Daniel Larison

ISIS and the “Red Line”

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Roger Cohen makes a lot of questionable assertions in his latest column, but this one is simply nonsense:

ISIS grew through American weakness — the setting of objectives and red lines in Syria that proved vacuous.

I know that interventionists like to blame everything undesirable that has happened in the last year on not enforcing the “red line” in Syria, but this may be the most absurd attempt yet. Had the U.S. followed through with the “limited” strikes that Obama was threatening last year, that would have inflicted damage on Syrian regime forces and potentially led to a larger U.S. military engagement against the regime. That would have benefited anti-regime forces, including ISIS. Had there been direct U.S. intervention in Syria last summer, it might still be going on now. In the worst-case scenario, the intervention might have “worked” to hasten regime collapse and expose more of Syria to ISIS’ depredations. Backing up the foolish “red line” last year wouldn’t have done a thing to check ISIS’ increasing power, and it would very likely have aided the group and possibly allowed it to seize even more territory. More to the point, enforcing the “red line” would have done nothing to deter or frighten ISIS into behaving any differently than it did. Malevolent actors have their own agency and will usually behave as they see fit, and they aren’t likely to be impressed by the fact that our government has just backed up a threat to attack their enemies. Groups like that probably couldn’t care less whether the U.S. backs up its foolish threats, and they would presumably welcome our habit of engaging in ill-conceived military action that they can exploit for their own purposes.

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A Bad Case for Allying with Assad

Richard Haass unwisely jumps on the “ally with Assad” bandwagon:

Such a policy change would be costly but not as costly as a scenario in which Isis could use Syrian territory from which to mount attacks on the region and beyond. The Assad government may be evil – but it is a lesser evil than Isis, and a local one. Such an accommodation would require a great deal of diplomacy if it were to succeed. Understandings would have to be reached with Damascus, with the mostly secular opposition, much depleted by three years of brutal battles against Isis and the regime; and with outside backers (mainly Iran and Saudi Arabia) about how Syria was to be run, both now and in the future, and what would happen in liberated areas.

As is often the case, the more attractive options may not be feasible, while the option that could prove feasible would present distinct difficulties.

The sudden interest in collaborating with a regime that until very recently Haass wanted the U.S. to bomb is seriously misguided, but it tells us something important about the confusion that threat inflation can cause. Prior to this summer, no one in the West seriously argued for allying with the Syrian regime. Now that ISIS’ recent gains have triggered Western panic and overreaction, this truly terrible idea is beginning to attract supporters. That isn’t because it makes sense for the U.S. to ally with a government that it has been more or less trying to overthrow for the last three years, but because the threat from ISIS is being blown out of proportion. As a result, it is supposed to seem plausible that the U.S. “needs” to work with Assad, but this is absolutely not the case. This relies on the same “enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic that was previously applied by Syria hawks seeking intervention against Assad, and it is just as wrongheaded now as it was then.

Fighting wars of choice is bad enough, but it is simply perverse to insist on making deals with ugly regimes in order to facilitate the war of choice. If the most effective way of fighting ISIS requires the U.S. to go to war in Syria in concert with the Syrian government, that is just one more argument against waging a war on ISIS in the first place. The supposed need to ally with such a horrible government against ISIS depends entirely on grossly exaggerating the threat that the group poses to the U.S. and its allies. The one error flows from the other, and if put into practice would produce an indefensible policy.

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Obama Still Isn’t a Realist (III)

Paul Saunders makes the case that Obama has never been a realist on foreign policy:

If we take President Obama at his word that he is not a realist—and there are good reasons to do so—his administration’s long flirtation with foreign-policy realism and especially with the Left’s “progressive realists” raises two important questions. First, why were the president and his advisers comfortable with longtime and widely held perceptions that he was a realist? Second, what changed their minds?

