Daniel Larison

The Unrealistic Goal of “Destroying” ISIS

Micah Zenko follows up on his argument from last week that the administration has set an unrealistic goal in saying that it will “destroy” ISIS:

Yet, while mitigation and containment will drive the U.S. counterterrorism strategy regarding ISIS as a reality, the Obama administration (and Congress and the media) will pretend that the strategic end state is to defeat and destroy them. So when you hear the White House promise to destroy ISIS, don’t believe them, but consider why it is politically mandatory that they make such an outrageous and impossible claim.

There are several reasons why presidents feel compelled to declare their intention to “destroy” an enemy group or state. Because foreign threats are constantly being blown out of proportion, and because the rhetoric used to whip up public and Congressional support for military action usually requires describing each new enemy in the worst, most terrifying terms, it becomes very difficult to “settle” for a goal of partial victory or containment. If you accept that an enemy poses a dire and supposedly “unprecedented” threat to the country, it seems impossible to manage such a threat, and so it seems necessary to pursue a goal of destroying that enemy that isn’t going to be achieved because anything less seems “weak.” By pretending that the threat is “imminent” when it clearly isn’t, and by pretending that the U.S. faces a direct threat when there is no evidence that it does, administration officials and many people in the media stoke the public’s fear and anxiety to such a degree that it then becomes politically untenable to say that U.S. policy is to seek anything less than the complete elimination of the threat.

Even when the president acknowledges that there is no evidence of a direct threat to the U.S., as Obama has done in this case, he can still appeal to the slippery logic of preventive war that insists that there might one day be some direct threat. That frees him from the burden of having to show that the group in question has the ability to threaten the U.S., and allows him to claim an absurdly vague definition of “defending” Americans from a group that was previously not targeting them. There have always been hard-liners in U.S. foreign policy debate that have derided the idea of managing or containing a threat, but in the last fifteen years with the normalization of preventive warfare this has become a mainstream and almost consensus view. Even though “preventive” war often increases the number of threats to the U.S. and sometimes creates threats where none had existed, it has gained wide acceptance among elected members of both parties. It is the more activist and aggressive approach, and that seems to offer policymakers and the public reassurance that a threat is being “handled” despite the fact that this approach is almost certainly not diminishing the threat and may be exacerbating it.

Another reason that American politicians don’t like to be seen as “settling” for something less than “destroying” the enemy is the influence of the memory of WWII. That has taught generations of our politicians that the only truly desirable victory is a total one involving the destruction or unconditional surrender of the enemy. Containment worked well enough in the Cold War, but when faced with much weaker adversaries it no longer seems necessary to tolerate the existence of groups and governments that could eventually pose some threat to America. At the same time, the danger from these much weaker adversaries is inflated beyond all recognition so that the public is misled into believing that the danger must be eliminated with urgent military action, and it is simply taken for granted that whatever “must” be done is also possible for the U.S. to do at an acceptable cost. The trouble is that the goal is most likely unachievable, and pursuing that goal is all but guaranteed to cost the U.S. far more than anyone was ever willing to lose when the campaign began.

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Syrian and American Illusions

Ross Douthat rightly pours cold water on the fantasy that arming and training a few thousand rebels in Syria will have the desired effect in combating ISIS:

If our failure to build an army capable of stabilizing Iraq after our departure looks like a pure tragedy, then the arm-the-rebels gambit in Syria has more than a whiff of farce. But really it’s a studied evasion, a way for this administration to pretend that we don’t face a set of deeply unpleasant options in our quest to contain or crush the caliphate.

It’s also the sort of useless gesture that’s designed to create the illusion of broad support for a policy that no one believes will achieve anything significant. As we saw last week, “arming the rebels” is one Syria policy that can win majorities in both houses despite the fact that this option has long been overwhelmingly unpopular with the American public and with large majorities of people in every country in the surrounding region. There’s no question that arming rebels is supposed to divert attention from the glaring flaw that the administration has set an unrealistic, maximalist goal (“destroying” ISIS) and proposed minimalist measures to reach it, but beyond that it remains what Marc Lynch has called “a classic bureaucratic “Option C,” driven by a desire to be seen as doing something while understanding that there was no American appetite at all for more direct intervention.”

