Michael Wolraich's picture

    The Valkyries' Lament

    There is something odd about the chorus of criticism against President Obama's foreign policy. Normally, the age-old debate over military intervention revolves around a particular conflict. From WWI to the Iraq War, hawks and doves have always squabbled over the ethics, efficacy, and necessity of attacking a particular enemy at a particular time.

    But Obama's critics haven't focused on any particular conflict or enemy. They speak of the peril in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Ukraine, and the South China Sea. They warn of threats from Putin, Khamenei, Kim Jong-Un, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban, or, more generally, dictators, fanatics, and terrorists. George W. Bush's Axis of Evil has become a Legion of Doom with new enemies, like ISIS, regularly joining the pantheon of international bad guys.

    Though no single foe presents an imminent threat American security, foreign policy pundits argue that Obama's cautious foreign policies embolden our enemies and undermine international stability. Some compare his policies unfavorably to his predecessor's. Others appeal nostalgically to the days when the United States stared down the Soviet Union across the Iron Curtain. But either way, the message is the same: Obama is weak.

    They do not argue that the US should attack all its enemies, of course. Most critics urge Obama to employ American military force to create a credible deterrent. The idea derives from Cold War theories of brinkmanship when the US faced down the Soviet Union in Berlin, Cuba, and other strategic theaters. After the Soviet collapse, interventionists heralded the US as a "hyperpower" that that could and should use the same deterrent effect to impose global stability. They see no limit to what we can achieve by force or threat of force if we have the will do carry it through.

    But the deterrent strategy that worked against the Soviet Union has not worked against smaller regimes and insurgencies, as demonstrated by Serbia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq (twice). In all of these cases, we have had to actually go to war to make a difference. Nor did the deterrent strategy work against such regimes during the Cold War, as we saw in Korea, Vietnam, and even the Falkland Islands.

    Moreover, it was not conventional forces that spooked the Soviets. It was nukes--the imminent threat of unimaginable catastrophe. Before Hiroshima, former military powers like Germany and Japan defied US threats as brazenly as Saddam Hussein. Time and again, the US has been forced to launch massive invasions in order to defeat its opponents.

    Despite American opponents' refusal to back to down, interventionists might still have a point if the US were truly the hyperpower they imagine it to be. But it is not. The history of American warfare since Vietnam has repeatedly proven that overwhelming military often fails achieve the desired end. Even the defeat of a foe does not guarantee that we can create a stable ally, as we are once again discovering in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    When our military fails to achieve its goal, we actually undermine our global influence. Our bungled efforts to pacify the Middle East have underscored the obvious: The US is not a hyperpower. We have failed not because of we lack the will to succeed but because our ambitions are greater than our capabilities.

    That does not mean that we're militarily impotent. As long as war endures in the world, the US may be called to fight, and we can triumph. But we must choose to fight based on a realistic assessment of the need, the cost, and the probability of success.

    Few interventionists speak in such terms. Calling themselves "realists," they sermonize about global credibility, power vacuums, and national security, much as ancient imperialists once spoke of national honor and vital territory. Every war is "necessary," and the interventionists would hurl soldiers and machines like bullets at every target, then blame the pacifists when they miss and splatter on the wall.

    Yet, war is almost never necessary, and it rarely achieves what its proponents promise. Obama has his strengths and weaknesses, but this at least he understands.

    Michael Wolraich is the author of Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics



      Obama doesn't understand it that well, since he dragged us into war in Libya, tried to drag us into war in Syria, and stayed in Afghanistan.


    Yeah, I agree!

    Mike W replies purposefully after you.

    Can you imagine a repub at the helm over the last two years? Hell six years!

    We would be in the middle of 17 damn wars right now!

    Obama has made calculated cost-benefit choices about foreign intervention. I'm not saying that his judgment has always been right, but he does not share the knee-jerk assumption that the US must intervene in every conflict that takes place within some supposed sphere of strategic importance.

      Obama's cost-benefit analysis hasn't prevented him from making war and committing war crimes, so I don't see reason to praise him. He may yet bomb in Iraq.

