Daniel Larison

Why “Speaking Out” About Foreign Protests Is So Often a Mistake

James Fallows agrees with Benjamin Carlson’s case for why the U.S. should keep quiet about the protests in Hong Kong:

Why does this matter? Because I am already anticipating the wave of op-ed columns and grumblings on the weekend talk shows about this latest case of Obama’s “weakness” or “passivity” or reliance on “leading from behind.” Anyone who encourages him to get in the middle of this reveals both ignorance of China and indifference to the consequences there [bold mine-DL].

Obviously, I think Fallows and Carlson are correct. It’s this last point in the quote from Fallows that can’t be emphasized enough: people that demand that the U.S. government side with protesters in Hong Kong or in other parts of the world are typically indifferent to the consequences of what they’re demanding. If they weren’t, they would not insist on a course of action that is almost certain to undermine and harm the people that they claim they’re helping. The real trouble with such demands isn’t just that they’re heedless of consequences, but that they are being made mostly as a way of affirming a belief in American “leadership” that has nothing to do with the well-being of any group of dissidents or protesters anywhere in the world. At best, it is a short-sighted indulgence in the beliefs that the U.S. has to “lead” in response to every event around the world and that its “leadership” will be beneficial and welcome. At its worst, it is an exercise in using the people in a foreign political movement to make an unrelated point about how important and necessary they think the U.S. is to the rest of the world.

Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, doesn’t understand any of this, and sent a complaint to the Chinese government about its handling of the protests so far. Predictably, his complaints achieved nothing and earned a rebuke from the Chinese government:

“Hong Kong affairs fall entirely within China’s internal affairs,” Chinese Embassy spokesman Geng Shuang told Foreign Policy. “We hope that some countries and people can be prudent in their words and deeds, refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Hong Kong in any way, do not support the illegal activities such as the ‘Occupy Central,’ and do not send any wrong signals.”

This one of the many problems with demanding that the U.S. “send signals” to other states. The signal that interventionists think the U.S. is sending is not necessarily the one that will be received, and even when it is the other government’s reaction is typically not the one that the interventionists expect. Instead of being impressed by a “tough” or “strong” response, the other government usually becomes more combative, less accommodating, and more inclined to view the entire situation–whatever it happens to be–as part of some U.S. plot. This last part usually gives Washington far too much credit for advance planning and competence, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that U.S. involvement in a crisis usually provides a very useful distraction from its own mistakes and excesses, and it helps to confuse matters by taking a dispute between a government and some of the people under its rule and turning it into something else. This may make a few American pundits and editorial writers feel better, but it isn’t going to do a thing for anyone else.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 9 comments

Why the U.S. Should Stay Quiet About Hong Kong

As if on cue, the Post demands that Obama “send a message” to China about the protests in Hong Kong:

Beijing, however, has not acted yet; police in Hong Kong backed off on Monday and Tuesday after their use of tear gas over the weekend brought more people to the streets [bold mine-DL]. Chinese authorities probably are weighing the risks of allowing the street occupations to continue against those of initiating a crackdown. That makes this a crucial moment for the United States to send a clear message to Mr. Xi: that repression is unacceptable and will damage China’s relations with the democratic world.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s response so far has been gallingly timid.

In other words, the situation might still be resolved peacefully, so now is the time for Americans to start meddling. This is exactly the sort of tense, potentially explosive situation in another country that the administration shouldn’t be talking about publicly. It would be appropriate for the administration to convey its concerns to Beijing through diplomatic channels, and perhaps they have already been doing this, but there is absolutely no need for public declarations or “explicit support” for the protesters. How could that benefit the protesters? The Post doesn’t even pretend that it would. As ever, the desire to have our government “speak out” in support of foreign protesters trumps all other considerations. It’s not as if Beijing will react well to be warned by Washington about how it conducts its own affairs. We know very well that the Chinese government reacts angrily to any hint of foreign interference in their internal politics. Indeed, there are few governments in the world less likely to respond well to statements from U.S. officials about its internal affairs than the Chinese government.

