Sunday, November 29, 2015

Incoherence in the Middle East: Blame Obama and the Whole Foreign Policy Establishment

To state the obvious, our Mideastern policy is completely incoherent.  Should I blame Obama?  Well, he is the President and is setting foreign policy, so obviously he is largely to blame.  But I would be more inclined to blame him exclusively or even primarily if his critics had coherent alternatives.  But their usual response is to be even less coherent.  All agree that the problem is that he his "weak" and we need someone to be "tougher" and provide more "leadership."  Unfortunately, their ideas of "toughness" and "leadership" make no sense whatever.

Complaints by his less sophisticated critics are easily dispensed with.  I outsource the job to this article:
Struck again by how cons approach foreign policy almost *entirely* based on what feels emotionally satisfactory. Not only do they neglect empirical analysis of what has happened & what might happen, but they condemn such analysis as weakness. hey condemn the effort to understand the parties & forces at play - the effort to understand *in & of iteself* - as weakness. They condemn Obama’s aversion to force even though O been bombing ISIS for months. Why? Because he’s not making them *feel* it. It’s not the actual bombing they want, it’s the martial rhetoric, the flag-filled chyrons, the Bush-with-a-megaphone feeling. They want him to say the right words, to call enemies the right names, to beat his chest, to show that America es mas macho. Whether war - the last one, the next one - "works" is neither hear nor there. It’s working if it’s making them *feel* the right way.
Yeah, basically.  Obama's political rivals or critics in the foreign policy establishment are to some degree just more sophisticated versions of the same.  Consider this LA Times Article on Putin's intervention and Kevin Drum's comments on it.  The article comments on Putin's boldness in intervening, the degree to which it has put Obama on the defensive, and how difficult it will be for Obama to respond, since every action he takes will look like a simple reaction to Putin.  Yet it admits that Putin (at the time) had launched 112 airstrikes, as opposed to 7,200 by the US and its allies.  Yet in the second-to-last paragraph, it adds, as a sort of afterthought:
But many analysts believe that neither Putin nor anyone else can wrest military victory from the bitter cauldron in Syria. And many expect Obama, who has made that argument since the conflict began in 2011, to continue to move cautiously.
So, Putin is extremely shrewd to walk into a military conflict that he has no actual prospect of winning, and we look like weaklings for holding back, so naturally we should plunge in as well.  Appearance is everything; outcome is nothing!  Of course, it is really hard to prevent a bad outcome from looking bad if it continues long enough.  I agree with Drum, "Maybe we should have started with that? Putin is essentially engaged in a PR campaign. Obama isn't taking the bait because he knows perfectly well it's a fool's errand."

But politicians and pundits are forced to be more coherent than low information voters in as least one detail; they are forced to come up with concrete and specific proposals.  So here, courtesy of NPR, is a table of what the candidates are proposing.

Well, there is a clear partisan difference here.  The Democrats want to admit Syrian refugees and oppose the phrase "radical Islam" while Republicans (except Bush and Cruz) want to exclude them and all want to use the phrase "radical Islam."  More depressingly, only Sanders and Cruz are willing to exclude the use of ground forces in Syria.  Not even Rand Paul is prepared to rule it out, although he appears to lean against it.  The other Democrats and Rubio want to limit ground forces to special ops (who are probably already there), while Fiorina is not prepared to send in ground troops "yet."  The other Republicans either endorse ground troops or lean toward them, except for Gilmore (who?).  Only Rand Paul, O'Malley and Sanders clearly reject a no-fly zone (which would greatly increase our risk of a direct confrontation with Russia), while Clinton, Rubio, Kasich, Fiorina, and Bush all endorse it.  Cruz is unclear but appears, once again, a voice of relative sanity.  Ted Cruz as the voice of sanity, now there is a disturbing thought!

One question not even asked is how the candidates stand on the nuclear agreement with Iran.  Most Republicans have vowed to reject it, although the current focus on ISIS makes it less likely that any will go so far as to start a war with Iran.

But these questions, while interesting and worthwhile, do not address a lot of fine points at stake, particularly the matter of alliances, who we should work with and against. It is on that topic in particular that Obama's critics are a whole lot less coherent than he is, and that topic that I mean to address next.

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