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The Yes-Man Is Your Enemy, But Your Friend Will Argue With You

Noah Millman makes some excellent points in his follow-up to my post from earlier today:

It’s wrongheaded for all the reasons that Larison articulates, but it wouldn’t even work as a guide to relations between individuals. One of your neighbors is your friend, so you lend him money on a regular basis and never punish him by demanding he pay you back. Your other neighbor and you have a dispute about where the property line is, so he’s your enemy; you punish him by knocking over his garbage cans and refuse to mediate the property dispute outside of court. Who thinks this is the way to behave?

There may be some hawks that think this makes sense, but there probably aren’t very many. I should have added that indulging and enabling the self-destructive or harmful behavior of a client isn’t good for the client, either, and stoking tensions with rivals and pariahs is a recipe for increased chances of costly and unnecessary conflict. In practice, the “principle” Totten described implies that the U.S. should lavish clients with weapons and money with no strings attached, and it should continually use punitive measures on states that aren’t aligned with the U.S. Unfortunately, U.S. foreign policy can frequently turn into the caricature that Totten elevates into a guiding principle, and when it does it has typically been bad for the U.S. and its clients.

If we look at some of the bigger errors that the U.S. has made over the last decade, we find that Washington has usually been too willing to indulge destructive behavior by its clients and has made aggressive blunders that it could have avoided if it had been more willing to heed warnings from allies. Naturally, allies have their own reasons for issuing their warnings, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t valid. The U.S. would have been vastly better off if it had listened to the warnings of France and Germany in 2002-03, and the U.S. would have been doing the right thing for Georgia if it had very strongly discouraged it from escalation in 2008. Clients may have some justification for doing something reckless, but that doesn’t make doing it any less foolish. If a client wants to pursue a reckless or provocative course, it should be the role of the patron to restrain and advise the client against foolish action, not least because the patron’s support for the client implicates to some degree it in what the client does. As the proverb says, “The yes-man is your enemy, but your friend will argue with you.” Offering reflexive support for clients and their goals may seem like the sort of thing that a reliable patron should do, but this requires one to forget that the relationship exists for the sake of advancing common interests rather than indulging clients in all of their preoccupations.

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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