Daniel Larison

The ISIS War and America’s Role in the World

DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett (Released)
DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett (Released)

Ross Douthat explains his view of the ISIS war’s expansion into Syria:

But as someone who burned pretty hot against our bombing campaign in Libya, where it was so very easy to imagine both American interests and regional stability suffering more (as I think they pretty clearly have) from Qaddafi’s fall than from his continued tyranny, my skepticism is a little cooler this time in part because the existing situation is already such a disaster, with no upside for American interests whatsoever, that the downsides simply don’t look as frightening as they otherwise might [bold mine-DL]. With the Libya intervention, we risked creating an ISIS-like abyss in Africa; in Iraq and Syria today we already have one, and unless we intend to just shrug off our current role in the world there is a clear need for some kind of American response. I’m doubtful that this is the right one, but not knowing what the right one is my sympathies are with President Obama, and I’ll be hoping that events as they unfold will lay some of my skepticism to rest.

I take Douthat’s point, but this seems the wrong way to judge the current intervention. Like Douthat, I was very much against the Libyan war, and we were opposed to it for many of the same reasons. The fact that intervention there has proven to be so disastrous because the intervention achieved its goal of regime change should make us much more wary of a war whose goal appears to be unachievable. Even though the administration officially claimed not to be fighting a war for regime change in Libya, supporters of the the Libyan war argued that it had “succeeded” because the Libyan government was overthrown. Gaddafi’s downfall was taken as proof that the Libyan intervention had “worked,” and the many foreseeable, negative consequences of this “success” were waved away or simply ignored. Even so, at least with the Libyan war there was some clear idea of how the war (or at least direct U.S. involvement in it) would end and what “success” would look like. Neither of these is true of the ISIS war. In this case, the U.S. isn’t trying to topple an established government, which we know the U.S. can do (however foolish and dangerous it may be to do it), but instead it is trying to eliminate a quasi-state that is very likely to benefit politically from a militarized American overreaction to its provocations. It seems very unlikely that the current intervention can possibly succeed on its own terms, which suggests that the only thing it will do is inflict more death and destruction on two war-ravaged countries for no discernible purpose. It is not enough to say that the potential downsides of this intervention aren’t as frightening as those of previous wars. There needs to be a case made that the intervention is likely to improve conditions in one or both of the countries being bombed, and as far as I can tell that case doesn’t exist. Maybe “some kind” of American response would be useful, but it seems very clear that the response being offered by the administration isn’t it. It is up to the administration to persuade us that the new war is both worth fighting and is likely to succeed, and so far they have failed to do so. That should make us far more skeptical of this war than we were of the war in Libya, and the fact that Obama still thinks intervening in Libya was the right thing to do in spite of the damage it has caused should make us question his judgment on launching this new war even more than we did three years ago.

As for the U.S. role in the world, one needn’t assume that the only choices are to “shrug off” that role or wade into another unnecessary war. The U.S. has trapped itself into fighting unnecessary wars in the past because of the misguided belief that its “credibility” and/or “leadership” was at stake, and it is usually only later after the war ends that we come to realize that the U.S. could continue to have an important and even a leading role in the world without wasting its resources on regional conflicts that posed no direct threat to our security. The U.S. is “indispensable” only in that it permits itself to be lured into unnecessary conflicts out of a misguided sense of obligation, and more often than not U.S. involvement in these conflicts undermines respect for and trust in the U.S. and sometimes even makes the U.S. and the countries involved less secure than they were. Then again, if the only choices are between unnecessary war and “shrugging off” our current role in the world, it seems clear that the wiser thing for the U.S. to do would be to redefine its role in the world so that it is not obliged to act as the world’s fire brigade.

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How Long Will the Public Support the War on ISIS?

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Earlier this week I said that public support for the ISIS war would likely decrease over time. Trevor Thrall made an extended version of the same argument last week:

Public opinion has turned against every American military engagement that has lasted more than a year with the exception of World War II. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: a good number of the majority who supports intervention at the outset has not factored into their thinking all the eventual costs and consequences of the campaign [bold mine-DL]. Eventually, the accumulation of costs—be they casualties, increased terrorism or the economic toll of war—will start to overwhelm the initial support, especially for those without particularly strong reasons to support the war in the first place.

