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Stay Scary, America

When it comes to the U.S. response to extremists abroad, it is far better for America to be feared, and to be loved.

Obama Bush

In Robert De Niro’s 1993 mafia epic, A Bronx Tale, Chazz Palminteri’s mob boss character Sonny takes a local kid under his wing and teaches him the ways of the streets. When his protégé asks the age-old question of whether it’s better to be feared of loved, Sonny gives him a rousing response:

It’s nice to be both, but it’s very difficult. But if I had my choice, I would rather be feared. Fear lasts longer than love. Friendships that are bought with money mean nothing…. It’s fear that keeps them loyal to me. But the trick is to not be hated. That’s why I treat my men good, but not too good. I give them too much, then they don’t need me. I give them just enough where they need me, but they don’t hate me.

His message is a crucial one for a wise guy on the rise, but it also has a storied place in the realm of international affairs, dating back to the late 1400s and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince.

In the eyes of many, the presidency of George W. Bush brought this sentiment to the forefront of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy, a shift that President Barack Obama has tried, with some success, to roll back. From the disavowal of enhanced interrogation techniques to restoring relations with Cuba and vastly reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has undeniably softened the overall face of American power. These changes didn’t occur by accident, of course; it’s not America’s style to admit it, but after a few years of rather harsh criticism abroad, at least part of the American electorate — the part that elected Obama — wanted to be liked again.

There are good reasons for this. Admiration for the United States and its values was an important factor in its eventual victory over the Soviet Union and global communism, and anti-Americanism, regardless of its basis, has been a major driver behind the greatest threats to U.S. national security since the Cold War. Billions have been spent trying to boost America’s global image, and Obama stated during a campaign speech in 2012 that improving the U.S. image abroad was one of the accomplishments of which he was most proud during his first term.

While there has been a dip in international positive views of the United States in the last year or so, the friendlier face of Obama’s America does seem to have had the intended effect of improving global views of the United States, at least marginally (drone strikes, economic policies, and scandals à la Snowden have managed to cap numbers in Europe and parts of the Middle East). According to the Pew Research Center’s poll on “Views of the U.S. and American Foreign Policy,” nearly every country had a more positive view of the United States in 2012 than in 2004. (Of the 20 countries surveyed, ratings in only Turkey and Pakistan decreased during that period.)

Certainly, each of the policy changes that fall into this “friendlier” basket of U.S. behavior that may have boosted the country’s image abroad, such as efforts to shut down Guantánamo and reducing the U.S. role in Iraq, had its own positive effects on the United States and was not taken to win popularity contests. In fact, the great majority of them, at least in their intent, were very likely the right decision for the United States itself, entirely aside from whether they were attractive in the eyes of the world. (Well-calibrated speed and execution, in some cases, are still very open questions, but alas, the devil remains in the details.)

Take for example, Washington’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. The Obama administration chose to draw down in Afghanistan largely to prevent further losses in a conflict that had become a resource-intensive quagmire, not to court global perceptions of U.S. magnanimity. Likewise, the decision to stop the use of waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques was based on the imperative to maintain moral standards in the U.S. treatment of detainees for the sake of credibility and to answer domestic criticism, not to mention revert to internationally accepted norms of human rights. Even the lifting of the embargo on Cuba, which has already gained big points across South America, will also have major economic benefits for the United States and relieve the burden of enforcing economic and travel restrictions.

For all the positives that these decisions bring about, both in direct effects and in improving the U.S. image abroad, they unfortunately also broadcast an image of the United States as a little less aggressive, a little less engaged in the world, and frankly, a little less scary. No matter how wise, right, or ultimately beneficial these actions may be, the downside of being seen as a little bit friendlier may be, well, being seen as a little bit friendlier.

Unsurprisingly, critics have taken this reality way too far and seized the opportunity to blame every aggressive action by an adversary on Obama’s alleged wimpiness, an argument that is not at all fair and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. U.S. adversaries made plenty of aggressive moves during the Bush administration (not to mention countless administrations before it), from Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 to 9/11.

Of course, the Bush administration responded in kind — by invading two countries and sparking two very long and very costly wars. In the process they also took a number of measures that would later become unpopular at home and abroad, from the Patriot Act to enhanced interrogation. Ultimately, those “fear-inducing” choices, which may have been met with initial approval, created further backlash against the United States, leaving an opening and a likely need for a less Machiavellian approach. Obama, in turn, was elected on precisely that platform — and with zeal — and ultimately did much to roll back the Bush-era notion that it is better to be feared than to be loved.

Even for a country looking to rebuild its image abroad, fear and its natural counterpart, respect, have a very important place in preventing a wide range of enemies from taking steps and committing acts that will harm the United States and its allies. The ability to inflict force if and when provoked is the core underpinning of a deterrence strategy, which in turn is one of the primary ways that a nation can avoid unnecessary wars.

Deterrence is one of the key underpinnings of strategies to prevent adversaries from doing things the United States does not want them to do, such as build nuclear weapons or fund terrorist organizations. For example, the 52-year deterrent presented to North Korea by the alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea has successfully prevented the North from attempting to reunify the Korean Peninsula. In short, the United States needs to stay scary to keep those who challenge its interests in line.