I mostly agree with Saunders for reasons I’ve laid out before. There are a few reasons why Obama has been wrongly described as a realist over the years. First, the realist label is frequently misused and applied to almost every non-neoconservative internationalist on both right and left. That has meant that many people with deeply opposed views can be lumped together under this name. When everyone from Kissinger to Obama can be identified with the same label, the label is so vague and generic that it no longer means anything. Second, there have been a few specific issues where many realists have found Obama administration policies to be an improvement over the policies of the previous administration, and so some realists have given their qualified support to a small number of the president’s decisions. Finally, predominantly Republican hawkish critics of the administration have been eager to blame Obama’s supposed realism for whatever it is that they dislike about his policies, but this mostly just tells us how determined they are to define themselves in opposition to realists and how obsessed they are with demonizing them. Events over the last two or three years–and administration responses to them–have made it virtually impossible to maintain the pretenses that Obama is a realist and that most realists approve of his overall foreign policy.

To answer Saunders’ questions, my guess is that the administration didn’t care that much that Obama was often portrayed as a realist. If Obama and his advisers were “comfortable” with this portrayal, it was the comfort of indifference. Then again, I’m not sure that Obama and his advisers were all that comfortable with this portrayal. At several key moments over the last three years, Obama has opted for policies that most realists rejected at the time, and he usually did so while indulging in excessive and unwise rhetorical flourishes. Libya is one obvious example of this, but the same could be said of his handling of conflicts in Syria and Ukraine as well. Except for pursuing diplomacy with Iran, there is nothing significant from the last three years that Obama has done abroad that most realists would support. The so-called “pivot” was one of the few things that realists liked about Obama’s foreign policy, but it has amounted to very little in practice. Obama’s shot at “self-described realists” earlier this summer told us that he didn’t want to be thought of as one and that he genuinely dislikes their foreign policy arguments. It is no wonder then that he hasn’t governed this way.

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“Relaunching” NATO Isn’t Going to Happen

Anne Applebaum thinks Obama can “relaunch” NATO in his remaining two years:

Obama might not have the power to make Congress do what he wants, but he does have the power to relaunch the Western alliance. He has all of the cards — the United States contributes three-quarters of NATO’s budget — as well as the ultimate argument: If the Western alliance, as currently constituted, no longer wants to defend itself, America can always leave [bold mine-DL]. That might sharpen minds quickly enough to give Obama a foreign policy legacy that would last.

Applebaum knows perfectly well that no president is going to make such an argument, because no one in Europe or in Washington would take it seriously. Whenever the U.S. complains about its allies’ failure to contribute enough to the alliance, the message always falls on deaf ears. All of our allies know that the U.S. will never force the issue, because ensuring that the U.S. is a “European power” matters more to enough people in Washington to guarantee that nothing in the alliance ever really changes. Whenever the U.S. even hints at reducing its military spending or hints at paying even a little less attention to Europe, there is the predictable whining here and overseas that the U.S. is “retreating” and “abandoning” its allies. Instead of forcing the allies to do more to provide for their own security by reducing how much the U.S. does for them, the U.S. always rushes to reassure them that they won’t have to do more. That is why the U.S. will continue to bear the bulk of the costs until something changes dramatically. Obama could threaten to take the U.S. out of NATO to try to force the allies to change their ways, but we all understand why he wouldn’t bother. The threat would be perceived as an empty one, and it wouldn’t prompt any European leaders to take risks to change the way NATO functions. Interventionists may theoretically want allies to share more of the burden, but they are willing to do any of the things to make that burden-sharing happen.

The rest of Applebaum’s argument is a bit confused. On the one hand, she suggests possibly conditioning NATO’s security guarantee on a country’s willingness to spend a certain amount on the military:

Some Europeans don’t want to pay for their defense? Maybe those who want to be covered by Article 5, the alliance’s security guarantee, should now be obligated to pay. Perhaps those who contribute less than 1 percent of their national budget should be told that the guarantee no longer applies to them.

However, she also warns against further expansion because of its potential to undermine the same guarantee:

At the same time, NATO members should understand that any further enlargement is not charity work: Every time the NATO membership is extended to another state, current members have to be prepared to defend that state—and if they aren’t, then the enlargement should be stopped. Either Article 5 is an absolute guarantee, or it is worthless.

She is right about this, and this is what opponents of every round of NATO expansion have argued for the last twenty years, but it is impossible to square it with her other proposal. If NATO members are supposed to enjoy an absolute guarantee, the alliance’s commitment to defend all its members can’t depend on how much a government chooses to spend on its military. Either alliance members are worth defending or they aren’t, and if some of them aren’t then NATO has already extended more guarantees than it is truly prepared to back up.

