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He’d Send in the Army?

September 7, 2011

A few days ago David Axe wrote a piece in the Diplomat criticizing the consequences of America’s “offshore balancing strategy” in the Horn of Africa. I was surprised because this seemed to imply not only that the United States had an actual strategy for the Horn, but that it was offshore balancing, a term which has been worming its way out of academia during since the beginning of the post-Cold War grand strategy debates. For background on the region, I would have to recommend Jeremy Scahill’s magnificent piece in The Nation, available here.

My primary problem with Axe’s piece is that what he describes as “offshore balancing” has virtually nothing to do with the term as international relations theorists would understand it. Offshore balancing is, first of all, a grand strategy, not a military strategy or an operational style. It can be summed up most simply with this maxim: In an area where you fear the concentration of political power in a single entity, support weaker entities to destroy it. If they fail, come in from over the horizon and destroy it yourself. Then leave and let the area return to its chaotic state.

This sounds rather unsatisfactory because it does not seem to address stabilizing a country, which is exactly the point. Offshore balancing thrives on chaos, because chaos prevents the emergence of a larger concentration of power which could threaten the offshore balancer. Offshore balancers only support stabilizing a country or empowering a political entity to use it as a proxy to destroy a stronger entity. If that proxy becomes too powerful, then it is abandoned and new ones are found to undermine it in turn.

This has very little to do with what the US has been practicing in Somalia. First of all, the primary US objective in the Horn of Africa is not preventing the concentration of power, it is counter-terrorism. Simply using proxies for ground combat does not make a strategy offshore balancing. It just makes it a less costly version of the default US strategy of hegemonic management and oversight. Offshore balancing has to involve balancing, a concept with which the United States seems to have very little familiarity.

First off, the popular description of Libya as an offshore balancing strategy is incredibly misleading. Yes, the US presence was offshore, unless you count the covert assets. The objective of Libya was clearly not power balancing, however, especially not in the sense that offshore balancing actually talks about. This statement is not offshore balancing:

It’s called ‘offshore balancing,’ and it’s an approach meant to minimize long-term deployments of large ground armies by emphasizing air and naval forces working in conjunction with local and regional ‘proxy’ armies. In coming years, offshore balancing could guide the United States’ interventions in world crises, particularly in the Asia-Pacific.

Do you see anything involving “balancing” in this description? In fact, the model described is basically an attempt to change very little about the actual US strategic approach to potential conflicts, but put the resources and implementation of them on a diet. The notion that Somalia is either an example of offshore balancing or a relevant parallel to future challenges in Asia is particularly problematic, as this post will discuss later.

Calling Somalia an example of offshore balancing strategy is a doubly false claim because it implies not just that Somalia is a case of offshore balancing, but that it has a guiding strategic principle at all. It does not. Like Libya, it is a product of ad hoc decisions varying on the resources available at the time with nebulous ideas of a strategic end state and a mishmash of contradictory objectives. Axe does have some legitimate criticisms of US strategy in Somalia, of course, such as this:

Moreover, there have been some worrying unintended consequences of the United States’ heavy reliance on proxy armies in Somalia. Namely, these foreign allies sometimes hijack well-intentioned US efforts, redirecting them for their own purposes.

This should be obviously true, as Scahill’s reporting corroborates. What it is not, however, is an example of offshore balancing. Offshore balancing implies being switching support to either side of a power political rivalry in order to prevent either party from becoming powerful enough to defeat the United States or harm its interests. It is designed precisely to avoid the sort of geopolitical entanglements in the interests of other powers that Axe describes. The notion that US ground intervention is somehow immune to exploitation by local forces is also untrue, as the presence of US troops does not automatically strip local actors of their agency.

The initial impulses for US intervention in Somalia during the 1990s was to relieve a humanitarian situation, an interest that has virtually nothing to do with the power balancing objectives offshore balancing implies. Nor, however, does the US support for the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia as part of the Global War on Terror. Indeed, many of the constraints on US action in Somalia had to do with unavailability of spare resources for on-shore combat activity after the launch of the war in Iraq.

US actions in Somalia during the Global War on Terror do not demonstrate offshore balancing. They are, essentially, Diet Empire. The US proxies were not the weaker states, but the strongest regional powers in coalition against a state which posed a threat to the US only as a then-minor base for a terrorist group. What the US then adopted was not offshore balancing, but a policy of offshore stabilization, by which the US attempted to accomplish the very same goals it would during its regime change operations – client stabilization and nation building, counter-terrorism, humanitarian relief, and regional stabilization – with over-the-horizon capability, JSOC and covert involvement, and resources for capacity building for the Somali TFG and neighboring states.

Once again, virtually none of these efforts describe any actual offshore balancing:

That means that preventing pirate attacks is vital to defeating Al Shabab. And beating Al Shabab is vital to ending the Somali terror threat. Once-separate military efforts – one each targeting Al Shabab, terrorists and pirates – have now, in effect, become one comprehensive offshore balancing campaign.

