Daniel Larison

Mindless Interventionism Is Bad For America

Leon Wieseltier makes a very tired argument:

It turns out that Obama’s Iraq-based view of America’s role in the world, according to which American preeminence is bad for the world and bad for America, is not shared by societies and movements in many regions. They need, and deserve, support in their struggles.

That doesn’t describe Obama’s view all that well, but then accuracy has never been all that important for Wieseltier. Whether it involves calling Obama “Henry Kissinger’s epigone” or attributing other views to him that he almost certainly doesn’t hold, this is just an exercise in setting Obama up as a caricature of what he thinks realists are. It’s true that there are “societies and movements” that would like the U.S. to provide them with support, and in some cases they might even want military assistance, but while they might need that support it is frequently not the case that the U.S. is obliged to provide it.

If an opposition group or government is calling on the U.S. to do something for them, Wieseltier and other interventionists like him assume that the U.S. should more or less unthinkingly do it. They can’t see any good reason not to, and they’ll dismiss any reason that others might give them. It doesn’t seem to matter whether doing these things serves any discernible U.S. interest, nor does it matter what the costs or possible negative consequences might be. According to this view, the U.S. should intervene again and again because it may advance someone else’s cause. This sets up the U.S. to be suckered into one conflict after another with no end in sight, since there will always be some groups and nations that will hope for and demand U.S. backing. Giving it to them may or may not prove to be good for their countries, but it will definitely be bad for America.

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Killing Syrians For Ukraine (II)

Robert Golan-Vilella also rejects Slaughter’s terrible proposal for what the U.S. should do about Syria and Ukraine:

At a basic level, she is proposing to go to war with one country in order to send a message to the leadership of another one. This is reckless, dangerous stuff. Slaughter also supports striking Syria on its own merits (and has for some time), but what’s important is that the argument she makes here doesn’t even require one to believe that doing so would have any beneficial effects in Syria at all. It could even have negative effects for Syria and the Middle East, as long as they were outweighed by the positive effects in Russia and Ukraine. The end result is to lower the bar for what constitutes an acceptable justification for war to the point where the bar almost no longer exists. And whatever your personal views on Syria or Ukraine might be, that is not an outcome anyone should endorse.

There’s no question that Slaughter’s proposal is appalling, but it is unfortunately just an extension of the “credibility” arguments that Syria hawks were making when the Ukraine crisis escalated in late February and early March. Back then, the standard hawkish complaint was that the “failure” to bomb to Syria had “emboldened” Putin to seize Crimea. This was and is nonsense, but Slaughter has simply taken this terrible argument to its logical conclusion: if bombing Syria supposedly would have deterred Putin in the past, then bombing Syria now should deter him in the future. The carping about the Syria-Ukraine connection a few weeks ago was just opportunistic second-guessing and a lame attempt by Syria hawks to claim vindication after their total defeat in the debate over military action last fall. As far as I know, Slaughter was the first person to take this lousy idea as a prescription for what the U.S. should do in the future. The new argument is wrong for all the same reasons that the old was, but it is set apart by the degree of its recklessness. I suspect that even many Syria hawks would recoil from the idea of attacking Assad’s forces just to “send a message” to a third party, but they wouldn’t disagree with the argument in principle.

It reflects a common error that hawks endorse all the time, which is that U.S. military action–or the threat of it–will demonstrate “resolve” to other states. Hawks routinely mistake their preoccupation with demonstrating “resolve” with other governments’ fixation on the same, but other governments almost always regard these demonstrations as provocations rather than deterrents. Slaughter has simply articulated an extreme version of the same ridiculous argument that most interventionists and hawks make almost every day about “resolve” and U.S. action in the world. Her proposal is reckless and dangerous, but then so are theirs.

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Killing Syrians For Ukraine

Anne-Marie Slaughter reminds us why we’re glad that she doesn’t work in government anymore:

The solution to the crisis in Ukraine lies in part in Syria. It is time for US President Barack Obama to demonstrate that he can order the offensive use of force in circumstances other than secret drone attacks or covert operations. The result will change the strategic calculus not only in Damascus, but also in Moscow, not to mention Beijing and Tokyo.

