Permit me to indulge today in a bit of speculation, for which I don't have a lot of hard evidence. As I read this article yesterday on Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war, I began to wonder whether U.S. involvement in that conflict isn't more substantial than I have previously thought. And then I did a bit of web surfing and found this story, which seemed to confirm my suspicions. Here's my chain of reasoning:
1. The Syrian conflict has become a proxy fight between the opposition and its various allies (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Turkey, etc.) and Bashar al-Assad's regime and its various outsider supporters (Iran, Russia, Hezbollah).
2. For Washington, this war has become a golden opportunity to inflict a strategic defeat on Iran and its various local allies and thus shift the regional balance of power in a pro-American direction.
3. Israel's calculations are more complicated, given that it had a good working relationship with the Assad regime and is concerned about a failed state emerging next door. But on balance, a conflict that undermines Iran, further divides the Arab/Islamic world, and distracts people from the continued colonization of the West Bank is a net plus. So Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't object if the United States gets more deeply engaged.
4. Consistent with its buck-passing instincts, Barack Obama's administration does not want to play a visible role in the conflict. This is partly because Americans are rightly tired of trying to govern war-torn countries, but also because America isn't very popular in the region and anyone who gets too close to the United States might actually lose popular support. So no boots on the ground, no "no-fly zones," and no big, highly visible shipments of U.S. arms. Instead, Washington can use Qatar and Saudi Arabia as its middlemen, roles they are all too happy to play for their own reasons.
5. Since taking office, Obama has shown a marked preference for covert actions that don't cost too much and don't attract much publicity, combined with energetic efforts to prosecute leakers. So an energetic covert effort in Syria would be consistent with past practice. Although there have been news reports that the CIA is involved in vetting and/or advising some opposition groups, we still don't know just how deeply involved the U.S. government is. (There has been a bit of speculation in the blogosphere that the attack on Benghazi involved "blowback" from the Syrian conflict, but I haven't seen any hard evidence to support this idea.)
6. In this scenario, the Obama administration may secretly welcome the repeated demands for direct U.S. involvement made by war hawks like Sen. John McCain. Rejecting the hawks' demands for airstrikes, "no-fly zones," or overt military aid makes it look like U.S. involvement is actually much smaller than it really is.
To repeat: The above analysis is mostly speculative on my part. I have no concrete evidence that the full scenario sketched above is correct, and I don't know what the level of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war really is. But that's what troubles me: I don't like not knowing what my government is doing, allegedly to make me safer or to advance someone's idea of the "national interest." And if you're an American, neither should you. If the United States is now orchestrating a lot of arms shipments, trying to pick winners among the opposition, sending intelligence information to various militias, and generally meddling in a very complicated and uncertain conflict, don't you think the president owes us a more complete account of what America's public servants are or are not doing, and why?
Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images
Are you a liberal imperialist? Liberal imperialists are like kinder, gentler neoconservatives: Like neocons, they believe it's America's responsibility to right political and humanitarian wrongs around the world, and they're comfortable with the idea of the United States deciding who will run countries such as Libya, Syria, or Afghanistan. Unlike neocons, liberal imperialists embrace and support international institutions (like the United Nations), and they are driven more by concern for human rights than they are by blind nationalism or protecting the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Still, like the neocons, liberal imperialists are eager proponents for using American hard power, even in situations where it might easily do more harm than good. The odd-bedfellow combination of their idealism with neocons' ideology has given us a lot of bad foreign policy over the past decade, especially the decisions to intervene militarily in Iraq or nation-build in Afghanistan, and today's drumbeat to do the same in Syria.
It's not that the United States should never intervene in other countries or that its military should not undertake humanitarian missions (as it did in Indonesia following the Asian tsunami and in Haiti after a damaging earthquake). It should do so, however, only when there are vital national interests at stake or when sending U.S. troops or American arms is overwhelmingly likely to make things better. In short, decisions to intervene need to clear a very high bar and survive hardheaded questioning about what the use of force will actually accomplish.
So while I often sympathize with their intentions, I'm tempted to send all liberal imperialists a sampler cross-stitched with: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." At a minimum, that warning might help them be just a bit more skeptical about the wisdom of their advice. But I'm lousy at needlepoint, so instead today I offer my "10 Warning Signs that You Are a Liberal Imperialist."
