Friday, May 27, 2016

A policy nightmare

The nightmare of policy makers is a situation where every option appears bad and there is no good outcome in sight for the foreseeable future, and this seems to describe the situation in Syria.  This post by R. Farley on the Obama admin's strategy underscores the point.  There are those who have argued that an early U.S. intervention (without ground forces) would have allowed the Free Syrian Army to topple the Assad regime, but (1) this must remain at least somewhat speculative and (2) as Farley points out, the Obama admin had reasons for fearing what might happen in the wake of a rebel victory.  J. Stacey, who has made the (necessarily counterfactual) argument about early intervention, also contended that a large UN peacekeeping operation would likely have followed the fall of the Assad regime, but, for reasons I gave in a brief exchange with Stacey at Duck of Minerva, I'm not persuaded of this.


Peter T said...

Farley's post was right that Syria offers no good options. I think, though, the strategy reflects a gradual realisation on the part of Obama that the Washington foreign policy establishment basically doesn't have much clue - there are superficial references to foreigners and their doings, but no serious consideration of the limits of US power, the possible counter-moves of other parties or of how things might look from the various foreign POVs (the Stacey article is right down this alley). It would have saved many lives if LBJ had come to the same conclusion earlier.

Having come to this realisation, Obama is cautious, restrained, experimental. He'll back the YPG is the teeth of Turkish objections, keeps the Pentagon and CIA on a tight leash as far as arming the FSA, avoids confrontation with Iran, focusses on ISIS. A policy establishment that was across the realities could do more, but one works with what one has...

LFC said...

Re the clueless for. pol. establishment: if we accept, at least for the sake of argument, your position that they are clueless -- which amounts to saying they're, if not stupid, then blind to certain realities -- then the question becomes: why? After all, many members of the for. pol. establishment these days have extensive scholarly training, up to and incl PhDs, at least some have spent extended periods of time outside the US, at least some can function in languages other than English etc. M. Doran, whom I mentioned in a post in April, cd serve as an example here: phd in 'near eastern studies' from Princeton. In terms of scholarly credentials he's not unique by any means. So accepting your point, the question becomes: how can people who have in some cases spent decades learning, thinking, and writing and in some cases living in their areas of interest (and putative expertise) be so clueless? Is it that there is some amorphous but nonetheless somehow real 'culture of cluelessness' that engulfs the n.e. seaboard, is it unquestioned assumptions, or what?

Stacey wd also be an interesting example (he has a phd from Columbia, I think). But I don't know enough about him or his career to go further.

I also admit that I am somewhat ambivalent for personal reasons about the for. pol. establishment, but I think I prob do much personal navel-gazing here as it is, so I'm not going to elaborate on that.

LFC said...

too much navel-gazing

Peter T said...


Good question. I think the zeitgeist is often stronger than we credit. Recall the often unthinking commitment to national status of the European powers pre-World War I, or the way unquestioned assumptions about Britain's place in the world lingered on for decades after 1945 (at great cost). Or the many things taken for granted in the economics profession - and in the wider economic discourse - that are unsupported by (often contradicted by) empirical observation.

Add in the blinding effect of being the Supreme Power, which usually discounts the many ways adversaries can evade or counter US might, and the contest for influence in Washington, where the policy-makers are not interested in hearing about limits, or the wisdom of inaction. And, I think, the real experts (the ones with local experience, languages etc) are few, and often discounted as biased. It's an old problem - the few CIA experts on the area warned about Vietnam; the China experts ditto on China. Both were disregarded.

Are there other factors at play?

LFC said...

Agree on the strength of the zeitgeist, though I think w/in the for. pol. establishment broadly defined one could identify different positions on the US stance in the world, though they all remain certain parameters of 'respectable' opinion. In terms of academics who have a public profile (of one sort or another), there is what one might call the 'restraint' or 'retrenchment' position at one end of the spectrum and the 'liberal interventionist' position at the other. (The neocons have a few academic adherents but I think not all that many.)

The liberal interventionist position has been the more influential in official circles, representing as it does a rough continuation of the premises that have guided US f.p. since the late 1940s (if not earlier). The end of the C.W. in hindsight was a missed opportunity to rethink some of the basic premises of US f.p. Instead the main lines of existing policy continued.

Btw, though I don't really keep up w the academic IR lit., there was a recent piece in the journal Int'l Security (link in next box) in which the key sentences from the abstract are:

"Although no [NATO] non-expansion pledge was ever codified, U.S. policymakers presented their Soviet counterparts with implicit and informal assurances in 1990 strongly suggesting that NATO would not expand in post–Cold War Europe if the Soviet Union consented to German reunification. The documents also show, however, that the United States used the reunification negotiations to exploit Soviet weaknesses by depicting a mutually acceptable post–Cold War security environment, while actually seeking a system dominated by the United States and opening the door to NATO's eastward expansion."

If correct, this shows that US policy makers in c.1990 were unable to leave the CW mindset. Even though the USSR was collapsing, they sought to "exploit Soviet weaknesses" in service of a US-dominated 'system' rather than seeking to construct a genuinely new 'security architecture' for Europe in which the post-USSR Russia wd be treated as an actual 'partner for peace' (to quote one NATO slogan/program from the period) rather than (potential) adversary. At least that's my gloss on the abstract (I haven't read the article itself).

LFC said...

Link to abstract and article: