Blogs: Paul Pillar

The President Strikes a Nerve

Paul Pillar

Charles Krauthammer is one of those critics whose nerve evidently has been struck by the president's comments. His reaction gives evidence of having been thrown into a spasm upon first hearing the comments and never going back to reread the transcript. He begins, for example, with the assertion that Mr. Obama “began with a complaint about negative coverage on Fox News.” Actually, in response to Henry's statement that “there have been a lot of unflattering portraits of your foreign policy right now,” the president simply observed that “there are actually some complimentary pieces as well about my foreign policy, but I'm not sure you ran them,” which falls short of a “complaint” about Fox's coverage, however much such a complaint would be warranted.

Krauthammer goes on at length on the theme of people being falsely accused of warmongering. He issues a challenge to name any U.S. political leader “who has called for sending troops into Ukraine,” disregarding that the president was not accusing anybody of doing that and instead specifically said his critics were not calling for that.

Trying to turn tables, Krauthammer writes, “wasn't it you, Mr. President, who decided to attack Libya...? Yes, it was, and there is significant valid criticism yet to be written about that decision. But it would not be Krauthammer who would be positioned to write it; he applauded the military intervention in the Libyan civil war and only wished at the time that the intervention had come sooner. He does not mention that fact, nor does he say anything about what lessons the continuing mess in Libya may hold for possible intervention in other Middle Eastern civil wars.

Another topic on which the Obama administration can be validly criticized was the drawing of a “red line” about chemical weapons use in Syria. But what needs to be criticized was the drawing of the line in the first place, not that the administration “retreated abjectly,” as Krauthammer puts it, because the administration never did that. Instead, the administration with help from the Russians made lemonade out of the lemon of a red line and won an agreement that already has resulted in the destruction of Syria's capability to manufacture prohibited chemical weapons and removed from Syria for destruction nearly all of the regime's stockpile of the weapons. This is a far greater blow in favor of the cause of nonproliferation and non-use of chemical weapons than anyone hoped for before the Syria war even began. And as Robert Golan-Vilella reminds us, it is hard to see how any cruise missile strikes on Syria merely to show that we are willing to use military force would have done an iota of good in the Syrian situation.

On Ukraine, Krauthammer does identify one specific policy alternative to what the administration has done so far—providing lethal aid to the Ukrainian military—and argues that this would get Putin to shape up. “The possibility of a bloody and prolonged Ukrainian resistance to infiltration or invasion would surely alter Putin's calculus...” he says. Surely it would, but there would likely be bloody and prolonged Ukrainian resistance with or without U.S. lethal aid. One question is whether such aid would change the prospective length and bloodiness of the resistance enough to make a critical difference in Putin's calculations. Another question is how much weight such an effect would have relative to any provocative effects of the United States, the leader of NATO, initiating such a military relationship with Ukraine. Krauthammer does not bother to address either question.

Just below Krauthammer's column on the same Washington Post opinion page is a piece by House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, which is another “what, me a warmonger?” reaction to the president's comments in Manila. Besides the forced indignation over presidential accusations that were never made, this item is characterized mainly by unsupported assertions, without even an attempt to get at the multiple underlying questions that would have to be analyzed, that military saber-rattling always means less chance of war breaking out and more chance of reducing the intensity of wars already underway. On Syria, for example, McKeon says that “arming moderate rebel factions and restoring the U.S. military posture in the Mediterranean” could have prevented use of chemical weapons “or even shortened the conflict.” How? The divisions among opposition groups, the domination of the more extreme ones, and the fight-to-the-death determination of the regime's supporters make very unlikely that a further (beyond what Gulf Arabs were doing anyway) arming of the hard-to-identify “moderates” would have had such desired effects. And just what sort of threat would be implied by any further U.S. military deployments in the Mediterranean? You do seem to believe, Mr. Chairman, that we need to be willing to carry out threats that we make.

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Intolerance in Sisi's Egypt

Paul Pillar

Charles Krauthammer is one of those critics whose nerve evidently has been struck by the president's comments. His reaction gives evidence of having been thrown into a spasm upon first hearing the comments and never going back to reread the transcript. He begins, for example, with the assertion that Mr. Obama “began with a complaint about negative coverage on Fox News.” Actually, in response to Henry's statement that “there have been a lot of unflattering portraits of your foreign policy right now,” the president simply observed that “there are actually some complimentary pieces as well about my foreign policy, but I'm not sure you ran them,” which falls short of a “complaint” about Fox's coverage, however much such a complaint would be warranted.

Krauthammer goes on at length on the theme of people being falsely accused of warmongering. He issues a challenge to name any U.S. political leader “who has called for sending troops into Ukraine,” disregarding that the president was not accusing anybody of doing that and instead specifically said his critics were not calling for that.

Trying to turn tables, Krauthammer writes, “wasn't it you, Mr. President, who decided to attack Libya...? Yes, it was, and there is significant valid criticism yet to be written about that decision. But it would not be Krauthammer who would be positioned to write it; he applauded the military intervention in the Libyan civil war and only wished at the time that the intervention had come sooner. He does not mention that fact, nor does he say anything about what lessons the continuing mess in Libya may hold for possible intervention in other Middle Eastern civil wars.

Another topic on which the Obama administration can be validly criticized was the drawing of a “red line” about chemical weapons use in Syria. But what needs to be criticized was the drawing of the line in the first place, not that the administration “retreated abjectly,” as Krauthammer puts it, because the administration never did that. Instead, the administration with help from the Russians made lemonade out of the lemon of a red line and won an agreement that already has resulted in the destruction of Syria's capability to manufacture prohibited chemical weapons and removed from Syria for destruction nearly all of the regime's stockpile of the weapons. This is a far greater blow in favor of the cause of nonproliferation and non-use of chemical weapons than anyone hoped for before the Syria war even began. And as Robert Golan-Vilella reminds us, it is hard to see how any cruise missile strikes on Syria merely to show that we are willing to use military force would have done an iota of good in the Syrian situation.

On Ukraine, Krauthammer does identify one specific policy alternative to what the administration has done so far—providing lethal aid to the Ukrainian military—and argues that this would get Putin to shape up. “The possibility of a bloody and prolonged Ukrainian resistance to infiltration or invasion would surely alter Putin's calculus...” he says. Surely it would, but there would likely be bloody and prolonged Ukrainian resistance with or without U.S. lethal aid. One question is whether such aid would change the prospective length and bloodiness of the resistance enough to make a critical difference in Putin's calculations. Another question is how much weight such an effect would have relative to any provocative effects of the United States, the leader of NATO, initiating such a military relationship with Ukraine. Krauthammer does not bother to address either question.

Just below Krauthammer's column on the same Washington Post opinion page is a piece by House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, which is another “what, me a warmonger?” reaction to the president's comments in Manila. Besides the forced indignation over presidential accusations that were never made, this item is characterized mainly by unsupported assertions, without even an attempt to get at the multiple underlying questions that would have to be analyzed, that military saber-rattling always means less chance of war breaking out and more chance of reducing the intensity of wars already underway. On Syria, for example, McKeon says that “arming moderate rebel factions and restoring the U.S. military posture in the Mediterranean” could have prevented use of chemical weapons “or even shortened the conflict.” How? The divisions among opposition groups, the domination of the more extreme ones, and the fight-to-the-death determination of the regime's supporters make very unlikely that a further (beyond what Gulf Arabs were doing anyway) arming of the hard-to-identify “moderates” would have had such desired effects. And just what sort of threat would be implied by any further U.S. military deployments in the Mediterranean? You do seem to believe, Mr. Chairman, that we need to be willing to carry out threats that we make.

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