Daniel Larison

The GOP’s Foreign Policy Swagger Problem

Chris Christie unsurprisingly knows nothing about foreign policy:

It was not, according to several of those in attendance, a tough or unexpected inquiry. But Mr. Christie, usually known for his oratorical sure-footedness, offered an uncharacteristically wobbly reply, displaying little grasp of the facts and claiming that if he were in charge, Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, would know better than to mess with him.

According to an audio recording of the event, he said Mr. Putin had taken the measure of Mr. Obama. “I don’t believe, given who I am, that he would make the same judgment,” Mr. Christie said. “Let’s leave it at that.”

One attendee described Mr. Christie’s answer as disturbingly heavy on swagger and light on substance [bold mine-DL]. Another called it “uncomfortable to watch.”

The striking thing in this story is that Christie’s lack of knowledge of these issues isn’t considered automatically disqualifying. We have seen this too many times in our presidential politics: a governor aims to run for higher office, but hasn’t a clue about foreign policy, and so we are treated to a series of quotes from various partisans that this person “has a lot of work to do” but shouldn’t be dismissed on account of ignorance. Why not say instead that the politician isn’t remotely qualified for the higher office and leave it at that? That would certainly apply to Christie, and it would apply to more than a few of his possible 2016 competitors.

As we are reminded in the article, Christie doesn’t make sense when he talks about specific issues. For instance, here he comments on the infamous “red line” in Syria:

Mr. Christie said he would have never drawn a “red line,” as Mr. Obama did with President Bashar al-Assad, but, “if you do, you better finish the job.”

This is a perfect example of foreign policy driven by bluster and a mindless need to appear “tough” rather than serious thinking. Christie is just trying to have things both ways here, and the result is nonsense. It’s potentially interesting that Christie says he wouldn’t have drawn a “red line” in Syria, but he immediately renders this meaningless this by saying that the “red line” that shouldn’t have been drawn should have been enforced anyway. If Christie thinks Obama was wrong to draw the “red line,” he has to acknowledge that it was better not to follow through on a threat that should never have been made. If he thinks that the U.S. needs to “finish the job,” he must think that the U.S. should have threatened Syria with serious consequences for taking actions that the U.S. opposed. Instead of choosing a position and paying the price either way, Christie wants credit for favoring an attack on Syria while simultaneously expecting credit for avoiding the trap that Obama set for himself.

The bigger problem for the GOP is that most of its would-be presidential candidates are just as bad as Christie when it comes to being “heavy on swagger and light on substance.” Republican politicians assume that they can get away with this because most of their party’s foreign policy professionals and pundits are only too happy to make excuses for them or cut them too much slack because they happen to have the right “instincts.” These politicians don’t put much effort into educating themselves on these issues, and so they have to resort to swagger and demagogic rhetoric to demonstrate “toughness” because they would otherwise have nothing to say. Since there is no degree of ignorance about foreign policy that won’t be tolerated for hawkish candidates (see Romney, Mitt), Republican hawkish politicians have no incentive to learn more than the standard talking points and have nothing to fear from being “light on substance.” Indeed, some “experts” and pundits probably prefer their would-be candidates to be clueless so that they can mold and shape them as they see fit, and any candidates that have bothered to give much thought to these issues are likely to see that many of the people that claim to speak for the party on foreign policy are likewise “heavy on swagger and light on substance.” Christie doesn’t know much about foreign policy, but unfortunately he is all too representative of his party’s elites in that regard.

Posted in , . Tagged . Post a comment

Don’t Arm Ukraine

Ben Judah proposes a thoroughly crazy idea:

If we believe that Ukraine will one day become a member of the European Union and NATO, then we should be ready to arm it. We must face the fact that the costs of unlimited European Union and NATO expansion have meant war with Russia by proxy — and then fight the war. Having reignited the hottest moments of the Cold War, we must deal with the consequences of encouraging democratization in Eastern Europe.