No one seriously thinks that arming and training a few thousand rebels will make much of a difference or do much good, but it is the relatively risk-free option (for Americans) that provides a temporary sop to insatiable hawks while also providing cover for fence-sitters that want to be considered “serious” on foreign policy without having to take big political risks by backing more aggressive measures. Finally, many members of Congress endorsed this policy just so that they could get it off the agenda before the elections, so majority support in Congress for arming Syrian rebels may be shown to be illusory much sooner than we might have guessed.

In some ways, pushing for arming Syrian rebels has a lot in common with the push to send arms to Ukraine: it signals “toughness,” and no one truly expects it to accomplish anything, but the point is to be seen making the effort. It is a way to “take a stand,” albeit a stupid one, and few members of Congress have been penalized because they joined a big majority to vote for something wasteful and ill-considered. The bigger problem with these sorts of useless half-measures is that they will inevitably fail to reach their objectives, because there was never a chance that they were able to reach them, and then we will hear demands for increasing support until eventually the U.S. has to give up on its nominal proxies or commit its own forces to a prolonged conflict.

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The Folly of Arming Ukraine

The Post is once again demanding that the U.S. throw weapons at the conflict in Ukraine:

The reality is that the beleaguered Ukrainian leader left Washington backed by considerable rhetoric from the Obama administration but little with which he can turn back [bold mine-DL] the continuing Russian aggression against his country.

The reality is that the U.S. could send Poroshenko’s government as many weapons as he desires and it still wouldn’t change the fact that Ukrainian forces are outmatched and can’t win no matter how many weapons they have. Unless the goal is to cause more destruction and contribute to greater loss of life in Ukraine, sending weapons to the much weaker side in a conflict that still hasn’t been settled makes no sense. It is the sort of futile, harmful gesture that someone advocates when he is concerned more with appearing to do something rather than being concerned about the effects of the action. “Well, we were trying to help!” is not an acceptable excuse for making an armed conflict worse.

There are two reasons to agitate for arming Ukraine, and neither of them is good. Either one wants to put the U.S. on a path to ever deeper involvement in the conflict, thus risking a much larger and more devastating war, or one wants to make a vain display of solidarity that will get more people killed. There’s no excuse for encouraging Ukraine to persist in an unwinnable war, and no reason to give Russia a pretext for escalating hostilities. That is why Sen. Corker’s bill on this and related matters should be voted down.

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The Nativity of the Theotokos

By Your Nativity, O Most Pure Virgin,
Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness;
Adam and Eve, from the corruption of death.
And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you:
The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the nourisher of our life!
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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

In defense of Christians. Kathryn Jean Lopez interviews Andrew Doran, executive director of In Defense of Christians.

The Arab Christian dilemma. Luma Simms describes the predicament of Arab Christians caught between Islamists and Israel.

Beyond ISIS and Ukraine. Moises Naim rounds up five overlooked developments that could have major consequences.

Nationalism in a multicultural age. Noah Millman reflects on different kinds of nationalism in connection with the Scottish referendum.

Musings of a reluctant nationalist. Fintan O’Toole considers the Scottish referendum as part of a broader reaction to the “current political settlement of strong oligarchies and weak democracies.”

Scotland’s tricky choice. Christian Caryl considers the implications of Scottish independence and what kind of politics an independent state would have.

Debating independence in the Western Isles. Peter Geoghegan reports from the Isle of Lewis on the referendum debate.

If Scotland votes ‘yes’, what happens in Northern Ireland? Michael Brendan Dougherty comments on the possible implications of the independence referendum for Ulster politics.

The independence debate in pictures. Alan Taylor presents his photos of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ supporters from around Scotland.

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Hawks and Doves

fotostory / Shutterstock.com

YouGov surveyed American voters to see how Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton are perceived on foreign policy (“hawk” or “dove”), and how their foreign policy views affect support for the two possible candidates in a hypothetical match-up. Here was one interesting result:

Doves clearly prefer Clinton despite the fact that a few more respondents (correctly) perceive her to be a hawk. However, Clinton also seems to benefit from the fact that 30% of respondents inexplicably perceive her as a dove, and only 27% perceive Paul that way. For all of the attention paid to Paul’s foreign policy views in political media over the last few years, his position is not very well-known or clear to the public at large, since 24% identify him as a hawk and 49% aren’t sure what to call him. Oddly enough, that might be just what Paul wants, since it gives him room to move back and forth between hawkish and dovish stances.