Applebaum frames her suggestions in terms of giving Obama something that he could achieve as part of his foreign policy “legacy,” so it’s worth saying a little about the value of these “legacy” arguments. They’re not all that different from any other argument advocating for a particular policy, but by adding in a reference to a president’s “legacy” it is supposed to make the policy ideas seem more significant or appealing to the president politically. “This isn’t just a request for the president to make my issue a priority–this is about his legacy.” Unfortunately, “legacy” proposals are usually distinguished by being extremely ambitious and difficult as well as politically treacherous. By emphasizing the supposed benefit of securing the president’s “legacy,” the advocate brushes aside all of the many practical obstacles that stand in the way of getting close to succeeding. Promoting foreign policy ideas with talk of how it will help a president’s “legacy” is a good way to encourage presidents to pursue unrealistic goals that expose them to a lot of unnecessary political risk. Presidents that fall for these arguments are unlikely to be remembered for their policy successes.

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The Famous Libyan Victory

Conflict in Libya continues to intensify three years after the U.S.-led war destroyed the country’s government:

Captured on video by the proud attackers just one month ago, Mr. Badi’s assault on Libya’s main international airport has now drawn the country’s fractious militias, tribes and towns into a single national conflagration that threatens to become a prolonged civil war. Both sides see the fight as part of a larger regional struggle, fraught with the risks of a return to repressive authoritarianism or a slide toward Islamist extremism. Three years after the NATO-backed ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the violence threatens to turn Libya into a pocket of chaos destabilizing North Africa for years to come.

That’s a charitable way of putting it. The Libyan war has been directly contributing to instability and violence in North and West Africa for years now, which is something that supporters of the intervention insisted wouldn’t happen and then denied it when it started to happen. I have written several times on the war’s destabilizing effects on Mali, so I won’t repeat all that again. Suffice it to say that the Libyan war had already done more harm than good long before now.

While it is possible that Libya would still be suffering from internal conflicts in the absence of outside intervention in 2011, it is far more likely that aiding in the destruction of the old regime condemned Libya and its neighbors to the destabilizing and destructive effects of armed conflict for an even longer period of time. It was not an accident that Libya’s immediate neighbors were among the least supportive of the U.S.-led war, since they were always going to be the ones to experience the war’s harmful effects. Unfortunately for the civilian population in Libya, they will be living with the dangerous consequences of that “humanitarian” intervention for years and perhaps even decades to come. Considering that the war was justified entirely in the name of protecting civilians from violence, it has to be judged one of the most conspicuous failures and blunders of U.S. policy in the last decade. The desire to “help” Libyans with military action has directly contributed to the wrecking of their country. The lesson from all this that the U.S. and its allies shouldn’t be forcibly overthrowing foreign governments is an obvious one, and one that I am confident that all relevant policymakers in Washington will be sure to ignore.

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John of Thessalonica on the Dormition of the Theotokos

Here is part of the conclusion of the oldest surviving Greek homily for the Feast of the Dormition, written by John, metropolitan of Thessalonica in the seventh century:

The Apostles, however, lifted up the precious body of our most glorious lady, Mary, the Mother of God and ever-virgin, and placed it in a new tomb, in the place the Savior had showed them. They remained in that place, awake in unity of spirit, for three days. And after the third day, they opened the sarcophagus to venerate the precious tabernacle of her who deserves all praise, but found only her grave-garments; for she had been taken away by Christ, the God who became flesh from her, to the place of her eternal, living inheritance. And our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who bestowed glory on His immaculate Mother Mary Theotokos, will also bestow glory on those who glorify her. (from On the Dormition of Mary, p. 67)

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

A portrait of an imperialist. Geoffrey Wheatcroft reviews Lawrence James’ Churchill and Empire.

The Great War’s forgotten soldiers. Shashi Tharoor remembers the service of over one million Indian soldiers in WWI.

The mission in Iraq keeps expanding. Benjamin Friedman comments on the U.S.’s increasing number of goals in its latest Iraq intervention.

An unlikely presidential contest. Frida Ghitis considers the chances of Marina Silva, the new and competitive contender in Brazil’s presidential election.

