‘The Hell of Good Intentions’, A Review

hell of good intentions

Stephen Walt was one of the most influential contemporary international relations theorists to me when I first entered the field of IR as a Master’s student over a decade ago. Of the currently active crop of IR thinkers he remains my favorite, so it should be no surprise that the coming of his newest book, ‘The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy’ was an instant acquisition for my massive nonfiction library. Though Walt and I have diverged on some issues in the past few years, our overall diagnoses of both what ails the US foreign policy mainstream as well as what to do about it remains extremely similar.

I am not going to go over the details of the book as many of its themes have been covered on this blog multiple times already. From the incestuous navel gazing of the Court Eunuchs of the Beltway ghoul class to the virtues of America’s fortuitous geography in its rise and options towards grand strategy, to the virtues of offshore balancing to those lucky enough to be able to practice it, all can be found here in various posts. If you know many of my bugbears you can guess what are Walt’s, and vice-versa.

What I will do, however, is review how good a case Walt makes for covering this topic as a single book meant for a large audience. Unsurprisingly, this book is meant for a similar audience as the very one it rightly criticizes. This means Walt takes a very different tactic than I do. Whereas I tend to go after people outside-of-the Beltway and show how the fables of liberal hegemony are directly counter to someone’s interests, Walt wants to convince those who are a bit more integrated into these elite circles. This is not a criticism of mine, as its important to be firing on all cylinders here. I am merely acknowledging that if he is the Martin Luther King Jr of foreign policy realism than I am more the Huey Newton-to use a somewhat tortured and tongue in cheek analogy. I try to convince people who are non-centrist independents, the few sane paleocons, and leftists and he goes more for the liberals and centrists.

Keeping this in mind, Walt does an excellent job. Not only does he wage a thorough and quite multi-topical demolition of both the record of our very own Late Ming court eunuch equivalents whose lanyards are the modern version of the old quill said eunuchs once used to hold in their piss (analogy once again mine), but also the long term effects of these luxury wars we have found ourselves in. For someone who is sometimes (unjustly) criticized in academic circles for ignoring domestic factors and how they shape foreign policy, it is worth pointing out that, so far, this book seems to have little in the way of big newspaper reviews. Quite possibly because it also criticizes the general neoconservative/liberal bias of major legacy papers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times’ op-ed section. Had this book come out in the twilight of the cursed Bush II presidency I have no doubt it would have been given more media attention, but in a world where both parties now identify openly with unthinking hawkishness-from Trump embracing Pompeo and Bolton to the Democrats rallying around the flag of the national security state and even bizarrely ex-Bush Junior officials-there is little mainstream attention paid to this work so far despite the fact that Walt is a distinguished and well known scholar in the field.

Fascinating that. I’m sure its just a coincidence.

Needless to say, this is *the* work to get your foreign policy orthodoxy questioning people to engage with series realist critiques of both the present system and what to do about it. The book even helpfully closes out a useful list of talking points and arguments that could be deployed to make the case for a more restrained offshore balancing strategy. Worth keeping around to push the needle especially as a reckoning with the establishment must be only one or two more of their failures away.

My only real critiques of the text as follows:

While Walt does mention how the Lanyard Ghoul (once again, my phraseology) class has an intrinsic reason to back mindlessly hawkish policies due to them making money and status off of such policies, he only barely mentions the privatization and for profit militarization of much of the DoD in the past few decades. This is not something that could be easily reversed without major structural reform not only of The Pentagon, but also our entire political-economic system as it presently stands. This, along with environmental issues, are some of the reasons being a realist actually made me evolve more structurally left wing positions over time. Also, when living in DC, as I currently do, one sees how this recession-proof city really functions as more and more ‘Beltway Bandits’ move in with the attached monstrous apartment complexes clearly designed for pod people in tow. In DC the policy is made, and DC itself is increasingly economically reliant on what Eisenhower once called ‘the military-industrial complex’….except that now said complex has a profit motive above all, and thus far less reasons to uphold the national interest first. This entails not only many jobs that rely directly on the perpetuation of bad policies to exist, but also an army of lobbyists to see that their voices are disproportionately heard in government.