    "The enemy of my enemy is my enemy's enemy, no more, no less" (Maxim 29). Wolraich is doing an excellent job of criticizing Obama's critics, but I don't see him heaping praise on Obama himself.

      He did seem to compliment Obama for not engaging in military intervention everywhere. I think Obama engages in way too much military intervention.

    One might consider that damning with faint praise.

    Excellent piece Michael, thank you.  

    So much of the criticism, haphazard and diffuse as you note, is a reflection of confusion among the policy makers and shakers about what role it is that the U.S. should be playing in the world.   Although I do think that it is  inappropriate to give a second-term president a bye for everything that was done by his predecessors, I still just cannot help thinking that invading Iraq in 2003 was such an absolute disaster that just keeps on giving.  In short, the world would be a very different place had we not gone into Iraq back then.  But now, among other things and without intending to detract from the human disaster of it all, Iraq is Exhibit A with respect what it is that post Cold War America can do, and more importantly what it cannot do.  

    The world is becoming increasingly perilous.  Russia will not recede into second power status under any circumstances, and Putin will be flexing as he sees fit, and from his perspective and that of many Russians apparently, as he deems justified (with Crimea being a perfect example, but also Georgia before then when Obama wasn't president).   In the Middle East, the Sykes-Picot boundaries are now being shown to be the folly that they were.  China is or will be the preeminent power in Asia and we need to come to grips with that and learn to live with secondary status in that region of the world.  We will leave Afghanistan and from everything I can see the country will be divided and conflicted as it was when we first went in there nearly 14 years ago.

    I'm glad I'm not in Obama's position.  But if I were asked what we should do, I would begin with the question.  What is the United States' role in 21st century international relations?  I'm not sure, but I appreciate that this piece might generate that discussion.  

    My Dad always told me that you can only do what you can do.  Sage advice, but I'm not quite sure how that fits in the realm of international relations.  History doesn't look kindly on those who intervene where they shouldn't have.  Neither does history excuse those who could have acted (in hindsight) but did not.



    Thank you, Bruce. You know, the flip side of the belief that the US can save the world is the belief that the US foreign policy is wrecking the world. The Iraq War may have catalyzed the Mideast unrest, but dual conflict between nationalists and Islamists on one hand and Sunnis and Shiites on the other has been long brewing. I believe that the Arab Spring and all the attending violence would have come sooner or later.

    As you note, the world is changing whether we like it or not. As new powers emerge, our superpower mentality is increasingly detached from reality. I'd like to see us adopt a more humble attitude about foreign affairs. 

    To paraphrase someone you know a bit about.:  "Be humble  but hold on to that big stick?"   Or, "be humble and start by watching what you are doing with that big stick?"

    How about, "Be humble and realize that sometimes a stick is just a stick."

    I think someone is channeling Freud…

    (opencrotchgrab) "I got yer big stick right here" (closecrotchgrab)

    I don't think the world would be a better place without U.S. policy.  But I do think that we could do a better job of not repeating out mistakes.  I'd also argue that while there are times when U.S. initiatives abroad, including use of force, don't wreck the world that they still needlessly wreck American lives.  The self-proclaimed Foreign Policy Community seems to be enjoying a semantic game of downplaying costs at home and abroad as if it's the only way to sell a kind of new soft imperialism.  If that's the only way to sell it, maybe people don't want it.

    The Iraq War may have catalyzed the Mideast unrest

    I thought it was a suicide in Tunisia.

    deterrent strategy (...) has not worked against smaller regimes and insurgencies, as demonstrated by Serbia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq (twice).

    What deterrence did the US have in Rwanda?  It was France who had the troops there. And which side was it that you think the US tried and failed to deter in Syria?   And deterrence did apparently work in Libya and Iran and Syria (the latter in relation to the chemical weapons).

    It was after Obama made clear he was cutting and running that the civil wars got serious in Syria and Iraq.

    Regurgitated GOP partisan propaganda without a shred of truth, from the network for idiots and the willfully brainwashed, Fox News.

    Obama was never 'in' Syria so he couldn't cut and run from it.

    The George W. Bush administration lied us 'in' to invading and occupying Iraq.

    Things weren't 'serious' in Iraq before the invasion.

    They have been 'serious' ever since...

