Right makes might: How the US will lose its strategic advantage if it loses its ethics

Vultures' Row
A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter looks as smoke billows after an airstrike hit territory still held by Islamic State militants in the desert outside Baghouz, Syria, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. (Associated Press/Felipe Dana)

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

I grew up with the idea that Americans were the "good guys." I don't think that's unusual. That's how most Americans see themselves. America is, or at least was, continually pursuing a more perfect union. Our history is not unblemished, but even as Americans sometimes criticize their own country, there is generally an unspoken "We're better than that."

We see ourselves as upholding a higher standard. We aren't just some overgrown banana republic. We're a "shining city on a hill."

Lately, though, it seems that many see wearing a white hat as a liability; that having long-standing allies, acting with honor, and obeying international law are just holding the U.S. back from unleashing large quantities of whoop-ass upon those who deserve it.


President Trump sees being good as synonymous with being weak. He takes a far more transactional view of the world than his predecessors, insulting and belittling democratic allies like Canada, France, and the UK, while ingratiating himself with dictators of countries like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and now Turkey.

The president and his fans are wrong on this. Our ideals are force multipliers. Upholding the highest ideals of liberal (in the classical sense) democracy makes us stronger, not weaker.

The president recently announced that American forces were withdrawing from northern Syria and endorsed Turkish incursions into formerly Kurdish areas. Within 24 hours, Turkey began bombing Kurdish targets. Between the Turks from the north and Russia to the south, Syrian Kurds are facing potential genocide.

While the president may be upset the Kurds didn't fight with us in Normandy (?), they have been among America's most reliable partners in the fight against Islamic extremism, first in Iraq and then in Syria.

Apologists for this abandonment of the Kurds excuse it as realpolitik. They see foreign policy as purely a series of one-off decisions, each to be exploited to the U.S. advantage in that moment.

In their view, ISIS has been mostly defeated, the U.S. wants out, and there's little else the Kurds can offer us, so their fates are irrelevant. They may all die, but they aren't Americans, so who cares?

The truth, however, is that having the Kurds fight on our side was saving American lives. For just a tiny force of operators on the ground, we kept the pressure on ISIS, prevented a complete Assad victory in Syria's civil war, and kept Russia from securing an even larger foothold in the region. The Kurds killed and captured thousands of ISIS fighters. That's all gone now.

This was a classic "economy of force" effort. A small deployment of US forces forestalled the need to deploy a vast number of troops. Now ISIS is far better off, as is Russia, and whatever we saved in lives and treasure today will be spent tenfold later. Perhaps not by this president, but by another. Neither ISIS nor Russia can be ignored just because people "don't want to be the world's policeman."

We've left the Kurds to be slaughtered. It's a fair bet to say they won't go out on a limb with us again. It's just as good of a bet to say that no other indigenous forces will either for a long, long time. Given a choice between throwing their lot in with us and making a deal with virtually anyone else, only a fool would trust the U.S. after this.

Even if your view of foreign policy is fully pragmatic, the promotion of democracy, a rules-based international order, and an honorable foreign policy are all good for the United States. In business terms, they are our competitive advantages — positive differentiators. Other countries can build tanks and fighter planes. They can't build the world's oldest and greatest representative democracy.

America's image is, or at least was, a force multiplier. As powerful as the US is, it cannot take on the world by itself. There aren't enough people, weapons, or money to cover every part of the world that needs attention. It needs allies to influence and assist in those areas.

Democratic ideals and commitment to liberal values are important. They form the basis for alliances based on ideology, vice coercion. None of the Warsaw Pact were willing participants; all of the NATO powers were.

Living up to the high standards of conduct in international affairs means the U.S. is better able to persuade, not demand. Making demands means that you have to bring carrots or sticks to every interaction. Sooner or later you run out of both carrots and sticks.

Because of our current transactional approach, the U.S. being rendered a virtual non-entity in European decision-making, for example. When your negotiating position is "We're America, bitch!" don't be surprised when the response eventually becomes "GFY."

On top of that, more democracies equal less conflict. With few exceptions, as countries become more democratic, they become more peaceful. For example, as Latin America shed its stereotypical strongmen for elected leaders, it went from one of the world's most strife-torn regions to its most tranquil. By being an example for and a promoter of democracy, America creates more of them. Less conflict generally means the U.S. can focus on real crises, not babysitting entire swaths of the globe.

This example extends to obeying international law and the Law of Armed Conflict. Too often, people give up on those because "No one else follows them, so why should we?" That neglects the fact that the reason we notice violations of those rules in the first place is that they're generally followed.

If the U.S. abandons the rule of law, everyone else does as well.

That makes enforcing flagrant violations that much more difficult. Then those violations become more and more common. "Everyone does it" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The slaughter of civilians or the torture of prisoners of war no longer inspires a universal reaction to assist, but a global version of the bystander effect.

"America is great because she is good," wrote Alexis de Toqueville more than 200 years ago, and Americans have believed it ever since. If there is any truth to American exceptionalism, it is encapsulated in that statement.

The second we abandon our goodness, we also forfeit our greatness, not just in the moral sense, but in the practical one as well.

Carl Forsling is a senior columnist for Task & Purpose. He is a Marine MV-22B pilot and former CH-46E pilot who retired from the military after 20 years of service. He is the father of two children and a graduate of Boston University and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @CarlForsling

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