100 years ago the United States entered the first great modern military catastrophe. Unfortunately it would not be the last. There were many, many factors contributing to the First World War, but one of them was a naval arms race between Germany and Great Britain.
As a rising power, Germany saw a strong navy as a deterrent to Great Britain’s ambition and as a way to expand their own Imperial ambitions. As for the British, they had a policy of having a navy larger than the other two largest navies combined. Tremendous strain was placed on the British industrial capacity and government funding when the United States and Germany both put their industrial might to use on their burgeoning naval fleets. Germany never did quite catch up to Britain before the war started, but they came close, and they came close for one reason: the British switched their ships’ fuel from coal to oil.
In an instant the new classes of oil-powered warships made all other warships obsolete. The British and German navies began at the same point because they both possessed the same technologies. Germany strove to produce as many new oil-powered warships as quickly as they could. In turn, the British attempted to do the same in order to maintain their superiority. Intensifying the arms race destabilized the world. Feeling pressured, the British became increasingly prepared to use force to counter the Germans and the pressure for decisive military confrontation to defeat the other side increased.
When reviewing the Anglo-German naval arms race as a historical precedent, it is easy to see how Edward Snowden, and other leaks of the United States’ technical ability in cyberspying and cyberwarfare, have made the world less safe.
Leaks from the NSA, and now the CIA, revealed both advanced methods and means of attacking computer networks. Every other major power in the world now has the ability to do exactly what the NSA and CIA have the ability to do. This inflames a cyber arms race that was already raging. United States intelligence agencies now have increased incentive to strike other powers harder and more often preemptively than they had in the past. Other powers may now have abilities to seriously damage or infiltrate US assets that they could not in the past. A wider range of actors have the ability to do more damage than they did previously.
Snowden, and others, may have sparked a debate in the United States about how much the government should be monitoring citizens, but in the grander view, the leaks have made all citizens less safe.
Initiative is a paramount theme in the operational philosophy of warfare. The ability of an actor to impose their will on their opponent, to choose a time and place of conflict and place pressure on an opponent’s weakness is a valuable strategic advantage. The United States, while avoiding wasteful and costly foreign entanglements, has ceded strategic initiative in a variety of global affairs, but particularly in Iraq and Syria.
In the midst of America’s steep decline in its ability to project power globally at the end of the 1970’s, Ronald Reagan started a “crusade” against the Soviet Union. Confronting the “Evil Empire” directly with increased military spending (preying of their weak economy) and fighting proxy wars against them helped to destroy the Soviet system. There were, as there always are, unintended consequences and blowback that came to the fore only after the loftier goal had been achieved. Notably, and regrettably, the funding and supplying of radical Islamists would come to haunt the United States. There was also the diminished respect for many peoples of the world after the United States supported oppressive dictatorships in the name of anti-Communism and the dangerously increased tensions with the Soviet Union that could have led to a nuclear war. The aggressiveness and assertiveness, paid for with deficit spending, gave the United States the strategic initiative and allowed for American-advantaged negotiations to take place between the superpowers.
The disaster in Syria and Iraq is the result of many historical failures and murderous groups attempting to hold or seize power. It is also a vortex dragging in major world powers with the pull of the global disasters of social collapse and terrorism fears. In addition to the global problems, there are complex regional rivalries that have combined to make the countries (perhaps former countries) of Iraq and Syria bloody battlegrounds for proxy wars.
Many pundits have argued aggressively for US intervention or applauded the Obama Administration for its restraint in not fighting unwinnable wars. In many ways the President is an impossible bind when confronting the disasters in the Middle East. For the US, the prospect of a complete power vacuum in Iraq and Syria is untenable while at the same time reacting in a mild, or very targeted manner is not effective in the long term.
The enemies of the United States are emboldened, but weak. A strong show of force and resolve would likely strengthen the United State’s ability to conduct diplomatic enterprises effectively. The value of initiative is known, the disaster in the Middle East is already manifest, and long term consequences are unknowable for the greater part. It behooves the United States to control what it can, and for the Obama Administration to act more like the Reagan Administration.
President Truman had many difficult tasks that faced him at the end of World War II, and he handled them ably, for the most part. The most intractable problem he dealt with in foreign policy was the worsening relations and oppositional stance that he faced in the Soviet Union. In order to stop Communist expansion he was willing to go to war. In Korea the United States engaged in a tremendous blood bath.
When Eisenhower became president he was concerned about the death of American soldiers in a war that they could not win without massive escalation. He ended the Korean War and throughout his two terms he refused to get the United States entangled and military conflicts. Eisenhower had a dilemma: he had to confront and actively oppose Communism and he desperately wanted to avoid direct armed conflict. So he turned to technology and covert activity. The CIA was given free reign during his tenure and the value of having a distinct technological advantage was realized. An unintended effect of the prolonged arms race was to institutionalize the military programs that were put in place during the Korean War.
Now to Obama, if there are circumstances that could be said to provide a direct analogy from one presidency to another, Eisenhower’s could not be more fitting. The Bush Doctrine necessitated military intervention with combat troops invading countries and overthrowing regimes. This costly and largely failed approach informed much of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
If there is one thing that truly separates their views on foreign policy it is that Obama has wielded the fear of terrorism less effectively than Eisenhower wielded the fear of Communism. Eisenhower used that fear as a bludgeon to bolster his domestic agenda. It may be dishonest but it was effective in building infrastructure for the American economy, advancing education, and balancing the budget. Obama has not used the fear of terrorism in an effective manner on the domestic front. It is possible that he could have better used American’s fears to advance infrastructure projects or other worthy domestic projects.
The salient features of Obama’s policy toward confronting terrorism are a heavy reliance on drone strikes, which are shrouded in a veil of national security secrecy, and the institutionalization of legal justifications for attacking terrorists and the maintanace of NSA dragnets, covert military operations, and domestic security measures. These are the largely negative consequences of Obama’s policy of confrontation without war. A permanent Cold War-style apparatus has been called into existence to oppose an intractable political, economic, and religious problem. In the new world of crumbling borders and technology it remains to be seen whether or not this will be an effective strategy for defeating terrorism, but it certainly is an oppressive weight on the American government and military and it diminishes the dominance of the law in restraining the impulse to tamp down rights and use force.
Over the last three years the almost unbelievable level of communications interception by the NSA has been revealed largely through the Snowden leaks. They have revealed many threats to the principles of limited government, notably in domestic eavesdropping and in collusion with other domestic policing agencies (see DEA and “parallel construction”). While these are grave matters that have gotten ahead of the law’s ability to regulate and present novel and particularly frightening invasions of privacy and deserve to have a national conversation exploring them, not all of the activities of the NSA are illegitimate.