Daniel Larison

Syria and Iran

Whatever happens in the anti-Assad protests, Iran is likely to lose some of its easy access to Syria, its key Arab ally. If Assad survives, he will have to establish some distance from Iran to appease Sunni protesters, U.S. officials believe. And it he’s toppled, Syria is likely to be ruled by a Sunni-dominated regime that will be more hostile to Iran. ~David Ignatius

These claims seem superficially plausible, but I wonder if either of them is true. Would distancing Syria from Iran appease Sunni protesters? Are there many Sunni protesters objecting to Assad and the regime who would be appeased by this? I don’t see why this would happen. Probably the only way that Syrian protesters of any sect or religion would be appeased by Assad’s moving away from a close relationship with Iran is if they perceived Iran’s government as instrumental in helping to suppress the protests. There appears to be some evidence that Iran has been aiding Assad in the crackdown. According to U.S. officials, Iran has been giving Assad and his allies tips on how they were able to contain and repress the Green movement, and providing some supplies to aid in the crackdown. This claim may not be true, and it may be an effort to deflect attention away from reported U.S. support for the opposition.

Regardless, it doesn’t follow that the protesters’ success would translate into meaningful foreign policy changes. There was a similar assumption about the success of the Green movement, when it was quite clear that the Green movement was not interested in accommodating Western governments on nuclear issues or support for proxies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. The Green movement was interested in completely different, primarily domestic concerns, and to the extent that its leaders have distinguished themselves from Ahmadinejad it has been to stake out less accommodating, more inflexible positions on the nuclear issue.

The Western expectation that such changes are likely to take place if a regime is toppled from within is based on a few assumptions that may not apply here. The first assumption is that the foreign policy orientation of an authoritarian government does not reflect the interests or goals of the majority of the population in a given country. This is informed by our experience with propping up authoritarian regimes whose foreign policy alignment with the U.S. does not reflect the preferences of their population, but it doesn’t follow that because a government is authoritarian its foreign policy orientation is something imposed on a nation that would otherwise prefer a different policy.

Another assumption is that when an authoritarian government falls, its replacement will be willing and able to carry out significant changes in the state’s foreign policy orientation. This underestimates the staying power of military and intelligence institutions, and overestimates the ability of nascent governments to overturn decades of foreign policy habits. Pakistani dictators come and go, but the return of elected civilians to government does not change the enormous influence the military retains. Even in Turkey, where the military cannot intervene in domestic politics as easily as it once did, there are red lines on security issues that any civilian government, especially an Islamist one, cannot cross without jeopardizing its hold on power. On top of all of this, a new Syrian government would not want to give Iran an incentive to try to destabilize it, which a decidedly pro-Western or anti-Iranian shift would do.

The most important assumption is that the collapse of an anti-American authoritarian government under pressure from internal protests will yield a less anti-American government. This makes the basic mistake of conflating democratic or reformist aspirations for pro-Western/pro-American attitudes regarding security and regional issues. As we saw with the example of the Green movement, demands for reform were not linked with a significant change in Iranian foreign policy, and the Iranian opposition’s leaders were eager to identify with both Iranian nationalism and the principles of the Islamic revolution to make it harder for their critics to cast aspersions on their loyalty.

The idea that Assad would move away from Iran if he survives the protests seems like a good example of mixing up what U.S. officials would like to see happen with what Syrian protesters want. Moving Syria out of Iran’s orbit is something that the U.S. clearly desires, and anti-Assad protesters are presumably not enamored of U.S. policy in the region, so I don’t think we should assume that putting distance between himself and Iran would satisfy many protesters. Their principal demands concern the way that the Syrian government acts toward Syrians. If anything, being part of the so-called “resistance” bloc is something that has aligned the Syrian government with most of the population, so presumably this is one of the last things that Assad would want to change. That doesn’t definitely mean that Syria wouldn’t distance itself from Iran in the future, but that the reason for doing so would not have much to do with appeasing protesters. As ever, the question is whether or not other governments can provide incentives that are sufficiently enticing for Syria to distance itself from Iran, and right now the answer seems to be that they cannot and will not be trying.

