Tag: realism

Our Astrategic Syria Debate

Only a terrifically secure country could have as poor and astrategic a debate about war as the one we’re having about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. 

Actually, we’re not having a debate about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. That’s the problem. We’re debating Syria as though it’s an engineering question—an electrical outage, or a bit of erosion in the backyard. Doing so removes the most vexing aspects of the issue, leading us to the delusion that military action can easily make things better. 

Too much of the discussion has focused on moral arguments and too little of it on the very real political problems beneath the war. Take the advocacy of Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution. As Hamid wrote of his thinking on Syria in January 2012, he was pro-intervention “emotionally, and from a purely moral perspective,” but had some nagging non-emotional, non-moral concerns: “I cannot say whether military intervention would work.” By June, though, the emotional and the moral took over, with Hamid declaring that it was “not the job of civilian think tanks” to figure out how military intervention would produce the desired outcome. 

Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, who until recently occupied George Kennan’s old office at the State Department, has similarly assumed away Syrian politics, making the case for intervention much easier. As she tweeted Sunday, “Suppose US goal in #Syria were simply to STOP THE KILLING. Forget who might/might not win down the line. What’s fastest/best way to do that?” 

But forgetting who might win down the line waves off the central problem: the killing is happening for a political reason. Bashar al-Assad and his enemies are not engaged in wanton, nihilistic slaughter; they are struggling over political control of Syria. Any analysis that removes that basic fact from the discussion of how to “STOP THE KILLING” turns a complex political question into a technical, scientific project, creating the delusion that it can be readily fixed by the U.S. government. 

In fairness to Hamid and Slaughter, they are carrying the torch of a time-honored American tradition of foreign policy thinking. Historically, debates over foreign intervention in the United States have featured liberal analysts against realists and the military. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower reportedly had to admonish his activist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to calm down: “Don’t do something, Foster, just stand there!” 

In the 1990s, apolitical liberal thinking on war reached its pinnacle. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell expressed hesitation about the Clinton administration’s intervention ideas, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lashed out: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” And President Clinton’s lack of understanding of war caused him to ruminate, accurately, to General Hugh Shelton that it would “scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.”

In the 1990s, realists like Richard Betts were warning Americans not to fall victim to the “delusion of impartial intervention.” Admonishing policymakers for their newfound enthusiasm for limited, ostensibly apolitical intervention, Betts reminded readers of a ground truth: “A war will not end until both sides agree who will control whatever is in dispute.” This is as true in Syria as it is anywhere. Alternatively, if analysts want to use the U.S. military to regime-change Assad, they have every obligation to explain how they intend to shepherd the country toward whatever political order they seek.

More honest hawkishness can be found at the Institute for the Study of War, whose recent paper advocating aiding the Syrian opposition admitted that politics matter

The goal behind U.S. support to the opposition should be to build a force on the ground that is committed to building a nonsectarian, stable Syria, with a government more likely to respect American interests. 

That outcome is presumably what all analysts urging intervention desire. The trick is to acknowledge the problems of connecting military means to our political desiderata. Anyone who doesn’t deal with the underlying political problems at stake is threatening to push the country into another ill-considered, potentially costly war.

Romney’s Foreign Policy Opportunity

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will duel on foreign policy this week as they both address the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Romney heads off toBritain,Israel, andPoland to burnish his foreign policy credentials.  It will be difficult for Romney to overcome Obama on this set of issues.  Denizens of neoconservatism scorn the president as a weakling on terrorism and other international issues, but that is not how most Americans see him.  The killing of Osama Bin Laden (as well as dozens of other high-level al Qaeda operatives) has largely inoculated Obama against the “weak on terrorism” allegation, and the public generally gives him decent marks on most other foreign policy issues.

In the two areas where there has been grumbling about the president’s performance—escalating and perpetuating the war in Afghanistan and doing little about the bloated Pentagon budget—Romney’s neoconservative allies advocate measures that most voters dislike even more than they do Obama’s approach.  If Romney is to seize the opportunity to score points against the president on foreign policy, he needs to break with the hawkish extremists in his party and take a very different tack than he has done so far in the campaign.  Unfortunately, his harsh statements toward China and Russia—including describing the latter as America’s principal global adversary—and his alarmingly bellicose rhetoric toward Iran suggest that he is taking his foreign policy positions from George W. Bush’s playbook.  That is a bad move both politically and in terms of good policy.

In his speech to the VFW, Romney should outline a new security strategy built on the foundation of cautious, national-interest realism—a position that once characterized the GOP and still finds some resonance among the party’s rank and file.  That move, though, would require him to challenge the neoconservative conventional wisdom on four major issues.

