Daniel Larison

ISIS and the Administration’s Ridiculous Threat Inflation

The administration is once again demonstrating its flair for rhetorical overkill:

Senior Pentagon officials described the Islamic State (Isis) militant group as an “apocalyptic” organisation that posed an “imminent threat” on Thursday, yet the highest ranking officer in the US military said that in the short term, it was sufficient for the United States to “contain” the group that has reshaped the map of Iraq and Syria.

The good news so far is that the administration doesn’t appear to be taking its own rhetoric all that seriously, but the obvious danger is that it will trap itself into taking far more aggressive measures by grossly exaggerating the nature of the threat from ISIS in this way. The truth is that ISIS doesn’t pose an imminent threat to the U.S. and its allies, unless one empties the word imminent of all meaning. Hagel made the preposterous statement today that the group poses an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” That is simply a lie, and a remarkably stupid one at that, and it is the worst kind of fear-mongering. Administration officials are engaged in the most blatant threat inflation with these recent remarks, which is all the more strange since they claim not to favor the aggressive kind of policy that their irresponsible rhetoric supports.

If the group can be contained, as Gen. Dempsey states, then it can be contained indefinitely. If that is the case, then the threat that it poses is a much more manageable one than the other ridiculous claims from administration officials would suggest. On the other hand, if the group “must be destroyed,” as Kerry has said, there is no doubt that the U.S. is going to be sucked into a major military campaign that makes a complete mockery of the original pretense to being a “limited” intervention. The huge mismatch between administration rhetoric and action is hardly unique to this issue. Administration officials have a bad habit of insisting on what “must” happen in another country, but they understandably have no inclination to support the measures that would be required to bring about that outcome. Like it does on so many other issues, the administration wants to have things both ways: it wants to be credited for “action,” but doesn’t want to be faulted for recklessness, and so it pursues a half-baked compromise policy that doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. Unfortunately for the U.S., the result is that the administration is allowing itself to be inexorably pulled in the direction of a larger intervention that the public won’t tolerate and doesn’t serve the American interest.

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The U.S. Must Avoid Escalation in Iraq (II)

Surprising no one at all, the drumbeat for escalation in Iraq continues. Here’s Fred Kaplan:

With his speech on Wednesday condemning ISIS in newly stark, determined language, President Obama now needs to step up his military campaign in equally dramatic fashion.

That does not—and should not—mean sending American ground troops or taking steps that give even the whiff of an American-led war.

Still, Obama described ISIS—the al-Qaida offshoot that now calls itself the Islamic State—in ways that demand further action and will later seem bizarre if they’re followed by merely more of the same.

This is a very familiar argument, but it’s also a very strange one. It is the standard logic of all demands for escalating involvement in a foreign conflict: “you have declared X to be horrible, therefore you must now do more to defeat X.” If we stop to think for a moment, we’ll realize that there is no need for the U.S. to escalate in Iraq, and there are many good reasons not to do this. For one thing, an increased U.S. military effort will inevitably encourage additional demands for further escalation, and that will sooner or later result in sending in more U.S. ground forces. (The idea that there wouldn’t be any “boots on the ground” as part of this mission has already been shown to be a convenient fiction.) As for giving a “whiff” of an American-led war, that has already happened.

The core of Kaplan’s argument is that the president has indulged in some grandiose rhetoric about something genuinely horrible, and so now there is an excuse to increase the U.S. military commitment. Otherwise, the rhetoric will seem “bizarre.” Maybe it will, but how does that justify escalating a military campaign? It doesn’t, and there’s no way that it could.

Here’s Kaplan again:

But the president of the United States can’t talk like this and then do nothing additional to “extract the cancer.”

Yes, of course he could do just that, but by the strange rules of our foreign policy debate he isn’t going to be allowed to do this without coming under constant criticism. If we look again at what Obama said, he was saying that there needed to be a “common effort” from regional governments and peoples to “extract this cancer.” And so there should be, since they are the ones that have by far the most at stake in the conflict. That doesn’t imply that the U.S. needs to take on a larger military role or expand the goals of the current mission. Indeed, the more that the U.S. does for them, the easier it will be for regional governments to avoid bearing the burdens for the region’s security.

The U.S. isn’t required to intensify its supposedly “limited” military campaign because Obama happened to use particularly strong language in a public statement, and it is foolish to insist that the U.S. escalate in Iraq for this or any other reason.

