Commentary: America First or an American century?

Is the United States prepared to check aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin?

One day soon, perhaps tomorrow, Vladimir Putin may order another "snap" military exercise in Northwest Russia, gathering more than 100,000 troops, including about 450 of among the world's most advanced main battle tanks, in close proximity with the borders of the Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

This time, the "exercise" could turn into a real invasion of nations that are members of NATO. By law and moral commitment, an attack on them must be treated as a direct attack on the United States.

If existing plans within the Pentagon are carried out, the United States would do its best to honor its commitment by rushing into the war all of the forces we could get there quickly. But because the three presidents, of both parties, before Donald Trump, since the end of the Cold War, reduced the total number of American troops in Europe to less than the number of police officers in New York City, and deprived them of almost all heavy equipment, the best we could do would be to put in harm's way lightly armed airborne infantry, supported with perhaps 80 tanks.

And for the first time since the first encounter between the U.S. Army and Nazi forces in Tunisia, at the start of World War II, the Americans on the ground would not have air supremacy to cover them. Instead, though the U.S. and allied air forces would do their best, Russian air power and air defense systems would prevent the situation being saved from the air.

Just 60 hours after the first shot was fired, the Russian army would have conquered the Baltic states and more American soldiers would be dead than in the 16 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be the most complete and stunning military defeat of the United States in our 240-year history.

This is the scenario demonstrated by the authoritative war game conducted on the subject by the Rand Corporation, and recently detailed from the podium of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.

While the policy implications of the facts derived from this war game are certainly subject to debate - what should we do about this gap between our commitments and our capabilities on the front lines with Russia - the technical accuracy of what sounds like a dystopian Hollywood film, is essentially uncontested.

What should we do?

The traditionalist school of thought, the view that has governed America's role in the world ever since Pearl Harbor, calls for moving forward, as quickly as possible, to the European front lines, sufficient American ground forces, including sufficient heavy weapons, to restore deterrence of the Russians. Specifically, this approach would require that we put in place forces large and strong enough so that when the Russians do their own war games of a possible Baltic invasion, they conclude that, while they might still conquer these nations, it would take not hours, but weeks, long enough for the United States to mount a "liberation" counteroffensive with forces sent by ship.

Depriving Putin of even the hypothetical possibility of a quick and cheap victory, from the Russian perspective, would prevent this war from ever happening, so long as our forward deployments were sufficient for a successful defense but not large enough to provoke the Russians, based on a reasonable fear by them that our capabilities could be an offensive threat against Russia.

This is the doctrine of "peace through strength," the version of deterrence and containment of "The American Century," a postwar time when peace among the major powers and a growing global prosperity was secured by U.S. leadership.

The Rand scholars estimate that such a buildup would cost not more than $15 billion of our half-trillion-dollar defense budget.

But there is a new school of thought on the rise, if not now firmly in charge - the "America First" doctrine.

In this view, the U.S. commitment to NATO, even to the broad principle that nations must not be permitted to conquer other nations, takes a back seat to the sovereign freedom of the United States to protect only itself and to the notion that a clash of civilizations between the majority Christian nations, including Putin's Russia, against the jihadi currents in the Islamic world, and the perception of economic and security threats from the rising China, take precedence over our long-standing concerns about Europe and containing Russia.

When one looks at the decisions U.S. policymakers of both parties have made over the last generation, allowing our commitments to be vastly greater than our capabilities, and focusing the majority of our diminished capabilities on the Middle East, one might say that President Trump's worldview isn't new - it is merely honestly naming the de facto policies we had before he came to power.

But now Trump is president and he has surrounded himself with a national security team that includes both "America First" advocates and apparent believers in "The American Century."

Every American must understand that Putin has more than sufficient capability to force us to decide, perhaps tomorrow, in the most fateful way since Pearl Harbor, which school of thought truly reflects America's interests and values.

Craig Snyder is president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.

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