When Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer published their paper on the Israel lobby eight years ago, one of its openings was that two scholars with prestige status signaled that they were willing to risk the anti-Semite smear. They surely knew the label might be applied to them; still they went ahead with their ideas, which now seem tame (the lobby has a stranglehold on Congress, the lobby pushed for a war); and they were duly tarred as anti-Semites, by some fairly august claimants. But one of the victories of the last year is that both political scientists are not only still on the case, but they seem to have a more respectable following than ever– with Obama reflecting their thinking on Syria. The lesson is that the anti-Semite smear, while a libel that can hurt career and reputation and scare jousters from the field, has lost its sting because it has been thrown around so meretriciously.
Here are two items involving the profs: The neoconservative Lee Smith has anointed Walt the next George Kennan, saying that he is influencing Barack Obama in the same way that Kennan, a Cold War-horse, influenced John Kennedy. Smith wants to hurt Obama by advancing his claim; but Scott McConnell celebrates the synchronicity as a sign of Obama’s realism.
What is the evidence?
After Walt wrote a piece at Foreign Policy saying the U.S. should become an off-shore balancer in the Middle East– “Given this turbulent, complex, and poorly understood situation, the last thing the United States should do is try to play referee or try to impose its preferred political formula on these events”– Obama struck a similar line in his November interview with David Remnick, when he spoke of achieving “geopolitical equilibrium” in the Middle East:
conflicts and competition still exist in the region but… it is contained, it is expressed in ways that don’t exact such an enormous toll on the countries involved, and [it allows] us to work with functioning states to prevent extremists from emerging there.
As for Mearsheimer, the National Interest has published an important piece by the realist scholar that takes on elitist liberal-interventionist ideas more forcefully than any article I’ve read. Called “America Unhinged,” the piece argues that the U.S. has no dog in the Syria fight and no ability to affect the outcome, and– this will be echoed by the left– the price of liberal interventionism has been the loss of civil liberties at home to a national security state and the destruction of American example abroad by the murderous drone attacks.
Here’s some of Mearsheimer’s Syrian argument, in which he says that toppling Assad would make Iran more of a nuclear threat rather than less of a threat.
[T]here is no question that America’s disastrous war in Iraq strengthened Iran’s position in the Middle East, mainly by bringing a Shia-dominated government to power in Baghdad. But Iran is nowhere close to having the capability to become a hegemon in the Gulf. It does not have formidable conventional forces, and nobody worries much about it conquering any of its neighbors, especially because the United States would intervene to stop it.Nor is it clear that Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons. The consensus opinion in the American intelligence community is that it is not. But even if that judgment proves wrong and Iran acquires a nuclear arsenal, it could not use that capability to dominate the Persian Gulf. Nuclear weapons provide states with little offensive capability and thus are ill suited for spreading Iran’s influence in its neighborhood. Furthermore, both Israel and the United States have nuclear weapons and would never tolerate Iran achieving regional hegemony….
no matter how powerful one thinks Iran is today, losing in Syria is not going to diminish its economic or military power in any meaningful way, although it will curtail its regional influence somewhat. But that outcome has two possible consequences for the United States, neither of which is good. One is that Tehran is likely to go to great lengths to keep Assad in power, complicating Washington’s efforts to depose the Syrian leader. However, if Iran does lose in Syria and thinks it is America’s next target for regime change, its incentive to acquire a nuclear deterrent will increase. Thus, toppling Assad is likely to make Iranian nuclear weapons more, not less, likely.
[W]hen I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking…. [O]ur best chance of seeing a decent outcome at this point is to work the state actors who have invested so much in keeping Assad in power—mainly the Iranians and the Russians—as well as working with those who have been financing the opposition to make sure that they’re not creating the kind of extremist force that we saw emerge out of Afghanistan when we were financing the mujahideen.”
Walt also said the U.S. has no real interest in the Syria battle. “[W]e manage to convince ourselves that Iran is a Very Serious Threat to U.S. vital interests. Ditto the constant fretting about minor-league powers like Syria, North Korea, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya, and other so-called ‘rogue states.'”