It is impossible to imagine this campaign avoiding a similar fate if it indeed stretches out to three years or beyond.

One of the reasons that many early supporters of military interventions don’t factor costs and consequences into their thinking is that the proponents of the intervention make a point of minimizing and obscuring these from view. Like all advocates pushing a particular policy, interventionists emphasize and exaggerate the dangers of not adopting their recommendations and oversell the benefits of “action.” They typically have a dismissive, cavalier attitude towards unforeseen and adverse consequences of military action and they assume that “there is no real harm in trying.” That arrogance and overconfidence make “action” seem appealing early on, but set the U.S. up for disappointment, frustration, and bitter recriminations later.

In most cases, the near-instant bipartisan consensus that congeals around an interventionist policy and the attendant media demands to “do something” tend to drown out countervailing arguments during the first few months of the campaign. This boosts public support for military action in the short term, but like any bait-and-switch trick it also causes people to sour on the intervention more quickly than they might have done otherwise. More Americans gradually become aware that the threat to the U.S. was overstated (or simply made up) all along, and they start to realize that the war they were originally told about at the beginning is not the one that the U.S. is actually fighting. Because presidents often set unrealistic goals for these interventions, there is usually even greater disillusionment because the war comes to be seen as “not working.” That is a trap that presidents set for themselves. They are the ones promising results that aren’t possible, and those results certainly aren’t possible at the very low cost that the public is willing to accept.

In addition to length of time, the costs of a prolonged intervention naturally drive down support as they increase. Support for military action often starts vanishing as soon as the war involves the loss of American lives or the extended commitment of U.S. resources. Another factor that makes public support for military intervention relatively fleeting is that almost all of the wars that the U.S. has fought in the last fifty years have been unnecessary ones. If a war were genuinely necessary to keep the U.S. secure from a foreign threat, a majority would likely keep backing it for a very long time, but since almost none of our modern wars falls into this category it is unreasonable to expect that there would be sustained public support for a war that didn’t have to be fought. That is especially true for illegal wars waged without Congressional authorization. Whatever the polls may say at the start of a war, the president can’t claim to have obtained the consent of the public unless their representatives have voted specifically to authorize it. The longer that a president waits to seek that authorization, the more that he and his party will come to “own” the war. As a result, it will be easier for the rest of the country to turn against it and make it very unpopular. Clinton and Obama were able to get away with their illegal wars in Kosovo and Libya despite limited public support, but those wars were over in a matter of months. Waging a multi-year war without explicit Congressional authorization and relying on obviously bogus legal arguments to justify doing so will likely make this war unpopular much sooner rather than later.

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The Terrible Idea of Romney 2016

Byron York reports some terrible news:

Romney has seemed to discourage such talk in media appearances, and there has been a general belief that after losing as the party’s nominee, the 67 year-old Romney would return to private life for good.

That belief is wrong. Romney is talking with advisers, consulting with his family, keeping a close eye on the emerging ’16 Republican field, and carefully weighing the pluses and minuses of another run. That doesn’t mean he will decide to do it, but it does mean that Mitt 2016 is a real possibility.

This is an appallingly bad idea for all involved. Let’s start with the Republican Party. Romney was and continues to be deeply distrusted by his party, and they in turn have been bitterly disappointed by their experience with him as their nominee. An attempt to foist him on Republican voters once again would go over badly, not least because his main selling point last time was electability and he lost the general election. He frankly has nothing else to recommend him to most Republican voters, and that will be even more painfully obvious the next time around. His loyalists like to imagine that he is another Nixon, who will come back from an election defeat to become president, but this gives him far too much credit. Romney has done none of the political work to earn another chance at the nomination, and he lost the 2012 election by a much wider margin than Nixon lost in 1960. At least Nixon had been elected on Eisenhower’s ticket twice, while Romney has been entirely unsuccessful in seeking any office at the federal level. Romney has been a serial failure in politics with the one exception of the 2002 gubernatorial election, and he has spent the last decade going out of his way to repudiate everything he claimed to stand for back then.