#1: You frequently find yourself advocating that the United States send troops, drones, weapons, Special Forces, or combat air patrols to some country that you have never visited, whose language(s) you don't speak, and that you never paid much attention to until bad things started happening there.
#2: You tend to argue that the United States is morally obligated to "do something" rather than just stay out of nasty internecine quarrels in faraway lands. In the global classroom that is our digitized current world, you believe that being a bystander -- even thousands of miles away -- is as bad as being the bully. So you hardly ever find yourself saying that "we should sit this one out."
#3: You think globally and speak, um, globally. You are quick to condemn human rights violations by other governments, but American abuses (e.g., torture, rendition, targeted assassinations, Guantánamo, etc.) and those of America's allies get a pass. You worry privately (and correctly) that aiming your critique homeward might get in the way of a future job.
#4: You are a strong proponent of international law, except when it gets in the way of Doing the Right Thing. Then you emphasize its limitations and explain why the United States doesn't need to be bound by it in this case.
#5: You belong to the respectful chorus of those who publicly praise the service of anyone in the U.S. military, but you would probably discourage your own progeny from pursuing a military career.
#6. Even if you don't know very much about military history, logistics, or modern military operations, you are still convinced that military power can achieve complex political objectives at relatively low cost.
#7: To your credit, you have powerful sympathies for anyone opposing a tyrant. Unfortunately, you tend not to ask whether rebels, exiles, and other anti-regime forces are trying to enlist your support by telling you what they think you want to hear. (Two words: Ahmed Chalabi.)
#8. You are convinced that the desire for freedom is hard-wired into human DNA and that Western-style liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government. Accordingly, you believe that democracy can triumph anywhere -- even in deeply divided societies that have never been democratic before -- if outsiders provide enough help.
#9. You respect the arguments of those who are skeptical about intervening, but you secretly believe that they don't really care about saving human lives.
#10. You believe that if the United States does not try to stop a humanitarian outrage, its credibility as an ally will collapse and its moral authority as a defender of human rights will be tarnished, even if there are no vital strategic interests at stake.
If you are exhibiting some or all of these warning signs, you have two choices. Option #1: You can stick to your guns (literally) and proudly own up to your interventionist proclivities. Option #2: You can admit that you've been swept along by the interventionist tide and seek help. If you choose the latter course, I recommend that you start by reading Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monten's "Forced to Be Free?: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Rarely Leads to Democratization" (International Security, 2013), along with Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan and Peter Van Buren's We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
And if that doesn't work, maybe we need some sort of 12-step program…
MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images
If you're troubled by the Justice Department's recent decision to secretly investigate the Associated Press and other journalists in an overzealous attempt to ferret out the source of some leaked information, you should be. But lost amid the outcry about this attempt to squelch press freedom is its connection to the broader thrust of U.S. foreign policy and our deeply ingrained tendency to exaggerate foreign threats. That tendency goes back at least to the early Cold War, when Dean Acheson told President Harry Truman to sell a proposed aid package to Greece and Turkey by going to Capitol Hill and giving a speech that would "scare the hell out of the American people." And he did.
When people are scared, they are more willing to let their government keep lots of secrets, lest supposed enemies find out about them and exploit them. Never mind that most of the mountains of classified information would be of little value to our foes, even if they got access to them. A population that is scared is also more willing to have the government go after anyone who tries to inform them by leaking information, even when knowing more might help ordinary citizens evaluate whether government programs were working as intended.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support U.S. intervention in other countries, to prevent supposedly bad things from happening there or to prevent leaders we don't like from gaining or retaining power. In most cases, of course, neither U.S. prosperity nor security is directly affected by what happens in these various minor states, but threat-mongers are always good at inventing reasons why the outcome of some local struggle thousands of miles from our shores might actually threaten our prosperity or security. Remember domino theory? Fear, not greed, was the primary motivation behind U.S. interventions in the Korean War, in Iran, in Guatemala, in Lebanon, in Indochina, in the Dominican Republic, in Nicaragua, and in many other places, including more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that same fear that global trends might turn against us leads the United States to maintain a globe-encircling array of military bases and other installations, most of them completely unknown to the citizens whose taxes are paying for them. No other country -- not one! -- seems to think that its security depends on being able to wield lethal force on every single continent.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support various sorts of covert operations, ranging from normal spying to the increasingly far-flung campaign of targeted assassinations and extra-judicial killings that the United States has been conducting for many years now. Never mind that a significant number of innocent foreign civilians have died as a result of these policies or that the net effect of such actions may be to make the problem of terrorism worse over time. It's impossible to know for certain, of course, because the U.S. government won't say exactly what it is doing.
