Paul Saunders makes a very sensible case for not antagonizing Russia:
Russia probably deserves much of the criticism from activists and others who don’t like its domestic practices or foreign policy. Activists can get away with ignoring the consequences of what they propose; thinking about overall U.S. national interests isn’t their job. But the purpose of U.S. foreign policy isn’t to give others what we think they deserve [bold mine-DL] — it is to “provide for the common defense,” as stated in the Constitution, something U.S. officials should keep foremost while crafting policy. Making a real enemy of Russia won’t help the United States.
The U.S. is fortunate that Russia is not intent on undermining our interests, which makes it a little odd that so many American hawks insist that this is so and sometimes seem eager to make it so. Consider Syria. Syria hawks see Russian opposition to Western and Arab intervention in the country as proof of Russian antagonism to America, but Russia is at most half-heartedly defending the status quo and continuing its formal policy of objecting to outside interference in other states’ internal affairs. It has committed itself to nothing except occasionally vetoing a resolution at the U.N., and if the U.S. were foolish enough to start bombing Syria it would loudly protest and almost certainly do nothing directly to interfere. Syria hawks pretend to see a determined adversary in Russia, but the reality is that Moscow doesn’t want to do very much for Assad for fear that it might rupture its relationships with Europe and the U.S. The question to ask is: why is there such a desire or need for Russia to be presented as our constant foe? Since it would be harmful to our national interest if Russia were actively hostile, why do so many hawks want to encourage and provoke that hostility?
One reason that hawks tend to encourage and provoke Russian hostility is that they have an overly broad definition of U.S. interests. If one believes, as McCain does, that “our values are our interests and our interests are our values,” there is virtually no limit to what “our interests” can include, and these will extend to the internal politics of Russia and most other states. Most hawks assume that the U.S. has vital interests at stake in virtually every part of the world, so no other major power can exercise influence in its own neighborhood without triggering some alarm. Once hawks have convinced themselves that it is extremely important to the U.S. who is in power in various ex-Soviet republics, for example, any political change that removes their preferred leaders from power will be treated as a Russian “victory” over us. Because many hawks wrongly define U.S. interests in the former Soviet Union in terms of the negation or reduction of Russian influence in the region, improved relations between Moscow and its neighbors are viewed as a threat. The truth is that this properly has little or nothing to do with us.
Hawks also usually exaggerate both foreign threats and the extent to which foreign governments are hostile to us. All of this a recipe for seeing slights, insults, and menaces in other states’ normal pursuit of their own national interests, and it also means that a government’s conduct inside its borders becomes a challenge that the U.S. is supposed to take up and win. Of course, this is not unique to debates over Russia policy, but has repeated itself again and again in debates on Iran, China, or whatever third-rate authoritarian regime that happens to catch our attention this week. The desire to believe the illusion of American omnipotence certainly plays a role as well, since it flatters hawks’ image of America to believe that there is always something that the U.S. can do to compel other governments to do what we want.
Paul Pillar comments on the Syrian opposition’s threat to boycott next month’s peace conference unless it receives heavy weapons from the U.S.:
In a public statement at this week’s “Friends of Syria” meeting, Kerry linked the concept of increased aid to the rebels to any unwillingness by the Assad regime to participate in peace talks. One hopes he has conveyed a converse message in private to rebel representatives. There would be nothing wrong with also making such a message public. It would be part of a consistent policy whereby U.S. decisions about aid to rebels would be governed by the willingness or unwillingness of each side to negotiate and to negotiate seriously.
This is sensible as far as it goes, but we all know that this is very unlikely to happen. Part of the problem is that the U.S. is trying to act as an outside mediator while simultaneously favoring one side in the conflict. There is not much chance that there will be a consistent policy in the way the U.S. treats both sides of the conflict, which is what comes of taking sides in conflicts in which no significant U.S. interests are at stake. Everyone understands that threats from the U.S. to reduce the already limited aid going to the Syrian opposition would be empty ones that would never be carried out, and the opposition will assume that it can safely ignore them. Of course, an unwillingness to negotiate on the opposition’s part is accepted among their supporters in the U.S. as appropriate and even admirable, whereas any interest that the regime might show in negotiations is dismissed out of hand. Obstacles to a negotiated solution include the intransigence of the warring parties, but they also include the hostility to a diplomatic settlement of the conflict among many of their foreign backers.
