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Is the U.S. Capable of Exercising Foreign Policy Restraint?

Jeffrey Goldberg makes [1] a questionable assertion on Iran and Syria:

Whether we like it or not, we are in a conflict with Iran, and our credibility is on the line.

It’s true that many American politicians and pundits assume that the U.S. and Iran must be in conflict, and many of them seem to want us to be in a conflict with Iran, but actively engaging in a proxy war against Iran and its allies in a bitter civil war is something that the U.S. has chosen to do even though it didn’t have to. The idea that “our credibility is on the line” in this conflict with Iran is exactly the kind of argument that we were bound to hear once the U.S. committed itself to aiding the opposition, but even now the “credibility” argument is just so much hot air. Backing into an unnecessary war because we feel that we are forced to in order to save face will only make the U.S. look foolish and confused. Unfortunately, because so many people will insist that our “credibility” is now at stake, we will be hearing even more demands for greater military involvement. It’s important that the administration ignore them and avoid compounding its latest error with more mistakes.

David Barno explains [2] why:

If it fails to save the rebels, pressure on the United States to impose a no-fly zone over Syria will be immense. But despite the tragic loss of life, U.S. interests are far better served by exercising restraint, supporting Syria’s neighbors, and performing a humanitarian role. After 10 years of bloody and inconclusive U.S. involvement in the wars of this region, slipping into another military intervention in this part of the world defies both common sense and broader U.S. vital interests.

Barno is right: the U.S. is much better-served by exercising restraint here. I worry that our government and our political leaders are simply incapable of this, but I’d be happy to be wrong about that.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Is the U.S. Capable of Exercising Foreign Policy Restraint?"

#1 Comment By collin On June 19, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

At times, it feels like Syria is becoming a mini/proxy-Cold War style multi-national battle playing out in sectioned portion of land. (I believe Drenzer Realism argument stretches this a little far but he did make a point.) I am not sure why Obama agreed to weapsons for the rebels as this war still has massive mission creep written all over.

Have you read Tyler Cowen’s (Marginal Revolution) thoughts on why Presidents tend to become more interventionist in office? I believe Obama’s reasoning here follows #5.

#2 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On June 19, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

Reagan pulled the Marines–the Marines!–out of Lebanon when things got too hot. His reputation didn’t suffer so much, and the Republic still stands, in its fashion.

Instead of doubling down, we can always fold ’em. Any poker player will tell you that sometimes makes sense.

#3 Comment By SDS On June 19, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

“Whether we like it or not….”
What horse’s ass would make this statement?
Unless we are attacked; we sure as hell have a say in the matter…….

#4 Comment By Jubilee Year On June 19, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

“our credibility is on the line”

… as it was in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, presumably …

Recently whenever we’ve sallied forth to defend our “credibility” it has been further tarnished, for the obvious reason that credibility is damaged when one engages in needless (and for the most part unsuccessful) conflict.

#5 Comment By Myron Hudson On June 19, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

I suspect that Syria is filling the gap in our mini proxy war against Iran, in which Saddam Hussein was our former proxy. And I do not believe that the US is capable of foreign policy restraint. We will blunder further, at great expense to our credibility.

#6 Comment By James Canning On June 19, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

What cr*p by Jeffrey Goldberg. The US IS NOT in a conflict with Iran. Fanatical “supporters” of Israel try to bring about such conflict.

#7 Comment By James Canning On June 19, 2013 @ 2:00 pm

James Blitz of the Financial Times writes today in FT that Parliament is unlikely to back British supplying of weapons to the rebels in Syria.

#8 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 19, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

“Whether we like it or not, we are in a conflict with Iran…”

Yeah, this is true. Whether we the people like it or no, we have zero choice in the matter.

“…and our credibility is on the line.”

Somehow, we the people have no choice, yet we are supposed to then support this, because “our” credibility is on the line?

I would say that it is some indication of how far democratic accountability has fallen, when our only chance to preserve the illusion of our democratic governance, is to go along with decisions already made we disagree with, so that we can pretend that this subversion of democracy hasn’t happened.

#9 Comment By scott On June 19, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

What Fran said. As far as language is concerned, it’s amusing to see that interventionists are using the same tired, evidence-free “credibility” argument (not intervening=looking weak=losing Asia, Europe, California, etc.) that hasn’t had a lick of sense for the last 40 years. As Fran points out, I know the fix is in and the elites will do what they will do, but if they’re going to go through the pretense of public argument and persuasion at least come up with an argument that passes the laugh test.

#10 Comment By Michael N Moore On June 19, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

Every once in while politicians let the truth slip. One of my favorites appeared in the New York Times of March 24, 2012. According to that report, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton granted a waiver to the, then unknown, government of Egypt that allowed $1.3 billion in military aid to the country.

