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Brooks’ Simplistic Interventionism

David Brooks lectures on foreign policy:

Sticking to our values means maintaining a simple posture of support for people who share them and a simple posture of opposition to those who oppose them [bold mine-DL]. It means offering at least some reliable financial support to moderate fighters and activists even when their prospects look dim. It means avoiding cynical alliances, at least as much as possible. It means using bombing campaigns to try to prevent mass slaughter [bold mine-DL].

In most foreign conflicts, including the one in Syria, adhering to Brooks’ first sentence would require the U.S. to support none of the warring parties, since none of them actually shares “our values.” To maintain the pretense that there are “moderate fighters and activists” to support in these conflicts is to look for excuses to get involved in conflicts that have nothing to do with us. To insist on launching bombing campaigns for ostensibly “humanitarian” reasons is to commit the U.S. to use force in ways that will invariably bolster other illiberal, sectarian, and brutal forces. In the Syrian case, this could mean that the U.S. should bomb the Syrian regime to the benefit of jihadist groups, or it could mean that the U.S. indirectly aids the regime by bombing its enemies. U.S. bombing campaigns directed against one side or the other is bound to benefit groups that oppose “our values,” and attacking both at the same time is its own kind of madness.

Elsewhere in the column Brooks says that the Near East “is not a chessboard we have the power to manipulate,” which is true, but he then ignores the wisdom contained in this statement and proposes all the many ways that the U.S. should keep trying to influence events there. Despite this brief moment of realizing the limits of U.S. power, Brooks can’t entertain the possibility that the U.S. shouldn’t be directly involved in the region’s conflicts. Even though he says that the U.S. should strive to avoid “cynical alliances,” in practice the interventionist approach that he insists on absolutely requires such alliances on a regular basis. Receiving support from Sunni monarchies to fight the war against ISIS is about as cynical and hypocritical as it gets, not least since some of the same governments have been actively backing jihadist groups in Syria for years, but Brooks says nothing about this. He is very worried about a “de facto alliance with Assad” (and I agree that this is also a bad idea) while ignoring the ongoing cooperation with regional regimes that routinely trample on “our values” in their domestic and foreign policies. Brooks wants to pretend that there can be such a thing as scrupulous, “values”-based interventionism, which requires him to ignore the realities of actual U.S. interventions.

In keeping with this argument, Brooks urges us to take the most simplistic approach imaginable:

When you don’t know the future and can’t control events, bet on people. Support the good, oppose the bad.

Gosh, why hasn’t anyone thought of that? Mind you, it is exactly this sort of oversimplified approach to foreign conflicts that keeps luring the U.S. into unnecessary wars. The belief that there are obvious “good” forces available to be supported in a given conflict encourages the U.S. to take sides in a fight when there may be no good reason to take sides. It takes for granted that the government is a consistently good judge of the character, motives, and political goals of actors in other countries that it understands at best superficially. We know from experience, however, that the U.S. is frequently misled by groups that tell our officials what they want to hear, and more often than not many U.S. policymakers make a point of whitewashing the records and views of these groups in order to make them seem more deserving of support. Thus terrorists and criminals are feted as freedom fighters, extreme nationalists are portrayed as liberal democrats, and sectarian fanatics are called moderates. These mistakes keep being made because our policymakers are doing what Brooks recommends. They think they are “supporting the good,” but quite often they realize too late that there weren’t any “good” forces to support or that they picked the worse of the two sides.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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