Contrary to the hopes of Syria hawks, providing the opposition with the weapons they demand will not make them less maximalist in their political goals, but will instead encourage them to be even less inclined to negotiate than they already are.
Thomas Chiapelas offers up some strange Iraq war revisionism:
The Bush administration should have emphasized Saddam’s whole dark history instead of focusing so much on stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
I call this strange revisionism because Chiapelas’ article reads like a series of Bush administration talking points from 2002-03. He recites the usual bills and resolutions (the Iraq Liberation Act! UNSCR 1441!) as if these vindicated or authorized the horrible decision to invade. The Bush administration did attempt to make Hussein seem uniquely deserving of regime change by dwelling obsessively on his past crimes in an effort to make the entirely unnecessary and unjustified invasion of Iraq seem like the right thing to do. Despite having done exactly what Chiapelas claims they didn’t do, the administration’s case for war was flimsy and riddled with holes.
Even more strange is the assumption Chiapelas makes that confrontation with Iraq was “inevitable,” when it was anything but that. Iraq war hawks hate the phrase “war of choice” when it is applied to Iraq because it reminds everyone that the war was easily avoidable and didn’t have to happen. The Bush administration was not alone in wanting the war to happen, or at least it far from alone in supporting the decision to go to war, but had it not been for the administration’s determination to invade Iraq the war wouldn’t have happened. Naturally, those that continue to defend the indefensible decision to invade want to cling to the idea that the war was “inevitable” and something “forced” on the U.S. by Hussein, since this relieves the previous administration and supporters of the invasion of their responsibility for one of the greatest and most destructive blunders in the history of modern U.S. foreign policy. It’s completely untrue, and a Republican Party that clings to this falsehood is one that shouldn’t and won’t be trusted on foreign policy and national security anytime soon.
Gen. Keane and Danielle Pletka imagine worst-case scenarios for Syria without U.S. intervention:
Play this out: Assad wins and Iran’s most important Arab alliance is preserved, with terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad back on the gravy train of international terrorism. American credibility is shot. Or, the conflict continues, and the spillover into Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iran and Turkey escalates. Is conflict between Israel and Iran over Syria a ridiculous notion? How about the fall of the Jordanian king? More fighting between al Qaeda allies and Hezbollah in Lebanon? The collapse of Iraq? None of our business? Never going to draw us in?
Some of these are pretty far-fetched and the bit about American credibility being “shot” is ridiculous. It’s important to note that the military action Keane and Pletka want could just as easily have disastrous effects. Internal conflict continues to afflict Iraq, and the Syrian conflict seems to be making this worse, but it is alarmist to talk about Iraq’s “collapse.” Spillover into neighboring countries is happening, but the remedy for that would be providing assistance to those countries to cope with the influx of refugees from Syria rather than military action that will create more of them. Then again, if regional instability is so dangerous, how does it make sense to help prolong the conflict? Keane and Pletka want to prevent victory by Assad, and in order to do that they want the U.S. to contribute directly to the ongoing destabilization of the region. The dangers they identify are all likely to be made worse by the course of action they recommend. They appear to be completely oblivious to the possibility that this is so.
Consider the Israeli-Iranian conflict scenario they mention. Why would Syria be the cause of this conflict? Would Israel be foolish enough to interfere after Hizbullah has committed itself openly to a prolonged fight against Assad’s internal enemies? That seems doubtful. Iran and Hizbullah are going out of their way to make themselves regional pariahs with their support for Assad. Why would Israel want to distract attention from that? If ensuring the stability of the Jordanian government is the issue, creating even more regional instability through Western military intervention is hardly the answer. As a U.S. client, the king of Jordan could face a serious domestic backlash from another U.S.-led military action.
