The Washington Post’s neocon editors advocate one regime change after another, oblivious to the death and destruction that their strategies have unleashed across the Mideast and now into Europe and reflecting a lack of realism about what U.S. foreign policy can achieve, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.
By Paul R. Pillar
Fred Hiatt, whose Washington Post editorial page has been beating its drum incessantly for more U.S. intervention in Syria, comes at that same theme from another angle with a signed column that criticizes President Obama’s State of the Union address. Hiatt’s critique illustrates some recurring and fallacious patterns of thought that arise in debate about U.S. intervention and especially military intervention.
Hiatt didn’t like that the President, in Hiatt’s words, reserved any optimism in the speech for America and that “for the rest of the world, Obama was pessimistic, even fatalistic.”
Specific passages in the speech Hiatt cites are one that referred to the Middle East “going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia” and another that noted how “instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world,in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, in parts of Central America, in Africa, and Asia.”
Then Hiatt asks, “Why would a president ask Americans to assume that the problems of Central America, say, are intractable and inevitable?” But the President didn’t say anything about intractability or inevitability. He was merely making an observation about a reality, the sort of reality that, if ignored, can work to the detriment of sound U.S. foreign policy.
Even with insertion of the time frame “for decades”, the President’s observation about what we can expect regarding instability “in” some regions and in “parts of” other places is so safe as to be undebatable. To expect otherwise would be to predict a sweeping, benign transformation of a conflict-prone world the likes of which have never been seen.
Hiatt comments that Costa Rica has been stable for a good while and that the internal situation in Mexico has improved noticeably in the last 20 years, both true, and then writes, “Why would we assume that El Salvador or Honduras can’t accomplish as much?”
We shouldn’t assume that, and the President did not say we should assume that. But neither should we assume that those states will accomplish as much, or, even more relevant to policy questions, that they could do so with some sort of help from the United States.
Hiatt is right that we ought to be open to favorable possibilities, but a common problem with the mindset he represents is to focus only on those possibilities, or to focus on them disproportionately more than on the pitfalls and problems. A related tendency is to believe that current conflicts and instability, some of which, within time frames that are politically meaningful, really are intractable, are some sort of aberration that can be smoothed out with enough good will and enough policy smarts and that the countries involved can be returned to a sort of benign state of nature.
Other examples of favorable change that Hiatt cites are South Korea progressing from “an impoverished military dictatorship” and Estonia no longer being “a captive of the Soviet Union.” But even though his column is trying to make a point about U.S. policy, Hiatt says nothing about exactly what sorts of U.S. policy had anything to do with those changes.
In the case of South Korea, the big thing the United States did, in addition to years of substantial economic and military assistance, was the beating back of North Korean aggression, aided by China, in the Korean War and the subsequent ensuring, through a mutual security commitment and the stationing of U.S. forces in South Korea, that such aggression would not be repeated.
There was never anything like a civil war or violent ethnic or sectarian conflicts within South Korea, and certainly nothing remotely close to U.S. intervention in such internal conflicts. Neither was there anything like such U.S. intervention in Estonia, whose gaining of freedom was one data point in a much larger process of the Soviets’ European empire collapsing of its own weight.
There was sound policy and deft diplomacy on the part of the George H.W. Bush administration at the time, but that policy was distinguished as much by what it wisely did not try to do as by what it did. Robert Gates, who was deputy national security adviser at the time, later wrote that the smartest thing President Bush did as the Soviet empire crumbled was to “play it cool.”
Outlooks such as Hiatt’s obliterate any distinction between the idea that conscious action can be efficacious in resolving conflicts favorably, i.e., that we should not be “fatalistic” about such problems, and the idea that it is the United States that should be taking action.
Hiatt says that whether longstanding hatreds are managed or explode “is the result of political choices. It is not a matter of destiny.” Correct, and the political choices that matter above all are those of Mexicans, Koreans, or whoever’s conflict it is in the first place.
Referring to the cases of South Korea and Estonia, Hiatt writes that “it was the U.S. commitment to a peaceful democratic future … that paved the way for their success.” This vague formulation could mean either of two things, both of which also are characteristic of the interventionist position that the columnist represents.
One is to disguise a push for some specific measure (e.g., conduct U.S. combat air operations against the Assad regime) whose costs and risks may be all too apparent by making an exhortation for something more apple pie-ish (e.g., a “peaceful democratic future”) with the costs and risks being less obvious.
The other possibility is that Hiatt is referring just to “commitment” in the sense of expressing such a commitment, as leaders do in speeches (and it is a speech that in the first instance is what he is criticizing). That sort of approach also has become typical of much of the criticism of related policies of the Obama administration, such as the silly demand that the President say the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” as if that is somehow going to save lives from terrorism.
No matter how loudly or eloquently a leader utters a commitment or a popular phrase, speeches do not remove real obstacles and pitfalls on the ground.
A final fallacy is the apparent belief that polities and societies across the world are so homogeneous that whatever works in one place ought to work in another. Referring again to the Korean and Estonian cases, Hiatt writes, “Why would Obama set his sights lower for Afghanistan or Africa?”
If the President were indeed “setting sights” lower, it would be because of the enormous differences in political culture, ethnic geography, economic development, and much else that makes what is achievable in the way of resolving or managing conflicts in one place much different from what is possible in another place, and especially what is achievable in building stable democracies.
Hiatt repeats the same themes about Syria that he and his editorial staff have been repeating ad infinitum. There is the familiar and casual counterfactual assertion that if only a “modest intervention” had been undertaken earlier then we would be seeing nothing like the complicated and debilitating conflict that besets Syria today, but without any explanation as to why the roots of the conflict, involving such matters as sectarian divisions and legitimacy issues, would have been any more possible to overcome with a “modest intervention” on one date rather than another.
There is just the statement that the “modest intervention” would have been “to forestall a civil war that might spin out of control”, as if what Syria had before was a “controlled” civil war, or as if it were ever within in the power of the United States to “control” such things.
It surely would be nice if Honduras were just like Costa Rica, if Syria were just like Estonia, and if expressions of optimism by U.S. presidents about the possibility of felicitous change overseas could make such change happen. If that were so, making U.S. foreign policy would be a whole lot easier. But that’s not the way the world works.
Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)