The regional atmosphere is completely different. There was a virtual unanimity in the Arab world in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Now, to the contrary, virtually the entire Sunni Arab world, along with Turkey and others, are desperately looking for American leadership on the Syria question [bold mine-DL]. Outrage at any proactive American backing of Syrian rebels will be restricted almost entirely to Shiite and other sectarian minority groups. The overwhelming regional majority will either welcome or tolerate it.
It’s very important here to distinguish between what the governments of these countries may want and what public opinion is throughout the region. There is strong opposition in Turkey to Western military intervention and to Turkish involvement in the conflict. Broad disapproval of Erdogan’s Syria policy is one factor among many fueling the protests against his government. Regional opinion has been strongly against Western military intervention, and there hasn’t even been that much support for military intervention led by Arab governments. Regional governments are taking a much more activist approach to the conflict than their publics want, and there is simply no desire for Western powers to exercise “leadership” here.
Except for Jordan, majorities in several Arab countries and in Turkey all oppose arming the opposition, and support for this measure does not increase that much when the military aid is being provided by Arab governments. There is no strong desire among most Sunni Arabs for American involvement in the conflict. That means that the U.S. risks provoking outrage in much of the region. Hawks often exaggerate and oversell the popularity of their proposed policies in the region that will be affected, and Syria hawks are no exception.
Of course, there are important differences between the Iraq war and the escalation in Syria that Ibish wants, but they have three things in common that should give everyone pause: 1) military intervention in Syria would be just as illegal as the invasion of Iraq, but wouldn’t even be able to hide behind the pretext of enforcing U.N. resolutions; 2) as in Iraq, it would likely expose the minority communities to reprisals, massacres, and expulsions; 3) it would be an entirely unnecessary war that serves no discernible security interests of the U.S., and it might even end up undermining those interests.
Bobby Jindal makes the case that Republicans should stop “navel-gazing” about their problems:
We are the conservative party in America — deal with it. We have a lot of dissenting voices. So what? Deal with it. The American public waxes and wanes. Fine. It will wax again soon enough. Deal with it, and start fighting for our principles instead of against them, so we can be in position to create the next wave.
This is the sort of cri de coeur that one might expect from an activist or maybe a pundit, but it’s remarkably tone-deaf for an elected official. Jindal seems to be retreating here from his previous very mild recommendations for Republican reform, and seems to think that there’s nothing ailing the party that can’t be fixed by a redoubling of effort and a more combative attitude. Jindal is right that public opinion can change, and a party’s political fortunes can revive when the public tires of the party in power, but that doesn’t mean that one can simply wish away a party’s political weaknesses. No one would seriously accuse the GOP of having suffered from an “excess of navel-gazing” in the last few months. Most Republican pundits and politicians can’t bring themselves to face up to the bankruptcy of the party’s economic and foreign policy agendas, and they are even less interested in a remedy.
Relatively speaking, Republicans are the conservative party in America, but it’s a party that has little or nothing to offer to middle- and working-class Americans, its latest period of unified government was disastrous, and over at least the last twelve years it has alienated millions of people through a combination of incompetence and ideology. The public has “dealt” with the GOP already by handing it significant defeats in three of the last four national elections, and there are not many signs that Republicans understand how to avoid the next one. Reaching that understanding has only just barely begun, and Jindal now wants it stopped, which creates the impression that the effort to make sense of the 2012 loss and make necessary adjustments was almost entirely perfunctory and meaningless.
Richard Cohen reminds us that his references to interventions in the Balkans are completely unreliable:
The more apt comparison is the 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1995 that ended the bloodshed in Bosnia — and cost not a single American life.
