by Anonymous US National Security expert, as part of a new series of posts providing insights into the policy-making processContinue reading
by Anonymous US National Security expert, as part of a new series of posts providing insights into the policy-making processContinue reading
It won’t be too long before we start to get a better understanding of what foreign policy in a Trump Administration will actually look like. It’s useful to keep in mind that current rhetoric is no guarantee of future grand strategy. Remember when we all worried that the Bush Administration was going to be too isolationist? Good times.
But let’s assume, for a moment, that the past is prologue. Or the prologue is the main part of the book. Or whatever.
This raises an interesting puzzle: what the $@!#* • #!*$$%*(!! is he doing? Seriously. What the !#(&–^&!# stupid #$#(*$!! is going on?
As I noted in another post, on what godforsaken inhospitable bright orange gas giant is it a good idea to attack your most successful alliance at the same exact time that you’re picking fights with your nearest peer-competitor—that is, China? And it isn’t like the incoming administration has been sending unambiguous signals to key Asian allies while it’s been prodding China. Oh yeah, and also North Korea’s in the mix.
As I was thinking about this—duly motivated by a discussion among fellow international-relations specialists on Facebook—I took to the Twitters to work out some alternative theories. Here they are:
“The Chess Master.” Trump is a strategic genius. He recognizes that the US cannot afford to defend Europe while threatening war with China. He needs to take Russia out of the picture. So that means a “grand bargain” that will concede to Russia its privileged sphere of influence, as well as forward some of its other strategic priorities in western Eurasia. Not only does this free up the United States to take on Beijing, but it might even entice Russia to remain neutral—or support the US. It’s like the Austrian Diplomatic Revolution. Which turned out terrific for Vienna.
“The Transactionalist.” This is the conventional wisdom on Trump. He thinks in terms of short-term zero-sum bargains, mercantilist economics, and is deeply insecure about being taken advantage of. In his mind, NATO helps trade competitors. It’s basically a trade subsidy for Germany. But he can make big, splashy deals with countries like Russia. Maybe he can squeeze better deals from the NATO allies as well. There is a “T” in NATO, after all. It doesn’t have to stand for “Treaty.”
“Mirror Universe Teddy Roosevelt.” Trump speaks loudly and carries… a small stick… in his freakishly small hands. He’s all bluster. US foreign policy will largely carry on as normal, under the watchful eye of Defense, State, and second-tier national-security staff. In fact, Trump’s barking might just get a few NATO countries to make token increases in their defense spending, or offer more subsidies for American troops.
“The Buffoon.” This is kind of like Mirror Universe Teddy Roosevelt, but he actually means it; cooler heads aren’t going to prevail. It really is that bad. In other words, Trump is an impulsive narcissist and a walking example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Don’t worry too much about strategic logic. There really isn’t any. But some nice commentators—at Fox News, NewsMax, whatever new #MAGA journals appear, or the National Enquirer—will be happy to tell us that it’s genius. In a hundred years, Chinese revisionist historians will argue that there actually was a calculated grand strategy. They will be wrong.
“Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.
In this scenario, it’s all about shredding globalism and liberal order. And that means watching NATO and the EU burn. Or, at least, gumming them up. Here, the eerie overlap with Russian interests is all a matter of convenience. They hate the liberal order, because it benefits the US and its allies. The Trumpistas hate the liberal order too, because reasons.
“The Transnational Rightist.” The Leninist is to revolutionary Marxism as The Transnational Rightist is to parliamentary socialism. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with NATO and the EU that a Europe dominated by a mix of right-wing populist and post-fascist parties won’t cure. The enemy is the broad European center—the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats, and so on. What Trump wants is the rise of political co-confessionals, such as the AfD in Germany, the Front National in France, and the Freedom Party in Austria. Hurting the establishment is good, but burning everything down would be a bit too much. Maybe just the EU. NATO can stay. Is Russia an ally of convenience or a fellow traveller? For now, it doesn’t really matter.
“The Useful Idiot.” Is Trump compromised by Kompromat? Is his overleveraged financial spider web dependent upon, intertwined with, or simply looking for the best deals in Russia? Does Trump just having a thing for strong, buff autocrats? Who knows? It’s all bad.
“Tales of the Incompetent Transition.” Transitions often make for policy instability and amateur-hour mistakes. I arrived at the Pentagon in 2009. The Obama Administration had just rolled out its new plans for European ballistic missile defenses. They were much better than the old plans. They also involved ending the “Third Site” in Poland. That the Bush Administration had so carefully negotiated. Apparently, no one gave Warsaw a ‘heads up’. Things were bumpy for a bit.
Point is, even well-run transitions full of experienced people can go bad. And this is not one of those transitions. Eventually, there will be national-security principals, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, and the rest of the crew. People will be briefed. Many will have a clue. Things will settle down.
…. Of course, it could be any combination of these. And perhaps I’ve missed some possibilities. Thoughts?
[cross-posted at the Lawyers, Guns and Money]
[Note: This is a guest post by Sean Kay, Robson Professor of Politics at Ohio Wesleyan University and Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. He has long-researched and written on NATO policy and worked in the US Department of Defense during the first round of NATO enlargement planning. His forthcoming book is America’s Search for Security: The Triumph of Idealism and the Return of Realism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014).]
Russia’s incursion into Ukraine presents the United States with a dilemma. The cries to “do something” are loud. The situation in Ukraine is, nonetheless, complicated and there is as much possibility that our efforts to do something can be well-intended but inadvertently make the situation worse.
Political scientists and historians have warned for over 20 years, since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, of the deep ties that Russia has to its relationship to Crimea. Scholars and significant policy figures like George Kennan and former Sen. Sam Nunn repeatedly warned against the risks of NATO enlargement – especially expanding too proximate to vital Russian interests. No less a Cold War hawk than former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, writes in his recent memoir: Continue reading
The word ‘global’ has become so frequently used in Western strategic debate that is has almost become background music. On one level, overuse robs it of resonance. But on another, it might be contributing to the conceptual and rhetorical overstretch that has led the US to overextend itself.
The style of this piece deviates from what I usually put up here. By way of explanation: I wrote this after some initial indications of interest by Foreign Policy in running a response. But they’ve got a lot on their plate and they no longer seem intrigued. Frankly, that’s for the best; this is now about as long as Tom’s initial piece. So I’m posting it at the Duck. Full disclosure: I served on Tom’s dissertation committee and co-authored an article, “What’s at Stake in the American Empire Debate,” with him. So this should be viewed as a friendly, if spirited, rejoinder. For another reaction, see David Schorr’s piece at Democracy Arsenal.
Thomas Wright’s “Neocons vs. Realists is so 2008” gets a lot right about the emerging grand-strategic debate in the United States. He argues that it stretches between two poles. One is composed of “restrainers” who “believe that the United States is overcommitted in the world” and seek some kind of retrenchment combining “nation-building at home” with a reduced emphasis on shaping the global environment. The other is occupied by “shapers” who advocate a continued–or even expanded–American commitment to ordering international affairs. He contends that Obama’s second term will likely be dominated by a specific breed of “restrainer,” one that “want[s] to preserve America’s core alliances” but also “to avoid any new entanglements that go beyond core commitments” and relies on allies to shoulder a greater burden in future interventions. Although the administration has “been a shaper in East Asia and a restrainer in the Middle East,” the impulse for restraint looks poised to dominate future foreign-policy decisions.
