Daniel Larison

The Sikorski Flap

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs / cc

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that an alleged Russian proposal to partition Ukraine with Poland in 2008 never happened. Now the Polish politician who made the claim, the ex-foreign minister and current speaker Radek Sikorski, is in a bit of trouble back home:

The claim of a Russian offer was explosive, and dominated Polish media for much of the day Tuesday. But after an embarrassing series of news conferences, Mr Sikorski was forced to admit it had never happened. A media-savvy former reporter who has handled the press with aplomb for years, Mr Sikorski acknowledged that “my memory failed me,” and that indeed the February 2008 meeting had involved no one-on-one meeting between Mr Tusk and Mr Putin at all. The walk-back is an enormous humiliation for Mr Sikorski, who served seven years as foreign minister and who had for a time been a serious candidate to take the job of the EU’s top diplomat. Poland’s opposition parties are demanding that he be fired from his current position as speaker of parliament. Ewa Kopacz, the new prime minister, is furious with him.

The original claim seemed laughable when I first read about it, and as it happens the proposal was never made. Given that there was actually a brief thaw in relations between Poland and Russia not long after this offer was supposed to have been made, it made even less sense to treat Sikorski’s claim seriously. That raises the obvious question: why would such a major claim be included in a story without being corroborated by others? It’s not hard to guess why Sikorski would make such an outlandish claim, but it’s just sloppy reporting to repeat something like this uncritically.

The controversy over Sikorski’s remarks comes at a time when Poland’s Civic Platform government has shifted to focusing more on domestic matters while pursuing a less activist and confrontational foreign policy towards Russia. David Klion commented on the changes earlier this month:

Kopacz herself today in her inauguration speech called for a “pragmatic approach” to Russia. Her measured phrasing presents a contrast with the bombastic Sikorski, who once compared a German-Russian pipeline deal to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact and who was secretly recorded in June using vulgar language in reference to several key players in Europe. Kopacz’s new appointment to the Foreign Ministry, Grzegorz Schetyna, is seen as a neophyte who does not speak English and has studiously avoided commenting on the situation in Ukraine.

Because of the reshuffle, Sikorski had already become much less relevant to the making of Polish foreign policy before this latest episode happenened. That came after he was at the center of another embarrassing episode in which he was caught on tape deriding the U.S.-Polish alliance in crude terms. Now it appears that Sikorski’s domestic political ambitions have taken a serious hit as well. In light of this latest embarrassment, Poland is definitely better off being represented abroad by someone else.

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Washington’s Foreign Policy Illusions

Gage Skidmore / cc

Robert Merry traces the many U.S. foreign policy failures since 2001 to Washington’s embrace of two different, related illusions:

So it isn’t just Bush and Obama, or their minions, who have perpetrated so much foreign-policy incompetence over nearly a decade and a half. A major contributor has been a flawed outlook made up of two hopeless illusions—the ameliorative impulse and national greatness conservatism [bold mine-DL]. So long as the American people permit their leaders to fashion the country’s foreign policy based on those two illusions, the incompetence will continue.

As Merry’s account makes clear, the impulse to meddle in the affairs of other nations “for their own good” is not limited to just one party or foreign policy tradition, and the preoccupation with national greatness isn’t just a neoconservative one. Interventionists from the two major parties routinely accept both illusions to some degree, and the main difference between them is how much emphasis they give to one or the other. Liberal hawks will normally be more inclined to express their support for an unnecessary war by talking about “values” and upholding “norms,” and hawks on the right prefer to frame their support in terms of celebrating American power and strength and inflicting damage on enemies real or imagined, but all of them are usually in favor of bombing other countries for the sake of “values” and “norms” and all of them approve of U.S. demonstrations of strength through military action. And all of them embrace a third hopeless illusion, namely the illusion that U.S. “credibility” is at stake in virtually every crisis and has to be maintained.

