The late Herman Kahn created a major stir in 1962, when he published a comprehensive and deeply unsettling study on thermonuclear war, Thinking About the Unthinkable. Fortunately, his propositions about what was understood, in retrospect, to be US-Soviet mutual insanity were never tested. The threats the US faces today pale in comparison. But still the United States is compelled to think about these challenges and what to do to keep the nation secure and preserve American interests. This time, the United States needs to think about the thinkable but has fallen far short in doing so. Perhaps this is because the stakes are not this time the fate of the world and the United States became used to being the “sole superpower”—until that status eroded with the rise of competitors, notably China.
In addition to the drama currently being played out on the Korean Peninsula, this thinking about the thinkable is immediately important regarding two regions in particular: Europe (with a renascent Russia) and the Middle East. The United States is now deeply immersed in active or latent conflicts, confrontations between different political cultures and even worldviews, and processes and politics that have both internal logic and external compulsions.
Right or wrong, several propositions about these two regions are now widely accepted and dominate US views, in government and among much of the attentive non-governmental community. These propositions determine US policy and action. They are also interconnected because of Russia’s involvement in Syria and desire to pursue a permanent Middle East role. Further, they drive out necessary consideration of issues more consequential for the long term such as the rise of China and, by far the most important global challenge, climate change.
These propositions include the following:
Prevailing (and Debatable) US Views of Russia
- Ruled by President Vladimir Putin, Russia is not just a country whose return to the world stage was inevitable and predictable. It is an aggressive power, perhaps because of its DNA but certainly reflecting Putin’s personal aspirations and desire to challenge Western interests worldwide.
- After the Cold War ended, the United States did everything possible to integrate Russia into the West. That this effort failed was solely Russia’s fault.
- Russia’s incursion into Georgia (2008) and seizure of Crimea (2014) were totally unprovoked, and the separatist moment in southeast Ukraine had nothing to do with actions by the government in Kiev.
- Similarly, Russian military buildup and hybrid warfare activities in Europe were both unprovoked and are sui generis. In other words, nothing similar has been done by the West or, where NATO first became engaged militarily in Central Europe, it was only in response to Russian actions.
- Russia intervened in the US presidential election of 2016 and was decisive in tipping the balance to Donald Trump. It is also successfully undermining other Western democracies. For its part, in the last several decades the United States may have intervened in the domestic politics of scores of countries, but there is no moral or political equivalence.
Prevailing (and Debatable) US Views Regarding the Middle East
- Iran is the chief mischief-maker in the region, with its nuclear ambitions, ballistic missile program, and interventions in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, not to mention its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, which would otherwise pose only minor threats to Israel.
- The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which scotched the Iranian nuclear program, may have some benefits. But Iran still needs to be rigorously contained, even though this means that the United States is not honoring fully its own part of the JCPOA bargain. Washington and its European allies can increase pressure on Iran, including US abrogation of its role in the JCPOA, and Teheran won’t respond other than in words.
- Iran is also the leading state sponsor of terrorism, not just in the Middle East but globally. Saudi promotion of Sunni Islamist terrorism can be ignored, even though it fostered the Islamic State and has spread across the Middle East, North and Central Africa, and Southeast Asia, dwarfing Iran’s role in terrorism.
- The civil war in Syria was caused by President Bashar al-Assad. Removing him from power is necessary to stop the conflict. The war has nothing to do with Sunni-Shia rivalries or the geopolitical aspirations of Saudi Arabia and other regional states.
- Russia intervened in Syria solely because of Putin’s ambitions to return Russia to the global stage. Its intervention had nothing to do with US policies (for example, President Barack Obama’s declaration of a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons, his assertion that “Assad must go,” and the years-long failure of US efforts in Syria).
- The Arab states of the Persian Gulf may now be the most heavily armed countries in the region and are buying weapons at a prodigious rate, but they face a major military threat from Iran despite its limited capabilities.
- These Arab states share nearly identical interests with the United States.
