Daniel Larison

Americans Don’t Want the U.S. To Take Sides in Foreign Conflicts

There were some interesting YouGov findings on American public opinion and foreign conflicts last week. When asked about conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, and Gaza, at least a plurality of Americans favored supporting neither side, and in the Syrian case it was a majority:

The question is admittedly a little vague. How a person answers might depend on what one means by support and how much one has in mind, but it is still worth noting that official U.S. policy positions in each of these conflicts have remarkably little public support. While there are many Americans in favor of backing the Ukrainian and Israeli governments, there aren’t nearly as many as one would expect given the near-unanimity among our politicians in favor of these policies.

The Syrian case is the most striking. Syria is the one conflict that the U.S. was very close to joining in directly only last year, there is also fairly broad bipartisan support in Washington for supporting at least some Syrian rebels, and yet the public’s support for anti-regime forces is extremely low. U.S. support for the Israeli government in the conflict is endorsed by virtually every elected official in the U.S. and by numerous editorial boards across the country, but that policy doesn’t even have the support of 40% of the public.

The same poll found that a plurality disapproved of Obama’s handling of the three conflicts. There’s no great mystery as to why this is, since his administration has chosen to take sides in all three conflicts when more Americans believe that the U.S. shouldn’t be supporting anyone (and a few want the U.S. on the opposite side). Once again, there’s no “paradox” in public attitudes on this question: Americans disapprove of Obama’s foreign policy insofar as he and his administration are doing things that they don’t think should be done.

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A Few More Fixes for Republican Foreign Policy

Jim Antle makes five useful suggestions on how to improve Republican foreign policy. Here he recommends identifying contradictions in prevailing conservative foreign policy arguments:

It should by now be obvious that both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars eventually became the kinds of conflicts most conservatives say they don’t support. So inevitably would future wars being advocated by the same people. That is a good reason for conservatives to oppose Wilsonian wars mislabeled as Jacksonian self-defense. This should especially be easy in conflicts where there are factions hostile to American interests on all sides, such as Syria and the current conditions in Iraq.

This is all very sensible. Here are a few more recommendations that I’d make for reforming Republican foreign policy. Some of these could probably be applied to many members in both parties, but Republicans would benefit from them more.

Republicans should stop deferring to what allies and clients say they need from the U.S. These governments have every incentive to claim that they are being neglected in order to extract more benefits from the relationship, and it should be the role of conservatives to scrutinize and question these claims to determine whether they have any merit and whether the current relationship is worth the cost. Republicans should also stop conflating what these governments and their boosters want with the American interest. Allies and clients have their own interests that will inevitably diverge from ours at least some of the time, and that will sometimes involve attempts by an ally or client to get the U.S. to pursue policies that it prefers at our expense. When an ally or client doesn’t get its way, it will be displeased and lament its “abandonment,” which Republicans should be able to recognize as a maneuver to get more support/money/weapons. At the very least, Republicans shouldn’t be helping other governments in their shakedown attempts, and ideally they would be actively resisting them. Similarly, when the U.S. alters or tries to alter a policy that concerns an ally or client, Republicans shouldn’t assume that complaints from hard-liners in the other country reflect the views of people in that country, nor should they take those complaints at face value. Republican politicians in particular should stop bending over backwards to please allies and clients.

Conservatives should resist the corruption of language and the frequent recourse to euphemisms when discussing foreign policy. The U.S. has some genuinely vital interests, but they are necessarily very few, so whenever someone claims that the U.S. has “vital” interests at stake in a country where U.S. interests are tangential at best conservatives should be aware of the difference and reject attempts to treat minor and tangential concerns as if they were critically important to the U.S. When hawks insist on “taking action” or “leading” in response to a crisis, it is imperative to specify that this normally means risking American lives and/or inflicting death and destruction on others, whether directly or by proxy. That can only be justified in self-defense or for the defense of a genuine ally. That requires conservatives to be very precise and accurate when talking about what constitutes self-defense and which states actually qualify as allies. Unless the U.S. has treaty obligations to defend another state, conservatives should refrain from thinking of that state as an ally. Unless a war is being fought to respond to an attack on the U.S. or one of its treaty allies, it is by any reasonable definition a war of choice and one that the U.S. doesn’t have to fight or support. When faced with demands to support such an unnecessary war, conservatives shouldn’t let themselves be misled by shoddy arguments about “credibility” or American “leadership” in the world. The abuse of language also affects the way that threats are perceived. Manageable threats that can be easily deterred shouldn’t be considered intolerable causes for preventive warfare. Conservatives should view any claim that the U.S. faces an “existential threat” with extreme skepticism, since there is almost nothing on earth that poses a threat to our existence, and they should generally treat such a claim as the irresponsible and dishonest alarmism that it is.