“Sending a message” publicly could expose the protesters to more charges of working for foreign powers. It could make them even easier targets for nationalist hostility. It could make the authorities less inclined to back down from confrontation if they think that by doing so they will appear to be caving in to foreign demands. If the U.S. is to do anything in response to these protests, it must not say or do anything that would offer Chinese authorities even the slightest pretext for a crackdown. If that means that U.S. officials refrain from offering self-indulgent commentary on the protests, then that is what ought to be done.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 3 comments

Obama’s Careless Rhetoric and U.S. “Indispensability”

Nikolas Gvosdev comments on the continuing mismatch between the Obama administration’s rhetoric and its actions:

Part of the problem is the whiplash that is generated when U.S. statements are considered together in their entirety. A crisis in some part of the world is first described as a present or future major threat to the U.S. requiring decisive action. But then all sorts of limitations on what the U.S. is prepared to do are loudly trumpeted to the American people: no direct U.S. involvement or “boots on the ground,” only indirect support and “leading from behind.” Meanwhile someone else is expected to take to the front lines to deal with the impending crisis.

However, we no longer live in a media world strictly segmented into “domestic” and “international” messages. Senior U.S. officials often use platforms to make statements intended for internal consumption, yet these messages can be just as easily accessed and processed by non-American audiences. When a sound bite is made that suggests that a particular policy is about increasing exports and keeping American workers employed, or that the U.S. has no intention of putting its own ground forces in harm’s way to deal with a particular security challenge, it generally finds its way into the international media environment. Foreign governments then question why U.S. leaders insist that a particular problem is so urgent, yet seem unwilling to commit American blood or treasure to the enterprise. This, in turn, leads to reluctance on the part of allies or partners to make large commitments of their own.

Some of this confusion results from the administration’s attempts to placate the people in Washington demanding “action” while simultaneously reassuring a much more skeptical public that the “action” will have some well-defined limits. The public doesn’t believe these assurances for good reason, and the attempt to place even temporary limits on an intervention encourages politicians and pundits in Washington to start agitating for more aggressive measures. Allies and clients will choose to give more weight to one or the other of these messages, but they will also be ready to use the message intended for the Washington crowd to try to extract a larger U.S. commitment than the administration is prepared to make. Hawkish members of Congress will be only too glad to cooperate in pressuring the administration into a larger commitment, and thanks to careless rhetoric from Obama and his officials the administration will find itself gradually being trapped into making that larger commitment.

This is why it is especially unfortunate that Obama feels compelled to reiterate how indispensable the U.S. is. He may really believe this or not, but he keeps saying it so often because he knows that is what interventionists in D.C. and allied and client governments want to hear him say. Whenever he says something like this, as he did again in his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, he is telling hawkish critics at home that he accepts their assumptions about the necessity and desirability of U.S. “leadership” expressed through military action, and he is confirming to allies and clients that the U.S. will be doing most or all of the heavy lifting. That doesn’t happen because the U.S. has to do these things, but because the administration keeps choosing to do them, and it chooses to do them at least partly to stop allies and clients from whining and to deprive hawkish critics of a talking point.

Gvosdev offers some suggestions on how to avoid falling into this trap. Here is one that I fully endorse:

First, the Obama team must become much more comfortable with “not commenting” on developments, accepting the inevitable short-term slings of pundits and political opponents in the domestic media as a price for retaining greater maneuverability on the world stage.

