Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
When U.S. President Barack Obama described a multipronged strategy designed to “degrade, and ultimately destroy,” the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, also known as the Islamic State) in a national address two weeks ago, some interpreted his remarks as a break with his administration’s policies of retrenchment. Writing for Business Insider, the journalist Michael Kelley characterized the speech as “a radical shift in the administration's intentional withdrawal from the Middle East.” The journalist Jeffrey Goldberg observed in The Atlantic that the president has “learned that there is no way out” of the Middle East. New Yorker staff writer John Cassidy concluded, “The realist has relented,” going “a long way in a short time” on the need for military engagement. And as New York Times editorial board warned, “The Slippery Slope Begins.”
This new consensus is mistaken. Retrenchment remains the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy and will likely remain so as long as the country faces constraining political and economic conditions. Although there is still much uncertainty about how the United States will conduct its campaign against ISIS, Obama’s words are consistent with his previous efforts to limit U.S. foreign policy entanglements. More important, his remedies are cribbed straight from the retrenchment handbook. On the military side, the emphasis is on expanded airstrikes and intelligence and reconnaissance missions, paired with increased efforts to advise and assist Iraqi security forces. On the diplomatic side, the administration has endorsed a parallel effort to build a regional coalition, which would curtail the flow of fighters and money to ISIS. It has also proposed additional military and economic assistance for regional proxies, including the Kurdish peshmerga and moderate Syrian rebels.
In other words, Obama is relying on the same measures that retrenching states have used to fight brushfires for centuries -- measures that emphasize frugality and flexibility. The president has outlined a modest counterterrorism campaign with a light military footprint and a heavier reliance on regional partners. Neither of these missions requires an extensive commitment of U.S. troops: the current proposal would bring the total number of service members to around 1,600. His proposed strategy stands in marked contrast with more ambitious nation-building efforts in Afghanistan or recent manpower-intensive counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq. And with good reason: ISIS has yet to demonstrate that it threatens American vital interests.
So much for the present -- what about the future? Crises escalate, missions creep: might this one do the same? The broader context suggests not. First, the public shows little appetite for a protracted, costly conflict. Recent surveys do show that the U.S. public favors a more assertive response to ISIS. For example, a national ABC News/Washington Post poll indicates that 91 percent of the public view ISIS as a “serious threat,” while 71 percent support airstrikes against Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Yet public support for a wider campaign remains muted. A CNN poll finds that 61 percent of the public oppose escalating the war to include U.S. ground troops.
More generally, public support remains shallow. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, reports that 27 percent of the public believe the United States should be “more active” in world affairs, an eight-point increase since April. Yet this number is still dwarfed by the 40 percent who believe the United States should be “less active” and the 29 percent who believe the country should continue at its “current level” of activism. The Pew Research Center likewise finds that only 31 percent of respondents think the United States does “too little” to help solve world problems, compared with the 39 percent who think it does “too much.” The public mood may be changing, but it will be a long time before the American people are ready for a sustained policy of ambitious aims. The public, like the president, leans toward retrenchment.
It also seems that the battle against ISIS will likely be fought on the cheap. Defense officials report that the cost of military operations in Iraq this summer totaled around $52 million per week. Budget watchers such as American University Professor Gordon Adams estimate that an expanded air campaign against ISIS could cost as much as $15 billion a year. Although not an insignificant sum, this is small compared with the $59 billion the Obama administration requested for overseas contingency operations this past fiscal year, itself a $20 billion reduction from the previous year. The war against ISIS will likely be added to these costs, yet savings from drawing down the war in Afghanistan can help offset fresh obligations in the Middle East.
Stepping back, there is little momentum in Washington to remove broader constraints on defense spending. Absent congressional action, mandatory caps on the base defense budget, a process known as “sequestration,” are set to return in fiscal year 2016. Efforts by the administration to circumvent budget limits through separate proposals for a $26 billion “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative” and $5 billion “Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” have met with a lukewarm reception on Capitol Hill. Congressional leaders recently announced that they would not pass a defense appropriations bill by the end of the fiscal year. With Republicans poised to gain control of the Senate, the prospect of a postelection grand bargain with the president on taxes and spending appears remote.
Of course, it is possible that the campaign against ISIS could escalate in unpredictable ways. If progress is slow, there may be calls to place U.S. troops in forward positions to help coordinate military activities with local proxies. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey recently testified that he would endorse the use of special operations forces if airstrikes alone prove insufficient. Yet this sort of gradual escalation would still be framed in the broader context of supporting local proxies. It is unlikely to require more than a few hundred additional troops. More unpredictable is the possibility of some dramatic setback, such as a large-scale terrorist attack on a U.S. installation in Baghdad or the capture of a downed American pilot. Yet it is unclear whether even a crisis of that sort would lead the public to support harsh reprisals. It’s equally plausible that such an event would further sour the public on deeper involvement.
It’s an open question whether the campaign against ISIS will be effective. There may be a tension between the desire to limit escalation and the prospects for success. Although the United States cannot stand idly by as Iraq burns, Washington does not have the time, resources, or capacity to redress the grievances of Iraqi Sunnis or solve the Syrian civil war, and its opponents know this. Worse, U.S. regional partners are deeply suspect: Iraqi security forces are inadequate, despite U.S. training; moderate Syrian rebels may be too weak and divided to outmatch their extremist rivals; and Washington’s Middle Eastern allies are restrained by their own problems and vulnerabilities. But regardless of how this war turns out, it won’t undermine the broader posture of U.S. foreign policy. In the end, the fate of retrenchment hinges more on the plans of major geopolitical actors such as Russia and China than on the irritations of ISIS.