The last claim that a Sunni-dominated Syria would be more hostile to Iran seems more credible, but I wonder if this overlooks something. Following Mubarak’s downfall, Egypt and Iran have begun cultivating diplomatic ties for the first time since 1980. Egypt has been Iran’s rival for regional influence for at least the last thirty years. If Egypt is pursuing some degree of normalization of relations with Iran following the end of Mubarak’s rule, it doesn’t seem all that likely that the rise of a majoritarian Sunni government in Syria would mean a Syria that is more hostile to Iran. The Egyptian military government has made some gestures on foreign policy to appeal to the population, but this is because the regime under Mubarak was at odds with Egyptian public opinion. It isn’t at all clear that the majority of Syrians wants to move Syria out of Iran’s orbit, as this would imply that Syria is reducing its role as part of the so-called “resistance” bloc.

P.S. Paul Pillar identified some of these flaws in Western calls for Syrian regime change a month ago:

There is underestimation of how much worthwhile business could be conducted with the incumbent regime, however distasteful it may be. There is overestimation of how much the policies of the country in question are specific to the incumbent regime, and thus overestimation as well of how much change in those policies would ensue from a change of regime. There is also a general failure to think much about who or what would replace the current regime.

Pillar went on to make some good observations about Syrian interests in supporting Hizbullah and Hamas that transcend sectarian identity.

Update: Peter Harling argues that regime change is not yet what a great many Syrians want:

Many Syrians — even among those without sympathy for the regime — still resist this conclusion. Their arguments should not be ignored. They dread the breakup of a state whose institutions, including the military, are weak even by regional standards. They fear that sectarian dynamics or a hegemonic religious agenda could take hold. They suspect Syria would cave in to foreign interference. And they distrust an exiled opposition that is all too reminiscent of Iraq’s.

As usual, we should be wary about rushing to the conclusion that protesters speaking in the name of “the people” are actually representative of most Syrians.

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Failure of Imagination

No, a breakup cannot be imagined, the east-west web of relationships and loyalties and family ties is dense. Libya is not Yugoslavia. ~Roger Cohen

I don’t know what this is supposed to mean. Populations in Yugoslavia were mixed, and social relationships existed across lines of religion and ethnicity. One of the tragedies of the Balkan Wars in the 1990s was that this was destroyed and people were forcibly uprooted to achieve what one might call ethnic disaggregation. I am reminded of a scene from the film Savior, where a man relates the change that the war brought: “I am Croat, my wife Serb. Before war, no difference. Now… stupid.” That may exaggerate one part of the pre-war situation, but it expresses something that was true about Yugoslavia before the wars. Of course, in Libya the tribal differences are real, and while they may be less significant than they used to be it is a bit of a leap to assume that they couldn’t become political fault-lines.

One could just as easily have said in 2003 that it was hard to imagine sectarian warfare in Baghdad. One might have said, “Iraq isn’t Lebanon.” Indeed, some of the breeziest, most reckless supporters of the invasion said something very much like this. The communities were partly integrated, and sectarian identities weren’t as important as outsiders thought, but once those identities became politicized, civil order broke down, and sectarian tensions were stoked by violence there was massive sectarian violence. If someone can’t imagine the break-up of Libya, I have to assume that he is deliberately trying not to imagine it.

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Rubio’s Knee-Jerk Interventionist Isolationism on Syria

Marco Rubio is a quick study. He has been in the Senate for just three months, and he has already learned John McCain’s art of reckless moral posturing as a substitute for foreign policy argument:

As ill-advised as it was to restore diplomatic relations with Syria by sending an American ambassador to Damascus last year, we should now sever ties and recall the ambassador at once. While Syria is already under heavy U.S. sanctions as a designated state sponsor of terror, we should expand sanctions to include persons identified as authorizing, planning, or participating in deplorable human rights violations against unarmed civilians. Our partners in Europe, Turkey, and the Arab Gulf share many of our interests in Syria and play a large role in that country, and the president must put the full diplomatic weight of the United States behind an effort to convince them to adopt meaningful economic and diplomatic sanctions targeting Assad and his enablers in the regime.

The last two of these recommendations are debatable on practical grounds. Will targeted sanctions change regime behavior? It seems unlikely, so the purpose of imposing these sanctions is simply to indicate displeasure. That’s all very well, but when has isolating a regime ever made it more cooperative or well-behaved? Is it possible to organize a regional sanctions regime? Why is Turkey going to join in such an effort when it has gone out of its way to oppose sanctions on one of its other trading partners, namely Iran?

