The U.S. envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, said Thursday that the U.S. would remain in Syria as long as Iran does. He then clarified that this does not necessarily mean U.S. forces would remain there. Jeffrey’s statement is important not only in the Syrian context but also in terms of broader U.S. strategy.
Since 1945, the United States has held to a strategy that in the event of significant challenges, it would not only be a major force but lead the way in combat. During the Cold War, when the primary adversary was a single country, the Soviet Union, this made sense. The stakes were astronomical then. The U.S. needed to make certain that the Soviets didn’t dominate all of Europe and control its economic and technical capabilities. This was the overriding conflict at the time. When the Korean War broke out, or when there was communist pressure in Southeast Asia, it was regarded as part of a global struggle that required U.S. intervention. The major resistance against a key adversary, with U.S. command and forces leading the way, did not take place in Europe, as expected. Oddly, it occurred in Kuwait, with U.S. commanders leading a coalition and American troops deployed without limit. The irony is that the military aspect of the strategy was implemented against Iraq, not the Soviet Union. It reminds me of Marlon Brando’s line in “The Wild One.” When asked what he was rebelling against, he answered, “What have you got?”
9/11 triggered the same response. The threat was to the homeland, and the primary responder was the U.S. military. This was a completely understandable response. Anyone who wasn’t frightened in the aftermath of 9/11 was not in touch with reality. No one knew what was coming next. But strategically, it didn’t make much sense. This was not the Cold War, and the Islamic world was not the primary adversary. It was fragmented. It didn’t present a profile that could be readily engaged by massive military intervention. Most important, the U.S. was now the only global power, and while the war against jihadists was critical, it could not be the sole focus. U.S. strategy was in a way trapped in the Cold War model of seeing only one enemy; everything else was secondary.
The alternative model was really the only one that was sustainable: the British model. The British rarely used main force in managing their global interests. They had some force in some places but managed its threats by using the local balance of power. India was fragmented among local rulers with competing interests. The British supported some rulers against others with money, weapons or small units, and they leveraged local tensions to their benefit. They had interests throughout the world, and the constant application of main force would have exhausted them.
The U.S. has been at involved in exhausting and inconclusive combat for 17 years. It did not achieve the political ends intended. In Syria, there are Turkish forces and Russian forces as well as local forces, all of whom might be motivated to contain Iran. Nearby are the Israelis and the Saudis. Many countries involved in Syria can’t leave (though not Russia). They have no option but to deal with the Iranians in Syria and elsewhere. The United States can provide intelligence and other support, but it need not and cannot be the primary fighting force. It wouldn’t be welcomed in the long run, and it has other issues such as North Korea, China and Russia with which to contend. The Americans, like the British, can be there and not there at the same time.
Jeffrey has simply stated the obvious. Syria is a problem, but not every problem requires U.S. forces. Global power is a subtle thing. The Cold War was not.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article attributed the quote “What have you got?” to the wrong film and actor.