As we review their worst-case scenarios, we see that Keane and Pletka have inadvertently acknowledged that the U.S. doesn’t have anything significant at stake in Syria itself. The Syrian conflict endangers U.S. allies and clients only insofar as it spreads beyond Syria’s borders. The right answer is not to start a U.S.-led war against the Syrian government, which further internationalizes the conflict and makes us a party to the conflict, but to try to mitigate and contain the damage that the Syrian conflict does to the country’s neighbors. That would involve greater humanitarian assistance and cooperation with neighboring governments to prevent them from being drawn into the conflict. Bombing Syria will do nothing to contain or limit the destabilizing effects of Syria’s conflict.
John Hudson reports that next month’s proposed Syrian peace conference has run into a wall:
Secretary of State John Kerry’s goal of bringing the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime to the negotiating table next month has hit a major snag. In a letter obtained by The Cable, Gen. Salim Idris, the commander of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, says that the United States must establish “strategic military balance” between the rebels and Assad as a precondition to any peace talks [bold mine-DL].
The letter does not detail specifics, but Dan Layman, media relations director at the Syrian Support Group, a licensed U.S. advocacy group with extensive contacts to the Free Syrian Army, said the demand requires anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry such as 90 mm rockets, recoilless rifles, and ideally man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) [bold mine-DL].
Since the administration has so far refused to allow its clients to send heavy weapons to anti-regime forces, and it has no desire to provide these weapons itself, these demands aren’t going to be met. Even if the administration were inclined to provide such weapons to the opposition, I doubt they would do so under these circumstances. It’s understandable that the Syrian opposition would want to use the conference as an occasion to extract support from the U.S., but they have to know that this won’t be forthcoming. Making this demand as a precondition for attending a peace conference sponsored by the government whose support they want is exactly the wrong thing for the opposition to do.
Since the conference already appears to be in trouble, it’s worth looking at J. Michael Quinn and Madhav Joshi’s discussion of how a negotiated settlement might be reached in Syria. Quinn and Joshi believe that the joint U.S.-Russian effort to be flawed from the start:
The Kerry-Lavrov plan puts far too much on the agenda, and the venue is far too public for the actors to be able to reach some common understanding of the barriers to peace. At best, the conference could lead to more discreet talks on more manageable issues sometime down the road. If things do break down, it will be up to Assad and representatives of the three main opposition groups to put forth a short list of requests that the other side could reciprocate as preconditions for reentering into negotiations.
While the peace conference might lay the foundations for later negotiations, there seems to have been too little preparatory work before now to bring the warring parties together for talks. Another problem with the U.S.-Russian effort is that neither government is in a position to “deliver” its “side” in the conflict. The U.S. and Russia aren’t likely to agree on Syria, but even if the two governments had the same goals it wouldn’t mean that anyone in Syria would follow their lead. Simon Shuster talked to Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a few days ago for his report on Russian arms sales to Syria. Lukyanov said this:
What gives me serious pause is that the U.S. and Russia can agree on whatever they want, and maybe they will. But it’s pompous to think that the people fighting in Syria will obey that decision, put down their arms and go home.
The U.S. and Russia should keep trying to facilitate a negotiated settlement, but until the warring parties are prepared to make a deal there is nothing for outside governments to facilitate.
What is it that causes Walt or the Leveretts (or Paul Krugman, if we’re going to go there) to cloak arguments in self-defeating exaggerations and overheated rhetoric? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do have a hypothesis: this one of the lasting legacies of Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom altered the landscape in United States foreign policy about the use of force — but those in the foreign policy community who argued against the war (and failed to dent either public or elite attitudes) have not caught up with that fact. It’s as if, over the past decade, prominent realists have adopted the worst rhetorical tropes of their ideological adversaries.
There aren’t very many “prominent realists” to whom this description applies, and I’m not sure that it really applies to the post Drezner is criticizing. Walt isn’t adopting “the worst rhetorical tropes” of his opponents. Among other things, he isn’t accusing them of vicious prejudices because he disagrees with them on policy, and he isn’t deliberately misrepresenting his opponents’ views. That said, “liberal imperialist” isn’t the right way to describe the people that Walt is criticizing. Except for a few hard-liners that explicitly and proudly declare their affinity for liberal imperialism and sometimes use that name (e.g., Max Boot, Niall Ferguson, etc.), “liberal imperialist” doesn’t apply to Syria hawks very well. If Walt had opted for liberal interventionist instead of “liberal imperialist,” I doubt Drezner would object so strongly and Walt wouldn’t have to change his list very much at all.