It is the call for recalling the ambassador and cutting diplomatic ties that is the most ill-considered and reactive of these demands. Marc Lynch seems to agree with Rubio on some of these other ideas, but even he sees that recalling our ambassador would be foolish. If the goal were to cut the U.S. off from the protesters, whom Rubio would have us support, recalling the ambassador would be an excellent idea. Lynch writes:

One common demand which the administration should reject is that it withdraw Ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus. That demand has been most forcefully made by the same people who fought tooth and nail to prevent an Ambassador from going to Syria in the first place. Doing so would be a symbolic gesture with real costs. The U.S. has few points of contact into Syrian civil society, partly due to the reality of crushing Syrian authoritarian rule and partly due to the long years during which the U.S. Embassy stood empty. We would be far better off right now if Ambassador Ford had been able to establish his presence in Damascus much earlier, instead of being held up by hawkish Congressional skeptics of engagement. There has never been a more crucial time to have high quality representation in Damascus, somebody who is able to communicate both with the Asad regime and with as many parts of Syrian society as possible. Withdrawing him now would be a self-defeating, pointless gesture which would actively undermine America’s ability to respond effectively to a fast-changing situation.

Then again, self-defeating, pointless gestures are the sort of gestures that interventionists such as Rubio tend to prefer. Actually, they’re not completely pointless. They do allow the people advocating these gestures to claim that they are “taking a stand,” which is half the reason why these people propose the gestures. It is a secondary consideration whether the gestures serve any practical purpose or advance the larger policy that the advocates claim to support. What matters more is that the U.S. not “taint” itself by maintaining diplomatic representation there, despite the fact that keeping the ambassador in place could give the U.S. more options to aid the opposition or lobby the government. As usual, many of the people insisting that we “do something” in Syria would like to take away as many political and diplomatic tools as possible so that “doing something” is reduced to policies aimed at isolating and penalizing regimes. It doesn’t seem to bother them that such policies hardly ever produce the desired results, and instead tend to make the opposition to a regime weaker than it already is. Calls for sanctions are little more than automatic reactions that people engage by force of habit more than any consideration of whether sanctions stand any chance of restraining the regime in question.

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Why The Resolution on Syria Failed

The U.N. Security Council cannot agree on a condemnation of the brutal Syrian crackdown that has resulted in the deaths of at least 450-500 civilian protesters. Why is this? The easiest answer to this is that there is no consensus on the Council, but why might that be? For one thing, the self-serving humanitarian interests that mobilized most of the Arab League against Gaddafi are not present in connection with Syria, because Syria is not a pariah among Arab states, it has significant patrons, and aside from its lack of oil it is strategically significant in all the many ways that Libya is not.

Al Jazeera reports on the obstacles to passage of a Syria resolution:

Envoys attending a special open meeting on Syria in New York on Wednesday said Russia, China and Lebanon opposed the wording of a draft statement distributed by European nations.

It’s understandable that Lebanon had no problem supporting sanctions and military action against Gaddafi. Lebanese Shi’ites in particular had an old score to settle with him. Now that Syria is in the crosshairs, the Lebanese position on popular protests has changed to match up with what the March 8 coalition wants.

Another significant factor is that an initially unified response against Gaddafi regarding condemnation and sanctions soon turned into a less unified vote for military action, and then it turned into vehement disagreement among U.N. member states and Council members about whether the intervention had exceeded the resolution’s mandate. States that might already be inclined to be skeptical of condemning Syrian repression have just had a very memorable lesson in what happens when they join in the chorus of denunciation. If there was some international support for the Libyan war, and if the traditional no votes among the permanent members were willing to abstain in that case, that may have come at the price that there would be no appetite for even the most symbolic measures against other states.

Having stretched the meaning of UNSCR 1973 to make it into something that the abstaining governments no longer recognize, the intervening governments have made it harder in the future to mobilize an international response to similar crises, and they have given Russia and China ample reason never to trust the other permanent members when they are pushing through a resolution authorizing military action. Not only has the Libyan war not deterred the Syrian government from cracking down, which it was never likely to do, but it has also reinforced the traditional roles of the authoritarian permanent members of the Security Council. That is making even the most modest international response to the Syrian crackdown more difficult.