Wright paints a plausible picture of the current ideological balance in the Obama Administration. It clearly prefers to “invest” in long-neglected capital projects over maintaining current levels of defense expenditures. Given the current fiscal-political environment, pursuing such a preference will require continuing efforts to convince allies and partners to accept a greater share of the military burden. Wright also offers an important corrective to the assumptions of some of the “restrainers.” We should not over-interpret the long-term implications of current US economic performance and the general fatigue created by the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. India, Brazil, China, and the rest of the rising-powers crowd face their own challenges. Some of these may prove more intractable than the self-inflicted wounds created by Washington’s current dysfunctions.
Moreover, the odds suggest the formation of the kinds of foreign-policy coalitions Wright anticipates–including the increasing alignment of liberal and conservative “shapers.” This entails situational alliances among neoconservatives, primacy realists, and muscular liberal-internationalists. All three camps fit within the “shaper” rubric insofar as they believe that the United States can, and should, maintain international primacy–what scholars call “hegemony”–for as long as possible. However, they disagree about many things. Primacy realists are constitutionally skeptical of placing the maintenance and expansion of liberal order at the center of American foreign policy. When they conflict, the argument goes, realpolitik considerations should always trump the promotion of liberal values–whether human rights, democracy, or multilateral international governance.
It bears repeating that nobody votes on foreign policy, and most folks don’t know anything about it anyway (remember that a nontrivial number of Americans think South Korea is our greatest enemy). I’ll quote myself:
[N]obody gives a damn about foreign policy. Theories of democratic responsiveness and empirical models of foreign policy choice need to begin with this fact. Nobody cares! That thing we do? The international relations bit? It’s somewhat less important than professional bowling or HGTV. [Americans] only care about security–and their understanding of that is about as sophisticated as the Toby Keith song about the Statue of Liberty. …
[O]ur brilliant little theories about how voters express their desires over foreign policy rest on the idea that voters have some utility over foreign-policy choices. That, in turn, may also be flatly wrong. When voters vote, their choices are likely wholly driven by domestic factors. If that’s the case, there’s no residual term–foreign-policy voting is in the error term. This means that foreign policy should be relatively unconstrained, both ideologically (except among a very few elites) and in its implementation (because nobody cares).
I make the same point more diplomatically and, at much greater length, in my dissertation. I should note that the professional bowling jest was an exaggeration, but foreign affairs is demonstrably less important to voting behavior than college football (e.g., e.g.. I also point out that sometimes it’s okay to exaggerate for rhetorical effect.
Below the fold, I adduce new evidence that even the Council on Foreign Relations is somewhat ambivalent about foreign policy.
Now things seem much less exciting. Perhaps that’s because, despite the best efforts of the usual suspects, the partisan debate no longer maps well onto big ideas about grand strategy. Remember how vacuous the Romney-Obama debates were on foreign policy issues?
One of the most repeated, and most dubious, axioms about strategy is the notion that being proactive is wiser than being reactive, and that reactivity is something we should be allergic to. In the words of Briain’s foreign secretary William Hague, ‘the nation that is purely reactive in foreign policy is in decline.’
Likewise, written into the folklore of the US foreign policy establishment is the notion that the ‘strategic shocks’ that struck America – such as Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor or 9/11 – happened because Washington was passively sleeping. A quick read of Presidential speeches on the anniversary of that attack shows how powerful the creed of active vigilantism lives on, even if it doesn’t power all of America’s day to day behaviour.
Never mind that a prehistory of activism triggered both crises, whether an escalating conflict in the form of economic warfare with Japan, or deep entanglement with the very regimes that galvanised Al Qaeda to take its war to the far enemy. The logic still goes: it is wiser to be active, shape the environment so that it precludes threats.
The trouble with being proactive is that it implies a confidence about forecasting the future. What if world politics is too chaotic to anticipate? Can we make strategy if we can’t predict? This problem is implicit within many ‘strategic’ documents and general theories of strategy – which start by announcing that the future is unpredictable, before going on to…predict it.
Most of the attention paid to Ferguson’s anti-Obama Newsweek cover story has focused on his mendacious and unprofessional discussion of the administration’s domestic policies — notably its stimulus and health-care legislation.
So it was interesting to read Sam Roggeveen defend Ferguson on the China component of the piece.
The reactions to this graph and Ferguson’s piece point out, firstly, that although China might become richer than the US overall it has four times as many people, and they remain much poorer. Second, China’s rise is a good thing; economics is not zero-sum and a big Chinese market is in our interests. Third, James Fallows points out that encouraging China’s growth has actually been settled US policy for some decades.
What strikes me about the Ferguson piece and the reactions is that they largely talk past each other. Ferguson criticises Obama for failing to think through the implications of China’s rise as it relates to American power. Yet none of the critiques address that concern. Only David Frum’s piece engages with Ferguson on that level.
Far from developing a coherent strategy, he believed—perhaps encouraged by the premature award of the Nobel Peace Prize—that all he needed to do was to make touchy-feely speeches around the world explaining to foreigners that he was not George W. Bush.
In Tokyo in November 2009, the president gave his boilerplate hug-a-foreigner speech: “In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another … The United States does not seek to contain China … On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.” Yet by fall 2011, this approach had been jettisoned in favor of a “pivot” back to the Pacific, including risible deployments of troops to Australia and Singapore. From the vantage point of Beijing, neither approach had credibility.
Here is part one of my response to two recent, heavily-trafficked posts (one, two) on hypothetical retrenchment under Ron Paul. (So yes, that makes 4 total posts, including this one.) I got some flak on how I ranked US allies in order of importance, with the implication that those further down were more likely candidates for a diminished American commitment. Vikash and I are also having a really protracted and wonky comments debate about just how long US borrowing can forestall US retrenchment (IPE thoughts wanted). So rather than responding point-by-point, here are some broad responses on specific countries.
My ranking of US allies, in order, is: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Israel, South Korea, Japan, EU/NATO, and Egypt. (That’s actually 11, not a ‘top 10,’ because I originally put Canada and Mexico in together at # 1, but whatever.)
1. Canada (#1): I was surprised how much controversy my choice for Canada at the top provoked. I thought that was pretty self-evident actually. (Stephen Walt, in a riff on my OP, says pretty much the same thing.) Just because Canada is quiet and boring (in a good way) doesn’t mean it is not existentially important for the US. (This same logic, boring ≠ unimportant, applies to my choice for Indonesia [#6]. The very fact that Indonesia is a moderate Muslim state is why no one cares about it, but that is a good thing! I guarantee you that if Indonesia had nasty salafists running around like in the ME, we’d all be talking about it. The ME≠Islam, which seems to be a new insight for far too many people.) The US trades the most in the world with Canada. We expect Canada to come with us on just about all our foreign ventures. Its cooperation provides crucial symbolic value: if the country most like us in the world can’t agree with us, then we must be doing something wrong (hint: Iraq). And most obviously, its security is a direct US concern, because of the border. In fact, given that the border is something like 3x the length of the US-Mexico border, Canada easily beats every other state in the world for the most basic US national security concerns.