I’m not sure why someone so predisposed to military interventionism and endless Balkan references as Cohen is can’t get basic facts about the Balkan interventions right. The 78-day bombing campaign was in 1999 in Kosovo, and NATO intervention in Bosnia was a much more complicated and prolonged affair than Cohen describes. If Cohen can’t even be bothered to get simple details about past interventions right, it’s safe to say that there’s not much reason to trust his judgment about new ones. The truth is that Cohen cites the Balkan interventions because these are accepted as “good” interventions that “worked,” and they are the only recent examples an American liberal interventionist has available to him to support an argument for yet another unnecessary war. Syria doesn’t have much in common with the interventions in Bosnia or Kosovo, but Cohen keeps insisting that it does because these are the only examples that even remotely support the idea that the U.S. can successfully intervene in foreign conflicts where it has nothing at stake.
It is somewhat fruitless to compare Syria to other conflicts in order to support or oppose intervention, but one thing that we do know with some certainty is that it does not compare very well with Bosnia or Kosovo. In the Bosnian case, Serb forces were beaten on the ground by Croatian and Bosnian offensives that did most of the work that Cohen wrongly ascribes to NATO action. Nothing of the sort is available in the Syrian case, and Cohen would be the first to reject the idea that he’s proposing a ground war. In the Kosovo case, NATO sought a fairly limited goal of removing Serb forces from one part of the country rather than overthrowing the government and installing rebel forces in its place. In 1999, Russia was ultimately cooperative in getting Milosevic to yield, and even assuming that it had the means to do so Moscow is anything but cooperative in getting Assad to do the same. Serbia was mostly isolated and the closest thing to a patron that it had was weak and in no position to provide much support, but Syria is not so isolated nor lacking in patronage. In short, what “worked” in the Balkans in ’90s isn’t likely to “work” today in Syria, and it’s silly to keep pretending that it would.
Cohen ends on the most bizarre note of all:
The weary recitation of all these ethnicities suggests a colonial-era mentality: those bloody people and their bloody behavior.
If one wanted to fling accusations of having a “colonial-era mentality,” it might be better-suited to someone who seems to think that all that is needed to resolve complex foreign conflicts is for Western military forces to drop a few bombs and tell the locals to get in line. What Cohen calls the “weary recitation of all these ethnicities” is what others might describe as trying to gain a minimal understanding of the country in question. Cohen might remember that having some grasp of sectarian and ethnic differences is valuable when proposing to overthrow a foreign government in a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse country. The point here isn’t that “Syria is Iraq,” but that so many Iraq hawks remain oblivious to these realities of the societies that they so arrogantly assume that the U.S. can and should reorder.
Paul Pillar reflects on the significance of Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the Iranian presidential election:
Rouhani’s win brings to Iran’s presidency the candidate who was least associated with attributes of the Iranian regime that the West finds most offensive. While one must always be careful in affixing labels to individual leaders and factions in Iranian politics, the pre-election characterization of Rouhani as the most moderate of the six candidates remaining in the race until election day is accurate.
It remains to be seen how much influence Rouhani will have, or rather how much he will be allowed to have, but anyone interested in reducing tensions between the U.S. and Iran has to be encouraged by the broad popular support he received and the possibility that a negotiated agreement on the nuclear issue is slightly more likely than it has been. Though it seems unlikely to happen, this result is an opportunity to revisit and change the current cruel and useless sanctions policy, which is succeeding in harming and impoverishing the civilian population while seeming to have no real effect on regime behavior. At the very least, there is an opening here for more sustained engagement with Iran if there anyone in our government has the wisdom to see it and take advantage of it.
As Shashank Joshi argues, the U.S. and other Western governments need to be willing to take seriously any conciliatory gestures Rouhani tries to make:
The U.S. and Europe need to seize any opportunities that Rohani creates, putting meaningful sanctions relief on the table in exchange for concrete and verifiable reductions in Iran’s nuclear capability. If they instead meet any overtures with sullen distrust, Rohani’s political rivals will use the failure against him.
The difficulty here is that the U.S. has committed itself openly to fighting a proxy war against Iran’s allies, and the move to arm anti-regime forces is taking place in an atmosphere of increasing distrust of and hostility to Iran here in the U.S. Viewed against the backdrop of Rouhani’s victory, the decision to meddle even more in Syria looks even more destructive and short-sighted than it already did.
