Points of Departure

Column: Obama’s ‘offshore balancing’ is a recipe for conflict

A nearly deserted base in Iraq in December 2011 / Getty Images
May 30, 2014

The phrase "offshore balancing" did not appear in President Obama’s commencement address at West Point. It did not have to. Obama’s every word was informed by the idea that America should renounce nation-building, extended deployments, base construction, and other elements of hard power in favor of diplomacy, military-to-military partnerships, multilateral institution-building, and soft-power in general. "Just because we have the best hammer," the president said in a particularly insipid use of cliché, "does not mean that every problem is a nail."

Not the administration, nor its supporters, nor its critics have been successful in defining precisely what the "Obama Doctrine" is. But offshore balancing seems to me to be as good a way as any to describe the president’s strategy. What does it mean? Because of America’s favorable geography—oceans to the east and west, friendly allies to the north and south—its powerful military, and its commercial nature, our country need not be overly assertive in the world. The biggest threat we face is not an authoritarian and revanchist Russia, not a rising Chinese collective dictatorship, not an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, not a transnational jihadist revival. "For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism."

But even fighting terrorism does not require direct intervention or a global war against radical Islamic networks and their state supporters. "I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy—drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan—to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold." The Libyans, Somalis, and Nigerians have such great command of the situation, after all. And if things get out of hand, well, that is what Predator drones are for.

The most important consideration is that America remains in the background. "By eschewing costly onshore commitments and fruitless exercises in ‘regional transformation’ and nation-building," Stephen M. Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy, wrote in the 2011 essay "Offshore Balancing: An Idea Whose Time Has Come," the strategy "would husband the resources on which America’s long-term prosperity depends and help us rebuild a society that used to be inspire [SIC] others and increasingly disappoints." By leaning out, as it were, by abandoning Iraq and Afghanistan, by reducing our "footprint" overseas, by shrinking our ground forces and fleet strength in order to spend more money on entitlements, we will shape an America of which Barack Obama and Stephen Walt can be proud. Count me out.

Offshore balancing has been tried before. In a lengthy and gripping essay on the present search for normalcy, Robert Kagan observes the following:

Although successful for two centuries in maintaining and managing its overseas empire, Britain failed to prevent the rise of German hegemony twice in the twentieth century, leading to two devastating wars that ultimately undid British global power. Britain failed because it had tried to play the role of balancer in Europe from ‘offshore.’ Britons’ main concern was always defense of their far-flung empire, and they preferred to stay out of Europe if possible. Their inability or unwillingness to station troops on the continent in sufficient number, or at least reliably to guarantee that sufficient force would arrive quickly in an emergency, led would-be aggressors to calculate that decisive British military force would either not arrive on time or not arrive at all.

The result was three major land wars in Europe—against Napoleon, against the Kaiser, against Hitler—along with a minor (though horribly bloody) war on the Crimean Peninsula. Offshore balancing did not, in the end, make Europe more peaceful, nor did it relieve the British of their global responsibilities to secure the seas and to prevent the rise of a despotic hegemon on the continent. It was only after the conclusion of World War II, and the assumption of global supremacy by the United States of America, that a durable European peace came into view.

That peace was not secured by a strategy of offshore balancing. Rather than acting as an offshore balancer, the United States became an onshore hegemon, planting military forces throughout Western Europe and Japan, where they have remained for almost 70 years. And when the United States fought North Korea and China to a standstill in 1953, it dropped anchor in South Korea, basing tens of thousands of troops along the De-Militarized Zone for more than 60 years.

Germany and Japan went from serial aggression to pacifism. The Soviet Union did not cross the Fulda Gap. There was no war in Europe until the Bosnian wars of the early 1990s—another peace finally secured by the billeting of American troops. It is not Japanese but Chinese expansion that worries the governments of East Asia. Nor are the North Koreans contained by a strange new respect for global norms. They are contained by the knowledge that any assault on the south would also be an assault on U.S. armed forces.

The consequences of offshore balancing can be seen wherever America has decided to raise anchor and depart. South Vietnam was an independent, non-Communist nation when Richard Nixon resigned from office and the Democratic Congress cut off military assistance in 1974. The so-called Spring Offensive of 1975 by which the North conquered the South began as soon as Hanoi and the Vietcong saw that the war-weary Americans were no longer interested in what happened to southeast Asia. The evacuation of the U.S. embassy, the boat people, and the fall of Cambodia were the result.

When American troops left Iraq at the end of 2011, the country was as stable as it had been in years, coalition casualties were at record lows, and al Qaeda and the Shiite death squads had been suppressed. Iraq today is experiencing renewed terrorism and violence, al Qaeda has returned to the Sunni Triangle, the death squads are active once more, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is increasingly authoritarian. Not only would Iraq be a safer place today if American troops were there to advise and influence the Iraqis, but America would also have a better grasp of the situation in neighboring Syria, which is slowly and bloodily combusting.

Does anyone really doubt a similar outcome when American forces leave Afghanistan? Here is another country where much has been gained at great cost. Here is another country where our elected leadership believes American interests will be furthered if American troops are not present. And when the troops leave at the end of 2016 (if not sooner), the Afghan government, empowered by an inspirational election last month, may yet hold on for a while.

But I doubt it will be able to hold out for long against the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and the Pakistani intelligence services. Eli Lake reports that al Qaeda has already reappearedThe loss of our drone and Special Forces bases will deprive us of valuable and actionable intelligence. Whatever influence we have over the Afghan and Pakistani governments will be considerably diminished. The president can speak as many words as he likes. Only the presence of American troops makes people listen.

The president and media are gripped by the idea that U.S. bases and ground deployments and status of forces agreements make the chances of war more likely rather than less. On the contrary: It was our presence on the ground in Europe, in the Pacific, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan that, through trial and error, ended wars and prevented new ones from breaking out.

As America abjures its post-war strategy of onshore hegemony in favor of offshore balancing, what do we see? We see chaos in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, we see the annexation of Crimea, we see mounting tensions between China and Vietnam and between China and Japan. We see new moves by Japan toward rearmament and militarization, we see the return of the European far right, and we see the spread of al Qaeda franchises throughout the Muslim world.

I am not under any illusions. America will get the foreign policy that its elites desire. What they desire now is normalcy. And so this era of retrenchment may last for some time. The era of normalcy ushered in by Warren Harding lasted more than 20 years—right up to the moment Japanese Zeroes bombed Pearl Harbor. But, like all eras, it came to a close. One day America will have to go back ashore.