American Force: Richard Betts on Possible Future Threats to the United States

Richard Betts, American ForceIn the conclusion to his book American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security, Richard Betts explores some of the possible dangers that might confront the United States in the coming years. In particular he considers issues and possible threats such as China, terrorism, the Middle East, and U.S. dependence on foreign oil. He also briefly discusses the possible options and their consequences:

Terrorists acquisition of usable weapons of mass destruction. Typical terrorism has a fearsome psychological impact, but it actually inflicts few casualties compared with even small wars and does not pose a serious material threat in itself. If terrorists could deploy nuclear or efficient biological weapons, however, the potential casualties would be far higher. Unless U.S. intelligence could find, fix, and pounce on such weapons, there is little chance of preventing their use since terrorists are not easily subject to deterrence. Acquisition of WMD by dangerous regimes like North Korea or Iran is also a severe threat, but at least is more manageable since rogue states have a return address and thus are more subject to deterrence.

What to do? For counterterrorism, first, business as usual (which means energetic intelligence collection and special operations), and second, better civil defense preparations. For dealing with nuclear proliferation by states, diplomatic and economic carrots and sticks, and covert action to disrupt and retard nuclear development programs where it can be effective. None of these actions assures success, but more ambitious efforts at overt preventive war are likely to accelerate the threat more than suppress it.

A World War IV against a coordinated international coalition of revolutionary Islamist regimes. After September 11th neoconservative pundits hyped the Islamist threat, claiming that World War IV was under way (the Cold War having been World War III). This image exaggerates the threat so far. Radical “jihadist” Islamists remain mostly stuck at the level of episodic low-casualty terrorism, with the exception of larger-scale unconventional warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq (the second of which the United States unnecessarily inflicted on itself). Even those wars are small. As long as anti-Western militants are only subnational secretive groups, armed only with regular weapons, they are a serious threat to some American allies, but a minor threat to the United States itself. All that could elevate them to a level of epochal importance would be growth and coordination on a grand scale: a worldwide radicalization of important Islamic countries in addition to Iran—from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan—and an organized alliance of the radicalized regimes. This would dramatically increase the power of the movement, most obviously in the potential to cripple the West by withholding oil supplies.

As this book goes to press in early 2011, a wave of revolts is sweeping the Arab world, and it is yet unclear what the results will be when the dust settles—benign outcomes as in the Philippines after Marcos and Eastern Europe after the Cold War, or bad ones as in Iran after the shah or China after the Tianmen Square massacre. Initially the popular movements against authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya seemed remarkably democratic and uncompromised by anti-Western radicalism. If revolutions can remain democratic and moderate, the World War IV threat will not emerge. This is a huge “if,” however, far from a safe bet for American strategists. And democratic Muslim governments are likely to be less cooperative with Washington than their despotic predecessors were.

What to do? At this point there may be little the United States can do other than offer assistance, or that is not already too late to counter anti-American impulses. Washington should support democratic revolutions as long as they do not degenerate, it but cannot avoid seeming late or disingenuous in doing so, since it has had to befriend and do business with most of the authoritarian regimes that are replaced. U.S. support for democratization makes sense on balance for several reasons, and with much luck could foster amicable relations, but it cannot be counted on to undercut anti-Americanism—it may unleash it.

Morass-like wars from which it is hard to extricate, like the recent ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Avoiding messy, inconclusive wars that cannot be terminated satisfactorily should be easier after the cautionary experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. It took more than a generation after Vietnam for American leaders to risk such ventures, and it should take another generation before history repeats, if the risk is recognized. But leaders rarely risk descent into a military morass deliberately; Vietnam was an exception. The danger is combat action that leaders undertake expecting a clear beginning and quick end but which proves more complicated and intractable than anticipated.

What to do? Avoid initiating combat operations that cannot be sure to stay at the conventional level of warfare, unless Americans are willing to risk a long and dirty little war, and avoid limited punitive combat actions that Washington cannot afford to back away from if they fail to coerce. Either caution is easier said than done as long as the United States itches to control politico-military developments in other regions.

Conflict with a great power, especially China. This is the big one, the potential danger of greatest consequence. A new cold war between the United States and China or Russia is not inevitable and should be prevented if possible. Contrary to common assumptions, however, economic interdependence does not make it an improbable development that can occur only if government leaders are more foolish than usual. Rather, it will take hard work and hard choices to avoid it. Historically, when a new power rises, conflict with the reigning dominant power is the default option. Statesmen will have to be wiser than usual.