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The Great Invitation Scandal

Amid a growing row over [the Syrian Ambassador] Dr Khiyami’s invitation to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Foreign Office said representatives of countries with which the UK had “normal diplomatic relations” had been invited.

But in a statement, it added: “An invitation does not mean endorsement or approval of the behaviour of any government, simply that we have normal diplomatic relations with that country.” ~BBC News

I heard this story on the BBC World broadcast on the radio as I was driving home, and the remarkable thing about it was that this non-story was one of their lead items. Obviously, the British government and the Palace are free to invite or not invite whomever they like, and like so many other things connected with the pending royal wedding this is not very important, but you wouldn’t know that from the breathless fashion in which the British press have been covering the “story.” Indeed, had the press not turned this bit of trivia into a scandal, it is doubtful that the British Foreign Office would have thought twice about it. If an invitation doesn’t imply an endorsement of a government’s behavior, it doesn’t have anything to do with current British policy towards the government in question. If Britain is otherwise protesting Syrian repression and talking about sanctions, having their ambassador at a high-profile wedding doesn’t mean anything. Withdrawing an invitation specifically to protest unacceptable behavior makes a mockery of the general rule, and shows that Hague is just panicking in response to bad news coverage.

The withdrawn invitation links the uninteresting royal wedding story with something important, and it makes royal wedding enthusiasts more aware of things elsewhere in the world that actually matter, but it doesn’t make much sense as a matter of British policy. Many other equally abusive or even more wretched governments will have their representatives in attendance, because Britain has diplomatic relations with many governments whose human rights records are no better and some of which are far worse. Even though it goes against the Foreign Office’s own view of what invitations to these events mean, Syria is out because Syria happens to be the cause celebre this week. Call it the CNN-and-tabloids effect. Like everything else about British foreign policy lately, the decision-making here is purely reactive and opportunistic.

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“Such A Curious Mind”

But I think people caricatured the president, and the only thing that I couldn’t understand is why this man with such a curious mind, who in briefings always asked the question you wish you thought of, why that quality didn’t come across. And I fully admit that it didn’t come across. ~Condoleeza Rice

I suppose it’s possible that George W. Bush could have had “such a curious mind” and still made all the terrible decisions that he did, but one of the reasons that he received a reputation for being incurious is that he overlooked such obvious, glaring flaws in his administration’s policies that someone with “such a curious mind” should have noticed. He wasn’t very good at demonstrating that he knew or cared to know very much about things. If Bush were as curious as Rice claims, he did an amazing job of hiding it.

The example of Rice provides Bush with an easy way out. After all, she was widely considered to be extremely intelligent, well-informed, and a “student of history,” as her admirers kept telling everyone, and she went along with the very same profoundly destructive, misguided, ruinous policies. She was supposed to have expertise on Russia, and her tenure as Secretary of State coincided with the worst period of U.S.-Russian relations since the Cold War. Curiosity or lack of it doesn’t make much of a difference if a person has incredibly poor judgment or holds deeply flawed ideological assumptions about the world. The worrisome thing about Bush is that he might very well have been a curious, inquisitive person and still come to the same wrong conclusions.

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“Splendid” Isolationists Were Imperialists

In a House of Commons vote on supporting the UN-approved commitment to Libya, only 13 of the 570 members of Parliament present rejected the motion. And of 280 Tories, only one dared say no. This from the party of Lord Salisbury and “splendid isolation.” ~Freddy Gray

I enjoyed Freddy’s article, and he is correct that the Tories are now defined even more by an interventionist foreign policy than the GOP is here in the U.S. Despite having made some of the right noises once he was leading the opposition, Cameron remained a supporter of the Iraq war all along. Despite some hints of restraint coming from Hague on Libya early on, he has become one of the leading figures in orchestrating the Libyan war. When people warned that Cameron was a Tory version of Tony Blair, they usually meant that he was imitating New Labour on domestic policy, but clearly the Blair mimicry extends to foreign affairs as well.