Finally, conservatives should make a determined effort to cut out nostalgia for the Cold War and stop trying to find a global ideological adversary to take the place of the USSR. The desire to find a replacement fuels the tendency to exaggerate manageable threats and to imagine that many different adversaries belong to alliances and coalitions that don’t exist, and these can help drive the U.S. into unnecessary and self-defeating policies of confrontation. To some extent, that will fade with time as the Cold War recedes into the past, but it is a habit that still has to be rooted out.

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The Dishonest Charge of Withdrawal and Disengagement

Fred Hiatt very much wants us to believe that America’s “gradual withdrawal” and “disengagement” from the world have produced a number of terrible outcomes:

Obama openly and deliberately adopted a strategy, not of isolationism, but of gradual withdrawal, especially from Europe and the Middle East. He argued that America should concentrate on “nation-building here at home.” He espoused a pivot to Asia, on the grounds that the Pacific region was the world’s most dynamic and deserving of U.S. military and diplomatic attention.

There’s a lot wrong with Hiatt’s analysis, but the worst part is that he can’t find more than one example to support his main claim that the administration has pursued “disengagement” from the rest of the world. That’s probably because the main claim is a dishonest one: there hasn’t been much, if any, meaningful disengagement over the last five years. On the contrary, the U.S. has been adding to its overseas commitments rather than reducing them, and that has been particularly noticeable over the last two years. Obama may have led voters to expect something very different after his re-election, but that isn’t what he has delivered. While the U.S. may not be meddling as actively or directly as Hiatt wants, that is very different from scaling back its involvement around the world.

To the extent that the so-called “pivot” had any practical significance, it represented an increase in U.S. involvement in East and Southeast Asia, which was scarcely offset by any changes elsewhere. More to the point, the administration has been consistently stymied in pursuing the so-called “pivot” because it has chosen to let itself be pulled into crises and conflicts in other regions that it likely could have avoided. Hiatt doesn’t like that the U.S. didn’t bomb Syria last year, but choosing not to start a new war is “withdrawal” only in the most deranged hawkish mind. Likewise, he faults the administration for not intervening earlier in Syria’s civil war, but opting not to join another country’s civil war doesn’t mean that the U.S. has withdrawn anywhere.

Hiatt disapproves of the decision not to occupy Libya after the regime fell (ignoring the fact that the interim Libyan government rejected this option when it mattered), but attacking and overthrowing another government in concert with U.S. allies have absolutely nothing to do with disengaging from the rest of the world. If the U.S. topples a foreign government through military action, and then chooses not to spend the next five or ten years getting American soldiers killed in a vain effort at state-building, that it evidence that at least some minimal learning took place after the Iraq war. Obviously, there wasn’t enough learning going on, because the administration still made the error of waging an ill-considered war for regime change. Hiatt’s complaint is that Obama didn’t make Libya into another Iraq with another open-ended occupation. The hegemonist worldview is so distorted that it treats not occupying yet another country as proof of “retreat.”

The closest that Hiatt gets to coming up with a good example to support his argument is the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, which tells you something about how awful his argument is. Supposing that the U.S. had somehow managed to keep a small residual force in Iraq beyond 2011, what would that have changed? As far as I can tell, it would have changed nothing except to ensure that more Americans kept dying in Iraq for no discernible purpose. Iraq is the only example where the charge of withdrawal is deserved, and the alternative that Hiatt prefers–keeping American forces in Iraq with no end in sight–would have clearly been a much worse one for the U.S.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Time for U.S. forces to leave South Korea. Christopher Lee makes the case for redeploying U.S. forces in Korea back to the United States.

The dangers of waging war by proxy. Christopher Preble comments on the downing of MH17 and its implications for demands to “arm the rebels” elsewhere.

