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Don’t call it isolationism

We are out of Iraq; we are getting out of Afghanistan; there is no appetite for U.S. military engagement in Syria. What is a guy in uniform to do?

On June 11, Michael Hirsh suggested in the Atlantic that the U.S. has “lost its nerve” internationally. President Obama, he argues, has stepped back from its global leadership role and military presence. Many Americans support what Hirsh calls “America’s gradual withdrawal from foreign entanglements” – they want the U.S. military home soon, out of Afghanistan, and definitely not in Syria. Time, as my carpenter up in Maine says, for us to “stop messing around in other people’s business.”

Some commentators think this trend is dangerous. David Barno, a retired Army three-star at the Center for a New American Security, urges the United States to stay globally engaged. Barno, who has overseen some really good research on U.S. defense planning, told Hirsh, “The sour taste (about overseas involvement) is obscuring the fact that American power around the world underwrites the global system and is the guarantor of peace.”

Even Barno, though, is cautious – even self-contradictory – about how deeply the U.S. should commit itself abroad. As he wrote about Syria, “U.S. interests are far better served by exercising restraint, supporting Syria’s neighbors, and performing a humanitarian role. After 10 years of bloody and inconclusive U.S. involvement in the wars of this region, slipping into another military intervention in this part of the world defies both common sense and broader U.S. vital interests.”

Barno’s objection to American retrenchment, though, is a classic restatement of the dominant view among Washington policymakers about our role in the world: We are the good guys, we keep the peace, we set the framework for the rules, what would the world be like without us? It’s hard to reconcile wariness about intervention with promotion of the U.S. role as the global system administrator. Muscle-flexing and caution don’t mix well.

I wouldn’t call this caution isolationism, though – or “neo-isolationism,” as Hirsh does. What is happening is the latest episode in a historic pattern of muscular U.S. engagement, by which we think the military can fix a problem, followed by failure or stalemate (Korean truce, Vietnam loss, Iraq and looming Afghanistan disasters), and ending with reluctance to use the military as the leading edge of American foreign policy.

But be careful here. The decision to pull back on massive engagements of military force does not mean force is not going to be used. It just goes underground. In fact, I would argue that today, the U.S. military is way, way out in front in setting the terms for future U.S. global engagement, and in ways that may not suit our national interests.

When the military (especially the ground forces) fail, the military does not shrink, sulking back into the barracks. Arguably, today the U.S. military is more involved than ever overseas, on a global basis, carrying out missions that extend well beyond classic military competencies.

The Pentagon and the White House call the approach “building partner capacity” – and it is the new religion for the global use of our military forces, becoming central to military doctrine. This model is stealthy, not public. It involves military training and equipping of the forces of other countries and smaller military deployments but in a significantly larger list of countries about the globe.

Syria, which sounds like a case study for American reluctance, is actually a case in point. Rather than invade with ground forces or fly an air cap – the thing Barno argues against – official U.S. policy for a very long time was to supply humanitarian assistance and “non-lethal” equipment to the rebels. Two weeks ago, the White House announced that it would begin supplying the rebels with small arms.

But well before this announcement, lethal weapons had been flowing to the Syrian rebels. While the hardware was not supplied from American stocks, the United States has been playing an active role in facilitating the traffic. This only came to light recently, although I have been hearing rumors of this role for more than year. According to a sentence buried in a New York Times story, “The Central Intelligence Agency has already played at least a supporting role” in the supply of arms to the rebels.

We have also been providing covert training to the rebels on the use of these weapons, in Turkey and in Jordan, leading to an expansion of the U.S. military presence in the latter country. We are flying F-16s (useful for a no-fly zone) and putting up Patriot batteries (to defend the rebel camps?) there. We plan to leave 700 U.S. troops behind, once the ostensible “exercises” that brought them there are ended.

The administration has chosen to keep our “capacity building” engagement in Syria under wraps, but the recent decision to move to a more overt role has surfaced programs that were already well underway.

Meanwhile, in Mali – to which we ostensibly cannot provide direct military assistance because the government installed itself through a coup – we trained and equipped the forces of other countries operating there, which are engaging terrorist bands up in the northeastern part of the country.

Many policymakers continue to be fascinated with the toolkit of capabilities, conjuring threats, ensuring a global role for the U.S. military. But, today, that role needs to be made compatible with the broader reluctance of the policymakers and the public to be engaged militarily overseas.

So, as a result, we seem to be heading for a stealthy global military engagement, not isolation. It involves a clear but less visible leadership role for the military in U.S. forward engagement. Hirsh has identified a key issue: How do we engage? But he misses the stealthy engagement; it is harder to see, but persistent, growing, and certainly global.

And it may get us involved in places and in ways we did not foresee, directed by the military, leading to precisely the kinds of broader military commitment the stealthy engagement meant to avoid.

(Gordon Adams is professor of international relations at the School of International Service at American University and Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center.)

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