The Melancholic Anti-Interventionist

If the systematic application of the desired policy leaves even its proponents bitterly unsatisfied with and haunted by the tragedies and catastrophes it either produces or does nothing to avert, then its prospects may be dim. The main question may be which will prove intolerable first, the growing dissatisfaction, or the next catastrophe.

In “Ending the Mindset Is Hard,” the self-styled progressive foreign policy analyst/journalist Matt Duss credits the President with delivering on a promise first made as nominee: to challenge the “mindset that got us into war [in Iraq].” Yet Duss’s treatment reveals a problematic ambiguity or imprecision in his own preferred alternative to that mindset, or to what he defines as “Washington’s entire way of thinking about American Power”:

That Obama, who has engaged the U.S. militarily in multiple countries… might be considered “anti-interventionist” shows only how wildly tilted the debate has become. Obama is “anti-interventionist” in the same sense that the recent Iranian elections were won by “moderates”—true only in the sense of the limited options available.

For Duss “intervention” is simply another word for “military engagement.” Whether the intervention consists of, say, interdicting a terrorist plot or simply killing terrorists, or aiding a friendly regime against foreign or domestic enemies, or undermining an unfriendly one, or protecting civilians, and so on, would seem to make no difference. Both the general difficulty of adopting and following a truly entirely alternative way of thinking, as well as this peculiar and common imprecision regarding the meaning of “intervention” mark the hesitations regarding “the Obama Doctrine” that Duss, to his great credit, goes on to confess.

Sounding somewhat like former Obama State Department Official Tamara Cofman Wittes, Duss harshly criticizes the President’s “political disengagement from Iraq.” Duss denies the familiar charge of wasting hard-won gains from the 2007 Iraq troop surge – he peremptorily dismisses the notion as “nonsense” – but he does accuse the President of “confounding and tragic” errors:

[B]y taking a hands-off approach, it seems that he did squander the opportunity to use some hard-won knowledge of Iraq to try and ameliorate some of the political divisions that the surge strategy entrenched. The political pullout from Iraq, rather than the military one, in my view, demonstrated the validity of the charge that Obama was over-correcting from the Bush years.

Duss does not pause to consider whether a merely correct correction could also have represented a full repudiation of the bad mindset and its replacement by the good one – among other things by fully divorcing the political from the military practically as well as conceptually – but, when he turns immediately to Obama Syria policy, the opposite to Bush Iraq policy and the near perfect negation of that “entire way of thinking,” his policy analyst’s version of buyer’s remorse has him equally distraught:

Even though I think Obama has been correct to steer clear of the morass, I’m haunted by the possibility that an earlier intervention in Syria could have averted the current catastrophe. …I’m bitterly unsatisfied with the idea that the most powerful country in the world couldn’t have changed the outcome.

The difference between Duss and those nonsensical interventionists seems to be that, when they find themselves “bitterly unsatisfied” in the face of oncoming “catastrophe,” they are moved to action.

The difference between Duss and the President, however, seems merely a difference in affect: “[I]f Obama is similarly haunted, he doesn’t show it.” As for practical alternatives, the ones that might conceivably have prevented the “catastrophe” or the “tragedy,” the good mindset does not seem to allow for any. In Duss’s rendering, its fatalistic passivity extends even to itself:

Obama has not ended the mindset that got us into Iraq, but he’s made progress in changing it… The question, which only time will tell, is whether that change will endure.

If the systematic application of the desired policy leaves even its proponents bitterly unsatisfied with and haunted by the tragedies and catastrophes it either produces or does nothing to avert, then its prospects may be dim. The main question may be which will prove intolerable first, the growing dissatisfaction, or the next catastrophe.


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14 comments on “The Melancholic Anti-Interventionist

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  1. It is difficult to know or understand what is going on behind the military R&D curtain. Very few people understand that most of the worlds nuclear subs have been tracked since the 1980s. Underwater missile technology now has the capacity to strike/disable a nation states entire fleet within a few dozen minutes.

    The Russians are experimenting on the battle field with electronic technology that is shutting down weapon systems from several nations including the US. High capacity thermobarics are probably catching up to low yield nuclear weapons.

    Along with hardware changing, the strategies and tactics are changing. Not only do we have drones, we have drone swarms. High speed rail guns. There is enough change no one is sure what the battlefield will look like 2 years from now.

    To add more, it is difficult to know what the major players know. Do you deploy leading tech or hold it back for a later day.

    I’m no fan of Obama, but at this particular time it’s more chess than checkers. He may be losing political credibility as the time ticks by, but he isn’t losing pawns. The bigger blunders lay in the stirrings within the nation.

  2. OK, Joe Sal’s comments are touching on my previous, poorly organized comment.

    Leaving aside the economic dimensions of neo-imperialism, I wonder if a significant part of the military uniqueness of the US in both sheer size and sophistication, derives from the dream of being the sole nuclear (and generalized to WMD of all sorts) power in the world.

