The extent to which Obama is carrying out an overdue realignment of American foreign policy can be debated. But to dub it isolationism and to invoke 1939, as does Stephens, is not merely unhelpful, but also quite misleading.
This is very politely put, but as I’m sure Heilbrunn knows Stephens’ references to “isolationism” are intended to be misleading. Since there are no isolationists today, and the label is mainly a pejorative term of abuse, there is almost no way that it can’t be misleading. Shouting fascist or socialist at political opponents in domestic debate is intended to vilify the other side and mobilize one’s own. Similarly, flinging the “isolationist” label at others is designed to create confusion among the audience and to erase important distinctions so that hard-liners can keep pretending that they are the last and only real inheritors of American internationalism. This also polices the debate and limits what can be included in it. If opposition to starting a Syrian war can be misidentified as “isolationist,” almost anything can be, which makes it easier for hard-line policy ideas to be circulated and accepted. Misleading the audience is the point of deploying the “isolationist” term in debate. As for being unhelpful, these claims are unhelpful if the purpose of the exercise is to convey accurate information to the public, explain current events correctly, or present a credible argument for a different set of policies. Stephens isn’t trying to do any of these things. He intends to misinform, and he wants to describe current policy incorrectly.
Syria hawks have lately been falling back on an argument that echoes the so-called McCain “vengeance doctrine.” This is the idea that the U.S. will reap a bitter harvest of unfortunate consequences if it does not intervene in Syria’s conflict. According to McCain, the danger lies in the resentment that will be felt against America by those on the opposition side. Another variant of this argument that “neglect” of Syria will have longer-term consequences for the U.S. that aren’t immediately apparent. The first version is not very credible, but the second is worth discussing at greater length.
The key flaw with the “vengeance doctrine” is that there are many more likely targets for Syrian oppositionists’ revenge than the country that half-heartedly supported them. It is easy to see how Syrian rebels would take of their anger on Iran, Russia, the Iraqi government, or members of minority communities, but it is extremely rare for members of an insurgency to lash out violently at lukewarm patrons. The “revenge doctrine” just desperate fear-mongering to try to push the U.S. to increase its role in the conflict, and the desperation shows.
A more sophisticated version of the “non-interventionist blowback” argument is that the U.S. sometimes ends up paying a price for refusing to interfere. Shadi Hamid stated this view earlier this week:
.@ericmartin24 Actually, blowback can result from non-intervention too. See Shia uprisings 1991, Afghanistan early 1990s, Algeria 1991.
— Shadi Hamid (@shadihamid) May 15, 2013
It is a very curious definition of a “non-interventionist” policy that includes these as examples. The major failing of the Bush administration wasn’t its refusal to back the Shia uprisings in 1991, but its irresponsible call for Iraqis to overthrow their government when there was no intention of backing them militarily. Not content with expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Bush evidently felt the need to make a gesture of opposition to Hussein’s continued rule, but he wasn’t willing to commit to more than that. The lesson to take away from that episode is that presidents shouldn’t say things that create the false expectation of U.S. support. Supposing that the U.S. had done what Hamid recommends, it still would have put the U.S. in the position of toppling Hussein and occupying Iraq. There would have been a protracted U.S. military presence in Iraq, but it would have started at an earlier date. Bush and his advisers understood that the costs of doing this were unacceptably high, which was something that members of his son’s administration failed to understand.
The other examples are even less persuasive. The U.S. and France supported the Algerian government and military. They may have been wrong to do so, but that isn’t an example of a non-interventionist policy having undesirable consequences. The civil war in 1990s Afghanistan was at least partly a product of the arming of anti-Soviet insurgents by the U.S. and its clients. As it did with many of its proxy forces at the end of the Cold War, the U.S. stopped paying much attention to the messes it helped create by arming insurgents, but Afghanistan wasn’t riven by conflict in the 1990s because the U.S. hadn’t involved itself in the country. The country suffered from prolonged conflict in part because the U.S. had been funneling arms to insurgents, which is the very thing that Syria hawks now call on the U.S. to do today.