The two illusions Merry describes depend and feed off each other. “National greatness” hawks imagine that U.S. hegemony is benevolent and necessary to maintenance of “world order,” and foreign policy meliorists take for granted that U.S. preeminence gives Washington both the right and the responsibility to interfere overseas to “fix” various problems and crises. As we know, the two groups overlap and agree with each other with remarkable frequency. “National greatness” Republicans are usually supportive of “humanitarian” interventions and liberal hawks are typically on board with any projection of U.S. power or use of force overseas. One group may quibble with how the war is being handled by a president from the other party, but there is rarely any disagreement on the grounds that military action is the wrong thing to do. They all take for granted that the regular exercise of U.S. power and the application of hard power in foreign conflicts always do more good than harm, and their great fear is of an America that avoids entanglements and minds its own business.

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The EU Referendum in the U.K. and the Pundit’s Fallacy

Daniel Hannan puts on a master class in committing the pundit’s fallacy:

A landslide election victory would surely follow [bold mine-DL]. If even so moderate a politician as David Cameron felt that EU membership could no longer be tolerated, the country would rally to his cause [bold mine-DL].

Hannan is famously one of the most Euroskeptic Tories alive, so it’s understandable that he wants Cameron to take this position before the next election. He may even believe that it is the smart move politically, but it is telling that Hannan simply takes for granted that all it would take for Cameron to win a huge electoral victory is to give a speech in which he endorses Hannan’s top priority. Hannan’s complaint is that he doesn’t expect that Cameron will take his advice, and it is Cameron’s unwillingness to do this that he spends the rest of his column lamenting.

The striking thing is that he has no doubt that the Tories would “surely” win a landslide as a result, but there seems to be little reason to expect that. According to YouGov, supporting for leaving the EU has been steadily dropping over the last two years. As of last June, 44% favored remaining in the EU, and 36% favored leaving. There doesn’t appear to be a tidal wave of support for leaving the EU that Cameron can ride to victory. (The lead for “in” is even greater–57-22%–when respondents are asked about voting in a referendum after renegotiation with the EU.) Siding with that 36% might help Cameron’s party to head off some challenges from UKIP in a few places, but it wouldn’t be enough to deliver an election win, much less a landslide.

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The Midterms and Republican Reform

Illustration by Michael Hogue

Michael Gerson warns that a Republican takeover of the Senate could be bad for the party:

The last Republican midterm win actually complicated the long-term task of Republican reform. Many in the GOP took away a lesson in complacency. Some concluded that ideological purity is the path back to power, and that effective persuasion is only a matter of turning up the volume.

It didn’t work. It can’t work. Republican midterm victories are the anomaly, distracting attention from trends that are gradually condemning the Republican Party to regional appeal and national irrelevance.

It’s true that the GOP win in 2010 seemed to reward the party’s rejectionism, and Republicans went into 2012 assuming that the elections was theirs to lose. It’s probably also true that the GOP won’t see any reason to develop a relevant governing agenda if it wins control of the Senate this year. Then again, the party’s leaders have been oblivious to many of the party’s greatest weaknesses whether they are winning or losing elections. The 2006 and 2008 elections were lost in no small part because their party was closely identified with the biggest foreign policy blunder in a generation, but this has had almost no effect on the foreign policy views of most elected Republicans, pundits, and policy professionals on the right. Despite two consecutive humiliations at the polls, there was zero interest in reforming Republican foreign policy, and there still isn’t very much. It is doubtful that narrowly losing in 2014 will have much of an effect on the party’s interest in policy reform.

Failing to win control of the Senate for the third election in a row might be necessary to make more Republicans realize that they have a serious problem, but we have already seen that major electoral defeats are not sufficient to make the party take interest in reforming itself in a big way. If the GOP falls short of taking control of the Senate next month, the result will be explained away as a fluke, and to some extent that is what it would be. Since there is no chance that Republicans are going to lose seats in the House, and absolutely no chance of losing the majority, the complacency that Gerson worries about will still be there no matter which party controls the Senate.