    The clear goal of the hyper technologicalization of US armed forces is to have the power, reach of the US military to WMD levels without using recognized WMD, in a recognizably WMD way. At the same time, the need for actual soldiers to be physically present for the shooting, blowing up etc is greatly reduced. Tele-war if you will.

    But these developments affect the political will to war more in the US, or so the theory goes, (“no actual US soldiers were harmed in this war”) than affecting in a positive way the political conflicts in the bombed, droned, shot at form the sky countries.

    O has greatly expanded not only the use of drones, but the importance of tech in US military doctrine. Still, Syria remains Syria.

    • I’d have to dispute some of those assertions.

      WMD work by “mass” destruction, but the line of development with US weaponry – a few exceptions like thermobaric bombs notwithstanding – has been toward greater precision, which serves several parallel purposes, including the intention or hope at least up through the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts of winning the hearts and minds of non-combatant populations (at home as well as abroad, as a matter of fact). However, there’s more to strategy than weaponry, and not all conflicts or axes of conflict are alike. Petraeus COIN strategy, for example, relied in part on increased “presence” of American military and civilian personnel, in a range of roles beyond “kinetic” combat. (It also turned out that we did not have the patience to execute or test the strategy as designed: It was supposed to need at least 10 years in Iraq, and we gave it a fraction of that.)

      Also, the emphasis on technological advantage in warfare goes back to around the first time one of our forebears crushed someone else’s skull with a rock. If the American way of war has the character now of a “hyper-technologization,” that seems a product of the American age, and nothing I’d attribute specifically to Obama. Ever since the US military determined that it would be “second to none,” it has sought technological advantage as a matter of course, and it has been in the position to seek not just advantage, but something close to un-challengeable superiority in key areas. The intention is to dissuade anyone else even from attempting to compete – to specifically self-reinforcing and generally stabilizing effect – although a byproduct is that the reasons why the US might for example, want or need to dominate the oceans of the world fade from public consciousness and the ability of pro-military politicians and pundits to articulate them begins to atrophy. In order to appreciate the value of a reliable, uninterrupted global resource and supply chain, we may need to experience the effects of its interruption and destabilization.

      My questions regarding Joe’s statements about weapon systems weren’t questions about their existence. I don’t make as much of an effort as I used to to keep up on this stuff in detail, but I’ve been aware of the various technologies and systems his links describe for quite some time. My question had to do with the conclusions he reached.

      • I guess my language wasn’t as clear as I hoped. “The clear goal of the hyper technologicalization of US armed forces is to have the power, reach of the US military to WMD levels without using recognized WMD, in a recognizably WMD way.” That is having WMD impacts of deterrence and destruction of the enemy both without the widespread destruction of entire areas.

        WPD Weapons of precise destruction if you prefer, but the aim is largely the same as the post WWII US dream of nuclear exceptionalism. So yes it predates O. O’s innovation is to scale up the precision (to be precise, precision is somewhat oversold, the dream of precision perhaps) as a way of solving some of the political challenges the US faces.

        So I’m probably agree with Joe. O seems to be developing and using WPD strategically as much as tactically.

        The stabilizing effect of the dominance the US has in conventional armed forces also has a de-stabilizing effect of the emergence of a-symmetric warfare. The WPD are targeted to this as much as anything. It seems as likely that the precision, such as it is, makes us feel better, but leads to a different kind of resentment and hatred toward the US among the populations whom we precise.

        • I think there’s clearly some truth to the idea that we want the strategic benefits of WMD without the rather unfortunate by-products of WMD use – which by-products also make WMD virtually unusable, since, if your only response to an opposition is obliteration of large parts of the landscape and all the people and other living things in and around it, and invitation of counter-obliteration, that kinda hems you in. Even in regard to WMD themselves, greater accuracy means that the main objective (destruction of a missile silo, say) can be achieved via smaller warheads. So, the Russkis needed multi-megaton warheads to do what we could do with with sub-megaton payloads. For some purposes, warheads don’t need any explosive munitions at all.

          I’m just not convinced that Obama has had any unique or more than marginal role in accelerating or focusing this development. It would have provided a path of least resistance for a President McCain or President Romney, too. I think that O’s vast unwillingness – which mirrors the country’s unwillingness – to invest life and limb at all has produced the focus on this particular set of weapons. It’s the only hammer (or one of the very few hammers) we’re willing to use at this time, but it’s also just the latest extension of the general radical heightening of “kill ratios.” Even if a President McCain had double-down on COIN and the Neo-Con project for Iraq, he or his Pentagon would still have been refining drone and other WPD (I like that!) practices and technologies

          A well-trained and -equipped force is expected to enjoy high kill ratios vs. inferior forces, 2 or 20 or 100 to 1, as we are used to seeing in Israeli-Palestinian clashes (and prisoner exchanges!) for example, or as during both Iraq wars. Drone warfare, at least in the short term, seems to offer an infinite (divide-by-zero -> error) kill ratio – but there are, as you note, perverse effects. One is to drive the enemy to develop new types of a-symmetric and indirect response – and to preserve an unintimidated and resentful, hostile population where once upon a time we might have produced relatively docile, fearful and dependent loser-survivors prepared to try something else out (Japan, Germany). The other, connected effect is to raise the question of whether drone warfare is really warfare at all. If you’re not yourself risking your own life, are you really a “soldier” engaged in “combat,” or are you some kind of exterminator, de-humanizing both victim and victimizer?

