Daniel Larison

Global “Policing” Is a Recipe for Chaos

Bret Stephens confirms that his idea of global “policing” involves wrecking whole countries with no attempt to repair the damage:

One of the points I make in the book is this idea that we get from Colin Powell that there is a “Pottery Barn Rule” in foreign policy — you know, “You break it, you fix it…” That should not be a rule for the United States [bold mine-DL].

America does not have some kind of moral responsibility for fixing other societies.

It might be true that the U.S. doesn’t have a responsibility to fix other societies’ problems, but it does assume a responsibility for restoring order when it overthrows another government and plunges a country into anarchy. That’s the point of the “you break it, you buy it” rule. The rule doesn’t require the U.S. to intervene in order to repair damage caused by others, but it does imply that the damage that the U.S. causes is the responsibility of the U.S. It is telling that Stephens misunderstands the rule, and it is even more significant that he rejects the idea that the U.S. is responsible for what it does. Stephens’ notion of global “policing” amounts to a pretext for regime change with no concern for what takes the place of the deposed government. Needless to say, this has nothing to do with shoring up international order. If taken seriously, it would be a recipe for chaos wherever the U.S. intervened.

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Power’s Warning: Don’t Think About Failed Interventions

U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Bob Sommer

Samantha Power is worried that you may have noticed the repeated failure of U.S. military interventions:

Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, warned the American public against a kind of intervention fatigue, emphasizing that U.S. leadership is needed now more than ever amid global threats from Ebola to the Islamic State.

“I think there is too much of, ‘Oh, look, this is what intervention has wrought’ … one has to be careful about overdrawing lessons,” [bold mine-DL] Power said Wednesday during the Defense One Summit.

In order to “overdraw” lessons, one would have to have at least tried to learn something from failed interventions in the recent past. There’s no evidence that this is something that Power has tried to do. It’s striking that she thinks there is too much of this reflection taking place when it is actually quite rare, if it happens at all. The fact that she thinks it is something that Americans need to be warned away from doing is revealing–and damning. She might as well be saying, “Don’t think too much about the terrible consequences of the reckless policy I supported, because that will make it harder for me to sell you on the next one.” Warning about “intervention fatigue” is just another version of railing against a non-existent “isolationism”: it conjures up something intended to frighten and distract the audience from the very real harm that interventionists’ bad policies have done.

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Lessons from the Libyan War

Noah Millman has written a typically very thoughtful response to yesterday’s post on the Libyan war. Here is one of the lessons he draws from the intervention:

But another lesson is that thinking in terms of narrative satisfaction can blind us to the reality of conditions that will actually determine the outcome. Just because it would be a lot more satisfying, emotionally, for the next “beat” to be for Qaddafi to fall, doesn’t mean that’s the beat we’re going to get. And if we “force” a re-write, we’re in a whole new story altogether.

Something else we saw in the Libyan war that crops up again and again in our policy debates is the tendency that many policymakers and politicians have to believe our own propaganda or the propaganda of “our” side in a foreign conflict without asking very many questions. In the Libyan case, this involved attributing to anti-regime forces the “values” that Americans wanted to believe that they had, and it meant investing the conflict in Libya with far greater global significance than it actually possessed. The notion that the fate of the “Arab Spring” hinged on whether or not the U.S. and its allies intervened in Libya was a highly speculative, unfounded assumption. Interventionists exaggerated the importance of the conflict to the wider region in order to make an intervention seem more worthwhile. The earlier assumption that the “Arab Spring” was something that the U.S. ought to be encouraging went unexamined, once again because our “values” dictated that Washington must do this.

Inside the administration, the idea that a Libyan intervention would allow the U.S. “to realign our interests and our values” was reportedly a significant factor in the decision to take military action. Thus one faulty assumption (that our “values” were at stake) led to another (we must “realign our values and our interests”) and that led to a terrible decision. The supposed popularity of outside intervention was touted as an opportunity for the U.S. to get on the good side of the nations in the region, but this was always very likely to be a terrible miscalculation. Sending “signals” to other audiences via military action is almost always misguided and futile: the message that you intend to convey isn’t necessarily the one that is received, and sometimes the action is interpreted in a way that you never anticipated. As it turned out, U.S. intervention in Libya was unpopular throughout the region because most people in these countries don’t trust the U.S. and resent our government’s interference no matter which side Washington chooses to take. The belief that the U.S. can ever earn goodwill by bombing another country and destroying its government is one that should have died in 2003, but unfortunately it is one that persists and continues to misinform our debates about Syria and Iran, and will probably have pernicious effects in more debates in the future.