Strictly speaking, none of these episodes resulted in blowback for the U.S.
Greg Scoblete also rejects comparisons between Rwanda and Syria:
Now, unlike Rwanda, “other forms of intervention” in Syria consist of riskier policies than jamming radio stations. Things like arming rebel groups and establishing no-fly zones — i.e. policies that even more explicitly tie the U.S. to the fighting in Syria. But like Rwanda, these interim steps are almost certainly not going to “help” Syria in the humanitarian sense of the word. They will help depose Assad, but absent a means to stabilize a post-Assad Syria, there’s liable to be a failed state and all the attendant bloodshed and lawlessness that implies.
As Scoblete notes, the purpose of invoking Rwanda in the Syria debate is to use it as a bludgeon against opponents of military action. Like the “credibility” argument, it is designed to take our attention away from what would actually be required of the U.S. in Syria while making a mainly emotional appeal to short-circuit skepticism about the merits of U.S. involvement in Syria’s conflict. If warning about the new Munich is the preferred tactic of some Republican hawks, warning about the next Rwanda fills the same role for advocates of humanitarian intervention. The comparison doesn’t work for many reasons, but maybe the best reason to ignore it is the horrible track record when Washington allows guilt over the genocide to influence policy decisions. It was in no small part because of this that the U.S. supported Rwanda and Uganda as they unleashed more than a decade of war and upheaval in the neighboring Congo, which resulted in several millions of deaths and which continues to have destructive effects in Congo to this day.
Syria hawks are invoking Rwanda in order to get the U.S. to help destroy a minority regime and empower the majority. This is another reason to be wary of Rwanda-Syria comparisons. It is conceivable that facilitating the victory of the majority sect in Syria will create the conditions for large-scale killing and mass expulsion of minority groups. Fear of “allowing” the next Rwanda might very well end up creating it.
My new column for The Week on Syria is online:
Like the Iraq War, a U.S. war in Syria would be unauthorized and illegal under international law, and America would have even fewer allies than it had in Iraq. Like Iraq, the costs and duration of a Syrian war have been minimized to make it appear to be a quick, easy, and cheap intervention. Unlike Iraq, there wouldn’t even be the pretense that the U.S. was acting to eliminate a potential threat to our security. Instead, the U.S. would be fighting solely for the purpose of overthrowing another government. While the Iraq War was mostly limited to that country, U.S. intervention in Syria would draw us directly into a proxy war with Assad’s patrons that would likely not remain confined to Syria. Finally, a Syrian war would be waged with the knowledge of all the things that went so horribly wrong in Iraq, which makes the impulse to intervene in Syria both inexcusable and inexplicable.
Josh Rogin reports on the former U.S. diplomats that are wary of any military involvement in Syria:
On the other hand, those who’ve seen the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from a front-row diplomatic seat say caution is the better part of policy prudence when it comes to Syria.
“There are no good options here and the pressure is growing to do something because that is what we do, we do things [bold mine-DL],” says former Amb. Ryan Crocker, who served as ambassadors to both Iraq and Syria and now is a senior fellow at Yale University. “But everything of significance I can think of doing is likely to make the situation worse, not better and put us in a worse position, not a better one.” [bold mine-DL] In Crocker’s view, the stalemate with the Russians at the United Nations regarding more concerted action has actually benefited America.
“The Russians are actually doing us a favor and I don’t think they are actually going to come off it because they see a rebel victory as deeply destabilizing for the region and particularly for them,” Crocker says. “I hope they go on blocking any Security Council action because if you get an ‘all necessary measures’ resolution, then you are in a very exposed position if you don’t use all necessary means.” [bold mine-DL]
Ambassador Crocker is being very sensible here. Americans should be glad that Russia is keeping the Security Council from authorizing military action in Syria, since the U.S. will be the one to take that action, and we should be glad that the administration is apparently unwilling to ignore the requirement for international authorization. Of course, the U.S. could start bombing Syria without that authorization, just as it did in Yugoslavia in 1999. The lack of a Security Council resolution is more of an excuse not to start a war instead of being a real obstacle to one, but when Syria hawks are looking for any pretext to get the U.S. into the conflict it may be good enough. One of the stranger talking points from Syria hawks is that Russia wants to see America “lose” in Syria. If Moscow were so obsessed with inflicting damage on the U.S., there are few things that would be more effective in doing that than clearing the way for the U.S. and its allies to fight a fourth war in twelve years.
