Paul Pillar

Happy Talk and Interventionist Fallacies

Fred Hiatt, whose Washington Post editorial page has been beating its drum incessantly for more U.S. intervention in Syria, comes at that same theme from another angle with a signed column that criticizes President Obama's state of the union address. Hiatt's critique illustrates some recurring and fallacious patterns of thought that arise in debate about U.S. intervention and especially military intervention. Hiatt didn't like that the president, in Hiatt's words, reserved any optimism in the speech for America and that “for the rest of the world, Obama was pessimistic, even fatalistic.” Specific passages in the speech Hiatt cites are one that referred to the Middle East “going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia” and another that noted how “instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world—in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, in parts of Central America, in Africa, and Asia.”

Then Hiatt asks, “Why would a president ask Americans to assume that the problems of Central America, say, are intractable and inevitable?” But the president didn't say anything about intractability or inevitability. He was merely making an observation about a reality—the sort of reality that, if ignored, can work to the detriment of sound U.S. foreign policy. Even with insertion of the time frame “for decades”, the president's observation about what we can expect regarding instability “in” some regions and in “parts of” other places is so safe as to be undebatable. To expect otherwise would be to predict a sweeping, benign transformation of a conflict-prone world the likes of which have never been seen.

Hiatt comments that Costa Rica has been stable for a good while and that the internal situation in Mexico has improved noticeably in the last twenty years—both true—and then writes, “Why would we assume that El Salvador or Honduras can't accomplish as much?” We shouldn't assume that, and the president did not say we should assume that. But neither should we assume that those states will accomplish as much, or—even more relevant to policy questions—that they could do so with some sort of help from the United States. Hiatt is right that we ought to be open to favorable possibilities, but a common problem with the mindset he represents is to focus only on those possibilities, or to focus on them disproportionately more than on the pitfalls and problems. A related tendency is to believe that current conflicts and instability—some of which, within time frames that are politically meaningful, really are intractable—are some sort of aberration that can be smoothed out with enough good will and enough policy smarts and that the countries involved can be returned to a sort of benign state of nature.

Other examples of favorable change that Hiatt cites are South Korea progressing from “an impoverished military dictatorship” and Estonia no longer being “a captive of the Soviet Union.” But even though his column is trying to make a point about U.S. policy, Hiatt says nothing about exactly what sorts of U.S. policy had anything to do with those changes. In the case of South Korea, the big thing the United States did, in addition to years of substantial economic and military assistance, was the beating back of North Korean aggression, aided by China, in the Korean War and the subsequent ensuring, through a mutual security commitment and the stationing of U.S. forces in South Korea, that such aggression would not be repeated. There was never anything like a civil war or violent ethnic or sectarian conflicts within South Korea, and certainly nothing remotely close to U.S. intervention in such internal conflicts. Neither was there anything like such U.S. intervention in Estonia, whose gaining of freedom was one data point in a much larger process of the Soviets' European empire collapsing of its own weight. There was sound policy and deft diplomacy on the part of the George H.W. Bush administration at the time, but that policy was distinguished as much by what it wisely did not try to do as by what it did. Robert Gates, who was deputy national security adviser at the time, later wrote that the smartest thing President Bush did as the Soviet empire crumbled was to “play it cool.”

Outlooks such as Hiatt's obliterate any distinction between the idea that conscious action can be efficacious in resolving conflicts favorably—i.e., that we should not be “fatalistic” about such problems—and the idea that it is the United States that should be taking action. Hiatt says that whether longstanding hatreds are managed or explode “is the result of political choices. It is not a matter of destiny.” Correct, and the political choices that matter above all are those of Mexicans, Koreans, or whoever's conflict it is in the first place.