          Obama and his “kill list” creep us out, but they make perfect sense, moral and otherwise, from another perspective, since non-state actors or terrorists operating outside of the law of war (the war conventions) aren’t worthy enemies. Under old regimes of international law, going back to ancient times, those who did not agree to and operate within the conventions were not subject to their protection either. Upon encountering a pirate, brigand, insurrectionist, and others, a soldier could, and in some situations was expected to, perform summary execution. The confusion over the status and proper treatment of non-state combatants is typical and problematic for the current era in international law – and can be seen as part of the same neo-imperialist project of extending a regime of “universal” human rights all around the globe. We’ve looked at this problem more systematically in past discussions of drones and torture.

          • The technological turn has of course a strong force no matter who is Pres. Some assert that Truman never actually “decided” to use the Bomb, it just had a momentum he didn’t stop. However, tech fits in with O’s preference for negotiation in a particular way. By giving a seemingly middle option between negotiation and “boots on the ground”, it is in O,s foreign policy, a hopefully invisible projection of force.

            Bush had drones available but didn’t use them much outside conventional military operations. O ramped up their use and development pretty quickly.

            • Suspect O’s unique role if any will be for scholars to draw swords over in future years. My recollection is that Bush moved drones and then weaponized drones into the field/sky/space as soon as they were available, unusually quickly for a new weapons system (war does that), and I think the incentives for O to rely on them and other “special” tools would have been as strong for any other successor of W’s.

              • Certainly a rich area for future research.

                But while Bush may have deployed drones quickly, O clearly found in them a weapon that fit his strategic goals, and used it much more than Bush.

                My more speculative thesis is that the more covert (at least to US citizenry) nature of drones allowed him to pursue military goals with less publicity/scrutiny than overt military action would. This allows him to present a more negotiation friendly stance at home and to the world than a more quick recourse to overt action would.

                Bush was not much interested in negotiation generally, and that was part of a previous point I made Bush abandoning nuclear proliferation diplomacy in favor of direct interdiction.

  3. The problem with Syria, (and this may sound unintentionally quite callous) is what is it worth? I think we knew long term the Russians would eventually step in. Our relationship with Turkey is kind of hit and miss. To maintain dominance there is a very real possibility of deploying/revealing new electronic weaponry that is currently unknown.

    O would be looking for a quick win. Even if we stuck to the old hardware, what does a ‘win’ look like? Pushing back on Russia to some unknown degree, with the possibility of sparking a covert-ish escalating warfare with the two largest superpowers. Sending in ground troops to the point the locals want the occupation over asap. Push Turkey into becoming a long term enemy.

    There is also the semantics of which side of the conflict is the most ‘right or correct’ in their position that most aligns with the ideals of America. To start that discussion, one would have to have a clear context of where American ideals are.

    Another failure would look like a leader calling ‘mission accomplished’ while the conflict turns to a larger mess. To emerge a great leader O would need a uncontested win, a big and obvious win-win.

    My conclusion is Syria is a long shot at best, most likely a potential loss in a long list of losses where a win is of high demand.

    • The problem with Syria, (and this may sound unintentionally quite callous) is what is it worth?

      In and for itself, perhaps little except to the Syrians, of course. The question for the Neo-Empire and also for the lesser, generally old-fashioned would-be imperialists who have taken a life and death interest, would be the value of Syria, or the cost of abandoning it, in the larger system of relations and designs.

      I understand that you are aware of this fact, but the mode of questioning tends to favor the narrower view. The implication is somewhat insulting to Obama. To suggest that he would be looking mainly for a “quick win” is like suggesting his main concern was how many votes he’d win for his party by choosing to bomb vs not to bomb – the very opposite of the “statesman”‘s question.

      I make these observations as someone who was all along quite skeptical of the arguments being put forth by pro-interventionists, on the basis of the other problem you describe: their and the Syrian revolutionaries’ inability to align their cause with American ideals, or, somewhat the same thing, to make the Syrian revolutionary cause “our cause.” I think we know or knew what those ideals are (or were) in general terms, and as confirmed for our era during World War II and the Cold War.

      As for the present conjuncture, we can see Syria’s status as the anti-Iraq as a kind of practical experiment – “What if we try virtually nothing rather than excessively something?” – that Obama’s reversal on Assad allowed us to complete. At the same time, that means “What if we try, this time, refusing to extend our sympathies to the potentially unworthy?” Otherwise, there was no “big and obvious win-win” available at any cost Obama and we were willing to pay, if at all. The unwillingness to pay such costs, or to pursue a matter sometimes for less obvious and smaller victories, while facing risks including of failure and “blowback,” according to the American faith that “right makes might,” would sooner or later be an unwillingness to sustain American “leadership” as we have known it.

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