It is also probably the case that partisan respondents are projecting their own preferences onto the two candidates, so that dovish respondents may wrongly assume that Clinton is closer to them because they have the same party affiliation. Or it may be that both hawkish and dovish respondents are conflating partisan identification with foreign policy views, so that they back the would-be candidate of their party regardless of how they are perceived on foreign policy. Whatever the case, this survey suggests that Clinton may be able to get away with being much more hawkish than her party, and it also may mean that Paul won’t be able to poach as many dovish voters from Clinton in the event that they end up running against each other. Perhaps that would change during a campaign as the candidates’ views become more familiar to voters, but right now Clinton doesn’t seem to be paying much of a price politically within her own party for being reliably hawkish.

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Saakashvili’s Desperate Quest for Rehabilitation

Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili is now living in Brooklyn and hoping for political rehabilitation:

But Mr. Saakashvili, considerably plumper than when he was in power, argues that the [Ukraine] conflict should also mark a reappraisal of his own reputation as a reckless leader whose peaceful Rose Revolution and commitment to reform were eclipsed by years of riding roughshod over opponents, bending the rule of law and provoking Mr. Putin into a war that resulted in the death, displacement and impoverishment of thousands of Georgians. “It should be revisited,” he said.

While there are a few similarities between the 2008 war and the current conflict in Ukraine, the crucial difference between them is that Saakashvili was primarily responsible for escalating the conflict back then. Russia bore part of the responsibility by baiting Saakashvili, but he was the one that stupidly took the bait. He did so in the mistaken belief that the U.S. and its allies would come to the rescue if he got into trouble. He was encouraged in that by careless American rhetoric, by misguided support for Georgian aspirations to join NATO, and and by foolish Western enthusiasm for his “revolution.” Nonetheless, in the end the decision to attack Tskhinvali and trigger the larger war was his, and he bears a significant amount of responsibility for the damage to his country that followed. He also presided over the brutal crackdown of opposition protesters in 2007, which resulted in hundreds of injuries. The current charges of abuse of power that have been brought against him back in Georgia are only too believable, since it was in part because of abuses by his government that his party was voted out in 2012. Revisiting the facts of Saakashvili’s tenure just confirms his reputation for recklessness and abuse of power. Subsequent events in other countries don’t change any of this, and no matter what one thinks of the conflict in Ukraine it doesn’t vindicate Saakashvili’s actions in the slightest.

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Independence Delayed?

the_justified_sinner / cc

Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth acknowledge that yesterday’s vote in Scotland hasn’t finally settled anything:

This referendum was meant to settle the question of Scottish independence for good. But few believe it has done that. ‘We have heard the settled will of the Scottish people,’ said the Prime Minister. Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign, said, ‘The people of Scotland have spoken — we have chosen unity over division.’ Both will have known this to be untrue. There is no such thing as the settled will of the Scottish people, and almost half of them chose division. As one Labour insider admits, ‘There’s no way this is over.’

As we have already seen, instead of settling anything the referendum has produced new promises of devolution for Scotland and increased demands in England for significant changes to the current system. The former probably can’t or won’t be honored, since they were made on the fly without the consent of the rest of the U.K., and that will eventually mean another referendum. In that case, unionists won’t be able to make credible offers of greater devolution, and that would make it more difficult to avert independence later on. Since the unionist side relied heavily on older voters, the next time that the question is asked the electorate will probably be much more inclined to back independence than they were yesterday. The union was “saved” by pledging to give it a drastic overhaul, and unless the government makes good on that promise it has simply delayed the inevitable.