What to do? Fish or cut bait: make clear whether the United States will fight to defend Taiwan against forcible reincorporation with the PRC, or not. Ambiguity is good for deterrence if the answer is no (because it encourage caution without bluffing), but bad if the answer is yes (because it raises the chances of miscalculation and accidents). If Americans do not want to abandon Taiwan to its fate and do not want to risk inadvertent war, reinvigorating the defense guarantee to Taipei explicitly is the lesser evil. The price of reducing the risk of war by clarifying deterrence, however, would be indefinite tension and confrontation, and sustained damage to the U.S.-China relationship. If Americans do not want a new cold war with China and do not want the risk of inadvertent war that goes with ambiguity, declaring that we will keep military hands off a conflict between Taipei and Beijing would be the lesser evil. (Cutting Taiwan off completely would be safest for the United States, but reserving the option to supply arms would be a reasonable compromise.) If neither choice is acceptable to Washington, continued betting on indefinite forbearance by the PRC, and acceptance of the risks of unplanned and inadvertent escalation of an unanticipated crisis, are the necessary price.
The preceding dangers grow out of milder challenges confronted in recent years and discussed in earlier chapters. There are also well-recognized and important dangers not examined in this book, but which belong on the list of high-priority threats. The problem with the two mentioned here is that resistance to the most appropriate policies is deeply entrenched in American domestic politics.

Energy dependence. As long as the American economy runs on huge imports of oil, the lifestyle national security policy must protect is the nation’s main vulnerability, one largely self-inflicted. Americans remain unwilling to readjust domestic priorities and habits—for example, by hefty taxes on gasoline and inefficient consumption—to increase incentives for conservation and exploitation of energy resources other than petroleum. Instead Americans have chosen to invest in military power oriented to securing oil by force if necessary. (As early as the mid-1990s, Eric Nordlinger liked to point out that the U.S. military force oriented to combat in the Persian Gulf was costing almost three times as much annually as the oil imports it was to protect.) The blood-for-oil option should never be out of the question, but it should not be the first option, preferred to domestic belt-tightening. Failure to adjust consumption simply makes immediate gratification a higher priority than long-term security.

The Middle East cauldron and revolutions in crucial countries. The Middle East and Southwest Asia are the most obvious regions of risk. The Israel-Palestine conflict is an indirect source of the revolutionary Islamist campaign against the United States. It may not be the main reason for Muslim hostility to the United States, but it is always up in the top three. Revolutions in Arab countries could raise the costs from supporting Israel, since democratic regimes may prove less willing or able to suppress popular solidarity with the Palestinians. Renewal of interstate war between Israel and Arab countries, which may also become less unthinkable with the passing of cynical dictators, could also implicate the United States, as in 1973. Revolutions that turn out like Iran in 1979 will generate crises. Radicalization of Saudi Arabia (controller of a large share of world oil resources) or Pakistan (with nuclear weapons) would be the worst cases and, if coupled with similar disasters in other major Muslim states, could push the World War IV scenario closer.

Heading off any of these events, or preparing for their consequences, would take sacrifice, energy, or concentrated attention. The American political system does not facilitate hard choices and subordination of short-term comfort to long-term security, even when most thoughtful analysts and officials recognize the need in principle. On energy consumption and support of Israel, moreover, interest groups opposed to major course changes are strong.

A different basic problem is that there are just too many plausible dangers for top-level policymakers to keep in mind. Human beings are incapable of giving careful thought to more than three things at one time. But complexity, bureaucracy, inertia, and an overloaded agenda mean that decisive action to alter course on any given problem is unlikely unless policymakers at the top level weigh in on it—and they usually do not until a crisis thrusts the question upon them. As a result, the odds are stacked in favor of a reactive policy for all but the most obvious threats. Well-recognized dangers may be contained by countermeasures deployed in advance, but the contingencies that redefine priorities are usually surprises. This highlights the last and potentially most important danger:

Wild card: a yet unknown and unanticipated threat. Identified problems may not dominate the agenda. Paradoxically, the least likely threat may be most likely. Since 1945 the biggest turning points in U.S. national security have come from surprise contingencies that blindsided the national security establishment, crises in countries or on issues that had been on no high-level policymaker’s radar screen.

Anyone willing to rest national security planning on well-recognized threats should ponder that record: In May 1950, who would have predicted that America’s next war would be in a place called Korea? At the end of the Korean War, who would have predicted that America’s next war would be in Vietnam? In 1988, who would have predicted (without being sent to a mental hospital) that within three years the Berlin Wall would open, the Cold War would end, the Soviets’ East European empire would be liberated, and the Soviet Union itself would cease to exist? In early 1990, who would have predicted that America’s next war would be against Iraq? In mid-1991, who would have predicted that fifteen years later Iraq would be looking like Vietnam? When the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, who would have dreamed that the Americans would be filling their place twenty years later? These rhetorical questions underline two points: major upheavals in U.S. national security policy are usually unpredicted, and they happen much more often than once in a lifetime. The one thing that should be no surprise is that we will be surprised.

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