Who is Marina Silva? Dom Phillips reports on the background of the Brazilian green activist and presidential candidate.

Final thoughts on Israel and Palestine. Freddie deBoer explains why Americans need to have a more honest debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and America’s role in it.

Modi and the Naxalites. World Politics Review interviews P.V. Ramana on the Maoist insurgency in India.

Putin’s public opinion problem. Thomas Sherlock considers the implications of Russian popular opposition to escalating the conflict in Ukraine.

The transformation of Viktor Orban. Amy Brouillette traces how the Hungarian prime minister has moved steadily in a more illiberal and nationalist direction.

Keeping score on the Libyan war. Justin Logan scrutinizes some of the interventionist triumphalism from 2011.

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ISIS and the Administration’s Ridiculous Threat Inflation

The administration is once again demonstrating its flair for rhetorical overkill:

Senior Pentagon officials described the Islamic State (Isis) militant group as an “apocalyptic” organisation that posed an “imminent threat” on Thursday, yet the highest ranking officer in the US military said that in the short term, it was sufficient for the United States to “contain” the group that has reshaped the map of Iraq and Syria.

The good news so far is that the administration doesn’t appear to be taking its own rhetoric all that seriously, but the obvious danger is that it will trap itself into taking far more aggressive measures by grossly exaggerating the nature of the threat from ISIS in this way. The truth is that ISIS doesn’t pose an imminent threat to the U.S. and its allies, unless one empties the word imminent of all meaning. Hagel made the preposterous statement today that the group poses an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” That is simply a lie, and a remarkably stupid one at that, and it is the worst kind of fear-mongering. Administration officials are engaged in the most blatant threat inflation with these recent remarks, which is all the more strange since they claim not to favor the aggressive kind of policy that their irresponsible rhetoric supports.

If the group can be contained, as Gen. Dempsey states, then it can be contained indefinitely. If that is the case, then the threat that it poses is a much more manageable one than the other ridiculous claims from administration officials would suggest. On the other hand, if the group “must be destroyed,” as Kerry has said, there is no doubt that the U.S. is going to be sucked into a major military campaign that makes a complete mockery of the original pretense to being a “limited” intervention. The huge mismatch between administration rhetoric and action is hardly unique to this issue. Administration officials have a bad habit of insisting on what “must” happen in another country, but they understandably have no inclination to support the measures that would be required to bring about that outcome. Like it does on so many other issues, the administration wants to have things both ways: it wants to be credited for “action,” but doesn’t want to be faulted for recklessness, and so it pursues a half-baked compromise policy that doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. Unfortunately for the U.S., the result is that the administration is allowing itself to be inexorably pulled in the direction of a larger intervention that the public won’t tolerate and doesn’t serve the American interest.

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The U.S. Must Avoid Escalation in Iraq (II)

Surprising no one at all, the drumbeat for escalation in Iraq continues. Here’s Fred Kaplan:

With his speech on Wednesday condemning ISIS in newly stark, determined language, President Obama now needs to step up his military campaign in equally dramatic fashion.

That does not—and should not—mean sending American ground troops or taking steps that give even the whiff of an American-led war.

Still, Obama described ISIS—the al-Qaida offshoot that now calls itself the Islamic State—in ways that demand further action and will later seem bizarre if they’re followed by merely more of the same.

This is a very familiar argument, but it’s also a very strange one. It is the standard logic of all demands for escalating involvement in a foreign conflict: “you have declared X to be horrible, therefore you must now do more to defeat X.” If we stop to think for a moment, we’ll realize that there is no need for the U.S. to escalate in Iraq, and there are many good reasons not to do this. For one thing, an increased U.S. military effort will inevitably encourage additional demands for further escalation, and that will sooner or later result in sending in more U.S. ground forces. (The idea that there wouldn’t be any “boots on the ground” as part of this mission has already been shown to be a convenient fiction.) As for giving a “whiff” of an American-led war, that has already happened.

The core of Kaplan’s argument is that the president has indulged in some grandiose rhetoric about something genuinely horrible, and so now there is an excuse to increase the U.S. military commitment. Otherwise, the rhetoric will seem “bizarre.” Maybe it will, but how does that justify escalating a military campaign? It doesn’t, and there’s no way that it could.

