Middle East Notes and Comment: Choosing Battles Wisely

When soon-to-be President John F. Kennedy and his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, wrote Profiles in Courage almost 60 years ago, there was a clear theme among the book’s heroes. Senator John Quincy Adams split from his party, Senator Sam Houston argued vigorously over the sentiments of his constituents against extending slavery into new U.S. territories, and Senator Robert Taft defied popular opinion when he opposed the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals on legal grounds. Eight heroes in all, with one thing in common: when faced with a crisis, they acted.

It is hard to get credit for not acting, and even harder to achieve greatness out of restraint. For the next U.S. president, maximizing the benefit the country derives from restraint will be one of the hardest, but also one of the most important, challenges. The flip side is also true: the United States can’t do everything, and the next president needs to minimize the cost of U.S. inaction.

The U.S. political system is structured to gather requests for action. As the political scientist Theodore Lowi pointed out four decades ago, the U.S. government has grown in response to organized interests, and the resultant agencies have an institutional loyalty to the interests they represent. Congress also gathers interests, responding better to organized lobbying groups with discernable views than inchoate collections of individual opinions. The system is geared to generate demands.

In today’s information environment, calls for action are increasing. It is easier than ever to gain rapid—and often graphic—evidence of atrocities overseas, and easier to rally public support or provoke outrage. The U.S. government has to say no more and more.

The reality is that government funding and capacity are both finite. More than a trillion dollars invested in warfighting and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan are a stark reminder of the gap between intentions and outcomes, and making such investments in the face of a tax cut rather than a tax increase constrains future operations. Among the most important and most difficult tasks facing the next administration is understanding what the U.S. government can afford not to do, and how it can minimize the costs of deciding not to act.

In this, the Obama administration has not fared especially well. What the president and his supporters see as admirable restraint, many others see as a lack of resolve. What some see as discipline, others see as crippling rigidity. Critics argue that the president too often substitutes rhetoric for action, telegraphing either an inability or an unwillingness to act. Political opponents at home, and allies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia bemoan what they describe as a lack of U.S. leadership, often obscuring their own rising resistance to being led.

There are five things the next president can—and should—do to escape this trap.

First, have a clearer set of strategic priorities. The U.S. system of government is better at saying “and” than “or,” and U.S. strategic documents accumulate objectives rather than choose between them. The political costs of not including every pet issue as a top priority are real, but the economic costs of treating everything as a core priority are even higher. 

Second, develop a better set of exemplary actions. The U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound demonstrated the awesome capabilities of U.S. Special Forces troops, and periodic raids on terrorist hideouts to free hostages have done the same. The United States has been less willing to use demonstrative force against sitting governments, turning away from a strike on Syria after the government was shown clearly to have used chemical weapons. Allies often have taken a different tack. During times of tension with Syria, for example, the Israeli government has often demonstrated its ability to penetrate Syrian airspace, reminding the government that any lack of action is not because it lacks the ability or the will.

Third, reserve the right to be unpredictable. The lingering fear of a range of punishing responses can have as great an effect as the response itself, especially if the time and place are unknown. As authoritarian governments have learned through history, opponents are likely to come right up to a clear red line, but they keep their distance from a limit whose parameters are not completely clear but whose consequences are massive.

Fourth, forge stronger alliance relationships, understanding not only that we are strongest when we act in concert, but also how much our allies feel an increase in their own power when they are part of a larger project. They want to join in, and they want to be part of something bigger. What they don’t want is to feel they are in a routine transaction or taken for granted.

Fifth, have a clear and articulated sense not only of where the world is headed, but what the United States can and will do to shift its course in a more constructive direction. Understanding where we are in the flow of history, and what the United States might do about it, is at the heart of a strategic discussion that will allow the United States to establish priorities among an endless list of possible actions.

Even if the next president is able to do all of these things, the hardest task may be to find a way to articulate success when U.S. efforts fall short of their goals. Information that disproves the dominant narrative is both newsworthy and difficult to suppress. It is hard to imagine how World War II would have unfolded in the Internet Age, with Nazi atrocities evident from the beginning, momentum flowing back and forth, and the human costs of firebombing Dresden and dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki immediately apparent.

Compared to World War II, the powers that the United States government possesses have increased, but the country’s perceived power has diminished. The task of building that power has become infinitely more complicated.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program