Consider this item from Walt’s list:
You are a strong proponent of international law, except when it gets in the way of Doing the Right Thing. Then you emphasize its limitations and explain why the United States doesn’t need to be bound by it in this case.
This accurately describes many liberal interventionists. This was how liberal interventionists justified the Kosovo war, it is how some of them defended the invasion of Iraq, and it is the argument that some have used to call for military action in Syria. Another item on Walt’s list also applies very well to more than a few Syria hawks from across the political spectrum. Walt writes:
Even if you don’t know very much about military history, logistics, or modern military operations, you are still convinced that military power can achieve complex political objectives at relatively low cost.
This isn’t unique to liberal interventionists, but this often crops up in their arguments.
Drezner’s final complaint is essentially that Walt’s post is too polemical and won’t persuade people that don’t already share his assumptions. I suppose this is true, but that is in the nature of most polemical writing. No one writes a polemic against others with persuasion as the goal. The purpose of polemical writing is to ridicule an opposing view by identifying its main flaws. The goal isn’t to get people who hold that view to reconsider their thinking, which is not likely to happen in any case, but to warn others against adopting those ideas.
Max Boot was optimistic yesterday that the Foreign Relations Committee could send a “signal” by approving Menendez-Corker:
A major battle is now unfolding in the city of Qusayr pitting Hezbollah and Assad fighters against rebels in what both sides say could be a turning point in the war. A signal now from the U.S. that it will do more to help the rebels could tilt the balance of power in their favor [bold mine-DL]. Perception matters a great deal in war and the prospect of American support for the insurgency could lead more Syrians to join its ranks while causing some of Assad’s fighters to lose heart.
Think about what Boot is saying here. He says that there is a battle currently underway in Syria that “could be a turning point in the war,” and yet Boot thinks that sending a “signal” with a committee vote could “tilt the balance of power in their favor.” The legislation has not yet been approved, much less signed into law, and the supplies that the bill authorizes wouldn’t reach the “vetted” Syrian opposition groups for at least several more months, but somehow a vote from a Senate committee will change the opposition’s fortunes on the battlefield right now. This is nothing more than magical thinking. Boot writes as if there are actually Syrians that base their political allegiances on how the Foreign Relations Committee votes. It treats “signals” from the U.S. as if they have some powerful rallying effect on the opposition side, when in all likelihood the committee’s vote to approve Menendez-Corker will be met with indifference or scorn by many of the people it is supposed to benefit. Trying to send “signals” to achieve policy goals is a thankless task, since there is no guarantee that the “signal” will be received by the targeted audience as the sender intended, and what may be meant as a gesture of support will sometimes be viewed as nothing more than lip service.
To answer Boot’s question, it’s always possible that Congress could force action on Syria, but that requires most members of Congress to be willing to promote and own an unpopular, risky policy over the objections of the administration. While there is a depressingly large number of members of Congress eager to drag us into Syria’s conflict, it is fortunate that there are probably not enough to force the U.S. to adopt a more aggressive Syria policy.
John Hudson reports on Rand Paul’s reaction to the Foreign Relations Committee’s 15-3 vote to approve the Menendez-Corker Senate legislation that authorizes arming some of the Syrian opposition:
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) blasted members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday, which voted overwhelmingly to arm elements of the Syrian opposition in a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). “This is an important moment,” Paul said, addressing his Senate colleagues. “You will be funding, today, the allies of al Qaeda. It’s an irony you cannot overcome.”
Sen. Paul was one of the three votes against the bill, and he was joined by Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico. It is not surprising that the vote was so lopsidedly in favor of the bill. Not only are the bill’s sponsors the chairman and ranking member of the committee, but very few members are interested in leading the opposition to arming Syrian rebels. Corker has described arming the opposition as essentially symbolic, and because it is one of the less aggressive options available it is bound to encounter less resistance. Menendez-Corker is a bad bill, but it also represents the activism of a “do something” caucus that wants to be seen taking action without committing to anything too risky. The committee’s members can approve the bill in the knowledge that it may never come up for a vote before the whole Senate, and consequently they won’t have to be responsible for the consequences of a bad policy option.