This logic demands that we send Western military advisers to Kiev, and give the Ukrainians full intelligence and satellite support. And we must ship them guns, tanks, drones and medical kits by the ton. We must even be ready to deploy NATO troops if Russian tanks roll toward Crimea, as many fear they will, to build a land bridge to the mainland of southern Russia.

Judah frames the choice over Ukraine in such a way that suggests that he clearly prefers this option to the alternative of “surrender,” but the policy he describes here is so senseless and dangerous that it discredits itself. It is senseless because even if Western governments did all these things it wouldn’t change the eventual outcome of the conflict, and it is dangerous because these moves could very well trigger a wider and more destructive war. The U.S. and its allies could choose to send arms and supplies to Ukraine to wage a war that it can’t possibly win, but this would only increase the damage done to the country. Supposing that Western governments could somehow claim a “victory” against Russia in such a proxy war, Ukraine would be utterly ruined in the process.

If “we” refers to Westerners, “we” don’t believe Ukraine will ever join the EU or NATO, because many members of both organizations don’t want Ukraine to join. The most plausible solution to the crisis is to confirm that Ukraine isn’t going to belong to any bloc, so it is irresponsible to act as if it will one day be a member of either the EU or NATO. If it wasn’t already clear how much of a liability Ukraine would have been to NATO, the events of the last six months have removed all doubt. The alliance obviously isn’t willing to defend Ukraine, so nothing would be worse for the rest of the alliance than to include Ukraine in it. If “the costs of unlimited European Union and NATO expansion have meant war with Russia by proxy,” as Judah says, that is a damning indictment of both policies and another reason to conclude that the eastward expansion of both organizations should be halted.

The U.S. and its allies are never going to care more about Ukraine than Russia, and they are never going to be willing to take any major risks on behalf of Ukraine. That was true when the crisis began last year, and nothing has changed since then. Several Western governments carelessly pursued a contest for influence with Russia in Ukraine without having any intention of dedicating the resources or taking the risks that such a contest required, and they did so without ever considering how negatively Russia would react to the attempt. Now that we can see how disastrously this has turned out, it makes absolutely no sense to repeat the error by encouraging Ukraine to fight an unwinnable war.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 20 comments

Beware of Threat Inflators Offering “Solutions”

Michael Cohen offers a useful reminder that the world is still mostly much more secure and peaceful than it used to be:

Worst of all, the constant calls for a quick and usually muscular response to perceived national security threats gives Americans a false sense of insecurity. The fact is, while people may be relentlessly, breathlessly trying to make us believe that we’re on the cusp of World War III, the world is actually pretty safe.

From Latin America and Europe to the Far East and broad swathes of sub-Saharan Africa, most of the world is at peace. While 2014 has been a particularly violent year, we are nonetheless in the midst of a more than two-decade-long decline in the number of wars and their lethality.

It suits many interventionists to insist that the world is exceedingly dangerous, because this tends to inspire panic and overreaction in Western capitals, and that can make hard-line policies seem more appealing. It is easier to win support for resorting to the use of force by carelessly throwing around warnings about “imminent” and “existential” threats that are in reality neither imminent nor existential. If one assumes that “the world” is in chaos, that makes it a bit easier to sell the idea that the U.S. must restore order in various parts of the world. It doesn’t seem to matter that the U.S. stake in current conflicts is actually very small, or that far worse and bloodier conflicts have taken place around the world during earlier eras when the U.S. was supposedly demonstrating more “leadership.”

Hawks promote the false belief that “the world” is on fire because they believe that this makes otherwise awful and unpopular hawkish policies more attractive, and it also saves them from having to account for the fact that these policies have a record of making foreign conflicts worse. Having spent years lying about a supposed U.S. “retreat” from the world that never happened, hawks are eager to seize on any bad news overseas as “proof” of what comes from “retreat.” Some of this is just bad-faith partisan sniping, and some of it comes from an ideological commitment to the idea that U.S. hegemony is essential to international peace and security, and the rest is the usual inability to keep a sense of proportion about foreign threats. Whatever may be behind it, these claims should be greeted with extreme skepticism and should be taken as a warning that those making them are trying to sell you something you would normally reject.

