Foreign Policy Fundamentalism

Originally published in The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3 (Summer 2015)

Print version available here.

 

With pomp and polish and platitudes, the 2016 presidential campaign is underway. It began in December, as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced he was “actively exploring” a run for the White House. Bush is more moderate than much of the Republican base on many issues–perhaps too moderate to ultimately win his party’s nomination.[1] On foreign policy issues, however, Bush tows a hawkish line, pushing for a more aggressive U.S. posture against Syria, Russia, Iran, China, and Cuba in order to better promote and defend American ideals and interests throughout the globe.[2]

On the whole, the Republican hopefuls are “racing to the right” on foreign policy, arguing for a more muscular approach to international affairs. A narrative is taking hold that many of the problems facing the world today are the result of the Obama administration’s “failed leadership.” More specifically, they were not brought about by America’s ill-conceived actions, but instead, because of U.S. inaction: a failure to intervene as often or aggressively as “needed” around the world, which (to many conservatives’ minds) projected American weakness and undermined U.S. credibility.[3] The solution? Clear principled American leadership. This line of reasoning permeates the recently-announced campaigns of noted surgeon Ben Carson, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and increasingly reflects the political strategy of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul as well.[4]

The presumed Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is perhaps more aggressive still: unwavering in her advocacy of Israel, comparing Putin to Hitler over Ukraine, pushing for a more confrontational approach to China, championing intervention in Libya and Syria (just as she previously did for Iraq), supporting the troop surge in Afghanistan as well as the likely ill-fated campaign against ISIL, defending the counterproductive drone program, and arguing for increased sanctions and the threat of force against Iran (although she now tentatively supports the nuclear negotiation effort).[5]

During her pre-announcement book tour, Clinton lambasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy, particularly the administration’s aspirational credo:[6] “Don’t do stupid shit.” Her complaint was not that the Obama administration has failed to live up to such an apparently modest goal, but instead, that “don’t do stupid *stuff*” is not an organizing principle, and “Great nations” need doctrines to guide their foreign policy.[7]

On its face, this line of criticism is absurd. Clearly, “avoid doing harm” is, in fact, a maxim designed to guide action (just ask any medical professional).[8] Granted, it’s a principle guiding what not to do, rather than what to do. However, for this very reason, it is more basic (and more important than) any offensive strategy: it constrains what sorts of affirmative policies are desirable or even permissible. But notwithstanding this apparent lack of understanding about what “organizing principle” means,[9] there is a more profound error that Secretary Clinton holds in common with the Republican frontrunners: the assumption that grand strategies are necessary or useful in guiding foreign policy. They aren’t.

 

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Credibility is about Outcomes, not “Resolve”

In wake of Vladimir Putin annexing Crimea into the Russian Federation and supporting Eastern separatists against a Ukrainian government it perhaps rightly views as illegitimate, U.S. policy hawks argued the entire crisis could have been prevented: had President Obama followed through on his August 2013 commitment to bomb the Syrian government in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, Russia would have been cowed by America’s resolve and therefore responded to subsequent events in neighboring Ukraine by more-or-less capitulating to Western demands.

These counterfactuals are empty, offered without any corroborating evidence that carrying out the strikes would have actually changed Putin’s calculus. In fact, the whole notion of deterrence has been greatly undermined by contemporary research in cognitive science and psychology. Unfortunately, beltway Washington hasn’t gotten the memo.

Russia’s response to Ukraine has nothing to do with Obama’s actions in Syria (something the critics would know that if they simply listened to Putin). If anything, the Ukrainian crisis was caused, not because Washington was too soft in Syria, but because it was far too aggressive everywhere else.  Moscow was not responding to perceived American weakness, but instead attempting to defend its critical interests from what it viewed as Western expansionism.

Obama’s decision to back down from the precipice of another ill-fated direct military engagement in the Middle East was a rare and laudable moment of sanity. Following through on a threat simply because the president had previously committed to it doesn’t help U.S. credibility if the policies in question prove disastrous. Nonetheless, policy hawks insist that the Administration’s momentary pragmatism has undermined “U.S. credibility”—which, to their minds, is about the United States “standing by” its stated commitments (no matter what).

Succumbing to pressure from these critics, the White House has responded to Russia’s actions in Ukraine by striking an even more confrontational posture. A year into this new dynamic, the Obama Administration’s strategy has proven totally ineffective at changing Russia’s approach to Ukraine, and have been highly counterproductive in the broader geopolitical arena.

The current rift between the U.S. and Russia threatens critical initiatives, from the impending NATO drawdown from Afghanistan, to the ongoing negotiations with Iran and resolving the crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been aligning itself more closely with other emerging powers to act as a collective counterweight to Western hegemony—even as it enacts its own effective countermeasures to punish the Europeans who joined the U.S. efforts at isolating Moscow.

But instead of acknowledging its missteps and seeking reconciliation with the Kremlin, Washington is ramping up its provocative, irresponsible, and inaccurate rhetoric with regards to Russia (because, once again, backing down would supposedly jeopardize U.S. “credibility”). The hopefuls for the next U.S. administration are also jumping on board, with Hillary “reset-button” Clinton going so far as to compare Putin to Hitler. How these actions are supposed to promote American interests is totally unclear.

In fact, the critics have it precisely inverted: it wasn’t U.S. weakness in Syria that informed Putin’s thinking on Ukraine. Instead, the same pernicious psychology that the U.S. had brought to bear throughout the Syrian crisis also poisoned America’s response to Ukraine: doubling-down on strategies which were clearly failing in a misguided attempt to “preserve U.S. credibility.”

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The Thin and Highly-Permeable Line Between Revolution & Tyranny

Summary of a revolution: people making drastic and weighty decisions, rapidly and spontaneously, in a highly emotional state–often under the sway of some charismatic leader.

Question: Are these the sorts of actions we tend to retrospectively endorse or regret?

 

Followers of my work will know that I have been highly critical of virtually all of the revolutionary movements in the MENA region—particularly those in Libya, Syria and Egypt.  It would not be a stretch to say that my default disposition is anti-revolution, although from the response to my work in many  quarters, there does not seem to be a robust understanding of why. So rather than writing yet another expose, this time on the pop-media misinformation and problematic framing of the recent protests in Ukraine, it may be more fruitful to explain just why these movements are so troubling:

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