Retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen considers U.S. resolve in a troubled world

Walter Pincus
Reporter October 28, 2013

How does the United States provide global leadership when its military and economic powers — still the world’s greatest — can no longer provide the threat or financial rewards necessary to stabilize areas such as the Middle East and Central Asia?

Critics of the Obama administration argue that diplomacy only works when political, economic and security conditions make them possible. Heavy emphasis on the latter.

“What has sustained us as a superpower has been the sheer capacity that we have across many of the measures of national power, enormous political capacity, enormous diplomatic capacity, the strongest economy on the planet.

“But undergirding all of that . . . has been in the end the ability for us to exert coercive power, and no diplomacy in the end can be effective without the potential coercive arm necessary to drive diplomacy home if diplomacy fails.”

Those are the words of retired Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen at the Foreign Policy Institute, where he gave a thoughtful tutorial on global leadership, explaining how things have changed over the past decade.

Allen sees instability “bordering on chaos” in the Middle East and along Africa’s northern tier. It requires, he said, the exertion of U.S. leadership “where we can have an outcome that can bring about stability.”

The question is, he added, “What means do we have to facilitate that end over the long term?”

●Afghanistan. Allen, a former commander there, sees the April 5, 2014, presidential election as critical. He worries that if the voting date slips or there is a runoff, the formation of a new government will come at the same time that the U.S. and allied military mission ends “and the next mission begins.”

The post-January 2015 advisory military element would be needed to continue development of the Afghan National Security Force, which will offer stability for the new administration and give it the “ability to get its legs under it.”

A hang-up is the status-of-forces agreement that Allen said requires the Afghans to compromise on sovereignty by giving legal jurisdictional protection to U.S. troops there. President Obama has made clear that without that safeguard, “He will not leave our forces in Afghanistan,” Allen said.

“The Afghan people need to ask themselves what they need to trade in terms of sovereignty for the long-term security of the country and a relationship with the West,” he said.

● Pakistan. The U.S. relationship has been troubled, Allen said, primarily because of insurgents who traveled into Afghanistan from sanctuaries in Pakistan. Allen noted that the Pakistan army’s counterinsurgency operations in tribal areas meant more casualties for them than for U.S. forces in the areas in a shorter period of time.

“I’m always very careful about the natural reflex in this town [Washington] to punish Pakistan over policy differences,” Allen said.

● Iran. With the Tehran regime as “a supporter of terrorism and instability in the region,” he said talks on its nuclear program are “important right now.” The rhetoric of President Hassan Rouhani sounds good, but “it’s about the action that backs up the rhetoric,” Allen said.

●Iraq. Because the United States withdrew its combat forces when a status-of-forces agreement fell through, Allen said, “We weren’t there long enough to provide the top cover for the solution of many of the political difficulties that might have resolved itself if we had been there for a longer period of time.” The Shia leadership has cracked down on the Sunni minority, creating a violent situation exacerbated by al-Qaeda elements who Allen said “have been commuting back and forth across the Syrian border to assist the resistance in Syria.”

●Syria. Allen describes it as “emblematic of how bad the Middle East problem can be.” He sees regional Arab states divided in their support of the insurgents and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Shia vs. Sunni, moderate Sunni resistance elements against al-Qaeda resistance elements and some Arab states against others. One result may be “satellite states in some form or another around the periphery,” he said.

●Jordan. Beset with a humanitarian crisis from the influx of Syrian refugees — on top of Iraqis and Palestinians from the past — the United States must offer more aid to help King Abdullah II “maintain the demographic balance.”

●Egypt. The U.S. relationship is “extraordinarily important,” he said. But he called attention to Egypt’s “enormous social, economic and political challenges, which ultimately prompted the departure of [former elected president Mohamed] Morsi and the ascendancy of the military.”

●Israel. There is “a potential for progress on Middle East peace, two-state outcome,” Allen said. “Any progress . . . is useful not just to the region but ultimately to the United States.”

Allen compared today with the 1990s post-Gulf War period when the Middle East was quieter. Many of the countries and kingdoms in flux today joined the United States in the coalition that solved the Kuwait issue.

Instead, Allen said, “From the northern tier of Africa, the African Sahel [including Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan], across the Middle East, across South Asia, all the way to the border of India and Pakistan, we’ve got some very substantial challenges.”

In an era of constrained budgets, Allen asked whether the military forces “can really be the underwriting safety net . . . to enforce our political intent, our strategic outcomes, our strategic objectives and our diplomacy?”

He said he did not think the country had answered that question.

My view: Washington needs limited objectives. Led a decade ago into a $1 trillion war, we have endured upwards of 30,000 dead and wounded. Americans have little stomach for more such adventures. Perhaps we should straighten out our own politics and financial base before telling others how to manage their affairs.

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