“They killed 25 to get one.” Sharif Abdel Kouddous reports on civilian deaths in Gaza and the aftermath of one strike that killed two dozen members of the same family.

Why so many children are dying in Gaza. Katie Zavadski reports on the reasons for the large number of children killed in the current military operation.

When the U.S. shot down Iran Air flight 655. Fred Kaplan recounts the downing of the plane and the Pentagon’s false statements about the incident.

The differences between MH17 and KAL 007. Yong Kwon explains how the downings of the two flights differ.

Hawks ignore evidence of decreasing violence and conflict. Stephanie Rugolo provides the proof that the world is less violent and more peaceful overall than it has been in decades.

Putin’s failing strategy. Joshua Rovner examines the flaws in Russia’s reliance on proxies.

America’s mass incarceration crisis. Matt Ford reports on the extraordinary number of people currently imprisoned in the U.S. and effects of mass incarceration on the country as a whole.

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Cruz’s Latest Stunt

Rosie Gray reports on Ted Cruz’s latest stunt:

Cruz said earlier this week that he would hold all State Department nominations that are set to come before the Senate until he has answers about the Federal Aviation Administration’s ban on U.S. carriers flying to Tel Aviv in the midst of the Gaza war, which has since been lifted.

Using holds to get answers from the executive can be a legitimate and appropriate thing for members of the Senate to do, but like anything else it can be abused in ridiculous ways. Cruz’s decision to hold all State Department nominations to make some hay out of the very brief FAA ban on U.S. flights to Israel is a perfect example of just such an abuse. It is also yet another example of how easily Cruz resorts to cheap demagoguery on foreign policy. There is no reason to think that the ban was part of an “economic boycott,” since there is no chance that this or any other administration would want to impose such a boycott, and it was so short-lived that its effects will be negligible. The trouble here is that the questions that Cruz wants answered are absurd, the answers to them should be obvious, and the ban he is protesting has already been lifted. Meanwhile, important diplomatic posts will go unfilled while Cruz puts on his display to show just how obsequiously “pro-Israel” he can be. It’s the worst kind of obnoxious grandstanding over a phony issue, which unfortunately seems to have become Cruz’s specialty during his brief time in office.

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The Dangerous and Unnecessary “League of Democracies”

Jonah Goldberg revives a lousy idea:

So I return again to an old hobby horse of mine (and many others). Let us set about to create a new League of Democracies. The standards for entry wouldn’t have anything to do with race or geography or even wealth (though wealthy countries tend to be democratic countries, so long as the wealth is derived from broad prosperity and not merely natural resources exploited by oligarchs). The standards would be simple: democracy, the rule of law and respect for individual liberty. A formal consensus among such countries would actually have the moral authority the U.N. only pretends to have.

The preoccupation that a few Americans have with establishing a “League” or “Concert” of democracies is very strange. The U.N. now has more democratic and semi-democratic members than it has ever had, but it is only in the last few years that we hear about the need to create a new multilateral organization specifically for democracies. All arguments for such a “League” that I have ever seen justify it as a way to make end-runs around the U.N. Charter in order to attack (sorry, liberate) countries ruled by abusive authoritarian governments. It is normally intended as a sort of institutionalized “coalition of the willing” to be used to intervene militarily without having to deal with the pesky Security Council and bothersome international law. Goldberg doesn’t mention these things here, but we know from previous arguments that this is what he thinks the “League” should be doing. Instead of putting together coalitions for unnecessary and illegal wars on the fly, the “League” would provide a permanent forum for wrecking other countries in the name of democracy.

Besides being a rubber-stamp for new military interventions, what would be the purpose of such a “League”? I suppose the members of the “League” could join together to condemn other governments on account of their abuses, but they can presumably do that now without going to the bother of creating a new organization. Then there is the other obvious problem with this proposal: very few eligible governments would see any reason to join the new organization. Many democratic governments wouldn’t want to undermine the U.N., since they don’t share Goldberg’s contempt for the organization, and so wouldn’t join such a “League.” This grand alternative to the U.N. would probably be able to lure in extremely dependent U.S. allies and maybe a handful of smaller countries that want to gain American favor, and all the other major democratic powers would look at it as a weird club designed to facilitate American wars, which by the admission of its supporters is more or less what it would be. Having few important members might make things easier for “League” decision-making, since the whole point is to create the illusion of broad multilateral support for U.S. meddling, but it would underscore that most democratic governments would want nothing to do with the project. It would widely be viewed as a transparent attempt by Washington and a few allies to evade their obligations as U.N. members, which is exactly what it would be. It’s a terrible idea, and fortunately one that will never be realized.

