Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
What does an “America first” national security strategy look like in action? The White House provided a hint in April, when news broke that National Security Adviser John Bolton had asked Arab nations, including Egypt and possibly Saudi Arabia, to supply ground forces to replace U.S. troops in Syria. (This came only weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump announced his desire to “bring our troops back home.”) Although details are scarce, Bolton’s new initiative appears to mirror a broader talking point coming from the Trump administration: rather than putting American lives at risk, the United States will work “by, with, and through” local forces to achieve its national security objectives.
Champions of the by-with-through model argue that it is a better (and cheaper) means of fighting wars and winning the peace than sending U.S. troops into harm’s way. Testifying before Congress in March, General Joseph Votel of U.S. Central Command explained that “working ‘by, with, and through’ our allies and partners allows us to multiply the effect of relatively modest commitments,” ensuring that the Middle East “never again requires a mass deployment of U.S. forces.” For Trump, this sounds like the ultimate deal: working with local partners will enable the United States to get more of its desired security outcomes for less of its blood and treasure.
Working with local partners is not a new model: the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama both relied heavily on local partners to fight the “war on terror,” whether through major efforts to develop national armies and police forces in Iraq and Afghanistan or through more limited partnerships across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Today, however, it has assumed a new centrality as Trump seeks to wind down U.S. military commitments abroad. Votel has said that the by-with-through model now underpins U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Defense Secretary James Mattis cited it on a recent visit to U.S. military allies in the Pacific. General Raymond Thomas, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, testified to Congress that “by, with, and through” is the “primary approach” to achieving his command’s objectives. And General Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, cites it as a central tenet of U.S. operations on the continent.
Yet how effective is by-with-through? The first year of the Trump administration has already provided a case study, as U.S. forces have intensified their collaboration with the Arab and Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, an effort begun under Obama. The U.S.-SDF partnership is a perfect example of the promise—and peril—of outsourcing U.S. military campaigns. And although the SDF is a non-state armed group rather than a nation-state military, the partnership illuminates several considerations that apply to the by-with-through model more broadly and offers lessons for how Washington can make the approach work.
The first thing that the U.S.-SDF partnership demonstrates is that the by-with-through model, done well, holds tremendous promise for achieving military objectives. The SDF has proved to be a highly effective and cost-efficient fighting force. With help from U.S. advising, equipment, and battlefield air and ground support, the SDF served as the main frontline troops in the U.S.-led campaign to retake large swaths of territory from ISIS in northern and eastern Syria. The campaign has been a military success, and U.S. troop levels and casualties have remained minimal.
Clearing and holding territory is not solely a military endeavor, and the SDF has also been remarkably quick to institutionalize efficient governance and administration. Compared with U.S. state-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the SDF and its political affiliate, the Syrian Democratic Council, have set up bureaucratic structures in liberated territory at record speed. The number of U.S. civilians on the ground in Syria supporting this stabilization effort is reported to be only a handful. This pales in comparison to the “civilian surge” in Afghanistan, which brought just over one thousand U.S. government civilians into the country.
Finally, the SDF reflects U.S. values in some, if not all, important ways. Much has been reported on the Kurds’ “radical experiment in women’s rights,” which features all-female units playing a “central role in routing ISIS fighters from Syrian strongholds,” and the SDF has used its newly established bureaucracies to promote gender equality in the territories it controls. Many Americans also sympathize with the Kurds’ long-frustrated project of self-determination.
Despite these real successes, the U.S.-SDF partnership also demonstrates the perils of by-with-through as a guiding principle of national security policy.
The first and most serious of these perils is the simple fact that Washington’s priorities are not always aligned with those of its local partners. Over the past two years, for instance, the United States and the SDF shared an interest in driving ISIS out of eastern Syria. But earlier this year, after Turkey invaded the Kurdish-held canton of Afrin in northern Syria, the SDF’s priorities shifted. Thousands of the group’s most capable fighters abandoned the campaign against ISIS in order to fight the Turks in Afrin, stalling the progress of the former.
The sudden impact of Turkey’s Afrin invasion illustrates a deeper dilemma with Washington’s embrace of the by-with-through approach: the fact that it uses military criteria to choose a partner for a relationship that often evolves into a political one. If, as Clausewitz famously wrote, “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means,” the by-with-through model inverts this dictum, subordinating politics to U.S. choices on the battlefield.
This dilemma is all the more pronounced because in Syria, as in many by-with-through alliances, the United States and its partner are not the only major players. By allying with the SDF in order to further the goal of defeating ISIS, Washington has jeopardized several of its other relationships. The SDF partnership has greatly complicated U.S. relations with Turkey, a NATO ally, for whom the SDF is inextricably linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist group that has waged a violent, decades-long insurgency on Turkish soil. As a result of Washington’s support for the SDF, Turkey has moved closer to Russia. Further, concerns about relations with Turkey and about SDF governance have limited the willingness of key European allies, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, to support U.S. stabilization efforts in eastern Syria. The Trump administration has insisted that its partnership with the SDF is “temporary, transactional, and tactical,” and that there is “no connection between the SDF and the PKK.” These communiqués, however, have largely fallen on deaf ears.
The by-with-through model, done well, holds tremendous promise for achieving military objectives.