One more lesson that the Libyan war should teach us is that the U.S. and its allies are far too quick to want to take sides in foreign disputes and conflicts, and they are then far too eager to throw their weight behind that side in order to make sure that “our” side wins. The impulse to “do something” is matched in intensity and evil effects only by the instinct to take sides. We should be able to recognize that in some conflicts the U.S. has no side to support and often has little or nothing at stake in the outcome of the struggle. That ought to put the U.S. in a position where it can serve as a neutral mediator to find a way to resolve the conflict without further bloodshed. Instead the U.S. too often chooses to pick a side and helps to intensify and escalate conflicts that might be limited and contained through mediation.

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Jefferson and the Uses of U.S. Power

Dan Drezner urges neoconservatives to pay more attention to Thomas Jefferson:

It’s often forgotten that as president, it was Thomas Jefferson who established the U.S. Military Academy. I was struck by a quotation of Jefferson’s that is mounted on the stairwell: “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power, the greater it will be.”

Drezner goes on to say that he hopes neoconservatives “realize that there is more than one way to think about the use of force in world politics,” but I suspect he knows as well as anyone that they realize this and they don’t care. Neoconservatives assume that power is there to be used and used often, and at least for some of them it has to be used for grandiose and ambitious purposes, or else it isn’t worth having. They also mistakenly believe that power will atrophy when not exercised frequently, which is why they wrongly believe that constantly frittering away U.S. strength in one conflict after another is perfectly acceptable and even desirable. Neoconservatives and many other hawks and hard-liners along with them view these things as former Secretary Albright did when she reportedly asked Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” The idea that the U.S. ought to conserve its strength, husband its resources, and exercise restraint gets in the way of activism and meddling overseas, and so they’ll have none of that.

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The Illegal War Against ISIS and Congress’ Abdication

Michael Hogue
Michael Hogue

The New York Times demands that Congress act on a new AUMF for the war against ISIS before the new year:

While it is important for Congress to repeal the 2002 authorization for the Iraq War and terminate the 2001 authorization against Al Qaeda, the priority in the lame-duck session should be to pass a new and separate authorization for the war against ISIS.

If the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is unable to get such an authorization approved, Mr. Kaine and others should try to attach it as an amendment to other related legislation. It’s past time for Congress to exhibit some courage and take a stand.

There’s no question that members of Congress have been evading their responsibilities on the war against ISIS, but they have been allowed and even encouraged in this abdication by an administration that pretends that it doesn’t need a new authorization measure and has made no attempt to provide Congress with a draft resolution that it can consider. Despite Obama’s announcement that he wants Congress to pass a new AUMF, he and his officials have done nothing to move that process forward:

But senior officials at the Pentagon and on the Hill say they don’t know what the administration will propose for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), or when the White House will propose it — if at all.

This may reflect the administration’s view that the president doesn’t need a new resolution authorizing the use of force, or it may simply be evidence of carelessness and incompetence on the part of administration officials. Whatever the reason, Obama has not only been waging an illegal war for more than three months, but he is confirming how little he cares about Congress’ role on this issue by taking no steps to give the new war against ISIS a firm legal foundation. He is counting on Congress’ irresolution and dereliction of duty to let him continue waging his illegal war without a debate or a vote in Congress, and he has already made clear that he thinks he can wage this war even if Congress does nothing.

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Are Americans “Squeamish” About War?

Tyler Cowen makes a number of questionable claims in this article, but this is by far the strangest:

To make matters more difficult, the American public is often pretty squeamish about violence and conflict abroad. That’s overall a good thing, but it means a “get tough” foreign policy isn’t very easy to implement in a credible fashion [bold mine-DL]. (For instance the American public approved when President Obama neglected his “line in the sane” [sic] commitment regarding Syria and chemical weapons use.) For better or worse, the electorate stands in the way of what might otherwise be a strategically optimal foreign policy.