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Why We Don’t Avoid Mission Creep

Benjamin Friedman notes how quickly the new intervention in Iraq has expanded:

Monday, the President again broadened the bombing’s objectives. The airstrikes against ISIS still protect U.S. personnel and serve humanitarian purposes, he said, but now, it seems, those are general goals that ongoing bombing serves. The President also suggested that ISIS is a security threat to the United States. Not for the first time, he said that once the new Iraqi government forms, we will “build up” Iraqi military power against ISIS.

Only the speed of this slide down a slippery slope is surprising.

This is why I said two weeks ago that the intervention would last much longer than originally advertised, and it’s why I said last week that I had no confidence that the administration would avoid expanding the mission in Iraq to include additional goals. Not only has this administration proven in Libya that it will expand the goals of an intervention once it has started, but it is almost impossible in practice to adhere to the original restrictions that are supposed to keep the mission limited in the first place. These are restrictions that the executive pretends to impose on its own behavior, and there is almost no one interested in holding a president accountable for ignoring them.

If anything, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that it is wrong for a president to rule out any option, including the use of ground forces, which means that a president is more likely to come under attack for keeping an intervention “limited” than he is for escalating U.S. involvement. “Limited” intervention isn’t possible for the same reasons that the U.S. so often opts for “doing something” instead of staying out: there is a bias in favor of action in our foreign policy debates, there is excessive confidence in the efficacy of hard power to solve problems, there is no meaningful institutional obstacle in practice to presidential war-making, and the people with the greatest interest in the issue are always overwhelmingly in favor of doing more rather than less.

I have seen arguments that say that Obama is the least likely recent president to “allow” mission creep, but that misses the point entirely. Mission creep doesn’t have to be something that a president wants from the outset, but comes about because of what happens in the conflict after the U.S. joins it. These things tend to take on lives on their own, and once a president starts down the path he is pulled along by both success and failure. All the while, he is urged to “finish the job,” which usually guarantees that the “job” will never be finished because it keeps growing in size. In that way, what starts off as a “limited” intervention keeps growing in ambition until the goals become unrealistic and the U.S. commitment becomes open-ended.

Why does this keep happening? Once a president has committed to using force in a foreign conflict, all of the effective political pressure is on the side of escalation. Having conceded that the U.S. should be involved militarily in a conflict, the president is bombarded with demands for deeper involvement in order to pursue the illusion of victory. If he doesn’t agree to these demands, he will be steadily pilloried in the media until he does, and any adverse development in the affected country will usually be attributed to insufficient American involvement. Since the initial decision to intervene was driven in part by the same sort of pressure, it is more than likely that the president will keep yielding to calls to “do more.”

Once an intervention begins, the politically easier route is to continue it whether it is perceived to be “working” or not, and even if an intervention is perceived as failing there is a perverse incentive in our political culture to throw more resources at the problem and persist in the policy. Politicians from both parties are firmly opposed to admitting that their preferred policy has failed and that the time has come to cut our losses. If the intervention enjoys some initial success, that can be even worse for leading to an expanded mission, since it encourages a president and his allies to become more ambitious in what they hope to accomplish. Eventually, the mission lasts long enough that it is added to the already extraordinarily long list of foreign commitments that the U.S. cannot “walk away” from for fear of lost “credibility,” and the longer the mission lasts and the more that it costs the larger its goals have to be in order to justify the effort that has been made.

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Cameron and Iraq

Alex Massie is unhappy with Cameron on Iraq:

You might think, even nine months from a general election, that foreign policy might be informed by some contemplation of the national interest and that this could be reckoned more important than short-term party political advantage but you would, of course, be mistaken. And, perhaps, depressed.

Even so this is dismal. If this report is accurate it means the Prime Minister thinks there is a right thing to do but that he is not prepared to take any action that might allow him to do the things he thinks are the right thing to do. There’s no advantage in doing so, you see. And so, instead, we will do things the Prime Minister thinks are not the right thing to do. And this will be considered good politics or even some kind of small victory.

