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Don’t Knock Offshore Balancing Until You’ve Tried It

Whatever you want to call the Obama foreign policy, it has not been a calculated attempt to contain the rise of hegemonic threats.

President Barack Obama addresses American University's School of International Service in Washington, District of Columbia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. The speech focused on the Iran nuclear deal being debated in Congress. American University was chosen as the venue by the White House because it is where President Kennedy made his famous 1963 speech on nuclear disarmament. President Obama's Iran Deal speech at AU falls on the 52nd anniversary of the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg/Pool
President Barack Obama addresses American University's School of International Service in Washington, District of Columbia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. The speech focused on the Iran nuclear deal being debated in Congress. American University was chosen as the venue by the White House because it is where President Kennedy made his famous 1963 speech on nuclear disarmament. President Obama's Iran Deal speech at AU falls on the 52nd anniversary of the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg/Pool

If one thing puts defenders of the failed policy of liberal hegemony in a lather and ultimately leads them to say careless things, it is any suggestion that the United States (or the world) might be better off if Washington adopted a more selective or restrained grand strategy, such as offshore balancing. Case in point: Peter Feaver’s recent claim here in Foreign Policy that President Barack Obama “shifted decisively toward an offshore balancing strategy in 2012” and that this shift was responsible for the rise of the Islamic State and all sorts of other bad things that have recently occurred in the Middle East. In short, he would like to convince readers that offshore balancing has been tried and found wanting, in order to persuade them that the United States should keep repeating the same misguided policies of earlier administrations.

For starters, Feaver doesn’t seem to understand the core logic of offshore balancing, which is actually straightforward and well-known in the strategic studies community. He appears to equate it with any policy that reduces the U.S. military footprint or liquidates a costly and losing commitment. Anything short of the sort of muscular U.S. “leadership” that Feaver has long favored is some kind of “offshore balancing” to him.

This is silly, and Feaver should know better since he recently responded in the pages of Foreign Affairs to an article John Mearsheimer and I wrote in that same journal explaining how offshore balancing works. It is a realist grand strategy par excellence, and its core logic is driven by concerns about the balance of power in key strategic areas. Offshore balancing recommends that the United States strive to be the only great power in the Western Hemisphere (i.e., maintain its current position as a “regional hegemon”), because this position maximizes U.S. security. The United States should also try to make sure no other power achieves hegemony in Europe, Asia, or the oil-rich Persian Gulf, because these regions contain large amounts of industrial power and key strategic resources.

If no potential hegemon is present or on the horizon in any of these areas, then the United States does not need to commit its own forces there and instead can pass the buck to local powers to uphold the balance of power themselves. If a potential hegemon emerges that the local powers cannot check, then Washington should step in and do what is necessary to tilt the balance against the hegemonic danger. Offshore balancing is clearly not isolationism, therefore, since it entails constant monitoring and deployment of resources — but the level of U.S. military involvement overseas becomes a function of the balance of power in three key strategic regions and is calibrated against the size and imminence of the threat.

Many labels could be put on Obama’s Middle East policy, but “offshore balancing” is not one of them. Why? Because there is at present no hegemonic threat to the balance of power in the region; indeed, the Middle East is more divided now than at any time in living memory. There is no good strategic reason for the United States to be militarily engaged there and certainly not at the levels of the recent past. I’ve never understood what Obama & Co. think they are trying to do in this part of the world — I’ve written many columns that were critical of their actions — but they have consistently done much more than an offshore balancer would have recommended.

To be more specific: It was not offshore balancing when Obama ordered a “surge” of additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan in 2009. This unhappy country was not a vital interest for the United States; it was easy to anticipate that this policy was not going to work (and it didn’t). Adding troops to the theater there just squandered resources and political capital in an area of marginal strategic importance.

Similarly, it was hardly offshore balancing when Obama decided to help topple Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, when he tilted against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, or when he demanded “[Bashar al-]Assad must go” at the very beginning of the Syrian uprising. And it was certainly not offshore balancing when the United States repeatedly interfered in Somali and Yemeni domestic politics as part of the “war on terror”; when it decided to organize a multinational coalition against the Islamic State; or when it provided various forms of covert support to Syrian rebel groups.