Crocker makes another point that is worth considering:
He cites the willingness of the Assad regime to wage war by any means necessary as among the key differences, meaning more weapons for the opposition will not necessarily lead to less fighting.
“They have been training, equipping, and organizing for this for a very long time,” he says of Assad’s forces. “They have got the weaponry, they are ruthless and they know what the alternatives are. Whatever you say about them, they will stand and fight and you did not have that situation with a government in either Bosnia or Iraq [bold mine-DL].”
More weapons for the opposition was never likely to lead to “less fighting.” The goal of this measure wasn’t to limit or reduce armed violence, but to inflict more of it on regime forces. It’s the last observation that is more interesting. As Crocker sees it, a Syrian war would be more difficult than previous military interventions because the U.S. would meet with much greater resistance.
Rebeccah Heinrichs’ demand for more meddling in Syria is wonderfully incoherent:
The Commander in Chief needs to explain to the American people why stability in Syria [bold mine-DL] is necessary for their security. Then, he needs to do whatever he can to empower the non-Islamist factions within the opposition, including providing arms [bold mine-DL].
Yes, those weapons could end up being used against Americans. But right now that risk must be weighed against the down-stream risk of chemical weapons being used against Americans [bold mine-DL].
In short, Heinrichs wants the U.S. to contribute to the destabilization of Syria in the name of stability. Whatever else arming the Syrian opposition might do, it won’t make Syria stable. Arming insurgents isn’t supposed to make a country stable. If stability in Syria were necessary for American security, the U.S. wouldn’t be lending any support to anti-regime forces at all. If Obama were to tell Americans that it was necessary for American security, he would be deceiving them.
Heinrichs wants Obama to provide weapons to armed groups that could later be used against Americans and others in order to topple the Syrian government, which is unavoidably destabilizing to Syria and its neighbors. That in turn makes it much more likely that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of jihadist groups. That is the risk that we are supposed to “weigh against” the risk of U.S.-supplied weapons being used by those groups, but both risks are made much greater by following Heinrichs’ advice. The Syrian conflict doesn’t pose a significant threat to U.S. security, but everything Heinrichs recommends would make it more dangerous to the U.S. than it is right now.
Mark Salter rewrites the history of the 2000s:
His mistaken assumption that the resetting could be undertaken unilaterally by the United States implicitly encouraged Putin’s diagnosis: namely, that the problems in the relationship had all been caused by that international bully, George W. Bush, who, among his other sins, had the audacity to support the self-determination of former Soviet republics [bold mine-DL].
This is deeply misleading, and it’s important to understand why it is. In fact, many of the problems in the U.S.-Russian relationship were made worse by decisions that the previous administration took. Bush did not create these problems, but he managed to exacerbate them over five or six years. Putin believed that he had offered the U.S. significant cooperation in the aftermath of 9/11, and then saw the U.S. expand NATO into the Baltics, back “color” revolutions in neighboring countries, and try to make Ukraine and Georgia into U.S. clients and eventually members of NATO. The disagreements between the U.S. and Russia on these issues pre-dated Bush, but he spent most of his presidency going out of his way to provoke and annoy Russia on these issues. Half of the “reset” was simply to stop being so clumsy and provocative. Disagreements naturally remain, but they are mostly not used as excuses to wreck the relationship.
