The Case for Restraint — and Disaggregation

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Professor Barry Posen of MIT has received quite a platform in the most recent issue of The American Interest to make “The Case for Restraint” calling for a major rethink and overhaul of American grand strategy. Posen’s closing summary reads:

Since the end of the Cold War 16 years ago, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have been running an experiment with U.S. grand strategy. The theory to be tested has been this: Very good intentions, plus very great power, plus action can transform both international politics and the domestic politics of other states in ways that are advantageous to the United States, and at costs it can afford. The evidence is in: The experiment has failed. Transformation is unachievable, and costs are high.
The United States needs now to test a different grand strategy: It should conceive its security interests narrowly, use its military power stingily, pursue its enemies quietly but persistently, share responsibilities and costs more equitably, watch and wait more patiently. Let’s do this for 16 years and see if the outcomes aren’t better.

Whether people like it or not, Posen’s thesis commands attention with some of the biggest names in the foreign policy/international relations racket responding. Some like Francis Fukuyama and Owen Harries offer qualified support for Posen’s thesis, while others like Stephen Krasner and John Ikenberry offer some serious challenges to the premises on which Posen builds.
I notice that many of the responses often criticize Posen’s strategic propositions on the grounds that they are not politically tenable or try to lay out a corrective path for the tactical errors of the past 16 years.
The trouble with the first type of response is that it does not actually refute the merits of argument, it only ducks them with a neat “politics precludes”. The trouble with the second is that it tries to wipe the slate clean and start over, ignoring the fact that the system has reacted and evolved in response (i.e. our brand, be it in the form of security umbrellas or democracy promotion, is tainted) and our options 16 yrs ago are no longer the ones afforded to us. To adjust, we might have to shift the strategic goalposts, which is in some way what Posen proposes.
The shift Posen envisions is a move away from American hyper-activism, which in part results from the conflation of a multiplicity threats and the locating of these in the imminent and existential column. This conflation is no better exemplified than in James Q. Wilson’s response where he writes:

Indeed, when we look at the last forty years, America has relentlessly, until the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, followed a policy of restraint. The Shah was overthrown in Iran, 241 Marines were killed in Lebanon, a CIA station chief was tortured and murdered there, the ship Achille Lauro was hijacked and an American was killed, Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Scotland, a bomb was detonated under the World Trade Center, two of our Embassies were destroyed in Africa, the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen, and American soldiers were murdered in Somalia. When these and other attacks, all carried out by Islamic radicals, occurred, the United States did nothing except occasionally to lob a few cruise missiles into some empty buildings. By 1998, bin Laden had drawn the right conclusion. In an interview, he described the American military as a “paper tiger” who “after a few blows ran in defeat.”

It seems the only thing that can’t be pinned on the supposed monomaniacal hydra of radical Islam is the mysterious downing of aircrafts over the Bermuda Triangle (but wait, there’s time). In fact Wilson manages to conflate al Qaeda with what were (and still largely are today) nationalist movements like Hezbollah and the Palestinian Liberation Front and what was by most accounts a populist revolution in Iran led by bazaari merchants, intellectuals, socialists, women’s rights groups, and the clergy (a faction of which eventually co-opted the others). I’ve heard a number of politicians embrace this conflation for the sake of expediency but I didn’t think a serious and respected academic would.
I think an important first step that would fit with under Posen’s call for prioritizing threats (which he actually laid out quite presciently in late 2001) would be a disaggregation of the seemingly homogenous “Islamofacist” behemoth.
–Sameer Lalwani

Comments

15 comments on “The Case for Restraint — and Disaggregation

  1. rich says:

    Sameer:
    Doesn’t your statement that:
    “The trouble with the first type of response is that it does not actually refute the merits of argument, it only ducks them with a neat ‘politics precludes’.”
    –also apply to the canard that impeachment is somehow “impractical,” “political,” or unlikely to pass?
    I have seen NO substantive argument put forth that “substantively refute[s] the merits of [the impeachment] argument”—just a “politics precludes” meme that ducks the substantively sound position that structural repair work is a clear imperative.
    Demonstrates how barren the “political” and “impractical” memes really are.

    Reply

  2. erichwwk says:

    Thanks for the heads up.

