The Skeptics

Hawks and Hanging Back

The free-riding tendencies that hawkish foreign policy engenders, examined by Ted Galen Carpenter below, are not limited to our East Asian allies. Two op-eds in this morning’s papers inadvertently reveal the gains America stands to realize by hanging back and letting others take care of their own interests.

A Wall Street Journal editorial proclaims that the “lesson of Libya” is that America is still the indispensable nation. The editors rightly note that it was the prodigious American “tail”—of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, refueling, and precision ammunition stocks—that enabled the European nations to take the lead in providing the “tooth” of NATO’s combat operations over Libya. The Europeans, they conclude, “are still not ready for primetime,” which means that Obama’s relative political detachment was a major threat to American military leadership and the operation’s success.

Meanwhile, a quartet of hawkish former Bush administration officials, led by Elliot Abrams and Eliot Cohen, have taken to the pages of the Washington Post in order to defend Dick Cheney’s honor over the matter of the 2007 Israeli strike against Syrian nuclear targets. The actual point of the op-ed is not so much to defend Cheney’s views, but to laud the efficacy of preventive strikes on suspected nuclear targets in general. After duly noting that there were arguments both for and against the strikes, the entente of El(l)iots rhapsodically conclude:

Ultimately, when President Bush decided against military action, the Israelis took it upon themselves to destroy the reactor. Syria then spent months trying to sanitize the site and stonewall the IAEA — confirmation of its non-peaceful intentions. The Israeli attack in September 2007 was flawless, Syria and North Korea did not lash out, and a dire proliferation threat was eliminated for good. America and the world are safer for it.

Now let me give credit where it is due. Whatever one might say about these operations—and about Libya, at least, I would say a great many vulgarities—they achieved their stated objectives at very low cost. The Qaddafi regime was removed with no boots on the ground. The Syrian “nuclear sites,” whatever their ultimate nature, were destroyed. International backlash was minimal. And in a startling rarity, all of this occurred without America absorbing the military and political costs and risks, at least directly.

The “lesson” to be learned here is that other states can be counted on to look after their own interests when we decline to nanny them. The Journal starts by noting the victory laps that European leaders are presently taking in Tripoli and Benghazi. But they ominously quote a European official wondering, “Will the U.S. keep bailing us out?,” adding that this is “a good question in times of austerity on Capitol Hill.” Yes, it is an excellent question. Since European leaders evidently believe they have gained something from leading this operation, they should be advised that now is the time to invest in the capabilities that underpinned it. They were willing to take on the operation before its success; if pushed, they ought to be willing to prepare for more such “successes” in the future. Humanitarian intervention is a dubious but occasionally exhilarating hobby, akin to mixing motorcycles and malt liquor. And since America managed to avoid providing the drivers, it should make it clear that it no longer can afford to pass out free helmets and Steel Reserve.

Similarly, the arguments justifying Israel’s strike on Syria are often deployed in spades to encourage a more dangerous American attack on Iran. But the Syrian episode shows less about the merits of counter-proliferation than about the willingness of Israel to act alone on behalf of its perceived interests. Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood, and in international politics, paranoia is an occupational hazard. Israel’s leaders have certainly expressed a great deal of apprehension about the meaning of a nuclear Iran. If Tel Aviv feels it is worth absorbing the costs of a strike on Natanz, it is not America’s business to defray them. Nor will Israel shrink from defending its interests on its own, as it has made abundantly clear.

To quote no less an interventionist than Woodrow Wilson, “We have rolling between us and those bitter days across the water three thousand miles of cool and silent ocean.” We can, and should, let “the nations of the world… turn to us for cooler assessment of the elements engaged.” But paying for the bitter tempers and hot-blooded assessments of our allies is unnecessary—since they are clearly willing to step up when they feel there are benefits,—and unwise—since our contribution helps obscure the true costs and risks involved.