Daniel Larison

The Mirage of “Nation-Building”

Paul Miller takes an unpersuasive swipe at Rand Paul:

What if “nation building” is the best or only means available to “extend the blessings of freedom” to a country like Afghanistan? Which is more important, “spreading the blessings of freedom,” or avoiding nation building at all costs?

The correct answer is that the latter is obviously more important for the United States. The former might be desirable in some cases if it were possible, but the U.S. has just spent more than a decade confirming that our government doesn’t know how to do this. U.S. “nation-building” has such a sorry record for the simple reason that no outside government could succeed in an effort to design and impose a new system of government on another people whose culture and society we don’t understand very well. If U.S. security depended on “nation-building,” we would be in some serious trouble. Fortunately, it doesn’t. It is a wasteful, optional exercise on the part of our government that shouldn’t be repeated in the future. Nowhere that the U.S. attempted “nation-building” in the last fifty years have we seen an extension of the “blessings of freedom” to anyone. These efforts have been good at empowering local dictators, but other than that they have been truly useless. If there were the slightest evidence that the U.S. knew how to “nation-build” successfully, Miller’s objection might have some merit, but everything points to the futility of outside “nation-building” efforts by the U.S. in countries that it poorly understands. If the choice is between Miller’s endorsement of “nation-building” and Paul’s rejection of it, there’s no question that most Republicans and most Americans will prefer the latter every time.

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The U.S. and Israel: Don’t Call It a Crisis

Dan Josephson / shutterstock

Paul Pillar dismisses talk of a U.S.-Israeli “crisis”:

The only reason the term crisis comes up regarding U.S.-Israeli relations is the fictional, deliberately inflated view of the relationship as something qualitatively different that ought to defy any of the usual rules that apply to any patron and client or to any bilateral relationship. Sweep aside the politically-driven fiction about two countries that supposedly have everything in common and nothing in conflict and instead deal with reality, and the concept of crisis does not arise at all. What you have instead is a bilateral relationship that is like many others the United States has, with some parallel interests and objectives along with other objectives that diverge—sometimes sharply—and with honest recognition of the latter being a normal part of business.

This is the problem that crops up whenever an ordinary relationship between two states is turned into a “special” one. In order to maintain the fiction of the “special” relationship, it becomes necessary to pretend that the two states’ interests converge on almost everything and that the relationship is exceptionally important and “unshakeable.” This obscures the extent to which the two states’ interests diverge quite often, and it allows hard-line supporters of the “special” relationship here in the U.S. to portray the normal quarrels and disagreements between governments as a disaster. Of course, it is something of a disaster for those that want it to be exempt from the rules that govern all other bilateral relationships, which can only mean that it is a healthy development towards a more normal and balanced relationship between the patron and its client. Insofar as the latest episode helps to show how imbalanced and one-sided that relationship is and how little it benefits the U.S., it has brought having a normal and constructive relationship in the future a little bit closer.

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Paul and the War Against ISIS

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Rand Paul talks to Reason about “conservative realism” and his support for the war against ISIS:

I see the airstrikes really as defending vital American interests, and that would be our embassy in Baghdad as well as our consulate in Erbil.

It is hard to see how this is a vital interest. While it may be preferable to keep these posts open and functioning, the U.S. wouldn’t suffer significantly from having them evacuated and shut for some period of time. If a host government is incapable of protecting our embassies and consulates against its internal enemies, that isn’t an argument for taking sides in that country’s civil war. Paul presumably wouldn’t argue that the U.S. should have resumed military operations in Libya in the name of defending the embassy in Tripoli. That embassy was quite appropriately evacuated earlier this year amid the worsening violence in that country. That doesn’t seem to have harmed U.S. vital interests, and it’s not clear why doing something similar in Iraq would have been worse than committing the U.S. to a new military campaign.

Besides, the expansion of the bombing campaign into Syria has nothing to do with defending U.S. personnel or installations. Sen. Paul is still talking about the war against ISIS as if it were still the ostensibly “limited” and defensive operation that Obama claimed it would be at the beginning. It has become something far more ambitious in the last three months, so it’s no longer sufficient to use the original justifications for the “limited” intervention in Iraq to explain support for the open-ended campaign in Iraq and Syria that has been going on for weeks.

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Is There a Point to Publicizing U.S.-Israel Tensions?

John Allen Gay wonders what purpose has been served by statements from anonymous administration officials directed against Israeli politicians:

What does the Obama administration hope to accomplish by trashing Israel in the press? This is the most important question after an apparently coordinated wave of anonymous quotes welled up in Tuesday’s press. Relations with Israel have steadily worsened over the course of Obama’s presidency, and little of what was said was out of step with some views being expressed in broader policy circles. But why say it, and why now?

