Interventionist Insanity

by Jonah Shepp

Shadi Hamid characterizes Obama’s foreign policy as reflecting a lack of faith in American power:

Obama, far from the prudent technocrat some assume him to be, is a believer in the limits not just of American power (which would be understandable) but American agency, colored by a lack of faith in America’s ability to play a constructive role where religious and ethnic divides are paramount. The president has been surprisingly dismissive of the growing number of former U.S. officials and Middle East and Syria experts who have criticized him for not intervening in Syria more than two and half years ago when less than ten thousand Syrians had died. That Obama appears unwilling to question his original assumptions, despite rapidly changing events on the ground, suggests an insularity and ideological rigidity that surpasses even the Bush administration.

The fact that Syria has gone to shit without American help doesn’t disprove the argument that US intervention wouldn’t solve Syria’s problems. Hamid’s logic here is telling: Obama thought it was a bad idea to intervene in Syria in 2012, and today he thinks it’s still a bad idea (and no evidence has emerged to demonstrate otherwise), therefore Obama is insular and ideologically rigid. After a series of disastrous exercises (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) brought about by an overabundance of faith in American power, where do interventionists like Hamid get off criticizing Obama’s lack of faith in this power as though it were some kind of nebbishy tic? Is that lack of faith not a rational response to repeated demonstrations that there are problems in the world that American power can’t solve? Having “faith” in a course of action that has been repeatedly been demonstrated not to work demonstrates not strength, resolve, or leadership, but rather a failure to see what is in front of one’s face. And lacking faith in it seems pretty smart to me.

Hamid, of course, is on the long list of Libyan war cheerleaders whom Freddie deBoer calls out, wondering when their mea culpas will emerge. I’m not on the public record regarding that intervention, but for what it’s worth, I had serious misgivings about it and wasn’t terribly surprised when it went awry, though I admit I was not sorry to see Qaddafi go and did argue with friends on the far left who believed (still do) that he was a great humanitarian rather than an eccentric narcissist who killed a lot of people and bought off a lot of other people with oil money.

But now, the American Power Caucus has turned its attention to Ukraine, where Walter Russell Mead claims (literally) that the only thing separating us from a “Mad Max world” is a good, old-fashioned US intervention:

America’s choices here (as in the Middle East) are few and they are ugly. We can back Ukraine with enough weapons, money, political will and if necessary air power and boots on the ground to tip the balance on the ground, or we can watch Russia conquer as much of the country as it wants. A Russian victory here won’t be the end; Putin is an empire builder and his goal is to restore the Kremlin power in all the former lands of the USSR, for starters. A Russian win in Ukraine will change the world. Putin’s flagrant violation of every standard of decency and restraint leaves the United States with the choice of confronting him or living in a Mad Max world ruled—if at all—by the law of the jungle.

But as Daniel Larison points out, arming Ukraine wouldn’t actually accomplish very much other than raising the death toll:

It’s telling that no one in favor of arming Ukraine believes that it would do anything more than drag out the conflict. That’s the best-case scenario. It is just as likely that Russia would respond to the arming of Ukraine by Western governments with a much larger attack that inflicts even greater damage on the country. Russia has consistently been willing to go much farther than the U.S. and its allies in terms of what it will risk over Ukraine, and we should assume that will also apply to its response to attempts by Western powers to arm Ukraine. At each stage of the Ukraine crisis, Western governments have pursued their policies there without considering how Russia would respond to them. This has repeatedly put Western governments in the absurd position of provoking reactions from Moscow that they should have expected but failed to anticipate.