Considering how consistently bad Cameron’s judgment on foreign policy has been over the last decade (see Iraq war, Georgia, Libyan war, Syria, etc.), it isn’t such a bad thing that he has been forced once again by fear of public opinion to avoid involving Britain in another conflict. What Cameron thinks the right thing is for Britain on these issues and what has actually been the right thing for Britain have usually not been the same, so it can’t be such a disaster for Britain that he is not able to indulge his hawkish preferences in this instance. Evidently, Cameron learned something from his rebuke over Syria, and it seems that he even learned one right lesson: don’t try to commit Britain to military action that the public strongly opposes. It would be better if Cameron had learned a more substantive lesson that the kind of foreign policy he favors is unwise and dangerous, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen. If the only way to get through to Cameron that the British public won’t support interventionist policies is to make him realize that pushing for them is politically dangerous for him, I suppose that will have to do.

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Outside Intervention and the Syrian Civil War

Lionel Beehner asks the wrong question:

Rather, we should be asking: Is the world back in a 19th century multipolar paradigm, whereby civil wars were primarily fought between pro-democracy versus conservative/monarchist forces, and the latter typically won because their interventions were more robust and one-sided? As Hironaka and some historians (Sperber 2000) find, during 19th century interventions, the side most willing to use greater force was the anti-democratic side (in this case, typically the Concert of Europe).

In the current context, the anti-democratic axis as it were – that is, the Russia’s and Iran’s of this world [sic] – appear more willing to go “all in” to support their “proxies” than their pro-democracy counterparts in the West.

I’m not sure how useful it is to ask this question, since the answer is pretty clearly no. This doesn’t explain civil wars elsewhere in the world, and it doesn’t describe the Syrian civil war very well, either. The conflict in Syria mostly pits one set of authoritarian regional states that happen to be aligned with the U.S. against another set of authoritarian governments. Authoritarian Gulf states and private donors from these countries have had a huge role in funding and supporting anti-regime forces in Syria. It is more than a little strange to compare the side in the conflict supported by conservative Sunni monarchs to that of 19th-century liberal revolutionaries.

Many Westerners would like to see the Syrian civil war in these terms, or as a replaying of the Spanish Civil War for another generation, but this is mostly just projecting Westerners’ preferences onto anti-regime Syrians. It is a mistake to think of contemporary civil wars in terms of some sort of international contest between democracy and authoritarianism, not least because it creates the false impression that the U.S. and its democratic allies have something at stake in these conflicts when we don’t. There are illiberal authoritarians aplenty on both sides in Syria, but there are hardly any democrats of any kind to be found, and that wouldn’t have been changed by a larger commitment of U.S. resources at any point. The ability to provide arms and funding to anti-regime forces has never been in doubt, but skeptics have been absolutely right to doubt the wisdom and desirability providing this aid.

Regarding Beehner’s larger argument, I don’t think the examples from the 19th century prove the point that he wants to make. Yes, there are several examples of outside intervention in the 19th century that show that foreign powers can end civil wars and revolutions through massive use of force, but that was a world in which the great powers cooperated with one another in suppressing opposition to monarchical rule. There was no chance that any of the other great powers would aid the insurgents, because they were all committed to suppressing revolutionaries wherever they appeared. To the extent that the world today is becoming multipolar, the major powers today don’t agree on how to react to popular and armed uprisings. Some actively support the regime faced with rebellion, others don’t commit to either side, and still others support at least some of the rebels to some degree.

The one-sided 19th-century interventions also involved invading the countries in question and siding with the established governments in brutally suppressing rebels, which is a much more aggressive policy than any that has been seriously discussed for Syria. That makes the conflict in Syria more like the post-1945 civil wars than the civil wars and revolutions of the 19th century as far as outside support is concerned, and it suggests that a much larger commitment to arm and support Syrian rebels from the U.S. and its allies would have fueled an even more destructive and prolonged conflict than the one we are seeing now. At the very least, it is extremely doubtful that this would have made the conflict any shorter or less devastating.

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The Radiance of the Father

You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ God,
revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.
Let Your everlasting Light also shine upon us sinners,
through the prayers of the Theotokos.
O Giver of Light, glory to You!

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How Much Does Foreign Policy Rhetoric Matter?

Dan Drezner doubts Beinart’s claim that the public-elite gap on foreign policy is widening because of candidates’ fundraising concerns. He also doesn’t put much stock in anything would-be candidates are saying right now:

This brings me to the final reason that I’m a bit more sanguine than Beinart about recent foreign policy rhetoric: it doesn’t matter all that much. Statements about how one would do things better on the foreign policy front are among the best examples of cheap talk you’ll find in Washington. Why? Because the world will look different in January 2017 than it does today. So of course these proto-candidates can say they’d do things differently. No one will hold them to these claims if they’re elected, because the problems will have evolved.

