The United States used to be the undisputed international shot caller. Twenty years ago, we were number one economically and militarily. There were no real “peer competitors.” But lately, our power is in doubt.
The United States has deployed warships to stop Yemen’s harassment of commercial shipping destined for Israel, as well as to prevent direct missile attacks on Israel itself. Yemen is a poor and war-torn nation hobbled by severe sanctions and a years-long bombing campaign by Saudi Arabia. The United States has provided the Saudis with weapons and logistical support since 2015. Remote, impoverished Yemen’s civil war concerns the United States because one of the belligerents, the Houthis, acts as a proxy for Iran.
In spite of sanctions and years of war, Yemen’s Houthis have established firm control over the country’s south and managed to accrue an asymmetric drone warfare capability. One may recall Yemeni drone attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure just a few years ago. These same weapons have now been deployed against Israel and in defense of Yemen itself.
Naval Power is Important to Maintaining American Sovereignty
The United States tried and failed to build a naval coalition to stop the Houthi’s interdiction of shipping en route to Israel. At first, the Pentagon announced Operation Prosperity Guardian with great fanfare. But soon it scaled back the operation, admitted a lack of sufficient ships, and sustained a prestige hit when France, Spain, and Australia all dropped out of the planned operation.
While taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems ill advised—the Middle East is consistently a tar baby that the U.S. obtains no advantage from engaging with—American control of the seas, the preservation of open shipping lanes, and our ability to influence the actions of other nations are important elements of American power. The security of the oceans will always be a legitimate foreign policy priority for a commercial and maritime republic like the United States.
A lot has changed in the last 20 years. In 2003, even though the Iraq War was very controversial abroad, the United States lined up over 30 countries to help, including stalwart allies like the United Kingdom and Australia, as well as smaller countries seeking favor, including Georgia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, and even Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Of course, when necessary, the United States went completely alone, as with the Libyan bombing of 1986 or the Panama Invasion of 1989.
But this recent history is instructive. Just a mere 20 years ago, the U.S. projected significant power, commanding the rest of the world’s respect and often its cooperation. This often led to the imposition of favorable terms in any international dispute. Even when the Ukraine war began, the U.S. was able to strongarm Europe into an aggressive sanctions regime against Russia. Germany even remained silent when Ukrainian (or American) saboteurs blew up the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline, on which German industrial output depended.
Signs of Decline
But cracks in U.S. dominance are beginning to show. For starters, the ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 was a stark display of American weakness and fecklessness. Many years of happy talk and billions of dollars deployed for nation-building went up in smoke within a fortnight.
The departure could not have possibly been more chaotic and humiliating, and it was a direct result of the uniformed military’s attempts to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, even after the Taliban and the United States signed a treaty requiring our troops’ departure. When our people should have been packing up their trash and destroying sensitive equipment, nothing was happening. Describing this withdrawal and the introduction of thousands of illiterate Afghanis into our country as some great success was the icing on the cake. This reminded us that the military and its leadership are lately far more concerned with image than with winning wars.
A second crack in America’s reputation arises from the Ukraine War. This war began with a lot of bravado about the strength of the NATO alliance, and the Biden administration stated its goal of fomenting regime change in Russia and otherwise reducing its power and influence. Instead, the war has not gone as planned.
Western wonder weapons have not significantly changed Ukraine’s fortunes, and equipment like M2 Bradleys and Leopard tanks has been destroyed faster than it can be replaced. Deficiencies in western military production, along with the desire to maintain small, professional militaries have revealed weaknesses among the United States and its NATO allies that would impair our efforts in any land war with a peer competitor. Finally, massive defects of imagination were apparent in the American-planned Ukrainian “counteroffensive,” a debacle that barely dented the Russian lines.
While the early stages of the Russian campaign exposed deficiencies in Russia’s own planning and logistics, those problems have mostly been rectified. This is evident from Russia’s sustained and significant production of weapons and ammunition, the expansion of the Russian military itself, as well as recent advances along the entire front from Zaporozhye to Artemovsk.
Finally, the American contribution to the war in Gaza may also provide a lesson to hostile observers. While America is not a direct participant, we have deployed substantial naval assets to the region in order to prevent the expansion of the war by nation-state supporters of Hamas, such as Iran and Yemen. But in this endeavor, asymmetries arising from drone and missile weapons have shown that America’s large weapon systems, like aircraft carriers, while powerful, are also very vulnerable.
There’s a reason that our aircraft carriers are on the leeward side of Cyprus. If they get closer, they may be vulnerable to known and unknown missile threats from Syria, Yemen, Russian and Chinese vessels, and even Gaza itself.
Accelerating Decline Through Hubris
In its attempts to maintain unipolarity, the Biden administration has instead accelerated the rise of multipolarity. Not merely multipolar, we have driven the other poles together. A hostile coalition of Russia, China, and Iran has formed because they are all similarly aggrieved by the lopsided “rules-based international order,” or whatever euphemism is being employed for American dominance these days. Driving China and Russia together could have been avoided through a less ideological and more restrained policy on Ukraine. Now we’re stuck.
Not only have these hostile nations refused to assist the United States in deflecting Yemeni attempts to interdict cargo vessels, but formal allies like Spain have demurred, and others have only contributed a few staff officers. Operation Prosperity Guardian is a week old, and it is already failing. Yemeni missiles and drones are still being fired at Israel, and the United States appears to have no appetite and likely a limited capability to easily influence events on the ground in Yemen itself.
A proper national security strategy prioritizes objectives and then designs a military capability around those ends. The current American military force structure, size, and logistical pipeline do not easily support the maximalist goal of maintaining American hegemony as the “sole superpower.” The investment in bespoke, high-tech weapon systems rests on questionable assumptions about the coming “revolution in military affairs” that have not been demonstrated in recent conflicts. Instead, there is now a significant mismatch between means and ends.
American strategy must navigate a multipolar world by setting priorities, abandoning vanity projects, reducing the scope of its ambitions, and tailoring the force structure to achieve objectives commensurate with our existing military power, industrial capability, and the probability of sustained public support.
The recent spate of ideologically driven wars to liberalize the Middle East and topple Russia is actually hurting our reputation and national power. Getting involved in similar wars of choice will further hasten our national decline.
Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.