It makes absolutely no sense to argue that bombing a Russian client in one place will change Russian behavior in another place for the better. Nothing would be more useful for Moscow as a matter of propaganda than to have the U.S. illegally attacking another country. The diversion of resources and attention required to start a war with Syria would make U.S. and allied warnings over Ukraine even less meaningful than they already are. Attacking Syria would distract the U.S. from the Ukraine crisis while wrecking whatever semblance of Western allied unity there is. It would potentially be political suicide for any European governments that went along with it, and it would needlessly open up a rift in NATO at the worst possible moment. Fortunately, it isn’t likely that the administration would be foolish enough to follow this advice, but if they did it would provoke a major backlash here at home. More to the point, while it would drag the U.S. directly into the war in Syria, it would have no beneficial effect on the Ukraine crisis, and would more likely cause Russian hostility to the U.S., our allies, and would-be clients in the region to spike even higher. I suppose it might influence how other governments see the U.S., but not at all in the way that Slaughter imagines. Treaty allies elsewhere in the world would be annoyed that the U.S. is wasting its resources on another unnecessary war in the Near East, and other major powers may conclude that our leaders are reckless and foolish.

Of course, Obama has ordered “the offensive use of force” when he decided to intervene in Libya. Slaughter can’t have forgotten this, since she was a leading advocate of the Libyan war, but strangely she doesn’t mention it here. The Libyan war shows that U.S. uses of force sometimes don’t have the deterrent effect that their advocates believe them to have. Not only was the Libyan war supposed to dissuade other authoritarian rulers from using force against their domestic opponents, but it was supposed to be an example of a “good” intervention backed by international consensus. There was no international consensus, and several of the countries that abstained on the U.N. resolution quickly came to regret their decision to cooperate with the U.S. In Russia’s case, U.S. willingness to wage yet another war for regime change was viewed with alarm and made Moscow even more wary of U.S. intentions. Unfortunately, other dictators were not deterred from using violence to suppress protesters, since the “precedent” of Libya meant nothing to them. In any case, Russia wasn’t impressed by the willingness to use force in Libya. Why would Syria be any different? Slaughter’s explanation is woefully lacking. She writes:

Striking Syria might not end the civil war there, but it could prevent the eruption of a new one in Ukraine.

Hawks are constantly misjudging how other states perceive U.S. actions and therefore fail to anticipate their reactions. Bombing Syria isn’t going to cow Russia into changing its behavior in Ukraine. If anything, it would provoke Russia to escalate its involvement in Ukraine, and perhaps might trigger Russian actions against other “pro-Western” governments in its vicinity. If Russian leaders see their seizure of Crimea and interference in Ukraine as a sort of payback for Western interventionism in the past, is it likely that they will respond to a new military intervention in the way that our interventionists expect? No, it isn’t.

The larger, glaring flaw with Slaughter’s proposal is that she proposes that the U.S. commence hostilities against Syria purely for the sake of making a point to the Russians. There doesn’t appear to be any concern for what effect U.S. intervention would have on Syria itself, or whether it might trigger Iranian retaliation against U.S. clients elsewhere in the region. For the sake of trying to intimidate Russia into changing its behavior in Ukraine, Slaughter is willing to call for military action that could lead to a wider regional war and might derail ongoing diplomacy with Iran. Her argument is the epitome of everything wrong with mindless, knee-jerk interventionism.

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Why Are Republican Senate Candidates Struggling?

Ross Douthat suggests an explanation for why Republican Senate candidates appear to be underperforming once again:

Now one would expect significantly better results for Republican candidates in a midterm, given turnout differences and second-term fatigue and all the rest. I expect better results. But still: This kind of pattern is consistent with a deeper reality, which is that the G.O.P. is still a weak party with a weak message, and weak parties with weak messages have a way of underperforming the fundamentals, struggling in races that feature larger electorates and more persuadable voters (hence the Senate-House difference), and losing narrowly where they confidently expect to win.

