Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Obama’s Thin Gray Line

How U.S. strategic thinking needs to adjust for gray zone contests.

GettyImages-499414160_960
GettyImages-499414160_960

The Islamic State’s terrorist attack on Paris and Russia’s foray into Syria are the latest challenges to the United States in the gray zone. In this zone, states battle for strategic gains through aggressive but ambiguous tactics. They seek to advance their interests by inducing their adversaries to accept the change, adopting gambits that do not obviously cross red lines or trigger conventional military responses.

Over the last several years, U.S. rivals have repeatedly utilized this approach to shift the strategic goalposts. Russia waged hybrid warfare to seize Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Its intervention in Syria should have triggered greater isolation, but instead won back military-to-military contacts with the United States, frozen since the Ukraine crisis began. China has rapidly built artificial islands, imperiling freedom of the seas in East Asia. Condemning the construction but unwilling to challenge it directly, the Obama administration had until recently prevented the Navy from sailing within the 12-nautical-mile zones that China claims as territory around the islands — implicitly ceding ground.

Adversaries have exploited other facets of the gray zone as well. The Islamic State's strike on Paris is was some ways classic terrorism — but it was also an unconventional attack launched by a quasi-state, complicating the question of reprisal. And Iran deployed similar stratagems in the realm of diplomacy. Playing a more proficient two-level game than a true democracy, it leveraged maximalist positions declared by the Supreme Leader to portray its negotiators as hand-tied moderates whom only U.S. concessions could unbind. Already, it has begun to test the comprehensive nuclear agreement, firing a long-range ballistic missile in violation of the U.N. Security Council Resolution that enshrined the deal.

The Islamic State’s terrorist attack on Paris and Russia’s foray into Syria are the latest challenges to the United States in the gray zone. In this zone, states battle for strategic gains through aggressive but ambiguous tactics. They seek to advance their interests by inducing their adversaries to accept the change, adopting gambits that do not obviously cross red lines or trigger conventional military responses.

Over the last several years, U.S. rivals have repeatedly utilized this approach to shift the strategic goalposts. Russia waged hybrid warfare to seize Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Its intervention in Syria should have triggered greater isolation, but instead won back military-to-military contacts with the United States, frozen since the Ukraine crisis began. China has rapidly built artificial islands, imperiling freedom of the seas in East Asia. Condemning the construction but unwilling to challenge it directly, the Obama administration had until recently prevented the Navy from sailing within the 12-nautical-mile zones that China claims as territory around the islands — implicitly ceding ground.

Adversaries have exploited other facets of the gray zone as well. The Islamic State’s strike on Paris is was some ways classic terrorism — but it was also an unconventional attack launched by a quasi-state, complicating the question of reprisal. And Iran deployed similar stratagems in the realm of diplomacy. Playing a more proficient two-level game than a true democracy, it leveraged maximalist positions declared by the Supreme Leader to portray its negotiators as hand-tied moderates whom only U.S. concessions could unbind. Already, it has begun to test the comprehensive nuclear agreement, firing a long-range ballistic missile in violation of the U.N. Security Council Resolution that enshrined the deal.

The Obama administration tends to characterize such developments as signs of weakness or domestic discharge that do not require the United States to shift course. In early October, President Obama called Russia’s intervention in Syria a “recipe for disaster,” predicting that it would “get them stuck in a quagmire,” and arguing that “Iran and Assad make up Mr. Putin’s coalition at the moment. The rest of the world makes up ours.” In mid-November, the president referred to the Paris attacks as a “terrible and sickening setback” but insisted “the strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work.” After “Death to America” demonstrations in Iran during the nuclear negotiations, the White House dismissed it as intended for a “domestic political audience.”

Even if the administration initially responds with strong rhetoric to such provocations, it tends to accede to the new reality shortly thereafter. After China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in 2013, for example, the administration immediately demanded that it back down. Several days later, however, the White House implicitly acknowledged the ADIZ and merely urged China to enforce it carefully.

