Welcome to the Era of the Light Footprint

Barack ObamaThe “light footprint” that is Barack Obama’s doctrine in foreign policy originated as Donald Rumsfeld’s doctrine in military policy. Rumsfeld was undone by contradiction between his ends and his means: in Iraq, he sought to attain big ends with small means, disastrously insisting after “shock and awe” a light, nimble American force advantaged by technology would suffice for assisting Iraqis in political transformation of their country. This was Rumsfeld’s “revolution in the military affairs”. President Obama has accepted Rumsfeld’s ideal of American military: “strategic guidance document” issued by Pentagon year ago declares, in italics, “whenever possible, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives” (source: Leon Wieseltier – New Republic, U.S. – 29/01/2013)  

But Barack Obama modified Rumsfeld’s vision in two ways. The first was that he eliminated the contradiction between the means and the ends by shrinking the ends to fit the means. The second was that he extended the principle of shrinkage from military policy to foreign policy. This is Barack Obama’s revolution in international affairs. When that document was released, its revisions in the scale and the mission of the American military were interpreted as inexorable effect of the fiscal crisis, but that is not the whole story. Obama is acting also in the name of a strategic concept. It is an old, cold concept. Obama’s loftiness has provided cover for the ascendancy of “realism”, which is not always the same as realism, as the consequences of our abdication in Syria will eventually demonstrate. Obama-Rumsfeld lineage is only one of the ironies of the new foreign policy consensus. There is also bizarre enthusiasm of progressives for the amoral likes of Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski. And richest of all is their sudden reverence for Chuck Hagel, whom none of them admired, rightly not, when he was in the Senate. (No, he is not an anti-Semite. Congratulations.)

The most egregious aspect of the celebration of Hagel is the belief his Purple Hearts validate his withdrawalist inclinations. Since experienced war, he hates war. “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can,” Eisenhower once remarked. Why, then, does John McCain’s bravery in Vietnam not validate his interventionist inclinations? Truth is nobody loves war, and that you do not have to have witnessed war to hate war, and that war (or the use of force) is sometimes just and necessary. The merit of a view owes nothing to the biography of the individual who holds it, even if it confers a certain pathos. A chest full of medals hardly denotes a brain full of truths. Chuck Hagel’s optimism about diplomacy with Iran and Hamas, his opposition to sanctions, his recoil from humanitarian interventions, we will soon see if these opinions are correct, when Eisenhower, I mean Hagel, is confirmed, and executes (as the business people say) on Obama’s diminishment of America’s ambition in and for the world. Our detached president is detaching us. One of the essential elements of the new consensus in foreign policy is the belief in the primacy of domestic policy. Before America asserts itself abroad, it is universally agreed, we must put our house in order. (“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than thirty cities,” Eisenhower declared in famous speech in 1953). Of course history never provides such a “before”. There is no temporary suspension of crises and duties in which we may refresh ourselves. Like individuals, nations exist in many realms simultaneously. Obama is right about “nation-building at home,” but his implication that therefore we are exempt from assisting in building of nations abroad, that fiscally speaking it is them or us, is momentously wrong. Even in our current woes, societies and movements in trouble look to us. And yet almost every conversation about our diplomacy now turns into conversation about our economy. This is sophisticated thinking at its most simplistic. The causal relationship between our fiscal condition and our place in world is not as neat as economicists say. There are many ways to reduce defense spending, each of them represents not an incontestable budget number but a contestable strategic vision; anyway the defense budget is hardly what threatens the government’s solvency.

And will the economicists, actuarial doves, become interventionists if we finally balance the budget? Of course not: they have other grounds-ideological, moral, historical, for their love of the light footprint. (In the matter of Israel, incidentally, light-footprintists demand a heavy touch, another irony, or a hypocrisy?) I do not understand all this good conscience about the weakening of America’s influence in the world, since I regard America’s influence as generally a blessing for the world. I am not referring only to export of our technology and our culture. If United States does not determine to assist democratic struggles around the world, then those struggles will suffer, even fail. We cannot save societies do not wish to save themselves, but we can significantly affect the likelihood of their emancipations. The dictator in Iran and dictator in Syria enjoy diplomatic protection and logistical support of Putin, a strong-footprint man; but from Obama their valiant opponents get only complexity, passivity, and loquacity. (New f-word in Washington, the one that it is impolite to utter, is “freedom”.) And what will our Asian “pivot” be worth, in the way of preparing for the full emergence of Chinese hegemon, if it, too, is a light footprint? Is smaller really better or safer? We are about to wane. We have elected to wane. Good luck to us. One day history will surprise us, shame on us for being surprised. “There is no alternative to peace,” said Eisenhower, who presided over an era of complacence. Alas, the world is lousy with people and powers who think otherwise. It may be the dumbest thing ever said by a soldier.