The Arkansas race is a case in point. By most accounts, the Republican challenger Tom Cotton is one of the best recruits for this election cycle that the party has, he is running against a somewhat unpopular incumbent in a state that overwhelmingly disapproves of Obama, and he still isn’t ahead of Pryor. I doubt that he trails him by a 10-point margin, but he shouldn’t be trailing at all. Among likely voters, the race is clearly close, but by all rights Cotton should have a sizable lead. The trouble for Republicans is that one of their top Senate candidates is in a dead heat or possibly losing in a state where he is considered the slight favorite. If that’s true for Cotton, it is difficult to see how the GOP will pick up enough seats to win a majority.

The numbers for Democratic incumbents can’t be encouraging for Republicans, but what ought to worry them a lot more is what the polls have been showing in Kentucky. In a year that ought to favor Republicans strongly, none of their incumbents should be vulnerable in the absence of some scandal, but McConnell’s challenger is running even with him. McConnell will presumably hang on to win, but the fact that there is some question whether he will is a warning to the GOP that things are not going nearly as well for them this year as they expect. It may be that there are enough voters wary of giving Republicans control of both chambers that their individual Senate candidates are struggling to pick up otherwise winnable seats.

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The Problem With The Old Hawkishness

Cathy Young makes a tedious argument against the “new isolationism.” Here she repeats a common hawkish claim:

If the United States scales back its presence on the international scene, others will step up to fill the gap.

This is meant to sound menacing and dangerous, because the assumption behind it is that authoritarian regimes and terrorists will be the only ones willing or able to “fill the gap.” This already overstates the danger, since it greatly overestimates the ability of what Young calls “anti-freedom regimes” to project power, but it also ignores that most nations in the world don’t fit this description. The reality is that “the gap,” to the extent that there would be one, would also be filled by many other nations, including quite a few U.S. allies and other democratic states. We should be actively encouraging them to take more responsibility for security in their own regions, which is already very long overdue. The only realistic way to do that is to reduce the U.S. presence in these regions over time.

The U.S. should be expecting its wealthy allies to provide for much more of their own defense over twenty years after the end of the Cold War. The constant fear-mongering about creating a power vacuum makes it more difficult for the U.S. to reduce its presence where it is no longer really needed, and that enables allies to skimp on paying for their own defense. Predictably, the hawkish reaction to the Ukraine crisis has been to demand that the U.S. increase its military presence in Europe, and to take on additional commitments that just add to our liabilities overseas. Hawks pretend to see “retreat” everywhere, when in fact no “retreat” has been happening. Sometimes they use “retreat” to refer to opposition to new commitments and foreign wars, and at other times they use it to condemn decisions to bring prolonged foreign wars to a close. It often just means that the U.S. isn’t being meddlesome enough in foreign conflicts. If hawks had their way, the U.S. would never leave any of the countries where it once fought and it would keep embroiling itself in new conflicts. These people wouldn’t know a prudent foreign policy if they saw one, and if they did they would find a way to denounce it as a failure of “leadership.”

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Thoughtless Rhetoric and Foreign Crises

Josh Rogin reports on Bob Corker’s unhappiness with administration policy on Ukraine:

For Corker, the administration’s approach of talking tough but then not backing it up with action is a repeat of what he has seen in the administration’s policy toward Syria.

It would be more accurate to say that Corker is unhappy with the actions that the administration has taken and wants an even more aggressive policy than the one that the U.S. is pursuing. This is as predictable as it is wrongheaded. If the problem is the gap between “tough” (i.e., careless) rhetoric and mild action, the smart way to remedy this is to cut back on making toothless condemnations and declarations. As in Syria, the answer is not to follow through on a stupid confrontational course of action because you have foolishly painted yourself into a corner with threats you have no intention or ability to enforce. It’s fair to fault the administration for creating another set of false expectations, but the solution isn’t to try desperately to make good on threats and promises that shouldn’t have been made in the first place. Of course, hawks are urging that Obama do just the opposite, because what bothers them is that the U.S. isn’t doing as much they would like to escalate the crisis and commit the U.S. to one side in another conflict.