What follow are extended excerpts of that Mearsheimer piece. Taking sides in Syria only fuels extremism:
The claim that the United States should treat Syria as a core strategic interest because it is a hotbed for terrorism also suffers from a number of flaws. For one thing, terrorism is not a serious enough threat to justify intervening in Syria, especially with military force. Moreover, intervening in countries like Syria is precisely what helps trigger the terrorism problem. Remember that the United States faced no terrorism problem from Syria before the Obama administration threw its weight behind the effort to oust Assad from power. Indeed, Syria helped the United States deal with its terrorism problem after September 11. It gave Washington valuable intelligence about Al Qaeda—information that helped stymie attacks on American targets in Bahrain and Canada—and it was deeply involved in the Bush administration’s program of extraordinary rendition…
By backing the campaign against Assad, the Obama administration has helped turn Syria into a haven for terrorist groups. In fact, groups that loathe the United States dominate the armed opposition to Assad. Moreover, many Western governments now worry because their citizens are flocking to Syria and joining the rebels. The apprehension is that they will become radicalized and return home as full-blown terrorists. Intervening in Syria will just make the terrorism problem there worse, unless, of course, Washington helps Assad defeat the rebels and return to the status quo ante. That is unlikely to happen, however, because Obama is committed to arming the rebels.
But backing the rebels certainly does not solve the terrorism problem, as the most powerful groups are comprised of jihadists who hate America. Furthermore, if the United States gets more deeply involved in the conflict, the actors supporting Assad—Hezbollah, Iran and Russia—are likely to up the ante themselves, increasing the prospect the war will drag on for the foreseeable future. And the longer the civil war lasts, the stronger the jihadists will become within the opposition forces.
Mearsheimer also argues that we can’t end the suffering in Syria by taking sides there:
Another moral argument says the United States should intervene in the Syrian civil war because it is a humanitarian disaster. Many thousands of civilians have died, and the Assad regime has gone so far as to murder people with poison gas. It is deeply regrettable that civilians are dying in Syria, but intervention still makes little sense. There is no compelling rationale for entering the war and no viable strategy for ending it. If anything, American entry into the conflict is likely to prolong the war and increase the suffering.
Syria is in the midst of a brutal civil war, and such conflicts invariably involve large numbers of civilian casualties. That is especially true in cases like Syria, where there are sharp ethnic and religious differences, and where the fighting often takes place in urban areas, increasing the prospects of collateral damage…
IT IS WIDELY BELIEVED in the American national-security establishment that Washington has the capacity to fix the problems that plague countries like Egypt and Syria and that the key to success is to turn those countries into democracies.
This is certainly not true in Syria. The United States has no viable strategy for ending the conflict there, much less turning Syria into a democracy. Indeed, it seems clear that the Obama administration made a fundamental mistake when it opted to try to remove Assad. Washington should have stayed out of Syria’s business and let the Syrian people determine their own political fate, whatever the result….
I found his article most moving on the human costs of the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq:
The fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has exacted a huge price from the U.S. military—especially the army and the Marines. More than 6,700 soldiers have been killed so far in those two conflicts, and over fifty thousand have been wounded in action, about 22 percent with traumatic brain injuries. Furthermore, as always happens in war, many of the combatants are psychological casualties, as they return home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. The Department of Veterans Affairs reported in the fall of 2012 that more than 247,000 veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have been diagnosed with PTSD. Many of those soldiers have served multiple combat tours.
It is hardly surprising that the suicide rate in the U.S. military increased by 80 percent from 2002 to 2009, while the civilian rate increased only 15 percent. And in 2009, veterans of Iraq were twice as likely to be unemployed as the typical American. On top of all that, returning war veterans are roughly four times more likely to face family-related problems like divorce, domestic violence and child abuse than those who stayed out of harm’s way. In short, the small segment of U.S. society that has fought in these recent wars has paid a huge price for its service, while the vast majority of Americans have stayed out of uniform and paid no price at all.
Proponents of the Iraq War like to claim that these human costs are deeply regrettable, but that it is a price that the United States had to pay in the wake of September 11. But Iraq was an unnecessary war:…
He says, Get out of Afghanistan now.
[B]oth of these wars are lost causes. The Iraq that the U.S. military left behind after a decade of occupation is teetering on the brink of civil war, and anger at the United States runs deep among its people as well as its leaders. In Afghanistan, a corrupt and incompetent leader has consistently undermined American efforts to pacify and stabilize that country. There is little doubt that when U.S. troops finally leave, there will be fighting across Afghanistan and the Taliban will emerge as the most powerful force in the land. The herculean efforts of the American military in both Afghanistan and Iraq have been in vain….