Notice, however, that this cycle is self-reinforcing. The more places the U.S. intervenes, and the dirtier our methods, the more resentment we tend to generate. Sometimes entire populations turn against us (as in Pakistan), sometimes it may only be a small but violent minority. But either possibility creates another potential source of danger and another national security problem to be solved. If a local population doesn't like us very much, for example, then we may have to jump through lots of hoops to keep a supposedly pro-American leader in power.
To make all this work, of course, our leaders have to try to manage what we know and don't know. So they work hard at co-opting journalists and feeding them self-serving information -- which is often surprisingly easy to do -- or they try to keep a lot of what they are really doing classified. And when the country's national security policy is increasingly based on drone strikes, targeted killings, and covert operations -- as it has been under the Obama administration -- then the government has to go after anyone who tries to shed even partial light on all that stuff that most U.S. citizens don't know their government is doing.
Needless to say, it is all justified by the need to keep us safe. As Attorney General Eric Holder put it when asked about the investigation of AP, these leaks "required aggressive action ... They put the American people at risk."
The greater but more subtle danger, however, is that our society gradually acclimates to ever-increasing levels of secrecy and escalating levels of government monitoring, all of it justified by the need to "keep us safe." Instead of accepting that a (very small) amount of risk is inevitable in the modern world, our desire for total safety allows government officials to simultaneously shrink the circle of individual freedoms and to place more and more of what they are doing beyond our purview.
Don't misunderstand me. Civil liberties and press freedoms in the United States are still far greater than in many other countries, and the outcry over the Department of Justice's recent behavior reveals that politicians in both parties are aware that these principles are critical to sustaining a healthy democracy. My concern is that the trend is in the wrong direction and that the current drift -- under the leadership of a supposedly "liberal" president who used to teach Constitutional law! -- is an inevitable consequence of the quasi-imperial global role we have slid into over the past five decades.
In December 1917, in the middle of World War I, British Prime Minister Lloyd George told the editor of the Manchester Guardian that "if the people really knew, this war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know. The correspondents don't write and the censorship would not pass the truth." I sometimes wonder how Americans would react if we really knew everything that our government was doing. Or even just half of it.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
I learned this morning that Kenneth N. Waltz, who was arguably the preeminent theorist of international relations of the postwar period, had passed away at the age of 88. Ken was the author of several enduring classics of the field, including Man, the State, and War (1959), Foreign Policy and Democratic Politics (1967), and Theory of International Politics (1979). His 1980 Adelphi Paper on nuclear proliferation ("The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better"), was also a classic, albeit a controversial one. One of his lesser achievements was chairing my dissertation committee, and he was a source of inspiration throughout my career.
I've written a tribute to Waltz's scholarship before, in the preface to a festschrift for Ken edited by Andrew Hanami. But today I want to celebrate his role as a teacher, based on some remarks I made at the 2010 meeting of the International Studies Association, where Waltz received an award for lifetime achievement. With a few edits, here's what I said back then:
Ken Waltz is widely recognized as one of the preeminent IR scholars of the postwar period, but he was also responsible for training an impressive number of graduate students, including Barry Posen, Stephen Van Evera, Bob Powell, Avery Goldstein, Christopher Layne, Benny Miller, Karen Adams, Shibley Telhami, Jim Fearon, William Rose, Robert Gallucci, Andrew Hanami, and many others. I want to say a few words about what it was like to have him as a teacher and advisor, and why I think he was so effective at it.
First, Ken was trained in political theory and renowned as a theorist of international relations, but he was deeply interested in real-world issues and his example showed us how theory could be used to illuminate crucial policy issues. In addition to his own theoretical work, Ken wrote about Vietnam, nuclear strategy, economic interdependence and globalization, nuclear proliferation, the U.S. defense budget, and even the Rapid Deployment Force. For those of us who were interested in international security affairs, his model was wonderfully liberating. Ken showed that you could be a theorist and a social scientist without joining the "cult of irrelevance" that afflicts so much of academia.