2. Japan (#9): A good commenter noted that after WWII, the US wanted to make Japan into the ‘Switzerland of Asia,’ and that we are reaping what we sow. Absolutely. I do think Americans send mixed signals to allies. We don’t want them taking an independent line, we want them to do what we say, but then we complain that they free-ride. As I argued in the OP, all this US commitment ‘infantilizes’ US allies by not forcing them to deal with their own regional issues. But Americans, or rather the neocon-liberal internationalist elite synthesis that dominates US foreign policy discourse, ultimately accept weak, dependent allies, because we are in love with our own hegemony. It fires our imagination to compare ourselves to Athens, Rome, or Britain. Neocons read Pericles’ Funeral Oration or Gibbon, and they tear up that America too is the noble, tragic ‘weary titan,’ carrying the great orb of its world-historical task of spreading democracy. Americans thrill to that kind of ‘national greatness’ pseudo-metaphysics while Europeans roll their eyes in disillusionment and Asians wonder wth we are even talking about. So yes, free-riding is pretty obvious to see, because we abet it.
3. Europe (#10). I think Sean Kay’s essay on retrenching from the EU nails it. “If the United States cannot disengage from Europe now, then from where in the world can it?” You said it, brother. If we can’t reduce here, that means American alliance sprawl is basically locked-in forever and that we simply incapable of strategic choice. I take the obviousness of retrenching from the EU as all but self-evident 25 years after the Cold War. Similarly for Australia. Between Australia and Asia is gargantuan Indonesia, so aren’t we encouraging Aussie free-riding by putting troops in Darwin? More sprawl…
4. Israel (#7): I was surprised I didn’t get more pushback that Israel should be even higher. I guess no tea-partiers read my site. Oh well. Because if you listened to the GOP debates in the last 6 months, the Israel love-fest was just over-the-top, as if Israel is/should be America’s #1 ally. I support the alliance too, but it seems today in US politics that the central alliance litmus-test is Israel, not Mexico, NATO, SK, Taiwan, or India. This is why I expressed a lot of skepticism over the Asian pivot. I think the US should pay more attention to Asia, but I don’t think the US electorate really cares.
5. Indonesia (#6) and Turkey (not on the list). I took some heat for not including Turkey and putting Egypt at the bottom (#11). Ok. But again, I tried to use a ‘top 10’ as a heuristic to force limits. Maybe Israel or Taiwan or SK could be dropped for Turkey. But more generally, I do think we have really overhyped the ME in the last decade. Elsewhere I argued that we broadly misread 9/11 as the first step in a ‘long war’ of waves of salafist extremists coming after us. That just didn’t happen. Binladenists are scary, but there aren’t that many of them, and 9/11 was a one-time sucker punch when we weren’t paying attention, not the start of massive umma-wide uprising. So Turkey is not as valuable to America as we think perhaps. It is important for the EU and Israel, but not so much for US. Insofar as Egypt sits astride the canal and is the heartland of Arab thought, which is where the pathologies of 9/11 are worst, it too ranks above Turkey – only just though. I would probably put Turkey in at 12. But the real story of American commitment in the Muslim world should be Indonesia. Not only is it valuable as a bulwark against Islamic extremism where the majority of the world’s Muslims live (SE Asia), it’s also a valuable hedge against China, and it’s the fourth largest country on earth.
6. Mexico (#2) doesn’t strike me quite as high as Canada, in part because the US got along fine for a long time with hostility from Mexico. Mexico doesn’t have the potential to threaten the US as Canada ever might (the border is smaller; it’s further away from America’s east coast center; its economy has been only semi-functional for almost 2 centuries; it’s culturally more distant so there’s no symbolic quality). Mexican stability and growth are obviously strategically more important than every one else but Canada – way beyond Israel, the EU or the Koreans. And I will concede that Mexico is a greater concern at the moment and in the near future, and will absorb more US effort and money than Canada.
Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.
Before I launch in, I just wanted to say quickly to Dan Nexon and all the folk at the Duck, thanks for letting me stay on board! I normally lose respect for institutions that decide to keep me as a member, but this is one exception.
Its a little late in coming, but I wanted to post some thoughts on Peter Beinart’s thoughtful recent description of President Obama’s evolving approach to US grand strategy as ‘offshore balancing.’
One of the difficulties in the endless debate over how to taxonomise US strategic behaviour is that many folk naturally emphasise techniques or goals (or means and ends) at the other’s expense. Perhaps this reflects a deeper reflex in Washington foreign policy debate, where the overriding goals of American diplomacy are debated far less intensively than the means. Muscular liberals might agree with Neoconservatives that the ultimate goal is American benevolent primacy in the world, which in turn would advance American and global security, but they disagree at times over how to get there (consensual multilateralism and institution-building or hawkish unilateral action, etc). At times this can lead to a certain ‘narcissism of small differences.’
So there is a temptation to stress the ‘offshore’ aspect and downplay ‘balancing.’ As Peter Beinart characterises it:
One way of understanding America’s shifting policy in the Middle East is that we’re moving offshore. Instead of directly occupying Islamic lands, we’re trying to secure our interests from the sea, the air and by equipping our allies. That’s in large measure what the Obama administration is trying to do in East Asia, too.The central message of Obama’s trip last week to Australia was that the U.S. finally is focused on restraining China’s rise in the Pacific. And how will the U.S. do that? A token deployment of Marines in northern Australia notwithstanding, the Obama administration’s strategy will be to buttress America’s naval presence in the Pacific and aid those nations on China’s periphery that fear its hegemonic ambitions.
This echoes the approach of the likes of Robert Pape, who argues (especially in the context of how to reduce anti-American terrorism) for a lighter footprint and a more naval-oriented military posture. And to be sure, it is important to consider that a big part of driving down the costs of American strategy could be moving offshore and avoiding large-scale expeditionary land commitments.
But offshore balancing, at least as it has been formulated since the first generation of post World War Two realists all the way to contemporaries such as Barry Posen, Christopher Preble and Christopher Layne, is a bigger and more demanding creature than that.
It isn’t just an alternative path to maintaining American hegemony abroad, or to making hegemony cheaper. It proposes a substantively new role for the U.S. in the world. As Brian C. Schmidt argues observantly in a paper he gave a while back, it is an argument that the US abandon the pursuit of unipolar primacy in the world. Its about ‘ends’ as well as ‘means’, or at least, it argues that America’ security interests are better served by accommodating what is inevitable, the return of mulitpolarity.
Take Obama’s recent Defence Strategic Guidance, and the stance he articulated recently, orienting the US strategically towards East Asia while scaling back its onshore commitments, de-emphasising prolonged counter-insurgency and nation-building missions and ramping up investment in drones and cyber capabilities.
While it may be tempting to define this – as some of Obama’s defenders and supporters do- as a fundamental grand strategic shift, it really isn’t. Its an attempt to pursue the existing, inherited grand strategic goal (the preservation of American primacy) while adjusting the ever-shifting mix of military supremacy, deterrence, reassurance, democratisation and liberalisation, in an apparently increasing important part of the world where the economic weight and political ambition is moving. (It is also, incidentally, a softly expressed but unmistakable confirmation that America is drawing down its military protectorate in Europe).
The title of Obama’s Defence Strategic Guidance gives the game away: ‘Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership.’ Which is a polished, euphemistic way of saying that America is not abandoning its role as No. 1, the guardian of world order. Offshore Balancers who go beyond tactics and techniques and methods do not usually share this ambition.
