Home/Daniel Larison/There Will Always Be Inconsistencies in the Conduct of Foreign Policy

There Will Always Be Inconsistencies in the Conduct of Foreign Policy

Paul Saunders offers a fairly unpersuasive realist critique of administration foreign policy:

In Egypt, Libya and Syria, the lack of a strategic framework integrating U.S. interests and values has produced glaring inconsistencies that undermine America’s political and moral credibility with friends and foes alike. While realists tend to be skeptical of the use of force without a clear benefit to vital U.S. interests, it is difficult to justify intervening in Libya but not Syria. It similarly undermines U.S. leadership when Washington helps to remove its long-term ally Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt but is more restrained in dealing with the considerably less friendly Bashar al-Assad.

The Libyan war was undoubtedly a blunder, and it’s fair to cite it as evidence that Obama and his administration are liberal interventionists, but I have yet to see a compelling realist argument for any form of military intervention in Syria. U.S. intervention in Libya was difficult to justify from the beginning, but it is even more difficult to justify a U.S.-led war or U.S.-backed proxy war in Syria. One of the best realist objections to the Libyan war was that choosing sides in Libya’s conflict did nothing to advance U.S. interests. The same objection applies to U.S. military support for the Syrian opposition. The U.S. has nothing to gain by entangling itself directly or indirectly in Syria’s internal conflict, and doing so would put the stability and security of Syria’s neighbors (most of which are U.S. clients or allies) at risk. The unwillingness to plunge into another unnecessary war may be inconsistent with the decision to attack Libya, but that is the sort of inconsistency that should please most realists and most Americans.

It’s also not really accurate that the U.S. has been “more restrained” in its dealings with the Syrian regime than it has been with the Egyptian regime. I don’t recall any U.S. efforts at the U.N. to have the Egyptian government condemned or sanctioned. Perhaps unwisely, the administration called for Assad’s departure just as it called for Mubarak’s. One obvious difference between the two cases is that the U.S. had and still has far more influence in Egypt than it has ever had in Syria. The U.S. approved of the Egyptian military coup that removed Mubarak from office, which suited the interests of the military regime and satisfied the main demand that anti-Mubarak protesters had without completely wrecking the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.

The Egyptian military had an incentive to remove Mubarak, whose unpopularity threatened their interests. The rest of the Syrian regime evidently sees their interests intertwined with those of Assad, which makes a similar “solution” in Syria much less likely. The most serious mistake that the administration has made in responding to the Syrian crackdown and civil war has been its readiness to insist that Assad “must go” when it clearly has no desire (and perhaps no reason) to compel him to do so. Saunders isn’t opposed to inconsistency in handling different cases, which makes his complaint about “glaring inconsistencies” hard to take seriously.

Regardless, what Saunders describes as “glaring inconsistencies” are the uneven results of varying levels of U.S. influence in different countries. Saunders writes about the removal of Mubarak as if it would have been possible for the U.S. to keep him in power. Elsewhere in his article, he is very concerned about “the damage to America’s credibility and moral standing” that has resulted from the handling of the Chen case in China, but he doesn’t consider how much damage continued support for Mubarak probably would have done to America’s reputation in many parts of the world.

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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