Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ disagreement with President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. combat forces out of the Syrian civil war and subsequent resignation set official Washington on edge.
Yet, it should come as no surprise that the President, having campaigned on the issue of America’s long, costly, and indecisive wars in the broader Middle East, meant what he said.
Before we form our conclusions on whether the President’s course enhances our national security, let’s examine how we got to this point.
In the wake of victory over the Axis powers in 1945, the Soviet Union, our wartime ally, quickly showed it was not content with passively accepting the post-war order. The Cold War ensued, though it turned hot in proxy conflicts: Greece, China, Korea, Vietnam, and numerous nations emerging from colonialism. The Soviet Union’s global ideological challenge to the West, combined with significant industrial and scientific acumen that allowed it to create a massive nuclear arsenal, generated an existential threat far beyond that presented by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
With effort, largely sustained through a bipartisan consensus—at least until the mid-1980s—America and its NATO and Pacific allies contained the Soviet threat. But containment, with the attendant specter of a devastating nuclear war, wasn’t enough for President Reagan, who clearly set out his Cold War strategy in four words, “We win, they lose.”
In December 1991, the Soviet Union fell without a shot just shy of three years after Reagan left office, leaving America the world’s sole global superpower.
In 1972, at the apex of Soviet power with Western resolve faltering, President Nixon went to China. China, a historic competitor with Russia, was also engaged in a stiff ideological contest with the Soviet Union. Understanding that the enemy of my enemy can be my friend, a Sino-American alliance of convenience arose to check Soviet expansion. China took its first steps to modernize its economy in 1979 and by the early 1980s, some two-thirds of Soviet Red Army divisions were posted along the border with China.
In the wake of America’s stunning triumph in the First Gulf War in 1991 followed shortly by the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s Communist Party leadership resolved not to repeat Soviet errors. Instead, they would focus first on industrial might, and then, only with a robust economy, would they invest in a military that would restore China’s place to the world’s hegemon—its paramount power.
It was in the post-Cold War 1990s that American strategic thinkers wrote of “an end to history” with the global triumph of self-governing democracy. This was a unipolar world with the U.S., and its values, at the pinnacle.
But someone forget to give China the memo. Imbued by a deep sense of historic identity sharpened by the embarrassing century of Western, then Japanese, subjugation, China had other plans.
Uninhibited by fears of a Soviet response, America intervened abroad: with Somalia and the former Yugoslavia (where the U.S. Air Force mistakenly bombed China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999) being prominent examples.
By 1999, Texas governor George Bush, campaigning for president, was sharply critical of President Clinton, saying that China should be considered a “strategic competitor,” not a “strategic partner.” Barely two months after Bush took office, promising to revisit the Sino-American arrangement started by Nixon, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy signals intelligence aircraft, forcing it down onto Chinese territory.
But seven months later 9/11 changed everything. With four hijacked commercial airliners, 19 Islamic extremist terrorists killed almost 3,000 people on American soil and caused an immediate $61 billion in damage.
Two months later, President Bush granted Permanent Trade Status to China, signaling a reversion to the status quo.
At the beginning of Bush’s presidency, the U.S. constituted 32% of the global economy compared to 4% for China. By the end of Obama’s presidency, the U.S.’s share had slipped to 24% while China’s relative strength had almost quadrupled to 15%.
Over the intervening 16 years, the full-spectrum American military and diplomatic response to 9/11 was comparable to our Cold War exertion, with more than $4 trillion spent on unending war and nation building, including the cost of caring for veterans.
In the meantime, China’s brand of predatory mercantilism, disdainful of the rules-based order, acted to hollow out American manufacturing, shipping jobs to China while importing deadly fentanyl to deaden the pain of lost opportunity. 72,000 Americans lost their lives to overdoses last year, almost half of which were due to synthetic opioids most of which are manufactured in China.
The Muslim Middle East bends towards sharia supremacism, whether of the Sunni or Shiite variety. And, rather than encourage pluralism and secularism, Pres. Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech to Muslim world gave the tacit green light for what became the violence of the Arab Spring, with the resultant wreckage and bloodshed accompanied by yet more U.S. military and covert interventions in Libya, Syria and elsewhere.
The Middle East’s feuds are as ancient as the culture. American military occupation can tamp down the violence—or merely refocus it against U.S. interests—but it can’t solve it. Yes, we need to kill those who would kill us in our homeland, but doing so doesn’t require nation building and open-ended commitments measured out in American blood and treasure.
A key note here: Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, and his push to modernize the kingdom, may do more to drain the reservoir of violent Sunni warriors than a corps of U.S. soldiers stationed in the Middle East for 50 years.
More importantly, no Middle Eastern power will ever come to generate an existential threat to America.
But China does today. And each year it inflicts a greater level of economic pain on America through purposeful intellectual property theft, espionage, and trade cheating than the U.S. has been spending on its war on terror.
President Trump understands the gravity of the China threat. It’s time official Washington did as well.
–The author is a retired field grade military officer who served in the Department of Defense.