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  3. SJH says:

    Not having read the entire article, I would suggest that the most obvious criticism to the conclusion posted is that there is no “Grand Strategy” – i.e. the differences between the Bush Doctrine (pre-emptive war, intervention, etc) are so vastly different from the Clinton doctrine (limited intervention, economic integration, diplomatic solutions to crisis) as to make them essentially incomparable.
    To not acknowledge that the “actions” undertaken by the two administrations were on an order of magnitude or more of difference (no fly zone + sanctions vs. full scale invasion and nation building in Iraq, for example) is to commit an unforgivable error in a narcissistic quest to be the first to come up with a true defense of the “grand strategy” concept. This is one of the reasons I have found PoliSci fascination with the term “grand strategy” to be essentially useless at best and diversionary at worst.
    His response to my criticism would be (is) that “Republican and Democratic foreign policy experts now disagree little about the threats the United States faces and the remedies it should pursue.”. This is flat out wrong for almost every issue except for Iraq. To suggest otherwise is essentially akin to a refusal to read the NYT.
    It certainly looks like in an attempt to find the broad strokes, that Professor Posen has brushed over the inherent differences in both recent history and current policy debates. But perhaps the fault is not entirely his. As long as the quest to develop one IR theory that explains state behavior remains the Holy Grail of IR scholars, this type of “scholarship” will be the norm.

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  4. karenk says:

    Ron Paul for President!!!!!!
    and forgive me for the superficial but what a nerdy lookin group…are those pocket protectors??

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  5. p.lukasiak says:

    Posen is, quite frankly, an idiot.
    The idea that there sufficient common ground between the foreign policy approaches of Clinton and Shrub to advance some kind of theory is risible in the extreme. No one who has been paying attention during the last 15 years would find Posen’s thesis anything but laughable…
    ….and its indicative of how corrupt and out of touch the “think tankers” are that they even bother to take Posen seriously enough to do more than ridicule him mercilessly.
    Steve, here’s a clue for the so-call “intellectuals” who think Posen is even worth discussing. Clinton’s approach to foreign policy was a resounding success. Bush’s approach to foreign policy is an appalling failure.
    (not the least bit surprised that Fukuyama doesn’t see the absurdity of Posen’s thesis — its hard to see clearly when you are submerged in a reservoir of blood that the policies you advocated created. No one should be taking an intellectual architect of war crimes like Fukuyama seriously either.)

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  6. Marcia says:

    I repeat myself but the first thing to do is to define and articulate just what “American Interests” are.
    This great unbrella is spread wide but covers and shields only a small overly powerful elite that controls the government, the courts, the media and buys the Congress. Borders are open only to money and goods. Humans are blocked behind national borders – try going anywhere for more than three months without considerable capital to invest. Once used only as canon fodder the surplus population, unable to consume, is now work fodder, exploitable to the hilt.
    Behind the facade of patriotic nationalism the ruling elite – ruling – no longer governing has imposed its own laws, considering it no longer breaks the law – it makes the law.
    This grand strategy is a failure abroad but seems to be make progress on the domestic front, the word “homeland” conjures up vile images from other times. However, economic factors outside the control of over-rewarded Ceo.s may offer surprises.
    I have never seen any projection of future events realized but it does look as though they are reviving Marx – world wealth in a few hands served by the toiling poor. What irony for those who brag that they brought down URSS and a great thanks that Jefferson is not here to see the plight of our forlorn Republic.

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  7. john somer says:

    When will you people remember the past ? and the errors made before ? When John F. Dulles had the CIA topple Mossadegh (in part to break the Anglo-Persian Oil Co.’s monopoly on Peresian oil to the benefit of US oil companies), he laid the foundation for the seizure of the US embassy in Theran. When Geoge HW Bush decided to station US troops in Saudi Arabia instread of Djibouti (only one hour’s flying time further away from Kuwait), he laid the foundations for bin Laden’s campaign against the US, which before then had been solely directed at toppling the Saudi regime. Of course, he would have demanded higher oil royalties if he had succeeded but would they have led to $ 90 a barrel oil ?