Noah Millman uses last week’s decision on arming rebels to ask a broader question:
Is there a convincing realist explanation for America’s Syria policy? And if not – if American policy is being driven by forces divorced not only from the national interest but from a clearly-discernable parochial interest of the regime or powerful interest groups – then what are the implications for realism as a descriptive theory of foreign affairs?
In practice, a government has its own definition of the national interest, and that definition may or may not be correct. Many of our political leaders define U.S. “vital interests” so broadly that there sometimes seems to be nothing in the world that doesn’t involve them. Related to this is the widely-shared conceit that the U.S. must exercise “leadership” in response to virtually every crisis and conflict, and this responsibility to “lead” is usually justified by referring to the many interests that the U.S. supposedly has in the surrounding region that the conflict threatens. When critics of this hyper-activist foreign policy express the desire for the U.S. to behave as a “normal” country, we are saying that this overly broad definition of the national interest needs to be scrapped and a much more focused, limited one put in its place. Like anything else in political life, the meaning of “national interest” is contested, and the definition we give to it determines the kind of foreign policy we have.
According to the extremely broad definition, the U.S. has an interest in inflicting damage on Iran and its allies as part of a competition for influence in the region, and to that end the U.S. is supposed to aid anti-Iranian forces wherever they might be found. It treats Iran as if it were a major threat whose influence has to be rolled back. There is some internal coherence to this view, but its core assumptions are delusional. They are based on an obsession with limiting Iranian influence that doesn’t actually seem to promote U.S. or regional security, and as I believe we’re seeing in Syria this obsession is contributing to making the U.S. and the region less stable and secure. That is what many Syria hawks think the U.S. can and should be doing, and to the extent that the administration agrees with their underlying assumptions that is what explains Obama’s very bad decision.
Of course, the phrase “national interest” can be abused and its meaning stretched beyond the breaking point. Most supporters of the Iraq war believed or claimed to believe that launching an illegal invasion and overthrowing a weak dictatorship on the other side of the planet was vitally important for U.S. security. Judged by a less expansive definition of national interest, this seemed and still seems completely wrong, but if you accept a whole host of bad assumptions it might start to seem plausible. Governments can perceive a “national interest” in a foreign conflict or in another part of the world where none exists, and one reason for this is that governments can and do perceive foreign threats that aren’t real. For instance, because Britain wrongly perceived a Russian threat to its empire in South Asia, that dictated that Britain usually take a very pro-Ottoman line on the Eastern Question, attack Russia in support of the Ottomans, and engage in a senseless rivalry with Russia for more than half a century. British fears were ultimately unfounded and its rivalry with Russia was unnecessary, but provided that we accept that the British government perceived a real threat from Russia it makes a good deal more sense.
Adding to the potential for confusion is the broad spectrum of foreign policy views that are commonly described as realist. Justin Logan observed last week that no realists appear to support the Syria policy that is supposed to be characterized by Realpolitik, because they don’t share the strategic goals of Syria hawks in trying to inflict damage on Iran. Then again, the realist label often often misleadingly applied to any number of people that probably don’t qualify as such in Logan’s reckoning. As he suggests, realist is a name that other people give to a policy when they don’t like its implications or when they don’t know what else to call it, and realism is then blamed for policies that almost all realists oppose.
Doyle McManus responds to the Syria news a little too glibly:
That’s the Aspin Doctrine: Military intervention doesn’t have to be a slippery slope as long as you keep the option of walking away.