Obama would like have saved himself an enormous amount of grief over the years if he and his officials didn’t quickly respond to foreign events and crises with statements that seem to commit the U.S. to a certain outcome or that pass judgment on the legitimacy of foreign governments. Obama and other U.S. officials need to get out of the habit of issuing imperatives and ultimatums in their public statements, which have been casually thrown around in many of the more significant crises of the last few years. If the U.S. has no real intention of trying to compel another government to do certain things (and it is often wise not to try), the president and other officials shouldn’t be declaring publicly what that government “must” do. More often than not, the other government will correctly view this as a demand that won’t be backed up by anything and will act as it likes. That then puts the administration in the ridiculous position of trying to play catch up and to make good on an implied threat that it should never have made. This is all the more indefensible when the administration seems to be making these demands largely to prove to its domestic hawkish critics that it is responding to a crisis with “strength.” Inevitably, the hawkish critics are never satisfied, and then the U.S. is stuck with rhetorical commitments that no one in the administration seriously thought through because they were intended as throwaway lines for the benefit of domestic consumption.

Posted in , . Tagged , . 13 comments

Public Opinion and the War Against ISIS

Kevin Drum overstates the public’s enthusiasm for foreign wars:

It’s like we’ve learned nothing from the past decade. Our politicians are in love with war. The public is in love with war. And the press is really in love with war. It just never ends.

Drum isn’t that far wrong about most politicians and most of the press, but I don’t see much evidence that the public is “in love” with war. Yes, there is currently majority support for the administration’s decision to attack ISIS from the air, but there is reason to believe that this support is shallow and likely to evaporate as the war drags on. According to at least one survey, most Americans also consider ISIS to be a “very serious” or “fairly serious” threat to the U.S., and that simply isn’t true. This false belief has inflated public support for action against ISIS, and that is going to wear off over time. Far from being “in love” with war, a better way to think of the public’s reaction is that they have been whipped into a panic about a vastly exaggerated threat by irresponsible fear-mongers. Most Americans support the current intervention because they wrongly think it is necessary for U.S. security, and they have been encouraged in that wrong view by their sorry excuse for political leaders.

The framing of the question about support for the war also makes a significant difference. When the war is described as “air strikes conducted by
the United States and its Western European and Arab allies,” 73% say they support it. When the war is described as if “the U.S. were conducting those air strikes alone,” support drops dramatically to 50% and opposition jumps up to 49%. In other words, the window dressing of allied and client participation causes many Americans to support a policy that they would otherwise oppose if it were being carried out solely by U.S. forces. That tells me that many of the war’s supporters aren’t interested in a new war in which the U.S. bears a disproportionate share of the costs, and whatever support there is for the new war isn’t very deep at all. As it becomes clear that the “broad coalition” organized against ISIS is mostly for show, that support is going to start to disappear. That isn’t the description of a country “in love” with waging war. It suggests that there is a willingness to accept military action so long as the costs are shared by a lot of other countries and the U.S. doesn’t have to do almost all of the work, but that doesn’t describe the current war very well at all.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 7 comments

Another Foreign Protest, Another Pointless Demand That the U.S. “Speak Out”

Andrew Peek makes a predictable and unwise demand:

President Obama must speak out publicly in support of the demonstrators in Hong Kong, and the sooner the better.

There’s not really any reason why Obama must do this. Peek would like him to do it, but if Obama doesn’t it isn’t going to matter. On the other hand, if Obama did “speak out” about the protests in Hong Kong, there are several undesirable things that could happen. It would feed into the Chinese government’s paranoia about outside interference in its internal affairs. It would probably undermine the protesters by associating them with interference from outside governments, which Chinese nationalists would probably be more than happy to exploit to the detriment of the protesters. Doing this could also potentially make it harder for Beijing to make concessions to the protesters by inserting the U.S. into an internal dispute. Finally, it would inevitably harm U.S.-Chinese relations at least for the short term, and it could fuel a backlash against all things American in China. There is no likely scenario in which having the president “speak out” about these protests would benefit the protesters or make it more likely that their demands would be granted. At best, it would be a vain gesture on the part of our government, and at worst it could do real harm to the protesters and their cause.

