You know the major foreign threats to the United States — Russia, Iran, North Korea, and terrorism. We’ve been talking about them for years. Today, we’re in a bad place on all of them. It’s an object lesson in the dangers of kicking the can down the road.
Now, that doesn’t mean I want us to charge in, guns blazing, whenever a foreign threat rears its head. Of course there are crises when we need to act fast. But by and large, the United States should play the long game.
It suits us not to rush. Our Constitutional system isn’t built to do things in a hurry. And we’re bigger and richer than our adversaries. In poker, assuming everyone has roughly equal ability and luck, the player with the largest stack has an advantage. The same is true in international relations.
But to play the long game, we must get in the game. It means we must recognize who our enemies and adversaries are, and consistently apply pressure to them. If that results in a change of regime — as it did with the USSR — all the better. But at the very least, it puts us in a position to do deals that work.
What have we done with our big problems instead? We’ve kicked the can down the road. On Russia, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama tried to be friends. Both were disappointed. Bush didn’t feel he could confront Iran while dealing with Afghanistan and Iraq, while Obama reached out a “hand of friendship.”
Administrations have seesawed back and forth on North Korea from sanctions to talks, sometimes shifting within a year. Both Bush and Obama proclaimed victory over terrorism. Both were wrong.
So what are the fruits of these policies? Putin’s Russia may be fundamentally weak, but it has never looked regionally stronger or more influential. It’s widely believed to be the source of the recent wave of ransomware attacks, to which we’ve made no effective public response.
Iran has won the Syrian war. According to the State Department, it remains the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism. And German intelligence says it continues to acquire nuclear technology. Yet, reportedly, the Trump administration plans to certify that Iran is complying with the terms of Obama’s nuclear deal.
North Korea has developed an ICBM that can reach Alaska. It already has a nuclear weapon. The Trump administration has talked tough, but its efforts to encourage China to help us out with our North Korean problem have, as in the past, been completely unsuccessful.
And then there’s terrorism. ISIS is going to fall, but that isn’t the end. It’s not even the end of the beginning, as the attacks in France, Belgium, and Britain over the last year show. We’re no closer to victory over Islamist terrorism now than we were on Sept. 10, 2001.
I accept that all of these problems are hard. And I agree that even the best U.S. policies can’t do more than make hard problems easier to cope with. But in every case, we’ve made hard problems even harder by trying to postpone reality, instead of confronting it.
We’d be in a better place if we did just one simple thing: never give up any leverage we have (and indeed, look for ways to get more leverage) for the mere promise of a deal, or a pledge of better behavior. We should only yield our leverage in return for verifiable, permanent concessions.
Engagement doesn’t work with dictators. The only thing that works is power — American power.
You might say that sounds dangerous, that it’s safer to delay. Well, it’s a dangerous world. And you know what makes it more dangerous? Kicking the can down the road until our choices narrow so far that our only option is to give North Korea what it wants at the point not of a gun, but of a nuclear missile.
This piece originally appeared in Newsday