Indeed, Ken's work on these topics underscored why theory is so important. Having lots of facts at one's disposal didn't help if you were thinking about those facts in the wrong way. In a world where most people think theory and practice have little in common, Ken was teaching us that they were inextricably intertwined. That's why he got a lot of things right that others got wrong. He was right about Vietnam, right about which side was winning the Cold War, right about the basic principles of nuclear deterrence, and right about the continued relevance of politics, even in the era of economic "globalization." A little theory can go a long way, and his case, it led in the right direction.
Second, Ken encouraged his students to ask big questions, largely by the force of his own example. Man, the State, and War organizes and critiques several centuries of writing on the causes of war. Theory of International Politics presents a powerful general theory explaining the behavior of self-regarding actors in anarchy. His essay on proliferation attacks the conventional wisdom with ruthless logic, just as his earlier essays on interdependence showed where liberal theories had gone off-course and why power was still central. Ken encouraged us to tackle puzzles whose answers were not immediately available and to be fearless about challenging entrenched orthodoxies.
Third, and perhaps most important, Ken held the bar high and encouraged his students to have equally high standards. The first time I laid eyes on Ken was the orientation meeting for new grad students at Berkeley in 1977. Ken was director of graduate studies that year and had to give the welcoming speech. I don't remember most of what he said, except that he emphasized that grad school took too damn long and that we should all plan on finishing in four years ... or at most five. His message was simple: "Get your coursework done, write your MA paper, pass your qualifying exams ... then write the thesis ... four years! Why wait?" The average at Berkeley in those days was more like seven or eight years, so he was raising the bar from the very start.
I also remember my first day in Poli Sci 223, his graduate seminar in IR theory. I was already convinced that everyone else in the room knew more than I did, and Ken began by setting out his basic ideas about the field and about theory. At one point he made some critical remarks about two professors I had studied with as an undergraduate -- nothing overly disparaging, just some critical comments on their conception of theory -- which immediately made me think that not only did I know less than every one else in the room, everything I had learned up till then was wrong. The real lesson, however, was that grad school was not about learning what other people thought, it was about learning to think for yourself. And Ken gave us the freedom to do that. He never tried to force his students to agree with his views or to write books and articles designed to reinforce his own work or burnish his own reputation.
Fourth, Ken placed great value on writing well. His students are a diverse group -- and certainly none of them are clones of Waltz himself -- but all of them are very clear writers, regardless of which methods or approaches they use. Ken used to tell us to read Fowler's Modern English Usage and Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and he'd give little mini-lectures on his linguisic pet peeves in the middle of a seminar. In Waltz's view, a scholar's first duty is to make it easy for the reader to figure out what you were saying. If the reader is confused, that's probably your fault.
This leads me to my most important encounter with him, which occurred as I was nearing the end of my dissertation. Writing a dissertation for Ken Waltz was intimidating from the start -- remember, his dissertation was Man, the State, and War -- and if you'd read that book and then read Theory of International Politics you knew you were dealing with someone with a razor-sharp ability to cut through a bloated argument and find the jugular. After two years of work I sent Ken the main analytical chapters of my thesis, and all I had left -- or so I thought -- was a short conclusion. Thinking I was nearly done, I accepted a post-doc for the following year.
And then I got a letter back from Ken, giving his comments on the chapters I had sent him earlier that month. His letter began by declaring that he had read the first twenty-five pages with "increasing dismay." "They are terrible," he wrote, and then went on: "Ask yourself why this is so. Were you trying to write too fast, or did you just not know what you were trying to say?" He continued in this vein for a few more paragraphs, making it clear that what I had sent was -- to quote the letter again -- "nowhere near ready to be an acceptable dissertation." His bracing conclusion: "You have to face this squarely, and you are the only one who can fix these problems. So enjoy a busy summer." By the way, there was little P.S. at the end, telling me that he thought it would be an excellent thesis once I had worked out the kinks.
I was basically curled up in a ball under my desk by the time I was finished reading this missive, and it was too early in the day to go for a stiff drink. I didn't enjoy the experience very much at the time, and you might think he was being harsh or even cruel. In fact, Ken had done me an enormous service. He was telling me that there were no short-cuts if I wanted to make a serious scholarly contribution and reminding me that hasty or poorly thought-out work deserved to be treated harshly.
Looking back, I'm grateful that he didn't spare my feelings, and there's a lesson there for all of us. Professors aren't really helping our students when we go easy on them, and students should in fact be grateful when their advisors occasionally take them to the woodshed.
So apart from his extraordinary scholarly achievements, Ken Waltz was also an inspiring and accomplished teacher. I was extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from him, and the study of international politics is much the richer for his remarkable contributions.