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The Enthusiasm Gap and Senate Control

Jonathan Bernstein looks at latest Senate projections for the midterms:

The result is that prediction models are converging at 52 Republican seats, not 54 or more.

I’m not playing that down. No matter what the opportunities, I doubt there has been a single point during this election cycle when Republican strategists would not have been satisfied with winning seven seats to reach 52. And just as Democratic hopes to hold a majority are still realistic, so are Republican dreams of an even larger landslide.

All Republican candidates have a few significant advantages this year. Obama’s approval rating is poor, Democratic turnout in a midterm election is normally lower than in presidential years, and there is a yawning enthusiasm gap between the supporters of the two parties. It’s the marked lack of enthusiasm among likely and leaning Democratic voters that is the most striking, since it represents a sharp decline from the most recent midterms:

Midterm Voting Indicators by Political Party in Recent Election Years

Republican voters aren’t all very enthusiastic about this year’s election when compared to 2010, but they are far more motivated and enthusiastic than their competition, and they are noticeably more interested in the election this year than they have normally been at most of the recent midterm elections.  Then again, what really compelling reason do supporters of the presidential party have to vote this year? The 2014 election is shaping up to be an election mostly about nothing, and that is driven in large part by the fact that Democratic candidates in competitive races can’t run on Obama’s agenda and therefore have relatively little to say about what they want to do. Obama’s record in his second term has hardly been one to inspire the party faithful. To the extent that Democrats are able to hold on to enough seats to retain control of the Senate, they are going to be able to do it thanks to the weaknesses of the Republican candidates and the unexpectedly large role that independent candidates have had in two states that were assumed to be solidly in the Republican column. As it is, Democrats are still likely to lose control of the Senate unless Kansas, South Dakota, and Georgia give their candidates the victory, and those would be fairly extraordinary results even in a very good Democratic year.

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Obama Isn’t a Synthesis of McGovern and Kissinger

Ray Takeyh takes ludicrous misreadings of Obama’s foreign policy to their logical conclusion:

In fact, Obama is best understood as a throwback to the mid-1970s, equal parts George McGovern and Henry Kissinger [bold mine-DL].

As a description of what Obama has done in the last five years, this is nonsensical, but it is a reasonably good description of the fantasy record that certain hawks have imagined for him. When it has suited them to attack Obama for weakness, they have relied on caricaturing him as a new McGovern: the supposed “neo-isolationist” intent on withdrawing from the world and “choosing” American decline. In order to do this, they have to ignore all of the many decisions Obama has made that contradict this on everything from Afghanistan to Ukraine, including more than a few decisions that would have appalled McGovern, and pretend that this isn’t part of his record. When they have found him lacking in sufficient zeal for democracy promotion or too reluctant to throw support behind various protest movements and rebellions around the world, they then suddenly discover that he isn’t McGovern at all, but rather an arch-realist. That requires them to ignore the occasions when Obama has given in to his liberal interventionist impulses and committed the U.S. to fight wars that had absolutely nothing to do with U.S. security or interests.

Leon Wieseltier is one such hawk who has made a habit of berating Obama for his imaginary similarity to Kissinger. He has gone so far as to call Obama “Kissinger’s epigone,” which would require the reader to know nothing about either man in order to take that claim seriously. Hawks don’t make this comparison because there is merit to it, but because it allows them to express their loathing of Obama in terms that both liberal hawks and neoconservatives can appreciate and share. This also conveniently overlooks how often Kissinger has sided with these same hawks on major foreign policy questions over the decades. Obama’s hawkish critics want to to treat Obama as some sort of bizarre mixture of McGovern and Kissinger, because that allows them to fall back on all of their most tired tropes about “strength” and “moral clarity.” The somewhat boring reality that Obama is a conventional center-left internationalist with mostly hawkish instincts doesn’t fit the fantasy record that hawkish critics have invented for him, and so they ignore it and create an equally fantastical Obama to match it. They need Obama to be some hybrid holdover from the 1970s, because these hawks are still by and large arguing with their old opponents from forty years ago. If one is looking for “anachronistic and stale” foreign policy arguments, the hawks have them in abundance.

