A policy of “peace through strength” means doing what is necessary to instill fear in our enemies, to convince them that we have both the capability and the will to cause them serious harm. If that deters them, armed conflicts are avoided. If not, “peace through strength” also means we have the power to decisively defeat them.
If that’s not our policy, if our enemies think we are eager to placate and appease, incapable of using force effectively or reluctant to do so, they’ll conclude we are weak. And, for tyrants, weakness is blood in the water.
What brings these thoughts to mind: Over the weekend, Tehran-backed militias attacked a U.S. military outpost in Syria, killing one American contractor and wounding another, as well as wounding five U.S. service members.
This was not an isolated incident. U.S. troops in the region have come under attack from Tehran-backed groups 78 times since the beginning of 2021, according to Gen. Michael Kurilla who, as head of Central Command, oversees American troops in the Middle East.
If you’re a proponent of peace through strength, the conclusion you draw is that deterrence has failed, and that re-establishing deterrence must now be a top priority.
Those who don’t see the situation this way are calling for retreat from Syria—the response Iran’s theocrats intended to elicit.
To do so would repeat the strategic error President Biden made in 2021 when he surrendered Afghanistan to the Taliban and, by extension, to its ally, al Qaeda.
President Obama made the same mistake when he withdrew from Iraq in 2011, giving rise to Islamic State, which went on to conquer 40 percent of Iraq and 33 percent of Syria, establish affiliates in at least eight other countries, spark a refugee crisis and launch terrorist attacks in the U.S., France and elsewhere.
During the Trump administration, ISIS territories were liberated by an American-led coalition: “Operation Inherent Resolve.” A spokesman for OIR made clear in 2018 that “this does not mark the end of the campaign. We know this enemy is as adaptive and savvy as it is cruel and evil. We will continue to support our partners and keep pressure on ISIS.”
And it has: a U.S. economy-of-force deployment in Syria, less than a thousand elite troops, enables America’s Kurdish and Arab allies to suppress ISIS. Abandon those allies and ISIS revives.
Now, let’s connect some dots. Iran’s rulers are allied with Vladimir Putin. They’re giving him drones that he’s using to kill Ukrainians. He’s giving them cyber weapons and dangling the possibility of fighter aircraft sales.
Both Moscow and Tehran have propped up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—helping him slaughter as many as a million of his citizens in the process.
Moscow and Tehran also are allied with—or, more precisely, are junior partners of—China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping.
He’s a man with a plan to replace the post-World War II Pax Americana with a Pax Sinica—a new world order with rules made in Beijing according to Marxist/Leninist/Maoist principles.
If Xi can bring that about, the impact on American interests, values, freedom and prosperity will be enormous.
By the way, history will have to be rewritten if it turns out that Americans didn’t win the Cold War after all, but only the battle with the Soviet Union, after which more adroit Communists prevailed.
Last week, Xi met with Putin in Moscow. They issued a statement warning the United States to “stop undermining international and regional security and global strategic stability in order to maintain its own unilateral military superiority.” That’s their way of telling Americans to accept diminished status.
They also railed against NATO’s “continuous strengthening of military-security ties with Asia-Pacific countries.” That’s Xi’s way of saying: “Asia is mine!”
The CCP’s influence has been growing in Latin America and Africa as well. Xi’s brokering of détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia demonstrates that he’s successfully competing against the United States in the Middle East too.
Many members of Congress are now worried about Beijing’s behavior—its thefts of intellectual property, cyber- and balloon-enabled spying, industrial influence campaigns, unmatched military systems development and other stratagems.
At a House hearing on Thursday, Republicans and some Democrats expressed serious concern that TikTok is vacuuming up huge amounts of data on millions of Americans—data the CCP can command TikTok to hand over.
Biden seems less concerned. On Friday, he said: “I don’t take China lightly, I don’t take Russia lightly, but I think we vastly exaggerate.”
Do we? Defending human rights, Biden has said, is “at the center of my administration’s foreign policy.” Has he read the report released by his State Department last week saying that in China “genocide and crimes against humanity” continued during 2022 “against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang”? Has he read the section on Tibet?
Many journalists appear favorably impressed by Beijing’s ambitions. A front page story in The Wall Street Journal last week was headlined: “China Auditions for Lead Global Role.” Readers were informed that Xi is sending a message that “China and its allies are no longer obliged to conform to a U.S.-led global order.”
Xi told Putin that “the world was going through changes unseen in a century—language pointing to the brighter future he said he hopes to usher in.”
Not brighter for Americans, I’d wager, nor for those around the world who value freedom. Unless you think I’m vastly exaggerating, you’ll agree that rebuilding America’s military and economic strength to deter our enemies should be Washington’s top priority.
For now, it is not.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times.