What McManus doesn’t mention here is that the U.S. hasn’t “walked away” from any foreign intervention other than Somalia in over twenty years. It would be welcome news if U.S. leaders could recognize when we ought to cut our losses in a foreign conflict, but they are very reluctant to do so even when that conflict is going very badly for the U.S. For his part, Aspin was Secretary of Defense when Clinton mistakenly chose to increase the ambitions of the U.S. mission in Somalia into a “nation-building” exercise, and it was in large part because of the mistakes in Somalia that Aspin ended up resigning at the end of 1993. The idea that McManus presents as proof of Aspin’s insight (“bomb the Serbs and see what happens”) would be dismissed as a hostile caricature of a feckless interventionist approach to foreign policy if a critic were using it, but McManus thinks it is a wise example to follow. Better advice would be to not escalate America’s role in any conflict until there some reasonably clear picture of what is supposed to be achieved and why it is America’s responsibility to achieve it.
The problem with McManus’ “Aspin Doctrine” is that virtually no one in Washington ever seems inclined to “walk away” from anything overseas, and it doesn’t help that most of the same people seem convinced that most conflicts and crises around the world are our business in one way or another. To favor “walking away” when our grossly exaggerated “vital interests” are supposedly at stake would be to invite accusations of “retreat” and “cutting and running,” and no one wants to be seen doing either of these even if it happens to be the smart thing to do. The result is that no foreign commitment can ever be relinquished once accepted, and no commitment can ever remain limited if a policy isn’t seen as “working.”
Proxy wars can sometimes be the hardest thing to “walk away” from. The fear of letting the rival patron “win” prevents our side from “walking away,” and the fact of past support becomes a justification for continuing the policy for as long as the other patron wants to keep the conflict going. Having committed to one side in a foreign war, what administration would want to accept blame for “abandoning” the people on “our” side? Refusing to get pulled in to a proxy war wouldn’t have represented “defeat” for the U.S., but now that the U.S. committed itself openly it will eventually face another choice of “escalate or accept defeat.”
Marc Lynch bemoans Obama’s decision to arm Syrian rebels:
President Obama’s move to increase the public flow of arms to selected Syrian rebels is probably his worst foreign policy decision since taking office.
It’s disputable whether it’s the very worst, but it is certainly one of the two or three worst foreign policy decisions Obama has made. By itself, the decision to send weapons to at least some of the rebels wasn’t the worst thing Obama could have done, and as Lynch says it won’t make much difference on its own, but it still deserves scorn because it is both unnecessary for the U.S. and almost guaranteed not to have any good effects in Syria. Coming under fire from people agitating that the U.S. “do something” or “do more,” Obama has agreed to do something “more” while seeming to have no confidence that it is worth doing.
It is telling that virtually no one thinks it is worth doing by itself. Most Syria hawks have been demanding this measure only as the first step towards greater U.S. involvement, and everyone else in the debate has been rejecting it as useless or harmful, but there is no one that believes that this is what U.S. Syria policy ought to be. That is why the decision is so disturbing and foolish. The U.S. almost never scales back a foreign commitment and sooner or later opts for increased direct involvement. The administration has put itself in an untenable position of promoting a policy that no one can defend in good faith while ceding the initiative to the hawks that want a much bigger commitment. Syria hawks recognize the capitulation for what it is, and have wasted no time in clamoring for much more.
Lynch notes that this is already starting to happen:
The real problem with Obama’s announcement is that it shatters one of the primary psychological and political footholds in the grim effort to prevent the slide down the slippery slope to war. He may have chosen the arming option in order to block pressure for other, more direct moves, like a no-fly zone or an air campaign. But instead, as the immediate push for “robust intervention” makes obvious, the decision will only embolden the relentless campaign for more and deeper U.S. involvement in the war. The Syrian opposition’s spokesmen and advocates barely paused to say thank you before immediately beginning to push for more and heavier weapons, no-fly zones, air campaigns, and so on. The arming of the rebels may buy a few months, but when it fails to produce either victory or a breakthrough at the negotiating table the pressure to do more will build. Capitulating to the pressure this time will make it that much harder to resist in a few months when the push builds to escalate.
