Saturday, March 28, 2015

Daniel Larison

Meet Daniel Larison of The American Conservative, now my current favorite columnist on issues of foreign policy.  Larison is something of a one-note player. He is consistently anti-interventionist and forever warning that war, revolution and humanitarian intervention have unintended consequences and it is better to refrain.  I do wish he had been old enough to write a column during the Cold War. He would have  and been a much-needed voice of reason against to constant calls for an ever more confrontational and unyielding stance.  In short, he is (and during the Cold War, would have been) the ideal anti-neocon.

If Larison's constant theme is anti-interventionism, he breaks down into several sub-themes that I have found most enlightening useful in foreign policy analysis.

Anti-interventionism is not the same as isolationism.  Of course, neocons define isolationism so broadly as to mean essentially any reluctance to start a war given the opportunity.  But Larison points out that there are other ways to engage with the world besides war.  Diplomacy, for instance.  He favors engaging with the world in ways that do not involve war.  In some ways, this is not a new revelation to me.  American isolationism has always been something of a myth.  Certainly, it is true that our reluctance to join in WWII was a mistake, and that Truman met with some resistance in joining in the Cold War.  One can certainly argue that our reluctance to join WWI and the League of Nations was also a mistake.*  But this never stopped the US from regularly sending in the Marines to intervene in Central America and the Caribbean, or from acquiring an island empire in the Pacific.   My own take on this was that "isolationism" did not mean isolating from the world, but isolating from countries that we could not just kick around, but ones we had to treat with respect.  (An interventionist responded that "isolationism" in this context just means reluctance to fight any war that does not promise a quick and easy victory).  But the extent to which we can engage with the world without going to war needs more emphasis.

Military intervention has unintended consequences.  I have been in the past a champion of humanitarian intervention.  When frightful atrocities are going on somewhere, the urge to send in the Army to stop them can be mighty.  Larison rejects any and all such interventions on the grounds that they never do anything but cause more trouble.  I am not prepared to go so far as Larison, but a series of consistently bad results (most recently in Libya) have made me a lot more skeptical than I used to be.

Sometimes (in fact, usually) there are no good guys.  Larison opposes all violent revolutions on the grounds that they only lead to worse.  Given what a bloodthirsty business suppressing revolution can be, I am not convinced that revolution is never the lesser evil.  But then again, the question right now is rarely how far we should go in propping up a friendly dictator.  That was a Cold War question.  Quite possibly, if Larison had been writing in the Cold War, he would have been wearily pointing out the immense damage we do in propping up a hated dictator against a popular uprising and dismissing the argument that if we do not prop up one hated dictator, other hated dictators will lose faith in our willingness to prop them up is a terrible argument.  The question these days is whether we should be subverting unfriendly dictators or intervening in other countries' civil wars.  Larison's answer is an emphatic no.  He was against arming the "moderate" Syrian opposition against Assad.  He is against siding with Assad against ISIS.  His general position on intervening in other people's civil wars is "don't."  And he is always happy to point out that just because one side is bad (which it invariably is) does not make the other side any better.

Never take a faction's pronouncements at face value.  In any civil war, some faction will invariably be claiming to be our friends and saying all the things about freedom and democracy that we want to hear.  Larison warns us never to believe them.  Invariably, they know what we want to hear, so they say it.  But they are, in fact, pursuing their own objectives and goals that may or may not coincide with ours.  Don't be fooled.

It isn't all about us.  Neocons tend to assume that other countries act based on their perceptions of the US and the degree of "strength" and "resolve" we project.  Actually, they are more likely acting in accord with their own real or perceived interests, and sometimes for reasons of domestic politics.

US power is not indivisible.  I touched on this a little in my previous post, but Larison emphasizes this issue a lot.  Neocons tend to assume that if the US starts a war in one place, our enemies everywhere else will be intimidated because they will fear they might be next.  Conversely, if we decline to start a war, our allies will be dismayed because they will distrust our ability to live up to our commitments.  Larison consistently argues the distinction between a commitment we are legally bound to by treaty and one we are not under any obligation to make, but simply choose to.  Our reluctance to make gratuitous commitments just because we can in no way undermines our formal treaty commitments.  And, in fact, the assumption that US power is indivisible is closely related to the assumption that it is infinite.  In fact, a major commitment of resources to one war can impinge on our available resources to commit elsewhere.  Other countries know this, even if American neocons do not.

Other countries resent being bullied and respond with defiance.  Larison is never reluctant to point out that, just as we hate being bullied and threatened and respond with anger, so do other countries.  Sometimes the defiance comes to grief, but that is a different story.

Our subservience to Israel is part of a broader pattern.  This was probably the biggest insight that I got from Larison.  It is invariably annoying to hear neocons insisting on "no light" between us and Israel and demanding that we always be ready to do Israel's bidding.  But I just assumed that this was subservience was unique to Israel.  Larison has pointed out that it is not.  In fact, neocons insist that we give absolute and unconditional support to any ally that wants to start trouble anywhere.  And, in turn, we demand that our allies give absolute and unconditional support to any trouble we may want to make.  If we followed these rules, there would be no such thing as a mutual defense pact because all alliances would be mutual aggression pacts.  Instead of pledges to come to the assistance of any member who was attacked, they would be pledges to assist any time a member wanted to attack a non-member.  The  most aggressive member of an alliance would set the tone for all others, who would be forced to fall in line behind it.  And presumably each member would have its own particular issue that it was particularly aggressive about and unwilling to compromise on.  The alliance would have to support them all.  I trust it goes without saying that this is an insane way of running an alliance, that that reigning in out-of-control allies is a old as alliances.  It is simply another part of the "omnidirectional belligerence" that characterizes neocons and is (once again) based on the assumption of US omnipotence.

*For a more sophisticated take on American isolationism see this excellent piece by David Frum on why the US refusal to consider the effect of its economic policy on the world economy between the wars was a disaster.

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