Saturday, July 26, 2014
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America by Proxy?

PARIS – The demise of the Roman Empire resulted from a combination of strategic overreach and excessive delegation of security responsibilities to newcomers. Without making undue comparisons, the question for the United States today is whether it can remain the world’s leading power while delegating to others or to technological tools the task of protecting its global influence.

Drones and allies – non-human weapons and non-American soldiers – have become central to America’s military doctrine. Leading the world in technological prowess while leading it from behind in terms of combat forces on the ground, if not in the air, America’s shift of emphasis is impossible to ignore.

First there was the combined French and British action in Libya that led to the overthrow of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime; then came French intervention in Mali, and now Israeli airstrikes in Syria. Each case is, of course, utterly different, but all have something in common: America has not been on the front line of intervention. Yet, without direct US military support or indirect (and in some cases implicit) political support, it is difficult to imagine that such risky operations would have been launched. Have the British, French, and even Israelis become armed extensions of the US in their respective spheres of influence?

If so, the contrast with the recent past could hardly be starker. In the aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans simply could not envisage sharing their security responsibilities with others. At best, Europeans could be America’s “cleaning ladies,” to use the indelicate analogy coined at the time by some neo-conservative thinkers during George W. Bush’s first term in office.

But, even before September 2001, some US conservatives had expressed disdain toward their European allies. I still remember the warning uttered by a top US diplomat in Strasbourg in the early 1990’s, on the eve of the Balkan wars. “If we leave Europeans in charge of themselves, they will prove irresponsible, divisive, and suicidal, and then we will have to rescue them from themselves.” Today, Americans are only too happy to rely on the military competence and interventionist inclinations of some (in fact, very few) of their European friends.

It would be easy to interpret this shift as a response to the human and economic cost of America’s interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The reality is more complex.

America’s newfound taste for delegating military responsibilities to others is not the result of a series of events, but the product of a long-term process driven by America’s simultaneous ambivalence toward the world and active engagement with it. Is it worth fighting for a world that cannot be saved, and that only invites murky, inconclusive entanglements?

From this perspective, America’s involvement in World War I and, even more so, in World War II, are exceptions to the rule. The US troops that landed on Normandy beaches in June 1944 were animated by a strong sense of mission. They knew that they were fighting evil in an environment that was historically and culturally familiar.

In Vietnam, US soldiers, many of them black, often did not understand why they were fighting. In Iraq, their equivalents were very often Latinos for whom integration into American society – including, for many, the promise of permanent residence or citizenship – was at least as important as toppling Saddam Hussein.

When a country engages in the world, its authority stems from its willingness and ability to take “personal” risks. Its authority is diminished when the perceived gap between the value of its population’s lives and the lives of its enemies is too wide.

In this respect, drone warfare reinforces the perverse nature of “asymmetrical wars.” In her recent book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, Medea Benjamin, a peace activist and shrewd observer of international relations, makes a crucial point: “While drones make it easier to kill some bad guys, they also make it easier to go to war.”

Likewise, delegating security to allies can have perverse psychological effects. This is particularly true in the Middle East. How can the US exert pressure on Israel to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians, or to refrain from attacking Iran, when it offers encouragement – if only through public silence – to Israeli military intervention in Syria? If America’s purpose is to deliver a message to Iran – “Beware, you could be the next target” – many will question its sincerity about restraining Israel.

For some, the US has moved from too much engagement under Bush to doing too little under Barack Obama. For others, Obama is merely pursuing Bush’s foreign policy through other means – drones instead of soldiers.

The reality is probably somewhere in between. But it is clearly not beneficial to the US, its allies, or global stability. Precisely because America remains indispensable to international security, one wishes that its leaders would act in a more discerning way. In international politics, as in education, there is no such thing as care by proxy. If responsibility is to be exercised effectively, it cannot be delegated to machines or other countries.

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  1. CommentedWim Roffel

    As I see it the US has just perfected poodle politics. The US wanted to get rid of Gaddafi and let the US and France do the dirty work and feel themselves once again empires. More recently we saw the same principle in action when the US pressured for the end of the EU weapon embargo against the Syrian rebels and France and the US once again obediently did what was asked.

    The difference with the situation in the Balkans was the attitude of the US. If in the early 1990s the French or the British would have gotten stuck in the Balkans it would have been doubtful whether the US would have helped them. In the case of Libya there was no doubt: the US wouldn't leave its stooges alone.

  2. Commentedm r

    There is a more poignant and a better analysis of the subject matter raised here by Prof. Moisi in the Interview Syrian President gave recently to Argentinian Clarin:
    Q 18:

    Mr President, to what extent do you think that Obama’s foreign policy is considerably different to previous American leaders?