First, he needs to advocate a prompt withdrawal of U.S.forces from Afghanistan, even faster than the Obama administration’s alleged commitment to have U.S.forces out of that country in 2014.  The intervention in Afghanistanis the poster child for how a limited and justified punitive expedition against a terrorist adversary (al Qaeda) can morph into an open-ended, nation-building crusade on behalf of an inept, corrupt Third Worldgovernment.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to discern whether Romney has a policy regardingAfghanistan.  To the extent he has said anything substantive on the issue, it creates worries that he may want to keep American troops in that snake pit indefinitely.

Adopting a new, smarter position onAfghanistanleads to the second point Romney should emphasize in his VFW speech: a repudiation of nation building as aU.S.foreign policy goal.  It is bitterly ironic that, beginning with the Bush administration, Republicans seem to have become more enthusiastic than Democrats about humanitarian interventions and nation-building ventures.  Republicans rightly used to scorn such crusades as wasteful, utopian schemes.  Condoleezza Rice once remarked that it should not be the mission of theU.S.military to escort children to school in foreign countries.  Romney needs to return the GOP to that wise skepticism.

Third, Romney should advocate a complete reassessment ofWashington’s overgrown network of formal and informal security commitments around the world.  It is absurd for theUnited Statesto continue subsidizing the defense of allies in Europe andEast Asiatwo decades after the collapse of the Soviet empire and nearly seven decades after the end of World War II.  Those allies shamelessly free ride on America’s security exertions, choosing to under-invest in their own defenses and refusing to make a serious effort to manage the security affairs in their respective regions.  Even if theU.S.government was cash-rich and running chronic budget surpluses, the current policy toward obsolete alliances would be wasteful and ill-advised.  Maintaining such a policy whenWashingtonhas to borrow money fromChinaand other foreign creditors to do so, borders on insanity.

Reassessing alliances and other security commitments points to the final change that Romney should advocate: a willingness to cut military spending.  The United Statesspends nearly as much on the military as the rest of the world combined.  The House of Representatives just voted to appropriate $606 billion for defense—and that figure does not include $11 billion to pay for the nuclear arsenal, a budget item housed in the Energy Department.  Instead of promising to increase military spending to four percent of GDP—an extra of $2.5 trillion over ten years—Romney should reverse course and support cutting that bureaucracy’s budget as part of an overall austerity program for the federal government.  And as noted, the overseas missions should be trimmed or eliminated to match the capabilities and budget of a smaller force.

Such an agenda might not please the attendees at the VFW convention, and it certainly would not please the junior varsity from the Bush-Cheney administration that Romney has been relying upon thus far for advice on foreign policy.  But it would appeal to a wide swath of American voters and put Barack Obama on the defensive.  Most important, it would be a wise policy alternative for the American republic.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Cleveland vs. Greenberg on Isolationism (so-called)

Props to Grover Cleveland at Pileus for his short but perceptive take on David Greenberg’s op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times. Cleveland places the piece in the “Not Worth a Read” category and asks:

Hasn’t this kind of simplistic “history” and inaccurate categorization of today’s critics of liberal internationalism/neoconservatism been written about a million times already?  And aren’t these types of pieces really just rhetorical bullying to prevent a serious discussion of American foreign policy?

Answer: Yes, and yes. And Cleveland is hardly the first to make this observation. (e.g. here, here, and here)
 
As with other writers who have crawled out of the woodwork recently to write about isolationism (so-called), Greenberg is sure that it’s bad, both for the country and for the Republican Party.
 
I agree with that statement. But I disagree with Greenberg’s characterization of the discussion taking place within the Republican Party (and the country) about the purpose of U.S. military power to be in any way comparable with the debate over ratification of the League of Nations Charter in 1919 or overwhelming public opposition to joining the war in Europe 1940 and 1941. Greenberg says that today’s isolationism “rejects America’s leadership role in the world.” I sense, instead, a skepticism toward the costs and benefits of American global hegemony, and a welcome (and to be expected) desire to shed some of these burdens.

To be clear, a sharp turn inward would be bad for the country. Global engagement has made the United States into the envy of the world. And yet, there is an ugly form of hostility toward outsiders that runs throughout U.S. history. Today, it manifests itself in the xenophobia, nativism, and outright bigotry that maintains that the United States can remain strong only by deporting 12 million undocumented immigrants and building a 20-foot high wall along the Mexican border. Isolationism is also manifested in protectionism, a false belief that American manufacturers and American workers can disconnect from the global marketplace, and that producers and consumers alike would both be better off if we were all confined to the domestic U.S. market.
 