Bizarrely, Peek believes that the U.S. must “manage the tricky question of Chinese nationalism,” and the way he thinks that the U.S. should do that is by siding with protesters that many Chinese nationalists are likely to view with suspicion and distrust. This would not “manage” Chinese nationalism so much as inflame it. Peek imagines that by supporting and encouraging civil society that Chinese nationalism might somehow be moderated, but that gets everything backwards. Democratizing countries with strong nationalist traditions will tend to become even more enthusiastically and brazenly nationalist and majoritarian in the near term, so the remedy that Peek proposes will very likely make the problem he wants to fix worse than it already is.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 11 comments

Most Americans Aren’t Hawks

Aaron Blake comments on a new CNN poll that asks Americans to identify themselves as hawks or doves:

Overall, it’s close, with 50 percent picking the doves and 45 percent picking the hawks.

Among Republicans, though, it is decidedly not close. About seven in 10 (69 percent) say they are hawks, while just one-quarter (25 percent) side with the doves.

The definition offered for being a hawk is someone “who believes that military force should be used frequently to promote U.S. policy.” Doves are those that “the U.S. should rarely or never use military force.” It isn’t exactly news that the GOP is the disproportionately hawkish party. Even without the definition that the poll offers, I assume a huge majority of Republicans would identify as hawks because this is ingrained in Republicans’ view of what distinguishes their party from Democrats, and because it has been the default position for most people in the GOP for a very long time.

Blake concludes from this that most of the GOP isn’t going to respond favorably to a Paul candidacy, and he could be right, but then that takes for granted that Paul really is a dove and is perceived that way. As we saw in a different survey, the hawkishness or dovishness of a possible candidate is not always clear to voters, and the preferences of hawkish and dovish voters seem to match up closely with their partisan leanings. That is why most doves end up supporting the reliably hawkish Clinton in a match-up against Paul. That’s not because Clinton is a dove (she certainly isn’t), and she isn’t widely perceived as a dove, but most doves prefer her anyway for other reasons, which is one more reason why they won’t get the foreign policy that they say they want.

The CNN poll itself shows how confused people can be about these categories. 65% label Obama as a dove, and that is simply wrong according to the definition that the poll offers. The U.S. has been at war every day that Obama has been president, and Obama has initiated two wars on his own authority and very nearly started another one last summer. Obama may be relatively less hawkish than some other politicians in Washington, but that doesn’t make him a dove or anything close to it. This is a case of too many people believing what Obama’s fans and opponents say about him instead of paying attention to what Obama has done while in office. This is why there has been a flurry of articles recently claiming that Obama is a “reluctant hawk.” Looking back on the multiple wars that Obama has escalated or started in the last five years, one can only wonder and shudder in horror at what a truly eager hawk would have done.

The most interesting result is that the hawks are in the minority overall and have been consistently for most of the last decade. Previous polls asking this same question found that those identifying as hawks always account for 44 or 45% of the respondents. I imagine that some hawks will complain that the definition of their position paints them unfairly as people that constantly want to use force around the world, but then that is the position that most hawks take. That is what hawkishness means in practice, and most Americans don’t identify with that.

There was another result from the poll that deserves a brief comment. The respondents were asked if they thought “the United States should or should not take the leading role among all other countries in the world in trying to solve international problems,” and 58% said that the U.S. shouldn’t do this. Just 39% said that the U.S. should. Most Americans don’t identify with a hawkish view, and even more of them don’t buy into the global “leadership” role that their leaders, including Obama, keep trying to foist on them. That suggests that most Americans are inclined to favor a less active, less militarized U.S. role in the world and would probably be supportive of a more dovish candidate if one were available.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 13 comments

Why the Public Expects Escalation in Iraq and Syria

Seth Cropsey notes that the public doesn’t believe Obama’s claim that American forces won’t be involved in combat in Iraq and Syria:

Yet many Americans are skeptical, judging by the new NBC/Wall Street Journal/Annenberg poll showing that 72% of registered voters believe that U.S. troops will eventually be deployed. Perhaps Americans have been listening to some of the president’s senior military advisers and several retired senior officers and have decided that their expert opinions sound more realistic.

