Isolationism With Drones Is Leading to American Failure

May 18, 2015

The Times of London reported this Sunday that, according to "senior American officials," Saudi Arabia has decided to purchase nuclear weapons "off-the-shelf" from Pakistan.

Whether or not this specific report turns out to be accurate, it is clearly the case that the Gulf Arabs feel betrayed by the Obama administration's facilitation of an Iranian nuclear program, not to mention our slow-motion withdrawal from the role of securing commerce in the Persian Gulf, and our abandonment of an ally in Yemen. It stands to reason that the Gulf Arabs will want nukes of their own, and they have not been shy about broadcasting that fact. So the result of Obama's extension of an olive branch to the mullahs, his pursuit of realignment and peace in the Middle East, is a regional nuclear arms race.

There is a pattern here. In Iraq, Obama and his advisers were persuaded that the most malignant factor on the ground was the United States itself. So we withdrew our troops, effectively to zero. Meanwhile, Syria descended into civil war, and after some initial, ill-considered bluffing, Obama finally showed his hand, which is the same hand he always holds and always plays: He was going to take no effective military action. Local partners would take ownership and solve the problem at a regional level, with our (sparing) support.The combined result of our policies in Iraq and Syria: a Caliphate (it is still worth lingering over how strange, and how horrifying, the reality of that word is) that stretches from the outskirts of Aleppo through the city center of Ramadi. In Europe, Obama (and Secretary Clinton) felt that the bad actor in the U.S.-Russia relationship was the Bush administration. Despite Russia's war with Georgia in 2008, Obama pursued a "reset" in relations with Moscow, and even got caught on a hot mic implying to Putin lieutenant Medvedev that he was willing to work around the wishes of his own electorate to achieve greater détente with Russia. A few short years later, Putin is clearly maneuvering toward an end state where Russian hegemony is re-established in the "near-abroad," and possibly to the point where he challenges the NATO alliance directly.

One could go on, but the pattern doesn't reveal any interesting exceptions elsewhere. Everywhere, American withdrawal and Obama's allergy to military action, or its credible threat, is leading to instability and the rise of powers who hold a rules-based liberal international order in contempt. Obama and his closest advisers looked at the world in January of 2009 and diagnosed its ills as having a common cause: too much American involvement, especially military involvement. After a first term when some voices in the administration pushed elements of policy toward a more moderate track, the last two years have constituted the flourishing of the more extreme view.

It is academically interesting to speculate how much of what has gone wrong is simple incompetence, and how much is driven by ideology. Important decisions seem to involve a heavy role for both: the impromptu drawing of a red line for Assad's use of chemical weapons while speaking to the press was obviously a garden variety mistake. But the agonized decision not to follow through was driven by Obama's allergy to significant American military action, the absence of which is, according to the administration, an actual policy goala confusion of means and ends if ever there was one. The resulting administration grand strategy is not realism, but a kind of loose noninterventionism with just enough pinpoint military action to kill the occasional terrorist and to give Americans a vague sense that something is being done to keep them safe. It is what Joseph Joffe memorably calls "self-containment," or "isolationism with drones."

The prevailing foreign policy view of the American left is that fighting is never the answer. The United States is too morally compromised to serve as the military guardian of a liberal world, and even limited military action for reasonable, just goals leads to ironic, unpredictable consequences. Observe the disasters of the Bush administration, they will say: even if Afghanistan was a "just war," look how that has turned out. Fourteen years later Americans are still fighting the Taliban. Look at Iraq, where liberation led to a brutal insurgency and a sectarian civil war that took years to put down. You can't predict where your initial use of force is going to take you. Better not to use force, except in absolute extremis.

War often does involve ironic reversals, and there has been plenty of mismanagement, by generals and politicians alike, of our recent campaigns. But as a matter of policy, it is worth pointing out that just as military action can have unexpected consequences, so can the avoidance of military action. Failing to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is a choice, just as not intervening in Syria was a choice, just as limply opposing the Islamic State in Iraq is a choice. Obama's vision is that regional powers will shoulder their appropriate burdens and achieve a level of stability with which they can live. Meanwhile, American consciences will be clean, and we can get down to nation building here at home.

I have a terrible feeling that here, too, the outcome will be ironic.