More Pulitzer-worthy commentary from Bret Stephens:
These are the sorts of views—isolationist is the only real word for them—that crowd my inbox every week, and they’re not a fringe. A growing number of Americans, conservatives too, have concluded that the lesson of the past decade is that, since the U.S. can’t do it all, the wisest, most moral, and most self-interested course is to do nothing.
Stephens’ entire argument is built around the weak conceit that the U.S. doesn’t even have a foreign policy if it isn’t actively meddling all over the world. According to him, anything less than constant and frequent interference in what are still mostly the internal affairs of other countries is “isolationist.” This is barely an argument. It is more of an elaborate fit of name-calling. Then again, that’s what we’ve come to expect from Stephens.
True to form, he also just makes things up to support what he’s saying. The U.S. isn’t indifferent to tensions between China and Japan. For good or ill, the U.S. position has been to support Japanese claims to the Senkakus and to claim that the islands are protected by the treaty with Japan. Hagel just reiterated this position earlier this month. Maybe this is unwise. It is conceivable that strong U.S. backing has made Japanese nationalists more unyielding and belligerent in recent years than they would have been otherwise, because they assume that the U.S. will be there to bail them out in case tensions escalate into conflict. It’s clear that the U.S. isn’t “doing nothing” there. The U.S. isn’t just leaving it to China and Japan to sort out among themselves. Maybe we should, but at present no one in government is proposing that or anything like it. A reasonably honest hawk would recognize that the U.S. response to disputes between China and Japan is more or less the one that he favors. Naturally, Stephens doesn’t.
What does Stephens think could stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon if its government were indeed intent on getting one? Iran policy is already just about as coercive and cruel as possible, but it has not had the desired effect and likely never will. Our Iran policy is bankrupt because it has generally followed the line that Stephens and other hawks prefer. If Stephens wants war with Iran, he would still have to explain how illegally attacking the country would make its government less inclined to acquire a deterrent to attack. On Syria, he can’t help misrepresenting what is happening. As he and other hard-liners tend to do, he grossly exaggerates for jingoistic effect. If chemical weapons were “bouncing around like stray tennis balls” in Syria, that would be a very different and more serious situation than the one that exists.
U.S.-Russian relations have been worse since 2011 than they were in the previous two years, but in spite of this the “problems with Russia” that the U.S. has had are causing fewer headaches for Washington now than they were five years ago. An honest assessment of the relationship would recognize this. Nikolas Gvosdev concluded his column last week:
Nevertheless, for the first time since the reset began to falter at the end of 2011, there is room for cautious optimism in the direction U.S.-Russia relations are taking.
Then again, Stephens’ real gripe about the “reset” is not that it has been a failure, but that the relationship with Russia is much better than the post-Cold War low that it reached in 2008. Like most “reset” critics, he doesn’t want good relations with Russia and doesn’t believe they are possible, so he is annoyed when relations have clearly improved.
Peter Beinart gets this half-right:
I understand the impulse for America to “do something” in Syria. I grasp the logic behind funding some of the militias fighting Bashar Assad, even if America’s history of funding militias may be propelling Afghanistan and Iraq toward civil war. But there’s something disgraceful about our tendency to wax moralistic about preventing suffering in countries in which we have not yet intervened while we brazenly ignore the suffering we have helped cause in the countries in which we have.
Beinart is right that this sort of moralizing is disgraceful, but it isn’t “our tendency.” It’s the tendency of a relatively small number of pundits and politicians that are responsible for driving foreign policy debates in this direction. Of course, it is easier for this tendency to flourish when the people demanding that the U.S. “do something” are able to keep the debate in vague terms of inaction vs. action, abdication vs. leadership, and so on. Honestly, I don’t understand the impulse for America to “do something” in Syria when “doing something” is a euphemism for killing people in Syria or providing weapons with which more Syrians will be killed. If one wants to ensure that even more Syrians not aligned with the opposition end up dead or expelled from their homes, there is a certain logic to providing funds and weapons to anti-regime forces. It just happens to be an appalling, indefensible logic. Arming insurgents will very likely intensify the conflict, it will facilitate attacks on civilians on the “wrong” side, and it will prolong the conflict while increasing the number of those killed and displaced. The truly disgraceful thing about interventionist moralizing over these conflicts is that the moralizing rhetoric is just a goad to get the U.S. into the conflict as a participant or as a patron, and as a result it will often inflict more destruction and suffering than would have occurred otherwise.
