Indirection as Sustainable Security Strategy

Hampton forwarded me this Center for a New American Security monograph by Jim Thomas, and I’m real glad he did. Thomas develops an idea that I find pretty convincing, namely that the U.S. should husband its power and influence by redirecting its energies from resource intensive interventions to “indirect” support missions carried out by local actors. The crux of his argument is that instead of functioning as the world’s “first responder” in security crises, the U.S. needs to function as an underwriter, the “Lloyds of London” of global stability. Thomas’ strategic starting point is that failed and failing states pose the greatest threat to global stability and therefore to American interests:

[I]t should be the policy of the United States to enable others—who have greater local knowledge and legitimacy than a foreign intervening power—to help shrink the ungoverned areas of the world and through them deny sanctuary to terrorists and other hostile parties, thereby collectively addressing broader threats to the nation-state system. . .Adopting a strategy to enable others to police themselves and their regions more effectively is the best way to reduce the security capacity deficit without bankrupting the United States or forcing it to defend the system by itself at every weak point on the globe. . .

Thomas is basically proposing a generalized “El Salvador” strategy, with an emphasis on “. . .supporting, training, equipping, advising, and mentoring indigenous security forces. . .” as well as empowering regional multi-lateral institutions. He acknowledges some of the risks, such as an emphasis on COIN degrading conventional capabilities, the ever-present temptation of mission creep, as well as the danger of “indirection” diluting American power rather than reinforcing it. But to my mind, he defends his position well.

I’d add a thought, or a level of “indirection,” which Thomas implies without explicitly developing. It’s one that’s been buzzing around in my head ever since Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president of France, and which was re-triggered bya recent discussion over at the Lowy Interpreter about Australia’s status as a “middle power” (here and here). We need to be more savvy about delegating our regional interests and “deputizing” sympathetic and, most importantly, influential middle powers to advance them. They know the local actors better, and have a better lay of the land. We should be using them the way an agile halfback uses his tight end on a sweep, instead of trying to pound the fullback up the middle where the defense is thickest.

To do so, we need to be flexible and open to listening to their concerns, as well. I’m not talking about finding local stooges to carry our water. The emergence of the multi-polar world that we’ve been resisting for so long has been accelerated by the last seven years of the Bush administration’s profligate foreign policy. But we can use it to forge solid regional partnerships that not only maximize our depleted influence, but help restore it.