Cowen doesn’t ever spell out what he means by “strategically optimal foreign policy,” so it’s hard to know what bother him about American “squeamishness” in the Syrian case. Does he think that the U.S. should have bombed Syria last year? That is what this paragraph implies, but it’s not clear how this serves his stated goal of “having a good foreign policy.” In what way would it have been “optimal” for the U.S. to get into a new war with the Syrian government last year? Cowen is frustratingly vague about what he thinks a “good” foreign policy would look like beyond endorsing existing alliances. It’s not entirely clear whether he buys into discredited claims about the importance of maintaining “credibility,” and he doesn’t quite say whether he accepts the hawkish argument that American “credibility” was squandered in Syria to our detriment.

As for the idea that Americans are “squeamish” about violence overseas, I don’t know what he’s talking about. Americans recoiled from intervention in Syria last year because they didn’t see how military action would achieve anything, and they wanted the U.S. to steer clear of Syria’s civil war. It wasn’t because they were “squeamish” about the use of force, but because they didn’t approve of what they perceived to be a futile mission. No one can seriously look back at the modern history of American public opinion on war and conclude that Americans are put off by the idea of violence and conflict. That was what made the Syrian debate last year so extraordinary. Unlike virtually every other proposed intervention before or since, a large majority rejected military action. Unfortunately, as the popular response to the war against ISIS has made clear, that appears to have been the exception. Most Americans are usually only too ready to support military action when the president claims it to be necessary, so it is strange to think that the electorate is “getting in the way.” It was very welcome when a large majority did get in the way of a misguided plan to bomb Syria, but as we know very well that is not at all common.

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Revisiting the Libyan War

Marc Lynch revisits what academics said about the Arab uprisings as they were happening, and identifies what many got wrong. He addresses his support for intervention in Libya:

The Libya intervention is one of the very few military actions in the region that I have ever supported – and the results overwhelmingly suggest that I was wrong. I do not in any way regret my support for that intervention, which saved many thousands of lives and helped to bring an end to a brutal regime. Still, it is impossible to look at Libya’s failed state and civil war, its proxy conflict and regional destabilization, and not conclude that the intervention’s negative effects over the long term outweigh the short-term benefits. Moammar Gaddafi’s fall, combined with the prominence of armed militias, left Libya without a functioning state and little solid ground upon which to build a new political order. The likelihood of such an outcome should have weighed more heavily in my analysis.

Lynch is to be commended for reviewing his earlier claims and acknowledging his errors. There aren’t many supporters of the Libyan war or any other recent war that have done this much honest reevaluation of their earlier arguments. I don’t quite understand why he doesn’t regret his earlier position when he agrees that “the intervention’s negative effects over the long term outweigh the short-term benefits,” but that isn’t as important as recognizing the failure of the intervention. It should go without saying that a “humanitarian” intervention that causes more suffering and loss of life than it prevented has to be judged a failure. If the Libyan war is widely understood to have failed, perhaps that may make future administrations more reluctant to rush into the middle of a foreign civil war.

Lynch also reconsiders his original reasons for supporting the intervention and assesses how they stand up in retrospect:

The reasons for rethinking the intervention go beyond Libya itself. I had placed a great deal of emphasis on the demonstration effects of an intervention. My hope had been that the intervention would act to restrain other autocrats from unleashing deadly force against protesters and encourage wavering activists to push forward in their demands for change. Unfortunately, this only partially panned out and had unintended negative effects. U.S. cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council states in Libya compelled it to turn a blind eye to the simultaneous crushing of Bahrain’s uprising.

Frankly, the demonstration effect and deterring-dictators arguments never made much sense, as I said many times back in 2011. GCC countries were so enthusiastic for backing anti-regime forces in part because it allowed them to divert attention away from the crackdown in Bahrain. That was obvious from the very start of the Libyan war. No government that bordered on Libya wanted outside intervention, presumably because they feared that they would be adversely affected by it. The Arab governments that most wanted the war were the ones least likely to suffer from its ill effects. The fact that authoritarian GCC governments supported this “humanitarian” intervention should have been a reason to be very wary of military action instead of being an argument in its favor.

