Daniel Larison

Throwing Weapons At The Problem

The Chicago Tribune laments that the U.S. isn’t already throwing weapons at the Ukraine crisis:

In that context, it was small consolation to hear an adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry say that the United States is “looking at” possibly sending arms to Ukraine. It would have been more heartening to hear that the weapons and equipment were already there or at least on their way.

Heartening for whom? I suppose it would make some Western interventionists happy that the U.S. was “doing something,” but I’m not sure who else would be encouraged by a decision that would be simultaneously provocative and useless. It would be provocative because it would deepen U.S. involvement in the conflict, and that would only encourage Russia to continue its agitation and incursions. It would be useless because the Ukrainian military is in no condition to fight. Even some of the advocates for sending arms to Ukraine have acknowledged the Ukrainian military’s lack of readiness and training. If U.S. shipments of arms encouraged Ukraine to try to fight a war that it couldn’t win, it would make things even worse and help give Russia a pretext for a larger military intervention.

The Tribune also proposes doing something another useless thing simply because it will annoy Russia:

It could revive the missile defense system that was planned for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic but then canceled. Putin said it was a threat to Russian security, which at the moment sounds like an excellent reason to build it.

This must be one of the worst reasons to revive a costly, unworkable system that most people in the host countries didn’t even want. Like other knee-jerk hawkish responses to the crisis, this pays no attention to whether it is desirable for the U.S. and its allies to do something, and focuses solely on whether it will anger Moscow. Making policy primarily to spite other governments always leads to poor and rash decisions, as this editorial proves.

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The BJP and India’s No First-Use Policy

Krista Mahr reports on a new poll showing that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies are on track to win India’s parliamentary elections:

The latest NDTV poll suggests that the BJP and its allies are slated to pass the crucial 272 mark and win 275 legislative seats — a very narrow majority in the 543-seat legislative body, but still enough of a lead to give the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition the mandate to govern without the support of powerful regional parties.

If that happens, it would be the first time in a decade that the BJP will be leading a government. There was recently some speculation that a BJP-led government would undo India’s earlier no first-use policy regarding nuclear weapons on account of language in the party’s election manifesto. Ankit Panda sums up the BJP’s later clarifications:

In an effort to clarify the statements made in the manifesto, BJP President Rajnath Singh told the Hindustan Times that ”the no first-use policy for nuclear weapons was a well thought-out stand of the [former BJP-led coalition government].” He added that the BJP does not intend to reverse it in any way. According to the Hindustan Times, BJP “party leaders say the policy has not only boosted India’s standing in the international community but also gives a certain amount of leverage in foreign-policy matters.”

The confusion about this seems to have come from the party’s election manifesto, which stated the intention to “revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine. Panda explains what this phrase will most likely mean in practice:

India continues to work towards fielding a triad-based deterrent (meaning that it would field land-, air-, and sea-based delivery systems). Should the BJP come to power, it would likely allocate more resources toward this goal, empowering India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC) and National Command Authority (NCA) in the process.

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Alliances and “Credibility” Arguments

Mira Rapp-Hooper criticizes the idea that Crimean annexation has damaging implications for U.S. security commitments elsewhere:

According to this narrative, Washington’s failure to uphold the 1994 Budapest Memorandum portends U.S. complacency if Japan faces an attack in the East China Sea. It is tempting to attribute this to an acute case of “resolve anxiety,” but it is also important to parse why the failure of one international agreement does not imply the frailty of them all. If the United States is to remain powerful and engaged in the world at a time of great resource constraints, it will need to choose its battles wisely. This, in turn, requires that we acknowledge that not all international commitments are created equal [bold mine-DL].

In this case, Rapp-Hooper is comparing the Budapest Memorandum with the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty. As she notes, the former has no enforcement mechanism, and doesn’t really require its signatories to do very much at all. U.S. security guarantees to Japan, on the other hand, are part of a formal, ratified treaty that obliges the U.S. to defend Japan if it is attacked. Just as U.S. commitments to its treaty allies haven’t been undermined by the “failure” to attack Syria, they haven’t been jeopardized by the Ukraine crisis, either. These other cases tell us nothing about U.S. willingness to defend its allies, and it is extremely misleading to argue that formal commitments to allies are somehow on the same level as non-binding agreements or vague presidential threats.

Rapp-Hooper continues with a discussion of credibility:

Scholarly work suggests that states assess their opponents’ interests and capabilities with respect to the particular object under dispute, as opposed to their diffuse reputations for resolve towards all commitments in all cases. Nonetheless, credibility is necessarily perceptual and difficult to measure, and we do not have a firm understanding of whether and how it transfers across domains. It is, therefore, helpful to return to the formal definition of credibility itself: do the actors involved have the incentive to behave as they say they will? The Budapest Memorandum and U.S.–Japan guarantee could not look more different where incentives are concerned [bold mine-DL].