Reacting to such maneuvers, President Obama often argues, can only harm U.S. interests. His initial National Security Strategy called for the country to “rebalance our long-term priorities so that we successfully move beyond today’s wars,” while the most recent one extols “strategic patience and persistence.” In his view, the United States enjoys such inherent strengths that little truly harms its core interests. The wisest approach is to rely on history to take its course, avoiding distractions on the periphery or acting on fantastical fears of renewed great-power conflict. Dismissing calls to establish a safe zone in Syria, President Obama said “this is not some superpower chessboard contest.” Faced with what he views as aggravating but ultimately minor tests by weaker foes, he believes it is frequently best to stay out of our own way.

Prudence is a virtue in foreign policy, and the United States must husband its resources. But let’s be clear, this is restraint by choice, not by necessity. There is no question that the United States retains significant military and economic advantages over Russia, China, the Islamic State, and Iran. In each of these cases, the Obama administration had many options available to it, including a range of coercive escalations that fall far short of “launching another Iraq war,” which is the false binary the administration often presents as the only alternative.

These gray zone successes largely do not result from material U.S. weakness. They arise from weakness of resolve or, more neutrally, from a deliberate reluctance of the president to engage — a deliberate unwillingness even to run the risk of engaging.

Gray zone contests test exactly this readiness, demanding subtle diplomacy and artful deterrence. President Obama rightfully calls for strategic patience in these contexts. But true patience requires measured acceptance of risk — the ability to wield the threat of force to ward off challengers without provoking undue escalation. Far from exhibiting such endurance, he struggles where military resolve is required in the face of adversity. He often impatiently backs away and dismisses the efficacy or need to counter the threat.

The Obama administration’s failures in the gray zone will likely not lead to existential dangers to the United States. Nor do Russia, China, the Islamic State, and Iran gain advantages that they otherwise might from black-and-white warfare. But they consolidate tangible gains over time. By divorcing military pressure from diplomacy, the White House has ceded critical ground — ground now fertile for instability and miscalculation, as competitors continue to test their limits. Failure to respond to these probes and provocations can send misleading signals to adversaries and prompt conflict that might have otherwise been deterred. Even the Islamic State, which does not present as obvious a target for deterrence, may feel emboldened by a purely stay-the-course approach, striking harder and winning over new recruits to its cause.

Since states and other actors have learned over the past six years that they can successfully circumvent their conventional limitations by fighting in the gray zones, international competition will increasingly play out in these arenas. The next administration must reestablish deterrence in these specific cases. But it must also conceive of this dilemma as an overarching phenomenon that requires a comprehensive, strategic response.

The first step should involve shedding anxieties concerning the threat of force. The surest insurance policy against greater conflict is not to stand down unless absolutely necessary, but to fund and forward deploy a strong, flexible military. Doing so need not increase the odds of outright warfare. Instead, it can equip policymakers to adopt credible gray zone responses. In Syria, for example, U.S. planes should not attempt to shoot down or buzz Russian aircraft. Instead, the White House could more forthrightly embrace proxy warfare, despite the risks; carve out a humanitarian no-fly zone; and preserve and empower Israel’s freedom to prevent arms transfers to Hezbollah.

The United States can improve its gray zone performance through diplomacy as well. To do so, it can return to the notion of linkage — making progress in one area dependent on progress in another. Russia, China, and Iran have utilized this approach to great effect during the Obama administration, all while the White House insists that various issues are not connected. The United States should respond in kind. Rather than beat back Russia’s presence in the Middle East in Syria itself, it can ramp up pressure in Ukraine, hamstringing Moscow with the very conflict it launched closer to home. To deter Iran from nuclear breakout, it can increase sanctions and hamper Iranian expansionism abroad. As part of this approach, the United States should restore its dedication to fighting for human rights activists and dissidents. As Ronald Reagan proved in advocating on behalf of Soviet Jewry during the Cold War, such moral clarity not only fulfills American values but also offers a powerful strategic lever. These measures can translate our objective military and economic strengths into the murky, asymmetric battles of the gray zone.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Jordan Chandler Hirsch is a J.D. Candidate at Yale Law School and a Visiting Fellow at the Columbia Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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