He continues:

The worst effects were on Syria. The Libya intervention may have imposed a certain level of caution on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leading him to search for just the right level of repression to stay beneath the threshold for international action. But that didn’t last for long and his violence quickly escalated. Meanwhile, the Libya intervention almost certainly encouraged Syrian activists and rebels – and their backers in the Gulf and Turkey – in their hopes for a similar international campaign on their own behalf. That unintended moral hazard probably contributed to the escalation of Syria’s civil war.

Again, this was fairly clear at the time, and opponents of the Libyan intervention saw it. Intervention in Libya was always likely to give protesters and rebels in other countries false hope that their plight would trigger outside intervention as well. The moral hazard may not have been intended, but it was there for all to see.

The point of reviewing all of this is to remind everyone that the arguments for intervention in Libya were extraordinarily weak and many of them were based on little more than wishful thinking, and opponents saw through all of them at the time. The next time that there is a crisis or a new conflict erupts, it would be wise to remember all of the far-fetched and unfounded arguments that interventionists made in the Libyan case and how thoroughly wrong they were about almost everything.

Update: On Twitter, Marc Lynch clarified what he meant when he said he didn’t regret supporting the intervention.

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2016 and the Third-Term “Curse”

John Judis looks ahead to the presidential election and offers a reason to doubt that the Democratic candidate will win:

The chief obstacle that any Democratic nominee will face is public resistance to installing a president from the same party in the White House for three terms in a row. If you look at the presidents since World War II, when the same party occupied the White House for two terms in a row, that party’s candidate lost in the next election six out of seven times.

I made a similar point recently, so I agree with Judis that voters’ fatigue with the Democrats could be a serious problem for the Democratic nominee in 2016. It could be an even greater problem for Clinton because she has nothing new or interesting to offer the voters. Of course, there is nothing magical about a party not being able to win a third consecutive presidential election. The elder Bush won in 1988, and Gore, Nixon, and Humphrey all very narrowly lost. Prior to WWII, Republicans had two stretches of continuous control of the presidency that lasted twelve years or more (1897-1913; 1921-1933), and Democratic presidents had an uninterrupted hold on the White House for five full terms. While it has become less common since the 1940s, it has happened often enough in earlier periods of U.S. history that we can’t assume that it won’t become a more common occurrence at some point in the future. That said, there are good reasons to think that the third-term issue will put the Democratic nominee at a meaningful disadvantage in the next election.

Judis mentions the accumulation of grievances over eight years in power, and that is one reason for the movement of voters from one column into another. Another is the demoralization and dissatisfaction of a party’s supporters. Following two terms that didn’t deliver as much as they had expected, or that produced unwelcome policy decisions, some voters that would otherwise be inclined to favor the incumbent party find reasons not to favor a third term in power. They may simply stay home, or they may even switch to the other party out of frustration with their own party’s leadership. On the other side, the party that has been out of power for eight years is usually much more motivated. It has the luxury of being the out-party, which means that it doesn’t have to defend and justify the record of the outgoing administration, and it can present itself to the public as a necessary and potentially refreshing change from the party in power.

The candidate from the president’s party has a harder task. The nominee has to strike a balance between endorsing most of the sitting president’s record and offering more of the same to satisfy partisan voters and criticizing enough of the same record to avoid being weighed down by the administration’s baggage. When a president has mediocre or poor approval ratings, as Obama probably will have at the end of his term, it becomes almost impossible for a candidate to find the right balance between approval and criticism. That is because it becomes much more difficult to win over alienated voters without further demoralizing one’s own core supporters. Even in cases of extreme presidential unpopularity, most candidates for the nomination don’t want to be seen as trashing or repudiating the president. Most partisans that vote in primaries remain supportive of the president at least as long as he is still in office, and so the eventual nominee has to cater to that. An added difficulty is that the presidential party’s nominee usually is very closely aligned with the administration on policy, so that it is only too easy for the other party to use the administration’s failings as a bludgeon against the nominee. That attack becomes even easier when the nominee is very closely associated with the administration or even served as a part of it.

It’s entirely possible that the Republicans will nominate such a poor and unappealing candidate that these disadvantages will be outweighed by the Republican’s flaws, but assuming that they choose a reasonably competent and likable nominee 2016 could easily prove to be another disappointing year for Democrats.

