Thursday, October 30, 2008

Idle Threats Aren't Harmless

Roger Cohen's piece in the NYTimes had this quote from Obama:
Part of our capacity to lead is linked to our capacity to show restraint.


This is precisely my problem with neoconservative foreign policy reasoning. Neoconservatives believe, although Iraq has tempered some of their enthusiasm, that the United States should use all of its diplomatic, economic, and military resources to promote freedom around the world. Promoting freedom and democracy is always and everywhere in the national interests of the United States. Therefore, we need to press despotic regimes and, most importantly, protect fragile, burgeoning democracies around the world.

Withywindle recently offered some advice to Republicans in preparation for an Obama presidency:
Above all, we must be measured in our opposition to Obama's foreign-policy--as much as possible, support him; make our critiques in measured tones; try not to lend aid and comfort to our enemies abroad by our criticism of our president; wish him well in his service of the interests and the ideals of the United States.

Some humility is called for. And, yes, I note that the overwhelming reason people have rejected Republicans is precisely the muscular foreign policy that I prize above all other strands in Republican policy, that I am unlikely to change my belief that a muscular foreign policy is necessary for the survival of America and the West, and therefore that I am not precisely the best example of such humility. But still, it is called for.


These are wise words. Indeed, I think that these are wise words not just from a domestic political tactics point-of-view, but as a guideline for how to adjust the muscular foreign policy Withywindle believes, as I do, is right.

I believe Georgia is the best example of the problem I have with the muscular foreign policy, neoconservative establishment. Georgia, a burgeoning democracy, screwed up and pissed off its next door neighbor. Was Russia waiting for a provocation, any provocation? I believe they were. Nevertheless, the democracy poked the bear because they wrongly believed that the US or NATO or somebody would back them in the event of an attack by Russia. This was a huge miscalculation.

As I have said before, the United States has a stake in promoting freedom and democracy around the world. We should provide moral, diplomatic, and effective economic support to all those who yearn for freedom, but we cannot build true democracies through invasions and we cannot give every democracy carte blanche to call the United States military to save their ass.

Force must only be used in cases where the strategic interests of the United States are threatened. Moreover, the threat of the use of force must only be used in cases where the other side reasonably believes the US might use force. Therefore, the threat of the use of force must only be in cases where the strategic interests of the United States are threatened.

Many people might dismiss the talk of engaging militarily in the Georgia fiasco as harmless, empty rhetoric. I, however, vehemently disagree. We cannot threaten to use force or even talk idly about using force in support of some meta-narrative about protecting democracies. The democracies will believe we mean it. If our bluff gets called by the other side it can only result in two things, neither of which are beneficial: 1) We lose blood and treasure in a fight that wasn't in our strategic interest. 2) We don't respond and we look like chumps.

So, yes. Let's be a friend to all democracies and freedom loving people. Let's support them economically, diplomatically, and morally. But we must only use our military power to further the strategic interests of the United States of America. Oh, but when we use that military power we play for fucking keeps. No pussyfooting around.

Do I think Obama's idea of restraint is the same as mine? No. Is it possible that his idea of restraint is a Carter-esque idiocy? Yes. But he does have a point. Just because the United States can do something militarily to support a democracy does not mean that the United States has to do something militarily to support a democracy. Even though the US didn't truly get involved militarily in the Georgia-Russia battle, there are people who regret not doing so.

NB: I expand this idea that restraint can be a virtue to domestic politics as well. Each party would benefit from curbing the instinct to use every ounce of power and political capital to press their agenda as far as possible after winning an election. The 1994 Republican revolution was, in my view, a response to Clintonian overreach on health care. The 2006 Democratic congressional shift was a response to Republicans pushing too hard. 9/11 distorted the normal give and take between the two parties and the public and delayed the shift. If Obama and the Democratic congress push for every inch of their agenda as forcefully as their partisans want, then the Republicans might well be back in control of congress in 2010. If Obama reins in the most liberal tendencies of his party, then he will be okay. My guess is that he makes the same mistakes as Clinton. He pushes too hard. Is chastened when the congress unexpectedly flips Republican, and then governs more toward the center as a result of both the public's evident displeasure and the governmental impediment of a Republican congress.

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