Observers say the bill’s chances of passing in its current form are slim, but it does increase the pressure on the administration to intervene more aggressively.
It’s not clear that this vote puts the administration under any additional pressure. Certainly, a dedicated group of Syria hawks will keep agitating for more aggressive measures, and we can hope that they will continue to be ignored. Nonetheless, the vote is a disturbing sign that the vast majority of the members responsible for Senate oversight on foreign policy is so desperate to entangle the U.S. more deeply in a conflict in which we have nothing significant at stake.
Matt Duss warns against the dangerous appeal of Iran hawks’ simplistic arguments:
You might think that, especially in the light of recent history, preparing for any and all eventualities might be the most prudent course, right? Wrong: Preparing for an Iranian nuclear weapon is simply evidence of a lack of national willpower. “If prevention fails,” Smith wrote, in possibly the best one-sentence distillation of the neoconservative view of foreign policy I’ve ever read, “it is not because Obama is not able to stop Iran, it is because the commander-in-chief has chosen not to.” That’s right, friends: If we fail, it’s only because we didn’t want it badly enough.
It’s easy to mock this sort of thinking. Indeed, we should. But we should also recognize how dangerously attractive the idea that we can create specific outcomes simply through the application of military force remains for many in Washington, especially against an enemy as easily condemned and caricatured as the Islamic Republic of Iran [bold mine-DL].
The main reason that this idea remains so attractive is that it affirms illusions of American omnipotence. Iran hawks assume that prevention will be successful because they can’t or won’t admit that there are things that are not within the control of the U.S. They similarly don’t want to accept that there are things that happen in other countries that the U.S. cannot stop by the use of force or, as they would have it, through sheer force of will. The fixation on willpower and resolve is matched only by a lack of concern for consequences. According to this view, so long as politicians and officials are sufficiently tough-minded in their determination to change Iranian regime behavior, it doesn’t matter what an Iran policy of prevention costs or what adverse effects it may have on the U.S. or the world. This appeals to policymakers and pundits alike for two reasons. First, it flatters the U.S. and those that advocate for an aggressive U.S. role in the world. It also leaves out how a policy of prevention might backfire or go horribly wrong, which makes it much easier to favor “action” (i.e., starting a war) over “doing nothing” (i.e., anything other than starting a war). As Duss notes at the end, the purpose of these appeals to willpower is to rule out everything except a military option. As long as Iran hawks can get away with pretending that this option can “solve” the nuclear issue, there will be far more support for war than there otherwise would be.
Jacob Heilbrunn gives Rand Paul some advice that is likely to be ignored:
But Paul would be wise to put as much distance between himself and these notions. Which is precisely why Paul should join the Council on Foreign Relations and, for good measure, sign on its president Richard N. Haass as an informal adviser.
I would be very surprised if Sen. Paul did this, since I suspect most of his supporters and would-be supporters would not respond well to such a move. Linking himself with Haass might improve Paul’s reputation with other self-described realists, but associating with the CFR would be viewed negatively by many of the conservative activists and voters that he has been cultivating over the last few years. The political problem for Paul is that his most likely supporters have little or no interest in or patience with such organizations and their members, and the people most likely to be impressed by these moves would never support Paul anyway.
Of course, this proposal takes for granted that Haass would want to be associated with Paul, which also seems doubtful at the moment. Haass has gone to great lengths to distinguish his “restoration” doctrine ideas from anything that might be labeled as “isolationism,” which is almost certainly what he thinks Paul’s foreign policy is. So it is very likely that he doesn’t care much for Paul’s views. A New York Times article reported on Republican foreign policy divisions in March, and included this quote from Haass:
“Some of what Rand Paul says resonates,” he said. “Either party that ignores it does so at its peril. On the other hand, one does not simply want to embrace it because it goes too far.”
I assume Haass wouldn’t want to be linked with Sen. Paul because he genuinely thinks Paul “goes too far,” even if he happens to be going in the same general direction as Haass in Foreign Policy Begins at Home.