The stated reason for this mad decision:
“A delay or a cut in $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt risked breaking existing contracts with American arms manufacturers that could have shut down production lines in the middle of President Obama’s re-election campaign…”

It is time for a military-industrial complex ten step program. Let’s start by admitting that we are hopelessly addicted to military spending

#11 Comment By cka2nd On June 19, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

Anyone else get a whiff of Vietnam War-era talk about “resolve” when reading Goldberg on “credibility?”

#12 Comment By Cliff On June 19, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

I just read in interesting article, “Sending arms to Syria is irrational and dangerous” by John Glaser, the editor of antiwar.com. It’s at [3]. There’s a lot of good background information in this piece.

He sees the war in Syria not as a civil war so much as a proxy war between Iran and the Gulf states. He doesn’t draw the parallel with the war in the Congo (which has killed millions so far) but it’s there. His concern is that by intervening directly, rather than indirectly through Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as it has been doing, the US risks a direct confrontation with Iran. A no-fly zone, for example, would be a direct challenge to Iran’s arms flights to Damascus.

All this over a country which engages the US national interest not at all. (The interest that “the usual gang of idiots” take in war with Iran can hardly be called “national”.)

#13 Comment By Patrick On June 19, 2013 @ 8:29 pm

Why do people so wrong about Iraq still get a say? Goldberg’s credibility is in question, not America’s. That being said Obama is keenly aware of the risks and will do the bare minimum to show support while not really doing anything.

#14 Comment By PeterC On June 20, 2013 @ 12:45 pm

Regarding Iran, it will help to remember the recent cause of their hostility. It was the “assistance” provided in 1953 to Anglo-Iranian against Iran’s elected PM – Mossadegh. The geniuses who decided to treat that ancient country, which was an empire 2 thousand years ago with the contempt reserved to banana republics produced a great deal of animosity.
And the result? Anglo-Iranian is gone, the Shah is gone and we have to deal with an Islamic republic which we might have helped to create. Can’t we learn from mistakes?
Mr. Goldberg should read a few history books about the Middle-East – preferably describing the real outcome of Western interference. Very rarely we got what we wanted…

#15 Comment By James Canning On June 20, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

PeterC – – It is worth bearing in mind that most of Iran’s religious leaders in 1953 favored the overthrow of Mossadegh.

And also worth noting: Ahmadinejad said the overthrow of Mossadegh was “water under the bridge”.

#16 Comment By Wile E. Quixote On June 20, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

I keep hearing that “…our credibility is on the line” if we don’t get involved in Syria and every time I hear this phrase, or something like it, I have to wonder just who these credibility cops are who will step in and reduce our credibility if we don’t get involved in the Middle East and what the penalties are? If we don’t get involved in Syria will Vladimir Putin give President Obama a wedgie? Will the foreign ministers of Germany and Britain grab John Kerry and drag him off to the bathroom to give him a swirlie? I will say this though, regardless of whether or not our credibility (whatever that is) is on the line in the Middle East no one can doubt the credulity of our foreign policy elites.

#17 Comment By cameyer On June 21, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs had Frederic Hof, former Obama special representative for ‘Syrian transition’.

He made these three points:
1. RTP did not motivate Obama to sell weapons, rather fears about how the conflict is affecting us allies (Jordan, Turkey, maybe Iraq and Israel) with refugees and how that can destabilize ‘our allies’ is the motivation Obama, pressured by them to get involved.
2. That the key ingredient in Obama’s directive is not the US arming the opposition but the US taking over the supply chain to ensure all weapons are filtered through General Idis. The idea is to tamp down Saudi, Qatar, French weapons from being channeled unevenly to militia clients of donor states. This, they believe, will allow Idis to consolidate a real, more centralized military fighting force
3. The end goal is to level the playing field in Syria. The opposition won’t go to Geneva because Assad’s recent conquests made the state stronger and put the opposition in a weaker position.

To me, these three points ensure an escalation in US military role.

#18 Comment By WorkingClass On June 21, 2013 @ 8:38 pm

“Whether we like it or not, we are in a conflict with Iran, and our credibility is on the line.”

Jeffery (Napoleon) Goldberg assumes to speak for me? I pfart in his general direction!

#19 Comment By James Canning On June 22, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

“[T]he Pentagon has made no secret of its distaste for any military options in Syria.” (Financial Times, June 22/23)

#20 Comment By James Canning On June 22, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

WorkingClass – – Israel lobby promotes false notion the US is engaged in “conflict” (meaning war) with Iran.

#21 Comment By James Canning On June 23, 2013 @ 2:24 pm

On “McLoughlin Group” (PBS TV in America) this week, Mort Zuckerman made loud noises about the Russian naval base in Syria. And he pushed for American military intervention in the Syrian civil war.

In fact, Russia has use of one pier, in one Syrian port.

Some “naval base”.