Most “very conservative” voters would still want nothing to do with him, and most other Republican voters would see no reason to back a failed candidate for another run at the White House. If it was Romney’s “turn” in 2012, he has had it and squandered it, and there won’t be many interested in giving him another one. Indeed, almost every faction of conservatives would be unhappy with another Romney campaign. For reformist conservatives, Romney’s last campaign was the embodiment of the party’s complete failure to adapt to the present. Romney’s agenda was the antithesis of almost everything libertarians and small-government conservatives support. Republicans that are concerned primarily with winning elections can’t be pleased by the idea of a Romney return, since he represented everything most non-Republicans loathe about the party between his corporate business background, his condescending attitude towards working-class and poor Americans, and his outdated economic agenda. He topped that off with a foreign policy worldview that was by turns ignorant and frightening. His supporters have desperately been trying to rehabilitate Romney’s foreign policy over the last two years without success, but nothing would be worse for the GOP’s foreign policy than to accept the false notion that “Romney was right” about anything in 2012.

Finally, it doesn’t make any sense for Romney to do this. He is a terrible politician and he isn’t well-suited for what presidential campaigning requires. There must be things that he would rather spend him time and energy on than mounting a third failed bid, and he has no good reason to undergo the scrutiny and mockery that he would inevitably face if he ran again. As it is, he can leave politics as a presidential also-ran, but he doesn’t have to be someone that utterly humiliated himself by not knowing when to quit. Romney can do himself and all of us a favor and stay out of the 2016 race.

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The Lazy and Dishonest “Anti-Israel” Attack

Overlooking the Old City of Jersusalem Elena Dijour / Shutterstock.com
Overlooking the Old City of Jersusalem Elena Dijour / Shutterstock.com

In an interview with World magazine focused on his obnoxious display at the In Defense of Christians summit earlier this month and the subsequent conservative criticism of that performance, Ted Cruz resorted to another round of dishonest smears:

What I find interesting is almost to a person, the people writing those columns have never or virtually never spoken of persecuted Christians in any other context. I have spoken literally hundreds of times all over the country. This is a passion. I’ve been on the Senate floor, and I intend to keep highlighting this persecution. I will say it does seem interesting that the only time at least some of these writers seem to care about persecuted Christians is when it furthers an anti-Israel narrative for them. That starts to suggest that maybe their motivation is not exactly what they’re saying.

All of these claims about his critics were completely and laughably untrue, and Cruz’s interview produced a quick backlash from these conservatives that reacted poorly to being falsely accused of bad faith and of having biases they don’t possess. Faced with the backlash, he quickly backed away from the failed attempt to vilify his critics and offered an apology. Nonetheless, he confirmed in the process that he was perfectly willing to make false accusations and misrepresent the views of his critics in order to portray himself as some sort of bold truth-teller.

Consider Cruz’s charge that “at least some” of his critics wanted to further an “anti-Israel narrative.” The complaint doesn’t make any sense. It was Cruz that chose to introduce support for Israel into the conversation and made it a point of contention during a gathering focused on an entirely different and unrelated subject. It doesn’t accurately describe the views of his most vocal critics, most of whom went out of their way to affirm their support for Israel even as they objected to Cruz’s clumsy, offensive behavior. His critics were almost all just as conventionally “pro-Israel” as Cruz is. Indeed, I would expect that “pro-Israel” conservatives are among the most embarrassed by Cruz’s display because it reflects so poorly on their position. One will look in vain for evidence of any of those critics trying to use this episode to advance an “anti-Israel narrative.” On Cruz’s own terms, it shouldn’t be possible to use the plight of Christians in the region to advance an “anti-Israel narrative,” but the more important point is that what he claimed had happened simply never happened. Cruz made it all up because he thinks that is what will shore up his credentials as a “pro-Israel” hawk and because he thinks that is what an evangelical audience wants to hear.