This is disappointing for a few reasons. As an early Cameron critic, I had started to give him the benefit of the doubt on account of his austerity budgeting and some of the hints of Red Toryism in his “Big Society” scheme, and I had been encouraged by his willingness to criticize neoconservatism. Thanks to the Libyan intervention, Cameron is going to have to undo some of the military spending cuts he pledged to make, the “Big Society” is going to be sidelined as Libya eats up time, attention, and resources that might be used elsewhere, and the neoconservatives in his Cabinet are in the ascendant. Most of the things that seemed promising about Cameron and the coalition government are vanishing.

The coalition government seemed as if it were going to be more sensible in foreign policy than Labour had been, and the biggest problem that the coalition government seemed to have was that it might be perceived as insufficiently Atlanticist. Instead, the coalition has produced something like the worst of both worlds: the humanitarian interventionist rhetoric of the Liberal Democrats combined with the neoconservative Tory eagerness to use military force. There had been a fear among interventionists and a hope among non-interventionists in the U.S. that a British government dominated by skeptics of the lopsided “special relationship” would be less willing to support future American wars of choice. Instead, the coalition government has been responsible for helping to pull the U.S. into one of its wars of choice. Perhaps this will help Americans discover what a bad deal “special” relationships tend to be.

Freddy and I are in agreement about all of this. However, his remark about “splendid isolation” is a little bit off. There are things to admire about Lord Salisbury and his government, but British foreign policy during the Conservative-Unionist government that he led wasn’t as encouraging an example as Freddy suggests. “Splendid isolation” was a phrase coined by the aggressive imperialist and leading Liberal Unionist Joseph Chamberlain, who was Colonial Secretary under Salisbury and the driving force behind the South African War. Talk of “splendid isolation” was his attempt to spin the growing diplomatic isolation Britain experienced as a result of its war of conquest against the Afrikaner republics. To appreciate how different the world was then, we need only recall that American public opinion was strongly sympathetic to the Afrikaners and hostile to British imperialism, and it was the British public embracing jingoism abroad.

The first use of the phrase “splendid isolation” came in 1900 when Chamberlain was articulating a vision for a united British imperial system that would allow Britain to rely on its colonial possessions, including those recently acquired by the defeat of the Boers, to sustain it in the face of international isolation.

According to a retrieved New York Times article dated October 25, 1900, Chamberlain said this after describing the “splendid isolation”:

The new imperialism means the recognition of the fact that all British colonies are entitled to the same rights as England herself. I hope that the federation of Canada and Australia will be an example to South Africa. Imperial federation will ensure the empire to continue its mission of justice and civilization, its mission of peace.

It’s worth noting that he made these remarks in the wake of the success of the first phase of the South African War. This was before it dragged on into its ugly counterinsurgency phase against the kommandos that involved scorched earth tactics in the countryside and rounding up Boers into concentration camps. It was the sort of premature triumphalism that has characterized more recent American wars. How Chamberlain reconciled unprovoked wars of imperial conquest with a mission of peace is anyone’s guess. In any case, this is yet another example of how isolation and peace don’t have anything to do with each other, and more often than not the governments that seek or experience isolation are not minding their own business at all.

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No Mere Rebels

I call them “Free Libya forces” because that is what they call themselves, on Benghazi radio. The Benghazi Transitional National Council has been recognized as the legitimate government of Libya by France, Italy and Qatar, with more governments near to taking this step. They are not mere ‘rebels’ any more. ~Juan Cole

Prof. Cole is free to use whatever language he likes in his commentary, but one of the reasons I have a hard time reading his commentary on the Libyan war is that he feels compelled to lace it with so many terms that sound as if they came straight out of a propaganda ministry or, in this case, from the propaganda broadcasts of the Libyan rebels. It shouldn’t have to be said, but rebel is not a pejorative or insulting designation. It is a description of their current status.

The Benghazi national council is recognized as the Libyan government by fewer states than recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and it has no more and perhaps less legitimacy than the authorities ruling those separatist republics. To say that half the country supports this council makes the overly generous assumption that because part of Libya rejects Gaddafi’s rule that it therefore supports the group that has claimed leadership. Critics of Hamid Karzai have often justly referred to him as little more than the mayor of Kabul. The Transitional National Council would be fortunate to be considered the Benghazi municipal government, since their writ doesn’t even really extend to the city they claim as their capital.