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Santorum’s Terrible Foreign Policy Record and Hopeless Campaign

Rick Santorum. Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

Rick Santorum still can’t take a hint that his political career is over:

As he continues to lay the groundwork for a potential second presidential bid, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum will deliver a foreign policy address at Northwestern University on Wednesday, RealClearPolitics has learned.

The speech will outline Santorum’s perspective on what he calls “the mounting conflict between the Western civilized world and radical Islamists” and is part of his continuing effort to push back aggressively against the Republican Party’s noninterventionist faction.

Coming on the heels of a previous foreign policy address at Liberty University earlier this month, Santorum’s speech will also seek to boost his profile in advance of a possible presidential run, making the case that he has the most extensive foreign experience of anyone in the GOP field.

It’s true that Santorum spent a full twelve years in the Senate, but it would be a mistake to think that this experience qualifies him to be trusted on matters of foreign policy. Though he was obsessed with supposed foreign threats while in the Senate, he proved to be a very poor judge of them. During his time in office, Santorum distinguished himself by being one of the most unreasonable and fanatical hawks of the Bush era. Like other hard-liners then and later, he faulted the Bush administration for being insufficiently aggressive and for being too accommodating to “the enemy” that he claimed Bush was too afraid to call by name.

An early adopter of the nonsense phrase “Islamic fascism,” Santorum claimed that Iran was bent on world conquest. He also claimed during his failed re-election campaign that Iran was “the greatest enemy we will ever face,” and throughout that campaign he trafficked in the most desperate fear-mongering. In addition to all this, Santorum had a history of hallucinating threats that didn’t exist in Latin America, and perceiving a worldwide “authoritarian axis” for which there was no evidence.

There is probably no other recent member of the Senate other than McCain, Graham, and Lieberman who has been wrong more often on so many foreign policy issues in such a short period of time as Santorum. The fact that he could have ever been considered a suitable candidate for president on the basis of such an embarrassing record remains an indictment of the GOP and a mockery of our foreign policy discourse. Fortunately, there are good reasons to expect that another Santorum campaign would go nowhere, which is just where it deserves to go.

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Why the Myth of “Winning” the Iraq War Is So Harmful

Hertog Foundation

Paul Pillar explains why delusional claims that the Iraq war was “won” at any point are so damaging:

The damage that the myth about Iraq inflicts is not limited to fostering public misunderstanding about an important episode in modern American history, although that is indeed harmful. It is not limited to fostering misunderstanding about who was right and who was wrong about that episode and thus who should and should not be listened to on similar matters, a misunderstanding that also is harmful. The damage extends to the encouragement of more general misconceptions about efficacy of the exertion of U.S. power overseas.

Pillar is right about all of these, but I’d like to add a few comments. Believing in the “surge” myth in particular prevents many Americans from reaching sober and informed conclusions about the wisdom of persisting in failed wars. When one accepts the falsehood that the “surge” kept the Iraq war from being lost, it becomes much easier to argue for escalating any conflict, no matter how futile it is. Saying “the surge worked!” has served as an all-purpose retort to every argument for cutting our losses, admitting failure, and minimizing the costs of a disastrous policy. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t true. It is flattering, which is so often much more appealing than the truth. It encourages the illusion that hard power can never really fail despite its obvious failures. That then encourages a stubborn insistence on continuing wars for many years after it has become obvious that a U.S. military presence in the country is having undesirable and truly harmful effects. Meanwhile, the related myth that the Iraq war was lost only after the “surge” had “won” it counsels that the U.S. should never withdraw its forces from a country once it has fought a war there, and its advocates try to get the rest of us to believe that as long as U.S. forces are still present in the country the war can never really be lost.

This myth does damage to our foreign policy debate in another way: its adherents are committed to rejecting any reassessment of the wisdom or justification of the war. That in turn makes them actively hostile to anyone that is interested in acknowledging and learning from the massive errors in judgment and understanding that made the war possible in the first place. The myth feeds the hawks’ ideological fantasy that the Iraq war was not wrong in principle from the very beginning, but only temporarily went awry because of poor execution that was corrected later. That allows hawks to advocate for hard-line and aggressive measures without having to account for the disaster of the Iraq war, because they have already convinced themselves that they and their allies had nothing to do with the failed war.

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