Here’s Kaplan again:

But the president of the United States can’t talk like this and then do nothing additional to “extract the cancer.”

Yes, of course he could do just that, but by the strange rules of our foreign policy debate he isn’t going to be allowed to do this without coming under constant criticism. If we look again at what Obama said, he was saying that there needed to be a “common effort” from regional governments and peoples to “extract this cancer.” And so there should be, since they are the ones that have by far the most at stake in the conflict. That doesn’t imply that the U.S. needs to take on a larger military role or expand the goals of the current mission. Indeed, the more that the U.S. does for them, the easier it will be for regional governments to avoid bearing the burdens for the region’s security.

The U.S. isn’t required to intensify its supposedly “limited” military campaign because Obama happened to use particularly strong language in a public statement, and it is foolish to insist that the U.S. escalate in Iraq for this or any other reason.

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Why We Don’t Avoid Mission Creep

Benjamin Friedman notes how quickly the new intervention in Iraq has expanded:

Monday, the President again broadened the bombing’s objectives. The airstrikes against ISIS still protect U.S. personnel and serve humanitarian purposes, he said, but now, it seems, those are general goals that ongoing bombing serves. The President also suggested that ISIS is a security threat to the United States. Not for the first time, he said that once the new Iraqi government forms, we will “build up” Iraqi military power against ISIS.

Only the speed of this slide down a slippery slope is surprising.

This is why I said two weeks ago that the intervention would last much longer than originally advertised, and it’s why I said last week that I had no confidence that the administration would avoid expanding the mission in Iraq to include additional goals. Not only has this administration proven in Libya that it will expand the goals of an intervention once it has started, but it is almost impossible in practice to adhere to the original restrictions that are supposed to keep the mission limited in the first place. These are restrictions that the executive pretends to impose on its own behavior, and there is almost no one interested in holding a president accountable for ignoring them.

If anything, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that it is wrong for a president to rule out any option, including the use of ground forces, which means that a president is more likely to come under attack for keeping an intervention “limited” than he is for escalating U.S. involvement. “Limited” intervention isn’t possible for the same reasons that the U.S. so often opts for “doing something” instead of staying out: there is a bias in favor of action in our foreign policy debates, there is excessive confidence in the efficacy of hard power to solve problems, there is no meaningful institutional obstacle in practice to presidential war-making, and the people with the greatest interest in the issue are always overwhelmingly in favor of doing more rather than less.

I have seen arguments that say that Obama is the least likely recent president to “allow” mission creep, but that misses the point entirely. Mission creep doesn’t have to be something that a president wants from the outset, but comes about because of what happens in the conflict after the U.S. joins it. These things tend to take on lives on their own, and once a president starts down the path he is pulled along by both success and failure. All the while, he is urged to “finish the job,” which usually guarantees that the “job” will never be finished because it keeps growing in size. In that way, what starts off as a “limited” intervention keeps growing in ambition until the goals become unrealistic and the U.S. commitment becomes open-ended.

Why does this keep happening? Once a president has committed to using force in a foreign conflict, all of the effective political pressure is on the side of escalation. Having conceded that the U.S. should be involved militarily in a conflict, the president is bombarded with demands for deeper involvement in order to pursue the illusion of victory. If he doesn’t agree to these demands, he will be steadily pilloried in the media until he does, and any adverse development in the affected country will usually be attributed to insufficient American involvement. Since the initial decision to intervene was driven in part by the same sort of pressure, it is more than likely that the president will keep yielding to calls to “do more.”

Once an intervention begins, the politically easier route is to continue it whether it is perceived to be “working” or not, and even if an intervention is perceived as failing there is a perverse incentive in our political culture to throw more resources at the problem and persist in the policy. Politicians from both parties are firmly opposed to admitting that their preferred policy has failed and that the time has come to cut our losses. If the intervention enjoys some initial success, that can be even worse for leading to an expanded mission, since it encourages a president and his allies to become more ambitious in what they hope to accomplish. Eventually, the mission lasts long enough that it is added to the already extraordinarily long list of foreign commitments that the U.S. cannot “walk away” from for fear of lost “credibility,” and the longer the mission lasts and the more that it costs the larger its goals have to be in order to justify the effort that has been made.

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