Whatever legitimacy as a government the Transitional National Council has, it has derived almost entirely from outside states that treat it as if it were a government. The closer we look at how and why these governments have chosen to recognize the council as the Libyan government, the less impressive it seems. Sarkozy recognized the Transitional National Council on the fly without bothering to consult his own foreign minister, who was then sandbagged with the news that the president had made a reckless public commitment on the say-so of Bernard-Henri Levy. Far from being a bold or necessary move, Sarkozy’s premature action created additional divisions in an already-divided EU. Qatar joined in to satisfy the emir’s interest in playing at regional power-broker, and Italy has signed on in a desperate bid to try to get the oil shipments flowing again. If Berlusconi had been able to have his way a month ago, Gaddafi would have already retaken Benghazi and things would have reverted back to the status quo ante. Since he wasn’t able to have his way, Berlusconi is cutting the best deal he can now that he is stuck with the consequences of a war he clearly didn’t want. These are the governments that are propping up the Benghazi leadership as the Libyan government.

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An “Outstandingly Popular” Alliance That Isn’t Very Popular

By definition, realists seek a foreign policy immune to public sentiment and special interest groups. In this rarefied view, the preferences of the majority of the American people are immaterial or, worse, self-defeating. ~Michael Oren

Maybe this explains that odd remark Marc Lynch made the other day. There seems to be a widespread belief that foreign policy realists share George Kennan’s distrust and dislike of mass democracy because they are realists. As far as I know, I am probably one of the very few people to whom this might apply, and even I don’t think that foreign policy can or should be independent of public opinion.

I don’t assume that an American foreign policy that accurately reflected the preferences of the majority would automatically be more sensible, wise, or just, but I certainly don’t believe that we can characterize U.S. foreign policy today as something that is highly responsive to public opinion. To take just two examples from recent years, consider the overwhelming establishment conviction that the “surge” was right and successful, and then consider the current Libyan war. Escalating the Iraq war was the exact opposite of what the majority of the electorate voted for in 2006, but that is what happened. Americans wanted no part of the Libyan civil war, but the U.S. intervened anyway.

What I would say, and what I have said for some time, is that actual U.S. foreign policy is not the product of the government reflecting what the public wants, because foreign policy far more than most kinds of government policy is not based on or driven by public opinion. That is an observation, not an endorsement. In almost every case I can think of, public opinion on foreign policy is shaped and driven by relatively few people, and then the public opinion that these people have just been shaping is then invoked as a support for the policies that they defend.

One would think that successful activists would want to take credit for moving public opinion in their direction, but sometimes that isn’t what happens. Instead, we get outraged denials from activists that they wield any influence at all, and they claim to resent the implication that they have ever had success in the past. It’s as if people involved in marketing a product successfully encouraged consumption, and then vehemently denied having any connection later on. When the public is reliably and repeatedly told on a regular basis that a particular country is an embattled democracy facing implacable foes, and that the U.S. has an obligation to its security, the public comes to accept this and repeat it back to pollsters when asked. It doesn’t hurt that there is no politically significant opposition to this message, and most attempts to challenge or criticize this prevailing idea are shouted down or rejected out of hand.

This is what Oren refers to when he claims that the U.S.-Israel alliance is “outstandingly popular” with the American public. Of course, this neglects polling evidence that has regularly shown that a large majority of Americans doesn’t want the U.S. to take sides in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and it certainly overlooks some YouGov polling that shows that less than 40% of the public considers Israel an ally. It’s not at all clear that the alliance is as “outstandingly popular” as Oren claims. Assuming that the alliance was “outstandingly popular,” it wouldn’t mean anything for the substance of actual U.S. policy vis-a-vis Israel. If public opinion were sharply against the alliance, and the public had an extremely negative view of the country in question, as it does concerning, say, Pakistan, the U.S. would maintain the alliance for reasons that have essentially nothing to do with American public opinion. Oren refers to realist views on the importance of public opinion as if they were the realists’ preferences about how policy should be made. They are not. They are statements about how states, even democratic states, make policy decisions.