Bush wasn’t just supporting the “self-determination of former Soviet republics.” They had already exercised their self-determination in the ’90s when they achieved independence. Bush was actively working to bring countries that bordered Russia into NATO and promote his “freedom agenda” there in a thinly-disguised effort to “roll back” Russian influence in former Soviet space, and to that end he uncritically backed the most egregiously anti-Russian political forces in those countries. This foolishness reached its unfortunate conclusion with the August 2008 war that was caused in no small part by American-backed pledges that Ukraine and Georgia would be brought into NATO, the recognition of Kosovo, and the enthusiastic support for Saakashvili that the Georgian president mistook for approval of his aggressive handling of the separatist republics. All of this was an avoidable disaster for Georgia, and it was further confirmation that Bush’s approach to the region was badly flawed.
Meanwhile, Ukraine and Georgia have chosen governments less hostile to Moscow, which has had a positive effect on the U.S.-Russian relationship. Gvosdev explains:
Just as the election of Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine in 2010 took that country out of contention as a friction point between Russia and the United States, the electoral victory of the Georgian opposition and the installation of Bidzina Ivanishvili as prime minister in Tbilisi has also helped the U.S.-Russia relationship. Ivanishvili, while not prepared to renounce Georgia’s Western aspirations, is nonetheless much more open than his predecessor to improving relations with Russia and finding compromises that President Mikheil Saakashvili has been unwilling to entertain. Over the past several months, Georgia has receded as a flashpoint between Moscow and Washington.
Depending on what the U.S. does in Syria, many of these gains could be lost very quickly. Of course, that is what Salter hopes will happen, since like most critics of the “reset” he doesn’t want good relations with Russia.
More Pulitzer-worthy commentary from Bret Stephens:
These are the sorts of views—isolationist is the only real word for them—that crowd my inbox every week, and they’re not a fringe. A growing number of Americans, conservatives too, have concluded that the lesson of the past decade is that, since the U.S. can’t do it all, the wisest, most moral, and most self-interested course is to do nothing.
Stephens’ entire argument is built around the weak conceit that the U.S. doesn’t even have a foreign policy if it isn’t actively meddling all over the world. According to him, anything less than constant and frequent interference in what are still mostly the internal affairs of other countries is “isolationist.” This is barely an argument. It is more of an elaborate fit of name-calling. Then again, that’s what we’ve come to expect from Stephens.
True to form, he also just makes things up to support what he’s saying. The U.S. isn’t indifferent to tensions between China and Japan. For good or ill, the U.S. position has been to support Japanese claims to the Senkakus and to claim that the islands are protected by the treaty with Japan. Hagel just reiterated this position earlier this month. Maybe this is unwise. It is conceivable that strong U.S. backing has made Japanese nationalists more unyielding and belligerent in recent years than they would have been otherwise, because they assume that the U.S. will be there to bail them out in case tensions escalate into conflict. It’s clear that the U.S. isn’t “doing nothing” there. The U.S. isn’t just leaving it to China and Japan to sort out among themselves. Maybe we should, but at present no one in government is proposing that or anything like it. A reasonably honest hawk would recognize that the U.S. response to disputes between China and Japan is more or less the one that he favors. Naturally, Stephens doesn’t.
What does Stephens think could stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon if its government were indeed intent on getting one? Iran policy is already just about as coercive and cruel as possible, but it has not had the desired effect and likely never will. Our Iran policy is bankrupt because it has generally followed the line that Stephens and other hawks prefer. If Stephens wants war with Iran, he would still have to explain how illegally attacking the country would make its government less inclined to acquire a deterrent to attack. On Syria, he can’t help misrepresenting what is happening. As he and other hard-liners tend to do, he grossly exaggerates for jingoistic effect. If chemical weapons were “bouncing around like stray tennis balls” in Syria, that would be a very different and more serious situation than the one that exists.
U.S.-Russian relations have been worse since 2011 than they were in the previous two years, but in spite of this the “problems with Russia” that the U.S. has had are causing fewer headaches for Washington now than they were five years ago. An honest assessment of the relationship would recognize this. Nikolas Gvosdev concluded his column last week:
Nevertheless, for the first time since the reset began to falter at the end of 2011, there is room for cautious optimism in the direction U.S.-Russia relations are taking.