In fact, they regard the pursuit of primacy and the vehicle to pursue it -a vast, forward-leaning military-strategic presence, a set of permanent formal alliances, and the attempt to remake the world in America’s image – as pernicious, exhausting, prone to inviting ‘free riding’ from others and creating security dilemmas unintentionally, as well as damaging American democracy at home. If America isn’t to embrace an amoral cynicism in place of the Pax Americana, they argue that it can better embody and repair its values at home, as an example to the world.
The main challenge for offshore balancing, in trying to navigate a mid-point between isolation and hegemony, is how to operationalise such a role, and how to give it geopolitical shape. In other words, precisely where would US forces be parked if they aren’t just to pack up and go home, and how should the US prepare for the possibility of competitive balancing or even bandwagoning if its onshore presence its reduced? On that note, I’m writing a little pamphlet that will be published later in 2012, all being well.
The suspense must be killing you.
Cross-Posted at The Offshore Balancer.
The twitter-verse, or at least, one of the corners I follow, had heaps of tweets dedicated to the rollout of the US defense review, with Obama playing a starring role. Apparently, Obama briefing at the Pentagon is a new thing. Anyhow, it raised all kinds of questions, so I thought I would answer them all here. Yes, all of them. Ok, some of them.
* I am conflicted between the joy that would such a train wreck a Santorum nomination would be and how embarrassing it would be.
Is it crazy to think that “the situation in Kyrgyzstan has a critical bearing on US national security?” Steve Walt thinks so:
The first sentence of the announcement informed me that “the situation in Kyrgyzstan has a critical bearing on American national security.” As my teen-aged daughter would say: “OMG!” Did you know that your safety and security depends on the political situation in…. Kyrgyztan?” Yes, I know that the air base at Manas is a critical transit point for logistics flowing into Afghanistan, but otherwise Kyrgyzstan is an impoverished country of about 5 million people without significant strategic resources, and I daresay few Americans could find it on a map (or have any reason to want to). It is only important if you think Afghanistan’s fate is important, and readers here know that I think we’ve greatly exaggerated the real stakes there. (And if we’re heading for the exits there, as President Obama has said, then Kyrgyzstan’s strategic value is a stock you ought to short.)
I’m not trying to make fun of the Hudson Institute here, but the idea that we have “critical” interests in Kyrgystan just illustrates the poverty of American strategic thinking these days. Even now, in the wake of the various setbacks and mis-steps of the past decade, the central pathology of American strategic discourse is the notion that the entire friggin’ world is a “vital” U.S. interest, and that we are therefore both required and entitled to interfere anywhere and anytime we want to. And Beltway briefings like this one just reinforce this mind-set, by constantly hammering home the idea that we are terribly vulnerable to events in a far-flung countries a world away. I’m not saying that events in Kyrgyzstan might not affect the safety and prosperity of American a tiny little bit, but the essence of strategy is setting priorities and distinguishing trivial stakes from the truly important. And somehow I just don’t think Kyrgyzstan’s fate merits words like “vital” or “critical.”
I don’t have a problem with Walt arguing that we shouldn’t be in Afghanistan. Or, for that matter, that massive strategic retrenchment is in America’s interests. Those are rather crucial issues issue over which reasonable people disagree. But the United States is, in fact, currently fighting a war in Afghanistan. As long as we are, the “essence of strategy” is precisely to identify assets that are vital to that effort — such as one of the very few major logistical routes into the theater of war — and then treat them as important.
Beyond that it is simply irrelevant if country of interest is impoverished, if the average American can’t find it on the map, or it doesn’t contain strategic resources other than its geographical position. Imperial Britain didn’t prioritize the disposition of South Africa because of its diamonds, Egypt because of its cotton, or Gibraltar because of its sunny Mediterranean coast. They mattered because of their location.
Image source: The Map as History
(Cross-posted at The Offshore Balancer).
I’m currently working on a few difference pieces that deal with the relationship between liberalism and empire. I also, as long-team readers of the Duck know, consider neoconservative understandings of international politics as a variant of liberalism that constitutes a specific flavor of the US commitment to democratic enlargement as transformative of international politics. Neoconservatives reject the idea that international institutions, at least as currently configured, and US self-restraint pacify global politics; their liberalism is strongly inflected by particular currents of American nationalist exceptionalism.
Most published international-relations scholarship concurs with this assessment, thus I read with great interest Jonathan D. Caverley’s “Power and Democratic Weakness: Neoconservatism and Neoclassical Realism” which appeared in Millennium: Journal of International Studies (May 2010, pp. 593-614) [earlier, but ungated, version]. Here’s the abstract:
While realists and neoconservatives generally disagreed on the Iraq invasion of 2003, nothing inherent in either approach to foreign policy accounts for this. Neoconservatism’s enthusiasm for democratisation would appear to distinguish the two but its rejection of all other liberal mechanisms in world politics suggests that the logic linking democracy and American security shares little with liberalism. Inspecting the range of neoconservative thought reveals a unifying theme: the enervating effects of democracy on state power and the will to wield it in a dangerous world. Consequently, the United States enjoys greater safety among other democracies due to a more favourable distribution of relative power. Viewing regime type through the prism of state power extraction in a competitive, anarchic world puts neoconservatism squarely in the neoclassical realist camp. The article concludes by suggesting why the rest of International Relations should care about this new ‘neo–neo’ debate.
Caverley contends, in consequence, that we should see neoconservativism as a form of neoclassical realism. After all, neoconservatives see anarchy as characterized by unforgiving power-political competition and worry that the domestic politics of liberal states render them vulnerable to authoritarian and totalitarian rivals. They recommend civic virtue and strong political leadership — along the lines of Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” — as an antidote.
This combination looks, as Caverley argues, rather similar to Gideon Rose’s description of neoclassical realism as holding that
The scope and ambition of a country’s foreign policy is driven first and foremost by the country’s relative material power. Yet it contends that the impact of power capabilities on foreign policy is indirect and complex, because systemic pressures must be translated through intervening unit-level variables such as decision-makers’ perceptions and state structure.
While most of Caverley’s claims are well-rehearsed in the “how to make sense of neoconservative foreign policy” debate, I’ve never before seen his argument that neoconservatives support democratizing other countries as a way of making them weaker. It turns out there’s a good reason for that: they don’t make any such claim.
Before I explain how Caverley’s arguments combine esoteric readings of neoconservative texts with both invocation of non-existant arguments and quotations taken plainly out of context, I should touch upon a set of even more basic problems with Caverley’s claim that neoconservativism isn’t liberalism. The crux of Caverley’s reasoning looks like this:
G. John Ikenberry identifies six ‘big ideas’ shared by Wilsonianism and modern liberalism. The first four cover various paths to peace: democracy, free trade, international law and international bodies, and collective security. The final two are a progressive optimism about modernity coupled with the need for American global leadership as a ‘moral agent’. Neoconservatism clearly accepts both the importance of democracy as an American national interest and of American moral global leadership, but explicitly rejects the remaining four points of liberalism/Wilsonianism [emphasis original].
First, liberalism, of course, is not identical to Wilsonianism; liberal internationalism represents only one of many ways of translating liberalism into grand strategy. In the United States, liberal principles have undergird foreign-policy approaches ranging from a complete rejection of foreign “entanglements” to the establishing of formal empire.