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The Endless Folly of the Cuba Embargo

The Post defends the useless status quo on Cuba policy:

Fully lifting the embargo now would reward and ratify their intransigence.

A concession such as ending the trade embargo should not be exchanged for nothing. It should be made when Cuba grants genuine freedom to its people, the goal cherished by Mr. Payá.

This is misguided for many reasons, not least of which is that there is no realistic chance that refusing to end the embargo will result in greater freedom for people in Cuba. It is likely that Cuba will continue to be an authoritarian and illiberal country for a long time after the embargo is lifted, but continuing to impose the embargo will not change that one bit. The U.S. is hardly making a concession by agreeing to permit more trade with Cuba. At worst, it would help to improve the economy of Cuba, and it could provide opportunities for Cubans to make contacts with more people in the United States. Even if there are not significant political changes in Cuba for a long time, Cubans would be better off if more people from one of their closest neighbors and the largest economy in the world were able to do business with them. Resuming full economic and diplomatic relations with one of our closest neighbors is not a reward to the country’s government. It would be a restoration of the perfectly normal relationship that the U.S. should try to have with as many countries as possible, and the main beneficiaries of that restoration are the people of our neighbors in Cuba.

Persisting in an embargo of the country for fear of “rewarding” the country’s rulers will have no effect except to penalize the people of Cuba. Meanwhile, the rulers will continue to use the embargo as an excuse for and a distraction from their own misrule. Sanctions and embargoes are worse than useless. They are harmful to most of the people in the country targeted by them, and they do very little to hurt the few people in charge of the regime whose abuses provide the pretext for the sanctions or embargo. Supporters of sanctions and embargoes talk a good game about supporting the liberalization of other countries, but in practice they end up aiding local regimes in their efforts to shore up their control. An embargo cuts off the people of another country from the exchange and commerce that could help to change their country for the better, and it deprives them of the opportunities that could eventually be theirs. It is senseless, and it is wrong, it ought to be ended as soon as possible.

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Americans Aren’t “Hard-Wired” for American Exceptionalism

Illustration by Michael Hogue

Roger Cohen shows why invoking American exceptionalism is frequently a crutch for extremely weak arguments. Here he attempts to use it to account for differences between China and America:

The core problem is two forms of exceptionalism, the American and the Chinese. The United States is an idea as well as a nation. Americans, even in a battle-scarred inward-looking moment such as the present, are hard-wired to the notion of their country as a beacon to humanity. President Obama’s foreign policy is unpopular in part because he has interpreted a popular desire to regroup as license to be satisfied with hitting singles and avoiding strike-outs. That is the attitude of an unexceptional nation, which can never be America’s self-image.

We should be wary of anyone that attempts to explain the behavior of states with claims about what entire nations are “hard-wired” to do or believe, and that goes double for pundits. We should be even more skeptical when the “hard-wired” belief that a nation is supposed to hold just happens to be the one that the pundit also shares. It usually turns out that the “hard-wired” behavior that the pundit has “discovered” is the product of relying on gross generalizations about whole nations that happen to fit the point that the pundit wanted to make.

Like other people everywhere, Americans like to be flattered, and many of the conceits expressed in American exceptionalist rhetoric are undoubtedly very flattering. However, that doesn’t mean that most Americans believe all the outlandish claims of the specifically hegemonist version of American exceptionalism that Cohen is describing. Most Americans might generally approve of the idea that America should be a “beacon” in the world, but even then that doesn’t tell us very much. Does that imply an activist, intrusive foreign policy of the kind that Cohen has so often endorsed in recent years, or does it imply something completely different? After all, there was once a very different sort of American exceptionalism according to which Americans aspired to be a non-interfering, neutral power. It explicitly rejected the kind of meddling and “missionary” foreign policy that Cohen assumes is impossible for Americans to do without. In any case, there are no “hard-wired” political notions, and such beliefs can and do change depending on experience and circumstances. The more that Americans see “American exceptionalism” as nothing more than an excuse used by politicians and pundits to justify yet another conflict or international rivalry, the more likely it is that most of them will eventually get tired of the phrase and what it implies.

