Paul Pillar

Rice and the Toughness Fallacy

The rhetorical drumbeat from rightward portions of the commentariat, to the effect that Russia's moves in Ukraine should be attributed to a supposed pusillanimous “retreat” of American power and to adversaries responding by becoming more aggressive, shows no signs of abating. It continues even though, as Robert Golan-Vilella nicely explains and I have noted, the historical evidence simply does not show that the world works that way and that other governments make foreign policy decisions that way. The impetus for the drumbeat includes broader habits of exceptionalist thinking about American power and the more specific political objective of disparaging Barack Obama by blaming him for just about everything going wrong in the world. The theme regarding the latter objective is that Obama is weak and unassertive—this notion being basically a continuation of the mythical “apology tour” that Mitt Romney used to talk about.

An opinion piece by Condoleezza Rice illustrates another, complementary motivation, which is to try to paint over the failures of past policies that have laid claim to being strong and assertive. Rice's message is a simple one that more military spending, more obduracy, more militancy, and more deployments of armed forces are a good thing, and always will make others cower in the face of U.S. power. There is nary a bit of analysis, even of the limited sort that would fit in the confines of an op ed, as to exactly how any specific policy implied by what she is saying would be, with respect to any of the topics that she quickly mentions, better than the alternatives.

Rice even still seems to be in regime change mode. She says, “ We should reach out to Russian youth, especially students and young professionals...Democratic forces in Russia need to hear American support for their ambitions. They, not Putin, are Russia’s future.” So what conclusion is Putin supposed to draw, and how exactly is that supposed to influence his behavior or the behavior of any adversary anywhere else? Is he going to pull back from Crimea because our “reaching out” would cause his regime to totter? Hardly.

Give Rice credit for having the audacity to try to go on the argumentative offensive on some of the very topics on which she ought to be most defensive. One is the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. The invasion—which was, as with Crimea, a Russian use of military force in a former Soviet republic—is Exhibit A for the proposition that the ostensibly tough policies that Rice favors do not dissuade people like Putin from doing things like that. The invasion occurred in the last year of the George W. Bush administration, after nearly eight years of such policies. Yet Rice would have us believe that by sending U.S. warships to the Black Sea and airlifting Georgian troops back home from Iraq, a Russian goal of toppling the Georgian government was foiled (“an admission made to me by the Russian foreign minister”). She blames the Russian military occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on lily-livered Europeans unwilling to take tougher anti-Russian actions—later exacerbated, of course, by Obama's policies. She makes no mention of just what threat of military action was being communicated by U.S. moves, whether any such threat was credible given the consequences if it were executed, and what those consequences would be (a U.S.-Russian land war in the Caucasus?)

Rice says “signs that we are desperate for a nuclear agreement with Iran cannot be separated from Putin’s recent actions.” That's an odd formulation to begin with, given that Russia is part of the diplomatic coalition, as a partner of the United States, that is negotiating the agreement—so Russia must be just as “desperate.” And if one looks at the negotiations as not just an exercise in demonstrating toughness or weakness but instead in terms of their actual objective of placing strict and verifiable limits on Iran's nuclear program, Rice again is quietly whitewashing recent history. The Bush administration, uninterested in doing any business with Iran, blew an opportunity to limit that program when there were only a fraction of the Iranian centrifuges spinning that there are now. The preliminary agreement reached last November is the farthest-reaching restriction on the Iranian program ever achieved, with only minimal sanctions relief in return. If that's desperation, we need more of it.

In trying to connect assorted messiness in the Middle East to Obama's “retreat,” Rice refers to a “vacuum being filled by extremists such as al-Qaeda reborn in Iraq and Syria.” Al-Qaeda in Iraq was born, nor reborn, as a direct consequence of the Bush administration's war in Iraq. It didn't exist there before, and since the U.S. invasion it never went away. Now, in the form of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS), it has become as well the most extreme participant in the violence in Syria.

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