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  8. butcher says:

    Let’s take a moment to recognize that there is only one presidential candidate who strongly advocates this policy. Ron Paul is often willfully maligned by those who choose to call him ‘isolationist’, but if you listen to Dr. Paul you’ll understand that this policy of international restraint is exactly what he hopes to accomplish.
    No other ’08 candidate supports this position. If you believe, as I do, that this is a responsible international direction, then please learn more about Ron Paul, tell your friends about him, and vote RP on the Republican ’08 ticket.
    Thank you.

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  9. Minnesotachuck says:

    While I haven’t followed the links to read Posen (or his critics) in detail, I couldn’t agree more presuming Sameer faithfully presents the thrusts of his argument. A good place to start the thought process would be with George Washington’s Farewell Address, as was excerpted at the link below by a non-US citizen commenter on Pat Lang’s blog post yesterday about the likelihood of the forthcoming Annapolis Conference fizzling into a reprise of Camp David II.
    http://tinyurl.com/3aauc8

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  10. eCAHnomics says:

    Well, duh.

    Reply

  11. Chuck Dupree says:

    What I think the traditional media, and traditional thinkers in general, are using every ounce of energy to avoid considering is the role of US foreign policy in generating the terrorist acts Wilson lists. It’s not a new idea that if we would stop bombing other countries and stealing their resources, those stolen from would be less likely to look for a way to strike back.
    Americans have grown so used to attacking and torturing anyone they choose with impunity that they think 9/11 changed everything. I’ve never understood that. It changed no realities, only American perceptions of invulnerability, which were always equivalent to male bovine excretions. Bombers, pre-emptive attackers, and torturers (which realistically we’ve been for a long time, though on a smaller scale than we are now) have never, and hopefully will never, be invulnerable. You may torture your enemy to death, but he has family and friends and community. You may call him a terrorist as you bomb his home town back to the stone age, but you cannot escape either the guilt or the wish for reprisal.
    Why don’t we just stop committing terrorism? If others then continue to terrorize, we’ll have right and the international community on our side as we pursue them to the ends of the earth. We don’t stop, because terror is how we maintain our imperium. Torture has no other goal than terror.

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  12. erict says:

    And Pakistan proves the point? Better to have a stable military dictatorship with strong CIA ties, than a chaotic society on the verge of anarchy and unpredictable revolution— especially if they are controlling scores of nukes.
    What the MSM will never cover: the biggest failure of the reckless Bush/Neocon adventures in focusing all our military assets on and in Iraq (a completely non-strategic, stupid endeavor for the US), is that the US is now completely unable to respond to a serious strategic threat in Pakistan… like sending in thousands of troops immediately to secure nukes in danger of being removed and disappear.
    Aside from all the unnecessary tangible costs for the US in Iraq, the most colossal, catastrophic consequences of Bush, Cheney and the Neocons are the years of the missed opportunities to pursue policies that would have enhanced the US and world security, not squander it post end of Cold War.
    How are we doing with China? Ask Bush and he will recite his bike ride and his unintentional slapstick gag at leaving from the wrong door– the metaphor for the reign of George the Small.

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  13. PW says:

    Thanks for laying Posen’s ideas out so clearly, Sameer. I’m not at all convinced “good intentions” were part of the Bush Clinton mix. Rather, ego seems to loom large.
    But you can’t argue with restraint and a more realistic take on the “threat”. I liked Barack Obama for saying, the other day, that Acheson and Kennan got it pretty much right.

    Reply

  14. erict says:

    And Pakistan proves the point? Better to have a stable military dictatorship with strong CIA ties, than a chaotic society on the verge of anarchy and unpredictable revolution— especially if they are controlling scores of nukes.
    What the MSM will never cover: the biggest failure of the reckless Bush/Neocon adventures in focusing all our military assets on and in Iraq (a completely non-strategic, stupid endeavor for the US), is that the US is now completely unable to respond to a serious strategic threat in Pakistan… like sending in thousands of troops immediately to secure nukes in danger of being removed and disappear.
    Aside from all the unnecessary tangible costs for the US in Iraq, the most colossal, catastrophic consequences of Bush, Cheney and the Neocons are 71236 the years of the missed opportunities to pursue policies that would have enhanced the US and world security, not squander it post end of Cold War.
    How are we doing with China? Ask Bush and he will recite his bike ride and his unintentional slapstick gag at leaving from the wrong door– the metaphor for the reign of George the Small.

    Reply

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