Joe Lieberman wants us to know that he’s still all for getting the U.S. into foreign conflicts:
In the midst of a mess, there is a natural tendency to avoid getting involved or take sides. That has been the reaction of many Americans and their leaders.
But it is at just such times when it is most important to get involved, to take sides, and make clear that we know who our friends and foes are—and that we will stand with our friends and against our foes. Over history that has proved to be an effective way for a superpower like the U.S. to clean up the “mess” of geopolitics and prevent regional conflicts from becoming wider wars.
As he usually is on these matters, Lieberman has it exactly wrong. The surest way to turn local conflicts into wider wars is to choose to widen them through direct involvement by other foreign powers. If a dictatorship is receiving backing from foreign patrons against domestic rebels, one of the quickest ways to widen and intensify the war is to decide to support and arm some or all of the rebels. This is what Lieberman has urged the U.S. to do in Syria. The goal is not to contain or limit the war, but to bring about regime change with all of its additional chaos and violence. The interventionist points at an ongoing conflict and says, “We need to do something about that mess,” but neglects to mention that his “solution” to the mess is all but guaranteed to cause even more upheaval and destruction. He pretends that his preferred policy will “clean up” the mess, but by its very nature it can only add to it.
The assumption that the U.S. and its allies and clients must respond to the patronage of other states with patronage of our own is deeply mistaken, and causes us to imagine that we have something at stake in conflicts where no American or allied interests are imperiled. Just because another major power or regional rival takes one side in a conflict, it doesn’t follow that the U.S. needs to take the other. While taking sides in such conflicts may seem to be a way to “make clear that we know who our friends and foes are,” it usually stems from deep confusion about that very thing. Taking sides in a foreign civil war takes for granted that the U.S. has any “friends” in that country, but that is sometimes simply not the case. After all, it isn’t always true that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and the U.S. shouldn’t be trying to befriend forces in one country that it would otherwise oppose if they appeared in another.
Lieberman goes on to fault the U.S. for failing to support our “natural allies” in the Syrian civil war, which tells us quite a bit about how misguided this impulse to take sides can be. There are conflicts in the world in which the U.S. has no “natural allies” or allies of any kind. That doesn’t mean that it needs to make excuses to acquire some, nor should the U.S. overlook the many reasons why it should want nothing to do with any of the warring parties. In those cases (and Syria is one of them), the wise and moral course of action is not to do anything to worsen the conflict and if necessary to assist the countries affected by the conflict’s upheavals with relief aid.
There doesn’t seem to be any policy where Lieberman’s answer is not simply to defer to whatever our most hawkish allies and clients want. That is not surprising, since what they happen to want is identical to his own preferences for more aggressive policies, but that’s hardly a good reason for the U.S. to yield to their preferences. In any case, Lieberman’s criticism is mostly just an exercise in finding allied and client governments that agree with him and ignoring the ones that don’t. Kerry is faulted for dealing with Qatar and Turkey, one of which is a member of NATO, but presumably if he did as Lieberman wished he would inevitably be “snubbing” other allies and clients. The administration is also criticized for not taking a hard enough line on Ukraine to satisfy Poland and the Baltic states, but it has almost certainly taken a harder line than several other European allies would like. Lieberman isn’t interested in what Germany, Italy, and Greece think about policy towards Russia, because he knows they don’t share his proclivity for confrontation with Moscow, just as he isn’t paying any attention to the opinions of allied and client governments that support diplomacy with Iran or oppose intervention in Syria. So the issue isn’t that the U.S. isn’t keeping faith with its allies. What really bothers Lieberman is that hawkish allies and clients are not being given absolutely everything they want when they want it. Whatever the other flaws in administration policy, Americans shouldn’t be worried that Obama isn’t simply conforming our foreign policy to and and all wishes of clients.