “Lean Forward” camp): the US should work to maintain the “global balance of power” by policing the world; the US has the right to police the world because it is benevolent; if the US makes a mistake in its police work and kills a million people, it is because it got caught up in its good intentions or made strategic mistake. It is establishment doctrine that prevents establishment thinkers from being morally intelligent.

For those of us who aren’t deluded with establishment doctrine, and value human lives, non-interventionism is the obvious course.



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