    10 years, $2-3 trillion dollars, and 150,000+ US casualties, including almost 5000 dead....millions of lives lost or destroyed....and neither Iraq, the region nor the world is at all better off for it.

    Conclusion: the US getting 'in' to the Middle East is like throwing a lit cigar into a powder magazine. A mission only for fools or war profiteers.

    Couldn't have said it better myself.  

    BTW, did you get that part upstream about how our President tried to "drag us into war in Libya?"  Because I didn't.  I thought the standard GOP meme was that Obama was a wimp for not going there with guns blazing.  Oh, well...I guess it depends on what uninformed audience they are playing to at the moment...Lurker being just one of a rarified bunch.

      Actually, a considerable number of Republicans wanted to stay out of Libya. There was George Will, for one, and some Congressmen and Senators whose names I now can't remember. The country has been in a pretty dovish mood in recent years.

    Not guilty:  I don't watch Fox News.  Evidently you do, since you know what's in their programming.  So I guess it's your brain that's been rotted.

    Obama was never 'in' Syria so he couldn't cut and run from it.

    I didn't say he was.  I said the civil war in Syria got serious after they saw him cut and run, meaning:  in Iraq.  They were no longer afraid to act.

    I just want to put in my 2 cents here: yes, Lurker is to the right of all of the other (currently) regular commenters at dag†blog, but he displays a reasonable amount of thought in his posts, even if we disagree with those thoughts, and I feel that he's earned our respect for that.

    Disagree. His thinking seems stuck at about 2005, a 'bring 'em on' Republican. If you call that a 'reasonable' amount of thought, you have a very low bar.

    Well then, it should be easy to destroy his arguments with better, more convincing, modern arguments.


    So while we were 'in' Iraq, for almost a decade, terrorists were afraid to act?

    Who killed the 5,000 Americans in Iraq while we were there, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi's?

    There is no will, money or Army to go back in to the region for open ended occupation, in Syria or Iraq.

    Another factor you might consider in your analysis is the demise of the Baath regime in Iraq by U.S. forces. The Syrian regime developed from the same intersection of ideology and circumstance as did the Hussein regime in Iraq. The allies the Syrians used to have in the Arab League have long since fled. Syria absorbed many people from Iraq after the U.S. invasion on the basis of their shared past formation with Iraq. The regime there may well have many reasons to regret that act of charity. This is not a game of Risk but generations of people trying to figure out what they can do with the hand that is given them. The intervention of the U.S. gave to some and took away from others. Sorting out the result is complicated.

    It is all very well to note the pattern of what happens when the U.S. does or does not do something. But such observations are meaningless without tying those actions to the people who actually live in the places we operate amongst. ISIS is as much a product of the U.S. "surge" financing of the Sunni groups in the Iraq war as it is involved in anything "we" did or did not do afterwards. That is not to say the surge was the wrong thing to do when our forces were in the shit. But tactical responses have a strange way of becoming strategic decisions.

    Thank you for those thoughtful remarks.

      I think the civil war in Syria was "serious" from the beginning.  Assad wasn't afraid to kill his subjects before the we withdrew from Iraq.

      Anyway, how much longer would you have stayed in the Iraq quagmire? Forever?

    It's a good question.  I mentioned in another posting that the US has left troops in Germany, Korea and Japan for over 60 years.  What would happen if it withdrew?

    My guesses:  in Germany:  nothing at all.  Korea:  immediate restart of the Korean War, this time with nuclear weapons.  Japan:  very complicated... immediate and huge investment in rearmament, which would kick their economy out of the doldrums and boost the US economy (mainly in munitions) for a short time, followed, after or instead of a war, by some sort of non-aggression pact with China which would divide up the Pacific between them, leaving the US as an Atlantic power....

    When Britain withdrew from its colonies after WW2 the result was often war, civil war, or bloody dictatorship.  60 years later, there are a few bright spots (Singapore, Israel, India) but only after much bloodshed.  Many others have descended into hells (Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Sudan).

    In short:  I don't know.

    A huge difference between Iraq and the Germany/Korea/Japan example is that we are not losing numerous soldiers in Germany/Korea/Japan. We are there with the approval of their government, and with very little risk to our soldiers.