My second criticism is just a minor oversight but one worth mentioning. Walt rightly bemoans the lack of foreign policy focused elected leadership in office currently. While I agree with the argument overall, and also with his complaint that the cause suffers when certain people from a family with the last name of ‘Paul’ do much of the public speaking on its behalf, he is missing one very persistent and vocal figure in congress: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. The entire reason she has managed to restore realist and restraint positions to the discourse is because she is charismatic and is a rare figure focused on foreign affairs. Personally, I would love to see Walt support her mission in congress as congruent to his own.

 

Will Taiwan Fight?

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It is the nightmare scenario of policy planners in Beijing and Washington alike. It is the hypothetical that keeps many an IR scholar pondering the many ramifications and dangers. It is a war over Taiwan.

To the fellow traveler interested in world history, Taiwan’s ambiguous status on the world stage is hardly a new thing. The island was one of main progenitor points of Polynesian culture and eventually would attract a Dutch trading fort due to its simultaneous remoteness to dense population but also close proximity to China proper. The Dutch would in turn be evicted by Ming Dynasty loyalists fleeing the collapse of their government and the birth of the new Manchurian Qing Dynasty. Once the pirate base for Ming loyalists was subdued the Qing recognized the need to incorporate this nearby landmass firmly into their state.

After the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 the island’s ownership was transferred to Japan and Taiwan soon became the new Japanese Empire’s first major overseas possession (that wasn’t under the assumption of one day becoming a home island). The Japanese met significant resistance from the native population (though not the Chinese already there) and would eventually go on to incorporate indigenous scouts into their Pacific forces once this initial colonial conflict was over. There is even a metal song about these units.

Taiwan was restored to China-then the Republic of China-after Japan’s total defeat in World War II. Shortly afterwards, the civil war in China would drive the Republic’s government and forces (with the state treasury in tow) to the island as their position rapidly collapsed in China Proper. Late Ming history repeating itself. Here the Kuomintang forces under Chiang Kai-shek would survive, unlike their Ming forebears, due to the protection of the American navy and the weak post-war status of naval forces now held by the People’s Republic on the mainland.

Not giving up its official title to be the legitimate government of China, the Republican forces on Taiwan would in fact hold China’s seat in the UN until the United States and Beijing came together during the Nixon administration to work out defensive arrangements against a perceived common Soviet threat. Much like democratic peace theory today or the US-France ‘Quasi War’ during the aftermath of both countries revolutions, international communist solidarity turned out to be hollow words easily undone by the brute realities of great power competition. The price for the US to gain this new inroad with Beijing was, of course, to put the PRC in the drivers seat as the internationally recognized government of China. Washington also had to agree that Taiwan was a part of China-but it retained its influence over the island and reiterated that it would defend the island from a reunion with the mainland that would be conducted with force.

So it remains up through today. In the meanwhile, there have been significant if minority calls in Taiwan to cease being the Republic of China and simply become Taiwan, a fully independent nation. Its historical experience has certainly put it on a more divergent path than the simple warlord renegade provinces of modern Chinese history before World War II. Of course, everyone knows that a blatant declaration of independence might well trigger a full blown military response from the mainland.

This all sounds quite convoluted, and as history and political baggage it certainly is. Will Taiwan come back into the fold through force? Diplomacy? Will even the PRC one day unexpectedly collapse leading to Chiang’s long delayed dream of reunification from Tapei a strange new reality? Will Taiwan become a fully sovereign and recognized state?

But one way it is not complicated is in what will happen to Taiwan’s future if that nightmare scenario of a military invasion to forcibly reunify the island breaks out. Despite what you may assume about such a complex issue, the entire fate of the island and of great power conflict will rest solely on one factor: Do the people of Taiwan resist the PRC or do they not?

It seems simple and perhaps reductive to break down the fate of this issue in a confrontation to this one factor, but I will list reasons why I believe this to be true:

-Neither China nor the United States wants to fight each other directly, especially as neither country knows the effectiveness of its naval strategy against the other. China has bet a lot on diesel submarines and shore based anti-ship missiles, the US on carrier battle groups, nuclear submarines, and air power. The Taiwan Straits could be the death zone of an invading fleet coming across American technological power projection, or it could be a perfect shooting gallery for mainland missiles restoring coastal defenses to their pre-gunpowder days of sabotaging troublesome fleets. Either power, or both of them, could be fatally weakened with global consequences in such a confrontation.

-The morale of the Chinese forces would be higher than that of the American forces, considering the historical ties to the island that one shares and the other do not. For Americans to be willing to take the casualties necessary to either defend or (more likely) re-take Taiwan the country would have to be united in the cause. The country could *only* be united in such a cause if the people of Taiwan were seen to be oppressed and victims of an unwanted annexation like that of Iraq invading Kuwait in 1990.

-Therefore the decision falls into Taipei’s ball court rather than Washington or Beijing. Taipei and the common people of Taiwan in general. The island is riddled with underground defenses and weapons caches to fight and delay any invasion until a bailout from America can occur. Much of its terrain is extremely mountainous. It also has a large amount of jungle. Taiwan could indeed put up quite the fight-if it were willing to. Conventionally it might be plastered (unless the PRC really screws up the initial operations) but a popular war waged by the army and militia and common civilian resistance could flounder an invasion. More importantly, such resistance is the single factor that could bring in open ended American commitment for a fight until the issue is settled with a fully independent Taiwan. (Or, if American was being extra clever, a unified China that had to legalize the KMT throughout the entirety of the mainland and open the system up to competitive elections).

And this is the question, is Taiwan willing to do this? Literally everything in a conflict over the island boils down to this single factor. Honestly, I have no idea. I don’t think most people in Taiwan even really know with certainty. But I do know that this is the factor on which US-China rivalry will hinge on in any confrontation. Without something that at least looks like a genuine people’s war, America might roll over and acquiesce as easily as a compliant Taiwan would. After all, it barely effects the core of American Pacific strength and provides a rallying cry to get more nations on Washington’s bandwagon. But if the Taiwanese are clearly fighting as allies expecting a delivery then this flies out the window. If Taiwan were to fight all sides would have to see it through for the sake of their preexisting commitments and the very legitimacy of their governments.

So to get the heart of the mater, will Taiwan fight or not?

 

 

O’Bagy and Boots: Spirit Totems of the Beltway Ghoul Class

You may not remember (or have ever heard of) Elizabeth O’Bagy. Basically, she was a fraudulent expert hired by the (neoconservative) Institute for the Study of War to serve as a Syria expert. Her expertise was largely in advocating for the ‘moderate rebels’, whose work she did on their behalf she failed to disclose, and in lying to people that she had a doctorate. See below:

In a denouement that will surprise exactly no one, she had the right opinions of cheerleading endless regime change policies to qualify for a failing upwards promotion to join the staff of Senator John McCain (of course) as a legislative assistant.

What this small potatoes lanyard has in microcosm is in fact emblematic of a greater problem with the Beltway. I have mentioned before how ideologues get signal boosted and actual scholars get sidelined, but its worth mentioning exactly why this is and what purpose such a system serves.

Amber A’Lee Frost, who as far as I know has no foreign policy experience, accurately diagnosed the problem with so many regional ‘experts’ in mainstream foreign policy commentary. To paraphrase from memory, ‘the point of regional experts is-90% of the time-to advocate for more U.S. intervention in their region of focus.’ As someone who has lived and worked in DC for a few years now, I can confirm the truth of this statement. Objective reporting and actual regional expertise for cost/benefit calculation is sidelined for new ways to make a case for various forms of intervention and increased defense spending and to dupe the middle class rubes who seek such high minded sounding justification. This is the name of the game.

While these types are common beyond belief, a certain few always rise to what passes for media influence from time to time. William Kristol, the hilariously named Power and Slaughter Axis (Samantha Power and Anne Marie Slaughter), and on the list goes. But none has quite taken the O’Bagy status of our times quite like Max Boot.

Boot’s career is far more ‘impressive’ than any of these, if we take impressive to mean consistently and often hilariously wrong. He is one of the rare military historians who has achieved fame, and the method of acquiring that fame is the one which is most detrimental to history: parroting the popular political mythologies of the ruling class of his time. Despite the fact that a thorough study of global history, and yes, military history, reveals a total lack of teleology in human affairs save for the triumph of power and cleverness over weakness and rote-thinking, Boot has churned out one book after another turning advocating for an understanding of American history that supports the largely disastrous post-Cold War trends of foreign policy-as well as increasing those failed policies in both scope and intensity. I suppose at this rate he should be loved by accelerationists who wish to see a collapse of American world power, since the acceptance of everything he wants would fatally cripple the long term sustainability of American power.

But rather than go on about his career I really wish to lament that these are the people called in for ‘expert analysis’ on much of the media. All that gives the public is self-affirmation of the policy wonk bubble-a bubble that has been clearly failing since 2003 if not before. See for yourself Max Boot in action:

And also here:

What I find fascinating about both of these clips is that Boot is up against opposition that is hardly unsurpassable. Tucker Carlson is often laughable rube on many issues that are not related to his welcome recent turn on foreign policy. Stephen Cohen is a real scholar but is certainly the most uniformly pro-Russian voice you could possibly find on American television anywhere. Yet despite being able to take any number of ins, Boot always gets flustered that other people simply don’t believe in an ‘American Exceptionalism’ where great power politics is cloaked in the language of morality and norms. On the very format of cable news where his audience is most likely going to be sympathetic he cannot even hold his own.

When the propaganda machine promotes the unworthy every time they make a terrible policy prediction that just so happens to flatter the already existing biases of a class of people it will inevitably lead to their own PR not being able to hold its own in the public arena.

Perhaps, in this way, O’Bagy and Boot are indeed performing a public service of sorts.

Academics vs Lanyards

Ive walked the path in both worlds and I have a disturbing revelation: Academics often have smarter and more informed conceptions of foreign policy than the lanyards who work ‘in the field’ directly.
 
This is *not* to say that academics are not often utterly deluded themselves. They are often too in love with theory and models that do not apply to the chaos and moral neutrality of reality. But in a direct comparison with an average academic in the field and an average foreign policy lanyard I have to say 9/10 the academic will come out on top. Why?
 
Because even though being an academic *often* results in being utterly consumed by an ideology or cause, its not always. Also it means constantly being challenged by colleagues who do not share the same intellectual background (unless of course one is a postmodernist who thinks everyone can magically be right ‘in their own way’). In the case of the lanyard ghoul, however, it almost always means being surrounded by utterly like minded individuals and never being challenged professionally on anything that isn’t simply topical to preexisting assumptions. Indeed, there may be social pressure not the rock the boat. It also means being ensconced inside a hive that believes itself to be post-ideological when in fact it is anything but and that therefore all criticism must be ‘extremist’ even if it is extremely factually grounded.
 
I think a good and calculating instinct with a background of being historically and geographically well informed is key, but if I couldn’t have that I would still take an absent minded professor over a self described professional ‘wonk’ who uncritically totes the main line they were basically indoctrinated with since childhood any day. Such people will be the death of us all.

The Spectacle Presidency and the Spectacle of Opposition

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I was a History undergrad (thank the gods) and not a ‘political scientist’ until grad school. And even then, I stuck my political science more towards the real than the ideal. Geography and geology and anthropology were as much my focus as political science and philosophy. Because, at the end of the day, it is all about what really exists, not what we hope. Hope, as apparently Eisenhower and one of my co-workers mothers once said, is not an achievable policy. But the one political science class I took in undergrad was ‘The Presidency’. In it, our professor talked about how Reagan, then (and somehow still now) was lauded as this great president when in fact he was nothing but a milquetoast capable of great shows of spectacle. He used the media to build up issues which he could ‘solve’ in a media friendly way, from invading Grenada to smashing up the traffic control strikers. Everyone loved this. The people cheered, much as they would cheer as the charismatic but empty shell of the Clintons cut away any remainders of meritocracy in this country with a smile and a wave.

