Blogs: Paul Pillar

Unhelpfully Familiar Responses to the Orlando Shooting

Blame the Public, Too, for Ineffective Interventions

The Fall of ISIS and the Day-After Question

The Safety and Sameness of Hillary Clinton's Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

Clinton's discussion of policy on ISIS reflected the usual Washington approach of just doing more, especially more militarily, in response to such problems without stepping back to ask more fundamental questions about costs, effects, and where major U.S. interests lie. Clinton was correct in asserting that her “plan for defeating ISIS” is more specific and transparent than Trump's. But the “plan” appears to consist of current policies involving diplomacy aimed at settling the Syrian civil war while also saying that the United States should “take out their strongholds in Iraq and Syria by intensifying the air campaign and stepping up our support for Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground.” That all-too-commonly used phrase “take out” disguises a multitude of omissions of figuring out what happens next after such an adversary has been “taken out” and whether such action does anything at all on balance to reduce violence and extremism. The difference between “taking out” an adversary such as ISIS and, as Trump would put it, ”bombing the s—t” out of that adversary may mainly be one of the primness or vulgarity of the expression.

Clinton's overall approach is grounded in that central tenet of Washington conventional wisdom that, as she put it in the speech, “America is an exceptional country,” that “we lead with purpose, and we prevail,” and that “if America doesn’t lead, we leave a vacuum – and that will either cause chaos, or other countries will rush in to fill the void.” The awful metaphor of a vacuum, with the misleading notion that in any troubled place in the world if the United States does not occupy it then bad vapors will whoosh in, has underlain thinking that has repeatedly meant costly trouble for the United States, including in some of the places where U.S. troops are found today.

The longstanding, despite being damaging, conventional wisdom central to Hillary Clinton's thinking on foreign policy mirrors what was laid out at greater length in the recently released report from the Center for New American Security titled “Extending American Power”. As critical readers of that report have noted, it represents a mashing of neoconservatism and liberal interventionism and a recipe for repeating many of the failures that have contributed to the very unease and wishing for change that have helped to build support for Donald Trump, notwithstanding how little he has to contribute in the way of solutions.

This election year evidently is not going to be the year for positive redirection of U.S. national security policy. The first priority needs to be to keep dangerous incoherence out of the White House, because that is where the biggest potential damage to U.S. interests lies. Staying stuck in the rut of conventional wisdom is the relatively safer choice, although it's too bad we won't have a chance for something better.

Image: Hillary Clinton at a rally in North Carolina. Photo by Nathania Johnson, CC BY 2.0.

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Streetcars Named Deception

Paul Pillar

Clinton's discussion of policy on ISIS reflected the usual Washington approach of just doing more, especially more militarily, in response to such problems without stepping back to ask more fundamental questions about costs, effects, and where major U.S. interests lie. Clinton was correct in asserting that her “plan for defeating ISIS” is more specific and transparent than Trump's. But the “plan” appears to consist of current policies involving diplomacy aimed at settling the Syrian civil war while also saying that the United States should “take out their strongholds in Iraq and Syria by intensifying the air campaign and stepping up our support for Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground.” That all-too-commonly used phrase “take out” disguises a multitude of omissions of figuring out what happens next after such an adversary has been “taken out” and whether such action does anything at all on balance to reduce violence and extremism. The difference between “taking out” an adversary such as ISIS and, as Trump would put it, ”bombing the s—t” out of that adversary may mainly be one of the primness or vulgarity of the expression.

Clinton's overall approach is grounded in that central tenet of Washington conventional wisdom that, as she put it in the speech, “America is an exceptional country,” that “we lead with purpose, and we prevail,” and that “if America doesn’t lead, we leave a vacuum – and that will either cause chaos, or other countries will rush in to fill the void.” The awful metaphor of a vacuum, with the misleading notion that in any troubled place in the world if the United States does not occupy it then bad vapors will whoosh in, has underlain thinking that has repeatedly meant costly trouble for the United States, including in some of the places where U.S. troops are found today.

The longstanding, despite being damaging, conventional wisdom central to Hillary Clinton's thinking on foreign policy mirrors what was laid out at greater length in the recently released report from the Center for New American Security titled “Extending American Power”. As critical readers of that report have noted, it represents a mashing of neoconservatism and liberal interventionism and a recipe for repeating many of the failures that have contributed to the very unease and wishing for change that have helped to build support for Donald Trump, notwithstanding how little he has to contribute in the way of solutions.

This election year evidently is not going to be the year for positive redirection of U.S. national security policy. The first priority needs to be to keep dangerous incoherence out of the White House, because that is where the biggest potential damage to U.S. interests lies. Staying stuck in the rut of conventional wisdom is the relatively safer choice, although it's too bad we won't have a chance for something better.

Image: Hillary Clinton at a rally in North Carolina. Photo by Nathania Johnson, CC BY 2.0.

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