Micah Zenko rounded up twenty of the “best worst” foreign policy quotes from the past year to highlight some of the silliest claims that politicians, military officers, and policymakers made in 2014. Along the same lines, I have put together a list of the very worst foreign policy arguments that should never be used in 2015, but which almost certainly will be.
1) The “credibility” argument. There are many variations of this discredited argument, but its core claim is that U.S. failure to back up any and every threat it makes dangerously undermines U.S. “credibility,” and this supposedly “invites” other states and groups to behave more aggressively than they otherwise would. This isn’t how anyone in the real world judges whether or not to take threats seriously, but that doesn’t stop the credibility-worshipers from insisting that it is. The impressive thing about the “credibility” argument is that it persists in spite of being entirely without merit, and it is easily adapted to whichever policy debate hawks happen to be losing at the time.
Thus the U.S. had to bomb Syria in 2013 not because of any threat to the U.S. from Syria, but because not bombing Syria would “send a message” to hostile regimes elsewhere in the world that American threats were empty. To believe this required ignoring how those other regimes perceive U.S. military action as well as ignoring how U.S. allies around the world perceived the decision not to attack Syria. One ridiculous form that this argument took was the claim that Russia intervened in Ukraine partly because the U.S. didn’t bomb Syria. The very worst example of the “credibility” argument was when Anne-Marie Slaughter urged the administration to bomb Syrian government forces for the sake of “sending a message” to Russia, which had already seized Crimea. When “credibility” is invoked, it is a dead giveaway that the hawks in the debate have no case and have resorted to fear-mongering about what might happen if the U.S. doesn’t start bombing soon.
2) Applying “broken windows” theory to foreign policy. This is a relatively recent invention, but it has caught on in the last year for some reason. It is a prominent part of Stephens’ polemic America in Retreat, but others have used it as well. Apart from the obvious weaknesses in applying a concept taken from domestic policing to foreign policy, if it were taken seriously it would commit the U.S. to a policy of constant interference in the affairs of other nations that would be extremely expensive, exhausting, deeply unpopular here and around the world, and certain to provoke violent resistance. It takes the bad idea that the U.S. should be the “world’s policeman” to its logical extreme, and would ensure that the U.S. is always at war with someone somewhere forever.
3) Diplomacy “rewards” dictatorships. One of the most common criticisms of diplomacy with Iran and the decision to normalize relations with Cuba is that diplomatic engagement gives the regimes involved a “reward.” That’s simply not true. The U.S. engages with these regimes in order to get things from them and to remove irritants in our relations with many other countries. The interim agreement with Iran has already constrained Iran’s nuclear program more effectively than anything else before it, and the only thing that the U.S. had to concede to get this was to acknowledge the obvious fact that Iran would retain some domestic enrichment. Normalization with Cuba immediately improved America’s standing in Latin America, where our Cuba policy has been an ongoing distraction and obstacle in better relations with our other neighbors. In both of these cases, the U.S. stands to lose nothing, and potentially gains cooperation from the governments in question on disputed issues.
Hawks will likely keep using some or all of these arguments in 2015, so when they do remember just how absurd and false they are.