How America’s Enemies Might Assess U.S. Weaknesses—and Act on Them

How America’s Enemies Might Assess U.S. Weaknesses—and Act on Them
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomes North Korea’s special envoy Choe Ryong Hae during a meeting in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 20, 2014 (AP photo by Ivan Sekretarev).

Imagine that somewhere in the world, the leaders of a nation or an extremist organization are meeting to plot ways to confront America. The more astute thinkers among them would have carefully studied U.S. strategy over the past 75 years, looking for America’s strengths and weaknesses and drawing lessons.

One lesson they might draw is that trying to intimidate the United States by direct attacks on American soil doesn’t work. The Japanese found this out after Pearl Harbor, as did al-Qaida after 9/11. But striking U.S. military forces deployed to places with limited American national interests can shift U.S. policy—think the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, or the 1993 “Battle of Mogadishu.” Terrorism may be useful, but how and where it is done matters.

A second lesson that adversaries might draw from recent history is that if they believe they must have weapons of mass destruction, they should mask the process and minimize hostility toward the U.S. while developing them. Possessing weapons of mass destruction might be useful, but the U.S. will use force to prevent an overtly hostile adversary from getting them. Washington did little, for instance, to stop North Korea from building nuclear weapons in the first place because its hostility toward the U.S. was muted to an extent early in the process. Washington has been more active in thwarting the efforts of Iran and al-Qaida to develop weapons of mass destruction since their hostility toward the U.S. burned white hot.

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