Addendum: All I would add to this today is the reminder of Waltz's deep aversion to foolish military excesses. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and was a realist rather than a pacifist. But like Hans Morgenthau, he was an early opponent of the Vietnam War and deeply skeptical of the paranoid threat-inflation that has informed so much of U.S. foreign and defense policy. Like many other realists, he also opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The field of international relations would be better off with more people like Ken, and the world would be better off if more great powers -- especially the United States -- paid more attention to his insights.
I think I have finally figured out the essence of Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy. In a word, he is a "buck-passer." And despite my objections to some of what he is done, I think this approach reveals both a sound grasp of realpolitik and an appreciation of America's highly favorable geopolitical position.
In particular, the bedrock foundation of Obama's foreign policy is his recognition that the United States is very, very secure. That statement doesn't mean we have no interests elsewhere, but none of them are truly imminent or vital and thus they don't require overzealous, precipitous, or heroic responses. There's no peer competitor out there (yet) and apart from the very small risk of nuclear terrorism, there's hardly anything that could happen anywhere in the world that would put U.S. territory or U.S. citizens at serious risk. We will inevitably face occasional tragedies like the recent Boston bombing, but the actual risk that such dangers pose is far less than many other problems (traffic fatalities, industrial accidents, hurricanes, etc.), no matter how much they get hyped by the terror industry and our over-caffeinated media.
Instead, the greatest risk we face as a nation are self-inflicted wounds like the Iraq and Afghan wars or the long-term decline arising from a failue to invest wisely here at home. Recognizing these realities, Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected. Unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists scorn this approach, because they never lose their enthusiasm for new and costly crusades, but most Americans don't seem to mind. Why? Because they recognize what the foreign policy establishment can't admit: What happens in Syria, Mali, most of Central Asia, and even the Korean peninsula just doesn't matter that much to the United States, and the outcome in most of these places won't make Americans poorer or less safe unless Washington does something stupid (like intervening with military force).
After being burned by the Afghan surge (a decision I'll bet he secretly regrets) Obama has become more and more of a buck-passer with the passage of time. He's not an isolationist or even someone who favors drastic retrenchment; he's just the first president in a long while who understands that the United States is already remarkably secure and just doesn't have that much to gain by interfering in the world's trouble spots. He's even smart enough to recognize that having thousands of nuclear weapons isn't necessary for the U.S. to be safe and that we might actually be safer if the number of nukes around the world were lower and better guarded. As a result, he's happy to let local partners bear the main burden and to back them up as necessary.
The exception to the above, which still supports my main point, is his reliance on targeted assasinations of suspected terrorists. This policy is in fact consistent with Obama's basic approach, because the short-term costs are small and it insulates him against any charge of pacifism. Moreover, to the extent that nuclear terrorism is the one scenario where U.S. security could be seriously affected, keeping a full-court press on Al Qaeda (or like-minded groups) is undoubtedly tempting.
I have my doubts about the net benefits of the drone war and targeted assassination program, but the rest of Obama's approach makes eminently good sense to me. Indeed, I wish he could give one of his trademark speeches explaining this logic to the American people. He probably can't, alas, because this sort of realism cuts against the rhetoric of "global leadership" that has been part of the Establishment echo-chamber for decades, not to mention the self-conceit of American exceptionalists. So Obama will continue to sound like his predecessors when he talks about America's global role; he just won't do most of the foolish things that most of them would have. Good for him, and for us.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Every now and then you read about a seemingly minor incident that illuminates an entire way of thinking about international affairs. And sometimes the harsh light of reality exposes the flaws in a popular body of theory, or at least reveals its limits.
Today, for example, the Financial Times reports that China is trying to get the World Bank to water down its annual Doing Business report, which ranks the world's nations by focusing mostly on the efficiency and transparency of the regulatory environment and thus the ease of starting or conducting new business. For what it's worth, Singapore ranks #1 on the list, Hong Kong #2, the United States #4, Taiwan #16, but the rest of the People's Republic of China ends up in the middle of the pack, at #91.
What's the IR theory angle in all this? For the past couple of decades, a number of IR scholars and China experts have argued that the best way to accommodate China's rise was to enmesh it in a wide array of international institutions. These institutions would bind China into an existing set of norms and rules, help "socialize" it into prevailing global practices, and guard against Beijing feeling like it was being excluded or marginalized. This sort of thinking justified the Clinton administration's entire policy of engagement, and especially its lengthy effort to bring China into the World Trade Organization.