Second, it is a bit silly to say that neoconservativism isn’t liberal because it overlaps with neoclassical realism. Neoclassical realism is a somewhat amorphous container for some pretty heterogeneous scholarly theories; in consequence, it provides a poor benchmark for assessing non-scholarly debates about the proper guiding principles for American foreign policy.
Third, the Hobbes-Locke debate over the relative unpleasantness of the state of the nature–which Hobbes distinguishes from the texture of relations between sovereign states–is an intra-liberal debate about the parameters of the social contract. Liberals can disagree about whether institutions such as the League or the United Nations are sufficiently robust to mitigate anarchy, let alone whether concessions of sovereignty necessary to create such institutions would be worth the consequent threat to domestic freedom and self-determination in liberal democracies.
Indeed, it isn’t difficult to understand why neconservative praxis is incompatible with realism:
Although specific academics who call themselves realists might accept one or more of these propositions, none are “realist” in any meaningful sense. No realist would, as many neoconservatives have, advocate a “League of Democracies” as a superior alternative to the United Nations.
Consider Caverley’s discussion of the neoconservative rejection of “liberal, transnational norms.” Caverley quotes Krauthammer as writing that “moral suasion is a farce,” but here’s what Krauthammer writes:
Moral suasion? Was it moral suasion that made Qaddafi see the wisdom of giving up his weapons of mass destruction? Or Iran agree for the first time to spot nuclear inspections? It was the suasion of the bayonet. It was the ignominious fall of Saddam–and the desire of interested spectators not to be next on the list. The whole point of this treaty was to keep rogue states from developing chemical weapons. Rogue states are, by definition, impervious to moral suasion.
Moral suasion is a farce. Why then this obsession with conventions, protocols, legalisms? Their obvious net effect is to temper American power. Who, after all, was really going to be most constrained by these treaties? The ABM amendments were aimed squarely at American advances and strategic defenses, not at Russia, which lags hopelessly behind. The Kyoto Protocol exempted India and China. The nuclear test ban would have seriously degraded the American nuclear arsenal. And the landmine treaty (which the Clinton administration spent months negotiating but, in the end, met so much Pentagon resistance that even Clinton could not initial it) would have had a devastating impact on U.S. conventional forces, particularly at the DMZ in Korea.
This is pretty par for the course in terms of US nationalist exceptionalism: bad regimes don’t care about their image in the “international community,” the US needs strength to pursue liberal ends, treaties with autocratic rivals only weaken US power, etc. Similarly, Caverley quotes Robert Kagan, who writes in “End of Dreams, Return of History” that “there is little sense of shared morality and common political principle among the great powers.” But Kagan’s piece, with a title rebutting Francis Fukuyama’s claim that great ideological struggles are over, is a call for the US to recognize the new authoritarian threat to liberalism. And here’s the full context:
Today there is little sense of shared morality and common political principle among the great powers. Quite the contrary: There is suspicion, growing hostility, and the well-grounded view on the part of the autocracies that the democracies, whatever they say, would welcome their overthrow. Any concert among them would be built on a shaky foundation likely to collapse at the first serious test.
American foreign policy should be attuned to these ideological distinctions and recognize their relevance to the most important strategic questions. It is folly to expect China to help undermine a brutal regime in Khartoum or to be surprised if Russia rattles its saber at pro-Western democratic governments near its borders. There will be a tendency toward solidarity among the world ’s autocracies, as well as among the world’s democracies.
For all these reasons, the United States should pursue policies designed both to promote democracy and to strengthen cooperation among the democracies. It should join with other democracies to erect new international institutions that both reflect and enhance their shared principles and goals. One possibility might be to establish a global concert or league of democratic states, perhaps informally at first but with the aim of holding regular meetings and consultations on the issues of the day. Such an institution could bring together Asian nations such as Japan, Australia, and India with the European nations — two sets of democracies that have comparatively little to do with each other outside the realms of trade and finance. The institution would complement, not replace, the United Nations, the g-8, and other global forums. But it would at the very least signal a commitment to the democratic idea, and in time it could become a means of pooling the resources of democratic nations to address a number of issues that cannot be addressed at the United Nations. If successful, it could come to be an organization capable of bestowing legitimacy on actions that liberal nations deem necessary but autocratic nations refuse to countenance — as nato conferred legitimacy on the conflict in Kosovo even though Russia was opposed.
Given such overwhelming evidence against neoconservativism’s illiberalism, much depends on Caverley’s claim that neoconservatives favor liberal enlargement as a way of weakening rivals by saddling them with democratic institutions. As I’ve alluded to already, some of this argument depends (fittingly enough) on a Straussian-style esoteric reading of neoconservative writings. Neoconservatives worry about the erosion of republican values in modern liberal polities. They advocate strong leadership and “new nationalism”-style programs to counter this tendency. They consider Europe as a cautionary example for the United States. But to read their various worries and exhortations as containing a hidden message that Washington should spread democracy for instrumental purposes–to enfeeble rivals–is, as one of my professors once noted of Straussian esoteric readings, “fascinating, ingenious, and totally wrong.”
How wrong it is becomes clear when Caverley moves beyond esoteric inference and claims to cite neoconservatives making this argument.
Fukuyama observes that the advocates of trans- forming Iraq into a Western-style democracy are the same people who question the ‘dangers of ambitious social engineering’. This apparent paradox becomes coherent given this idea of democratic enfeeblement. Kirkpatrick points out that because totalitarian states are inherently more threatening, the United States should focus its democratisation efforts there. Her famous essay does not criticise neoconservative enthusiasm for democratisation so much as connect it to a grand strategic logic. Because of the military advantage enjoyed by non-democracies, a United States interested in self-preservation should aggressively spread this cost aversion Muravchik succinctly states the core (and inherently power political) logic: ‘The spread of democracy offers an important, peaceful way to weaken our foe.
But by this logic would not other regime types attempt to spread democracy, preferring to be the only autocrat in a world of Kantian peaceniks? Kagan and others address this question by claiming that the existence and success of democracies is inherently threatening to the stability of authoritarian regimes. This autocratic support (perhaps unlike democracy) is not based in ideological affinity but on self-preservation and the desire to maximise power. Moreover, autocrats:
see their comparative advantage over the West when it comes to gaining influence with African, Asian or Latin American governments that can provide access to oil and other vital natural resources or that, in the case of Burma, are strategically located.
Why am I so dismissive of all of this? It seemed odd to me, so I checked the footnotes.
Kirkpatrick nowhere in “Dictatorships and Double Standards” argues that the US should focus democratization efforts on totalitarian states because they are “inherently more threatening” (at least in the sense Caverley implies). She argues that, in the struggle against communist totalitarianism, the US should support friendly anti-communist authoritarians as both, whatever their flaws, morally superior and more amenable to subsequent democratization than totalitarian regimes. The Carter Administration, as well as the American left, both weakens US interests and the cause of democratic liberalism insofar as its weakens its autocratic allies in favor of self-styled liberation movements. As she concludes:
For these reasons and more, a posture of continuous self-abasement and apology vis-a-vis the Third World is neither morally necessary nor politically appropriate. No more is it necessary or appropriate to support vocal enemies of the United States because they invoke the rhetoric of popular liberation. It is not even necessary or appropriate for our leaders to forswear unilaterally the use of military force to counter military force. Liberal idealism need not be identical with masochism, and need not be incompatible with the defense of freedom and the national interest.