Acerca de ignaciocovelo
Consultor Internacional

5 Responses to Welcome to the Era of the Light Footprint

  1. SHOULD the U.S. intervene to stop the bloodshed in Syria? I find myself torn between four different perspectives — from New Delhi, Baghdad, Tel Aviv and the U.N. Last week, I met with a group of Indian strategists here at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses to talk about how America should withdraw from Afghanistan and navigate the interests of India, Pakistan and Iran.

    At one point, I tossed out an idea to which one of the Indian analysts responded: That was tried before — “in the 11th century.” It didn’t work out well. That’s why I like coming to Delhi to talk about the region. Indian officials tend to think in centuries, not months, and they look at the map of the Middle East without any of the British-drawn colonial borders. Instead, they only see old civilizations (Persia, Turkey, Egypt), old faiths (Shiites, Sunnis and Hindus), and old peoples (Pashtuns, Tajiks, Jews and Arabs) — all interacting within long-set patterns of behavior. “If you want to understand this region, just take out a map from the Ganges to the Nile and remove the British lines,” remarked M. J. Akbar, the veteran Indian Muslim journalist and author. It takes you back to the true undercurrents of history that have long ruled the Middle East “and to interests defined by people and tribes and not just governments.”

    When you look at the region this way, what do you see? First, you see that there is no way the U.S. can keep Afghanistan stable after we draw down — without working with Iran. Because of the age-old ties between Iranian Shiites and the Shiite Persian-speaking Afghans of Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city, Iran always was and always will be a player in Afghan politics. Shiite Iran has never liked the Sunni Taliban. “Iran is the natural counter to Sunni extremism,” said Akbar. It’s in Iran’s interest to “diminish the Taliban.” That’s why America and Iran were tacit allies in unseating the Taliban, and they will be tacit allies in preventing the reseating of the Taliban. So from India, the struggle in Syria looks like just another chapter in the long-running Sunni-Shiite civil war. Syria is a proxy war between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Qatar — two monarchies funding the Syrian “democrats,” who are largely Syrian Sunnis — and Shiite Iran and the Shiite-Alawite Syrian regime. It’s a war that never ends; it can only be suppressed. Which is why in Israel some Israeli generals are starting to realize that if Syria is a fight to the death it could pose as great a strategic threat to Israel as Iran’s nuclear program. If Syria disintegrates into another Afghanistan — on Israel’s border — it would be an untamed land, with jihadists, chemical weapons and surface-to-air missiles all freely floating about. Can that collapse be avoided? From Washington, some hoped that by quickly toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, the West and the Sunnis could “flip” Syria from the Iranian-Soviet orbit to the Sunni-Saudi-American orbit. I’m dubious. I doubt that Syria can be flipped in one piece; it will break apart in the air into Sunni and Alawite regions. And, if we did manage to flip Syria, Iran would try to “flip” predominantly Shiite Iraq and Bahrain into its camp (…..)


  2. Professor Uziel Nogueira says:

    American voters are no longer willing to pay for another ‘doable’ war in the Middle East. Leading from behind diplomacy is the only option to deal with the Syrian situation.


  3. Julie W.: It gets really tiresome listening to the small army of pundits, columnists, think-tankers and other assorted “experts” endlessly cooking up “solutions” to Middle Eastern conflicts. Mr. Friedman still seems to believe that the U.S. can manipulate events and people in the region like pawns on a chessboard, producing whatever outcome best suits our interests. The only requirement is that we come up with precisely the right plan and execute it flawlessly. Then, of course, everyone will fall into line and behave exactly the way we want them to. As I recall, he thought the same about our involvement in Iraq. You’d think that he wouldn’t need to be reminded of how that worked out, but apparently he does. Enough, Mr. Friedman, enough. Please, do us all a favor and sit this one out.


  4. J Anthony: I’m with you on that. Some will never stop with their self-appointed saviour-of-the-world status and pretensions.


  5. Professor Uziel Nogueira says: Tom Friedman is paid by the NYT to analyze world affairs. He is only doing his job as a reporter. His pieces, however, neither influence US public opinion nor policy maker in Washington DC. Friedman’s pieces serve a different purpose, though. They provide NYT readers a chance to engage in an intellectual-academic debate without any practical consequences for the real world. It reminds me of hundreds of economic country reports that I wrote while working for a multilateral financial organization based in DC.. 🙂



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