As a retired lieutenant colonel for the U.S. Army, I want to be positive. Even when I’ve identified major conceptual and practical failures in the conduct of American foreign and military policy, I’ve suggested alternatives that could improve the situation. But when looking at the state of our foreign policy in this moment, and given how entrenched the foreign-policy elite in Washington has become, a rational optimism is getting more and more difficult to find.
In practice, the current administration tries to keep a lid on problems by applying limited military power—at least regarding troop levels—over large sections of the globe. These military operations are tactical in nature, designed to achieve small-scale results, without the consideration of how or even whether they support some larger strategic objective.
The clear result from Afghanistan to Iraq, to Syria, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, and other locations in Africa, has been to inflame already burning civil and sectarian wars. The military power we have applied does not even work toward solving the conflicts in these locations.
Continuous drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen have failed to move the needle toward minimizing the violence, much less toward ending the wars. Overt and covert air and ground attacks over 15 years in Afghanistan, in which I spent two active tours, have not prevented that nation from being a hive of terrorist activity; the Afghan government is possibly the most corrupt in the world, and its military is dying in larger and unsustainable numbers.
Airstrikes in Libya and Syria have succeeded only in adding to the misery of the local populations. In Iraq there has been some tactical movement with U.S. support to the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga, but that tactical advance may perversely be setting the stage for a strategic failure on the political level. Fissures are already emerging between the post-war expectations of the coalition of forces currently working together in preparing to fight the Islamic State in Mosul.
And it might be hard to believe, but things could actually get worse in 2017.
Many of the most vocal and influential voices in foreign policy, both on the Hill and in the media, have been around for decades. They are the first to advocate for the perpetuation of the status quo—or to more aggressively reinforce it—and the last to consider new measures. Foreign policy expert William Ruger aptly captured the spirit of foreign policy in Washington today when he said the only debate between leaders, or would-be leaders, is “between the 48 yard lines.” For the health of the Republic, we must expand the scope of the conversation.
Unfortunately, along with the narrow band of foreign-policy choices has come the distortion of the term “leadership.” In the lexicon of Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, leadership has come to mean “applying lethal military power as a policy option of first choice to solve complicated international challenges.” John Maxwell, number one on Inc. magazine’s “Top 50 Leadership and Management Experts” list, provides a more accurate definition of leadership: “Real leadership is being the person others will gladly and confidently follow.”
The interests of the United States can best be protected and advanced when we are implementing the Maxwell definition of leadership rather than the current Washington version, which has led to strategic failures for more than two decades.
Advocates of a militant foreign policy attempt to compensate for their lack of leadership ability—or to avoid the hard work of providing world-class leadership—by resorting to coercion, oftentimes at the barrel of a gun. For the moment, let’s forget about morality and focus instead on the effectiveness of this approach.
The greatest leaders in the world have been able to entice others to follow willingly, sometimes even enthusiastically, without resorting to threats, bullying, or the actual application of force. They seek win-win solutions to problems. They recognize and accept that effective leadership sometimes means giving in to the preferences or needs of one’s partners.
The United States could be far more effective at leading the world into peace and prosperity by being far more restrained in its use of military power and more generous in dispensing the kind of leadership that people would “gladly and confidently follow.” Friends would be more aggressive in supporting policies beneficial to America if we took the time to find shared values and include them as valued partners. Some competitors would feel less threatened and would therefore be less active in working against U.S. interests.
Because strong Washington leadership includes supporting and resourcing a world-class military, enemies of America would think twice before acting against U.S. interests. They would realize that their choices mattered: if they posed no threat to our nation, we would not meddle in their internal affairs or orchestrate dangerous regime-change campaigns; but if they were to attack U.S. interests or citizens, the response would be powerful, vicious, and effective.
Being restrained and judicious in the use of military power does not show weakness, and it does not invite more aggression from would-be adversaries. It does foster more energetic support for American interests among our friends and allies. Regardless of who becomes the next commander in chief, let us hope he or she will acknowledge the superiority of this advanced way of thinking over today’s bankrupt definition of “leadership.”
Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a fellow with Defense Priorities.