I suspect that the administration keeps trapping itself in this absurd position in part because it mistakenly concluded that it erred in its response to the Green movement protests in Iran back in 2009. Ever since those protests were put down, the lesson that the administration seems to have drawn is that it should very loudly proclaim support for foreign causes whether it is prepared to do anything on their behalf or not. Domestic critics kept insisting that Obama should “speak out” in support of Iranian protesters, and ever since he has been “speaking out” frequently in ways that commit the U.S. to involve itself in these conflicts and crises without having thought through any of the implications. This may be why it has consistently mishandled so many significant foreign political crises in the years that followed. Instead of placating hawks with “tough” rhetoric, the administration just encourages them to demand equally “tough” (i.e., stupid) actions that it often rightly doesn’t want to take. Unfortunately, because it has already ceded the main argument to the people agitating for “action” it cannot effectively silence these critics with a serious defense of a less activist role. McCain laments that Obama “does not appreciate…the importance of American leadership,” but the real problem is that Obama places far too much importance on it in one crisis after another. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t feel compelled to say or do much of anything.

Corker said something else remarkable:

We talked to the [Ukrainian] opposition [late last year], as we did on Syria, we drew them out, we talked about getting them organized, we talked about how supportive we were [bold mine-DL], and then we did nothing. We left them hanging.

That’s true, and whose fault is that? It is the fault of all the interventionists that keep insisting that U.S. help will soon be on the way, when even they must have known that it wouldn’t be forthcoming. Egging on and encouraging opposition forces with empty promises of future assistance create an expectation that isn’t going to be met. What’s worse, the people making these promises usually know that there is little or chance that the promises will ever be honored, but they make them anyway on the off chance that it will trap the U.S. into doing things that it wouldn’t consider doing otherwise.

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Cameron’s Terrible Foreign Policy Record

Freddy Gray tries to make sense of David Cameron’s political career. Here he comments on Cameron’s recent eagerness for military intervention:

One day, we may look back on Cameron as a heroic figure who only went to war reluctantly for the noblest causes, while at the same time pulling off massive political, economic and cultural reforms at home. But Cameron’s obvious impulsivity in foreign affairs suggests a far different verdict—a meretricious figure who would rush to war for the sake of his own conscience, or just some good headlines.

Cameron had the good fortune to become the leader of the opposition when Blair was still in power, since this made it very easy to position himself as the voice on reason on foreign policy by comparison without having to commit to much. Even though he was a supporter of the Iraq war all along, he benefited from the fact that Blair and Brown were far more deeply implicated in the debacle. In that respect, the long years in the political wilderness were a blessing for the Tories, since it prevented them from being as closely identified with the extremely unpopular war as Labour was. Nonetheless, the foolish impulsiveness that Gray identifies was always there, as we saw when Cameron out-McCained McCain in his enthusiasm for the cause of Georgia during the August 2008 war. Alex Massie recalled that incident in the weeks before the Libyan war this way:

His Dash to Tbilisi was straight from the pages of the John McCain Foreign Policy Manual, substituting feel-good sloganising and photo ops for measured calculations of both the national interest and anything Britain could practically or usefully do.

Since taking office, Cameron has proven that his foreign policy judgment is almost always just as bad as McCain’s. As if the Libyan intervention had not been bad enough, he was quite ready to fall in line behind the U.S. to bomb Syria last year out of a misguided desire to show “solidarity” with the U.S. in waging another unnecessary war. The only good thing that can be said about his foreign policy record is that he at least had the sense to abandon the attack on Syria when Parliament and the public had rejected the idea.

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Fixing the U.S.-Brazil Relationship

Roger Cohen makes the case for an improved U.S.-Brazilian relationship in a somewhat confused way:

There may be more perplexing international relationships in the world than the troubled one between the United States and Brazil, but there are not many. A natural friendship has fissured under unnatural strain [bold mine-DL].

Relations with Brazil have certainly worsened since the revelations about NSA surveillance of Rousseff, but the relationship had been neglected and mishandled long before that. The Brazilian government thought that it had been shabbily treated by the administration when the latter swatted down its joint attempt with Turkey to find a compromise with Iran on the nuclear issue four years ago, and they had a point. Not only did the U.S. react foolishly in that episode, but it then stupidly chose to hold a grudge against the Brazilians for years after that. The resulting resentment is not nearly as “odd” as Cohen would have us think.