It is more likely that Americans expect that U.S. forces will end up fighting a ground war in these countries because recent experience has taught them that this is often what happens with wars of choice. For that matter, Obama’s assurances that this won’t happen can’t be very meaningful at this point. Just a few months ago, he was assuring us that the U.S. wouldn’t be drawn back into a war in Iraq, and when the bombing began in Iraq the administration claimed that it would not be the start of a “sustained campaign.” Before that, Obama had made U.S. withdrawal from its ongoing foreign wars the leitmotif of his foreign policy rhetoric. Now that he has committed the U.S. to a new war in the same region, and he and his officials are now boasting that the campaign will be a sustained one that will take years, so it is little wonder that few people believe him when he says there will be no “boots on the ground.”

Meanwhile, it doesn’t taken much in the way of expertise to guess that a war ostensibly dedicated to “destroying” ISIS in two countries isn’t going to be successful on its own terms by relying on a few “moderate” Syrian rebels, Kurdish militias, and an Iraqi army whose failures made ISIS’ expansion in Iraq possible. The fact that the public expects this to happen doesn’t mean that most Americans want it to happen. Opposition to having Americans fighting this war on the ground is as strong as ever, but the gap between the administration’s rhetoric about the war’s goals and the means that they are using to achieve them is so large and obvious that it would be very hard not to see it.

The administration could close this gap by redefining its war aims, and it could acknowledge that expanding the war into Syria was an error, but neither of these is likely to happen. Each time he had a choice about how to proceed in Iraq and Syria this year, Obama has chosen to expand this intervention’s goals after claiming the action would be “limited” and to escalate U.S. involvement after he had said that there wouldn’t be any. The public can see that Obama has yielded to pressure for escalation in the past, and they reasonably assume that he will do so again.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 8 comments

Cruz’s Reckless Foreign Policy

Perhaps the most worrisome thing about Ted Cruz is that he now bizarrely thinks foreign policy is his strong suit:

Indeed, ever since he played an instrumental role in last year’s government shutdown, Cruz has narrowed his agenda to focus on international affairs, both as an avenue to raise his profile among GOP donors and to pivot away from his reputation as a conservative kamikaze bent on wreaking havoc inside the halls of Congress [bold mine-DL].

That’s good thinking on Cruz’s part. It’s much better to be known as a hard-line kamikaze bent on wreaking havoc all over the world instead. The interesting thing about this report is that Cruz has largely confirmed the description of his foreign policy that I offered last week: “shoot first and don’t ask any questions.” This is his position in his own words:

“If and when military action is called for, it should be A) with a clearly defined military objective, B) executed with overwhelming force, and C) when we’re done we should get the heck out,” he said.

By his own admission, Cruz is quite open to using force, he wants that force to be “overwhelming,” and he doesn’t want to give the slightest thought to the aftermath. As I said, it is an approach best described as “killing lots of people and then going home.” Apart from being overly reliant on military solutions and oblivious to the consequences of war, the problem with this is that he offers no good definition of what it means to say “when we’re done.” Cruz presents his position as if it were a repudiation of costly, prolonged military intervention, but that is not the case. His preferred approach would create the conditions that would virtually guarantee a long-term U.S. commitment in the countries that he wants to attack. The fact that he can’t or won’t acknowledge this just makes his position that much worse. If Cruz thinks this is the “sweet spot” on foreign policy, he will be sorely disappointed. Conservatives that are interested in a sane, restrained, and responsible foreign policy shouldn’t be taken in by what he has to say.

Posted in , . Tagged . 6 comments

Georgia and the War Against ISIS

Anna Nemtsova follows up on an earlier report about a Georgian offer to host a training facility for members of the Syrian opposition as part of the war against ISIS. As soon as the proposal was reported, Georgian officials were quick to disavow it for obvious reasons:

By helping out American forces in the war against both ISIS and Assad, former deputy defense minister Nodar Kharshiladze told The Daily Beast on Thursday, Georgia “automatically becomes a target for Islamist organizations” and raises the dangerous ire of the pro-Assad Kremlin.

