Monday, March 30, 2015

What Is "Offshore Balancing?"

Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery when the imitator does not know he is imitating?

I ask this because I assume that Ross Douthat did not get the idea for his latest column from this blog. Then again, you never know.

Whatever the case, his title, “The Method to Obama’s Middle East Mess” resonates well with my own post about “malign neglect.” In that post I recalled the famous line by Polonius about Hamlet:

If this be madness, yet there is method in it.

I grant that Douthat did not use the method/madness meme. He should have. Saying that there is method in the mess is awkward and clunky. It feels as though he was trying to avoid using the vastly superior Shakespearean phrase.

For my part I think that malign neglect has a nice ring to it. I would add with commenter Jim Sweeney that we need to understand that Obama wanted to be a transformative president. That means, a president who will make lasting and even drastic changes, the kinds of changes for which he will long be remembered. 

Unfortunately, you can be long remembered for changing things for the worst. Being transformative does not mean that you are necessarily advancing the public good, or any good for that matter.

For his part, Douthat does not see a method here. He sees an administration that is simply lost. Events exceed its ability to manage them:

This administration has been persistently surprised by Middle East developments, and its self-justifications alternate between the exasperated (why don’t you try it if you’re so smart?) and the delusional (as soon as we get the Iran deal, game changer, baby!).

People who defend Obama’s policy do not call it malign neglect. They call it ”offshore balancing.”

Douthat summarizes it:

In an offshore balancing system, our clients are fewer, and our commitments are reduced. Regional powers bear the primary responsibility for dealing with crises on the ground, our military strategy is oriented toward policing the sea lanes and the skies, and direct intervention is contemplated only when the balance of power is dramatically upset.

One hates to sound pedantic—not that much—but, as concepts go “offshore balancing” is incoherent. It is not as clear and intelligible as the “pax Americana” policy it replaced. And it does not reach the level of coherence enjoyed by the policy of containment.

For people to have confidence in your policy they must understand it. For your staff to implement your policy they must know clearly what it does and does not prescribe.

In a situation where our allies believe that, at best the Obama policy is incoherent and at worst it is trying to shift power in the Middle East toward Iran, they are more likely to start taking action on their own. A ship without a rudder—an image for the current situation—will soon run into trouble.

Those who defend offshore balancing do not seem to be in very close touch with reality, either.

Douthat describes their thinking in terms that suggest that they have no idea of what is going on in that part of the world. It’s embarrassing:

Our withdrawal from Iraq and light-footprint approach to counterterrorism, our strange dance with Bashar al-Assad, our limited intervention against ISIS — they all aim at a more “offshore” approach to the Middle East’s problems. Likewise, the long-sought détente with Iran, which assumes that once the nuclear issue is resolved, Tehran can gradually join Riyadh, Cairo and Tel Aviv in a multipolar order.

He continues:

So offshoring American power and hoping that Iran, Iran’s Sunni neighbors and Israel will find some kind of balance on their own will probably increase the risk of arms races, cross-border invasions and full-scale regional war. The conflicts we have now are ugly enough, but absent the restraint still imposed by American military dominance, it’s easy to imagine something worse.

Douthat suggests one reason it cannot work. Led by Barack Obama America does not even know who or what it is:

… it’s very hard for a hegemon to simply sidle offstage, shedding expectations and leaving allies in the lurch. And when you’re still effectively involved everywhere, trying to tip the balance of power this way and that with occasional airstrikes, it’s easy to end up in a contradictory, six-degrees-of-enmity scenario, with no clear goal in mind.

The result, by Douthat’s reasoning. The administration is hellbent on getting us out of the Middle East, regardless of the consequences. One suspects that in this as in many other areas Obama is running out the clock.

His motto should be:

Après moi, le deluge.

[Note for those who care about such things. The French phrase comes to us from Louis XV. The French king's most famous mistress was one Madame de Pompadour. Yesterday I participated in a discussion with three friends-- Mikkel Borch-Jacobson, Jacques van Rillaer and Jean-Pierre Ledru... led by Sophie Robert... about why we all took our leave from psychoanalysis. The discussion, which was filmed, took place in the antechamber that used to belong to Madame de Pompadour. It warms your heart, doesn't it?]


Webutante said...

Great post, Stuart. Aren't pithy French phrases wonderful for hitting the nail on the head?

Had I been anywhere near NYC last weekend, would have loved attending your talk and peer discussion on leaving psychobabble.

Ares Olympus said...

The term "offshore balancing" is new to me too. The Wikipedia article on it dates back to 2005, and it suggests is is an old strategy, whether this name was used or something else. A document names it back to 1997 at least.
Offshore balancing is a strategic concept used in realist analysis in international relations. The term describes a strategy where a great power uses favored regional powers to check the rise of potential hostile powers.

It arguably permits a great power to maintain its power without the costs of large military deployments around the world. It can be seen as the informal-empire analogue to federalism in formal ones (for instance the proposal for the Imperial Federation in the late British Empire) It was primarily used during the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union.

This is consistent with offshore balancing because the U.S. initially did not want to commit American lives to the European conflict. The United States supported the losing side (Iraq) in the Iran–Iraq war to prevent the development of a regional hegemon, which could ultimately threaten U.S. influence. Furthermore, offshore balancing can seem like isolationism when a rough balance of power in international relations exists, which was the case in the 1930s.

I would imagine our supporting Saddam Hussein and Iraq in the 1980's was a part of that strategy, until George W had to upset the balance of power by taking out Iraq's balancing to Iran's power.

So whatever else President Obama is doing now, I'm content to say Bush went overboard for the Neocon "nation building" nonsense, and so 8 years of backing off sounds sensible.

I agree with Douthat that "multipolar environments are often more unstable and violent, period, than unipolar ones." But the thing is we don't freakin' live there, and the idea that we're going to keep a military force more expensive than the rest of the world combined, AND through the next economic crisis which I'm predicting between 2015 and 2020, isn't a good bet in my mind, so if Obama is "acting too small", he's got a majority of Americans who would prefer actual isolationism, or would say they would.

For me the most important thing for American would be to reduce our demand for oil. If we could make an economy that doesn't require consuming 20% of the world's oil production, we could export our "new economy" to the rest of the world, and all the oil wealth of the middle east would dry up, and then we wouldn't have to care what Iran does, or Saudi Arabia for that matter, home of a majority of the 9/11 terrorists.

It's all a mess, and I'm sure it's going to get messier, and I don't have any good answers for the middle east, except I'm glad I don't live there.

I remember the "joke" during the cold war was that the USSR (or China) had 100 year plans for the future, and it was a way of showing our foolish short term planning.

OH, I guess this fear-mongering rhetoric is still a live and well!

Then again, perhaps we should listen to fantasy plans by political rivals if it would help us stop the neocon dreams of world domination by the petrodollar plus shock and awe of U.S. military technology.

Anyway, ignoring China's vision, we apparently have enemies who can cost us $3 trillion dollars with boxcutters. This is a war we can't win by having a bigger ego.

We need to "allow more", and be willing to let things play out without our continual interference.

At least that works for my fence sitting mentality.

Monica said...

Speaking of madness, there's always "this way madness lies," from Lear...and, by the way, we owe the Pompadour the expression, in the first person plural, "Après nous le déluge." She was seeking to console her husbamd for France's defeat at yet another battle of the Seven Years' War, this one against Prussia. Somewhat like Obama, Louis XV was responsible for the loss of France's worldwide prestige and possessions (Canada, and Louisiana), thus paving the way for its decline into decadence...and we all know how that worked out...!

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Merci infiniment!!

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