Public sentiment and special interest groups are two very different things. Interest groups represent a sliver of the general public, and on their main issues they are usually wildly unrepresentative of what the public says that it wants. This is understandable. Interest groups are made up of activists and ideologues who have strongly-held, informed, and often slanted views of policy issues, and usually none of these things applies to the general public. It is understandable and perhaps inevitable that activists that clearly don’t represent the broader public will try to cloak themselves in the mantle of majority support. As the activists would be the first to admit if public opinion were against them, whether or not the majority endorses a policy has no bearing on its merit or lack thereof, but as long as they can (selectively and misleadingly) cite poll results that make their position seem much more popular than it is they will keep doing so. As long as the rest of us keep buying their spin as fact, they will continue to benefit from this exercise.

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Peace Is Not “Isolation,” and Attacking Libya Is Not European Defense

In the face of this lack of will on the part of the Europeans, the United States’ readiness to rapidly and constantly support the pursuit of European interests out of solidarity to the alliance will also diminish, as is currently illustrated in the case of Libya. The consequence of this is that NATO may transform into a forum for nonbinding trans-Atlantic political discourse. With solidarity fading away within the military alliance, the Europeans would be relegated to ensuring their security on their own in the future.

That is a scenario that surely cannot be in Germany’s interests if it wants to pursue a serious, credible and responsible security policy. However, Germany’s present self-isolation leaves the international community with the fatal impression that Germany, the former main beneficiary of NATO, is no longer available to shape a NATO strategy for the future. And why isn’t it? Because of ignorant, nationalist-pacifist provincialism. ~Jorg Himmelreich

When Americans wring their hands about German pacifism, it is fairly strange, but when Germans do it there is something really bizarre going on. It is amusing that Himmelreich feels the need to throw in the label nationalist as part of his indictment, as if the greatest danger from nationalism is its capacity to undermine multilateral wars of choice. If this were what we could reliably expect from nationalists, we might want to encourage them.

On the whole, Himmelreich’s complaints about Germany’s “self-isolation” ring just as false as standard American warnings about the bogey of “isolationism.” In both cases, the supposed isolation under discussion is not anything like diplomatic, economic, or cultural isolation. Merkel isn’t suggesting that Germany put itself under an embargo, nor is she saying that Germany should break off relations with all other nations. There is no question of Germany’s pursuing autarky, or hunkering down behind fortifications, or cutting itself off from the rest of the world. What we’re talking about is an unwillingness to support the killing of foreigners.

One can debate the merits of that decision, but instead of doing that the Germany-bashers have usually resorted to deriding Germany for its lack of cosmopolitan belligerence. That’s why we keep hearing how the European project is being jeopardized by a “nationalist” Germany, as if Merkel were Marine Le Pen, and the government that has so far kept the EU and euro from imploding is being accused of provincialism! Of course, if one is provincial, ignorance has to come with the territory, because it’s obvious that only an ignorant person who knew nothing about Libya would not want to attack it. The attackers are clearly so very well-informed.

I keep seeing claims that Libya has marked the death of a common European defense policy, but this is the same abuse of language that militarists engage in here in the U.S. when they refer to spending for power projection to prosecute wars of choice as “defense.” Libya is showing the limits of how far European governments can project power outside Europe, but in the case of Libya this has nothing to do with a common European defense. Europeans will have to spend more on their militaries to provide for such a defense. If Libya reveals the obsolescence of NATO and speeds that up it may have at least one small redeeming element. What Libya does not show is an unwillingness on the part of Germany to support a common European defense policy. It shows that Germany is not interesting in using European resources to settle a North African civil war.

Describing neutrality or inaction or opposition to war as “isolation” is an impressive abuse of language. One of the first things that happens when a war starts is that the relations that previously existed between two or more nations are severed. Economic and diplomatic ties are broken. Governments that do not participate in ongoing wars are among the least isolated in that they can conduct commerce and diplomacy much more freely, and their relations with other governments are not distorted by war aims.

It would be one thing if Germany were one of a few states objecting to the Libyan war. Then it might be the case that Germany was isolating itself diplomatically by staking out an extremely unpopular position. That isn’t what’s happening. Germany happens to be on the same side regarding Libya as the vast majority of governments in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and in Europe it is on the same side as the second-largest non-U.S. member of NATO and one of the six largest members of the EU. Most of NATO is uninvolved in Libya, and even some of the governments formally supporting the mission are not fully committed. It is not Germany that is isolating itself, but rather those few European states that are carrying out the attacks on Libya.

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