The Los Angeles Times reports that members of Congress are attention-seeking opportunists:
Distressed by the suffering in Syria, but wary of another Mideast war, some lawmakers are speaking loudly and carrying a small stick.
I suppose this is preferable to quietly agitating for an invasion, but it’s still not good. The need that many legislators have to demand that the U.S. “do more” in foreign conflicts is a destructive one, and one that will eventually come back to haunt the U.S. Sens. Feinstein, Inhofe, Corker, et al. may not think they are contributing to the steady movement towards direct U.S. involvement in Syria’s conflict, but every call for “more action” that these people make brings a Syrian war that much closer. Even when members of Congress endorse measures that are far short of direct intervention in Syria, they are making war more likely when they accept the Syria hawks’ core assumption that the U.S. must hasten regime change in Syria. Even though some of the people quoted in the article may not want a Syrian war, they are all laying the foundation for it when they demand more “leadership” and condemn “inaction.” Any support for “doing more” in Syria, no matter how tentative, is a boon for the dedicated group of Syria hawks constantly pushing for escalation.
The more worrisome and somewhat baffling response to Syria’s conflict is this one:
Few lawmakers are publicly calling for the United States to keep clear of the war.
Considering how overwhelmingly opposed the public is to U.S. involvement in Syria’s conflict, the lack of representation for the view held by roughly two-thirds of the country is remarkable. In spite of the last twelve years of war, most politicians are still terrified of being labeled as “weak” on any foreign policy issue, and so they remain silent or endorse half-measures that provide them with cover against accusations of being a supporter of “isolationism” or “retreat.” One might think that opposing a Syrian war before the fact would be an obvious move for Republican opponents of the administration. Unfortunately, Republicans have trapped themselves by consistently taking more hawkish positions than Obama, so they are prevented from taking the popular and correct position against a Syrian war because of the pernicious influence of hard-liners within their party. Just as it was in 2002, there is apparently no Democrat with national ambitions interested in ruling out the use of force in Syria, and so far Obama’s reluctance to become involved has given other Democrats a pass on having to say anything at all. Of course, if the only people in Washington talking about Syria are the ones demanding “action,” then “action” is eventually what we will get despite the fact that most Americans and perhaps even most members of Congress are against it.
Jonathan Mercer reviews the evidence against the “credibility” argument:
For their part, the French were indeed worried, but not because they doubted U.S. credibility. Instead, they feared that American resolve would lead to a major war over a strategically inconsequential piece of territory [bold mine-DL]. Later, once the war was underway, Acheson feared that Chinese leaders thought the United States was “too feeble or hesitant to make a genuine stand,” as the CIA put it, and could therefore “be bullied or bluffed into backing down before Communist might.” In fact, Mao thought no such thing. He believed that the Americans intended to destroy his revolution, perhaps with nuclear weapons.
Similarly, Ted Hopf, a professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, has found that the Soviet Union did not think the United States was irresolute for abandoning Vietnam; instead, Soviet officials were surprised that Americans would sacrifice so much for something the Soviets viewed as tangential to U.S. interests [bold mine-DL].
It shouldn’t be surprising that allied and hostile governments saw U.S. involvement in these conflicts in this way. I find it amazing that U.S. policymakers can convince themselves that their credibility is so frequently in jeopardy when it isn’t. Of course, “credibilty” is most often cited as a reason for military action when there are no other credible reasons for war. It is the preferred pretext that hawks use to make unnecessary wars important for U.S. security, and it is a favored tool of demagogues that want to embarrass an administration without taking responsibility for the foolish policy they are supporting. Invoking the danger of lost “credibility” is almost always a scare tactic designed to make people stop thinking about the absurdity of the proposed policy and to worry about other, unrelated problems that will somehow be made worse if the bad policy isn’t implemented.
The Vietnam example is a sobering one. To this day, there are far too many people in the U.S. that believe that the U.S. hurt its position internationally by leaving Vietnam when it did, just as there are today Iraq war dead-enders that think the U.S. should have kept soldiers in that country indefinitely. As far as the would-be defenders of U.S. “credibility” are concerned, the U.S. cannot withdraw from unnecessary wars for fear of appearing to lack “resolve,” and it must launch unnecessary wars in order to demonstrate it. In the end, the fixation on “credibility” is just a bludgeon that hawks use to promote their preferred policies. The fear of lost “credibility” has led the U.S. into several conflicts that it could have easily avoided, and it has prolonged some of the conflicts the U.S. was already in far longer than necessary, yet somehow this false idea holds enormous power over the minds of people in government and the media. If it didn’t, there wouldn’t have been such a surge in pro-war commentary over Syria that relied so heavily on this unfounded belief in the importance of “credibility.”
