September 17, 2014 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Islamic State threat looms as U.S. global influence wanes

It’s no secret that threats to American security are increasing. The terrorism we thought had been contained is on the rise again. The Islamic State movement has threatened to take its war to New York. While the administration claims there is no actionable intelligence showing such a threat to be imminent, it’s no consolation to remember that we didn’t see the Sept. 11 attacks coming either.

The world is a far more dangerous place than it was six years ago. The question is: How serious is all this for American security?

The answer is serious indeed — not just because of the proliferation of specific threats, but because the world is becoming much more disordered at the same time that American power and influence are waning.

States are failing across the globe, and vast swaths of territory are ungovernable. What Henry Kissinger calls “zones of nongovernance and jihad” include Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mali, Sudan and Somalia. These do not include the drug cartel — driven violence in Central America and Mexico that is contributing to our immigration problems.

Waning American power and influence cause our friends and allies to worry that Washington has become too disengaged from world events. They complain of inconsistent policies like threatening to attack Syria and then pulling back. And they fear that the Obama administration’s famed caution and penchant for endless deliberation in reality mask diffidence and neglect. If the going gets tough, our allies fear, the administration may leave them in the lurch.

Meanwhile, America’s enemies and rivals are losing respect for American power. The Islamic State’s taunting of the United States with barbaric beheadings of Americans is but the tip of the iceberg. Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite all the sanctions imposed on him, is undeterred from continuing his proxy war against Ukraine. It’s no secret that many in China’s leadership believe America is a declining power.

Perhaps that is because U.S. military power is in decline. A bipartisan panel convened by Congress and chaired by former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and retired General John P. Abizaid has concluded that “there is a growing gap between the strategic objectives the U.S. military is expected to achieve and the resources required to do so.” Our military readiness, capacity and capability are less than what is required to keep the country safe.

What does all this disorder mean? We are not able to shape the international environment as much as we should. We are not able to achieve the peace as much as we should. And we are more exposed to direct threats to the homeland than we should be.

Some imagine that America’s new powerlessness is inevitable, even desirable. If we pull back, they suggest, others will rise to fill the gap in keeping the peace. This is wishful thinking. If we pull back, our adversaries push forward. The only ones who pull back when we do are our friends and allies, fearing they will have the rug pulled out from under them.

We don’t face a “multipolar world” of willing partners dedicated to stabilizing conflicts. Instead we face an increasingly nonpolar world in which a whole host of bad actors — from aggressive revisionist states like Russia and China to apocalyptic terrorist groups like the Islamic State — are willing to risk conflict and cause instability to achieve their goals. It’s a fantasy to expect rival “power centers” to pick up the slack if only we recognize their grievances and try to work more closely with them. They are not interested in preserving the existing order, but in overturning it, particularly in their spheres of influence.

The fact remains: Only the United States has the capacity, capability and, potentially at least, the will to balance out these harmful forces. There are friends and allies to be gained in doing so, but they must be convinced that we know what we are doing.

So far, they fear we don’t.

 - A former assistant secretary of state, Kim R. Holmes is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in The Washington Times