    The United States is broadly governed by certain institutions and particular lobbies. Any new leader can contribute and leave their mark, however, they cannot draw their own autonomous policies independently from those existing institutions and lobbies. So changes in American administrations create only subtle differences in foreign policy, because the governing institutions and lobbies do not change. This makes it difficult to measure the impact of any particular President or Foreign Minister.

    Most importantly to us in Syria, is that foreign policy in the United States is still profoundly biased towards Israel against the legitimate rights of the Arab people, particularly Palestinians. In the last 20 years, the United States has not taken any serious or genuine steps to push for a peace process. They invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and are still adopting the same policies. From a humanitarian perspective, they still administer and run the prison at Guantanamo. So what has changed? The rhetoric? That has no real value, what is important is action on the ground. So as I said the American administrations on this topic are very similar.

    Q 19:

    George W Bush commanded a better economy and rushed into war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama repeated it in Libya but it seems he has no real desire to intervene in Syria. Do you think this reflects a shift in American policy? Do you think this is due to the change in the world order? When I met you 7 years ago, China was not as powerful as it is currently. In light of this, do you think that American forces would invade Syria?

    This question can be addressed from two viewpoints. There is a view within the United States that the current administration is not keen on wars - we have to ask ourselves why? Is it because of the economic situation, the changes in the global power structure, their failure in Afghanistan, Iraq and others? Or is it genuinely due to a matter of principles? I doubt that this change is about principles. There are changing circumstances that prevent the United States from engaging in new military adventures, especially since these have proven to be costly and have failed to achieve any benefit for them politically. However, Americans are better equipped to determine this than anybody looking in from the outside.

    However, from another perspective which we see very clearly and has a direct affect on us, is their continued policy of supporting terrorism logistically and politically in our country, with so-called “non-lethal” aid. Let me ask you, were the events of 9/11 perpetrated by lethal aid? No, quite the contrary, which means you do not necessarily need to support terrorism with weapons. By simply providing financial, logistical and technological support, you make the terrorists ability to kill more lethal. Therefore, it seems as though American policy has shifted away from direct military invasion to more unconventional warfare.

    Another more significant question we need to ask ourselves is whether current US foreign policy fostering international stability? Clearly not. Neither the United States nor Western governments are doing anything for international stability. Look at what is happening in North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and many other Arab countries, there is no stability; this is what we should be focusing on. War is only a tool, we are talking about principles not tools. If America has shifted away from direct military invasion, it does not mean they have changed their principles. They have changed their tools - yes, but their principles - I doubt it.

  3. CommentedLeo Arouet

    Se deduce que la salida a es una mayor intervención de Estados Unidos y no delegar sus acciones a los países europeos. ¿Cómo podría darse esta intervención americana?

  4. Commentedlee kus

    Whee - let's all pretend that money isn't the motivation in militarism.

  5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    If someone travels through airports anywhere in the world, especially through the US, or the UK, or Israel for example, or if we read the recent 'scandals" President Obama has to cope with, we can safely conclude fear and certain paranoia dictates our behaviour towards each other, individually or nationally.
    Even so called allies do not trust each other, maximum they operate on the "we unite as my enemy is also your enemy" principle, but they could easily become enemies themselves when situations change.
    A world based on this paranoid fear is a very fragile and unpredictable world, where explosions, conflicts, even wars could break out any time.
    If we add to this the internal social tensions, rising social inequality, unemployment as a result of the deepening global crisis, the quantity and quality of weapons amassed all over the world, we are looking at a very unpredictable and probably volatile future.
    There is no other solution for any of our problems but the understanding that humanity has become a single, interconnected and fully interdependent network.
    We are all sitting on the same sinking ship and only by mutually cooperating, and complementing each other can we solve our problems.
    We have to learn how to work together above our inherent differences, dislike, hatred for a positive common goal, in order to build a safer, sustainable future, in order to survive.
    And in this single, united humanity there are no leaders, "more" or "less" important cogwheels, individuals, nations, in an integral system all parts are equally important.

  6. Commentedhari naidu

    Recent postwar American foreign policy decision-making has been divided into more or less two schools of thinking:

    (1) Realist or realpolitik and

    (2) Idealistic or Wilsonian

    Obama (The Pasha) is trying to change the framework of US entanglement and focus on domestic economic and social development.

    In the process, the drones leftover from GWB has come into good use...and may end up becoming the centerpiece of is war on terror.

    International Law has been contravened and moral aspects of global policy has been compromised. The UNSC has not (yet) challenged the drone politics...Germany is trying to develop its own drones under license from US.

    Proxy War, specially by Israel against Syria (and may be Iran) will eventually expose the strategic policy nexus of how US foreign policy is being compromised, as seen from EU.

    In the end, American isolationist policy is likely to result from GOP opposition to this US President (a non-WASP).

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