As Syria burns, Iran negotiations drag on and Ukraine melts down, the absence of decisive US action just about anywhere is causing great heartburn to the strategic mindset that brought you Iraq, Libya and other nation-building successes. US and EU helplessness in the face of Russian intervention in the Ukraine has turned that into an ulcer.
Two recent laments come to mind. The first comes from the AEI’s Michael Rubin who, in an Outlook piece in the Washington Post, warns about the dangers of negotiating with bad guys. The other comes from ubiquitous Harvard know-it-all Niall Ferguson, who ponders Obama’s failure to lead in the Wall Street Journal.
Both men seize on Obama’s inconsistency and inconstancy, implying—though neither comes out and says it—that muscularity by the Great White Father can solve the problem. Implicit also is the converse: restraint equals weakness. Both combine to offer an amazing case of historical amnesia, willful ignorance or nostalgia passing for strategy. A synopsis of this mindset is: when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
To be sure, Obama’s foreign policy offers a target-rich environment. Befuddled by the Arab Awakening, the current administration has taken successive positions on Egypt—all to little effect. And when the president of the United States says Assad “must go,” but has no idea how to achieve this (and later does nothing when Assad crosses the chemical-weapons red line)—well, it does not inspire confidence. And in regard to Ukraine, one might wonder what decisive steps did George W. Bush took when Moscow flexed its military muscle in similar way Georgia.
Beware of Bad Guys
Rubin warns about “dancing with the devil”—the title of his new book—and uses the demonizing term “rogue regimes” to describe a clutch of nefarious actors. He makes useful points about how countries like North Korea or Iran can use negotiations as a delaying tactic or to extract concessions. And he is not entirely wrong to see negotiations as a jobs issue for US diplomats, who sometimes may want to talk for the sake of talking: Think of all the greenhouse gas emissions which have been generated during successive UN climate talks with sparse results.
But underneath this lies a strange idea—that we are so exceptionally wonderful that just talking to the United States is a high honor and privilege. The idea, so prevalent in the George W. Bush administration we served, is that diplomacy is not just a tool to achieve policy objectives but a reward that can legitimize bad guys. Almost never does this approach lead to problem solving.
There may be cases where an actor is so bad and incorrigible that the only useful step is to isolate them (think Mugabe in Zimbabwe or apartheid South Africa.). But it is almost never an either/or proposition: Iran and North Korea both show how sanctions and diplomacy can be employed simultaneously. With North Korea, Obama—to his credit—ended talks after Pyongyang’s provocative behavior (nuclear and missile tests, sinking a South Korean ship) made it clear that Pyongyang had no intention of yielding their nuclear weapons. And it would obviously make little sense to negotiate with, nihilistic, suicidal terrorists—although even the most venal and evil can be induced to talk, even as we fight and isolate them.
If you are concerned about nuclear proliferation or territorial disputes, what alternative exists beside negotiation? Unless you are a mind reader, diplomacy can be a useful means of testing intentions. As former Israeli prime minister said, “you don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies.”
Global Retreat or Prudent Retrenchment?
Ferguson’s theme boils down to this: Obama is presiding over US global retreat. He claims Obama’s foreign policy mirrors in geopolitical terms the Federal Reserve’s “tapering” of expansive monetary policy, “a fundamental shift…in the national security strategy of the US.”
Citing Obama’s frequently empty “red line” threats is easy and not unfair. Yet Ferguson seems oblivious to the after effect of the winding down of two, decade-long wars (costing over $1 trillion and much blood, but with—at best—ambiguous outcomes). War-weariness is palpable, and the American public is now more alert than before to the folly of “nation-building.“ But retrenchment is not necessarily isolationism.
It is in regard to the Middle East that Ferguson enters the realm of the absurd. “Syria,” he argues, “has been one of the great fiascoes of post-World War II American foreign policy.” Really? Do the words Vietnam or Iraq mean anything to him? In fact he argues that, “the result of this U.S. inaction [in Syria] is a disaster.”