But it is neither accurate to say that most Americans are isolationists nor that a different foreign policy, one more focused on self-defense and exhibiting restraint abroad, reflects isolationism. Rather, Americans crave a different foreign policy than that practiced by both Republicans and Democrats over the past two decades. They hunger for alternatives that would allow the United States to remain engaged in the world, but at less cost, and with other countries doing their fair share. In this context, it is hardly surprising that some Republicans (and some Democrats, too) are cautiously testing the waters of acceptable discourse. If they find that middle ground, between reflexive war-making and head-in-the-sand pacifism, they might strike political paydirt.
 
As to Greenberg’s claim that the GOP is mere moments away from being captured by the ghost of Robert Taft, I share Justin Logan’s skepticism. Still, I am bemused by the terror that the specter of so-called isolationism is currently striking in the hearts of interventionists of both the liberal and neoconservative variety. Given that so many of them were (and are) cheerleaders for the reckless war in Iraq, the unnecessary and doomed-to-fail armed social work being tried in Afghanistan, and the foolish and unconstitutional war/non-war in Libya, I might take grim solace in the fact that they are finally getting their just desserts.
 
I might, except that the backlash against these and other misadventures might eventually push the country toward genuine isolationism, with all of its ugly connotations.
 
Here’s hoping that we can find that sensible center, of a United States that remains deeply engaged with the world, but that has dropped all pretensions to managing it.

More from McCain on ‘Isolationism’

Over at World Politics Review, Justin Logan and I collaborated on an article about the supposed rise of  ”isolationism” within the GOP.

The charges come mainly from Sen. John McCain, though presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty copped that line yesterday, drawing praise from the editors of The Weekly Standard.

McCain directed his “isolationism” fire late yesterday at West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, one of 27 senators who signed a letter to the president calling for a substantial troop reduction in Afghanistan. On the floor of the Senate, Manchin explained his reasoning: “I believe it is time to for us to rebuild America, not Afghanistan.”

According to McCain, Manchin’s comments “characterize the isolationist withdrawal, lack of knowledge of history attitude that seems to be on the rise in America.”

But McCain needs to reconnect with recent history, and contemporary reality. Nation building is a fool’s errand: costly, counterproductive, and unnecessary. We could continue to hunt al Qaeda with far fewer troops in Afghanistan. A smaller presence would provide us with sufficient flexibility to deal with other challenges elsewhere — and help us to put our own house in order. McCain is OK with spending over $100 billion a year in a country with a GDP of around $16 billion, while our economy suffers.

Not surprisingly, most Americans, including many Republicans, reject McCain’s views. And they should. As Justin and I explain in the WPR article:

Foreign policy should not be conducted by polls and focus groups, but in this case the public is right, and the interventionist consensus in Washington is wrong. The threats facing us are not so urgent that we must maintain a vast military presence scattered across the globe and consistently make war in multiple theaters at once. The United States is the most secure great power in history, and if policymakers would act like it, the evidence suggests the public would support them.

In particular, given that our recent overseas military interventions have carried significant costs and delivered very few measurable benefits, it is hardly surprising that Americans are pushing back against the sorts of foreign adventures McCain favors. We don’t know whether the faint rumblings of common sense in the GOP presidential primaries indicate that Beltway elites are finally coming around to our view, but we hope they do. Should that happen, it would be prudence prevailing, not isolationism. (Full text here.)

Why any Republican aspiring to the presidency would follow the advice of a two-time loser like McCain (in 2000 to G.W. Bush, and in 2008 to Barack Obama) is beyond me. It makes even less sense for Democrats to listen to him.

On Differentiating ‘Realists’

Jacob Heilbrunn wrote a piece recently wondering “where have all the serious Republicans gone [on foreign policy]?”  Heilbrunn observes correctly that the loudest Republican voices on national security these days are advancing a variety of zany views, taking as evidence Mitt Romney’s empirically-challenged attack on the new START treaty.

In a similar vein, Daniel Larison wonders whether a return to Republican “realism” is even anything to thirst for:

In practice, if the GOP “reclaimed its realist roots” I wonder how much would change for the better. Republican realism sounds good by comparison with what we have had for the last decade, but most actual Republican realists, especially those in elected office, did little or nothing to challenge the endless hyping of foreign threats and the frequent recourse to military intervention abroad in the ’90s…  How many realists not affiliated with the Cato Institute expressed serious reservations about NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia before the August 2008 war? As sympathetic as I am to many realist arguments, and as much as I appreciate the efforts of the most sober realists to try to steer Republican foreign policy thinking in a constructive direction, until Republicans reject confrontational and aggressive foreign policy goals it will not matter very much if they adopt realist means and rhetoric.

