Foreign Affairs Focus: Richard Betts on U.S. Strategy

After more than a decade at war, what has Washington learned? Gideon Rose sits down with Richard Betts, Columbia University's Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies, to discuss. For more, read Betts' recent article in the November/December 2014 edition of Foreign Affairs. A transcript of the interview is available below:

ROSE: Hi there. I'm Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs. We're very lucky today to have with us Dick Betts, one of the grand old men in the field and one of the wisest commentators on American national security policy.

Dick is a professor at Columbia, the director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies there, and the author of many books, including, mostly recently, American Force: Dangers, Delusions and Dilemmas in National Security. He's also the author of a wonderful new piece in our latest issue called "Pick Your Battles," about the lessons of the last decade of war.

Dick, we've had the longest stretch of continuous combat in American history. It's gone badly. The wars haven't achieved much and everybody's unhappy. What are the basic lessons that you take away from this last decade plus of combat? 

BETTS: Three main ones. One is that we should fight wars much less frequently, but when we do more decisively, erring on the side of doing too much to engage the enemy rather than too little.

The second one is to avoid getting into situations where success depends on controlling the politics in local areas, where the situation is basically chaotic and where local politicians have their own goals that usually don't overlap with ours. And if we promote democracy, as we naturally do, we enable them to follow their own course and to do things that are against our interests.

And the third one is that there are important security problems to worry about and that we should be paying more attention now to what used to be the main preoccupations in defense policy, and that's dealing with potential threats from great powers -- in this case, Russia, which is back causing mischief in part because we provoked their pushback, but also China, which is growing and naturally flexing its muscles.

ROSE: Let me take your second point for a second. You say avoid getting entangled in local politics. You're a good Clausewitzian. Isn't war all about politics? How can you avoid politics in war?

BETTS: Well you should avoid getting into a situation where you want to have the good guys come out on top in a civil war but you're not in complete control of the contest and you're not even in control of your own allies.

Conventional wars between states lend themselves more easily to Clausewitz's point where the issue is really determining which country comes out on top in a military engagement. A civil war is a messier, more complicated situation. And if you can't control the local politics that determine what your ally in the civil war is doing, then you're doubly handicapped compared to interstate war. 

ROSE: Why is it so hard for Washington to stay out of these messy conflicts in seemingly peripheral areas?

BETTS: Well for a long time it wasn't hard. There was a long period after the Vietnam War when there was a lot of reluctance to get involved in situations like this. But especially after September 11, there was a tendency to conflate or blur the difference between the war on terror and challenges in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

And also, since it had been 30-plus years, the trauma of Vietnam had worn off, and we'd also had tremendous success right at the end of the Cold War in the first war against Iraq in 1991. And that tremendous success, I think, made it easier for presidents to believe that we could accomplish a lot at reasonable cost with military power, which led to a couple of miscalculations.

ROSE: So is that actually a silver lining? I remember you saying in the run up to the Iraq war when everybody was worrying about whether it would be a failure that you worried almost as much about whether it would be a really easy success because then it might tempt us into dramatic, even larger, more reckless engagements.

Is the fact that the United States got its nose bloodied badly in the last decade and a half in Afghanistan and Iraq, has that at least insulated us from even stupider mistakes down the road?

BETTS: For some time now I think the tide of opinion is clearly against getting involved in similar problems, and that's why there's this mantra about no boots on the ground, even as we try to use air power to deal with ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State, problems that seem to demand attention.

So I don't think it was the great success in Iraq the second time around that is doing this, but the -- the failure essentially in Iraq. Even after we patched together a rickety but functioning government and left, it quickly became revealed that we hadn't been able to deal with the basic problems which are internal Iraqi politics and ethnic divisions. 

And there'll be tremendous pressures against trying to do it anywhere else. There will though similarly be pressures to try to rely on air power when we see situations that we're worried about and that politicians think demand military action because air power seems to be a way to have a military impact without getting military entangled.

I think that's also potentially a dangerous source of miscalculation, but at least it poses fewer risks of getting stuck in a quagmire.

ROSE: You talked about great power war, the potential for it, and the need to be -- remain vigilant about it. We're now many decades into the nuclear age. Any kind of great powers that -- the ones you're talking about, China or Russia, have nukes, as do we. 

Why is great power war -- is it realistically still a possibility? Isn't the nuclear era one in which that's been banished from -- from the nuclear powers?

BETTS: Well unfortunately not. First, people forget that the early phase of the Cold War wasn't anywhere near as stable as the later phase. It took three crises over Berlin, a crisis over Cuba to sort of work out the limits of how far, you know, the super powers could push.

Before that, there was a lot of uncertainty, probing, and dangerous miscalculations that could have gone the other way. Now I think we're in a similar phase in that the Russians are getting frisky again. I think in significant part because we thoughtlessly pushed them around for 25 years after the Cold War and now they're pushing back and we shouldn't be surprised.

But what happens in Ukraine or potentially in the Baltic states is much less clear in terms of how far either side can push with -- without the other going up the brink of war. And until we work that out, it's going to be more dangerous than the latter part of the Cold War was.

And similarly with China, we haven't really clearly made a decision in the American government or the American political debate about what risks to take, what lines to draw. We've tried to have it both ways, accommodating and containing. 

Even though we say of course we're not trying to contain China, in significant part I think we are. But we haven't made a clear choice about which way to tilt, and that too increases the chances of miscalculation. And these conflicts over islands in the South China Sea and especially the islands that Japan claims, it's not at all clear how far both sides can push. 

And the danger will be if a crisis comes because of uncertainty about that and we have to figure this out in time of crisis rather than figuring it out with plenty of time to think about it beforehand.

ROSE: You grew up in the Cold War. You've seen many cycles of these kinds of things. Even for a sort of -- somebody paid to worry about this stuff as a security studies chacham, what -- isn't the American national security environment and frankly the global national security environment these days remarkably sanguine and secure compared to past eras, and isn't the big story one to be happy and confident about rather than worried and upset?

BETTS: It was for most of the 25 years since the Cold War, but it isn't now. I think recent events -- we have this cascade of changes in the stability -- basic security of the situation. 

The shocking advance of the Islamic State cracking up Iraq. What looks like a very uncertain potentially losing situation in Afghanistan. The events in Crimea and Ukraine, and China flexing its muscles in the last couple years over these rather breathtaking claims in western Pacific waters.

These have all happened pretty recently and I think are ungluing what had been a revolutionary change in security that was in our favor. And ironically, one of the reasons we've gotten into so much trouble was that we were so secure after the Cold War. We were number one. 

American primacy I think led a lot of Americans to believe that we can make the world safe, that we have the power, that there's no other country or group that can fundamentally threaten us, and therefore we could set things right. And the problems that's led to are now getting pretty severe.

ROSE: For future discussions in future issues of Foreign Affairs and elsewhere. Dick Betts, thank you very much.

BETTS: You're welcome.

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