There is a lot of generic criticism of presidents on foreign policy that can be dismissed this way. Elected members of the opposing party and partisan pundits indulge in this sort of thing all the time. This amounts to little more than pointing at some unfortunate event in the world and pinning it on the president’s “failed leadership.” No one “holds them” to these claims because they aren’t making any real claims that can be judged on their merits. They aren’t proposing an alternative to administration policy, because their purpose is simply to drive up their opponents’ negative ratings and score a few cheap points for their “side.” For the most part, these are exercises in substance-free whining. “If only the president had been strong/competent, this would not be happening, but alas he is so very weak/out of his depth.” This type of criticism may even be identifying a genuine policy failure, but the person making it isn’t interested in explaining what that failure is or in offering a practical recommendation how to fix it. As far as the partisan critic is concerned, that’s someone else’s job.

Would-be candidates often start out by making similarly vacuous criticisms before moving on to offering a bit more substance. However, their statements matter more because they are using these statements to audition for other party actors and to find out which messages are appealing and which fall flat. When a would-be candidate’s statements elicit strong reactions within and outside their party, they are likely to matter even more.

Consider the Clinton interview from last week. The extent of her foreign policy differences with Obama can be exaggerated, but the differences have always been there, and Clinton used that interview to emphasize some of them. Because everyone assumes that she will be a candidate, it does seem significant that she chose to take fairly specific hard-line positions on Iran and Israel when asked about them. This wasn’t the safe, meaningless rhetoric that one might normally associate with a would-be candidate, but involved taking very specific and–for many Democrats–alarming positions. Since the message was so sharply at odds with what a large part of her party believes on these issues, I don’t think we can dismiss it as cheap talk. She may have been pandering to hawkish donors, or she may have simply been expressing long-held views, or both, but those statements do tell us something important about the kind of foreign policy we can expect from a future Clinton administration. The world will be different by the time the 2016 campaign take places, but Clinton has reconfirmed that her hawkish foreign policy inclinations remain unchanged.

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There Is Still No Foreign Policy “Paradox”

Roger Cohen once again repeats a tiresome argument:

Yet many seem to feel Obama is selling the nation short. They want a president to lead, not be a mere conduit for their sentiments. Americans, as citizens of a nation that represents an idea, are optimistic by nature. It may be true that there is no good outcome in Syria, and certainly no easy one. It may be that Egyptian democracy had to be stillborn. It may be that Vladimir Putin annexes Crimea because he can. Still, Americans do not like the message that it makes sense to pull back and let the world do its worst.

This is another variant on the silly idea that there is a “paradox” in the public’s attitudes on foreign policy. According to this story, Obama has given Americans the foreign policy they say they want, but they now disapprove of Obama’s foreign policy, so we’re supposed to believe that there is a “strange duality” at work. Instead of coming to the much more straightforward conclusion that Obama is not giving Americans the foreign policy they want (and that his foreign policy is still too activist and meddlesome), elite interventionists of different stripes engage in a lot of groundless speculation that the public actually wants the same things that the interventionists themselves want. It’s not obvious that most Americans “want a president to lead” in this case. The obsession with such “leadership” is primarily one shared by elites, and their idea of “leadership” requires a degree of U.S. activism overseas that the public hasn’t supported for years. The public-elite gap on foreign policy has rarely been wider than it is now because most Americans have no real interest in the “leadership” role for the U.S. or the president that foreign policy elites demand.

The public’s views on these issues aren’t hard to figure out. There is a general aversion to major U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts, and a clear preference to stay out of these conflicts wherever possible. When there is some support for ostensibly “limited” military action in certain cases, this is accompanied by worries that “limited” action will lead to too much unwanted involvement in the future:

Partisan Views of U.S. Actions in Iraq

These results don’t suggest a public that is worried about the president “selling the nation short.” On the contrary, there appears to be much more concern that the president’s decision will lead to a much more extensive and long-term commitment in Iraq than most Americans want the U.S. to have. I suspect most Americans would be pleased to hear that “it makes sense to pull back,” but no one in Washington is sending them that message.

