America has not lost the will to lead
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America has not lost the will to lead

America has not lost the will to lead

Stephen Hadley

The Sydney Morning Herald

30 October 2014

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Executive Summary

Over the past several years, many have wondered whether the United States remains willing to play its traditional role in maintaining world order. Many fear the return of American isolationism.  

A debate on America's role in the world is not really new.  Within the United States it has been an ongoing national conversation of varying intensity for decades. And I believe that despite the debate the United States will not retreat from its global interests and responsibilities.  

Objectively, America still has what it takes for global leadership.  

It still has the world's largest economy in absolute terms and in terms of per capita GDP, and is growing faster than Europe.  The energy boom is reviving US manufacturing.  The American economy has the world's most innovative and entrepreneurial culture.  And this culture of innovation is supported and enabled by the world's best university system.


American diplomacy has sometimes been criticised as either overbearing or inept – and sometimes both at the same time.  But it still seems to be the essential engine for getting the international community motivated and organised to address any given global challenge.  And that diplomacy is backed by the most proficient, technologically advanced, and expeditionary military in the world.  

The issue is really subjective: does America still have the will to lead?

I think so.  I believe that, in retrospect, America's recent seeming reluctance to engage internationally will be seen as an historic anomaly and will be followed by a return to a more traditional understanding of America's role in the world.

This return to global leadership will happen because, ultimately, it is in America's interest to do so.  You already see this beginning to happen in some key recent decision by President Obama on the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

On Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration's new strategy is a work in progress. We are in the early days of the effort.  But overall, what you see emerging is a smart, coherent approach meant not only to degrade and defeat ISIS, but also to address the broader challenge of stabilising Iraq and Syria.

The strategy reflects a phased approach.  We cannot roll back much less defeat ISIS without ground forces.  And the only substantial ground forces available today to fight ISIS are in Iraq – Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and Sunni tribal forces soon to be organised as Iraqi National Guard units.  But before these forces will engage effectively against ISIS, they need at least two things.

First, they need an Iraqi government for which they are willing to fight.  So the US administration is trying to create a truly inclusive government with full participation by Sunni, Shia, and Kurds, while giving these groups more autonomy and control over their local affairs.  

Second, for the various Iraqi groups to rise up against ISIS, they need confidence that they are going to win.  As we have already seen, ISIS is prepared to conduct brutal beheadings and mass killings to punish those that would defy its rule.  The Iraqi Sunnis in particular will not fight ISIS without the reassurance of active outside military support.  For various reasons, the days of a major US and allied ground forces deploying to Iraq are past.  But the United States and its allies can provide intelligence, training, combat air support, logistics, and – most importantly – Special Forces embedded with the various Iraqi forces to provide tactical operational support and call in air strikes.

Once Iraqis come together to rid their land of ISIS, they will have to address their remaining differences and build a stable, secure, and prosperous society able to meet the needs of all Iraq's people.  This effort will require the support of the United States and its friends and allies in the region and beyond.  And it is in our interest to provide such support.  For only in this way can we ensure that Iraq does not become once again the home to terrorist groups threatening the stability of the region and ultimately the homelands of all of our countries.  

While conducting operations against ISIS in Iraq, in Syria the Obama administration's focus will be on US and allied air strikes against ISIS forces there.  These air strikes are needed to deny ISIS in Syria a safe haven from which to support its operations in Iraq.  These air strikes will also buy time and space for arming and training vetted Syrian opposition elements ready to fight not only the Assad regime but also Islamic terrorists like ISIS. After a year or two of success against ISIS in Iraq, and of building a Syrian opposition army, we can expect ground operations against ISIS elements in Syria to pick up significantly. This will begin to set the conditions for a political resolution of the Syrian civil war:  an interim government formed of elements of the Syrian government willing to break with the Assad regime and to join with Syrian opposition elements.  This interim government can then begin to bring down the violence in Syria, fight more effectively against ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria, and oversee a political dialogue among all elements of Syrian society to chart a future course for the country.   

This may all seem like a long shot. But I do not see any alternative if we are ever to see a stable Middle East that is not an incubator of terror. If we are to succeed, American and Australian leadership will be critical.

But if America is to continue to land in places such as the Middle East, it must do so in a different way. We must see the states now emerging on the global stage, states like China, India, Indonesia, not as competitors but as potential partners in solving the security, economic, environmental, and social challenges we all face.  This will require close co-operation.  And it will require greater use not only of international institutions but also of the various regional structures –economic, diplomatic, and social – that have emerged over the past few decades.  

The role of China will be key in this effort. Neither China nor the United States can solve global challenges by themselves. And both China and the United States need progress in meeting these challenges if they are to achieve their own objectives for the development and economic well-being of their people. A way must be found for the United States and China to work together with the rest of the international community to meet the global challenges we face. Success in this effort will require the closest co-operation among the United States, Australia, and our friends and allies in the Asia-Pacific. And to a great extent, Australia is leading the way. 

Stephen Hadley is the 2014 Telstra Distinguished International Fellow at the Lowy Institute. He was also US President George W. Bush's National Security Adviser.This is an edited extract of his speech to be delivered in Melbourne on October 30.