Caverley’s ‘smoking gun’ quotation from Muravchik, moreover, is completely out of context. When Muravchik argues that “The spread of demcoracy offers an important, peaceful way to weaken our foe” he has a specific foe in mind: militant jihadism. As Muravchik notes earlier in the article:
what is undeniable is that Bush’s declaration of war against terrorism did bear the earmarks of neoconservatism. One can count the ways. It was moralistic, accompanied by descriptions of the enemy as “evil” and strong assertions of America’s righteousness. As Norman Podhoretz puts it in his powerful new book Bush offered “an entirely unapologetic assertion of the need for and the possibility of moral judgment in the realm of world affairs.” In contrast to the suggestion of many, especially many Europeans, that America had somehow provoked the attacks, Bush held that what the terrorists hated was our virtues, and in particular our freedom. His approach was internationalist: it treated the whole globe as the battlefield, and sought to confront the enemy far from our own doorstep. It entailed the prodigious use of force. And, for the non-military side of the strategy, Bush adopted the idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East in the hope that this would drain the fever swamps that bred terrorists [emphasis added].
That’s right: Moravchik’s argument has zilch to do with Caverley’s “democratic enfeeblement” hypothesis. Rather, it amounts to a fairly standard neoconservative claim that democratization weakens radical Islamism.
There’s something perverse about using an out-of-context quotation from this particualr Muravchik piece. Here’s what Muravchik has to say about neoconservativism in the early pages of his article:
The term “neoconservative” was coined in the 1970’s as an anathema. It was intended to stigmatize a group of liberal intellectuals who had lately parted ways with the majority of their fellows.
As a heretical offshoot of liberalism, neoconservatism appealed to the same values and even many of the same goals—like, for example, peace and racial equality. But neoconservatives argued that liberal policies—for example, disarmament in the pursuit of peace, or affirmative action in the pursuit of racial equality—undermined those goals rather than advancing them. In short order, the heretics established themselves as contemporary liberalism’s most formidable foes.
Two distinct currents fed the stream of neoconservatism. One focused on domestic issues, specifically by reexamining the Great Society programs of the 1960’s and the welfare state as a whole. It was centered in the Public Interest, a quarterly founded and edited by Irving Kristol. The other focused on international issues and the cold war; it was centered in COMMENTARY and led by the magazine’s editor, Norman Podhoretz.
The former current has little if any relevance to the controversy surrounding neoconservatism today. Much of the domestic-policy critique mounted by neoconservatives eventually became common wisdom, symbolized by President Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform program and his declaration that “the era of big government is over.” In the meantime, several of the seminal figures of the domestic wing—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer—drifted back toward liberalism.
It was the foreign-policy wing that was, all along, more passionately embroiled in ideological disputation.1 For one thing, the stakes were higher. If a domestic policy fails, you can try another. If a foreign policy fails, you may find yourself at war. Also, the battles that rived the Democratic party in the 1970’s, at a time when virtually all neoconservatives were still Democrats, principally concerned foreign affairs. These battles sharpened ideological talons on all sides.
The divisions stemmed from the Vietnam war. Not that all neoconservatives were hawks on this particular issue; some, including Podhoretz, were (qualified) doves. But when opponents of the war went from arguing that it was a failed instance of an essentially correct policy—namely, resisting Communist expansionism—to contending that it was a symptom of a deep American sickness, neoconservatives answered back. Whatever problems we may have made for ourselves in Vietnam, they said, the origins of the conflict were to be found neither in American imperialism nor in what President Jimmy Carter would call our “inordinate fear of Communism,” but in Communism’s lust to dominate.
Contrary to Carter and the antiwar Left, neoconservatives believed that Communism was very much to be feared, to be detested, and to be opposed. They saw the Soviet Union as, in the words of Ronald Reagan, an “evil empire,” unspeakably cruel to its own subjects and relentlessly predatory toward those not yet in its grasp. They took the point of George Orwell’s 1984—a book that (as the Irish scholars James McNamara and Dennis J. O’Keeffe have written) resurrected the idea of evil “as a political category.” And they absorbed the cautionary warning of the Russian novelist and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn against yielding ground to the Communists in the vain hope “that perhaps at some point the wolf will have eaten enough.”
Many in our history, both statesmen and scholars, had drawn a distinction between Americans’ sentiments and America’s self-interest. Where Communism was concerned, the neoconservatives saw the two as intertwined. Communism needed to be fought both because it was morally appalling and because it was a threat to our country.
And, as he notes a bit later on:
Even those traditional conservatives who distrusted the readiness of Nixon and Kissinger to make deals with the Soviet Union tended to share the underlying philosophy of foreign-policy “realism.” As opposed to the neoconservative emphasis on the battle of ideas and ideologies, and on the psychological impact of policy choices, realists focused on state interests and the time-honored tools of statecraft. That was one reason why, for the neoconservatives of the 1970’s, the great champions in American political life were not conservative or Republican figures but two Democrats of unmistakably liberal pedigree: Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and George Meany, the president of the AFL-CIO. When President Ford, on Kissinger’s counsel, closed the White House door to Solzhenitsyn upon his expulsion from Soviet Russia, these two stalwart anti-Communists formally welcomed him to Washington.
It was only with the accession of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1981 that the neoconservatives made their peace with Republican-style conservatism. Reagan brought several neoconservatives—notably Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Max Kampelman, and Elliott Abrams—into pivotal foreign-policy positions in his administration (and, on the domestic-policy side, William J. Bennett and others). With time, most neoconservatives moved into the Republican fold. As for Reagan’s “belligerent” approach to the cold war, it was criticized as loudly by both liberals and conservatives within the foreign-policy establishment as it was cheered by neoconservatives. But there can be no question that it issued in a sublime victory: the mighty juggernaut of the Soviet state, disposing of more kill power than the U.S. or any other state in history, capitulated with scarcely a shot.
So, while Muravchik does describe neoconservativism as sharing elements with both ‘realism’ and ‘idealism,’ his account amounts to a refutation of Caverley’s core thesis:
The military historian Max Boot has aptly labeled it “hard Wilsonianism.” It does not mesh neatly with the familiar dichotomy between “realists” and “idealists.” It is indeed idealistic in its internationalism and its faith in democracy and freedom, but it is hardheaded, not to say jaundiced, in its image of our adversaries and its assessment of international organizations. Nor is its idealism to be confused with the idealism of the “peace” camp. Over the course of the past century, various schemes for keeping the peace—the League of Nations, the UN, the treaty to outlaw war, arms-control regimes—have all proved fatuous. In the meantime, what has in fact kept the peace (whenever it has been kept) is something quite different: strength, alliances, and deterrence. Also in the meantime, “idealistic” schemes for promoting not peace but freedom—self-determination for European peoples after World War I, decolonization after World War II, the democratization of Germany, Japan, Italy, and Austria, the global advocacy of human rights—have brought substantial and beneficial results.
Belief in deterrence, alliances, and force does not a “realist” make if those instruments are deployed on behalf of a global crusade for liberalism.