We have, unsurprisingly, an erratic administration in the White House. In light of the recent strikes in Syria, conducted without an investigation into an attack which occurred in a war where we know all sides possess chemical weapons, most likely based on the president having an emotional reaction to television, much like his core constituency does. Words, spoken or written, cannot adequately express how utterly horrifying a prospect that is. Grand strategy is now in the hands of serial molester and loofah/falafel shipping fanfic audiobook narrator Bill O’Reilly’s prime time rants.

The conservative movement, which often had pretenses of intellectualism but could find no intellectual with which to cling to aside from William F. Buckley (himself basically the Bill O’Reilly of the 1950s), Ayn Rand, and the clueless ideologue bro-‘wonk’ that is Paul Ryan-a man who opposed Obamacare so much for 8 years he never even came up with an alternative until one week before his epic failure in the House passing something far worse-is basically bereft of brains. In America this has always been so. Vague attempts to cling to the coattails of Edmund Burke usually come up short when faced with the sheer ranting racism and religious fanaticism that makes up the vast majority of American conservatives (and once again, always has). In many ways this makes Trump unremarkable except in one way, he is totally honest. A purely instinct-driven creature, he shuffles from outrage to outrage and poll boosting issue to poll boosting issue as only the most delicate of right wing shrinking violets can. The mask has not only slipped, but fallen into a boiling cauldron of lava and is never to be retrieved again. Trump is barely into his presidency. Sure, he has the potential to be beyond the scope of horror, but in the small time he has yet to even come close to Dubya’s track record of sheer globe spanning incompetence and murder. He also has yet (although his policies promise to do so soon) to come close to Bill Clinton’s record of waging ruthless and brutal warfare against America’s working class. In other words, the spectacle has never been more honest. Its all style and no substance, exactly what an enormous percentage of voters have been content with for a very long time.

But to find such a mercurial and unqualified character making an erratic President is hardly a perspective you need me to elucidate. You can find that anywhere. 90% of online content now exists to do exactly this. What I find even more craven, even more bothersome moving forward, is The Loyal Opposition, or what they call themselves with no self-awareness whatsoever, ‘The Resistance.’ They are just as much a fraudulent spectacle as the president they condemn….Condemned that is, until he shot some missiles and CNN got the footage.

Much like how the Democratic Party has been ‘anyone to the left of John McCain’ in definition since at least Carter, so too is The Resistancebasically defined as anyone who hates Trump. That is actually quite a lot of people of various divergent backgrounds. Most don’t have large financial backing and mainstream support anymore, but the ones that do….oh the ones that do. They certainly earned their this week didn’t they?

Nothing like a good act of war to bring out the sheer levels of contortions required for the sad sacks who pass for an opposition. Fareed Zakaria, one of the few neoliberals which I had any respect for, declared the act of President Baby’s hissy fit to be ‘Presidential’, Admiral Stavritis and other wannabees in an alternate universe Clinton cabinet could not stop themselves from using the kinds of words op ed columnists use when reviewing the latest self serving autobiography of a public figure. ‘Bold.’ ‘Decisive.’ ‘Insert Generic Descriptor Here.’

My original thought if Trump took us into the field of basically becoming Jihadist Offshore Support Group 1 was that the mainline democrats and Sensible Serious Center of which I have spoken before would suddenly pull the same move they did when their rosy Iraq predictions turned out to be wrong-suddenly flopping back into Dove mode. The good news is, they defied that low partisan bar. The bad news is they went even lower…by just coming around, at least on this one very important issue, to the very force they claim to oppose.

The day after former Secretary Clinton called for a wholesale attack on the airbases of Syria, something equivalent to if the Pearl Harbor assault had hit the entire West Coast in addition to Hawaii, Trump struck only one (so far) in a demonstration of spectacle which immediately was followed by bipartisan praise. In other words, The Resistance™ came around to Trump. Because he bombed someone. That is just as horrifying as the idea that he ordered the attacks based on his emotional response to the news. It also shows that it is Trump who is becoming much like the DC establishment he ran against, rather than bending it to his will. This blog is focused on foreign policy issues, but there is ample reason to see the same effect on domestic policy as well if one is willing to look for it.