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On “Organizing Principles” and Ideology

Christopher Preble points out that having an “organizing principle” for foreign policy isn’t obviously desirable:

Beyond that crucial vote, however, Clinton’s comments to Goldberg represent the essence of the hawks’ critique: a big, important country like the United States needs an organizing principle, she explained, and “don’t do stupid [stuff]” doesn’t suffice.

This is a debatable point. An organizing principle isn’t necessarily superior to ad hocery. Many organizing principles have turned out to be flawed or immoral, or both (e.g. imperialism, racism, communism, totalitarianism, the list goes on).

Weighing the evidence on a case by case basis, and making judgments based on the specific circumstances that prevail at that particular moment, can work rather well. An organizing principle — some might call it ideology — might cloud rather than clarify one’s assessment of the facts, and the prudent courses of action.

Preble is right about this, but I think this can be put even more strongly. It is usually the case that an “organizing principle” for foreign policy compels people to simplify and reduce problems overseas so that they will fit the worldview that the principle is supposed to express. For that reason, it isn’t just that this can potentially distort how our government sees things, but it virtually guarantees that it will. When the U.S. was pursuing a policy of global containment, that often caused Americans to downplay or ignore local conditions and national differences because of a mistaken belief in a monolithic communist threat. To the extent that the U.S. has subordinated its other foreign policy goals to the “war on terror,” that has had a serious distorting effect on how we assess foreign threats and how our government has chosen to react to them. This has led to the conflation (and inflation) of different kinds of threats and the imagining of cooperation between mutually hostile forces. The phony pre-invasion claim that Hussein and Al Qaeda were working together is just the most obvious example of this, but this is the sort of nonsense that comes from trying to force a variety of foreign enemies and rivals into a single overarching scheme.

When a government embraces an “organizing principle” in its foreign policy, there is also a temptation to assume that other states must be doing the same thing. This can lead Americans to view manageable tensions and disagreements with other major powers as non-negotiable ideological clashes, which can in turn inspire misguided demands for new policies of containment directed against those powers. Insisting on having an “organizing principle” in foreign policy seems almost inextricable from the desire to find a new global ideological struggle for the U.S. to be engaged in, and that requires foreign policy activism and interference abroad that have no obvious or direct connection to the interests of the United States.

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2014 Campaigns Are Ignoring Foreign Policy

This year’s Senate campaigns have largely ignored foreign policy issues:

But you’d get no hint of all that from listening to the 2014 midterm election campaign ads. In ads for the eight most competitive Senate races this year, international issues go almost unmentioned, according to a recent study of Senate campaign ads through the end of July by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.

That’s not a total shock because rarely do congressional elections hinge on foreign affairs. But the home-state focus of this year’s campaigns seems especially parochial at a time when international crises have risen dramatically in prominence and the world order is being upended in so many places.

This is even less surprising than the article makes it out to be. For one thing, “the world order” isn’t being “upended” in many places at all. What we have been seeing over the last year is a lot of hyperventilating and panic about the crumbling of “world order” out of all proportion to what has been happening. There are a few significant and destabilizing conflicts in the world, but the danger to “world order” from all of them has been grossly overstated. So it makes a certain amount of sense that candidates aren’t trying to make hay out of these conflicts. A more important factor is the public’s fatigue with foreign crises. Not only are foreign policy issues not a priority for most Americans, but when they are asked what role they think the U.S. should have in these conflicts they are more likely to favor neutrality or non-involvement than any other option. The campaigns are reflecting the public’s lack of interest in these issues and their opposition to involvement in these crises by paying as little attention to them as possible. There is not much incentive to demagogue a foreign crisis when most voters don’t want to hear about it and don’t think that the U.S. should be involved in it anyway. There is likewise no incentive to take many specific positions on issues that aren’t going to sway voters one way or the other.

One downside of this neglect during the election campaign is that candidates with very hawkish views are able to get through the campaign without having to justify their positions to the voters, and that probably allows some hawkish candidates to get elected easily when they might have a harder time if they had to defend specific policy commitments. It is also undesirable for all competitive Senate races to pay so little attention to these issues, since the new senators will have some role in shaping U.S. foreign policy in years to come. The less attention that foreign policy receives during the campaign, the easier it is for Republicans to gain control of the Senate without having to alter their hawkish views, and the easier it will be for the GOP to continue denying that its current foreign policy is a major weakness.

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