Jim Antle comments on different Republican responses to foreign protests and crackdowns:
“Viva Rubio!” cheered the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan. And indeed there is a hunger, especially among conservatives, for people to speak out as forcefully against tyranny abroad [bold mine-DL] as they do against big government at home.
Antle is right that there are some self-described conservatives that want to hear this, but I doubt very much that it is a widespread desire or one so strong that it could be described as a “hunger.” One reason that I suspect there is not much of a “hunger” for this kind of talk is that conservatives, like all other Americans, have seen where thoughtless, well-meaning rhetoric has taken the U.S. in the past. While it might seem that “speaking out forcefully” commits the U.S. to nothing, it is frequently the first step in escalating U.S. involvement in a foreign crisis. Having been persuaded to “speak out,” U.S. officials then feel pressure to back up their words with specific actions. Having agreed to a few small measures, pressure then begins building for even more aggressive action. At each stage, it doesn’t seem to matter whether speech or action will have a constructive effect on the crisis, much less whether the U.S. has any reason to declare for one side or the other. What matters for most the people making these demands is that the U.S. takes a side and inserts itself into the dispute, which then becomes an excuse for more and more involvement as time goes by. Whatever the motivation for it, it amounts to little more than interference for its own sake.
Here are some guidelines that could be useful for judging whether and when American politicians and officials should “speak out” in response to foreign political disputes and conflicts, and what they should and shouldn’t say:
1) Is there a discernible, concrete U.S. interest at stake in the country’s unrest? If so, is it important enough to merit significant attention from the government? If not, what good is the U.S. doing by commenting? If there is no discernible, major U.S. interest at stake, what would be the point of “speaking out forcefully” except to hear ourselves talk? If you can’t answer yes to the first two questions here, the rest of the list is redundant.
2) Is the government a democratically-elected one? The default response to almost all foreign protests is to demand that the U.S. side with the opposition, but especially in democratic and even quasi-democratic countries this means lending aid to the party or parties that happened to lose the last election. This is thoroughly unwarranted interference in the internal politics of another country, and should be avoided. Especially in these cases, it would be both unwise and wrong to take a “forceful” position for or against any peaceful faction.
3) What political values do the protesters have, and what are their demands? The U.S. shouldn’t be expected to take the side of whichever political movement happens to rally large numbers of people in the streets of foreign cities. To the extent that the past history, goals, and tactics of a protest movement are known, that should significantly affect how much encouragement, if any, the U.S. is prepared to offer. If little or nothing is known about these things, the U.S. should say as little as possible until it has more complete information.
4) How representative of the country are the protesters, and do they actually speak for most of the countrymen? This can be a tricky question to answer, but if there is reliable information that protesters truly don’t reflect the preferences of most other people in their country the U.S. should generally refrain from endorsing anything about them except for their rights to assemble and peacefully protest. Especially in countries that hold regular elections, there shouldn’t be a presumption that the people that happen to be in the street speak for the majority.
5) Is it likely that public comments from U.S. officials will inflame and escalate the crisis? If it’s more likely to make things worse, why should the U.S. be holding forth publicly on the dispute? When commenting on foreign disputes, obviously the U.S. should seek to do no harm, but unless it can successfully reduce tensions through what it says it should also probably refrain from saying very much at all.
6) Is the U.S. government mostly viewed favorably in the country, or is it viewed with suspicion and hostility? If it’s the latter, statements from U.S. officials may be worse than useless, and may become dangerous fodder for state and/or opposition propaganda to the detriment of the country in question. U.S. endorsements of opposition movements in historically anti-American and/or strongly nationalist countries are not likely to have a positive effect on the public’s view of the protesters, and will tend to undermine the credibility of the opposition. At the same time, they could be misinterpreted by protesters as a pledge of future assistance that is not forthcoming.
7) Do most protesters want American help, or do they prefer that we refrain from inserting the U.S. into their struggle? If foreign protesters aren’t seeking U.S. support, rhetorical or otherwise, it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose to offer encouragement where it isn’t welcome.
8) Has the government used excessive force in response to the protests? In that case, the violence should be condemned, but it will often be more productive to appeal to regime leaders through diplomatic channels rather than berating them publicly or endorsing the opposition because of the government’s heavy-handedness. Demagoguing a foreign crisis in order to demonstrate one’s “toughness” would be exactly the wrong way to respond.
9) Will U.S. statements provoke a fiercer and more brutal crackdown than is already taking place? To the extent that U.S. statements of support can be used to treat protesters as foreign agents or instigators of a coup, they may contribute to greater violence and loss of life, and in that case they should be avoided or kept to a bare minimum.
10) Will U.S. support for an opposition movement undermine other important foreign policy goals, and to what extent will it do so? Depending on the risk that it poses to other U.S. goals, offering support to some opposition movements may be thoroughly self-defeating and foolish.
11) If positions were reversed and another major power were actively supporting the domestic opponents of the government of our allies, would we view this as harmless solidarity with protesters or as something much more aggressive and destabilizing? If the latter, why should the U.S. be engaged in this kind of behavior?
12) If the goal of the protests is to depose the current government or the entire regime, what effect will that have on national and regional stability? Is success for the protests reasonably likely to lead to armed conflict or outside intervention? If so, we should be very wary of encouraging that outcome.