Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Why Holy Thursday matters to Christians. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry explains.

The role of drink in Russian history. Helen Rittelmeyer reviews Mark Lawrence Schrad’s Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State.

Obstacles for Rand Paul. Michael Brendan Dougherty identifies a hostile donor class as the major problem for his likely candidacy.

Excessive use of force in Albuquerque. Radley Balko reviews the findings of the Department of Justice report on APD abuses.

Ukraine is in no condition to fight. Simon Shuster reports on the poor state of Ukraine’s military.

Why realists often oppose foreign wars. Stephen Walt explains most realists’ reluctance to get involved in foreign conflicts.

The U.S. isn’t retreating. Michael Cohen refutes the dishonest charge of “retreat.”

Liechtenstein shrinks. The tiny principality is slightly smaller following an adjustment of its official map.

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Confrontation Can’t Be Avoided By Actively Seeking It

The Economist wants to confront Russia now:

The West has seen Russia brush off its threats and warnings. It looks feeble and divided. Yet, after the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, even doves should grasp that the best chance of stability lies in standing up to Mr Putin, because firmness today is the way to avoid confrontation later.

It sounds superficially plausible that “firmness” now will help avoid confrontation later, but it’s not true. All that this is saying is that they would prefer that Western governments escalate the crisis sooner rather than later. There is no particular reason to think that Russia will respond to such “firmness” in the way that hawks expect, and imposing stronger measures now could trigger an even more drastic and unwelcome Russian response. Western governments could do everything that is demanded in the editorial from military exercises to severe financial sanctions, and it would in all likelihood have no effect on Russian behavior. Taking a hard line with Russia is practically guaranteed to result in more hostility and provocative action. That would also leave Western governments with no realistic options for responding to further Russian interference, and it would also expose them to Russian retaliatory measures whose costs most Western governments and electorates are not prepared to bear. In short, the argument for more “firmness” is that Western nations should be willing to bear significant costs to pursue a strategy that will very likely fail on its own terms. It should come as no surprise that there are hardly any governments that accept this argument.

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Realism and “Credibility”

Stephen Walt considers the reasons why many realists have usually opposed U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts. Here he addresses the “credibility” issue:

Realists are also sanguine about U.S. credibility, and do not believe America has to fight wars in places that don’t matter in order to convince its allies and adversaries that it will fight in places that do. Indeed, realists understood that wasting resources on pointless wars might actually undermine your credibility, especially if it left the nation weaker or war-weary. Staying out of a quagmire like Syria and declining to intervene in Crimea tells the world precisely nothing about whether the U.S. commitment to defend its NATO or Asian allies or its other genuine interests; indeed, our other commitments will be easier to meet if we aren’t distracted by peripheral conflicts of little strategic importance [bold mine-DL].

Adding to this, I would just say that both realists and non-interventionists are also much more likely to remember that U.S. resources and power are limited and they need to be husbanded rather than constantly expended. If the U.S. were guided by the hawkish obsession with “credibility,” it would mean that the U.S. would be constantly overstretched and forced to participate in conflicts that it could have easily avoided without danger. The hawks’ “credibility” arguments are wrong, but to act as if they were true would require the U.S. to have virtually inexhaustible resources–including political support at home–that it very clearly doesn’t have available. The impulse to demonstrate “strength” and supposedly preserve “credibility” is what leads the U.S. to fritter away its resources on unnecessary conflicts, and puts our country in a worse position to protect those things that truly are of vital importance.

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Neoconservatives and Military Intervention

Matt Purple continues last week’s discussion about neoconservatism. He objects to Salam’s distinction between neoconservatism and “vigorous right-wing military interventionism”:

Perhaps that was true thirty years ago, but today it’s an impossible claim to make. The reflex to intervene militarily isn’t some occasional overindulgence of modern neoconservatism. It is the defining characteristic, what makes neoconservatism distinct.

I’m not sure that this distinction could have made thirty years ago. Neoconservatives were typically among the most supportive of arming foreign anticommunist insurgencies in the ’80s, and they backed the foreign deployments and invasions that Reagan and the elder Bush ordered. They were not alone in that support, but then as now they kept pushing for more hard-line policies and resisted any attempts at accommodation during the Cold War. Indeed, one of the early neoconservative complaints against Reagan was that he was pursuing a policy that was too similar to detente. The Cold War imposed greater constraints on where and how often the U.S. could take military action, but neoconservatives were reliably in favor of such action whenever it was possible.

Once the collapse of the USSR removed those constraints, there has scarcely been a high-profile conflict in which neoconservatives haven’t thought the U.S. should be involved as a supporter of one side or as an active participant. It’s true that some hawks on the right are not neoconservatives, but reliable support for military intervention is an essential part of what makes neoconservatism what it is today. It is also true that they are usually more likely to favor more aggressive military measures than all other hawks, and whatever U.S. policy happens to be they are the first to denounce it as too passive, too weak, and too slow. There is (not much) more to neoconservatism than support for military intervention, but in practice neoconservatives distinguish themselves from almost everyone else in foreign policy debates by typically being the first and most eager to agitate for military action and/or the arming of one side in a foreign conflict.