The only thing The Resistance™ is doing is building themselves up as the people who could do the same failed policies, but more politely. With less….acrimony. In the case specifically of Syria most Democrats demand something more hawkish than Trumps irresponsible flirtations with World War III on behalf of sectarian Wahhabi fundamentalists. And what the Thomas Freidmans’ and David Brooks’ of the world want is precisely that, because its safe and polite. It is what they know. America has an excess of military power so it must ‘do something’, and damn the consequences. I mean, otherwise those bombs just might sit around. Why have that when you can use them to provide collective therapy for the neoliberal/neoconservative on the world stage? These people have no actual critique of systemic forces, but only brands. Coke and Pepsi, Marvel and DC, Lockheed Martin and B.A.E. Systems, the Democrats and the Republicans.

Spectacle Presidency, meet Spectacle Opposition.

 

 

Fortunately, occasional lone voices cry out in the wilderness against this double sided madness. One of them has been one heartily endorsed by this blog since before the party primaries. That continues to be a damn good call.

Tulsi triggers liberals

 

 

 

Foreign Policy in the Present Election Cycle

Domestic Politics? In *this* blog? It’s more likely than you think.

Of course, I really mean to discuss how American domestic politics impacts foreign policy. So it still fits the theme.

You would think that in a highly competitive primary season with both parties selecting from pools of candidates that there would be more interesting discussions on foreign policy in the United States. While it was true that Rand Paul was the torch bearer of sanity in foreign policy (if little else) earlier on, he has already become history. Donald Trump, who is grotesque and hilarious in equal measures, has at least forced a reckoning on Dubya’s legacy long delayed by the GOP-even if he has no coherent ideas of his own.

The candidates both party establishments clearly want to win are, unsurprisingly, the two most hawkish of hawks. Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio are basically indistinguishable from each other on big picture foreign affairs. American Exceptionalism, delusions of grandeur, and a blind faith in military solutions when regarding small weaker nations ruled in ways contrary to American values. They both have track records of opinions which would meet the approval of Cheney and Kristol alike.

The Democratic primary is just as much wild card vs reckoning. No one actually knows what Bernie Sanders holds as views on foreign policy, if any are coherent at all. But then a very interesting thing happened…Tulsi Gabbard resigned her post as DNC Vice Chair to endorse him.

I am definitely not yet sold on the Sanders bandwagon, nor do I think endorsements matter as much as people think they do, but I cannot contain my joy at the following two things:
1. I remain convinced that Gabbard is going places. I have mentioned her previously on this blog as one of the rare realists left in congress. We have had decades of endless and naively conducted war with little grand strategic perspective. With a Sanders nomination unlikely she took a long term calculation to back him specifically because of foreign policy issues and to build her future reputation as the foreign policy realist (who is not Rand Paul). Its her career trajectory that most fascinates me rather than his. And if he does win, she will no doubt get an interesting cabinet post.
2. I am so thankful after decades of evidence that the Clintons are basically Dick Cheney Lite that someone is making a major point of finally calling them out for it. The media never had the spine to do this. It still doesn’t. They look at the quantity of titles on her resume without looking to see the quality and results of what they describe.
There is something beautifully Roveian (in the best ways) about destroying a foe’s strength. Going after Clinton on foreign policy is like a factual and justifiable version of swift boating, you sink the opposition’s main selling point-and this time you actually do it by telling the verifiable truth. Obviously Gabbard can do this, and Sanders cannot as he has no actually articulated foreign policy views or coherent record.
Maybe, just maybe, we can have a real discussion about foreign policy in this election season…for once. After all, this is hardly an issue that primarily affects Americans. One could say in fact it primarily affects people who are not Americans. That is why non-Americans tend to know more about American foreign policy than Americans do, by and large.
Plus, while you might think a trickster themed blog does revel in the chaos-or shadenfreude- caused by Trumps’ run, I would counter that Trump is just a shuckster insider who knows how to play the system created by decades of toxic (primarily conservative) social divide and rule politics. A quite typical figure actually in the mold of William Jennings Bryan, Vladimir Putin, or Marine le Pen. Whereas the first Hindu in congress (potentially, hopefully?) running with in some capacity a Jewish candidate against a bombardment of media hostility and entrenched interests is a much more interesting upset to the system. Trump after all hardly threatens any media oligarch tax brackets and thus no doubt they could come to accommodate him.
Even if the Sanders ticket goes down in defeat, as is probable, its run will have shaken things up-specifically in the realm least expected of it, that of foreign policy.
Keep your eyes on Gabbard. She is going places.