As we know, Cruz’s use of the “anti-Israel” charge is still only too typical on the right nowadays. We saw Cruz and others use it repeatedly during the Hagel confirmation hearings, but it has also been deployed with regularity over the last two decades whenever conservatives have anything even mildly critical or skeptical to say about the U.S.-Israel relationship or Israeli policies. Anything short of endorsing hard-line views on these topics is wrongly treated as proof of “anti-Israel” bias. This is both lazy and dishonest, but the good news is that more Americans are seeing through this misrepresentation all the time. Maybe twenty years ago Cruz could have gotten away with his dishonest smears and come out ahead, but that is fortunately no longer the case.

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Why Cruz Represents The Worst of Both Worlds on Foreign Policy

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Matt Lewis cheers on Ted Cruz’s foreign policy and defends it from some recent Beinart criticisms. Inevitably, he celebrates Cruz for being like Reagan:

But overall, Cruz is emulating Reagan’s style — a clear sense of America’s moral authority, with a realistic appraisal of what we can do militarily.

Lewis seems to have missed Beinart’s point. The problem Beinart identified with Cruz’s positioning is that he is usually in lockstep with hard-liners when it comes to (wrongly) assessing threats and reliably endorsing the use of force, but has no interest in any of the political conditions of the countries that he wants the U.S. to bomb. The fact that Cruz thinks bombing anyone back to the “stone age” is the right way to combat terrorism shows that he prizes sounding tough and belligerent over giving any thought to the consequences and efficacy of the military action he supports. In one of the quotes in the Beinart piece, we are told that Cruz “wants to dismantle and destroy ISIS.” At the same time, he is dismissive of all of the local political factors that could either undermine or bolster ISIS, and that’s probably because he doesn’t care very much about the substance of the policy problems and just wants to strike the right hawkish pose.

Cruz’s view is more or less what Paul Miller described as “killing lots of people and then going home,” except that the approach Cruz favors would make it unlikely that the second part–going home–ever happens. Cruz really does represent the worst of both worlds in that he wants to intervene in the affairs of other countries while remaining oblivious and indifferent to their political realities. That isn’t a “middle ground” between Bush and Obama or between McCain and Paul, but rather a dangerous and mindless foreign policy of “shoot first and don’t ask any questions.” It’s as if Cruz looked back at the caricature of Reagan that Reagan’s opponents created and chose to become that caricature in real life.

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Ukraine Shouldn’t Be Given Major Non-NATO Ally Status

Nikolas Gvosdev comments on Sen. Corker’s bill (the so-called Russian Aggression Prevention Act or Ukraine Freedom Support Act), which would designate Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova as “major non-NATO allies.” He points out that this could have the effect of making Russia more aggressive towards all of these countries:

Far from deterring Putin, such a declaration might inspire the Kremlin to take measures to demonstrate just how hollow major non-NATO ally status might actually be.

There are a few reasons the U.S. shouldn’t be giving this status to these countries. The first is the one Gvosdev mentions, which is that it could trigger new aggressive measures from Moscow. In trying to “help” these countries, the U.S. could end up doing them harm. Even if these states are identified as “non-NATO” allies, it doesn’t change the fact that Moscow is strongly opposed to the creation of more U.S. allies in its vicinity. The label itself is somewhat misleading, since the U.S. is not formally obliged to defend all of its “major non-NATO allies.” Giving these countries this status won’t mean that the U.S. is giving them a security guarantee, but by labeling them as allies it does create the impression that the U.S. is on the hook for supporting them if they get into a conflict. Gvosdev notes that the real purpose of this designation is “is less about security guarantees and more about removing the roadblocks for a country so designated to be able to purchase advanced U.S. weaponry,” which brings us back to the folly of arming Ukraine.