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Gelb’s “Only Way” to Defeat ISIS Is a Terrible Idea

Leslie Gelb recycles a bad argument that he was making months ago:

Now is not the time for false virtue or moral absolutism. The working principle now has to be first threats first. And the first threat to American interests today is ISIS and its cohorts.

One doesn’t need to indulge in “moral absolutism” to be able to identify the serious flaws with what Gelb is proposing. Gelb wants the U.S. to team up with Syria and Iran to fight ISIS, but somehow thinks that the Syrian regime can be persuaded to behave less atrociously along the way. He says that “the first condition for cooperation must be [Assad's] agreement to respect humanitarian zones in rebel held areas linked to a mutual ceasefire,” but this is preposterous on its face. No one could trust the Syrian regime to honor such a commitment, and once the U.S. has linked itself to the regime it will be stuck with its new ally no matter what it does. On the one hand, Gelb is saying that we must make a deal with the “devils we know” and set aside our qualms about the atrocious behavior of these would-be allies that he wants us to have, but he also thinks that by seeking the aid of the “devils” that they will be somehow be encouraged to behave less devilishly. It’s abhorrent, and it’s also unworkable on its own terms.

Gelb didn’t make a persuasive argument months ago before the U.S. was bombing ISIS, and he fails to persuade once again. As I’ve pointed out before, it is far from certain that the U.S. would be able to “get the job done” if it struck such an awful bargain, so the U.S. would be agreeing to a horrendous alliance of convenience with no guarantee that the alliance would even be useful. Actively cooperating with the Syrian regime would not only be a shameful thing to do, but in all likelihood it would give ISIS and other jihadist groups endless fodder for propaganda and recruiting, it would significantly increase the jihadist threat to Americans overseas, and it would blow apart whatever semblance of international support the anti-ISIS campaign currently has.

He notes that the U.S. has collaborated with ugly, brutal regimes in the past when it seemed necessary to do so, but this just reminds us how unnecessary the current campaign is for U.S. security. Supposing that Gelb is right that his is the “only way” to defeat ISIS, the price would be unacceptably high, and it would be yet another reason to stop the campaign now. As it is, I doubt that Gelb’s way would be any better at “getting the job done” than the current policy, and it seems likely to make the U.S. far more enemies in the process than we already have.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The secret casualties of Iraq’s chemical weapons. C.J. Chivers reports on the exposure of Americans and Iraqis to chemical agents and the ensuing efforts by the U.S. government to cover up what happened.

Uncle Sucker to the rescue. Stephen Walt catalogues the many mistakes that the U.S. is repeating in its newest war.

Why India doesn’t involve itself in the Near East. Shashank Joshi reviews the reasons why India doesn’t intervene in or try to mediate the region’s conflicts.

The varnish of Vietnam. Gordon Adams laments America’s habit of waging unwinnable wars.

The foolish search for “moderates.” Nikolas Gvosdev comments on the futility of searching for “moderate” proxies in foreign wars.

The danger of fighting both sides in Syria. John Allen Gay lists some of the harmful consequences that intervening against the Syrian government could have.

The legacy of the Gulf War. Robert Farley considers some of the effects of the 1991 Desert Storm campaign.

Why the bombing campaign in Syria isn’t working well. Paul Pillar presents some of the reasons why the campaign against ISIS is having such limited effect.

A nuclear deal with Iran won’t change very much. Kevin Sullivan explains why even a successful negotiated agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue isn’t going to change the politics of the region.

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