The answer to Larison’s question about NATO expansion is that it was quite unpopular among non-Cato realists.  John Lewis Gaddis wrote at the time [.pdf] that “historians – normally so contentious – are in uncharacteristic agreement: with remarkably few exceptions, they see NATO enlargement as ill-conceived, ill-timed, and above all ill-suited to the realities of the post-Cold War world.”  He “could recall no other moment…at which there was less support, within the community of historians, for an announced policy position.”  That might have been putting things a bit too strongly when it came to realists, but not very much.  That is, actual realists, who don’t, by and large, get called to Washington.

This, I think, is the crucial distinction to make.  The bottom line here is that there is a big disconnect between people in the Beltway who call themselves realists and actual realists.  Ur-realist Kenneth Waltz once described himself as “a fierce critic of American military policy and spending and strategy, at least since the 1970s.”  John Mearsheimer points out that realists opposed the Vietnam War almost to a man (except for Henry Kissinger), and that realists opposed the Iraq War almost to a man (except for Henry Kissinger).  Since at least the Johnson administration, realists have tended to be dovish relative to the Beltway consensus as it has existed at any point in time, and active dovishness is not permitted in polite company in Washington.

Not only is it a mistake to hearken back to a Glory Day of Republican Realism, it is really a mistake to characterize any existing Beltway faction as “realist.”  Belligerent nationalists, Wilsonians, liberal imperialists…all those we have.  Realists, not so much.

“United States”: Singular Noun, or Plural?

Paul Starobin, the author of an informative primer on foreign policy realism, had an interesting piece in the weekend’s Wall Street Journal on the topic of breaking up the United States.

Devolved America is a vision faithful both to certain postindustrial realities as well as to the pluralistic heart of the American political tradition—a tradition that has been betrayed by the creeping centralization of power in Washington over the decades but may yet reassert itself as an animating spirit for the future. Consider this proposition: America of the 21st century, propelled by currents of modernity that tend to favor the little over the big, may trace a long circle back to the original small-government ideas of the American experiment. The present-day American Goliath may turn out to be a freak of a waning age of politics and economics as conducted on a super-sized scale—too large to make any rational sense in an emerging age of personal empowerment that harks back to the era of the yeoman farmer of America’s early days. The society may find blessed new life, as paradoxical as this may sound, in a return to a smaller form.

[…]

Today’s devolutionists, of all stripes, can trace their pedigree to the “anti-federalists” who opposed the compact that came out of Philadelphia as a bad bargain that gave too much power to the center at the expense of the limbs. Some of America’s most vigorous and learned minds were in the anti-federalist camp; their ranks included Virginia’s Patrick Henry, of “give me liberty or give me death” renown. The sainted Jefferson, who was serving as a diplomat in Paris during the convention, is these days claimed by secessionists as a kindred anti-federal spirit, even if he did go on to serve two terms as president.

The anti-federalists lost their battle, but history, in certain respects, has redeemed their vision, for they anticipated how many Americans have come to feel about their nation’s seat of federal power. “This city, and the government of it, must indubitably take their tone from the character of the men, who from the nature of its situation and institution, must collect there,” the anti-federalist pamphleteer known only as the Federal Farmer wrote. “If we expect it will have any sincere attachments to simple and frugal republicanism, to that liberty and mild government, which is dear to the laborious part of a free people, we most assuredly deceive ourselves.”

Bonus points to Starobin for pointing to the same passage from George Kennan that I’ve taken to quoting.  Kennan worried whether “ ‘bigness’ in a body politic is not an evil in itself.”  As a result, he wondered “how it would be if our country, while retaining certain of the rudiments of a federal government, were to be decentralized into something like a dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment.”

The most obvious objection with which Starobin doesn’t deal is that you’d have a hell of a time selling this scheme on Washington, which happens to have–how to put this politely?–the means to ensure it gets what it wants.

A related objection would be the eternal political question “who gets the guns?”  What sort of armed forces would a decentralized United States possess?  Under whose control would they be?  Would we distribute nuclear weapons to each of the States in order to ensure none of them would get too skittish?

People smarter than me have argued that size isn’t an obstacle to republican government in the case of the United States.  Note, though, the first of the four premises on which the pro-size argument rests:

In the first place it is to be remembered that the general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws.  Its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any…

If the case for centralism rests on premises like these that are artifacts of a long-since-squandered legacy, we probably ought to reconsider the arguments against centralism.  At the very least, those of us who want a very small government ought to think hard about the viability of a situation in which a small, weak federal government administers a giant, powerful nation.