Daniel Larison

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Feast of the Dormition

The grave and death could not hold the Theotokos, who is sleepless in her intercessions and an unfailing hope in her mediations. For as the Mother of Life she was translated unto life by Him Who dwelt in her ever-virgin womb.

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The U.S. Must Avoid Escalation in Iraq…and Syria

Fred Hof wants to use a possible campaign against ISIS in Syria as another excuse to demand support for anti-Assad forces in Syria:

How to avoid the ambush? Demonstrate real hostility toward Assad, whose removal for the sake of neutralizing ISIS is even more justified than the ouster of Iraq’s Nouri Al Maliki. If, in the course of U.S. anti-ISIS air operations over Syria, regime air defense radars lock onto U.S. aircraft, the relevant air defense site or sites should be engaged decisively. Robust and timely aid for Syrian nationalist rebels fighting both the regime and ISIS is a must. Relevant security assistance for a Syrian National Coalition trying to set up an alternate governing structure in non-Assad, non-ISIS Syria is mandatory. Building an all-Syrian national stabilization force in Turkey and Jordan for eventual anti-regime and anti-ISIS peace-enforcement is essential [bold mine-DL]. American leadership in creating mechanisms that can one day bring Bashar Al Assad and his principal enforcers to trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity is vital. These are the steps that can put the lie to Assad’s libel.

Hof insists on all of this solely to dispel the impression that U.S. strikes on ISIS are being launched in coordination with the Syrian regime. He doesn’t think that the U.S. is about to coordinate with the regime in reality, but he warns that the mere hint of some collusion between Washington and Assad represents a “trap” for the U.S. So Hof is not only urging the escalation of the campaign against ISIS to include bombing targets in Syria, which is a bad idea in its own right, but he also wants a huge increase in U.S. support with the goal of overthrowing the Syrian government. In short, he thinks that the U.S. needs to be fighting the strongest forces on both sides of Syria’s civil war at the same time so that no one can accuse it of tacitly backing one of them. This tacks on so many new and potentially contradictory objectives to the original mission against ISIS that no government is likely to achieve them at an acceptable cost, and it guarantees that the U.S. would be at war in Iraq and Syria for years with whatever unknown consequences and costs that will have. I suppose this is the ridiculous conclusion that a Syria hawk would have to reach in order to avoid acknowledging that the obsession with seeking regime change in Syria was misguided from the start. It also reminds us how fantastical the Syria hawks’ preferred policy has always been, which was to back the weakest faction in a civil war in the vain hope that it would prevail over its far more numerous and fanatical enemies.

In Hof’s plan, the U.S. is also supposed to help create a new Syrian government and train a stabilization force, which are two things that we should know by now the U.S. doesn’t know how to do very well. If the U.S. were any good at either of these, the Iraqi army presumably wouldn’t have folded like a cheap suit when ISIS began its advance. Sending more weapons into Syria where they can be seized by ISIS or other jihadist groups is pure folly, just as it always has been. Now should be the time to recognize that the U.S. isn’t any good at trying to finesse or manipulate a foreign civil war, acknowledge that the regime change goal in Syria was a mistake, and leave the fight against ISIS to the local and regional actors that have the most at stake in resisting them. The U.S. will only be pulled in deeper and become embroiled in a much longer conflict unless it avoids escalation now.

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Why 2014 Isn’t (and Shouldn’t Be) a Foreign Policy Election

Marc Ambinder finds it strange that foreign policy is being ignored in the midterm elections:

Some wags like to say that midterms don’t usually turn on foreign policy. But two of the past three — 2002 and 2006 — certainly did. In those races, at least one of the two parties had something to say. In 2002, the GOP ran on scaring the hell out of everyone and by using tactics that morphed the faces of disabled veteran senators into Osama bin Laden’s. In 2006, Democrats won seats based on voters’ general antipathy to the Bush war record and their own pledge to work to withdraw troops from Iraq.

2014 should be a foreign policy election. But it isn’t.

If we compare this year to the other midterm years when foreign policy loomed large in the voters’ minds, it’s not hard to understand why these issues are being neglected now. The ’02 election took place a little over a year after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and it was happening in the middle of the ongoing debate over attacking Iraq that stemmed from the administration’s agitation for war. It was therefore an extremely unusual election that we wouldn’t expect to be repeated unless there were similar conditions today, and the conditions aren’t remotely similar. The 2006 election followed what had been up until then the worst year of the Iraq war, which saw not only an increase in American casualties but also a major deterioration in security for Iraqis. Bush and his allies made a point of demagoguing national security for political gain in 2002, and then suffered a backlash in 2006 because of the administration’s incompetence and disastrous Iraq policy. These elections have two things in common: they happened at a time when national security and foreign policy issues were at the forefront of voters’ minds because they were directly affecting the U.S. or U.S. forces, and the president’s party was clearly positioned to gain or lose support specifically because of these issues. Neither of these things is true this year, and so these issues attract little attention and don’t cut for or against the president’s party in a big way.

It’s worth considering why Ambinder thinks 2014 “should” be a foreign policy election. He thinks this because he is overreacting to foreign events:

The world is en fuego, with American interests at peril and President Obama’s foreign policy failing to stem the chaos.

It’s pure hyperbole to say that “the world” is on fire right now. For the vast majority of nations, there is no armed conflict, nor is there an extraordinary degree of disorder or violence. If we keep foreign threats to U.S. interests in perspective, we will find that U.S. interests are mostly not imperiled, and the U.S. itself is as secure as it has been in decades. The current freakout about how dangerous the world has become depends almost entirely on exaggeration of threats by politicians, alarmist coverage by the media, and a failure to appreciate how much less dangerous overall the world is today compared to previous decades.

For that matter, the preoccupation with the foreign conflicts that are happening is almost entirely an elite concern. Those that are most inclined to panic and exaggerate dangers to the U.S. are also most likely to have an absurdly broad definition of U.S. interests in the first place, and the public doesn’t share that view. Election campaigns are ignoring foreign policy because voters don’t perceive these conflicts overseas as problems that their candidates should be focused on, and candidates have no incentive to dwell on issues that voters don’t care about or to advocate for policies that most voters reject. When a candidate does this, as Santorum famously did during his failed re-election bid in 2006, he will often lose. One can like or dislike voters’ priorities, but it makes no sense to expect them or their candidates to pay attention to issues that don’t matter to them. 2014 isn’t a foreign policy election, and there is no reason to think that it should be one.

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