They Oughta Do Something

They Oughta Do Something

Sometimes America can't fix everything.

A plebeian plaint one sometimes hears about annoyances in a local community—say, some chronic traffic trouble spot—is that “they” ought to correct the problem. The “they” presumably means someone in a position of governmental authority with the power to take action on the problem in question. Exactly who that someone is does not get specified, even though there might be different levels or branches of government to which that vague description might apply. There also is commonly a failure by those doing the complaining to consider what are the feasible options for doing something, the advantages and disadvantages of those options, and whether the properly empowered authorities have already properly considered the problem and what might be done about it and perhaps have concluded correctly that there isn't anything else that can be done without creating or exacerbating other problems. To complain without considering these other dimensions is a carefree sloughing off of responsibility to someone else—perhaps a someone else about whom one enjoys complaining anyway.

At the national and international level there is, of course, an abundance of problems which one might wish some omnipotent “they” could solve. Many of those problems get discussed here at the National Interest, and some of the best discussions fully consider what alternatives for trying to solve the problem at hand actually exist, and what the costs and benefits of each are. John Allen Gay, for example, appropriately takes to task authors from the self-styled Bipartisan Policy Center for complaining about what they assert would be costs of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon without addressing what the authors themselves pitch as the principal alternative: going to war against Iran. Gay, also appropriately, details many of the costly second- and third-order effects of that alternative.

Actually, Gay treats the BPC task force authors too gently, even if one overlooks the numbers-pulled-from-air quality of their analysis. The argument those authors make centers around the idea that an Iranian nuke would generate regional fears of war, which in turn would cause the price of oil to rise, which in turn would have various other ill economic effects. Think about that for a moment. The reason they say we shouldn't be afraid to go to war with Iran is that an alternative to war is costly because it raises the fear of war. Got that? It's sort of like committing suicide because of fear of death.

The equivalent to “they” in many complaints in American discourse about international affairs seems to mean whoever is the incumbent U.S. administration. And again, there is too often little or no addressing of the feasible alternatives, the advantages and disadvantages of any such alternatives, and whether alternatives have been considered already. Dov Zakheim offers a litany of things to be unhappy about in the Middle East and South Asia—he's right in identifying some nasty messes—and criticizes the Obama administration for not doing something about them. But what, exactly, is the administration supposed to do?

Zakheim's theme is that we need action, not words. But with two of the four internally turbulent places he mentions, Iraq and Egypt, he doesn't suggest any action at all other than more words. “Washington says not a thing,” he says, about Maliki's consolidation of authoritarian power and the continued potential (left over from a previous U.S. intervention) for more upsurges in violence in Iraq. And in Egypt, he says, “the administration still breathes hardly a word about Morsi's excesses.” We are left to wonder about the action-filled alternatives. Send U.S. troops back to Iraq? Engineer a military coup against Morsi? Just guessing.

On Syria, Zakheim does specify an alternative: provide arms to the opposition. He acknowledges that the purpose of fighting off Assad's army and supporters is something the opposition is accomplishing anyway without U.S.-provided arms, but says that without opening up an arms spigot “Washington can expect little by way of thanks from whoever comes to power in Damascus.” That disregards the substantial record demonstrating that gratitude in civil wars simply hasn't worked that way, as well as not mentioning a host of other questions about what effect opening the spigot would have on the duration and bloodiness of this civil war, the nature of the fractured Syrian opposition, and longer term prospects for stability in Syria. Finally on Afghanistan, there are some recommendations about accelerating U.S. troop withdrawals while negotiating a status of forces agreement to permit the indefinite presence of trainers, but it is hard to see any difference from what the administration is doing now.

Zakheim has on other occasions offered astute observations on many other topics, and we could profit from his analysis of some of these unaddressed questions. Maybe he was just trying to be concise.

Taking careful and complete account of alternative possible courses of action, including all the costs and risks involved, is not only important in understanding and dealing with any one foreign policy challenge. Failure to address those dimensions tends to perpetuate the harmful tendency to think of Washington as a kind of global city hall, where “they” are assumed to have the power to fix any problem without creating even greater problems for the United States in the process.