P.S. Mercer makes a relevant comment on Syria later in the article:
Those who argue that reputation and credibility matter are depending on strategists to be simple-minded, illogical, and blissfully unaware of recursion. And if Assad is illogical, then calibrating U.S. foreign policy to elicit particular responses from him is pointless.
Krauthammer frets about the danger of lost “credibility” over Syria:
Instead he’s backed himself into a corner: be forced into a war he is firmly resolved to avoid, or lose credibility, which for a superpower on whose word [bold mine-DL] relies the safety of a dozen allies is not just embarrassing but dangerous.
Considering how often hard-liners mock Obama for his overconfidence in the power of rhetoric, some of them invest presidential statements with an incredible amount of significance. The truth is that the safety of “a dozen allies” and more depends on the treaty commitments that the U.S. made decades ago, and it also depends on the ability of U.S. and allied militaries to deter attack. Vaguely-worded statements on developments in Syria’s civil war don’t undermine those commitments or make that deterrent any less effective. The only people that take this claim seriously are hawks that want to goad the administration into making an easily avoidable blunder. Nothing would look more ridiculous to the rest of the world than being hectored into an unnecessary war by jingoistic columnists.
As Zakaria pointed out yesterday, scholarship on the subject has found that the standard argument about the dangers of losing credibility isn’t supported by the evidence:
Political scientists have studied the subject of credibility extensively. In “Calculating Credibility,” Daryl Press looks at the 1930s and the Cold War, periods when leaders felt the need to follow through on tough rhetoric for fear of losing face. Press concluded that “The evidence in this book suggests that the blood and wealth spent to maintain a country’s record for keeping commitments are wasted: when push comes to shove, credibility is assessed on the basis of the current interests at stake and the balance of power, not on the basis of past sacrifices. . . . Leaders understand that no two crises are sufficiently alike to be confident that past actions are a reliable guide to the future.”
Like possible chemical weapons use, warning about lost “credibility” is just a pretext to cajole the administration into doing what Syria hawks have wanted to do all along. It would be wise to dismiss it as such. Plunging the U.S. into another war to follow through on a vague threat would not reassure allies or deter enemies. It would broadcast to the entire world that our government has no idea what it’s doing abroad and cannot resist the lure of new conflicts. Following through on tough rhetoric by taking foolish, avoidable military action wouldn’t make other governments take the U.S. more seriously, but would almost certainly invite mockery and scorn.
I started the review by quoting the British political scientist D.W. Brogan’s famous essay in 1953 in Harper’s—well-worth reading today, I think—about the illusion of American omnipotence. Brogan’s basic point was that Americans, particularly on the right, tend to think that conspiracies are involved when Washington encounters setbacks abroad. He was pointing specifically to the Soviet Union and China and McCarthyism—the idea that there had been a sell-out, that Alger Hiss had singlehandedly subverted America at Yalta (when he was, in fact, a minor State Department official). Americans, Brogan suggested, needed to abandon the idea that they can alter the world at their whim.
Whether this amounts to isolationism, however, is a different story. Brogan was trying to get Americans to abandon the devil theory of foreign policy and take a more sober look at foreign afffairs.
Brogan’s advice is useful and unfortunately still quite necessary. Whether it is panic over “losing” a China that was never under our control or condemnation of “inaction” in response to a foreign conflict in Syria, the one constant in all of these criticisms is an exaggerated and overly generous view of both U.S. and presidential power. If one assumes that the U.S. has the power to prevent undesirable things from happening anywhere in the world, then it must be the fault of the president for “refusing” to prevent them. According to this view, U.S. power doesn’t have limits, or at least no limits that matter, and if something happens while the U.S. is on “the sidelines” the U.S. is nonetheless responsible for what happened because it could easily stop it. If one assumes that the exercise of U.S. power is almost always constructive and never makes other conflicts worse, restraint might appear to be timidity and prudence could seem to be a failure of nerve, but this requires ignoring some significant episodes in U.S. history. Of course, the U.S. record abroad is a checkered one. Just in the last fifty years, the U.S. has embarked on more than one disastrous blunder that had horrible consequences for the people in the countries affected. There are some conflicts that the U.S. cannot bring to an end without first intensifying the conflict and causing more damage, and there are some conflicts to which there is no possible U.S.-imposed solution. For a certain type of hawkish interventionist, the last sentence isn’t true and must not be true, which is why they try to hold presidents responsible for events they cannot control and demand results from U.S. policies that cannot be achieved without significant cost.