Given all of this, it should come as no surprise that Caverley takes Kagan out of context in order to answer why, given “democratic enfeeblement,” autocracies don’t support democratization. Here’s the full pargraph, with the part that Caverley quotes underlined:
Neither Russia nor China has any interest in assisting liberal nations in their crusade against autocracies around the world. Moreover, they can see their comparative advantage over the West when it comes to gaining influence with African, Asian, or Latin American governments that can provide access to oil and other vital natural resources or that, in the case of Burma, are strategically located. Moscow knows it can have more influence with governments in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan because, unlike the liberal West, it can unreservedly support their regimes. And the more autocracies there are in the world, the less isolated Beijing and Moscow will be in international forums such as the United Nations. The more dictatorships there are, the more global resistance they will offer against the liberal West ’s efforts to place limits on sovereignty in the interest of advancing liberalism.
I suppose there might be something to Caverley’s arguments; as I’ve noted, one can make a case for fitting “neoconservativism” under the rubric of “neoclassical realism.” But doing so requires us to ignore not only the evidence of intellectual DNA, but also to reduce “liberalism” to its Wilsonian variant. Still, his conclusions about academic neoclassical realism might have some punch. I just find it difficult to overlook the fact that Caverley’s novel claims concerning “democratic enfeeblement” find no textual support.
All of this dovetails in interesting ways with recent discussions of peer review. This article, at least in its present form, would not have survived adequate peer review. Any reviewer familiar with recent neoconservative writings should have wondered about some of these quotations, all of which come from articles available online. So either Millennium couldn’t find appropriate reviewers, those reviewers were too “overburdened” to do due diligence, or they just didn’t care.
Update: my claim about this being a failure of peer review only involves the out-of-context quotations that I discuss at the end of my critique–those specific to Caverley’s “democratic enfeeblement” argument. Peer review is supposed to catch that sort of thing. The rest of the issues I raise are, I think, subject to debate; reasonable people will disagree about them. Reviewers should either have rejected the entire piece or suggested a revise-and-resubmit with either (1) better evidence for “democratic enfeeblement” or (2) an abandonment of that argument in favor of more general points about how neoconservatives work themselves into a place quite similar to that of some neoclassical realists. But the current “evidence” for that hypothesis should not have made it into a published article.
Whatever version of political realism you are dealing with, the sovereign state is still central to its universe. Which is one reason realists are uncomfortable with any world view that accords ‘non-state actors’ a pivotal or even significant role.
I’m a huge fan of the work of political realists such as John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape or Christopher Layne, especially of their warnings against our own self-defeating behaviour. But there is a contradiction, or at least a tension in some of their arguments that deserves further thinking.
They argue that we have inflated the threat of AQ-style terrorism, which in reality is not fundamental and may be little more than a nuisance. On the other hand, they argue that this nuisance is significant enough that we should not maintain a forward-leaning military and strategic presence in places like the Gulf, partly because it radicalises opinion and fuels terrorism.
Consider Measheimer’s views:
In the aftermath of 9/11, terrorism was described as an existential threat. President Bush emphasized that virtually every terrorist group on the planet—including those that had no beef with Washington—was our enemy and had to be eliminated if we hoped to win what became known as the global war on terror (GWOT). The administration also maintained that states like Iran, Iraq and Syria were not only actively supporting terrorist organizations but were also likely to provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Thus, it was imperative for the United States to target these rogue states if it hoped to win the GWOT—or what some neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz called World War IV. Indeed, Bush said that any country which “continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” Finally, the administration claimed that it was relatively easy for groups like al-Qaeda to infiltrate and strike the homeland, and that we should expect more disasters like 9/11 in the near future. The greatest danger for sure would be a WMD attack against a major American city.
This assessment of America’s terrorism problem was flawed on every count. It was threat inflation of the highest order. It made no sense to declare war against groups that were not trying to harm the United States. They were not our enemies; and going after all terrorist organizations would greatly complicate the daunting task of eliminating those groups that did have us in their crosshairs. In addition, there was no alliance between the so-called rogue states and al-Qaeda. In fact, Iran and Syria cooperated with Washington after 9/11 to help quash Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. Although the Bush administration and the neoconservatives repeatedly asserted that there was a genuine connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, they never produced evidence to back up their claim for the simple reason that it did not exist.
The fact is that states have strong incentives to distrust terrorist groups, in part because they might turn on them someday, but also because countries cannot control what terrorist organizations do, and they may do something that gets their patrons into serious trouble. This is why there is hardly any chance that a rogue state will give a nuclear weapon to terrorists. That regime’s leaders could never be sure that they would not be blamed and punished for a terrorist group’s actions. Nor could they be certain that the United States or Israel would not incinerate them if either country merely suspected that they had provided terrorists with the ability to carry out a WMD attack. A nuclear handoff, therefore, is not a serious threat.
When you get down to it, there is only a remote possibility that terrorists will get hold of an atomic bomb. The most likely way it would happen is if there were political chaos in a nuclear-armed state, and terrorists or their friends were able to take advantage of the ensuing confusion to snatch a loose nuclear weapon. But even then, there are additional obstacles to overcome: some countries keep their weapons disassembled, detonating one is not easy and it would be difficult to transport the device without being detected. Moreover, other countries would have powerful incentives to work with Washington to find the weapon before it could be used. The obvious implication is that we should work with other states to improve nuclear security, so as to make this slim possibility even more unlikely.
So far so good. We needn’t conflate them all, their capabilities are overstated, states have good reasons not to arm them with WMD, and we should make sure that the very unlikely calamity of nuclear terrorism is made more unlikely.
But later he goes on:
Specifically, offshore balancing is the best grand strategy for ameliorating our terrorism problem. Placing American troops in the Arab and Muslim world is a major cause of terrorist attacks against the United States, as University of Chicago professor Robert Pape’s research shows. Remember what happened after President Ronald Reagan sent marines into Beirut in 1982? A suicide bomber blew up their barracks the following year, killing 241 service members. Reagan had the good sense to quickly pull the remaining marines out of Lebanon and keep them offshore. And it is worth noting that the perpetrators of this act did not pursue us after we withdrew.
Reagan’s decision was neither surprising nor controversial, because the United States had an offshore-balancing strategy in the Middle East during this period. Washington relied on Iraq to contain Iran during the 1980s, and kept the rapid-deployment force—which was built to intervene in the Gulf if the local balance of power collapsed—at the ready should it be needed. This was smart policy.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the United States, once again acting as an offshore balancer, moved large numbers of troops into Saudi Arabia to liberate Kuwait. After the war was won and victory was consolidated, those troops should have been pulled out of the region. But that did not happen. Rather, Bill Clinton adopted a policy of dual containment—checking both Iran and Iraq instead of letting them check one another. And lest we forget, the resulting presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia was one of the main reasons that Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. The Bush administration simply made a bad situation even worse.
Sending the U.S. military into countries in the Arab and Muslim world is helping to cause our terrorism problem, not solve it. The best way to fix this situation is to follow Ronald Reagan’s example and pull all American troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, then deploy them over the horizon as part of an offshore-balancing strategy. To be sure, the terrorist challenge would not completely disappear if the United States went back to offshore balancing, but it would be an important step forward.
Next is to address the other causes, like Washington’s unyielding support for Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. Indeed, Bill Clinton recently speculated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is responsible for about half of the terrorism we face. Of course, this is why the Obama administration says it wants to achieve a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But given the lack of progress in solving that problem, and the fact that it is going to take at least a few years to get all of the American troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, we will be dealing with al-Qaeda for the foreseeable future.
