Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Feel-Good Foreign Policy toward North Korea Won’t Help

Dealing with North Korea brings to mind Sisyphus, the mythological Greek king condemned for eternity to roll a stone up a hill, only to watch it roll back down. Whatever the U.S. does, Kim Jong-un again will fire missiles, test nukes, and threaten to lay waste to his enemies.

Now the Obama administration has applied sanctions to him personally, though for human rights violations, not security concerns. The State Department explained that Kim was “ultimately responsible” for what it termed “North Korea’s notorious abuses of human rights.”

There are many, of course. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ain’t a nice place for anyone other than the Kim family and friends.

Now any property owned by Kim and ten of his top officials in the U.S. will be frozen. And Americans will be prohibited from doing business with them. The administration predicted that “Lifting the anonymity of these functionaries may make them think twice from time to time when considering a particular act of cruelty.” Seriously?

The North’s abuses are great and the American frustrations are real. Unfortunately, imposing penalties without impact won’t turn Kim into a born-again humanitarian. And his subordinates more likely fear a god-king who has executed some 400 of his own officials, including his uncle, than the prospect of their name ending up on a list in Foggy Bottom.

This is feel good policy at its worst.

NATO’s Warsaw Summit

At the end of this week, leaders from the United States and Europe will convene in Warsaw, Poland, for a NATO summit. The meeting – only the second summit since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine – will include high level strategic discussions, and will likely see the announcement of an increased NATO troop presence in the Baltic States to counter potential Russian aggression there.

The biggest question leaders intend to address in Warsaw is how to deter Russian aggression towards NATO members in Eastern Europe following its seizure of Crimea and involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. In effect, leaders will try to find a compromise solution which reassures NATO’s eastern members, provides additional deterrence, but does not provoke further military buildup and distrust from Russia. They will almost certainly fail in this endeavor.

In fact, the expected announcement of the deployment of 4 battalions of additional troops to the Baltics has already produced heated rhetoric from Russia. These deployments will likely lead to a Russian response, ratcheting up tensions and increasing the risk for inadvertent conflict in the region. In other words, they will contribute to a classic security spiral of mistrust and overreaction. The irony is that such deployments are largely symbolic, not strategic. Even four battalions will not change the fact that Russia could likely conquer the Baltics quickly if it so chose. And even though some would argue that their deterrent value is largely as a ‘tripwire,’ it isn’t clear why the existing Article V guarantee is insufficient for that purpose.

To be frank, in the focus on how to defend the Baltics, leaders have largely overlooked the low likelihood of a conflict in that region. For one thing, there is a qualitative difference between attacking Ukraine and attacking a NATO treaty member; Vladimir Putin certainly knows this. For another, Russia’s force posture simply doesn’t indicate that it has any intentions on the Baltics.

Tracing the Islamic State’s “Allure”

In a prominent article about Islamic State in the Washington Post over the weekend, Carol Morell and Jody Warrick suggest that, by massacring people in various locales, the group was growing in appeal—or “allure” in the words of the headline writer. How this remarkable process comes about is not explained, nor is evidence given to back it up. It is said to be a conclusion reached by “experts,” but only one of these is quoted in the article, and none of the quotes from him seems to fit, much less support, the article’s conclusion.

There is certainly evidence, much of it noted in other articles in the Post, to suggest that the appeal (or allure) of the vicious group actually is, like the scope of the territory it holds in Syria and Iraq, in severe decline. By 2016, the flow of foreign fighters going to join the group may have dropped by 90 percent over the previous year even as opposition to the group among Arab teens and young adults rose from 60 percent to 80 percent. Any allure the group may have in Iraq certainly fails to register on a poll conducted there in January 2016 in which 99 percent of Shiites and 95 percent of Sunnis express opposition to it. And, according to the FBI, the trend for Americans seeking to join Islamic State is decidedly downward.

Indeed, overall, the Islamic State has followed policies and military approaches that have repeatedly proven to be counterproductive in the extreme in enhancing its “appeal” and/or “allure.” High among these was the utterly mindless webcast beheadings of American hostages in 2014 that turned the United States almost overnight from a wary spectator into a dedicated military opponent.

The Disaster of World War I

Wilson's War

On this day 100 years ago, the Battle of the Somme began. Over the course of five months it would see a million men killed or wounded. The British suffered almost 60,000 casualties on July 1 alone, making it the worst day in British military history.

Cato senior fellow and historian Jim Powell wrote about the blunders and consequences of World War I in his book Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and World War IIHe summarized his argument in Cato Policy Report two years ago:

World War I was probably history’s worst catastrophe, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was substantially responsible for unintended consequences of the war that played out in Germany and Russia, contributing to the rise of totalitarian regimes and another world war. 

Indeed World War I was a catastrophe, a foolish and unnecessary war, a war of European potentates that both England and the United States could have stayed out of but that became indeed a World War, the Great War. In our own country the war gave us economic planning, conscription, nationalization of the railroads, a sedition act, confiscatory income tax rates, and prohibition. Internationally World War I and its conclusion led directly to the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of National Socialism, World War II, and the Cold War. 

On this weekend as we celebrate American independence we should mourn those who went to war, and we should resolve not to risk American lives in the future except when our vital national interests are at stake.