Then again, Stephens’ real gripe about the “reset” is not that it has been a failure, but that the relationship with Russia is much better than the post-Cold War low that it reached in 2008. Like most “reset” critics, he doesn’t want good relations with Russia and doesn’t believe they are possible, so he is annoyed when relations have clearly improved.
Peter Beinart gets this half-right:
I understand the impulse for America to “do something” in Syria. I grasp the logic behind funding some of the militias fighting Bashar Assad, even if America’s history of funding militias may be propelling Afghanistan and Iraq toward civil war. But there’s something disgraceful about our tendency to wax moralistic about preventing suffering in countries in which we have not yet intervened while we brazenly ignore the suffering we have helped cause in the countries in which we have.
Beinart is right that this sort of moralizing is disgraceful, but it isn’t “our tendency.” It’s the tendency of a relatively small number of pundits and politicians that are responsible for driving foreign policy debates in this direction. Of course, it is easier for this tendency to flourish when the people demanding that the U.S. “do something” are able to keep the debate in vague terms of inaction vs. action, abdication vs. leadership, and so on. Honestly, I don’t understand the impulse for America to “do something” in Syria when “doing something” is a euphemism for killing people in Syria or providing weapons with which more Syrians will be killed. If one wants to ensure that even more Syrians not aligned with the opposition end up dead or expelled from their homes, there is a certain logic to providing funds and weapons to anti-regime forces. It just happens to be an appalling, indefensible logic. Arming insurgents will very likely intensify the conflict, it will facilitate attacks on civilians on the “wrong” side, and it will prolong the conflict while increasing the number of those killed and displaced. The truly disgraceful thing about interventionist moralizing over these conflicts is that the moralizing rhetoric is just a goad to get the U.S. into the conflict as a participant or as a patron, and as a result it will often inflict more destruction and suffering than would have occurred otherwise.
The Los Angeles Times reports that members of Congress are attention-seeking opportunists:
Distressed by the suffering in Syria, but wary of another Mideast war, some lawmakers are speaking loudly and carrying a small stick.
I suppose this is preferable to quietly agitating for an invasion, but it’s still not good. The need that many legislators have to demand that the U.S. “do more” in foreign conflicts is a destructive one, and one that will eventually come back to haunt the U.S. Sens. Feinstein, Inhofe, Corker, et al. may not think they are contributing to the steady movement towards direct U.S. involvement in Syria’s conflict, but every call for “more action” that these people make brings a Syrian war that much closer. Even when members of Congress endorse measures that are far short of direct intervention in Syria, they are making war more likely when they accept the Syria hawks’ core assumption that the U.S. must hasten regime change in Syria. Even though some of the people quoted in the article may not want a Syrian war, they are all laying the foundation for it when they demand more “leadership” and condemn “inaction.” Any support for “doing more” in Syria, no matter how tentative, is a boon for the dedicated group of Syria hawks constantly pushing for escalation.
The more worrisome and somewhat baffling response to Syria’s conflict is this one:
Few lawmakers are publicly calling for the United States to keep clear of the war.
Considering how overwhelmingly opposed the public is to U.S. involvement in Syria’s conflict, the lack of representation for the view held by roughly two-thirds of the country is remarkable. In spite of the last twelve years of war, most politicians are still terrified of being labeled as “weak” on any foreign policy issue, and so they remain silent or endorse half-measures that provide them with cover against accusations of being a supporter of “isolationism” or “retreat.” One might think that opposing a Syrian war before the fact would be an obvious move for Republican opponents of the administration. Unfortunately, Republicans have trapped themselves by consistently taking more hawkish positions than Obama, so they are prevented from taking the popular and correct position against a Syrian war because of the pernicious influence of hard-liners within their party. Just as it was in 2002, there is apparently no Democrat with national ambitions interested in ruling out the use of force in Syria, and so far Obama’s reluctance to become involved has given other Democrats a pass on having to say anything at all. Of course, if the only people in Washington talking about Syria are the ones demanding “action,” then “action” is eventually what we will get despite the fact that most Americans and perhaps even most members of Congress are against it.