Returning to the Pletka article, I was struck by her odd choice of opening the argument by marveling that George Will and Eugene Robinson happened to agree more or less on Syria policy. Both want the U.S. to stay out of the conflict, which isn’t surprising. Pletka refers to the “dissonant harmony” between them, but it isn’t at all strange that a conservative burned by the failure of the Iraq war would be inclined to favor a less aggressive and activist foreign policy, which could on occasion put him in agreement with someone on the left. Will and Robinson have roughly two-thirds of the country in agreement with them on Syria. Unlike many of his colleagues at the Post and most conservative columnists, Will does seem to have learned and internalized lessons from the Iraq war, and as a result he doesn’t look for excuses to argue for new wars. In Pletka’s world, this is a problem to be solved. That is why she sneeringly identifies Will as “(R-1930),” since I guess he’s supposed to be the reincarnation of William Borah because he doesn’t want the U.S. to wage its fourth war in a decade. Not surprisingly, Pletka doesn’t address Will and Robinson’s reasons for wanting to stay out of Syria. It’s all just reduced to “the siren song of isolationism” so that she can dismiss it out of hand. Pletka concludes her article with a series of questions about the U.S. role in the world, but she obviously isn’t interested in any answers that don’t match her own.
Thank goodness Karl Rove has no influence in the White House any longer. Here is his idea of “thinking strategically” about Iran:
But if he thought about Iran strategically, he would have backed Iran’s Green Revolution after the stolen 2009 parliamentary elections. He would also not have sabotaged chances for a U.S. military presence in Iraq by insisting on parliamentary approval of a status-of-forces agreement. A U.S. presence in Iraq would have reduced Iranian influence in Baghdad and diminished the likelihood of sectarian conflict in Iraq.
A lot of this relies on the same exaggerated view of presidential power that afflicts so many pundits writing on failed domestic legislation. Rove’s argument boils down to saying that these things would have been done and they would have been successful if only Obama had been willing to do them. All of this is tied to the fantasy that Obama’s Iran policy has been anything other than the cruel, unwise continuation of his predecessor’s Iran policy. In fact, each of these claims is wrong on the merits, and none of them would have changed a thing about Iran’s nuclear program had U.S. policy been different.
I’ve explained many times that backing the Green movement wouldn’t have resulted in the movement’s success, because the U.S. has virtually no constructive ability to influence events or opinion inside Iran. Indeed, public American backing for the movement could very well have hastened its demise. According to most of the critics that have made this charge in the past, “backing” the Green movement meant nothing more than offering stirring speeches on their behalf. That was the main criticism: Obama should have “spoken out” more forcefully. Funny how Rove dredges up this example just a few sentences after he complains about Obama’s habit of mistaking speeches for policies. Regardless, a successful Green movement would not have produced an Iranian government that was more cooperative on the nuclear issue. The leaders of the movement didn’t and don’t disagree with the current leadership over the nuclear program, and they certainly weren’t about to capitulate to the U.S. when the Iranian public also supports the program. However, the main problem with this tiresome, oft-repeated argument is that it invests American administrations and presidents with magical powers to direct the course of events in other nations simply by exercising more willpower.
If Obama had kept a large residual force in Iraq over the objections of most Iraqis, he would have made them targets for Iranian-backed militias and Sunni insurgents for the foreseeable future. Far from increasing U.S. influence, we would have seen a resumption of even worse violence, and an increased Iranian role in internal Iraqi politics. There would have been intensifying Iraqi resentment, because most Iraqis would continue to see our soldiers as an occupying force, which is what they would have been. It is doubtful that a U.S. military presence in Iraq would reduce the likelihood of sectarian conflict, but if it did it would be because armed Iraqi groups would be directing their attacks against Americans instead. Instead of liquidating a bad, costly commitment, remaining in Iraq would have allowed Iraq to continue to bleed the U.S. with more casualties and waste countless billions of dollars. That’s some clever strategy, Rove.
As we go through Rove’s list of what Obama should have done to “think strategically” about Iran, we find that he recommends doing the most foolish, irresponsible thing in each case. For instance, he also thinks the U.S. should have quickly moved to collapse Assad’s regime. A collapsed Syrian regime might be a setback for Iran, but it would be a nightmare for Syrians and their neighbors that could be far worse than their current suffering. Rove’s recommendations for “thinking strategically” are all short-sighted and suggest that neither he nor the Republican hawks that he stole them from have been thinking very seriously about any of these problems.