None of these actions was designed to prevent a powerful state from establishing hegemony in the Persian Gulf or greater Middle East. On the contrary, they were partly motivated by familiar counterterrorism concerns (usually exaggerated) but even more by the same familiar brand of overzealous liberal hegemony that Democrats and Republicans have been endorsing for years. Liberal hegemonists believe the United States should remain the “indispensable” nation, that its vast power should be used to spread democracy and other liberal values wherever possible. They also tend to think that it is a great strategic achievement whenever Washington gets stuck with the burden of solving some intractable international problem.

It is hard to take seriously Feaver’s specific charge: that the decision to adopt “offshore balancing” and leave Iraq in 2011 is responsible for the rise of the Islamic State and thus has to be quickly reversed. Virtually every proponent of offshore balancing opposed the Iraq War, which was the key step that led to the creation of the Islamic State. Here’s an assertion impossible to refute: If the United States had not invaded Iraq in March 2003, there would be no Islamic State today. Did the removal of U.S. troops allow a vacuum for jihadis to exploit? Perhaps. But it is hard to see how the United States, having occupied Iraq and set up a new government, could have remained in that country once that new, post-Saddam Hussein government clearly wanted us out.

Feaver does not explain how that problem could have been overcome; nor does he tell us how a continued U.S. presence would have produced a stable long-term outcome there. The United States could not control Iraq’s political evolution when it had 150,000 troops in the country, and remaining there with smaller numbers after 2012 wouldn’t have produced Sunni-Shiite reconciliation, which was essential for any semblance of stability. If anything, staying in Iraq would have made Washington complicit in former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s anti-Sunni campaign — which made many Iraqi Sunnis initially welcome the Islamic State as a hedge against the government’s Shiite sectarianism. The real lesson, however, is that once the United States had broken Iraq and ignited a bitter sectarian struggle, no viable strategy would have allowed Washington to fix it.

The bottom line is clear: Offshore balancing has not failed in the Middle East because it hasn’t been U.S. strategy for almost a generation. The United States did act like an offshore balancer from 1945 to about 1990: It had vital interests in the region and wanted to prevent any state (including the Soviet Union) from controlling the Gulf. But it pursued this goal first by relying on Great Britain (until 1967) and then by turning to local allies like the shah of Iran. After the shah fell in 1979, the United States created the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) so it could affect the balance of power swiftly and directly and thus deter a possible Soviet foray into the Gulf. But it didn’t park the RDF in the Gulf or elsewhere in the region; instead, it kept it offshore and over the horizon and didn’t use it until Iraq seized Kuwait in August 1990.

Unfortunately, Bill Clinton’s administration abandoned this smart strategy after the first Gulf War and unwisely adopted “dual containment.” Instead of letting Iraq and Iran check each other, the United States promised to check both at the same time. This policy required keeping forces permanently in the region, which became one of the reasons Osama bin Laden attacked the American homeland on 9/11. In response, George W. Bush’s administration adopted an even more ambitious (and delusional) approach: It decided to try to transform the region into a sea of pro-American democracies, beginning with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (a decision Feaver enthusiastically supported).

We know how well that worked out! Obama was elected in part because he promised to end the Iraq War and reduce the U.S. military involvement in the region. And with some delays, he proceeded to implement the agreement to leave Iraq that Bush had negotiated and approved in 2008. The U.S. presence in the broader Middle East declined but hardly disappeared; indeed, American forces — including hundreds of drones and thousands of special operations troops — remain active in many countries in the region. As Andrew Bacevich has brilliantly recounted, the results of almost all these activities have been dismal.

Offshore balancing has not failed, for the simple reason that it hasn’t been tried. By contrast, Feaver’s prescription — more liberal hegemony — does have an abundant track record, and the results are not pretty. It is little wonder he mischaracterizes the strategy that underpins Obama’s failures and misrepresents the strategic alternatives. He is surely hoping Americans will forget all the trouble that has been caused by overzealous U.S. efforts to police the world and shape local politics in far-flung regions. After all, forgetting past failures is the first step toward repeating them.

Photo credit: PETE MAROVICH/Bloomberg/Pool

About the Author

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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