The Audacity of Hope: Studies in American Foreign Policy

From this morning’s New York Times, “Obama to Send 1,500 More Troops to Assist Iraq“:

Since the departure of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the former Iraqi prime minister, American officials have been far more vocal about blaming him for what is widely viewed as a dismal initial performance by the Iraqi military against the Islamic State. On Friday, Admiral Kirby said that the new Iraqi government under Mr. Abadi has shown a new willingness to work to engage Sunni groups, including in Anbar, and to train its soldiers to stand and fight.

“We did spend a lot of money and effort training the Iraqi Army,” Admiral Kirby said. “When we left them in 2011, we left them capable.” He said the Maliki government “squandered” the American military’s training of Iraqi troops, but expressed optimism that things will be different now. “This is a completely different game,” he said, pointing to a recent visit by Mr. Abadi to Anbar Province to engage Sunni leaders in the fight against the Islamic State.

Administration officials said they expect international allies will help in the training effort and announced a commitment Friday of 120 military personnel from Denmark to the cause.

As usual, American foreign policy mostly defies comment: the best case against it is simply to quote its champions, and leave it at that. I’d call Kirby’s comments a reductio, but  there’s no room for a “reduction” to absurdity if you begin there. Read the rest of the article for lots more absurdity.

Perhaps our policy-makers would do better to stop thinking of warfare on the analogy of a game? When I was an undergraduate IR student back in the day, I used to wonder whether anyone honestly believed that warfare could be “modeled” on game theory. I mean, was trench warfare during World War I really just a series of iterated Prisoner’s Dilemmas, as Robert Axelrod had supposedly “taught us”? (I’d be rich if I had a nickel for the number of times the Axelrodian mantra was recited to us.) We weren’t supposed to ask “naive” questions like that, so I mostly kept quiet. The older I get, I suppose, the more naive I get, and the more inclined to ask “dumb questions” about the verities I was once taught with such confidence (I’m happy to note that occasionally, one gets answers by this method). Of course, sometimes the naivete of youth is indistinguishable from the despair of middle age:

3 thoughts on “The Audacity of Hope: Studies in American Foreign Policy

  1. Agreed on all counts. Now here is a related question. What is the correct explanation of our foreign policy in that region right now? I’m assuming that there is some kind of explanation, but not that it is a simple one. There is the obvious interest in the oil in the region, but is that the whole story? There is also the way in which manufactured threats from abroad distract people’s attention from problems at home. There is the good old military-industrial complex that needs feeding, as always. But what do you think? As someone who has studied some IR, do you have a guess as to the correct explanation of our present policy?


    • I don’t have a full explanation, but I think I can identify a few elements that a full explanation would have to integrate.

      One is, as you say, access to oil. It’s been an axiom of U.S. foreign policy since at least World War II that the United States must do what it takes to ensure that the Near Eastern oilfields remain in hands that are in some sense “reliable.” The current crisis in Syria and Iraq is the outgrowth of policies stretching back to the Reagan years. Reagan tilted for Saddam against Iran; Bush I attacked Iraq to defend Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; the post-war agreements of 1991 gave us an essentially permanent military presence in the Arabian peninsula; that furnished the pretext for the 9/11 attacks, which heightened worries about unfinished business with Saddam; that led to the 2003 Gulf War; and the current ISIS situation is an unintended consequence of that war. The first two moves can be explained in large part by reference to a desire to protect the oil supplies; the other moves are path-dependencies highly influenced (though not fully explained) by the earlier moves.

      A second element is the pro-Israel bias of US foreign policy. That issue has been comprehensively covered in Mearsheimer and Walt’s The Israel Lobby (Walt was my undergraduate intro IR professor), and I essentially agree with what they say.

      A third element is the continuing, never-abandoned influence of containment theory a la George Kennan’s “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Kennan’s thesis was that Soviet power had to be “contained”: “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” Now consider the influence of people like Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis on our foreign policy establishment over the last several decades. If you substitute “Islamist” for “Russian” you get a version of the same essential doctrine. The problem is that the doctrine in either form is totally uninformative. The metaphor of “containment” presupposes boundaries which you have the right to police. What are they? How are they set? IR has no answers, and if you join its lack of answers to a natural fear of terrorism and a conception of the state as unlimited by any firm boundaries of its own, you get a recipe for perpetual intervention under the rubric of “containment”–with the boundaries shifting with shifts in the ideological winds. Closely related to this is the fact that IR theorists habitually assume that the state ought to pursue “the national interest,” but cannot be bothered to give an account of what an “interest” is.

      A fourth element is path-dependency. If you pursue policies of a certain kind for long enough, they become habituated or else it becomes prohibitively costly to make a radical departure from them. At some level, I think Obama may have been sincere about wanting to change course from Bush (Bush himself claimed to be an isolationist before 9/11) but when faced with the costs, decided he couldn’t incur them.

      A fifth element is the unbelievable passivity of the American people. If they were more engaged (and against intervention), anti-interventionist politicians would have less to worry about in the way of incurring political costs. But they’re content to regard American interventions as though they were like Olympic sports events–moderately interesting events taking place abroad that generate sporadic spectatorial interest at home.

      Those five elements aren’t an integrated explanation, and they don’t explain everything, but I think they’d be a prominent part of any good explanation.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: 503+ Boots on the Ground and Counting | Policy of Truth

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