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When Keeping Military Action “On the Table” Is Useless

Jim Arkedis wants the U.S. to keep the option of using force in Ukraine “on the table”:

Military force must always ambiguously remain “on the table.” That’s not warmongering, it’s strategy.

I suppose you can call it strategy, but it’s bound to fail on its own terms. There are cases where ambiguity about the use of force may act as a deterrent, but in order for that to work the other government has to think that it is likely that the U.S. would go to war over the particular country involved in the conflict. No one, least of all the Russians, has ever believed that the U.S. would fight for Ukraine, because the U.S. has no reason to go to war there. If Obama had not ruled out the use of force, the Russian agitation and incursions would have happened anyway. Keeping the use of force as an option wouldn’t have changed anything because everyone would correctly perceive the implied threat to be an empty one. Pillar made this point in his post on deterrence last month:

If the other side does not believe the threat ever would be executed because doing so would be highly costly and damaging to the side making the threat, there again is no deterrent value.

In this case, ambiguity about the use of force would have gained the U.S. nothing, had no effect on Russian behavior, and would only have given the Ukrainian government additional false hope that military support might still be available. If this is strategy, it is remarkably ineffective and foolish. There are crises and conflicts where the U.S. simply is never going to use force. Nothing is lost by acknowledging what everyone already understands, and nothing is gained by pretending otherwise.

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Holy Thursday


When the glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of their feet before the supper, the impious Judas was darkened by the disease of avarice, and to the lawless judges he betrayed You, the Righteous Judge. Behold, this man because of avarice hanged himself. Flee from the insatiable desire which dared such things against the Master! O Lord Who deals righteously with all, glory to You!

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Reagan and the Ukraine Crisis

The National Review editors make a typically nonsensical claim about the Ukraine crisis:

This conflict, however, is one that will determine whether the West’s victory in the long-fought Cold War remains standing [bold mine-DL]. So it should be firmly stated that anyone who thinks Ronald Reagan’s main historical achievement is not worth defending, even at some risk, cannot sensibly call himself a Reaganite.

The first part of this isn’t true, so the second is irrelevant. The U.S. and its allies prevailed in the Cold War thanks to the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the dissolution of the USSR. No matter what happens between Russia and Ukraine in the months and years to come, neither of these things will be undone. More to the point, neither is in any danger of being undone, because there is no chance that communism is coming back anywhere in Europe, and there is no chance that the USSR will be restored. Whatever else is at stake in the Ukraine crisis, “the West’s victory in the long-fought Cold War” is not at stake. Those that are trying to pretend that the West’s Cold War success is in danger of being repealed are engaged in the worst sort of alarmism in order to push for more confrontational policies that won’t help anyone and could commit the U.S. to a needlessly dangerous course.

It is a very tired partisan argument that Reagan won the Cold War, but even if we take this as a given it wouldn’t tell us anything useful about what position conservatives should take on U.S. policy toward Ukraine and Russia today. If being a “Reaganite” now requires favoring a hard-line response to the Ukraine crisis, at least half of Republicans today would not qualify for the label. More than that are probably tired of the pathetic ideological policing on display in the editorial.

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Containment and the “De-Reaganizing” of Rand Paul

Rand Paul’s op-ed today was intended to answer criticisms of what he said in an interview with ABC News, but I’d say that he made a more compelling argument in his original statement:

But he said those who oppose the idea of containment — or living with an Iran with nuclear weapons — ignore that such an outcome has been necessary in the past.

“They said containment will never ever, ever be our policy,” Paul said of those who oppose Iran getting nuclear weapons at any cost. “We woke up one day and Pakistan had nuclear weapons. If that would have been our policy toward Pakistan, we would be at war with Pakistan. We woke up one day and China had nuclear weapons. We woke up one day and Russia had them.”

Paul’s remarks should remind us of a few things. The first is that the U.S. and its allies have managed to cope with the acquisition of nuclear weapons by several states, all of which were and are much more dangerous than Iran. In the event that Iran did acquire nuclear weapons, it would still be possible to deter it in the same way that other nuclear-armed states have been deterred. That doesn’t mean that this would be a desirable outcome, but that it would be a manageable one and something that the U.S. has faced several times before. Absolutely ruling out containment may be a politically expedient bit of posturing, but as a matter of policy it is deeply irresponsible and it makes it much harder for the U.S. to avoid a war with Iran. Unless one wants to make war with Iran more rather than less likely, ruling out containment makes no sense.