There's nothing wrong with including China in existing international institutions, and doing so undoubtedly facilitates day-to-day cooperation on all sorts of mundane international transactions. In this sense, the institutionalist perspective reflected above remains helpful. But it is a mistake to assume that an increasingly powerful China will just passively accept a set of rules and practices that had been developed by the United States and Europe over the past fifty-plus years.
On the contrary, like other great powers, China will use its growing power to try to rewrite international norms and rules in ways that will benefit it. As the FT notes: "The row [over the Doing Business report] is an example of China's growing assertiveness at international bodies and its increased willingness to challenge liberal economic prescriptions."
There's nothing nefarious or imperialistic about such behavior -- at least, not in my book -- because major powers have always tried to rig the rules of global conduct in their favor. You weren't expecting altruism, were you? Or they simply ignore the rules when they turn out to be inconvenient, as the United States did when it went off the gold standard in 1971 or invaded Iraq in 2003. But the fact that such behavior is familiar doesn't mean it will be any less of a problem, and it reminds us that international institutions themselves are at best weak constraints on the behavior of major countries.
In short, if China continues to rise and competition between the United States and China (and others) intensifies, the battleground won't just be confined to the South China Sea, the competition for allies in Asia, or the shadowy world of cyber-espionage. It will also be fought out in the corridors, offices, plenaries, and sidebar meetings at major international institutions. And in these arenas, economic clout and diplomatic skill will count as much or more than aircraft carriers, drones, or sophisticated special forces.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
When they want to find the best in contemporary fiction writing, people often think of The New Yorker, Granta, or any number of small circulation literary magazines. When the subject is foreign policy, however, I'll take the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Apart from maybe running a spell-check program on submissions, it's hard to see any sign that the editors there care about factual accuracy, provided that the piece in question satisfies their hawkish proclivities and other litmus tests.
So here's a little game you can play with one of their recent entries: Andrew Roberts' May 1 piece that invokes various historical examples to justify a preemptive strike by Israel on Iran. Your challenge: How many bald-faced errors can you spot in a single short piece?
First, let's start with the title: "The Case for Preemptive War." In fact, what Roberts is advocating in this piece is not pre-emptive but preventive war, and there is a big difference. A preemptive war is a military campaign launched in anticipation of an imminent enemy attack: You strike first because you know the opponent is getting ready to attack and you want to seize the advantage of striking first. Preventive war, by contrast, is a war launched to take advantage of favorable conditions (such as a favorable balance of power), even though the intended target is not in fact preparing an attack of its own. Preemptive war is sometimes permissible in international law; preventive war is not.
There is of course no serious evidence that Iran is about to attack Israel, and experts even disagree over whether Iran is actively trying to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community still believes there is no active nuclear weapons program underway. So Roberts' entire piece is based on a category mistake, which is not an auspicious way to begin.
Second, Roberts refers to Israel's "successful pre-emptive attacks on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981." These attacks were a tactical success (i.e., the reactor was destroyed) but a strategic failure, as they convinced Saddam Hussein to get serious about developing WMD and to accelerate a covert nuclear weapons program whose full extent we didn't discover until after the 1991 Gulf War. The real lesson for today is that an Israeli preventive attack on Iran might be just the thing to convince the clerical regime that it really does need a genuine nuclear deterrent. That's the policy that Israel adopted back in the late 1950s, when it began its own nuclear program, and that's the lesson Saddam drew in 1981. Why wouldn't the mullahs see it the same way?
Third, Roberts declares that Israel's "preemptive strike" on Egypt in 1967 "saved the Jewish state." This is nonsense. Although Nasser's decision to order the U.N. peacekeepers out of the Sinai and to send part of his army back in was both provocative and foolish, he was not preparing to attack Israel and Egypt's forces in the Sinai were not deployed for offensive action. Strictly speaking, the Six Day War wasn't preemption, though some Israeli leaders may have seen it that way. Israel had more troops arrayed against the Egyptian forces, and U.S. military intelligence correctly predicted that Israel would win easily even if the Egyptians attacked first. No less an Israeli patriot than Menachem Begin described it accurately when he said: "The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him." That attack might have been justified on other grounds -- such as not allowing Nasser to alter the status quo in the Sinai -- but it was not a case of preemption and thus does not support Roberts' case.