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Initial Thoughts on the Independence Referendum

As I write this around 9:00 Central time, few results have been announced and it is still too early to know for certain what the exact outcome of the Scottish referendum is. However, the ‘No’ side has had the early lead and appears favored to win at this point. Early results showed disappointingly lower turnout for the ‘Yes’ side in some key areas, including Dundee and Glasgow, but even here the turnout was extraordinary high compared to other elections (75% or higher). In some places, turnout shot up to 90+% and was projected to be around 85% for the entire country. No matter what the outcome may be, it seems certain that the referendum has been an enormous triumph of popular political engagement and participation. Last-minute polling suggested that the ‘No’ campaign will prevail by about eight points. That seems to indicate that the British establishment’s belated, panicky, and rather desperate offers of enhanced autonomy towards the end of the campaign halted the the momentum for independence.

Of course, the success of the ‘No’ campaign was expected from the start, and if that weren’t the case a yes-or-no referendum probably wouldn’t have been allowed. The unionist victory is somewhat anti-climactic and obscures just how remarkably competitive the election became. The pro-independence activists had to climb a very steep and tall hill to overcome the many built-in advantages of the unionist side, and they came away with a better result than most people thought possible. If someone had said that the pro-independence forces would receive 45% of the vote a few months ago, he would have been mocked as a fantasist. Because there appeared to be the outside chance of an outright win for independence in the final weeks, the otherwise strong ‘Yes’ result will now seem lacking. As all observers of this election know by now, the ‘No’ side ran a thuddingly incompetent, uninspired campaign that by all rights deserved to lose, but it turned out to be just good enough to ward off the nationalist challenge for the time being. In the process, the unionists were prepared to bribe Scottish voters with almost anything short of independence, and that will end up having long-term repercussions for the country’s constitutional arrangements and the politics of both England and Scotland. Whatever happens, Cameron and the other party leaders are going to pay a heavy political price for their poor handling of the issue, and they have to know that this result is almost certainly just a delay for Scottish independence for a decade or so rather than a final settlement of the question.

I admit to a certain disappointment with a ‘No’ result, because it was the predictable outcome and because it vindicates an utterly unworthy political establishment that deserved to be humiliated at the polls. The good news is that some members of that establishment will probably get their comeuppance, but I am skeptical that the promise of much broader devolution of powers will end up being honored. It is just as likely that unionists have told Scots whatever they thought the latter wanted to hear and will later renege on the offer when the threat of independence has receded. It may turn out that the unionists “saved” the union by making promises that they couldn’t possibly fulfill, which will just lead to even more discontent with U.K. government.

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Scotland and Separatism in Europe

Jonathan Foreman rattles off a number of implausible and far-fetched scenarios for what will happen after a ‘yes’ vote. Along with some other utterly ridiculous things, he imagines that separatist dominoes would start falling all over Europe:

A “Yes” vote for secession would also set in motion a whole series of political crises across the continent and further afield.

As I’ve said before, it’s not obvious that this is necessarily such a terrible thing if it happened, but how likely is it? There are a few reasons to doubt this scenario. If Scotland votes to break away, it will have done so in no small part because the political leadership in London was oblivious to the possibility that the referendum might turn out that way. Future bids for independence will not be underestimated in the same way by other central governments, and independence movements probably won’t be permitted to hold binding votes in the first place. Viewed this way, a ‘yes’ vote might inspire separatist parties, but it would also alarm central governments and encourage them not to agree to a vote on independence. The ‘Yes’ campaign has done as well as it has in part because it was able to take a complacent, clueless government in London by surprise, and that isn’t going to happen again no matter how the vote turns out. Another reason to doubt that there will be a “whole series of political crises” breaking out in the wake of a ‘yes’ vote is that each country’s conditions and political traditions are different.

Not all separatist parties are going to be able to make a persuasive argument that their regions would succeed as new states, and not all governments are going to be quite so ineffective in making appeals for continued national unity. More to the point, some states specifically outlaw the possibility of regional independence, so there are major barriers in other countries that didn’t exist in this case. Political elites in other countries may also learn from London’s mistakes, and they could offer greater autonomy to their discontented regions as Cameron now realizes he should have done all along. On top of all this, Scotland might find itself running into stiff opposition from some current EU members when it applies to join, which will presumably also have the effect of discouraging voters in other countries from following their example. Of course, that is the point of threatening to block or delay Scotland’s membership, as Spain has so bluntly done over the last few months.

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