The ability to conduct these wars doesn’t merely affect foreign countries. It chills our country too. Notice Mearsheimer’s praise for Snowden and Manning:
An unchecked executive, however, does not simply accumulate great power. It also engages in behavior that involves breaking the law or operating in secrecy, largely to avoid public scrutiny and judicial or congressional review. In this regard, the checks and balances built into the U.S. system encourage executives to act in secret, because that may be the only way to get things done quickly. Leaders do not act this way because they are evil, but because they believe the country’s security demands it. In the tradeoff between security and civil liberties, they almost always come down on the side of security. After all, a country’s highest goal has to be its survival, because if it does not continue it cannot pursue its other goals. Given the exaggerated fear of foreign threats that permeates the American national-security establishment, it is unsurprising that Presidents Bush and Obama have pursued policies that endanger liberal democracy at home.
This tendency toward law breaking and the violation of individual rights explains in part why the executive has a deep affection for secrecy. Both the Bush and Obama administrations engaged in illegal or at least questionable surveillance of American citizens, which they wanted to hide from the public, Congress and the judiciary. This is one reason Obama has seemed so determined to severely punish Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden, and more generally why he has gone to war against reporters and whistle-blowers with unprecedented fervor. The president boasts that he leads “the most transparent administration in history.” If true, it is because of the reporters and whistle-blowers, not Obama, who is deeply committed to government secrecy.
And a policy of assassination overseas makes us criminals and hypocrites in the eyes of the world, except for Afghanistan and Israel.
LET US CONSIDER in more detail how the national-security state threatens America’s liberal political order…
Because it has been impossible for the Obama administration either to prosecute or release the detainees, it appears to have little interest in capturing new prisoners and bringing them to Guantánamo, where they would be subjected to indefinite detention. So instead, Obama apparently decided to assassinate suspected enemy combatants, virtually anywhere they are found. While it may be easier to kill them rather than hold them forever and be criticized for adding to the mess at Guantánamo, the ramifications of this new policy may be even more poisonous.
Drones, of course, play a central role in this assassination strategy. Obama has a kill list known as the “disposition matrix,” and there is a meeting every Tuesday in the White House—it is called “Terror Tuesday”—where the next round of victims is selected. The extent to which the Obama administration has bought into this strategy is reflected in the increased frequency of drone strikes since November 2002, when they first began. Micah Zenko wrote in the Financial Times in May 2013 that there have been “approximately 425 non-battlefield targeted killings (more than 95 per cent by drones). Roughly 50 took place during Mr. Bush’s tenure, and 375 (and counting) under Mr. Obama’s.”
This assassination strategy leaves hardly any room for due process. Indeed, the CIA is authorized to kill young males who are not known to be terrorists, but are merely exhibiting suspicious behavior, whatever that might be…
A comment by former CIA director Michael Hayden in 2012 captures just how misguided Obama’s assassination strategy is: “Right now, there isn’t a government on the planet that agrees with our legal rationale for these operations, except for Afghanistan and maybe Israel.”
What makes these policies even more alarming is that the national-security elites who execute and support them fervently believe in “American exceptionalism.” They are convinced that the United States is morally superior to every other country on earth. It is, so the story goes, the “light of the world,” a shining city on a hill. Americans stand tall and see further than other peoples, as Madeleine Albright put it. These elites obviously do not look in the mirror. But, if they did, they would understand why people all around the world think hypocrites of the first order run American foreign policy…
This line sums up the populist political values of the piece.
Hopefully, the backlash over Syria is a harbinger of things to come, and the public will increasingly put limits on the elites’ penchant for pursuing imperial missions.
P.S. Jeffrey Goldberg once smeared Walt and Mearsheimer as anti-Semites, because he felt that about them, then said later that the Jewish community responded to the scholars in “a defensive crouch.” He has gone into a similar crouch when it comes to boycotting Israel. But he defers to his gut: “I suddenly felt queasy”… and “I find the idea… viscerally offensive.” Defensive crouching, gutchecking– it’s emotional blackmail.