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Thoughtless Rhetoric and Foreign Crises

Josh Rogin reports on Bob Corker’s unhappiness with administration policy on Ukraine:

For Corker, the administration’s approach of talking tough but then not backing it up with action is a repeat of what he has seen in the administration’s policy toward Syria.

It would be more accurate to say that Corker is unhappy with the actions that the administration has taken and wants an even more aggressive policy than the one that the U.S. is pursuing. This is as predictable as it is wrongheaded. If the problem is the gap between “tough” (i.e., careless) rhetoric and mild action, the smart way to remedy this is to cut back on making toothless condemnations and declarations. As in Syria, the answer is not to follow through on a stupid confrontational course of action because you have foolishly painted yourself into a corner with threats you have no intention or ability to enforce. It’s fair to fault the administration for creating another set of false expectations, but the solution isn’t to try desperately to make good on threats and promises that shouldn’t have been made in the first place. Of course, hawks are urging that Obama do just the opposite, because what bothers them is that the U.S. isn’t doing as much they would like to escalate the crisis and commit the U.S. to one side in another conflict.

I suspect that the administration keeps trapping itself in this absurd position in part because it mistakenly concluded that it erred in its response to the Green movement protests in Iran back in 2009. Ever since those protests were put down, the lesson that the administration seems to have drawn is that it should very loudly proclaim support for foreign causes whether it is prepared to do anything on their behalf or not. Domestic critics kept insisting that Obama should “speak out” in support of Iranian protesters, and ever since he has been “speaking out” frequently in ways that commit the U.S. to involve itself in these conflicts and crises without having thought through any of the implications. This may be why it has consistently mishandled so many significant foreign political crises in the years that followed. Instead of placating hawks with “tough” rhetoric, the administration just encourages them to demand equally “tough” (i.e., stupid) actions that it often rightly doesn’t want to take. Unfortunately, because it has already ceded the main argument to the people agitating for “action” it cannot effectively silence these critics with a serious defense of a less activist role. McCain laments that Obama “does not appreciate…the importance of American leadership,” but the real problem is that Obama places far too much importance on it in one crisis after another. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t feel compelled to say or do much of anything.

Corker said something else remarkable:

We talked to the [Ukrainian] opposition [late last year], as we did on Syria, we drew them out, we talked about getting them organized, we talked about how supportive we were [bold mine-DL], and then we did nothing. We left them hanging.

That’s true, and whose fault is that? It is the fault of all the interventionists that keep insisting that U.S. help will soon be on the way, when even they must have known that it wouldn’t be forthcoming. Egging on and encouraging opposition forces with empty promises of future assistance create an expectation that isn’t going to be met. What’s worse, the people making these promises usually know that there is little or chance that the promises will ever be honored, but they make them anyway on the off chance that it will trap the U.S. into doing things that it wouldn’t consider doing otherwise.

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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