Leon Wieseltier hates the idea of planning ahead:
The prestige of “the exit strategy” in our culture is another American attempt to deny the contingency of experience and assert mastery over what cannot be mastered—in this instance, it is American control-freakishness applied to the use of American force.
This is a strange psychological explanation for the natural and understandable revulsion many Americans feel for poorly-planned, open-ended, prolonged wars that seem to serve no purpose. Favoring an exit strategy before starting a war isn’t a product of a need to be in control. (If one wanted to psychologize the arguments of interventionists with respect to the need for control, it would take all week to work through the various neuroses, but that’s a waste of time.) It is an acknowledgment that U.S. objectives have to be limited, defined, and achievable before embarking on a policy as dangerous as war. The alternative to this is to have wars that drag on aimlessly with goals that are either completely unrealistic or so amorphous that no one can seriously articulate and defend them. This doesn’t interest Wieseltier, because the only priority right now is getting the U.S. into the war.
Of course, not all Americans share the same revulsion. Many Americans are hawkish like Wieseltier and don’t care about having an exit strategy, or they give the subject so little thought that they say, “Victory is our exit strategy,” and then refuse to define what constitutes victory. The trouble is that many interventionists don’t think the work is ever fully done. Even for delusional Iraq hawks that think the U.S. “won” something, it isn’t enough to declare victory and leave. The U.S. has to remain indefinitely in order to “secure” all those American gains that they have dreamed up. In any case, many hawks are much more concerned to find pretexts for attack.
In the most recent Pew survey, for instance, most Arabs expressed disdain for Assad — but large majorities opposed Western arming of Syrian rebels in every country polled except Jordan.
That finding suggests that outside interference is strongly opposed regardless of which party to an ongoing conflict might benefit from it. Most people in other Arab countries don’t want Western governments to provide weapons to the opposition:
Opposition to arming Syrian rebels remains strong no matter where the aid comes from. One might think that aiding an insurgency against Assad would be a popular option in some Arab countries when the aid is coming from Arab governments, but in fact the opposite is true. Arab government support for the Syrian opposition isn’t much more popular than Western support:
This is consistent with past surveys of regional opinion, which found little support for Arab-led interventions and even less support for Western intervention. Public opinion in the U.S., Europe, and Turkey is likewise heavily against arming the Syrian opposition:
The results from Turkey may be the most significant. While Syria hawks in the U.S. want to cite U.S. interests in allied security as a reason to intervene, a policy of backing the Syrian opposition militarily continues to be overwhelmingly unpopular in Turkey. Since most Turks are against having outside governments interfering in Syria, and previous surveys have shown strong opposition to Turkish involvement in the conflict, that makes it very unlikely that the Turkish government will endorse more aggressive policies in Syria. Greater U.S. involvement in Syria would be as deeply unpopular in Turkey as the Iraq war was, and the unpopularity of a Syrian war in Turkey would make it politically difficult for Erdogan to participate in such a war.
Following up on the last post, I should add that Romney’s rhetoric about Russia throughout the campaign frequently exaggerated Russian power and antagonism to the U.S. for two reasons: threat inflation is a major part of current Republican hawkish foreign policy thinking, and bashing Obama’s Russia “reset” policy was an easy way to score points with members of his own party. Claiming that Russia was “our number one” foe in the world combined these two views by saying that cooperation with Russia was pointless and insisting that Obama was making “concessions” to a foe. This required him to ignore the benefits of cooperation and to invent concessions that never happened, but he did it anyway. The point of all this was not to describe the world or Russia accurately, but to demagogue the issue to make people think that Obama had “appeased” a foreign dictator. Unfortunately for Romney, simply shouting “appeasement” when confronted with modestly successful cooperation with another state made him less credible on foreign policy instead of improving his credentials.
Romney’s complaints about Russia policy were structurally very similar to his complaints about the rest of Obama’s foreign policy: in every instance, Obama “conceded” too much to authoritarian rulers and “abandoned” allies. This was the standard party line view when Romney was competing for the nomination. Romney was horrified by the supposed “abandonment” of Poland and the Czech Republic on missile defense, which made sense only if one knew nothing about U.S. missile defense plans in Europe and Polish and Czech views on the subject. He was likewise scandalized by New START for its supposed “sell-out” to Russia, but all of his objections to the treaty were nonsense and easily refuted. The point is that the “number one geopolitical foe” comment was a clumsy attempt to justify Romney’s anti-Russian posturing, but it simply made his criticism of Russia policy seem even more absurd than it already was.