I don’t know what people inside the administration are thinking, but my guess is that the White House and State Department are fed up with the gratuitous abuse and insults they’ve been subjected to in recent months and they want their displeasure made known to as many people as possible. Why does anyone give negative quotes to journalists about other politicians if not to hurt their reputations and shift blame onto them for whatever has happened? Presumably administration officials are saying these things to reporters now because their superiors no longer care if these views are publicly known, and those superiors no longer care because they have decided that they can’t work constructively with the current Israeli leadership.

Is this a smart thing to do? That depends on what Obama hopes to do in the remaining two years on issues related to Israel. If he has (correctly) concluded that there can be no progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the time left to him, and if he now realizes that the Israeli government is implacable on the most contentious issues related to the conflict, he may want to try causing Netanyahu some political headaches of his own. As widely disliked as Obama is personally in Israel, it is not good for Netanyahu politically if he is perceived as having badly damaged the relationship with Washington. Especially because Netanyahu claims to have a special understanding of how to influence the U.S., he is potentially more vulnerable to charges that he is botching things. The goal may not be so much to “topple” Netanyahu (and Gay is right to think this isn’t going to happen) as it is simply to repay him in kind for his obvious attempts to interfere in our politics on behalf of Romney ahead of the 2012 election. Now that there is no chance that the defunct peace process is going anywhere in the foreseeable future, Obama and his officials may have decided that this was the time to air their disagreements and frustration with Netanyahu and his ministers.

Gay makes a fair point that launching into a public row with Israel could complicate the negotiations with Iran. That’s possible, but the administration may assume that it is going to bypass Congress on the nuclear deal anyway so that this doesn’t matter as much. More to the point, Netanyahu already made his opposition to the interim deal very clear, so it’s doubtful that Israeli opposition to a final deal would be kept in check by keeping these criticisms under wraps. The administration may also assume that the Iran hawks in Congress intent on sabotaging the deal will be committed to doing so no matter what the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship is, so there is nothing to be lost by broadcasting that the relationship is in very bad shape. That’s the trouble with being implacable foes of diplomacy–no one has any incentive to treat you as anything more than an obstacle to be overcome. That appears to be how the administration sees Netanyahu as well, and they are treating him and the rest of his government accordingly.

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Leave the Reagan Doctrine in the Past

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Rep. Dana Rohrabacher makes a dubious claim:

The Reagan Doctrine of assisting local, pro-freedom insurgents to overcome tyrannical regimes was then and is today the most effective way of defending against an enemy that threatens our safety.

That’s a strange assumption to make, since backing insurgencies against communist governments was often unsuccessful or at best inconclusive. When it did “work” as planned, it left chaos in its wake. Even so, there were hardly any U.S.-backed insurgent groups that overcame the regimes they were fighting, and the regimes they were fighting posed no serious threat to the U.S. The purpose of arming these insurgents was to undermine governments that were aligned with the USSR, but it really had nothing to do with keeping the U.S. safe. It was an exercise in inflicting humiliations on an ideological and political rival. That policy might have made a certain amount of sense when the U.S. was in a rivalry with another superpower, but today it is just an invitation to unwise meddling and destabilization for its own sake. Which “pro-freedom insurgents” does Rohrabacher suggest that the U.S. help in the future? More to the point, why should the U.S. be in the business of facilitating the overthrow of foreign governments? At best, the U.S. will subject the affected countries to years and perhaps decades of upheaval and violence, and at worst the U.S. will be pulled in to police the chaos created by the support for these “pro-freedom insurgents.” This may be cheaper than large-scale deployments of U.S. forces, but it doesn’t make any more sense.

The Reagan Doctrine was one of the least impressive parts of Reagan’s record, and it inflicted enormous damage on the countries where it was put into practice. Moreover, it proved to be entirely unnecessary, since the dissolution of the USSR and collapse of communism in Europe underscored just how irrelevant these interventions in Third World civil wars were to the outcome of the Cold War. It would be better to leave the Reagan Doctrine in the past and stop trying to import it into the foreign policy of the present.

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Why Israel Won’t Attack Iran (II)

Mikhail Levit / Shutterstock.com

Buried in this Jeffrey Goldberg report on the state of U.S.-Israel relations is a somewhat encouraging piece of news:

This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said that Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal [bold mine-DL]. “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”

Two years ago, Daniel Levy made the case that Netanyahu was too risk-averse as a politician to do anything as hazardous and potentially disastrous as starting a war with Iran. That seemed very plausible at the time, and I still find it persuasive. It has never made much sense that the Israeli government would launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Even if Netanyahu were inclined to do this, which he reportedly isn’t, starting a preventive war against Iran wouldn’t prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

On the contrary, a foreign attack would probably make the acquisition of such weapons a priority for the Iranian government. Especially if one believes the worst about the Iranian government’s intentions, it would be the height of folly to take action that would practically guarantee that Iran gets a nuclear arsenal, and that is what an Israeli or U.S. attack would do. The more important reason why such an attack didn’t make much sense is that it isn’t necessary for Israeli security. Even if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, Israel would have a much larger nuclear arsenal with which it would deter unconventional attacks. If Netanyahu is also risk-averse enough that he doesn’t want to take reckless military action against Iran, so much the better for all involved.

