When it comes to bold, insightful strategy in the war against militant Islam, the Bush Doctrine is hard to beat. Projecting preemptive and near-hegemonic power into the heart of the Middle East, the Administration’s goal is to transform the region and eliminate (or at least significantly constrict) the political, financial, and social well-springs that feed al Qaeda and its ilk. If our national purpose is to defeat Islamic terrorism, as opposed to merely trying to protect against the next horrific blow, then this (or something close to it) is the strategy we need.
That’s why John Kerry’s most effective criticisms are not to be about broad strategy, but about tactics and execution. And let’s face it — on the question of execution, Bush has given reasonable people plenty to criticize. From the lack of forceful occupation immediately after Baghdad fell, to the seemingly endless refusal to put enough troops in-country, to the current ‘negotiations’ with the Sunni guerillas in Fallujah, the Administration certainly has not handled Iraq as well as one might have hoped.
But tactics alone can’t win the war on terror, and Kerry knows it. The Senator won’t have a prayer in November unless he offers voters a strategic vision to compete with the Bush Doctrine. While most of his faltering steps in this direction don’t merit much serious consideration, a few do.
In particular, Kerry’s insistence that we put more effort into joint action with Europe —France and Germany usually being singled out — seems to make good strategic sense, at least initially. After all, even the Bush Administration, with all of its willingness to use unilateral force, has always emphasized the importance of cooperation among the “great powers” in the war against militant Islam.
Unfortunately, the prima facie plausibility of Kerry’s idea for strong U.S./European cooperation dissolves under scrutiny, showing itself to be little more than fond nostalgia for a bygone age.
Three Cracks in the Foundation
The foundation required for meaningful joint action between the United States and Old Europe — Britain excepted, to some degree — is nowhere near as strong as it was a few decades ago. Since at least the end of the Warsaw Pact, three debilitating weaknesses have become apparent, weaknesses that sharply curtail the usefulness of the trans-Atlantic relationship in any endeavor as demanding as the global war on terror.
First, the deep personal affections between the American and European peoples have waned. With relatively little European immigration to the United States for the past several generations, the human-level bonds across the Atlantic — real bonds of family and memory and emotion — have grown tenuous. That America and Europe share basic values and a common history (our Greco/Roman heritage, Judaism and Christianity, the Enlightenment, and so on) is both important and beyond dispute. But as significant as this shared cultural patrimony is, it does not provide the living links to the ‘old country’ that used to be an integral part of America’s ethnic communities. And in a democracy like ours, those human connections to foreign lands quite naturally influence government policy and promote bilateral cooperation. Conversely, their loosening will slacken cooperation and interest. While rarely decisive in themselves, the importance of these human webs must not be underestimated.
Second, throughout most of the 20th Century, America’s concern and involvement with Europe (at least on the strategic level) was a concern with the problems of Europe. The occasions for major American engagements with Continent sprang from European catastrophes of one sort or another — the Kaiser, Hitler, Mussolini; the rise of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union; the need to prevent wobbly West European nations from going Communist, and to encourage captive East Europeans to resist.
But such mind-bending disasters no longer afflict Europe. While nobody in his right mind could see this as anything but an unalloyed blessing, one must at the same time recognize that it removes a good deal of the century-old basis for U.S. strategic (as opposed to economic) engagement on the European Continent. And as strategic engagement attenuates, so do all the institutions and habits and agreements on which Mr. Kerry (and kindred spirits) would draw upon to invigorate north Atlantic cooperation in the war on terror.
Third, there is the yawning gulf between U.S. and European military power. Although individual European countries may have relatively formidable armed forces, Europe as a whole lacks the military integration necessary to even come close to America’s war fighting and power projection capabilities.
The disparity between American and European capability makes genuine consultation on a diplomacy-or-war decision difficult, to say the least. Europe essentially does not have a war option. It cannot project military power on anything like a U.S. scale, so European ‘discussions’ of the military option quickly become surreal. For Europe, the choice is never truly diplomacy-or-war. Rather, it is diplomacy (in which the Europeans can participate as a full and equal partner with the U.S.) or a war in which Europe basically holds America’s coat while the Yanks run the show. Who can blame the Europeans for not being enthusiastic about the latter prospect?
Once America decides (unilaterally) that diplomatic measures are preferable to military ones, then joint action with the Europeans might make sense, assuming — and it’s often a shaky assumption — that our interests are actually close enough to make it worthwhile. But the diplomacy-or-war decision really belongs to America alone, and that’s just a fact. Since Kerry wants serious (as opposed to pro forma) consultations with Old Europe about the diplomacy-or-war choice itself, his strategy of joint action doesn’t get off the ground.
Clearly, none of the above should be taken to the extreme. Europe remains an important and natural friend of the U.S., and there are many areas in which trans-Atlantic cooperation is both proper and beneficial. And even in the military sphere, individual European countries may have the capabilities to make serious consultations valuable — Britain is the most obvious example here.
But when Kerry says greater American reliance on joint action with Europe should be part of our national strategy, he is just living in the past. Somebody should let him know it’s time to move on.
Mr. Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA, currently on the editorial board of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.