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.