Posted in , . Tagged . 5 comments

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The case for restraint. William Ruger reviews Barry Posen’s Restraint for the current issue of TAC.

Keeping the threat from ISIS in perspective. Paul Pillar urges Americans not to exaggerate the threat.

Iraq, Obama, and the future of war powers. Robert Golan-Vilella explains why Congress needs to vote on a new authorization for ongoing military action in Iraq.

“Smart power” set Libya on fire. Michael Brendan Dougherty counts the costs of the Libyan war.

Who cares about Ukraine? Thomas Graham reminds us that Ukraine has always mattered far more to Russia than it does to the West.

Helmand to Himalayas. George Vlachonikolis reviews Capt. David Wiseman’s memoirs of his military service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Time to resolve the Ukraine crisis. Former Ambassador Jack Matlock describes the outlines of a possible deal to end the conflict.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , , , , , , . 3 comments

Breaking the Bad Habit of Interventionism

Thomas Donnelly writes a very weird response to a recent Sean Kay argument:

Both Sean Kay and Barack Obama would like to see America repudiate its traditional strategic culture, to stop intervening and to end our involvement in “other people’s” conflicts. At least Realists make no pretense about being attuned to others’ cries of “Liberta! Liberta!” But those cries still resonate in most American ears, and it’s the president’s tone-deafness that is souring his supporters [bold mine-DL].

Donnelly’s proof for this “traditional strategic culture” is to dig up a 16th-century reference that he thinks shows that Elizabethan Englishmen and Americans “share a strong belief that lasting security lies in creating a world safe for justice.” It would be generous to call this claim a huge stretch for both nations, but even if we accept that most Americans believe that “lasting security lies in creating a world safe for justice” it doesn’t mean that they want to the U.S. to be involved in foreign conflicts on a regular basis. No matter how many slogans about freedom one uses to dress them up, destroying foreign governments and leaving other countries in chaos have nothing to do with making the world safe for justice.

Besides, it’s simply not true that we “congenitally have been prone to stick our noses into things.” If that means taking sides in the internal conflicts of other countries, Americans spent the better part of our history since independence not doing this. The U.S. admittedly was an expansionist power in our own hemisphere during the 19th century, but it was otherwise careful not to interfere or take sides in other nations’ internal affairs. It was mainly just in the last seventy years that the U.S. took it upon itself to take an active role in internal conflicts elsewhere in the world, and then usually with disastrous results for the countries affected by this interference. That is what Americans have soured on over the last ten years, and it is what they will likely keep rejecting in the foreseeable future. Even if Americans have now become accustomed to meddling in the internal affairs of other nations, that is not something inherent in who we are as a nation. This is something that we have learned through steady repetition over decades. It is a bad habit that can and should be broken and replaced with one of non-interference.

Posted in , . Tagged , . 15 comments

Paul’s Syria Op-Ed and the “Brain-Dead” DNC Response

Ezra Klein derides the DNC’s response to a recent Rand Paul op-ed as “brain-dead”:

This is the brain-dead patriotism-baiting that Democrats used to loathe. Now they’re turning it on Paul.

Paul was making a few related arguments in his op-ed. The first was that supporters of regime change in Syria have inadvertently aided the rise of jihadist groups including ISIS and would have further empowered such groups if they had gotten their way in toppling the regime. The other was that interventionists typically have a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to taking sides in foreign conflicts, which is so obviously true that no one is even attempting to refute it. He was also making the same point that I touched on in a post earlier this week, which is that if the “limited” strikes on the Syrian regime last year had gone ahead it would have very likely helped ISIS to expand its control over territory in Syria. Hawks that believed it to be imperative to attack the Syrian government last year now believe it to be imperative to attack some of the government’s enemies this year. Presumably next year there will be yet another government or group that simply “must” be bombed. Given all this, Paul questions the judgment of Syria hawks from both parties and urges that the U.S. not make more of the same mistakes.