As she goes on to say, the U.S. can’t afford to treat every pledge as if it were the same as the commitments made to treaty allies:

But if the United States is to retain the resources to guarantee the security of thirty countries worldwide, it will not be able to make the same promises to states that do not hold those commitments.

These are the commitments that matter most, and they are the ones that the U.S. is truly expected to honor, which means that it will have to put them first and not exhaust itself by trying to back up every small pledge that it may have made over the years.

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Israel’s Unsurprising Response to Crimean Annexation

Ha’aretz reports that the Obama administration is annoyed that Israel puts its own interests first:

White House and State Department officials in Washington have built up a great deal of anger over Jerusalem’s “neutrality” regarding Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula. Senior figures in the Obama administration have expressed great disappointment with the lack of support from Israel for the American position on the Ukraine crisis and with the fact that the Israeli government puts its relations with the United States and with Russia on the same plane.

The U.S. doesn’t have to be happy that Israel isn’t taking the anti-Russian line that it wants on Ukraine, but it is a little odd that anyone in Washington expected a significantly different response. The administration is free to be disappointed with Israel’s reaction to the annexation of Crimea, but no one should have been surprised by it. This is hardly the only example of how dysfunctional this patron-client relationship has become, but it is an instructive one.

Even if it weren’t the case that Russian-Israeli relations have become much stronger in recent years, it would be odd for Israel to condemn another state for laying claim to territory outside its recognized borders. Like many other states that don’t want to rile Russia over matters that don’t directly concern them, Israel isn’t going out on a limb to uphold a principle that it doesn’t take seriously. Even if a significant number of the current government’s supporters weren’t Russian-speakers with connections to Russia and other former Soviet republics, Israel has no particular interest in upholding the sanctity of other states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. Israel has violated both on more than a few occasions over the decades and reserves the right to do so in the future, so why exactly is it going to denounce Russia for doing things that are in some ways less egregious than its own past actions? Israel stands to gain nothing by antagonizing Russia on this issue, and it knows that risks nothing by disappointing Washington. Besides, the U.S. isn’t obliged to agree with Israel on how best to address Iran’s nuclear program, and has correctly pursued the current diplomatic course over Israeli objections. Why would we expect Israel to line up with the U.S. on an issue that matters even less to Washington? We shouldn’t, so why are so many people in the administration oblivious to this?

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The U.S. Hasn’t “Betrayed” Ukraine

Matthew Kaminski makes an obnoxious accusation about the U.S. and Ukraine:

But Ukraine expects and deserves America’s support by every other means that Washington has refused so far. Betrayal is an ugly word and an uglier deed. Europe and the U.S. will pay dearly for it in Ukraine.

It’s strange to think that the U.S. has “betrayed” Ukraine, when the U.S. has already done far more for Ukraine than it is obliged to do. The U.S. has also done far more than it should have done in Ukraine since this crisis began last year, which has had the unfortunate effect of creating unrealistic expectations about the kind of help that might be forthcoming in the future. If Ukraine’s government expects “America’s support by every other means that Washington has refused so far,” that is only because of rather careless administration rhetoric that led them to believe they would be given much more than they were ever likely to receive. If there is one thing that links all recent administration foreign policy errors, it is the tendency to seem to promise more than it is realistically going to deliver.

The U.S. wasn’t going to provide the sort of backing for the Syrian opposition that its members wanted, but it offered just enough to give them reason to think that more might be on the way. When the administration briefly agitated for military action in Syria last year, this also gave the opposition the wrong idea that substantial future support was still possible. Likewise, there have always been very clear limits on what the U.S. was likely to do to support the Ukrainian government, but those limits have been obscured by more of the rhetorical overkill from Washington that has regrettably become all too common. It wasn’t an error to acknowledge that Ukraine isn’t joining NATO in the near future, nor was it a mistake to rule out military intervention, since neither of these would have the desired effect and would almost certainly have made things worse. The error was to give Ukraine’s leaders false hope that the West would come to their rescue, when that was never going to happen. Fortunately, the administration has not been quite so foolish as to make threats of military action that it would later have to disavow. Nothing would be more senseless than to make a commitment that everyone knows would never be honored simply to avoid an accusation of “abandoning” a country that the U.S. was never going to defend in the first place.

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The Bridegroom Comes


Behold, the Bridegroom is coming at midnight. * Blessed is the servant He shall find awake. * But the one He shall find neglectful will not be worthy of Him. * Beware, therefore, O my soul! Do not fall into a deep slumber,* lest you be delivered to death and the door of the Kingdom be closed to you. * Watch instead, and cry out: * Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God. * Through the intercession of the Theotokos, have mercy on us!

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Blessed Is He That Cometh In The Name of the Lord


By raising Lazarus from the dead before Thy passion, Thou didst confirm the common resurrection, 0 Christ God! Wherefore, we also, like the children bearing the symbols of victory, cry out to Thee, the Vanquisher of Death: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord!

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Making sense of the Cambodian genocide. George Packer reviews Thierry Cruvellier’s The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer.