It is imperative, then, to the security of the United States and its allies to determine how Washington can simultaneously improve its image, make wise policy decisions that may project a less than bellicose persona, and still appear strong enough to prevent conflicts and pursue its interests. The key is to navigate a path between the flaunting of both international opinion and self-interest (a doomed combination if ever there was one) and an approach that makes America appear weak and makes defying its interests appear free of consequence. Ideally, policies built in that sweet spot will result in an American image that is even stronger — and a far more effective deterrent — than an alternative, more belligerent America.

There are a few critical steps that can achieve this end and which, when combined, may allow the United States to walk the line between being loved and feared. Each of them comes at a relatively low price and doesn’t represent major shifts in policy. Of course, the United States will always have detractors, but the following four ideas may reduce their ranks.

You can run, but you can’t hide.

First, in order to maintain the utmost level of deterrence against attacks on American interests, the United States needs to continue to build and maintain the world’s most effective counterterrorism force. The raid that killed Osama bin Laden did more to make America scary than years of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, primarily because it showed three things: perseverance, global reach, and devastating efficacy. As the United States wraps up its larger wars, there will be a temptation to divert resources formerly dedicated to kinetic, U.S. counterterrorism functions to fund “phase zero” operations (building partnership capacity, for example). Phase zero operations are also extremely important (see point three), but reducing funding or support for counterterrorism forces is unwise, and will greatly detract from American scariness.

Fake it till you make it.

A big part of how U.S. policy shifts are perceived is determined by how U.S. leaders talk about them. The drawdown in Afghanistan was, again, a carefully considered decision, but the vague way in which U.S. leaders describe the war’s end state (i.e., a “responsible conclusion”) leaves much room for speculation that they were driven out or simply failed in their mission. The Taliban was going to claim victory in this conflict no matter how it ended (and have done so, loudly); however, the United States need not facilitate its narrative, and at the very least should take steps to combat it. It’s easy enough to do so; a clear presentation of the accomplishments of the Afghan campaign and a plan of action to attempt to preserve them would go a long way in this respect.

Providing a concrete timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan similarly made the U.S. presence there less of a threat to the enemy, since they knew exactly when they would be freed of U.S. “occupation.” Detailing exactly when the United States would withdraw its troops was an important political move for Obama, but it created the strong impression that the United States was leaving regardless of conditions on the ground, an approach that is largely incompatible with a military victory, something that is by nature unpredictable.

In general, Obama has been extremely candid about his uncertainty with regard to certain foreign-policy issues, exhibit A being his infamous declaration in August that “we don’t have a strategy yet [on how to combat ISIS in Syria].” This approach may seem endearing or refreshing, particularly for those of us who struggle with such questions for a living; however, when it comes to the global stage, it unfortunately conveys a lack of conviction that can be misconstrued.

Walk softly, but carry a smart stick.

The brief portion of this past Tuesday’s State of the Union that focused on national security sent a careful, measured message about restraint, consideration, and the sparing use of military might. Obama’s emphasis on soft power and principles has value, but a reminder that the United States will respond with devastating force to defend its core interests would have been a valuable counterweight, especially in the eyes of America’s enemies abroad.

The extraordinary power of the U.S. military, from its massive blue-water Navy to the most sophisticated aircraft, weaponry, and surveillance equipment in the world, will always serve as strong deterrent to large, conventional threats like China, assuming it is properly maintained. But for the less conventional adversaries who have thus far reared their heads in the 21st century, a different type of stick is more likely to keep them at bay. For an Islamic State (IS) insurgent or al Qaeda operative sitting in Mosul or North Waziristan, the most threatening adversary is most likely one that knows who he is and where he lives, understands his culture and language, and knows how to get his allies and supporters to turn against him, removing his safe haven and putting him on the run.

This does indeed sound like a classic counterinsurgency operation along the lines of what the United States tried to execute in Iraq and Afghanistan. What it doesn’t sound like, however, is the core strength and aptitude of today’s United States military. In order to pose this kind of threat to the unconventional forces that have challenged the United States over the last 14 years, more resources should be devoted to cultural and language training, intelligence operations, and building a force that can truly go in and root out the enemy on its own turf. (The Army is already taking steps in this direction, and will hopefully continue to do so.) To put it more simply, if I were Abu Bakr-al Baghdadi, an Arabic-speaking force with a detailed understanding of every village and tribe in Iraq would scare me a lot more than an F-35.

And finally, board up that glass house.

It has been said before and will be said again, but getting its domestic house in order, both economically and sociopolitically, is critical to maintaining the United States as a strong and formidable foe. The economics argument is as obvious as it is well tread: Without the resources to support existing commitments and to maintain the ability to protect global interests, the United States is hardly a threat at all. And on the sociopolitical side, issues like police brutality and endemic racism undercut U.S. claims of the moral high ground. As my FP colleague Stephen Walt wisely wrote in December, leaders in glass countries shouldn’t throw stones. Striving to adhere to the same standards of equality, democracy, and human rights that the United States espouses abroad requires close attention to those same issues at home.

Adversaries will always test the waters of U.S. resolve, and U.S. policy cannot be driven by whether the world will be sufficiently cowed. However, history shows America can be both cautious and strong, and one need not come at the cost of the other. To borrow (liberally) from America’s favorite newsman, Ron Burgundy: Stay scary, America.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Whitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm.

Whitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm.

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