The DNC responded to this by falling back on two the hoariest of hawkish cliches: they accused Paul of “blaming America” and urging “retreat.” These are both painfully stupid and lazy criticisms, but it seems to be necessary to answer them all the same. Criticizing a specific policy of the U.S. government and identifying its adverse effects do not amount to “blaming America.” For one thing, the policy in question doesn’t reflect the preferences of most Americans. Even if it did reflect what most Americans wanted, though, it is just the mindless quashing of dissent to insist one shouldn’t criticize a government policy that one finds flawed, or to equate such criticism with “blaming America.” Such criticism holds the government accountable for its actions and recognizes when a policy is making things worse in order to correct that policy and avoid future errors. The U.S. is responsible for the actions it takes abroad, and its blunders and wrongdoing shouldn’t be ignored or explained away through shallow demagoguery. The accusation of “retreat” is even more ridiculous, since Paul was urging caution about joining foreign conflicts. The DNC seems to share Republican hard-liners’ views that anything less than constantly going on the attack is the same as “retreating” from the world. The fact that this same lazy and dishonest charge has been repeatedly directed at this administration whenever it has chosen not to indulge its most hawkish critics just makes the DNC’s response even more dimwitted.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 18 comments

Public Opinion and Foreign Policy

Constant fear-mongering and threat inflation do eventually have an effect on public opinion:

More Republicans than Democrats Say U.S. Does Too Little on Global Problems

As we can see from these results, the increase among those saying that the U.S. does “too little” comes mostly from Republicans, and even among Republicans most say that the U.S. does too much or does the right amount. There is more demand for greater activism than there was nine months ago, but the vast majority of Americans still doesn’t want a more activist foreign policy.  Despite the steady drumbeat for more aggressive U.S. measures in various foreign conflicts, more than two-thirds of Democrats and independents still think the U.S. is doing as much as it should or more than it should to help “solve” world problems. Overall, 63% of all Americans hold those two positions. While a slim majority of respondents in the survey says that they think Obama is not being “tough enough” in his handling of foreign policy and national security issues, a much larger majority also clearly doesn’t want the U.S. to be more involved in trying to resolve foreign conflicts than it is.

Posted in , . Tagged , . 14 comments

Warren and Democratic Hawks

Dave Weigel comments on Elizabeth Warren’s utterly conventional “pro-Israel” views:

A few weeks ago, when Warren announced a post-midterms trip to Israel, it was covered as a box-checking exercise for a possible 2016 run. What if it’s not that? What if Warren has the foreign policy views you might expect from a baby boomer who was a registered Republican during much of the Clinton presidency? [bold mine-DL] In that case, she’s not well positioned at all to build a left-wing political coalition against the Clintons, as she keeps saying she won’t do.

Whenever I have written something about Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy, someone usually floats Warren’s name as a possible antiwar, dovish challenger for the Democratic primary, but there has never been any reason to think that Warren holds these views. Her foreign policy record is remarkably thin even for a new senator, and when she has taken positions she has typically chosen not to make any waves. Enthusiasm for a possible Warren run among some on the left stems mainly from her domestic policy views, and I suspect some people assume that these have to be paired with a less hawkish foreign policy. However, it is more likely that Warren will try to balance any populist positions she takes on domestic issues with conventional hawkishness. Progressive activists might want a candidate that challenges the party establishment across the board, but Warren won’t be filling that role even if she did choose to run. Warren’s case just underscores how few real doves there are among elected Democrats at the national level, and how much influence the party’s hawks still have on foreign policy.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 8 comments

Obama, Congress, and War Powers

Orhan Cam/ Shutterstock

It should go without saying that Congressional authorization is required for an ongoing war against ISIS, but we all understand that this isn’t going to happen. Neither the post-9/11 AUMF nor the authorization for invading Iraq applies to this conflict, as Robert Golan-Vilella makes very clear, and the president is not entitled to wage war on his own authority. Nonetheless, the president will probably continue to wage war without any authorizing vote from Congress because he can and because he has done so once already in his presidency and suffered no consequences. Among the many other things wrong with the Libyan war, it was illegal under U.S. law, and hardly anyone cared about this. It wouldn’t be surprising if Obama concludes that he can do the same thing in fighting ISIS, which at least has some tenuous connection to American security in a way that bombing Libya never did.