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Perry’s Stale Foreign Policy

Rick Perry urges us to fight the real enemy:

The nearest threat we face is not foreign in nature: it is from within. It is our own complacency. It is the view that events thousands of miles away are not our business. Or the view of cultural relativism that, while acknowledging the systematic savagery of the enemy, is also quick to point to the shortcomings of Western democracies. They’ve got bad guys over there, we’ve got a few of our own – what’s the difference? The attitudes I’m describing reflect a deep confusion, at a time when moral clarity is at a premium.

Perry said something similar to this on a recent trip to London earlier this month, which bizarrely prompted David Frum to declare that foreign policy was now Perry’s greatest advantage as a future presidential candidate. Having read Perry’s latest speech, I’m not sure how anyone could come to this conclusion. Perry seems to think that he has found a winning message by berating Americans for wanting to mind their own business and flinging stale charges of “cultural relativism,” but all of this strikes me as exceptionally tone-deaf and foolish.

There are many events around the world that aren’t any of our business. That has nothing to do with “complacency.” It is an acknowledgment that many international events don’t significantly affect or threaten the U.S. or our allies. Part of conducting a competent and responsible foreign policy is being able to understand that and to avoid being pulled into every crisis that shows up on the news. Criticizing one’s own government or society isn’t a sign of “cultural relativism.” On the contrary, it is an attempt to hold ourselves to a certain standard of conduct. That doesn’t mean that we trivialize or ignore far worse things done by other governments and organizations, but it does mean that we focus on the flaws that we can more readily fix here at home rather than throwing our resources away on trying to solve problems elsewhere that we don’t know how to fix.

What makes Perry’s foreign policy criticism especially tiresome is that he is so desperately trying to find parallels between the Cold War era and now to make his outdated foreign policy assumptions seem relevant:

Who can watch the unchecked Russian aggression toward Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea, and not think of a different place in time, when Soviet tanks rolled through Prague, or when Soviet soldiers executed the blockade of West Berlin?

When you see extremists in Iran pursue nuclear weapons – weapons that could be used to hold hostage the interests of the West and Israel – are you not taken back to an earlier time when extremists stormed our embassy to take our fellow citizens hostage for 444 days?

When you see the military buildup of China, and the depletion of our own military forces, with a reduction in spending of 21 percent over four years, how can you not think of a previous era, soon after the end of the war in Vietnam, and wonder if we are not once again inviting threats to our interests at home and overseas by hollowing out our military forces?

In fact, it’s quite easy not to think of these things, since they aren’t all that comparable to current events. Viewing current events in these terms all but guarantees that Perry is misunderstanding them. That means he will wind up advocating for policies that may or may not have been appropriate forty or fifty years ago, but which are unsuited to a very different world. At best, Perry is reciting standard Republican boilerplate about the need for strength and “moral clarity,” which would confirm that he doesn’t have anything interesting to say. At worst, he genuinely believes that undesirable acts by other governments and groups happen because America is perceived as “weak” and won’t happen if the U.S. appears to be “strong.” That not only makes the U.S. responsible for things it can’t possibly control, but if taken seriously it would condemn the U.S. to having an overly militarized foreign policy and bloated military budget forever. Perry probably thinks that would be fine, which is why it he shouldn’t and almost certainly won’t ever be president.

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Boehner’s Hawkish Demagoguery

John Boehner is working on his foreign policy demagoguery on the campaign trail:

House Speaker John Boehner is trashing President Obama’s foreign policy on the campaign trail by talking up someone Republicans have spent years running from: George W. Bush.

“Does anybody think that Vladimir Putin would have gone into Crimea had George W. Bush been president of the United States? No!” Boehner asked, and answered, before a group of Republican volunteers here.

“Even Putin is smart enough to know that Bush would have punched him in the nose in about 10 seconds!” Boehner said to an applauding crowd.

