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How the Obsession With American ‘Leadership’ Warps Foreign Policy Analysis

Ben Denison criticizes [1] a familiar flaw in foreign policy commentary:

When a surprising event occurs that threatens U.S. interests, many are quick to blame Washington’s lack of leadership and deride the administration for failing to anticipate and prevent the crisis. Recent examples from the continuing conflict in Syria, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and even the attempted coup in Turkey, all illustrate how this is a regular impulse for the foreign policy punditry class. This impulse, while comforting to some, fails to consider the interests and agency of the other countries involved in the crisis. Instead of turning to detailed analysis and tracing the international context of a crisis, often we are bombarded with an abundance of concerns about a lack of American leadership.

The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge and take into account the agency and interests of other political actors around the world is one of the more serious flaws in the way many Americans think and talk about these issues. This not only fails to consider how other actors are likely to respond to a proposed U.S. action, but it credits the U.S. with far more control over other parts of the world and much more competence in handling any given issue than any government has ever possessed or ever will. Because the U.S. is the preeminent major power in the world, there is a tendency to treat any undesirable event as something that our government has “allowed” to happen through carelessness, misplaced priorities, or some other mistake. Many foreign policy pundits recoil from the idea that there are events beyond our government’s ability to “shape” or that there are actors that cannot be compelled to behave as we wish (provided we simply have enough “resolve”), because it means that there are many problems around the world that the U.S. cannot and shouldn’t attempt to fix.

When a protest movement takes to the streets in another country and is then brutally suppressed, many people, especially hawkish pundits, decry our government’s “failure” to “support” the movement, as if it were the lack of U.S. support and not internal political factors that produced the outcome. When the overthrow of a foreign government by a protest movement leads to an intervention by a neighboring major power, the U.S. is again faulted for “failing” to stop the intervention, as if it could have done so short of risking great power conflict. Even more absurdly, the same intervention is sometimes blamed on a U.S. decision not to attack a third country in another part of the world unrelated to the crisis in question. In order to claim all these things, one not only has to fail to take account of the interests and agency of other states, but one also has to believe that the rest of the world revolves around us and every action others take can ultimately be traced back to what our government does (or doesn’t do). That’s not just shoddy analysis, but a serious delusion about how people all around the world behave. At the same time, there is a remarkable eagerness on the part of many of the same people to overlook the consequences of things that the U.S. has actually done, so that many of our pundits ignore our own government’s agency when it suits them.

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11 Comments To "How the Obsession With American ‘Leadership’ Warps Foreign Policy Analysis"

#1 Comment By Uncle Billy On September 16, 2016 @ 12:29 pm

Syria is comprised of many factions, both ethnic and religious. Some of this civil war is attributable to the ancient Sunni vs. Shiite religious conflict. How is the United States supposed to prevent the Sunnis and Shiites from killing each other? How will dropping some bombs or even putting US boots on the ground change this ancient religious conflict?

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 16, 2016 @ 1:06 pm

“At the same time, there is a remarkable eagerness on the part of many of the same people to overlook the consequences of things that the U.S. has actually done, so that many of our pundits ignore our own government’s agency when it suits them.”

It is the failure of the after party assessment. Regardless of success or failure (however defined) the tend not to have an after action report by the political class is why there’s little movement in this area.

Seems a dangerous practice to rely on one’s size to shield them from consequences of ineffectual decisions. I think we are already stretched thin, but our size buffers the stumbles.

Like the runner on pain killers, who keeps running despite a shattered knee caps.

Sometimes we press through our pain. Sometimes we need to slow down. Sometimes we need to stop.

But unless we experience the pain – we simply don’t know.

#3 Comment By bt On September 16, 2016 @ 6:16 pm

It all starts with that ridiculous belief in “American Exceptionalism”. The belief that we are the one country, the only country, who is going to save the world, again and again.

Once you’ve adopted this frame of reference, what happens anywhere in the world for any Reason is America’s fault and responsibility. And once you put on those exceptionally colored glasses it’s not possible to have a rational view of other countries and their actions; because they can never be seen as anything other than an affirmation or rejection of our exceptionalism. Another effect of this is, being exceptional, whatever America does is just and pure and right.