Better relations with Brazil would be desirable for the U.S., but we shouldn’t start from the assumption that there is a “natural friendship” between the two countries that has been spoiled by a few events. There is a potentially very constructive relationship that could be cultivated, but that requires understanding that even in an improved relationship the two countries will still have divergent interests from time to time. Washington can’t expect Brazil to follow its lead reliably on many international issues, but it shouldn’t let disagreements on these issues harm the relationship. It also requires not holding it against Brazil when it conducts its own foreign policy that may sometimes be at odds with the U.S. on issues that shouldn’t matter to the bilateral relationship. After all, who really cares if Brazil abstained on the Libya resolution in 2011 or the Crimea vote earlier this year?

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The Hawkish Need To Take Sides (II)

Andrew Stravers makes an unconvincing comparison between the Ukraine crisis and the July crisis of 1914:

The lessons of WWI are clear here. When powerful players in the international scene play a game of vague commitments and uncertain neutrality, the slow march toward a wider war continues.

The comparison inevitably suffers from the major differences between the two periods and enormous changes to the political landscape of Europe in the last ten decades, but it is also marred by overemphasizing one aspect of the July crisis–Britain’s delay in declaring its position–to the neglect of several other more important factors. Had it not been for unwise commitments by other outside powers and a rush to take sides in what could have remained a regional conflict, uncertainty about Britain’s position wouldn’t have mattered at all. Stravers likens modern Germany’s role to that of Britain in 1914, but the two really have nothing in common. The problem for him is not that there is uncertainty about Germany’s position, but rather that it is very likely that Germany isn’t going to support the kind of confrontational policy that Stravers evidently prefers.

His recommendation that Germany should pursue a course of “cutting off energy imports from Russia” is obviously a bad one, but he is making it because he thinks that this will eliminate the “endless uncertainty” about which position Germany will take. Stravers takes a reasonable observation about the crisis a century ago (i.e., that Britain waited too long to declare which side it would take) and wrongly applies it to a very different sort of crisis in which no Western government is remotely prepared to go to war. Stravers takes for granted that there will be “a continued march into a greater conflagration,” but there can’t be anything like that as long as Western governments correctly refuse to be drawn deeper into the conflict. The current crisis in Ukraine and the July crisis have almost nothing in common, but there is same foolish hawkish impulse on the part of some people not directly involved in the conflict to find excuses to take sides.

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The Delusions of American Hawks

Fred Hiatt endorses a silly argument from a few weeks ago:

Recently, in rallying allies to help Ukraine, Obama has shown the kind of leadership that Americans expect of their president.

I know why Hiatt and other delusional hawks feel compelled to say such things, but it’s simply not true. Most Americans aren’t clamoring for U.S. “leadership” on Ukraine, and most generally prefer that the U.S. remain as uninvolved as possible. Insofar as Obama has tried to have an active role in the crisis, he has been going against the wishes of the majority in the U.S. The conceit behind Hiatt’s argument is that Obama makes his foreign policy decisions by following the polls, but on many issues he hasn’t done anything of the sort. When it has suited him, he can be thoroughly oblivious and indifferent to public opinion, and this applies to foreign policy just as much as to anything else.

Obama was slower to push for intervention in Syria than Hiatt wanted, but he still did it before being forced to relent in the face of overwhelming domestic opposition. The abortive attempt to bomb Syria is a good example of how Obama has sometimes conducted foreign policy with contempt for what the majority prefers. He may not have been as aggressive in his response to the Ukraine crisis as virtually every Post columnist demands, but he has involved the U.S. in the crisis to a much greater degree than the public wants. The truth is that Obama has routinely ignored public opinion on both foreign and domestic policy, but has not done so as often or as early as hawks and “centrists” believe necessary. (Hiatt’s lament for Bowles-Simpson is itself an exercise in “centrist” pundit self-parody.) If anything, Obama has allowed his decisions to be warped and driven far too much by what conventional thinking in Washington declares that he must do, and he has repeatedly endorsed policies that are both unpopular and lousy as a result.

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