Boehner’s comments are absurd, but they are revealing of how many hawks think about these things. On one level, this is just mindless partisanship. However, it does reflect a delusion that the U.S. would ever be prepared to “punch” Russia in response to seizing control of Crimea and that this would be a good thing. Had Bush been president during the Ukraine crisis over the last year, it is doubtful that he would have responded all that differently. Despite making lots of noise during the war in Georgia, Bush wasn’t so crazy as to involve U.S. forces, and he would presumably have done much the same when Russia took control of Crimea. It is possible that Bush would have used more obnoxious rhetoric, and he might have made the bad decision to provide arms to Ukrainian forces, but there is virtually no chance that the U.S. would have resorted to force to prevent the annexation of Crimea no matter who the president was. With the possible exception of McCain, no president would so irresponsible as to risk or to start a major war with the Russians over the territory of a non-allied country. The worrisome thing is that Boehner thinks that a president from his party would be that irresponsible, and he thinks that this is something to be praised. If Americans need to be reminded why his party can’t be trusted on foreign policy, these comments from Boehner should do the trick.

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The Yaalon Quarrel and U.S.-Israel Relations

As usual, Bret Stephens has things backwards:

Israel needs to look after its own immediate interests without the incessant interventions of an overbearing partner. The administration needs to learn that it had better act like a friend if it wants to keep a friend. It isn’t as if it has many friends left.

The immediate cause for Stephens’ latest bout of whining is the decision to deny the Israeli defense minister meetings with Kerry and Biden following the minister’s obnoxious remarks about the Secretary of State. Considering that the minister in question mocked Kerry as “obsessive and messianic” with regard to the peace process, it is remarkable that he was permitted to have any meetings with senior officials while in the U.S. If Yaalon were a senior minister with any other government, he likely would have been treated far more dismissively. While it makes sense not to let one minister’s comments unduly damage a bilateral relationship, it is entirely appropriate not to allow ministers from client governments to make cracks about our officials with impunity. If the snub was intended to embarrass Yaalon back home, so much the better.

Stephens’ advice would be more usefully directed to Netanyahu and his allies. While the current administration may have alienated some governments over the years, Netanyahu’s government has done a fine job of alienating even more. It seems to excel in this. Israel has few “friends” to start with, and can hardly afford to antagonize the few that it has, but it has made a point of thwarting and antagonizing this administration for the last five years. The administration is belatedly making known that it will be insulted and ignored only so many times in public before there are (extremely minor) consequences. It is useful on occasions such as this to recall which state is the client and which is the patron, and the former shouldn’t be able to dictate the terms of the relationship. It is normally out of the question for ministers from a client state to upbraid officials of the patron government, and in this case it’s not surprising that the administration has found the most recent tantrums to be too annoying to ignore.

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What Rand Paul Didn’t Say

Rand Paul’s foreign policy speech last week has met with mostly positive responses with a few exceptions. Dan Drezner acknowledged that it was a significant improvement over previous speeches and “probably better than 95 percent of the GOP’s 2012 foreign policy rhetoric,” but concluded that “it’s still radically incomplete.” Drezner observes:

Paul doesn’t really outline what criteria would justify the use of force in a Paul administration. He doesn’t really articulate how he would mix military statecraft with economic statecraft. He really doesn’t talk about how, if he insists on congressional approval of any use of force, whether this will weaken presidential threats to use force as an instrument of statecraft.

The closest that Paul came to doing the first of these was midway through the speech when he said, “War is necessary when America is attacked or threatened, when vital American interests are attacked and threatened, and when we have exhausted all other measures short of war.” That sounds reasonable enough, but it’s the middle clause of that sentence that potentially commits the U.S. to a great many wars or to very few depending on how broadly one chooses to define “vital American interests.” Despite his nod to Kennan’s distinction between vital and peripheral interests early on in the speech, that’s something Paul didn’t define.

It would have been useful to hear more about whether or not he thinks that Congress should ever actively interfere in ongoing diplomacy. If he believes that it is “imperative that Tehran and Washington find an effective diplomatic solution for limiting the Iranian enrichment program,” that ought to mean that he is firmly opposed to attempts by his Senate colleagues to derail a nuclear deal, but he doesn’t say so explicitly. Granted, it was only one speech, and it isn’t possible to address all major issues thoroughly in a limited amount of time, but these are some of the more important questions that Paul will need to answer at some point.

Drezner continues:

Even if one drills down below grand strategy to focus on concrete policy problems, there are some inconsistencies. For example, Paul states flatly at the outset that, “America shouldn’t fight wars where the best outcome is stalemate. America shouldn’t fight wars when there is no plan for victory.” Okay, sounds clear, until we get to what Paul thinks about what to do about ISIS in Syria…

As I and others have pointed out, Paul’s statements about the wars America shouldn’t fight don’t square with his support for the current war against ISIS. The war against ISIS should be a perfect example of an intervention that isn’t related to defending the U.S. or its vital interests, but it is one that Paul says he supports anyway. Instead of explaining this contradiction, he skated past it.

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