    I tentatively accept that the threat of airstrikes combined with Russian pressure persuaded Assad to give up much of his arsenal of chemical weapons, a limited but real achievement. In Libya's case, it was actual airstrikes. That's war, not deterrence.

    Any other examples? Surely our 50 years as a superpower and 25 more as a so-called hyperpower should offer numerous case studies of effective American deterrence with conventional weapons. Some counterweight to all the times we have failed to get our way by threat of war?

    By "Libya" I didn't mean Ghadaffi's ouster, I meant his renouncing his nuclear programme.

    Any other examples?

    I gave three.  One you misunderstood, one you grudgingly accepted, and one you ignored.  But it's a foolish question.  There's no way of knowing how many wars were deterred by US policy, just as there's no way of knowing how many murders were deterred by the death penalty.  You can only count the wars or murders that were not deterred, the ones that occurred.  You can also count the wars or murders that occurred after the policy was changed and compare them with those before the policy was changed.

    I meant his renouncing his nuclear programme.

    Not that it matters except for us getting to know you better, but are you British?

    No, but I lived there for twenty years.

    "There's no way of knowing how many wars were deterred by US policy"

    Well that's a convenient foundation for spending trillions dollars and destroying tens of thousands of lives. How naive of me to ask for evidence to support an unfalsifiable assertion? (In fact, I would and do pose the same "foolish question" about the death penalty.)

    Barring all those counterfactual would-be wars, I suggest that we can obtain at least some evidence by looking at cases in which the US, directly or via UN and Nato, explicitly threatened an enemy with conventional weapons:

    • Koreas: UN Security Council Resolution 83 (Deterrence failed)
    • Vietnam: Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (Deterrence failed)
    • Gulf War: UN Security Council Resolution 678 (Deterrence failed)
    • Afghanistan: G.W. Bush and Tony Blair demand that Taliban turn over Bin Laden (Deterrence failed)
    • Iraq War: Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of USs Armed Forces Against Iraq (Deterrence failed)
    • Libyan airstrikes: UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (Deterrence failed)
    • Syrian civil war: Obama's "red line" (Deterrence failed, then succeeded)

    I have not included Libya's abandonment of its nuclear program in 2003 because there were no military threats against Libya at that time, only sanctions. Libya didn't even make it into W's Axis of Evil. I have not included Iran's abandonment of its nuclear program because Iran has not abandoned it.

    In short, we have numerous examples in which deterrence failed--at very high cost in dollars and lives--and hardly any evidence of deterrence with conventional weapons succeeding. The counter-evidence is distributed across numerous eras and presidencies, but two of the most spectacular failures (Taliban and Saddam) occurred during the presidency of G. W. Bush, who was supposed to be so war-crazed that the bad guys were pissing themselves.

    Now if you're intellectually committed to the idea that deterrence works, I will never change your mind. You can just keep on inventing counterfactuals that are impossible to falsify. My only hope is that you will take a moment to challenge your own assumptions by asking yourself why, in the absence of evidence, you believe them.

    I have not included Iran's abandonment of its nuclear program because Iran has not abandoned it.

    They did, or at least put it on hold, according to the CIA.

    But you seem to be making the point that conventional weapons never deter wars, or almost never.  That's a very odd position to take, and contrary to common sense.  What's the point of "Speak softly and carry a big stick" if nobody's scared of your stick?

    In 1950 China and North Korea did not have The Bomb;  America did.  But that did not deter them from starting the Korean War.  By your reasoning, that's proof that nuclear weapons also never deter.

    That is almost my point. I would say more specifically that the threat of American intervention with conventional weapons rarely deters foreign military action. The "big stick" maxim makes a nice cartoon, but in practice, it just hasn't worked in most cases. I would not call it common sense to ignore experience that contradicts one's assumptions.

    PS The US did not threaten North Korea or China with nukes during the Korean War, so it's not a counter example to nuclear deterrence. We did threaten them with conventional weapons, yet our overwhelming military superiority did not dissuade them from attacking. 

      If  Lurker is right that we can't know if wars have been deterred, that calls deterrence into question. A theory that can't be proved isn't much use.

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