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How America Can Save the Liberal Order: Study Russia, Iran and China’s Failures

An M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank with 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, fires its 120 mm smoothbore cannon during a live-fire event as part of Exercise Eager Lion 2015 in Jordan, May 9, 2015. Eager Lion is a recurring multinational exercise designed to strengthen military-to-military relationships, increase interoperability between partner nations, and enhance regional security and stability. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Devin Nichols/Released)

To Defeat Enemies, Study Their Failures: The foreign policy challenges the United States faces are acute: both open and asymmetric warfare, “gray zone” aggression, terrorism, and challenges by a growing array of revisionist states to the post-World War II liberal order.

When Americans consider enemy strategy, they often fail to appreciate enemy fallibility. This was a significant reason, for example, why National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan advised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to surrender and flee the country before Russia firing the first bullet. It was also the reason why a generation of American policymakers and journalists lionized Iranian Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani, a man whose operational arrogance led directly to his death when he allowed himself to transit

Even as Russian forces appear on the ropes in Ukraine, Russian influence in resurgent in Africa. The Wagner Group has increased its presence in Mali and across the Sahel. This past spring, I visited the Central African Republic in part to gauge the influence of Russia on the resource-rich country still teetering after years of sectarian and tribal conflict. Just yards from the Presidential Palace and along a major thoroughfare was a new monument to the Wagner Group, erected by the Russians to commemorate Wagner’s supposed role in saving Central Africa from a Rwanda-like genocide.

The same paradox is true with Iran. Weeks of protest have eviscerated any claim the Islamic Republic has to popular legitimacy, but they have not altered the Islamic Republic’s ability to project strength beyond its borders. Iranian drones fly over Ukraine, and proxies like Lebanese Hezbollah helped save President Bashar al-Assad’s regime during the strain of Syria’s decade-plus civil war.

The blackmail of Sweden is just the latest example of how Turkey, too, has asserted influence internationally disproportionate to its actual state of domestic affairs. Even as Turkey’s economy and currency implode, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bluster and maneuvering on the world stage cements his position as the country’s most consequential leader since founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Perhaps rather than assume the rules-based order is impotent against such challenges, it is time to refocus attention on how each of these challengers to the post-World War II liberal order have previously failed.

Consider Iran: The newfound Islamic Republic began laying the groundwork for the Hezbollah terrorist group in 1982. While it succeeded in Lebanon, creating a cancer that continues to eviscerate the state, it failed in Pakistan, where Shi’ites comprise approximately 20 percent of the population. Part of this may be due to social differences between the two communities: Shi’ites in Pakistan were elite and often land-owning; in Lebanon, they were a feudal society. Still, rather than resource Lebanese Hezbollah or accommodate it as a natural part of Shi’ite political evolution, it would behoove the State Department and intelligence community to reflect on why and how Iran failed in Pakistan in order to create the conditions for future failures as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards continue to try to export revolution to Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere.

I spent much of February 2022 in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. It is a beautiful region, full of unrealized potential, be they the half-empty tourist facilities alongside the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean or the Total facility in Afungi, now home to non-governmental organizations but devoid of oil workers. Decades of neglect by Mozambique’s government in Maputo made the region a ripe target for terrorists and insurgents. On cue, local affiliates of the Islamic State rose up and rampaged through the area, driving the population into the bush and putting to flame almost all infrastructure. Mozambique’s leaders turned to the Wagner Group who, contrary to their reputation abroad, failed miserably and fled. To determine why is to provide the key to extricating Wagner’s grip in Mali, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Libya, and elsewhere. Was it a lack of pay? Denial of the ability to extract local resources? Something else?

Or, consider Kashmir: The Indian territory has long been a cause célèbre for Islamists, though often in the shadows of advocacy for Palestine and against Israel. The loudest Kashmir advocacy comes from Pakistan, where the Pakistani government and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency uses the Kashmir conflict to justify both terrorism and Pakistan’s antagonism toward India. Pakistan’s strategy has not worked. Indian Kashmiris thrive in comparison to those who live under Pakistan’s occupation. But Pakistan is not the only country that has sought to leverage the Kashmir conflict into political or diplomatic capital.

Consider Turkey: While Erdogan has succeeded in his conflict diplomacy in Somalia, Libya, and elsewhere by combining military investment with terror support and educational scholarships, he has found little traction in Kashmir. Some Kashmiris have accepted scholarships to study in Turkey, but have not succumbed to Turkish brainwashing. Nor have state-owned outlets like Anadolu Agency or TRT found much resonance among Kashmiris despite Turkey’s best efforts. Once again, perhaps Kashmir provides the antidote to Turkish efforts to cause instability elsewhere.

In short, if the United States seeks to win its fight to defend the rules-based order, it is time to stop obsessing about the capabilities of our adversaries and instead work to replicate their failures. The arc of history need not bend in favor of autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Ali Khamenei, or Recep Tayyip Erdogan. While their own media and state apparatuses will not acknowledge their many failures, that is no reason for Washington to follow suit.

Michael Rubin (@mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Rubin is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).