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“Real” Presidents and Demands for “Leadership”

Krauthammer makes a typically ridiculous but revealing argument:

A real U.S. president would give Kiev the weapons it needs, impose devastating sectoral sanctions on Moscow, reinstate our Central European missile-defense system, and make a Reaganesque speech explaining why.

In other words, “real presidents” cave in to Krauthammer’s demands for aggressive policies. Unless the U.S. wants to be sucked deeper into the war (and Americans clearly don’t want that), it is very unwise to send arms to a government engaged in a conflict with Russia. As we should understand very well by now, providing arms and ensuring that they are used responsibly are two very different things. In any case, the U.S. shouldn’t want to do anything to stoke and escalate the conflict. The U.S. could impose sectoral sanctions on Russia, but without broad international support those sanctions would have limited effect. In the meantime, these sanctions would invite Russian retaliation against U.S. business interests, which are naturally strongly opposed to the imposition of more sanctions. Bringing back the flawed, expensive missile defense system in central Europe is a boilerplate demand from hawks too ignorant to know how ridiculous and irrelevant the demand is. It would serve no purpose, it would represent the undoing of more recent agreements with European allies, and would likely be unwelcome in the countries where it was originally going to be based. Obama could certainly give a big speech to announce all of these reckless, ineffective, and useless measures, and that would put him in the absurd position of making another set of bold declarations that he wouldn’t be able to back up later. If that’s what a “real” president would do, it’s just as well that we don’t have one.

Krauthammer isn’t unique in equating “leadership” with doing whatever he happens to want. It is commonplace for pundits to call for a president to exercise “leadership,” when what they really mean is that they want him to adopt their preferred policies. This has nothing to do with leading in any meaningful sense, and everything to do with yielding to pressure from the loudest ideological factions and interest groups. Refusal to capitulate to these demands is equated with weakness, while caving in is celebrated as proof of a politician’s far-seeing statesmanship. It is a kind of political extortion that ideologues practice to try to get an administration to pay attention to their preoccupations, and the louder their complaints get the more likely it is that the president has avoided making a serious error.

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Gaza and U.S. Public Opinion

Gallup finds that Americans are split on the question of whether Israel’s actions in Gaza have been justified or not. Overall, 42% say that they are justified, 39% say they are not, and 20% have no opinion. These results are comparable to a Gallup poll taken during the second intifada twelve years ago, but there are slightly more on the ‘unjustified’ side than there were then. As we have seen in other polls on related matters, there is a significant gap between Republicans and everyone else:


It is striking how evenly divided the public is on this question when there is total uniformity among political leaders in the U.S. that Israel is justified in what it has been doing. There is always a significant gap between popular and elite views on foreign policy issues, but it is still fairly unusual for a view held by almost 40% of Americans to have virtually no representation in Congress.

The generational divisions on this question are almost as great:


I noted in a previous post that Americans under 50 were relatively less sympathetic to Israel than their elders, since the Israel they know about is very different from the one that older generations knew. These results help to explain why that is happening. Younger Americans evidently have less patience with Israeli military operations, and they appear to be less inclined to accept the standard rationalizations for those operations. According to Gallup’s findings, most Americans under 50 don’t believe Israeli actions in Gaza are justified, and it seems likely that the operation in Gaza is making these Americans even less sympathetic to Israel. If this trend continues in the future, Israel will eventually find itself with few sympathizers in the U.S.

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Gaza and Moral Idiocy

Rich Lowry dutifully recites the official line on the conflict in Gaza:

Each civilian death in Gaza is a tragedy, but who is ultimately responsible? The moral calculus here is simple. Hamas precipitated the war and persisted in waging it even when Israel was willing to accept an Egyptian offer of a cease-fire. Hamas hides its rockets in schools and places its command bunkers under hospitals. It wants war, and it wants civilian casualties.