Gvosdev observes that Ukraine hasn’t lacked for weapons:

Yet Ukraine, whose factories supplied the Soviet arms industry and have continued to supply the post-Soviet Russian military, was not without weapons. Shipments of U.S. arms are not a panacea for a country that must find a way to deal with the corruption that hollowed out its military.

He also points out the dangers of blithely giving these countries the name of ally without thinking through what the U.S. would actually be prepared to do for them in a crisis:

Words like “ally” and “partner” are thrown about with little care or sense of responsibility. It was partially a result of this carelessness that Georgia’s president in 2008, Mikheil Saakashvili, believed that Georgia would have substantial Western support in the event of any clash with Russia. The outcome of the 2008 Russia-Georgia War proved otherwise. Ukraine too has discovered the painful gap between flowery U.S. rhetoric and concrete assistance. The request to consider designating Ukraine as a U.S. ally could have been the start of a long-overdue conversation about what is at stake in this part of the world. So far, however, sloganeering seems to have won out over seriousness.

The truth is that the U.S. isn’t and won’t be prepared to do very much for these countries in a crisis, and it would be both cruel and foolish to give these governments the false impression that they are going to have more U.S. backing than they really will. Short of expanding NATO or intervening militarily, naming these countries as “major non-NATO allies” is probably the worst thing that the U.S. could do in this part of the world.

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The Harm That Interventionists Do

Richard Cohen offers a useful opening into the thinking of interventionists:

I also favored an early intervention in the Syrian civil war, back when there were moderates and a little assistance could have gone a long way. Obama ruled that out. Nearly 200,000 people have been killed and millions made refugees. Maybe this would have happened anyway, but there was no real harm in trying… [bold mine-DL]

The sums up the mentality of interventionists as well as almost anything could. Here Cohen is talking about actively stoking an armed conflict and taking sides in a foreign civil war, and he assumes that there was “no real harm in trying.” Maybe he means that there would have been no real harm to Americans, but I think it is more than that. He assumes that there is “no real harm” in meddling in foreign conflicts because he simply can’t imagine that intervention can do more harm than good. As far as he is concerned, “good” interventions (i.e., the ones he approves of) can’t have harmful effects.

It’s true that no American lives were lost during the Libyan war, though some were lost later on, but the problem with this blithe approach to interfering in other nations’ affairs is that these interventions frequently do great harm to the countries that they have supposedly “helped.” That doesn’t seem to interest Cohen, since he will have already moved on to the next country to be “saved” by more benevolent meddling. The cavalier attitude towards directly contributing to a horrible war is unfortunately only too typical of people that lament the “dangers of inaction” while demanding measures that will directly contribute to the deaths of other people.

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The Wages of Threat Inflation

Reuters / Newscom

A Gallup poll released today shows that 60% of Americans support the war against ISIS, which represents a dramatic reversal from early summer when just 39% supported direct U.S. intervention. The report attempts to explain why:

The increase in support is likely also tied to ISIS being perceived as a more direct threat to the U.S., which may not have been as clear in June. In recent weeks, ISIS has captured and beheaded two U.S. journalists. In fact, the current poll finds 50% of Americans describing ISIS as a “critical threat” to U.S. vital interests [bold mine-DL], with an additional 31% saying the group is an “important threat.”

There’s no question that the group is now perceived to be more of a direct threat, but that perception is unfounded. The truth is that ISIS doesn’t pose a direct threat to U.S. security, and if that becomes better understood there likely won’t be nearly as much support for the ongoing war as there is right now. If half of Americans think that ISIS poses a critical threat to our vital interests, that just shows that the respondents don’t understand the meaning of these words. Then again, it’s not surprising that these words would be poorly understood in the context of foreign policy debate nowadays. When manageable threats are grossly exaggerated into something that demands immediate military action, threats are going to be perceived as being much more dangerous than they are. When politicians and pundits routinely assert that American “vital interests” are at stake in virtually every crisis in the world, it shouldn’t surprise us that fewer people can distinguish accurately between truly vital interests and tangential ones.

