The other day Hilary Clinton and Leon Panetta were on stage at the National Defense University. In the course of the action Ms Clinton bragged on the use of "smart power" by her boss, The Nice Young Man From Chicago, with respect to the Syrian conundrum. She went on to imply strongly that the graduated escalation of economic and diplomatic sanctions in support of the anti-government demonstrators was both without precedent in American diplomatic history and (drum roll, please) constituted a paradigm for the future.
This multi-tier exercise in pure idiocy would normally provide grounds for a Bugs Bunny Memorial "What a Maroon!" Award but as the Secretary of State just received one of these highly coveted tributes only a week or so ago, she was (temporarily) ineligible. Instead Ms Clinton will be given an Honorable Mention in the Rampant Distortions of History and Reality For Base Political Purposes.
While the term "smart power" must mean something else in the Clinton lexicon, to the disinterested observer it can only signify an exercise in simulated policy covering hesitation, irresolution, hemming and hawing to say nothing of the lack of a clear focus on American national interest and an inability to understand the limits of coercive diplomacy. "Smart power" also serves to obscure if not hide completely the utter failure of the Obama administration to properly calibrate the relation between policy and the mechanisms by which policy might be implemented effectively.
Years ago, way back when the current president was blathering on constitutional law and plotting radical change in the parlors of such as Bernadine Dohrn and her co-revolutionist, Bill Ayers, and Ms Clinton was in Little Rock, President George H.W. Bush showed just how "smart power" is supposed to work in the real world of enemies, partial enemies, allies, pseudo-allies, and the usually uncommitted states-in-the-middle as he patiently assembled an ad hoc coalition under US leadership to eject the Iraq of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
In the past, Ms Clinton has characterized "smart power" as the process of coalition building with the goal of meshing diplomatic, economic, and military assets into an effective package to counter a given threat or meet an unexpected contingency. In principle, her understanding is correct. It should be--it was taken directly from the record of the H.W. Bush administration.
The response of the H.W. Bush administration to the unexpected Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 is the practical expression of "smart power." All any successor administration has had to do is read the book that Dad Bush wrote and follow its guidance.
Leaving aside one very embarrassing factor basic to the Iraqi invasion--the US diplomatic misstep which seemed to Saddam to have given him a clear signal of any lack of American interest in the readjustment of the Iraqi border--the Iraqi attack and occupation of Kuwait came as both a surprise and a major challenge to the US. Long standing American policy opposed any single state gaining hegemony over the oil states of the Persian Gulf. It was for this reason that the Nixon administration provided military assistance to the Iran of the Shah as well as to Saudi Arabia. It was for this reason that the US established and expanded its military presence in the Persian Gulf.
The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait would have violated this policy. Certainly the notion of Saddam Hussein controlling so much of the oil reserves in the region was against American interests. And, worst of all, the prospect of Iraq either pushing on into Saudi Arabia or exercising an oppressive influence upon the Kingdom was both destabilizing for the region and against American strategic interests.
The decision to roll back the Iraqis was not difficult to make. Far more demanding was the process of doing so. Unilateral action would have been unacceptable given the political dynamics not only of the region but also in the rapidly changing international political environment following the collapse of the old Soviet Union. The status and sensitivity of the Kremlin was a major consideration as the new Confederation of Independent States tried to assemble itself out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union. Also exercising great influence on the problem of rolling the Iraqis back was the tenuous nature of the Israeli-Arab conflict. These major factors along with a host of lesser issues meant the US could not act hastily or without the broadest possible base of international political support.
Military considerations were also an important limiter on the rapidity of American action. The rolling back of the Iraqis from Kuwait could not be accomplished by air and naval power alone. Sure, the US could obliterate the Kuwaiti (and Iraqi) oil fields and their supporting infrastructure. Certainly, the US could inflict great devastation on the Iraqi military and government. It could even 'bomb Iraq back to the stone age' without resorting to nuclear weapons. However, none of these alternatives would be effective in that each would cause counterproductive levels of destruction. Winning a rubble field covered by a pall of smoke from ever burning oil wells is not a good definition of victory.
A ground war would be necessary. To be successful, a ground war would of necessity have to be of short duration and very limited casualties. A long war or an inconclusive one or one which resulted in too many Americans coming home in body bags would be politically insupportable at home. To assure the war came to a speedy conclusion with an absolute minimum number of fatalities, a very large force would be necessary. In order to assure a maximum degree of international support, the US would have to assemble a vast coalition of military contingents from countries lacking any real history of warlike cooperation.