This has happened in every major debate over the use of force for the last twenty years, so it’s not as if this should come as a surprise to anyone in the administration. There is always concerted pressure to escalate the U.S. role in foreign conflicts, and every time there is remarkably little organized resistance. Last week’s decision proved that Obama will eventually give the hawks what they want.
Hannah Thoburn protests what she considers to be an insufficient U.S. response to political repression in Russia. However, she spends much of her time imagining a connection between this and authoritarian tactics being used in many other countries:
As a Turkish protest movement has emerged in recent weeks, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has parroted a similar line, hinting that the protests were instigated by “foreign powers.” Erdogan has begun to look toward altering Turkey’s constitution to ensure the continuation of his rule; Putin’s constitutional changes have allowed him to prolong his tenure at Russia’s helm and inspired similar actions [bold mine-DL] by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The cases of these three countries are significantly different, but one thing Orban, Erdogan, and Putin all have in common is that they govern what have been or have recently become largely one-party states. In the Turkish and Hungarian examples, this one-party rule has come about through a combination of ruling party success and the utter collapse of the opposition, while in Russia no real competition to the ruling party has been permitted. One-party states and their leaders will tend to behave in similar ways when it comes to consolidating personal and party rule, and they will take advantage of the weakness of the political opposition to cement their control. They don’t do this because foreign governments are too quiet in their criticism of their actions, but because it is in the nature of one-party rulers to quash dissent, vilify internal opponents, and exploit nationalist sentiment in order to marginalize critics and rally popular support. Erdogan portrays his critics as being inspired by outside forces because that is what populist demagogues usually do when challenged, and it must flatter him to believe that only those backed by foreign governments could possibly object to his actions.
It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the manner in which the U.S. criticizes the Russian government’s conduct has no effect on the behavior of leaders in Budapest and Ankara, or anywhere else for that matter. Washington could be denouncing Russian behavior every day, and it would mean nothing to governments in other countries. After all, strong public criticism of Russian behavior under the previous administration had no positive effect on what Russia did then or later, so why should there be any effect on how other governments behave? The Azerbaijan example was especially funny, since the Aliyevs have been ruling the country as their fiefdom for the last twenty years regardless of what U.S. policy towards Russia has been, and the U.S. has been only too happy to cultivate Azerbaijan as a client while Aliyev and his son have been ruling there.
If the authoritarian contagion thesis that Thoburn presents is so unconvincing, what is the point of framing the argument this way? It seems to me that there are two reasons. The first is to exaggerate the international significance of the U.S. response to Russian internal behavior. If we pretend that authoritarian habits are spreading to other countries as a result of insufficiently aggressive U.S. criticism of Russian authoritarianism, that will make this seem much more important than just another complaint about Russian authoritarianism. This is also supposed to exaggerate the ability of the U.S. to influence political events abroad by blaming the U.S. response to Russian behavior for encouraging similar behavior all over the world. According to this view, all these other governments would have somehow been discouraged from this kind of behavior if the U.S. had only responded more forcefully to Russian internal behavior. This makes a basic mistake of assuming that authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian regimes care that the U.S. objects to how they govern. As a general rule, they don’t, which is why they don’t respond constructively to criticism from Washington.
Suppose for a moment that the U.S. followed Thoburn’s recommendations and seriously downgraded the relationship with Russia to punish it for its internal conduct. What would be the result? Would one-party states elsewhere in the world “get the message” that the U.S. won’t tolerate that kind of behavior? Or would they reasonably conclude that Russia is being punished selectively for behavior practiced by many U.S. clients and allies around the world, and dismiss it as a nothing more than a ploy that they were free to ignore? The latter seems far more likely. Regime opponents inside Russia would not be treated any better, but would in all likelihood be harassed even more than they already are. Meanwhile, whatever benefit the U.S. and Russia’s neighbors derive from a less antagonistic U.S.-Russian relationship would vanish, and Russian cooperation on any number of issues would become even harder to obtain.
