ISAF forces in Helmand province, Afghanistan
This article is a counterpoint to Tyler Bowen’s A Not-So United Front Against the Islamic State and Tony Zhou’s A Military Policy Failure in the Greater Horn of Africa
American millennials, those born between 1980 and 1997, came of intellectual age at the end of the American unipolar moment, amidst the flaming train-wreck of the Bush Doctrine and the cautious pragmatism of the Obama Doctrine. This generation, ever the object of widespread academic and moral curiosity, has developed a visceral aversion to the use of force and even more abstractly to the extension and maintenance of American influence around the world. Scarred by the War on Terror and Edward Snowden’s revelations, they may yet be a greater danger to American foreign policy than any number of little green men or artificial islands.
Military intervention ostensibly bequeathed millennials entire regions of anti-Americanism, pockmarked with the shattered remains of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Libya, alongside CNN shots of Tahrir Square bathed in American tear gas and Yemeni civilians fleeing the bombs of American-made and Saudi-piloted jets. Cooperative engagement, conversely, is making strides on climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, global trade, and the maintenance of peace.
Thus when presented with direct and aggressive challenges to American influence, millennials express a desire to disengage and avoid difficult policy decisions. The American military has too long been the first and only recourse, they say. A day without a drone strike, Special Forces raid, arms sale, new favorite dictator, or new military campaign would be a nice, quiet day. Indeed, millennials view the world as generally less threatening than other generations, according to polls.
Echoing these sentiments are Tyler Bowen and Tony Zhou of The Diplomacist, who argue that American foreign policy regarding the Islamic State and the greater Horn of Africa, respectively, should shift towards retrenchment and become less involved. This allergy to the use of force and even to the extension or maintenance of American influence, however, is as short-sighted as past military interventions in Iraq and Somalia, which the authors point to with righteous indignation.
Allow one millennial, then, to stand against the rapidly encroaching tide of isolationism. In The Not-So-United Front Against the Islamic State, Mr. Bowen details the strategic interests of the major external players directly engaged in the Syrian civil war, concluding that the conflict is a “mess” and that the interests of these actors are “irreconcilable.” Offering a vague non-policy of simply not deepening American involvement, Mr. Bowen exemplifies the trap toward which millennials insist on marching.
The article mistakes the complexity of the conflict for an obstacle, rather than an opportunity. Russia, declining demographically and economically, acts to staunch the bleeding of the Syrian government after a summer of losses; prevent the Islamic State’s metastasization into the Caucasus; and force American re-engagement despite its ongoing Ukrainian adventure. A nascent Shia axis of Syrian Alawites, Hezbollah, a proxy government in Iraq, and tangentially the Yemeni Houthis, all led by Iran, continues to vie with an equally shaky Sunni axis of a Saudi-led Gulf Coast and Jordanian coalition and Turkey for dominance in the Middle Eastern balance of power. Sprinkle the interests of Western powers, Egypt, Israel-Palestine, and a crumbling Lebanon atop the mix, and Mr. Bowen is correct in that things have gotten messy. This confluence of diverse interests is exactly where opportunity lies, however; it is in the very nature of foreign policy itself – finding common ground on specific issues and achieving incremental and occasionally significant gains with a range of actors. The rules of the Middle East are being rewritten, and retrenchment now will exclude the US and doom American policy in the region for generations.
In A Military Policy Failure in the Greater Horn of Africa, the politics become simpler, though the argument against American involvement becomes less clear. Citing a series of spurious correlations and dubious conclusions about the direction of causality between American arms sales and counterterrorism training and local civil strife, Mr. Zhou argues that America’s military activities must be reduced or eliminated. Where the US has gone, death and destruction have followed – more specifically, the blowback has been too costly and the gains too few. For good measure, these regional activities are also labelled neocolonial.
The failings of the piece must be addressed in short order, beginning with several terminological missteps. First, the phrase “hearts and minds” is both mistakenly attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson, when its counterinsurgency connotation was first invoked by Sir Gerard Templer during the Malay insurgency in 1952, and erroneously defined. The phrase commonly refers to defeating an insurgency through gaining the trust and allegiance of the general population of a country, not, as Mr. Zhou uses it, through gaining influence over a foreign government through the provision of goods and services, such as arms and trainings.
Second, to brush all greater Horn of Africa military activities with the pejorative neocolonial is again to abuse terminology. An American airbase in Djibouti, for example, or an Ethiopian military intervention upon invitation from a host government, are mutually beneficial security actions, not neocolonialism. Not every action on the international stage is naked power play, more often involving gain and loss for all parties involved. While the US has acted the empire at times, impassioned and impetuous cries of “J’accuse!” must not be allowed to drown out cooler, more nuanced voices.
Further, current American actions in the region are exactly the sort of light-footprint actions that should be welcomed by the disaffected attitude of millennial retrenchment. The combination of intelligence collection, airpower, and the judicious use of Special Forces in concert with multi-faceted support for local forces, including the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia, have been enormously low in cost, both in resources committed and in blowback against the US and its allies, and high in effect. Notably, al-Shabab is geographically and militarily on the decline.
Indeed, the mere suggestion of removing American Special Forces from Djibouti, where many operations in Yemen originate, immediately raised the hackles of American national security experts. American influence in the Horn, as conceded by Mr. Zhou, is a national and global imperative. It is a region where the US trades low investment for substantial gains at a time when east Africa as a whole is rising economically and geopolitically. Divestment now is a shockingly ludicrous proposition.
When it comes to American foreign policy, mistakes of the recent past must not cause the United States to shy away from difficult decisions. The Syrian civil war is a practical and moral issue to be dealt with, in all its complexity, by the full weight of the American foreign policy establishment. The greater Horn of Africa, with a dark past and a promising future, should be lifted up as shining model of low-cost, high-impact foreign policy, not lambasted for its extension of influence. Foreign policy, after all, was never meant to be easy, simple, or obvious. Let the US not cede whole regions of the world to the machinations of others, but rather respond with intellectual creativity and the full panoply of foreign policy tools.
Chris Newton is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, pursuing a one-year fellowship with AVSI Foundation in Juba, South Sudan.