These two foundation truths along with the diplomatic requisites took time. And they took great effort, personal effort from the president and his most senior people. Adding to the time requirements was the decision to refrain from using any established multilateral institution other than the UN in the assembling of both the diplomatic and military coalitions.
The use of the UN Security Council was a necessary preliminary. Not only was gaining the proper authorization from the Security Council a proper preliminary to coalition building, it was essential for securing universal political support domestically. The Americans like the use of the UN baby blue flag as a figleaf covering the policy genitalia of the US.
The long months of the Fall and Winter of 1990 were well spent in assembling the coalition, transporting the very, very massive American military forces to the theater of operations, and integrating contingents from traditional American allies as well as assorted countries better known for opposing the US than cooperating with it. The diplomatic and military preparations were highly visible thus giving Saddam ample time to reconsider his position and repent the error made. (This period of reflection was, in and of itself, an important factor often overlooked at the time by critics and equally ignored by post-conflict writers.)
The war itself was conducted in a manner which well meets the requirements of "smart power." The early, overly muscular, and unsubtle operational plans of the theater commander were rejected and replaced by a much better thought out use of American mobility and firepower. The president ignored his critics who bayed for a quicker commencement of hostilities and who chaffed under the seemingly unnecessary delay of a very long preparatory period of aerial bombardment.
The final plan focused on the necessary--the ejection of Iraqi forces from Kuwait--and a limited incursion into Iraq itself. This perturbed critics greatly as there were many who wanted the US to go all the way and eliminate Saddam for once and all. The decision of the H.W. Bush administration not to go all the way, to resist the pernicious virus of the "victory disease' was proper. The realities of both the domestic and international political scene militated against a total war. A drive to Baghdad would have resulted in ever stiffening Iraqi resistance and a commensurate body count among friendly forces. Further, the removal of Saddam would have saddled the US with the problems of post-conflict occupation and the specters of a crumbling coalition and a dissolving Iraqi society.
While there are grounds to criticize the post-truce American policy, on balance the end of the war was as good as could be expected at costs which were politically and economically acceptable. It was an exercise in "smart power."
By comparison the Obama administration approach to the problems of Libya and Syria were demonstrations of "dumb power." First and foremost, the administration did not choose the right battle against the right enemy. Libya and Gadaffi were, at best, a nuisance, an annoyance. Syria is an adversary of consequence. As the US has not been able to influence Israel in the direction of returning the Golan Heights to Damascus which, of course, had the potential of prying Syria loose from the embrace of Tehran and ending Syrian support for Hezbollah and Hamas, the alternative is the removal of Bashir al-Assad with the hope that the new regime would be less threatening to both Israel and the West. (Admittedly a weak hope given the potency of the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups espousing violent political Islam.)
Had the US opposed the delusions in London and Paris, there would have been some bloodletting in Libya but less than has accrued to date. More importantly, the administration could have focused on the very difficult task of gaining support for strong action against Syria. The difficulty of the task given the long standing relationship between Russia and Syria would have been extreme but not beyond the realm of plausibility. It is not unthinkable that Moscow could have been persuaded to abstain in the Security Council and as a result Beijing would have done the same rather than be seen as the sole protector of a very unpleasant regime.
The months of diplomacy along with the necessary and highly visible redeployment of US and other forces would have given Assad pause and time for thought. The lengthy preparations would have provided impetus for the Baathists to have found a face saving way out of the dilemma which came about more by accident and miscalculation than malicious aforethought. The diplomatic ramp up to war could have made the war itself unnecessary.
This, bucko, would have been "smart power." Sure, it would have required a level of political courage to prepare for yet one more war with a well armed, well prepared adversary in the face of opposition from the Obama political base. And, political courage is not this administration's long suit. It would have taken a high degree of diplomatic finesse along with patient persuasion to build a coalition. Both of these have been qualities conspicuously absent of late.
"Smart power" ain't easy as the Gulf War demonstrated. It is, however, far preferable to the hopeless, feckless series of spastic blunders which have scarred our diplomacy in the Mideast in recent months (and years.)
Madam Secretary, get it right. Saying that something is "smart" doesn't make it so.