What about dealing with the worst-case scenario by trusting to deterrence and assuming that even if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons the fear of retaliation would prevent it from attacking Israel or the United States? The critics’ rejoinder involves conjuring up images of crazy Shiites intent on venturing into Apocalypse in quest of martyrdom and eternal glory. They’re just different from “us” is the underlying assumption. So, however, were Stalin and Mao, and the latter once reportedly claimed that China, with its huge population, would survive a nuclear war. Yet the deadly logic of deterrence certainly persuaded them. Ditto Stalin’s successors, despite Cold War tracts by American strategists warning that Soviet military doctrine featured the belief that a nuclear war would be fought, and won.
This is not to say there won’t be difficult, perhaps fruitless, negotiations with Iran. But what’s absent from the hard-line Obama-is-weak-and-naïve case is any clear way forward, apart from war given the insistence on a total solution. The American public, by contrast, is less hawkish. Polls taken over the last few years do show that more Americans support striking Iran (the range typically extends from 42 to 56 percent) if there is evidence that it is building nuclear weapons than oppose such action; though a majority (70 percent) favors a diplomatic solution. A November 2013 Reuters/IPSOS survey showed that 44 percent backed Obama’s interim agreement with Tehran, while 22 percent opposed it, and that only 20 percent favored the use of force even if the negotiations collapsed.
On Syria, where the neoconservative–liberal internationalist alliance is most evident, the President is enjoined by his detractors to arm the anti-Assad insurgents. But the key question of how to ensure that only the good guys in the anti-Assad resistance end up with the weapons is never answered, never mind the bewildering array and varying ideological orientations of groups fighting in Syria. And what if Iran and Russia—the former has a lot more at stake in Syria than the US does and is supplying Assad arms and fighters—double down and the position of the resistance groups America backs faces defeat?
Air strikes? Some interventionists argue for that. Ground troops if that doesn’t work? Most oppose the latter move, but then don’t say what they’d do if air power couldn’t do the job. What of the polls in the US and Europe showing that support for military intervention in Syria has decreased even as the killing has increased, not the other way around? This seems not to matter. A recent piece by a prominent liberal internationalist, and a key supporter of the Iraq war, skates over these unknowns. But unknowns are worth contemplating. The Iraq war demolished Saddam’s odious regime only to bring forth a country that’s ravaged by civil war and suicide bombings, is an Al Qaeda bastion, and could even fall apart, creating incalculable consequences. The lessons of that venture apparently don’t matter; what does is that we do something.
Finally, let’s turn to East Asia’s island fracas. The United States maintains a substantial military presence in the North Pacific and can deter a Chinese attack on Japan and South Korea, though neither dénouement is likely, especially the second. Yet the reality is that China’s massive military purchases from Russia and its own military modernization have increased markedly the risk that the United States will have to take to impose its will on China in its neighborhood. There’s certainly a case to be made that those risks must be run given existing treaty obligations to states Washington has pledged to protect, and in any event a Chinese attack on Japan or South Korea could kill American soldiers, who are stationed there in the tens of thousands. But is there a case to risk war with China over a bunch of rocks, even if they lie athwart important sea-lanes and about fishing grounds and energy deposits? Besides, how credible would such a threat be to Beijing?
If war is not what the critics advocate as a last resort to back friends embroiled in disputes with China over outcroppings, then what do they propose? The recommendations would appear to be more American firepower in the region and tougher talk. But that won’t fix the fundamental asymmetry that will remain between risks and stakes, to say nothing of the financial challenge of boosting defense spending at a time when we have at best an anemic economic recovery.
So yes, the critics do see a common thread running through these various flashpoints, actual or potential: it’s the failure of American leadership, which has emboldened enemies and frightened friends. Leave aside the validity of their dubious claim. The bigger problem is that rather than providing alternative policies that are clear-headed, what they offer are froth-laden banalities or proposals born of impoverished thinking that could produce results worse than the ones that occasion their jeremiads.
Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the Colin Powell School, City College of New York/City University of New York, and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.