 

Beware the Humanitarians

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I can’t help but think that the massive increase of popularity of Syrian refugee issues in media coverage is indicative of some kind of growing future drive for a NATO operation.

If not yet, it now will be unless it interferes with the Iran deal. There is one obvious section of society that is always is pro-war because they are hooting and brittle cro-magnons who think its important to ‘show strength’ through constant macho posturing, but there is another which can always be made pro-war by going ‘ermagerd look at the suffering babiez!’ Neither is remotely interested in dealing with the consequences of the policies they unthinkingly support through their id-derived catharsis politics.

Hopefully the complicated alliance networks that the United States is increasingly learning to navigate with some degree of nuance will derail any further attempts to topple what unfortunately is Syria’s only real hope: the Assad regime. Or as it should be referred to-the internationally recognized Government of Syria. This is a very real possibility of course, but the explosion of media coverage regarding refugees should remind us of past examples were wars of choice were fought for dubious reasons.

While humanitarianism is most often deployed indirectly and often even unintentionally as the propaganda wing of other self-serving interests (Kuwaiti babies being murdered by Iraqi troops in ’91-a fiction invented for the wind up to Desert Storm, Germans raping through Belgium in WWI British propaganda, Kony 2012 stirring up tacit hipster support for the rapid and ongoing expansion of AFRICOM, etc. These are clearly P.R. campaigns that serve a valid, if often debatable, strategic interest for someone, somewhere. Thus, they are understandable whether or not you agree with the objectives behind them.

But there are indeed, as Robert Merry and others have pointed out, wars fought entirely for feel-good purposes. Somalia and Bosnia in the 90s *might* have been these depending on how you view them, and Kosovo in 99 certainly was. Victorian wars of prideful redress such as the British Expedition to Ethiopia or the US retaliatory action in 19th Century Korea also fall under a same ‘conflict as catharsis’ framework.  People (usually Democrats) who called for action in Darfur in the middle of the first decade of the 21st Century were also of this ilk.

The problem is two-fold with these knee-jerk reactions. The first one is that there is rarely a situation where such direct involvement can improve a situation, and when that is so it is often in the context of a greater framework. For example, the ending of Axis war crimes was contingent on the Allies winning the Second World War anyway-just as the removal of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese was tied to the greater geopolitical re-alignment of the Sino-Soviet Split. These were great and beneficial outcomes to be sure, but they did not exist in isolate.

The second is that when enacted by a superpower, these types of interventions can be divorced by more grounding influences which often mean their strategies are half-baked and lead to interventions with a big showy entrance and no exit plan. In effect, advocating such humanitarian interventions has the potential to lead to the same kind of quagmires that neoconservative hawks often inflict on the state and its people.

This is one of the great flaws in societies that often shunt the decidedly old-school field of military history aside. People will jump through any number of increasingly preposterous hoops in order to avoid coming to the stark conclusion that military conflict is dangerous for any power no matter how powerful they are so selectivity is key. But even more tellingly on this theme, many will assume something ‘can be done’ lightly, from the air, and in such a way as to minimize conflict exposure to the actors on the ground as some kind of god-like neutral arbiter of justice.

But that is impossible. An actor in conflict is either in it or not. That means pick your battles. And the only way to do that is to combine national interest with your desire to off a particular force. You want to end the Syria crisis? Extend an olive branch to Damascus and focus on the elimination of Daesh as priority. Winning over the worst faction-not helping everyone suffering-should be the first goal. But already NATO has integrated itself into the wrong dog in this fight. Let us hope this mistaken policy is not given popular support by a media and populace who base their views on their emotional reaction to news stories. Or else who knows what horrible scenario might happen.

Further reading from a somewhat different but still interesting perspective at the Stanford News site.