Now to be clear, I’m in sympathy with offshore balancing (hence my own blog’s rather kitsch title), as a more prudent, alternative grand strategy. But if terrorism, as Measheimer and others suggest, is at best a minor nuisance that can be pretty straightforwardly managed and contained, then it becomes less decisive as a reason to not do things that Mearsheimer opposes, such as supporting Israel, keeping troops and bases in the Gulf, or waging wars around the world. There are lots of other reasons to favour an alternative strategy, but on Mearsheimer’s analysis it becomes more marginal.
Putting it another way, if Osama Bin Laden and his affiliates and imitators can hardly hurt us now that we’re on the case, any more than “lightning, or by accident-causing deer, or by severe allergic reactions to peanuts”, then their burning objections to our foreign policies should matter less in the overall calculus about our grand strategy.
Assuming Mearsheimer’s causal hypothesis is right, that our policies abroad ’cause’ it and/or intensify it, breeding more terrorism still remains a ‘minus’ on the balance sheet. Its not a good idea to create a nuisance unless there are very good reasons that make it worthwhile. On his analysis, it takes terrorism closer to being an ‘acceptable’ cost of the very policies Mearsheimer opposes.
Ultimately, I agree that we have inflated the threat and allowed the declared intentions of AQ and their ilk to overshadow a clear-eyed assessment of their capabilities. But they remain dangerous in a more interactive/action-reaction sense, that a successful strike against us tempts us into self-defeating, self-harming behaviour. But whether or not I’m right, at some point realists have to reconcile their belief that terrorism is not terribly important with their claim that it is very important as a reason not to do things.
However, I’ve drunk way too many coffees today and its lovely and hot outside, so I could have found two ideas that are complimentary, not contradictory. Over to you!
Some questions about Libya.
To clear the decks, I’m instinctively uneasy with international interventions in civil wars, given the historical difficulties of keeping such interventions limited and the unintended consequences and moral hazards of such undertakings. Not to mention the burdens that states like the US and UK are now shouldering, with the constraints and pressures on our statecraft after Iraq and with Afghanistan, the global financial crisis, and the need to preserve what Walter Lippmann called a ‘surplus’ of power in reserve.
But the general strategic context aside, this post is about one specific issue flowing through it all: following on from Jon Western’s excellent post on Libya and the dynamics of wartime atrocities, there is clearly an unsettled issue here of what the threshold for war ought to be. On both moral and prudential grounds.
By virtue of the fact of our intervention, we will never know what was going to happen in Benghazi. It seems there is little evidence that there was a plan for a ‘wholesale massacre’ or a ‘bloodbath‘, that would have taken ‘tens of thousands of lives.’
Equally, a civil war of that nature can produce massacres more spontaneous and smaller. So while there isn’t much evidence that the luckless folk of Benghazi were due for an atrocity on the scale of Srebrenica, a killing on the scale of Peterloo wasn’t impossible, as one smart interventionist reminded me the other day.
Alternatively, the brute fact was that an authoritarian regime’s forces were closing in on outgunned and outnumbered rebels, had threatened armed opponents with vicious language, and were heading towards a city. If Jon is right, this are conditions ripe for atrocity. If a bloodbath was even possible, to what extent is anticipatory intervention justified?
The issue here isn’t whether the Libyan regime is repressive or whether civilian innocents would be in grave danger in a setting of urban combat. If that was a sufficient basis for intervention, it would make the threshold for intervention irresponsibly low.
The question is whether Qaddafi’s forces were about to behave so brutally, however premeditated or circumstantial their behaviour, that the regime would be guilty of exceptional barbarity. Warfare can only really be justified if it is waged to create a better state of peace that is proportional to the suffering it inflicts, in Liddell Hart’s words.
This matters on the calculus of doing harm versus doing good. After all, if the magnitude of civilian suffering was likely to be far lower than the US, the UK, France and their supporters argued, at what point is it atrocious enough to override the likely deaths that follow from international intervention in civil wars?
One difficulty with liberal interventionism is the tendency (though not a universal one) for liberal hawks to characterise civil wars as clashes between predators and victims with the civil war dynamics overlooked, and to look past the wildness of war that slips easily off its leash to become not a tool of pacification but a force that can prolong and even radicalise a pre-existing conflict.
We do have foreknowledge that military intervention will result in innocent deaths. Particularly where the outside forces use standoff weapons and only have limited intelligence, it is almost certain that they will kill civilians.
In terms of higher politics, interventions ‘on the cheap‘ that lack the power to seize territorial control can prolong a conflict into a grinding stalemate, which is not necessarily a liberating experience for the inhabitants.
And victims can be strategic and brutal as well. The prospect of intervention can be exploited as the tail wags the dog. I don’t mean this pejoratively – its an observation about the understandable desire for weaker sides to internationalise conflicts to correct a power imbalance, and the problem of ‘moral hazards‘ is a theme taken up by Alan Kuperman amongst others.
None of these drawbacks necessarily means interventionism is always wrong. But for this distant observer, it does mean that the threshold for stepping into such a conflict should be very high.
Does Libya meet that threshold? Do my generic reservations about interventionism even apply in this case?
I’m tired of demands for an articulated “Obama Doctrine.”
Don’t misunderstand me. I think it would be nice if the Obama Administration had an overarching vision for US foreign policy. It might even be a good thing if it could produce something resembling a coherent document on the subject instead of the stream-of-consciousness bureaucratic filler it tends to publish.
What I emphatically reject is the idea that Obama ought to, in effect, retcon Libya by articulating an ex post facto grand strategy that makes sense of his decision to intervene.
Why did we intervene in Libya? For a number of reasons, many of which aren’t usually found in sweeping foreign-policy visions. Yes, NATO gets to assist a beleaguered popular uprising and prevent a massacre of people quite publicly clamoring for international assistance. That kind of thing makes liberal hawks get all starry eyed. But what makes Libya different than most of the other places where tyrannical governments do nasty things to their citizens isn’t terribly Wilsonsian:
I might be wrong, but I don’t consider the “Humanitarian-intervention-against-militarily-weak-fossil-fuel-producing-countries-in-strategically-important-regions-that-are-also-located-near-many-large-NATO-military-bases-and-are-run-by-dictators-who-kind-of-piss-us-off-and-have-no-powerful-allies Doctrine” the stuff of Grand Strategy. But if you read between the lines, that’s pretty much the gist of what Obama had to say tonight.
Now, I’m sympathetic to the argument that capital-D Doctrines are all about legitimation. James Poulos, for example, argues that Obama needed to provide a grand-strategic vision in order to justify the Libya air campaign to the American public. Some time ago PTJ explained that:
Instead, a doctrine is a rhetorical commonplace, a widely-shared and vague notion on which speakers can draw when attempting to justify courses of action. A foreign-policy doctrine doesn’t tell you what to do as much as it makes particular courses of action possible — and makes others more difficult, if not impossible.
But, as far as I’m concerned, that’s precisely the problem. Doctrines profoundly shape the contours of foreign-policy debates. Even within the US government, policymakers deploy the content of high-level speeches as warrants for the policies that they advocate. This means that the last thing we want from our leaders is the development of general principles around specific cases.
Besides, the details often matter more than anything else.
UPDATE: also what Steve Saideman says.