The decision to arm Syrian rebels is ostensibly a response to evidence that regime forces used chemical weapons, but as many people have been pointing out this morning there is no connection between the actions that have triggered that response and the response itself. Providing arms to the Syrian rebels, and mostly light arms at that, as a punishment for the regime’s actions won’t make chemical weapons use less likely, nor does it directly address the chemical weapons use. It is a perfect example of “doing something because we have to appear to be doing something.”
It is at once the least that the administration could to increase direct U.S. involvement while completely undermining every argument they’ve made up until now on why that involvement shouldn’t increase. The White House line for years at this point has been that “further militarization” of the conflict was a mistake. Now the U.S. will be contributing directly to the further militarization of the conflict, and now that it has the U.S. will sooner or later be pulled into doing even more for anti-regime forces in the event that they suffer more reverses or remain stuck in a stalemate.
How did the U.S. get to this point? It’s true there has been a lot of agitation for intervention, and it has been growing stronger in the last few months, but in the end Obama trapped himself into doing this by making a series of important unforced errors. First, he insisted that Assad “must go,” which he seemed to assume would happen anyway and the U.S. wouldn’t have to do much to make it happen. Then he issued his ill-advised “red line” remarks. Those remarks were so vague that Obama could plausibly claim that a limited use of chemical weapons wouldn’t cross the “red line,” but this week the administration chose to do the opposite. None of this will placate the credibility brigades, since most of the people screaming about the dangers to U.S. credibility want a much larger U.S. role in Syria’s conflict than this. Next there will be a new credibility argument. This one will say that the U.S. now has to “win” in Syria or else reveal itself to be a “paper tiger,” etc. Now that Obama has committed the U.S. directly to one side in the war, the drumbeat for increasing the U.S. military role will only get louder over time.
Dan Drezner views the decision as evidence of pure anti-Iranian Realpolitik:
To your humble blogger, this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that’s been going on for the past two years. To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible.
It’s an interesting interpretation, but I can’t quite see it. If this were the case, the U.S. wouldn’t need to be supplying the weapons directly, and wouldn’t need to announce any new measures. Just as the administration has been facilitating the supply of Saudi and Qatari arms, it could do more of the same on a larger scale. Iran and Hizbullah have joined a “protracted, resource-draining civil war” and will be fighting it for a long time to come with or without this decision. All that this does is give Iran and Hizbullah an incentive to throw a few more resources at the war without changing the course of the conflict, and it gives them a little unnecessary propaganda boost. As long as the war goes on, the demands for “decisive” action will increase every week, and the administration has just decided to do something that is intended to prolong the war. Meanwhile, containing and limiting the effects of the war on Syria’s neighbors, which is what ought to matter far more to the U.S., will become more difficult as the U.S. directly contributes to regional instability. I suppose one could call this Realpolitik, except that it ignores U.S. interests, the stability and security of allies and clients, and commits us to the losing side in a civil war where we have nothing at stake. I wouldn’t expect this realist policy to please many realists.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Obama has opted for pointless half-measures in Syria:
President Barack Obama authorized his administration to provide arms to moderate rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to officials briefed on the decision.
This move will almost certainly prolong and intensify the conflict, which will mean that even more Syrians on both sides of the war will suffer and die. It’s a serious mistake, and one that will probably lead to even bigger ones in the future. Because it will prove to be ineffective in changing the course of the war, as opponents of this measure have said for years, it will serve as an invitation to further escalation in the coming months and years. The Syria hawks agitating for increased involvement have managed to pressure the administration into this because of Obama’s own unforced errors and because there has been practically no one to stop this from happening. Let this be a lesson that there is no policy measure so ill-conceived or unwise that the constant, repetitive demand for it in public won’t eventually succeed. Of course, because Obama has agreed to this measure years after it was first proposed, it will completely fail to satisfy most Syria hawks, who will quickly declare it to be inadequate. The same people that have been demanding that the U.S. arm the rebels will waste no time in calling for more aggressive measures. If this decision is any indication, they will eventually get what they want.