Another downside is that local partners may be unwilling or unable to establish the kind of inclusive, representative governance and administration that the United States wishes to promote. This, too, is evident in the U.S.-SDF partnership. Responding to U.S. concerns about perceptions of the group as a sectarian Kurdish force, the SDF has made efforts to diversify its ranks, with American interlocutors now reporting that 60 percent of its fighters are Arab. But decisions are still made by the group’s Kurdish leaders, leading to simmering ethnic tensions in Arab-majority Raqqa. And although the SDF touts its model of “democratic confederalism” as a localized and multicultural form of government, the group has thus far failed to decentralize real authority to local communities in the areas it controls and falls short in meaningfully including non-Kurdish voices in decision-making. There is a real risk of backlash from Arab communities as a result.
Washington’s partnership with the SDF also raises human rights concerns. Reports have emerged claiming that the SDF is forcibly recruiting fighters, including children, and using the blanket internment of displaced persons to vet them for connections to ISIS. In addition to the alarming human rights violations these allegations would represent, they also jeopardize long-term U.S. objectives in the region. Forced recruitment among Sunni Arabs may fuel grievances and heighten the appeal of Sunni extremist groups such as ISIS—exacerbating the very problem the partnership was intended to solve. Even beyond the specific case of the SDF, outsourcing military operations to local partners can increase the risk of civilian harm, since partners may lack the established procedures, or simply the willingness or ability, to protect civilians.
These and other problems are also on display in other by-with-through engagements. In Niger, U.S. troops have partnered with local forces to combat the converging threats of ISIS, al Qaeda, and Boko Haram. But the death of four U.S. soldiers there in 2017 has demonstrated that even so-called train, advise, and assist missions can result in U.S. casualties. Moreover, military victories alone have proved unable to mitigate the growth of extremism, which stems from “local grievances, corruption, and weak governance,” according to Waldhauser. Recalling that security threats generally reflect serious governance issues is crucial to avoiding a romanticized view of by-with-through.
The U.S. partnership with the Lebanese Armed Forces is another example of how decisions that make military sense can exacerbate, or simply fail to address, core political challenges. Over more than a decade, the United States has disbursed nearly $1.7 billion in training and equipment to Lebanon’s military. The Lebanese military has ably fought ISIS and other Sunni radicals in recent years, but it has increasingly been doing so alongside Hezbollah. Although there is some debate about the military’s precise relationship with Hezbollah, the broader dilemma is that both share an interest in neutralizing certain threats, such as al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates. This cooperation has further entrenched Hezbollah as a central political actor in Lebanon, thereby weakening the state.
Given the statements coming out of the Trump administration, by-with-through looks as if it will be the model for U.S. engagements in the near-to-medium term. How can the United States make it work?
First, U.S. constancy and clarity in driving outcomes is key. As Votel noted in his March testimony, “A modest commitment of resources, applied steadily and consistently over time, and in a predictable fashion, can assist our partners in managing change, adjusting to new threats, and building their own capacity to act.” Indeed, the United States can mitigate many of the perils of outsourcing by being a constant, disciplined, and deeply engaged sponsor. It can challenge partners to become more skillful in leading security operations, actively confronting opponents, and taking responsibility for protecting their populations. Washington can also use its leverage (and engage in uncomfortable dialogues) to push its counterparts toward more inclusive, accountable governance structures that respect human rights, thus decreasing the risk of further extremism. But it can do so only as long as it remains deeply engaged and willing to raise sensitive issues like mission, conduct, and organizational structure with its partners.
Second, the United States must embed its transactional security partnerships within a broader political strategy. Military partnerships beget complicated politics. Conversely, complex governance problems underlie most security challenges facing U.S. partners. At best, military support that fails to address political issues will serve as a short-term band-aid; at worst, it will make things worse. Managing these complications requires deft diplomacy, persistent tending of international relationships, and comprehensive political engagement to help U.S. partners address local grievances.
Third, by-with-through partnerships demand realism, communication, and a constant assessment of how well they are meeting the predetermined objectives. When deciding to form a partnership, U.S. policymakers should be clear at the outset about its purpose and scope and what the partner wants from it. They should have a plan to mitigate these differences, if possible, and recognize where they may be irreconcilable. And when conditions change, as they inevitably do, policymakers must be able to decide how a security partnership should be adjusted to meet Washington’s political objectives, and clearly communicate with partners accordingly.
As the SDF case study illustrates, the Trump administration has often failed to meet these standards. Rather than demonstrating constancy, the president’s own statements that the United States “will be coming out of Syria, like, very soon” have cast doubt on the United States’ commitment to the SDF. As Washington comes to seem like an unreliable ally, the SDF will hedge its own behavior accordingly, potentially by consolidating Kurdish leadership or pursuing other alliances. This could eventually undermine the United States’ ability to achieve its objectives within the partnership. Regarding need for an overarching political strategy, the Trump’s State Department is famously understaffed, and his White House suffers from constant staff turnover and incessant messaging confusion. The chaotic interagency decision-making process, moreover, makes any continual, objective reassessment very hard to do.
Whether in Syria or elsewhere, the by-with-through approach to partnering with local forces may hold great promise for the United States. But it is fraught with complexity, and requires consistency, sophisticated political strategy, and continual reassessment in order to succeed. As the Trump administration claims to do more with less by embracing military outsourcing, Americans should remember the old adage of bargaining: If a deal sounds to be good to be true, it probably is.