Okay, I’m king for a day, and I am going to fix all the world’s problems.
Syria: Arm the rebels, impose a no-fly zone, strike any government forces that try to suppress the uprising. Why? Because at this point we’re witnessing a long, drawn-out mass killing scenario, and it is only likely to get worse given the minority character of the regime. Syria is also a rogue regime. It supports transnational terrorism, has played footsie with the North Koreans on nuclear issues, and continues to destabilize Lebanon. There are good humanitarian and regional security justifications for intervention. I’m not enthusiastic about this, but as a practical matter, I don’t think inaction is better. The costs of this sort of intervention should be relatively low. Lack of UNSC authorization is no bar. We can use the Kosovo precedent to act under auspices of regional organization — but this would require Arab League approval.
Iran: Since we’re unlikely to engage in sustained military action, we should take the option off the table. Offer Iran a straight-forward quid pro quo — we commit to not use force to change their regime in return for them normalizing their international status through a new IAEA-based inspection regime of their nuclear facilities. Assuming they don’t accept — as they won’t — continue to use sabotage and assassinations to slow their progress toward nukes. And most importantly dramatically step up efforts to promote change in Iran through aggressive efforts to defeat Iranian government censorship of radio, TV, and internet. Assuming that does not work either, we need to work on promoting regional resilience so that the rest of the region doesn’t freak out about developments in Iran. Mitigation of the Iranian problem is key rather than solving it for now.
China: Look, China is our biggest economic partner. Yes, they are a rising power, and yes they will want a larger role in global rule-setting. Give it to them. As a matter of geopolitics, we have fundamental shared interests — secure sea lanes, vigorous trade, economic stability. They want what we want. The debates we’re having are over how to get it, not about a completely different international architecture. Sure, we’ll need to play hardball on trade issues. But this is NOT like the Cold War. The one issue we do need to resolve is:
Taiwan: Our ability to defend Taiwan is going to inevitably diminish. Our need to plan for its defense is already one of the largest drivers of our defense budget since it requires us to stay a generation ahead technologically of a rapidly rising power. And not only is this a costly commitment, in the final analysis it is just a bridge too far. Within a generation — at most — our ability to project power onto the Chinese coast will decline to the point where protecting Taiwan is a pure bluff. Instead, we need establish a time-line with the Taiwanese so that they understand that at some point in the very near future our commitment to them will come to an end. I am not sure what happens next. But sometimes you just need to acknowledge reality and move on. Hong Kong and long-term internal Chinese trends make me relatively sanguine, however.
Israel: I like Israel. Indeed, like many Jews, I have something of an emotional attachment to Israel. But their approach to the Palestinians is both criminal and criminally stupid, and we can no longer be on the hook for their intransigence. We need to state simply that either a two-state solution is implemented quickly, or that we’re going to have to begin treating Israel as just another country rather than a close ally and beneficiary of American aid. I hate saying this, but the reality is that at this point, we’re acting as enablers for the bizarre obsession among some Israeli with the idea of recreating Biblical Israel. I don’t see how supporting this weird goal is consistent with American interests.
Afghanistan: Transition rapidly to a Plan Colombia-style relationship: intelligence sharing, financial aid, technical assistance, and limited SOF training and direct action. Communicate directly with the existing insurgent groups about our red lines — no support for transnational terrorism, some adherence to international humanitarian norms (think Saudi standards). Encourage negotiations leading to power-sharing and/or regional autonomy agreements that will take at least some of the insurgents off the field. Or not. Who really cares? Afghanistan is an absolute strategic backwater — poor, isolated, irrelevant.
Pakistan: If we can reduce our commitment to Afghanistan and essentially give Pakistan primary responsibility for enforcing our red lines there, I think we can open the door on a more productive relationship with Islamabad. The problem right now is that our entire relationship is currently focused on those things that they either can’t or won’t do. That isn’t healthy. We’d be better off trying to build on those areas of shared interests. One of those is normalizing the status of their nuclear program. Another is in trying to ease tensions with India in a way that is consistent with Pakistani security requirements. That said, this is a dysfunctional state with many broken institutions. It is also too big to influence directly. We’ll be dealing with this one for a long time.
Mexico: I think the first step to understanding the challenge of Mexico is to realize we’re the cause of many of the problems there. We can mitigate those problems through two substantively simple, but politically impossible steps: (1) End the war on drugs. Legalize marijuana outright. Reduce criminal penalties and enforcement of harder drugs like cocaine and heroin. Get military/paramilitary organization out of domestic law enforcement. (2) Fix our immigration policies: amnesty for those in the U.S., a fence to control the border, and a dramatic increase in legal immigration. Look, we currently have fewer legal immigrants coming to the United States than we did in 1906 when our population was about one quarter of what it is today. If instead of 1 million legal immigrants a year, we were allowing 4 million, we’d have virtually no problems with illegal immigration. And legal immigrants would pay more in taxes and would be less of a drain on public services as a consequence. Would that many immigrants change the character of the United States but turning the U.S. in Mexico? No, no more than German immigration turned Pennsylvania into Prussia or Jewish immigration turned the Lower East Side into Israel. Also, by the way, more legal immigration is the answer to our entitlements “crisis” since it increases the ratio of workers to retirees. Anyway, end the drug war and end the war on immigrants, and you’ll find that many of Mexico’s problems become more manageable.
Europe: Tell the Germans to get their heads out of their collective asses. Signal a willingness to accept a sustained period of higher inflation to aid in debt deleveraging and in internal adjustments.
See. Was that so hard?
Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is Associate Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College. His arguments are his own and do not represent the views or opinions of the National War College, National Defense University, or the Department of Defense. This was originally posted on his personal blog BernardFinel.com.