When I first read about this proposal, I couldn’t see what Georgia could hope to gain from it. As I said at the time, it seemed like a lose-lose proposition. Georgia takes an unnecessary risk by aligning itself openly with anti-regime forces in a civil war that has nothing to do with Georgian security, thus exposing itself to possible reprisals from jihadists and interference from Russia, and it stands to receive nothing in return. Georgia has already contributed disproportionately to U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the vain hope of currying favor with Washington, but this was never going to produce the results that the Georgian government wanted. It makes no sense for Georgia to repeat that mistake by joining in the latest U.S. war effort when this will just make the country more of a target.

Western governments have consistently misled Georgia to expect that their real contributions and sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan would help to advance its aspirations to join NATO, and that has encouraged the Georgian government to make commitments that make no sense for their country. Georgia keeps being led on with the false promise that someday these contributions will be rewarded with meaningful commitments from the U.S. and NATO, but that isn’t going to happen. It is long past time that Western governments started telling Georgia the truth that no matter how much it contributes to these war efforts it is not going to acquire the support that it seeks.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , . 6 comments

“Moderate” Rebels Protest U.S. Strikes in Syria

Many groups belonging to the “moderate” Syrian opposition have denounced U.S. strikes in Syria, especially those that have targeted members of Jabhat al-Nusra, the organization affiliated with Al Qaeda that is on the State Department’s official terrorist list:

On Tuesday, nearly a dozen of the FSA’s most powerful groups signed a declaration denouncing the strikes, demanding they target the Syrian regime, too [bold mine-DL]. In a heated meeting with the Syrian opposition in Istanbul Thursday, U.S. officials demanded an explanation for the statement condemning the American-led coalition, an opposition official said.

“They said ‘friends don’t speak against friends,’ ” said an opposition official with knowledge of the meeting. “We told them, ‘true friendship means coordination.’” The meeting was confirmed by a second opposition official.

It’s not surprising that opposition groups are unhappy with the way that the U.S. is fighting this war so far. After all, their primary adversary is the Syrian government, and so far the U.S. isn’t attacking regime forces. They see the U.S. intervening directly in the civil war after years of not doing so, and they are predictably displeased that the U.S. is targeting other anti-regime groups along with ISIS.

The opposition complaints are revealing. The “moderate” opposition that the U.S. is foolishly arming and training doesn’t have the same priorities as the U.S. in this conflict (and there was never any reason to think that it would). Many groups in the FSA are opposed to and offended by military action against a jihadist group that the U.S. correctly views as a terrorist organization. That ought to be the latest in a series of flashing warning signs that the U.S. has absolutely nothing to gain in backing such “moderates.” Friends might not “speak against” friends, but it’s long past time that we realized that the U.S. doesn’t have friends–or even useful proxies–in the Syrian conflict. It is yet another reason to doubt the wisdom of expanding the ISIS war into Syria, and by extension it is another reason to doubt the wisdom of the intervention in its entirety.

Supporters of expanding the war against ISIS into Syria seem to assume that “moderate” rebels will pursue Washington’s goals, but that isn’t going to happen. Like any proxy group, the “moderate” opposition was always going to pursue its own agenda, and there was never going to be much that the U.S. could do about this, especially when it was so intent on trying to “shape” events. These opposition protests confirm what opponents of arming Syrian rebels have taken for granted from the start: providing arms to rebels isn’t going to gain the U.S. the influence or control that Syria hawks want, and the belief that the U.S. can build up a “moderate” alternative to both the regime and jihadists has always been a fantasy. As these protests remind us, many “moderate” rebels don’t consider Jabhat al-Nusra and similar groups to be their enemy, but they do predictably view the group as their ally against Assad. That underscores just how absurd the preoccupation with identifying “moderate” rebels in a brutal civil war has been from the start. It is a label created to evade the underlying problem with taking the anti-regime side in Syria’s civil war, which is that it puts the U.S. in league with jihadists or the allies of jihadists.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 12 comments
← Older posts