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January 19, 2012

The Prison of Expectations

by Mike M

The always-thoughtful George Friedman offers his take on the Iran crisis over at his Stratfor empire, and it sparks a question central to the future of American strategy:  Is our strategic posture to be forever imprisoned by the requirements of others?

The question arises because of Friedman’s reminder, not inaccurate, of the views of Gulf Arab officials, in the context of the current Iran crisis.  Their “expectations,” it might be better said.

“The withdrawal of U.S. forces [from Iraq] has had a profound psychological impact on the political elites of the Persian Gulf,” Friedman writes.  “Since the decline of British power after World War II, the United States has been the guarantor of the Arabian Peninsula’s elites and therefore of the flow of oil from the region.  The foundation of that guarantee has been military power, as seen in the response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  The United States still has substantial military power in the Persian Gulf, and its air and naval forces could likely cope with any overt provocation by Iran.”

One can’t quibble with any of this, from a factual standpoint.  And Friedman goes on to note in nuanced terms that Iran doesn’t operate by lining up tank divisions and taking people out (it’s not as thuggish as Saddam).  Tehran works more subtly, covertly, using clandestine tools and allies and indirect moves and other forms of pressure to force states into accommodating its power.  American power, nonetheless, of various forms, helps counteract all of this.

But here’s the thing.  One could apply that one line from his paragraph—“Since the decline of British power after World War II, the United States has been the guarantor of”—and complete the sentence with a dozen different security situations around the globe.  Question any of them, and the response is:  “We are expected to do that.  And if we do not—if we even hint that we might cease performing that function—the result will be chaos.  The countries we have been guaranteeing will strike out on their own, engage in military buildups, seek new sponsors such as China, possibly even acquire nuclear arms …”

Well, you know the drill.  We are the boy with his fingers in multiple holes in the dike.  Pull one out, and a crisis ensues; walk away, and the whole thing collapses.  But we’ve heard there’s a decent film showing over at the Multiplex and a good espresso place on Main, and we’re growing tired of standing there.  We’re beginning to like the idea that someone else can plug one or two of the damned holes.

Will there ever come a time when an American political leader would be prepared to say, “Look, Country X, you are responsible for securing yourself.  If because of our change in policy you take extreme, globally disruptive steps, that is not our responsibility.  We will work with you to develop a plan for transition—transition to an independent security posture.  It needn’t happen overnight.  But it will happen.”

The Received Wisdom says, the world begins to end on that day.  Does it?  If that remains our view, do we continue standing there–perpetually?  Or a good, solid, “pragmatic,” policy wonk answer:  “For the time being.”

Sounds about right.  Until it doesn’t.  And the key decision may not be the choice to change the commitment, but the moment when you decide that someday a change is inevitable.  Because it is that decision that then tells you to begin building a strategy so that the actual change, when it comes, arrives in a coherent and stable fashion, rather than as a rushed, angry divorce.

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