U.S. Must Stay Out of the Syrian War

A group of State Department officials recently sent a confidential cable chiding the administration for not adding another war to America’s very full agenda. The 51 diplomats called for “targeted military strikes” against the Syrian government and greater support for “moderate” forces fighting the regime.

One of the architects of current policy, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, also has turned against the administration’s more disengaged approach. She urged creation of a no fly zone, an act of war, as well as greater support for insurgents.

The conflict is horrid, of course, but no one has explained how U.S. entry into Syria’s multi-sided civil war would actually end the murder and mayhem. Nor has anyone shown how America making another Middle Eastern conflict its own would serve Americans’ interests.

Despite the repeated failure of social engineering at home, Washington officials believe that they can transcend culture, history, religion, ethnicity, geography, and more and forcibly transform other peoples and nations. Those who resist America’s tender mercies via bombs, drones, infantry, and special operation forces are assumed to deserve their fate.

This interventionist impulse is particularly inappropriate for a devilishly complex conflict like Syria. Unfortunately, Washington’s early insistence on Bashar al-Assad’s overthrow thwarted hope for a negotiated settlement.

The claim that the U.S. could have provided just the right amount of assistance to just the right groups to yield just the right outcome is a fantasy, belied by America’s failure get much of anything in the Middle East right. Even when Washington seemingly enjoyed full control in Iraq the U.S. did just about everything wrong, triggering the sectarian conflict which spawned the Islamic State.

Military action would be even more dangerous today given Russia’s involvement. Syria matters much more to Russia, which has a long relationship with Damascus, enjoys access to the Mediterranean from a Syrian base, and has only limited influence elsewhere in the region.

No fly proponents blithely assume that Moscow would yield to U.S. dictates, but America would not surrender if the situation was reversed. A no fly zone would not bring peace to Syria but would risk a military incident with a nuclear-armed power.

The State Department dissenters argued for limited strikes on Syria. What if such attacks failed? What if Damascus deployed Russian anti-aircraft systems? What if Moscow escalated against U.S.-supported insurgents? Would Washington concede or double down?

In fact, no one has a realistic scheme to put the Syrian Humpty-Dumpty back together again. Ousting Assad would effectively clear the way for the Islamic State and other radical factions.

So far supporting so-called moderate insurgents has done little more than end up indirectly supplying ISIL and al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, with recruits and weapons. Turkey is at war with the same Kurdish fighters America supports.

While horror is the appropriate reaction to Syria’s civil war, the U.S. has no solution to offer. The U.S. should adopt a policy of first do no harm.

As I argue in National Interest: “Stay out of the conflict. Don’t add to the tragedy. Accept refugees fleeing for their lives. Provide humanitarian aid to those within reach. That would be an agenda of which Americans could be proud.”

The Case for Restraint: What Should It Look Like?

The final panel of last week’s foreign policy conference continued the discussion of the political obstacles to restraint and provided further details on what such a strategy would look like today. Cato’s Emma Ashford kicked off the discussion by explaining how U.S. involvement has undermined U.S. interests in the Middle East, recommending instead that the United States adopt an offshore balancing approach to the region.

John Mueller, also of Cato, used his time to downplay the many commonly cited threats to U.S. security, including rising powers, proliferation, and terrorism. He also cast doubt on whether our large, powerful military is well-suited to deal with these minor threats, most of which are exacerbated by the use of force.

Ben Friedman discussed why primacy enjoys so much support in Washington, despite its flaws. U.S. safety and wealth, he argued, insulate most Americans from the consequences of foreign policy, making them indifferent to it, and enabling special interests that benefit from primacy dominate policy-making. He discussed policy reforms that would heighten appreciation of primacy’s costs in order to increase support for restraint.

The conference’s final speaker, Jacqueline Hazelton of the Naval War College, challenged those who seek a more restrained U.S. foreign policy to develop a plan to bring make it a reality. Picking up on that point, panel moderator Trevor Thrall brought the conference to a close by noting: “Our work is not done.”

The conference’s hosts, Cato’s Ben Friedman and Trevor Thrall are editing a book featuring chapters by the experts who presented at “The Case for Restraint” conference. For more information on the book, please email tevans [at] cato.org.

You can watch full discussion from final panel below.

MIT’s Barry Posen Makes the Case for Restraint

In a lunch address to last week’s foreign policy conference, Barry Posen of MIT and author of Restraint discussed the perils of liberal hegemony, which he defined as a strategy that combines economic and military primacy with the “noble” goals of active democracy and human rights promotion. Posen argued that the advocates of liberal hegemony rely heavily on the use of force to achieve their objectives, and view military power as a scalpel that can perform precise, strategic operations.

Restraint-minded scholars, however, see military power as a “blunt and costly instrument” that is often counterproductive. Posen explained, for example, how identity politics, especially nationalism and religion, lead many to fight against or oppose invading armies, regardless of how benevolent the latter’s intentions may be.

Posen pointed out that there is strong opposition to America’s liberal hegemony strategy, in large part due to its high costs and profligate adventures abroad. Yet, by labeling restraint as “retreat,” Posen laments, liberal hegemony proponents militate substantive discussions and muddy the waters of the foreign policy debate.

You can watch Posen’s full remarks below.