Tactical at the Expense of the Strategic

By Daniel L. Davis

The primary objective of US foreign policy should be to keep American’s safe and effectively defend our vital national interestsFrequent marketing-like statements made by senior leaders notwithstanding, an examination of our actions abroad confirm that the United States’ foreign policy elite do not hold such a view.

Many pundits and policy-makers declare that it is in the United States’ interests to militarily support armed forces and militias in Iraq and Syria in order to destroy other bad actors and militias, including ISIS.  As I have often argued, such a position is not supported by logic or evidence.  However the battle to retake Mosul goes on the ground, the seeds of renewed internal conflict are already spouting among Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish militias.  Additionally, on the very eve of launching the operation, there is a major new row developing between Turkey and Iraq. 

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has warned that if Turkish troops do not leave Iraqi territory, “a regional war” could break out.  Turkish President Erdogan defiantly fires back at Abadi, telling him that “[y]ou are not on my level, you are not of my quality. You ranting and raving from Iraq is not of any importance to us."  There is no evidence that the wars raging inside both Iraq and Syria will burn out any time soon.  American actions clearly are not advancing US interests, nor have they led to any positive outcome, let alone political reconciliation among rival factions.

If Washington continues to take tactical actions such as those in Iraq and Syria but doing so harms the strategic interests of the United States, the effort must not be undertaken – or ended with the least damage possible if it is already in progress.  That is the situation facing the country today. 

In the pursuit of lesser tactical objectives, we are sacrificing our interests on a strategic level.

The fight against ISIS isn’t going to end even if we retake Mosul and Raqqa – though that outcome is still not guaranteed – it will only change the nature of the fight.  Meanwhile, win or lose in those two cities, our relationship with nuclear-armed Russia continues to deteriorate. 

ISIS, while vile and detestable does not represent an existential threat to the United States Russia, on the other hand, could represent an existential threat and does a far greater ability to covertly work against US interests across the globe in the cyber, commerce, and diplomatic realms. 

Under the best of circumstances, because of centuries of culture and history, the United States and Russia are unlikely to ever become close allies in the mold of the UK or even Japan or Germany.  But neither is it ordained that we must be active adversaries. 

Presently the predominant view from Washington is that Russia is a permanent enemy to be actively countered and covertly opposed whenever possible.  This attitude is usually justified by claims that if we don’t actively work against Russia, “they will view it as weakness” and make trouble all over the globe. 


Moscow wants to be safe from external aggression, have significant influence in what they define as “near abroad,” and to actively engage in global commerce to improve their domestic economy.  They do not have a genetic predestination to seek conflict with the West, even if they do relish opportunities to antagonize the U.S.  America wants to be safe from external aggression, have significant influence in regions of the globe where we have interests, and we rightly seek to maximize global trade opportunities to expand our domestic economy.

As it is, however, there are hawkish elements in both Washington and Moscow that continually seek to oppose and subvert the other, warns that each is the primary enemy, and argue that without taking active measures against the other the security of their nation will be at risk.

In reality, it is in the interests of the United States to have cordial, working relations with Russia so that we are not targets of Moscow’s subversive actions nor waste our own time and resources doing the same to them.

It will take substantial effort, a steady diplomatic hand, and a lot of time to undo the damage that has been done over the past 20 years.  First, however, we’ve got to stop actively harming relations.  Working to create even a modicum of trust between the two nuclear powers is in the unequivocal interests of both nations.  The American people deserve a government that works hard for the benefit of our population, takes the most prudent actions to guarantee our security, and doesn’t waste resources and time unnecessarily antagonizing competitors. 

Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a fellow with Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Real Clear Defense on October 19, 2016. Read more HERE