Quitting Our Addiction to Small Power Conflicts
The U.S. has a poor track record in its conflicts and standoffs with smaller regional powers. Especially when it has pursued maximalist goals that threaten the security or the very existence of other governments, the U.S. has predictably encountered stiff resistance. Wars of regime change have likewise yielded tremendous costs with virtually no benefits to be seen. Even when the U.S. successfully eliminates a small power adversary, it is usually not worth the effort and the human cost is always far too high. Despite the recurring failures of U.S. policies, Washington remains addicted to picking fights with relatively weak, medium-sized states that pose little or no threat to America.
This has the obvious disadvantage of wasting resources and attention on unnecessary conflicts, and it also tends to distract the U.S. from more pressing issues. Above all, it keeps U.S. foreign policy in a dangerously aggressive, imperial mode in which our leaders believe they have the right to dictate terms to other countries and inflict severe punishments on them when they refuse to comply. This is how the U.S. overextends and exhausts itself in fruitless confrontation while other major powers husband their resources and make significant domestic investments.
America’s preoccupation with attacking and coercing small adversaries is a bad habit that our policymakers and pundits just can’t quit. Even when they recognize the costs and pitfalls of the addiction, many of them refuse to give up on it. It has become so familiar and comfortable for the U.S. to obsess over the activities of a handful of so-called “rogue” states rather than deal with issues of genuinely global concern. Weak states offer a tempting target for would-be global policemen that want to make an example of one country pour encourager les autres, and it is politically safe for politicians to pursue hard-line policies against these countries because they have so little clout.
Michael Singh’s recent call for “strategic discipline” in Foreign Affairs is an interesting example of what I am describing. Singh recognizes the folly of repeated small power conflict. He admits that the U.S. has been unsuccessful in its efforts to remake or coerce these states. But he still doesn’t think that the U.S. can do entirely without these conflicts: “The United States neither can nor should eschew conflict with small states altogether. The threats such states pose are often genuine, and addressing them can complement a strategy focused on great-power competition.” In one breath, he extols the virtues of discipline and avoiding unnecessary entanglements, and in the next he accepts that small power conflicts are bound to happen.
Singh grants that the U.S. has a serious problem with these small power conflicts, but he doesn’t want the addict to go into rehab just yet. Instead of getting clean and quitting the habit for good, maybe the occasional fix now and then would be all right. The trouble with addiction is that it isn’t possible to indulge it just a little and then stop. Once you start feeding the habit, it takes control and there is no telling where it will lead you. America’s habit of small power conflicts is like that. Our policymakers never know when to stop or when it is enough. They keep listening to the siren song that tells them that these small powers are major threats, and they guide the ship into the rocks every time.
He urges the U.S. to be more careful and discerning in the future: “Still, conflicts with minor foes can tie down resources and consume attention, and such conflicts have proliferated in the twenty-first century despite U.S. policymakers’ avowed aim to shift focus away from them. Washington needs to exercise discipline and set a high bar if it is to avoid the next quagmire.” That sounds like good advice, but it can’t be followed without combating the threat inflation that drives these conflicts.
The “strategic discipline” that Singh recommends isn’t possible as long as the U.S. defines its interests so broadly that it sees minor regional powers as potential threats. It also can’t work if minor and manageable threats from these states are being blown out of proportion every day by legions of analysts and politicians. The constant drumbeat about some of these smaller states in the media warps public perception of the countries that pose the greatest threat to the U.S. In early 2020, a survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 34% of Americans saw Iran as the greatest threat to the United States. Even granting that the U.S. and Iran had recently gone to the brink of war, this was a ludicrous perception that has no connection to reality. This distorted view is something that politicians and pundits help to create, and then they exploit it to promote more aggressive policies.
Iran is widely regarded as a significant threat to the United States, but believing this requires greatly exaggerating Iranian power and overstating U.S. interests in the Middle East. Put simply, Iran isn’t capable of posing nearly as much of a threat to the surrounding region as Iran hawks claim, and the things it can threaten are not vital interests of the United States in any case. Conflict and tension with Iran are not inevitable, but rather they are something that the U.S. chooses because of the way it expansively defines its interests and inflates the danger from Iran. A crucial part of practicing “strategic discipline” is correctly assessing what our vital interests truly are and how best to secure them. If our policymakers did this, we would find far fewer occasions for small power conflicts because they would understand that these small powers don’t endanger what matters most to us.
Because the U.S. insists on treating these smaller powers as major, intolerable threats, the U.S. and its smaller adversaries fall into patterns of hostility and mistrust that become self-justifying. The U.S. perceives a smaller power as a serious threat, and then begins coordinating with other states to oppose it. Those relationships in turn become the cause for new and deeper entanglements in the conflicts of the region. How did the U.S. become involved in the destruction and starving of Yemen? Because the Obama administration wanted to “reassure” regional clients that they still had American backing, and because they indulged those same clients in their fantasy that attacking Yemen had something to do with opposing Iran. One faulty commitment leads to even worse errors and crimes. If the U.S. had not been so concerned to keep regional clients happy, it would not have made one of the most catastrophic decisions of this century by backing the war on Yemen.
Singh’s case for “strategic discipline” has something to recommend it, but it remains quite vague about what it would and wouldn’t permit. For example, he writes, “To that end, the United States should set a high bar for becoming involved in struggles with small states, and it should engage in them fully cognizant of their difficulty and of the need for a clear and realistic path to success.” That all sounds sensible enough, but what exactly would this high bar exclude? In other words, just how disciplined should the U.S. be? There are unfortunately not many specifics included in the article. Why is the U.S. getting involved in “struggles” with these states in the first place? Is it really because they threaten us, or has the U.S. adopted someone else’s enemy as our own? If so, is the “struggle” really worth engaging in? However high Singh would set the bar for getting involved in “struggles” with smaller powers, it needs to be set even higher.
It is all very well to say that the U.S. should make sure to have a “clear and realistic path to success” when it tries to bully another country into submission, but when U.S. coercion campaigns almost always target the core security interests of other states it is not clear how there can ever be realistic paths to success. The targeted state will resist because they believe survival is at stake, and the U.S. record gives them every reason to hold fast to that belief. There may be paths to escalation and eventual regime change, but as the record shows this just leads to another kind of failure. That should tell us that these campaigns of coercion are a dead end that we should abandon as soon as possible.