Back in 2011, the administration stood by its dishonest claim that the war in Libya never amounted to “hostilities” and therefore didn’t require Congressional action. This was transparent nonsense, but very few people worried about it. The president’s partisans mostly stayed quiet about the war’s illegality, and Republican hawks were more concerned that the U.S. wasn’t acting aggressively enough and had waited too long to start the bombing. Besides, most of the latter had no principled objection to a president waging war on his own authority, since they already held a very broad view of the executive’s war powers. The U.S. waged a war in Libya for eight months while pretending that it was not doing this, and for all practical purposes Obama got away with it.

He would have and easily could have done the same thing in Syria last summer, but encountered a problem when Parliament refused to rubber-stamp British participation in the intervention. Cameron felt compelled to back out of the impending attack, which made it more difficult for Obama to proceed without seeking a vote in Congress. While insisting that he still didn’t need to go to Congress, Obama chose to do so anyway. That was the right decision, but one that brought him far more grief and political damage than his illegal war in Libya. Since Obama obviously has no scruples about waging an illegal war, the lesson for him from these two episodes was clear: seeking authorization from Congress for military action is the politically risky and unnecessary move, and waging a war without Congressional approval is the safer bet. That’s how warped our foreign policy debate and political culture have become.

If Obama doesn’t go to Congress to get authorization for the ever-expanding mission against ISIS, he will be violating U.S. law again, but the depressing truth is that even fewer people will care this time. Many Democrats in Congress are embarrassed and annoyed by Sen. Kaine’s efforts to bring the matter to a vote before the midterms, since they would rather avoid having to take a potentially controversial position so close to an election. Most Republicans in Congress see no need for a vote in the first place. One of the biggest problems that Republican hawks had with Obama during last year’s Syria debate was that he went to Congress at all, and they would probably be even more outraged if he did so again. Once again, the U.S. will wage an illegal war without any meaningful dissent from the members of Congress that have the sole constitutional responsibility for authorizing when the U.S. goes to war.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , . 15 comments

The Democratic Party’s Many Hawks

JStone / Shutterstock.com

Daniel Henninger must be joking:

If anything, the modern Democratic Party is more hostile to national defense than it was in 1984.

Let us hypothesize that Mrs. Clinton is a Democratic hawk. Name one other office-holding hawk in the party?

He allows that Feinstein might barely qualify, but claims not to be able to think of any others. There are unfortunately only too many Democratic hawks in office at the moment. Menendez and Schumer are obvious examples that should immediately spring to mind, and one need only look at how readily Senate Democrats have lined up behind Iran sanctions and ruling out containment to find the rest. All but two Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee dutifully endorsed Obama’s would-be intervention in Syria last year, and the resolution wouldn’t have passed the committee if it hadn’t been supported by most of the Democrats. Before that, the same committee–controlled by the Democrats–overwhelmingly supported arming the Syrian opposition. Even earlier, most House Democrats voted for the use of force in Libya in the resolution that the House rejected.

On one issue after another, large numbers of Democrats in Congress have endorsed relatively hawkish policies, because they still assume that this is the politically safe and necessary position that they have to take. The point is that Henninger is simply ignoring what most Democratic politicians say and do on foreign policy and imagines that the party is somehow to the “left” of where it was on these issues thirty years ago. No remotely honest assessment of Democratic foreign policy over the last twenty years could come to this conclusion, so naturally it is the one that Henninger reached.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , , . 9 comments
← Older posts