A huge defeat for Parti Quebecois. Andrew Coyne explains the significance of the PQ’s extraordinary drubbing at the polls.

Resolve and the narcissism of Great Powers. Patrick Porter thoroughly debunks the obsession with “resolve” in foreign policy.

Ukraine is headed for default. Mark Adomanis explains why.

Neoconservatism’s flaws. Noah Millman identifies three of its insights and how they are abused in practice.

Revisiting Bush’s dreadful Second Inaugural Address. Damon Linker criticizes Joseph Bottum’s attempt to spin Bush’s Second Inaugural as an expression of serious Christian thought.

When Captain America hunted communists. Charles Moss recounts the brief history of the comic book character’s “commie smasher” phase in the early 1950s.

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Interventionism and Ignorance (III)

Greg Scoblete responds to Charles Lane’s celebration of hawkish ignorance:

Understanding a subject deeply is certainly no guarantee that you’ll make the correct decisions. Planes crash. People die on operating tables all the time. And being ignorant of a given subject (or country, in this case) doesn’t mean you won’t get it right once and a while (it’s called luck). But over the long term, it strikes me as far better to empower decision-makers that actually know what they’re talking about rather than those who pantomime right-sounding principles as a substitute for genuine understanding.

This touches on what I was saying in the previous post. When someone today says that “Romney was right” on some foreign policy issue, there is no attempt to prove that Romney understood the issue, and that may be because understanding doesn’t matter very much to the person saying this. When someone says “Romney was right,” he is mostly just affirming that he prefers Romney’s hawkish assumptions and instincts. Unfortunately, there is probably no worse combination than hawkish instincts and poor understanding of other countries, as we have been reminded at great cost in Iraq and elsewhere over the past two decades.

Lane’s argument brings to mind Chamberlain’s unfortunate reference to “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” He takes for granted that there are many quarrels around the world between people “of whom we know nothing” (apparently including their location), but the difference is that the lack of knowledge doesn’t discourage him at all from wanting to plunge into the middle of the quarrels. I submit that this is a good example of ideological thinking, and it is this sort of thing that kind of thinking that leads the U.S. into making so many foreign policy blunders.

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Romney Wasn’t “Churchill-Like” on Russia, He Was Thoroughly Ignorant

Robert O’Brien drones on about Churchill for a while, and then makes a truly absurd comparison:

Governor Mitt Romney’s Churchilll-like warning of a resurgent Russia [bold mine-DL] made during the last campaign was mocked by the President and elites, and was rejected by a narrow margin at the polls.

On one level, this is just a silly expression of partisan loyalty, and we could dismiss it as such. However, it is important to understand why Romney’s arguments about Russia during the campaign were wrong. It’s equally important to recognize that they haven’t been vindicated in the least by anything that has happened over the last year.

First, Romney’s arguments were not very well-informed. That was true of most of his statements on foreign policy during the campaign, but when it came to Russia he almost seemed to take delight in his errors. He repeated anti-treaty talking points about New START, but many of these arguments were disingenuous or simply mistaken. On New START, as on other issues, Romney confirmed again and again that he didn’t know what he was talking about. His first op-ed on the subject was appropriately ridiculed as “thoroughly ignorant.” Unfortunately, that described much of what he had to say about Russia while he was a candidate. His views on Russia were mocked because they deserved to be.

Romney adopted knee-jerk anti-Russian positions on every relevant issue, and married them to reflexive anti-Obama criticisms. That’s all that he did. It isn’t surprising, since he had no particular foreign policy experience, nor had he had much of an interest in these issues before he started his seemingly endless presidential campaigning. Romney had no particular insight into Russian behavior, and definitely didn’t understand what motivated Russian leaders or how they viewed U.S. policies in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. If the U.S. had been following his recommendations over the last year, tensions between the U.S. and Russia would likely be even worse, since Romney’s idea for Russia policy in practice was little more than to antagonize Moscow whenever possible.

As Noah Millman noted yesterday, “stopped clocks and hammers are not good guides to policy.” Romney assumed that Russia was an inveterate foe of the U.S. on everything because Russia sometimes opposed U.S. policies. This took an unremarkable observation–Russia strongly disagrees with the U.S. on a few high-profile issues–and turned it into an absurd, discrediting exaggeration. He seemed to think that any kind of diplomatic engagement or accommodation with Russia on any issue was equivalent to appeasement. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t ever explain how the U.S. had “appeased” Russia (or any other government)–he was just reciting from an ideological script that he picked up from other people in his party. This approach would not have avoided clashes with Russia, and it would not have averted or resolved any crises, but it could very easily have contributed to many more conflicts than necessary. Taking such a confrontational approach would not have aided the U.S. in advancing any of its interests, but would have likely committed the U.S. to more aggressive policies out of the misguided belief that Russia was our “number one foe” that had to be countered at every turn.

I’m sure that Romney would like to think of himself as a new Churchill, but the comparison is deeply insulting to Churchill, who at least had a decent understanding of the issues that he spoke about in public.

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