The fact that only 39% favored military action a few months ago suggests that much of the current level of support for the war is ephemeral and won’t last as the war continues for months and years. That is especially true if the war is perceived as “not working,” and that perception is likely to grow thanks to the unrealistic stated goal of the war. As the Gallup report notes, the 60% figure is relatively lower than polling for most military interventions over the last thirty years, and once the initial “rally round the flag” effect wears off it is probably going to drop back down to significantly lower levels. The public’s underlying aversion to prolonged conflict is still there, and their opposition to sending ground forces into Iraq or Syria remains. Because there appears to be no effort to get Congress to vote on this anytime soon, and because the war is likely to last for several years, declining public support will become a serious political problem for the administration.

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The “Limited” Intervention That Will Take Years

The ever-expanding war on ISIS will likely be with us for quite a while:

Air strikes launched by the US and Arab allies against Islamists in Syria were the “beginnings of a sustained campaign” that could last years [bold mine-DL], the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

When airstrikes began in Iraq six weeks ago, the administration initially said that a “sustained campaign” is exactly what the U.S. was not starting. That seemed hard to believe at the time, and that’s because it was plainly untrue. Interventionists always understate the costs and duration of the military action they’re proposing at the beginning to reduce resistance, and only once the action has begun do they start to acknowledge that the original claims weren’t true. In the weeks that followed, the president and other U.S. officials have gradually conceded that the expanding mission could take several years, but it’s important to remember that this policy was originally sold as a brief, limited, and defensive use of force. Now it will be–by the administration’s own admission–prolonged, open-ended, and offensive in nature.

Every step along the way, the administration has set down restrictions on what it would be willing to do, and it then cast those restrictions aside within days or weeks of imposing them. The administration is currently saying that there won’t be American forces on the ground engaged in combat, but as we should know by now every statement like this is entirely provisional and can be revoked at any time. Furthermore, because the administration persists in the lie that the 2001 AUMF covers this military action, it is very doubtful that the president will seek Congressional authorization for this war even if the war involves U.S. ground forces. I very much hope that Obama doesn’t yield yet again to the pressures in favor of escalation, but there is no reason to think that he will be able to resist them indefinitely.

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The Folly of Fighting Against Both Sides in Syria

If allying with the Syrian regime makes no sense, Mohammed Alaa Ghanem’s call for attacking Assad’s government is just as bad:

Unless the United States wants to be striking ISIL in Syria yet again in another five to 10 years, America should hit Assad now.

It may already be too late. Two years ago, the United States could have killed ISIL before it was born with limited airstrikes on the Assad regime.

This is completely incoherent. Attacking the Syrian regime wouldn’t harm ISIS and other jihadist groups like it, but would almost certainly allow them to seize more territory and threaten more people inside Syria. Had the U.S. attacked the Syrian government earlier, there probably would have been more space for these groups to operate, and they would likely control even more of Syria now than they already do. In any case, attacking the regime at this point would put the U.S. in the absurd position of fighting the two most powerful forces in the country’s civil war at the same time. That would necessarily increase the risks to American personnel, since it would take away any incentive the Syrian government had not to fire upon U.S. planes in Syrian airspace. At present, as Shashank Joshi explains, there appears to be a tacit understanding between the regime and the administration that Syrian air defenses will be left alone as long as they don’t threaten U.S. forces:

There is, therefore, an implicit bargain between Obama and Assad. Assad stands down his defences, and he gets to survive. Obama is likely relieved he has had no need to “wipe out” this system, because it included Russian advisers and operators, and US bombs falling on Russian military personnel would probably go down badly in Moscow.

Attacking Syrian regime forces would drag the U.S. into a much larger, riskier, and more ambitious campaign that could have very dangerous consequences for U.S. pilots and could create yet another crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. The war against ISIS already promises to be long and desultory, and a war against the Syrian regime would make everything harder, raise the costs of the ongoing campaign, and risk the possibility of regime collapse and the even greater chaos that would consume the country as a result. The war against ISIS is a serious mistake, but fighting both the regime and ISIS at the same time would be a disaster.

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