This is just ad hoc responses to a grab bag of problems, none of which match with the objectives or methods of offshore balancing. Offshore balancing does sometime require direct intervention if the efforts to use proxies fail. Until then, it generally implies a relatively low level of military commitment. The US, when it was using offshore balancing in the Persian Gulf, did not maintain a constant tempo of direct military support to either side. Only when the war spilled over into the sea lanes did it deploy air and sea power. When Iraq threatened to become too powerful by turning on its former Gulf benefactors in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the US stepped in to smash the threat, and left rather than seeking regime change or getting involved in the problems of insurgency and humanitarian stabilization. Offshore balancing does not mean never intervening on the ground, it just means delimiting ground intervention to very specific purposes. The way Axe describes it, it is just a different operational method for achieving regime change and dealing with the problems that follow.

Then there comes a final, and perhaps most absurd, premise of the article, which Axe states up front:

If offshore balancing, with its emphasis on air and sea power and proxy armies, is to define the US strategic approach to Asia and the Pacific, it first must succeed in Somalia.

What on earth? Leaving aside the by now clear misuse of the term offshore balancing, does anybody really believe that the ability of US air and naval forces to effectively deal with maritime Asia and the Pacific are in any way dependent upon, or even similar to, current US operations in the Horn of Africa?

The apparent lesson from Libya is that offshore balancing is easy for Washington. Somalia reminds us that it’s not always so – that even wars fought mostly by ships, planes, Special Forces and foreign proxies are still wars. They’re ugly, complicated and risky. Policymakers and voters would do well to remember that as US attention shifts to the tense Asia-Pacific region and its many emerging conflicts.

Yes, it is obvious that Diet Empire, regime change lite, or offshore stabilization are still wars and can be prolonged even further by the lack of attention they receive. However, what exactly is the point of linking this to the Asia-Pacific region? When IR analysts talk about offshore balancing in Asia, they mean, for the most part, letting Asian states use their increasing wealth to invest in their own capabilities, and intervening only if coalitions of them fail to balance against local potential hegemons, such as China. The proxy problem that Axe notes is real, to be sure, but it’s not a problem unique to offshore balancing. Indeed, the identification of clients security interests with our own is a more acute problem with larger footprints in a region, since they require more host cooperation, more institutionalized relationships and putting more US forces forward and at risk.

Offshore balancing would not entail conducting regime change operations against governments of fragile states, and it is hard to see how the South China Sea would even bring about a similar problem. Virtually none of the problems the US intervened to deal with in Somalia – humanitarian catastrophe, potential and then robust al Qaeda presence, and a total anarchy incapable of reducing piracy – are present in maritime Asia, although they might in the future, perhaps in Burma or another unstable southeast Asian state, or a post-Kim North Korea. Yet it is hard to see why offshore balancers would want the US to get involved in those hypothetical scenarios, or what trying to use ground force directly would actually accomplish.

The problem Axe describes is real. It is the fabulist notion that the US can keep all of its normal objectives and prerogatives affordable in an austere age simply by saying if there are no ground troops it is not a real war. It is not a strategy, and it is not offshore balancing. A grand strategy of offshore balancing would indeed sidestep the problem of how to win in Libya or Somalia by not getting involved in conducting regime change or regime stabilization in minor countries. Yes, an army has its uses in times of civil crisis, but offshore balancing doesn’t propose using air power and sea power as instruments of resolving civil crisis or nation building. It proposes not getting involved in those tasks wherever possible. Instead of asking, “should we use air power and sea power to fight terrorism or fix failed states, or should we occupy them?” it asks “should we be intervening at all?” and prescribes appropriately limited means in proportion to the degree of potential rival gain and its threat to the United States.

Offshore balancing should be a major part of the coming foreign policy debates, particularly as the US reorients its policy to the Asia-Pacific. Nor should the myriad failures and tragedies of America’s policy in the Horn of Africa go unnoticed or unquestioned. To reduce American foreign policy debates to a false dichotomy between prolonged land wars of regime change and stabilization and the attempt to accomplish virtually the same objectives without overt ground presence by US forces is both misleading and unproductive.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ezra permalink
    September 29, 2011 2:20 am

    This guy, Axe, is perhaps not as transcendently stupid as Charles “Decline is a Choice” Krauthammer or Paul Ryan, whose “ideas” (actually, just axioms, as they are usually simply asserted rather than argued) are so dumb you can’t even really debate them, but one still gets the impression he believes the term “off-shore” in “off-shore balancing” refers to the fact that US military assets are *literally* off the shore of Libya. To make the point clearer to these dolts, it might be better to call that strategy “out-of-area balancing” or “out-of-theater balancing.”

    Another problem is that any time you attempt to explain the off-shore balancing strategy to, like, the “average person,” they always respond with some version of: “We have to promote stability, because it’s the right thing to do.” The doctrine of the “harmony of interests” has an extremely powerful hold over the “average person.”


  1. Unpacking isolationism and offshore balancing « Slouching Towards Columbia
  2. Unpacking isolationism and offshore balancing | Fear, Honor, and Interest

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