(By the way, readers interested in understanding the origins of 1967 war would do well to avoid Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's highly imaginative reconstruction, and rely on more serious scholarly accounts, such as Tom Segev's 1967 or Roland Popp's 2006 article "Stumbling Decidedly into the Six Day War.")
Fourth, most of Roberts' other examples are misleading or inapt, because they are not the "bolt-from-the-blue" acts of preventive war that he is advocating. Instead, the actions he describes -- such as the "Copenhagening" of the Danish fleet by the British in 1807 or the scuttling of the French fleet in Oran in 1940 -- were simply acts of strategic initiative undertaken in the midst of active and open hostilities. As such, they tell us nothing about the wisdom of launching an unprovoked preventive war with Iran today.
Finally, Roberts' entire case rests on the dubious belief that Israel has the military capability to inflict a decisive blow against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. There's little doubt that Israel could damage Iran's enrichment and reprocessing capability. But it cannot destroy the underground facility at Fordow, and it can at best delay Iran's nuclear potential by a few months or years. The fact of the matter is that Iran already knows how to get a nuclear bomb if it ever decides it really wants one, and repeatedly threatening it with regime change and possibly conducting a preventive (not preemptive) strike would be the single best way to convince them to go all-out for a full-fledged nuclear capacity. The only way to prevent an Iranian bomb is to convince the regime that it doesn't need one, but the strategy Roberts recommends would have the opposite effect.
The Wall Street Journal is a distinguished newspaper with an enormous and influential readership, and its reportage is often impressive and fair. But its op-ed page has been off the deep end for as long as I can remember. It should not be forgotten that the Journal's editors and commentators were among the most fervent advocates of invading Iraq, a modest little adventure that didn't turn out so well. All of which suggests that the paper really ought to come with a warning label, or perhaps a color-coding scheme that tells readers when they've left the world of facts and logic and entered into the realm of fiction. Or if that is asking too much, how about a bit of fact-checking?
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
Today's example of sloppy journalism comes from the exalted pages of the New York Times. Here's the key passage, from an article reporting recent poll results showing that the American people are not enthusiastic about intervention in Syria:
"Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll."
Got that? If you're one of those people with doubts about the wisdom of intervening in Syria, you're an "isolationist." At a minimum, you're "exhibiting an isolationist streak."
A degree of prudent skepticism about the wisdom of entering the Syrian morasse is not isolationism, of course. Genuine isolationism would mean severing our security ties with the rest of the world and focusing solely on defending sovereign U.S. territory. Genuine isolationism means ending U.S. alliance commitments in Europe and Asia and telling our various Middle Eastern allies that they were going to have to defend themselves instead of relying on help from Uncle Sam. Genuine isolationism would eliminate the vast military forces that we buy and prepare for overseas intervention and focus instead on defending American soil. Real isolationists favor radical cuts to the defense budget (on the order of 50 percent or more) and would rely on nuclear deterrence and continental defense to preserve U.S. independence. And the most extreme isolationists would favor reducing foreign trade and immigration, getting out of the U.N. and other institutions, and trying to cut the United States off from the rest of the world.
The overwhelming majority of people who have doubts about the wisdom of deeper involvement in Syria -- including yours truly -- are not "isolationist." They are merely sensible people who recognize that we may not have vital interests there, that deeper involvement may not lead to a better outcome and could make things worse, and who believe that the last thing the United States needs to do is to get dragged into yet another nasty sectarian fight in the Arab/Islamic world. But many of these same skeptics still favor American engagement in key strategic areas, support maintaining a strong defense capability, and see some U.S. allies as assets rather than liabilities.
Hawks like to portray opponents of military intervention as "isolationist" because they know it is a discredited political label. Yet there is a coherent case for a more detached and selective approach to U.S. grand strategy, and one reason that our foreign policy establishment works so hard to discredit is their suspicion that a lot of Americans might find it convincing if they weren't constantly being reminded about looming foreign dangers in faraway places. The arguments in favor of a more restrained grand strategy are far from silly, and the approach makes a lot more sense to than neoconservatives' fantasies of global primacy or liberal hawks' fondness for endless quasi-humanitarian efforts to reform whole regions.
Bottom line: The Times did its readers a disservice by using the pejorative term "isolationism" in such a sloppy fashion. As Brad DeLong likes to say: "Why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?"
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.