The Failure of America’s Indirect Strategy

Why does president after president find himself in the very foreign entanglements their predecessors warned against?

President Barack Obama on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House, May 24
President Barack Obama on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House, May 24

When the whistleblowers website WikiLeaks released information to the whole world on the United States’ imperial grunts, the last person to have been awed was probably President Barack Obama.

As the failures of the American involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan are now so publicly evident, the real question should be why the president persists in his war effort? His predecessor, George W. Bush, made similar mistakes in Iraq, leaving the situation in a mess after invading the country for no good reason. Defenders of Bush’s decision to attack Iraq might argue that American troops dismantled an autocratic regime but why does president after president, each apparently for different reasons, find himself entangled in foreign fiascos during their tenures?

President Obama does understand that the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is of secondary importance to the United States’ future role in Asia. His trip to India, Indonesia and South Korea can be viewed in this light. If Obama was busy courting allies in South and East Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn’t leave any bones unmoved with her trip to Australia and New Zealand, intent on revisiting the ANZUS treaty. These moves could, if handled carelessly, be one day remembered as the opening steps of a new Cold War, one between China and the United States.

A generation has passed since Henry Kissinger’s successful shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, the loss of Vietnam and President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1971. The actors have changed but the script has not. In order to contain the Soviet Union, American diplomats went all over the world to make and break alliances and almost by accident, they were caught up in a sideshow in Vietnam. In our time, the Obama Administration is scrambling allies all over the Asia-Pacific in order to contain China while the war in Afghanistan is almost a distraction. If that is so, why is Obama still pursuing it? And why did his predecessor went to war against Iraq?

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are sideshows but they are also instrumental to establishing or maintaining American hegemony. These wars aren’t strategies but tactics. The grand strategy rather is an indirect one.

An indirect strategy means defeating the enemy through indirect means. This was the strategy pursued by the British in order to establish imperial hegemony. Although the “indirect approach” was first articulated by British military historian Captain B.H. Liddell Hart after the First World War, the British employed the strategy to colonize parts of Africa, Asia and Oceania during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

By not attacking one’s enemy directly; by exhausting his resources and hardly using one’s own, Liddell Hart proposed to wear down the enemy before attacking him. On a larger scale, Britain had used the indirect approach of “divide and rule” in the centuries before Liddell Hart to conquer an empire.

Britain being a naval and an insulated power, it employed the tactic of blockade to control trade, establishing supremacy over the oceans. Throughout the nineteenth century, committed to a “balance of power” on the European continent, Britain veined isolation but in fact prevented any single great power from rivaling its position.

Outside of Europe, Britain checked the ambitions of empires including China and Russia by creating buffer states in Tibet and Afghanistan. They didn’t stop there. The British redrew the map of and created new states in the so-called Middle East where there had been no sense of nationhood besides the Pan Arab movement against the Ottoman Turk. The current trouble in the Arab world date back to British intervention in the region at a time of Ottoman disintegration.

In South Asia the British similarly helped create a buffer against the Soviet Union’s quest for warm-water ports. They knew that India’s nationalistic leaders sympathized with Moscow and might facilitate its ambitions so Pakistan was created which up to this very day struggles to assert its nationhood.

American policymakers and strategists didn’t fail to notice this aspect of Imperial Britain’s approach to establishing supremacy. A classic example is the invasion of northern Africa after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The United States formulated a “Europe first” strategy of cross-Channel invasion against German controlled France. Fearing heavy casualties however the allies landed in Africa instead in order to attack Italy from the south. The choice had many benefits. First, it probably saved heavy losses on the side of Britain and the United States. Second, it meant that Russia bore the brunt of halting the advancing Wehrmacht. Third, it allowed the American military to build up the world’s most powerful armed force. All this happened because of the time planners gained from the indirect approach.

The indirect strategy was extended in George Kennan’s Long Telegram which proposed to contain the Soviet Union’s rise. Containment was in effect an indirect strategy.

The failures of the indirect approach are numerous at the same time. While the British gained an empire, the United States have to cope with the side effects of past indirect strategy. China’s rise as a great power today for instance is very much the consequence of America’s willingness to grant it a greater role in world affairs to counterbalance Soviet power during the Cold War. The terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan were funded by the United States twenty years ago to fight the Soviets. Iran was kept at bay to humor the Saudis who, as the world’s foremost oil producers, seemed of much greater significance at the time.

What goes around comes around. America’s indirect strategy in the past means that it is losing ground in international relations to rising powers as Brazil, China and India today. Can the United States maintain supremacy?

American hegemony is a welcome presence but the problem is too clear a presence. Few countries would welcome ten of thousands of foreign troops on their soil however the democratic values espoused by the United States; free-market ideology and personal freedoms are the most important aspects of American power. This is too easily forgotten in Washington DC. The United States should strengthen their commitment to principle in this era of globalization and care less about geopolitical dominance which it has allowed itself to get trapped in time and again. Countries as China, Brazil and India will otherwise surpass the United States in terms of education, innovation and economic performance.

In short, the current generation of American policymakers need to remember the words of a lawyer from Illinois who is respected by both Boston liberals and conservative Tea Party enthusiasts. His name was Abraham Lincoln and he said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”