Jennifer Rubin’s response to the interview is just as absurd as you would expect. She declares that Paul’s statement has “de-Reaganized” him:

The idea that Reagan would consider allowing a reckless enemy of the United States with terrorists at its beck and call get the bomb is preposterous.

The key word in this bit of fantasy is “allow,” as if the U.S. were capable of preventing another government from doing this if it really wished to by any means short of a full invasion. Would Reagan have been willing to wage so-called “preventive” war to try to stop this from happening? Reagan operated in a very different world, so we can’t know for sure, but it is doubtful that he would have been prepared to initiate a war rather than tolerate another state’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Hawks love to cite the phrase “peace through strength,” but consistently fail to recognize that taking this phrase seriously precludes starting unnecessary wars. Reagan wouldn’t have wanted more states to acquire these weapons, and even aspired to eliminating all of them, but he probably wouldn’t have thought that it was worth starting a war in order to keep one medium-sized regional power from getting them.

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Rand Paul’s Strategic Ambiguity and Iran

Rand Paul opposes locking the U.S. into unnecessary specific commitments:

Containment of Iran is a bad idea, but our leaders need to think before they speak and consider that preemptively announcing responses to every hypothetical situation may well damage our ability to keep the United States safe and strong.

This position is unlikely to satisfy very many people, but it is worth discussing a bit more. Sen. Paul has invoked strategic ambiguity a few times in the past, and it has usually created more confusion than it has eliminated. If strategic ambiguity has the advantage of creating uncertainty among foreign governments concerning how the U.S. will act, it is much less useful in domestic policy debate. Hawks will bludgeon Paul for being insufficiently hard-line on Iran no matter what he says, but supporters of a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue are bound to be underwhelmed by this sort of argument. There is also a potential drawback to such ambiguity when dealing with Iran, since it can feed Iranian suspicions that the U.S. can’t be trusted to honor its part of an agreement. Because Paul insists that war with Iran should be a last resort, he clearly is rejecting preventive war, and there is nothing wrong or dangerous in making that as explicit as possible.

Paul’s main point that it can be unwise and potentially dangerous to declare in advance how the U.S. will react to every contingency is sensible enough, but in the context of the Iran debate it cedes far too much to the hawks. If hawks insist on ruling out containment, Paul prefers not to rule out any option. Unfortunately, refusing to rule out military action allows Iran hawks to get away with promoting the false idea that military action can do anything more than delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons while making that outcome much more likely. The result is that Paul leaves the public uncertain as to what his position really is, which can only benefit those that are interested in misrepresenting and distorting his views.

The argument’s other weakness is that it accepts the framing of Iran hawks as if the only available choices were containment and prevention. The real policy choice on Iran is between a negotiated settlement that renders containment unnecessary and a policy of containment that will be put in place either before or after a war. Containment of a nuclear-armed Iran would be undesirable, but waging a so-called “preventive” war would be worse, since it would be an unnecessary war that would end up all but guaranteeing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the future. “Prevention” isn’t possible except through a negotiated agreement, which supporters of “prevention” typically oppose because it requires them to accept that Iran isn’t going to abandon its nuclear program in its entirety. Paul would do better to repudiate the hawkish maximalists that have been trying to undermine a negotiated agreement over at least the last six months, and he should refuse to let them set the terms and limits of the debate.

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Throwing Weapons At The Problem

The Chicago Tribune laments that the U.S. isn’t already throwing weapons at the Ukraine crisis:

In that context, it was small consolation to hear an adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry say that the United States is “looking at” possibly sending arms to Ukraine. It would have been more heartening to hear that the weapons and equipment were already there or at least on their way.

Heartening for whom? I suppose it would make some Western interventionists happy that the U.S. was “doing something,” but I’m not sure who else would be encouraged by a decision that would be simultaneously provocative and useless. It would be provocative because it would deepen U.S. involvement in the conflict, and that would only encourage Russia to continue its agitation and incursions. It would be useless because the Ukrainian military is in no condition to fight. Even some of the advocates for sending arms to Ukraine have acknowledged the Ukrainian military’s lack of readiness and training. If U.S. shipments of arms encouraged Ukraine to try to fight a war that it couldn’t win, it would make things even worse and help give Russia a pretext for a larger military intervention.

The Tribune also proposes doing something another useless thing simply because it will annoy Russia:

It could revive the missile defense system that was planned for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic but then canceled. Putin said it was a threat to Russian security, which at the moment sounds like an excellent reason to build it.

This must be one of the worst reasons to revive a costly, unworkable system that most people in the host countries didn’t even want. Like other knee-jerk hawkish responses to the crisis, this pays no attention to whether it is desirable for the U.S. and its allies to do something, and focuses solely on whether it will anger Moscow. Making policy primarily to spite other governments always leads to poor and rash decisions, as this editorial proves.

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