The summary is misleading at best, but even if we accept all of it as true it doesn’t make Israel’s current military operation defensible. Hamas may want war and civilian casualties, and it is fully responsible for everything that it does, but that doesn’t justify Israel in giving them what they want. Nothing could better sum up the irrationality of defenders of the current operation than the argument Lowry is offering here. We’re supposed to accept that Israel’s government mustn’t be faulted for what it’s doing, because Israeli forces are inflicting death and destruction that predictably redounds to Hamas’ political benefit. According to this view, Hamas is the only one to be blamed for the consequences of the military overreaction that has stupidly given Hamas an unwelcome boost. This is little better than the foreign policy equivalent of saying “the devil made me do it,” as if it that made everything all right. There is some moral idiocy on display in this debate, but it isn’t coming from people objecting to the excessive and indiscriminate use of force in this conflict.

Periodically bombing and/or invading a blockaded population is a guaranteed way of ensuring that Israel will face continued hostility from increasingly radical enemies, who thrive on the outrages that any government will inevitably inflict when it uses modern weapons in a densely populated area. These operations not only generate propaganda coups for the people that Israel is supposed to be punishing, but they ensure that the better part of entire generations of Palestinians will opt for violence for years and decades to come. Lowry’s argument is similar to Western justifications for the Iraq sanctions regime during the ’90s. The sanctions inflicted enormous suffering on the civilian population of Iraq and by the most conservative estimates caused the premature deaths of almost three hundred thousand Iraqis, but this was always blamed on the Iraqi government. No matter what the U.S. or its allies and clients do, it is always “ultimately” someone else’s fault. Instead of facing up to the fact that it was the U.S. and other outside powers that were strangling Iraqis with sanctions, we declared Hussein responsible for a horrible policy that was primarily our doing. So it is again today that we have people striving mightily to place the responsibility for Israeli actions on anyone except the government that has ordered them.

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The Folly of Unquestioning Support for a Client

Politico reports some of Rand Paul’s recent foreign policy comments:

Potential GOP presidential contender Rand Paul said Wednesday that no one should question Israel’s actions in a time of war.

“I wouldn’t question what they need to do to defend themselves,” the Kentucky Republican told conservative radio host Glenn Beck on “The Blaze.” “These are difficult decisions people make in war when someone attacks you. It’s not our job to second guess.”

It may be not be “our job” to question what a client state does, but that doesn’t really explain why Paul won’t do it. When the U.S. is implicated in the actions of the client because it chooses to subsidize the client, it would seem entirely appropriate and even necessary for U.S. politicians and officials to question and even criticize Israeli actions in some cases. Until that financial support ceases, U.S. politicians should not only question Israeli actions, but they should oppose those actions when they adversely affect U.S. interests.

Saying that we shouldn’t “second guess” what another government does in the name of self-defense is to say that we should simply stop thinking about the relevant issues all together. Client governments may or may not deserve U.S. support, but it is inevitable that they will err and make serious misjudgments that affect both the U.S. and the client. Sometimes a client will claim that it is acting in self-defense when that isn’t true (e.g., when it portrays its decision to escalate a conflict as something that was forced on it by others). Sometimes a client will pick a fight with a neighbor on the assumption that the U.S. will back them to the hilt. At other times, a client may pursue a policy antithetical to U.S. goals and wishes, or it may actively oppose a U.S. policy that it considers undesirable. All of these things can be and have been lumped together under the label of self-defense. “Self-defense” is used nowadays as a blanket justification for everything from retaliatory strikes to targeted assassinations to preventive attacks, and it is imperative that members of Congress be willing and able to question and challenge claims of self-defense from clients in order to determine whether U.S. support is warranted or not.

There are presumably dangerous and provocative actions that a U.S. client state might take to “defend” itself that members of Congress would be obliged to question and perhaps even oppose. That is especially true when unquestioning support for a client’s actions makes it more difficult for the U.S. to pursue its other goals in the surrounding region. If it isn’t “our job to second guess,” U.S. politicians and officials likewise shouldn’t take every opportunity to affirm their support for actions that even many in Washington can see to be futile and wrong. If they can’t bring themselves to question what U.S. clients do, they can at least refrain from uncritical approval as well.

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