The “Leverage” Meme Rears Its Ugly Head

This morning, I open the Washington Post opinion section to see this headline: “In Afghanistan, real leverage starts with more troops.” Coming as this does only a few weeks after we celebrated the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I will reprint part of a past post. I wish I didn’t have to repeat this message, but we fall into the same damn trap time and time again:

Sadly, it seems our government learned the wrong lesson when the Berlin Wall fell. Again, when it comes to American history, we have an uncanny ability to remember only what we want to.  

The conventional wisdom goes like this: After forty years of détente and containment, Ronald Reagan swashbuckled into the White House, and the Soviet Union backed down. They knew he meant business. Reagan fought them on so many fronts that, when combined with his missile shield and increased military spending, they went bankrupt trying to compete.

But numbers don’t lie, and they tell a different story altogether. The Soviet Union’s defense spending did not change much throughout the 1980s. As a percentage of GNP, it stayed about the same. No, the Soviet Union collapsed for the same reason that economists said it would: Communism does not work.

After 9/11, Islamic terrorism became Enemy #1, and the old mentality—show our strength, beat back every advance, ramp up military spending, and rub out every last anti-American regime—took hold. Washington still hasn’t learned that unfriendly governments are best beaten just as the Soviet Union was—by internal instability, not military defeat.

Still, the myth persists.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it in different terms a few months ago when he said of Iran, “When you have leverage, talk. When you don’t have leverage, get some. Then talk.” If I tell you to do as I say or I’ll invade your country, that’s leverage—but it’s also illegal, immoral, and counterproductive if my goal is to create a peaceful community. Leverage did not bring down the Soviet Union, but it did increase the body count, drain the treasury, and multiply our enemies just about every time the United States overthrew a country in the last sixty years.

The empiricist in me says things need to change.

We can start by abiding by international law, openly conversing with all nations, and ending military aid to countries that are, in many ways, worse than the countries we criticize. If you’re worried that gas prices will increase when we stop propping up, say, Saudi Arabia, don’t be. With the money we save by ending military aid, we can cut taxes at home. Not only is that an implicit carbon tax swap that helps the environment without costing economic growth, but it makes the world a safer place.

Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, the authors of the WaPo op-ed, are the latest in a long line of Americans to fall prey to “the Somalia Syndrome.” I fear the President’s upcoming troop surge will only mire us deeper in this disease.