It blinds us to our own stupidity and errors, it gets us sucked into other peoples troubles and it makes it easy for other countries to manipulate us to their ends.

#4 Comment By let johnny come marching home On September 16, 2016 @ 7:54 pm

“one also has to believe that the rest of the world revolves around us and every action others take can ultimately be traced back to what our government does (or doesn’t do). That’s not just shoddy analysis, but a serious delusion about how people all around the world behave.”

It also overlooks the quality of those we send to do the meddling and intervening.

We don’t have enough intelligent, educated, competent people.

The imperial Brits had their own problems, Lord knows, But the general level of British competence, intelligence, and education in the Raj and other colonies was far higher than that of our own congeries of corrupt, half-educated hacks and incompetents.

#5 Comment By We’ll Meet Again On September 16, 2016 @ 10:39 pm

This Washington Post quote from Hillary Clinton that appeared in the article TAC links today was very illuminating:

“What do we have NATO for if not to defend our way of life?”

This is a profound and deeply disturbing misunderstanding of what NATO is for. It is emphatically NOT to “defend our way of life”. Its purpose is to defend its members against military attack.

And the aggressive impulse betrayed by those words from the late 1990s has clearly grown stronger. She has come to think that NATO exists in order to force “our way of life” on everyone else.

In 2008 she used “obliterate” to describe the US response to an Iranian attack on Israel, implying readiness to use nuclear weapons against a large civilian population. As Secretary of State she was the principle US backer of the reckless, failed intervention in Libya that reduced it to chaos and unleashed a tidal wave of refugees. Her fingerprints are also all over the humanitarian disasters in Yemen (now considered the worst of the century) and Syria (more of the refugees that are destabilizing Europe).

So you’ll forgive me for being a bit sick of hearing Clinton supporters airily tout her putative “experience”, when she is so patently ignorant of basic matters of fact (like the purpose of NATO) and made so many catastrophic judgments and decisions. I’m even sicker of hearing about her putative temperamental “balance” as contrasted with Trump the putative “loose cannon” when she has already caused so much damage because she was unable to control her impulse to attack.

#6 Comment By bt On September 16, 2016 @ 11:01 pm

“It also overlooks the quality of those we send to do the meddling and intervening.”

I wouldn’t blame the doers. For the most part it is the leaders who set up these “interventions”.

–>The fish stinks from the head.

#7 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 16, 2016 @ 11:07 pm

“It all starts with that ridiculous belief in “American Exceptionalism”. The belief that we are the one country, the only country, who is going to save the world, again and again.”

I think we are exceptional and this is a warped view of what that means. Twisted to justify an aggressive foreign policy posture.

#8 Comment By jk On September 16, 2016 @ 11:20 pm

Here’s Lindsey Graham whining about Israel not getting even a better deal by allowing Israeli firms to use the $38BN US taxdollars pledged to it.

[2]

He really is stupid, you can’t fight the US MIC. And last I checked, he is supposedly an American.

The UK parliament report on the massive failure that is Libya is not getting a lot of airplay unfortunately.

#9 Comment By jk On September 16, 2016 @ 11:24 pm

Here’s a great video from some group of headchoppers, I mean “ally Syrian rebels” kicking out US SOF advisors.

[3]

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 18, 2016 @ 3:53 pm

“He really is stupid, you can’t fight the US MIC. And last I checked, he is supposedly an American.”

We don’t need to fight the MIC. we just need to do a better job of managing what we need from them. There is not doubt that the MIC has made the US (arguably) the single most powerful military force on the planet. There’s no point trying to deny it. While, they should be blocked form policy influence what they have provided in terms of advanced weaponry is why we are able to wheel and deal with such carelessness. I don’t think this is perpetual, but I do think that’s the way it is today.

#11 Comment By need to know On September 18, 2016 @ 7:03 pm

“The UK parliament report on the massive failure that is Libya is not getting a lot of airplay unfortunately.”

That’s cuz Libya is a wholly-owned subsidiary of HRC Disasters Unlimited.

We’ll hear more about the UK parliament’s Libya report after the election. Until then, the MSM will keep anything that threatens to disclose the actual content of her much-touted “experience” (i.e. all the s!!tstorms she kicked up as Secretary of State) under wraps.