The Case for Restraint — and Disaggregation


Professor Barry Posen of MIT has received quite a platform in the most recent issue of The American Interest to make “The Case for Restraint” calling for a major rethink and overhaul of American grand strategy. Posen’s closing summary reads:

Since the end of the Cold War 16 years ago, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have been running an experiment with U.S. grand strategy. The theory to be tested has been this: Very good intentions, plus very great power, plus action can transform both international politics and the domestic politics of other states in ways that are advantageous to the United States, and at costs it can afford. The evidence is in: The experiment has failed. Transformation is unachievable, and costs are high.
The United States needs now to test a different grand strategy: It should conceive its security interests narrowly, use its military power stingily, pursue its enemies quietly but persistently, share responsibilities and costs more equitably, watch and wait more patiently. Let’s do this for 16 years and see if the outcomes aren’t better.

Whether people like it or not, Posen’s thesis commands attention with some of the biggest names in the foreign policy/international relations racket responding. Some like Francis Fukuyama and Owen Harries offer qualified support for Posen’s thesis, while others like Stephen Krasner and John Ikenberry offer some serious challenges to the premises on which Posen builds.
I notice that many of the responses often criticize Posen’s strategic propositions on the grounds that they are not politically tenable or try to lay out a corrective path for the tactical errors of the past 16 years.
The trouble with the first type of response is that it does not actually refute the merits of argument, it only ducks them with a neat “politics precludes”. The trouble with the second is that it tries to wipe the slate clean and start over, ignoring the fact that the system has reacted and evolved in response (i.e. our brand, be it in the form of security umbrellas or democracy promotion, is tainted) and our options 16 yrs ago are no longer the ones afforded to us. To adjust, we might have to shift the strategic goalposts, which is in some way what Posen proposes.
The shift Posen envisions is a move away from American hyper-activism, which in part results from the conflation of a multiplicity threats and the locating of these in the imminent and existential column. This conflation is no better exemplified than in James Q. Wilson’s response where he writes:

Indeed, when we look at the last forty years, America has relentlessly, until the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, followed a policy of restraint. The Shah was overthrown in Iran, 241 Marines were killed in Lebanon, a CIA station chief was tortured and murdered there, the ship Achille Lauro was hijacked and an American was killed, Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Scotland, a bomb was detonated under the World Trade Center, two of our Embassies were destroyed in Africa, the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen, and American soldiers were murdered in Somalia. When these and other attacks, all carried out by Islamic radicals, occurred, the United States did nothing except occasionally to lob a few cruise missiles into some empty buildings. By 1998, bin Laden had drawn the right conclusion. In an interview, he described the American military as a “paper tiger” who “after a few blows ran in defeat.”

It seems the only thing that can’t be pinned on the supposed monomaniacal hydra of radical Islam is the mysterious downing of aircrafts over the Bermuda Triangle (but wait, there’s time). In fact Wilson manages to conflate al Qaeda with what were (and still largely are today) nationalist movements like Hezbollah and the Palestinian Liberation Front and what was by most accounts a populist revolution in Iran led by bazaari merchants, intellectuals, socialists, women’s rights groups, and the clergy (a faction of which eventually co-opted the others). I’ve heard a number of politicians embrace this conflation for the sake of expediency but I didn’t think a serious and respected academic would.
I think an important first step that would fit with under Posen’s call for prioritizing threats (which he actually laid out quite presciently in late 2001) would be a disaggregation of the seemingly homogenous “Islamofacist” behemoth.
–Sameer Lalwani


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