- Israel’s definition of its security requirements correctly defines US regional interests.
- Meanwhile, the United States must persevere in Afghanistan or see direct terrorist attacks on the West by the Taliban.
Assessing These Prevailing Views
It may be, though it’s unlikely, that every one of these prevailing views is accurate, despite a good deal of historical revisionism or simply ignorance. Together, they largely define the last two administrations’ “threat picture” facing the United States and justify all current US policies in the two regions. Notably, almost all these views have become virtual dogma without rigorous examination of US attitudes and actions that helped to bring them about or systematic consideration of policy alternatives, by either the Obama or Trump administration.
Nowhere in the US government—not the National Security Council, the State Department, or the Defense Department—is there a coherent policy planning function worthy of the name. Both in and out of government, there is insufficient “thinking about the thinkable” and no replication of the strategic analyses the US conducted during World War II and the Cold War. With so much at stake, acceptance of today’s groupthink within such a large part of the US research community is becoming a threat to US national security.
The risks of not meticulously reexamining the propositions listed above is that the United States is increasingly bound to positions and consequent behavior that will be hard to change later, even if US national interests would be better served thereby. Inertia in policy takes over and admitting the need to “think again” becomes difficult, if not impossible. Validating today’s actions by reaffirming assumptions becomes standard operating procedure, even if objective analysis, not colored by domestic politics, would show them to be wrong or at best inadequate. That happened in Vietnam a half-century ago. Although failure was evident by 1968, the war continued five more years and caused more than 50 percent of all US combat fatalities before the nation’s leaders fully internalized the fact of failure and got out.
Challenging Conventional Wisdom
At least two products of analytical paralysis and policy inertia—in and out of government—are the assertions by the think-tank community and senior government officials that the United States is now locked in a new Cold War with Russia and has no choice but to remain deeply engaged militarily in the Middle East.
In the former case, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate out areas where Russian actions need to be opposed and those where national interests dictate a search for cooperation with Moscow. This paralysis of imagination and rigidity of analysis is further compromised by domestic actors who see the “Russia factor” as the best cudgel with which to try driving Trump from office.
In the latter case, the Middle East and Southwest Asia, there is confusion between necessary efforts to defeat the Islamic State and other actions that are harder to justify in terms of US interests. The latter include the continued pursuit of the chimera of victory in Afghanistan and direct military support for longstanding Saudi ambitions in Yemen, including a US-abetted humanitarian crisis as bad as Syria’s. There’s also the unwillingness to give staunch support to the JCPOA with Iran, the most important strategic gain for the West in the region in decades. Moreover, the United States has continued to insist that “Assad must go” without any means of protecting all religious and other groups in Syria, a sure recipe for continued conflict. Meanwhile, the current administration has embraced a radical reduction of non-military instruments of US power and influence (the State Department) and has made a general commitment to US military engagement and active combat in the Middle East and Southwest Asia for the indefinite future.
Much of the so-called mainstream media has also inhibited reassessment of either assumptions or policies. Indeed, most in-depth assessment of the key assumptions has been left by default to the blogosphere, which can play only a limited role in national debate. In effect, the United States risks being captured by a collective party line and constrained in openly debating major elements of national interest, threat/challenge, and responses.
This need not and must not be so, particularly given America’s vibrant democratic traditions and history of a free media that has had few rivals elsewhere. Its strength as a society and success in the world depend utterly on a free media. But as during the Cold War, conforming to prevailing opinion when “foreign policy” or “national security” issues are at stake can become compelling. This was underscored in 1989 when, before the Berlin Wall opened on November 9, almost all the US national security establishment failed to grasp the Cold War’s approaching end.
In assessing new U.S. challenges and the need to secure national interests, the first requirement must be to reinvigorate debate on the fundamentals—in government, think tanks, and the media. That must begin by reexamining the propositions discussed in this article. For the United States to regain sure footing in the outside world, it must be willing to “think about the thinkable.”
Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.