Thursday, June 05, 2014

David Ignatius States the Obvious

Which is to say, Ignatius has penned an editorial entitled, Claims of U.S. weakness and retreat of U.S. power are unfounded. That shouldn't be a surprise given the author, but it seems increasingly rare to see basic common sense on foreign policy issues from the Washington Post's editorial crew.

Ignatius has some criticisms for the President, but they invite criticism of their own:
I agree that [President] Obama’s foreign policy has not been as firm, especially in dealing with Syria and Russia, as it should have been. As a result, the United States has suffered some reputational damage.
It's reasonable to infer from Ignatius' statement that he believes that the U.S. should have taken military action in Syria. The problem is that, as Ignatius recently told us, there are no good ways to intervene in Syria. It's an odd sort of criticism, that the President should have boldly taken a different path that might have had negative results, perhaps worsening the situation. Truly, if Ignatius believes that there is an appropriate, stronger line to take with Syria, he should explicitly describe the intervention that he favors. Further, if his concern is truly with "global security", Ignatius should explain why he omits reference to Libya where the U.S. did intervene militarily to topple a despot, but where a consequence of that intervention has been the creation of a great deal of regional turmoil -- and also stands as an object lesson as to what could happen if Bashar al-Assad is toppled without the involvement of a very large western occupation force ready to impose and hold the peace.

It's also not clear why Ignatius believes that being more "firm" with Russia would do anything to change Russia's policies or Putin's behavior. Does he believe that Russians will somehow eject Putin from power if they perceive that President Obama is unhappy with him? I would expect not, given that it's obvious that the President is unhappy with him yet his domestic popularity has improved. I think Daniel Larison makes an apt observation:
When U.S. Russia policy prioritized working with Russia on matters of common interest, relations with Moscow measurably improved and the U.S. made some modest gains on a few issues. When Washington returned to its old habits of agitating over internal Russian affairs and seeking to overthrow Russian clients, relations went into rapid decline. Since then, U.S. punitive measures have contributed to the intensifying Sino-Russian cooperation....
Again I'm left wondering, what "firm" measures does Ignatius believe would change Russian behavior, and on what basis?

Ignatius made an argument toward the end of his editorial that I wish he would clarify:
The worriers [about weakness] get one big thing right. A strong, forward-leaning United States is essential for global security.
There are many regions in the world where the people don't enjoy much security, and many more where ethnic minorities are mistreated. Is Ignatius lobbying for U.S. military intervention that is truly aimed at "global security", or is he conflating "global security" with "the advancement of U.S. foreign policy interests"? The latter seems more consistent with the editorial position of the Washington Post, which under the leadership of Fred Hiatt reliably supports military adventurism in the name of muscular foreign policy. But there is a huge difference between that and actually working to achieve "global security", even if human rights violations are sometimes offered as a justification for intervention in a nation or region that, in the mind of the editorial board, affects U.S. foreign policy interests.

When looking for the prior link to Daniel Larison, I noticed that he has also written about this argument. Larison argues that many of those who make that argument about "America’s indispensability... are routinely wrong about specific issues":
Ignatius’ review of the [book, "Taking on the World" and its authors'] constant alarmism reminds us of something else that should be only too familiar to those of us that have observed or participated in foreign policy debates. No matter how often such people are profoundly wrong about important events and the appropriate way that the U.S. should respond to them, they continue to be relied on as authorities and guides in subsequent debates. Alarmists are never held accountable for their alarmism, at least not as long as they subscribe to the prevailing consensus view about what the U.S. role in the world should be. If you can get “one big thing right,” you need never worry about being right ever again. Then again, the alarmists are just taking their belief in American “indispensability” to its predictable conclusion: if a “strong, forward-leaning” U.S. is “essential” to global security, frequently panicking about potential “retreat” and “weakness” becomes a major part of maintaining that role.
Larison sees the tendency to perceive a constant need for U.S. intervention to address perceived threats around the globe results in the notion that non-intervention is treated as a failure of American strength, character and endurance, and creates an all-or-nothing foreign policy in which leaders are not trusted to determine which threats are serious such that, even in relation to minor threats, doing nothing becomes unthinkable. Larison argues that the "false belief in American indispensability breeds intense anxiety about security and causes people to imagine dangers that don’t even exist", resulting in U.S. involvement in "disastrous and unnecessary conflicts". I think the sort of argument Ignatius is implicitly making, "I don't know what we should do, and every choice is bad, but we must appear strong or, at a minimum, we risk reputational damage".

Ignatius sees Obama's actions as a retreat from military action, and also as consistent with history,
...[A] retreat to lick the nation’s wounds is fairly common after wars — and rarely does lasting damage.
But it apparently does not occur to him that strong military action in Syria, or attempting to escalate tension with Russia to the point that Putin might be cowed, are both ideas fraught with peril. That is, sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

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