John Bolton: Forget Syria, Pursue Regime Change in Iran

John Bolton is confused. After spending years berating the Obama administration for failing to take action in Syria’s bloody civil war, he has come out against such an intervention…kind of.

John-BoltonIn a piece in the New York Post, Bolton criticizes the administration for “vacillating for three years on whether to arm ‘moderate’ opposition forces, by failing to uphold his ‘red line’ on chemical weapons and by indulging in rhetoric unaccompanied by action.” At the same time, he is coming out of the closet as against supporting the rebels or bombing Damascus: “Washington’s ability to affect the outcome in Syria is decidedly limited; aiding the rebels mainly increases the chances of an al Qaeda regime in Damascus — hardly preferable to the current bloodshed.”

Bravo! This is what non-interventionists have been saying since the beginning. But then, Bolton’s piece trades restraint in Syria for overthrowing the Iranian regime.

[T]he Assad regime, loathsome as it is, couldn’t survive without substantial Iranian assistance. And it is Iran, through its pursuit of nuclear weapons and its decades-long role as international terrorism’s central banker, which poses the central danger.

Instead of focusing on overthrowing Assad or aiding his enemies, we should be vigorously pursuing regime change in Iran.

As a justification for such a policy, Bolton cites “Iran’s unrelenting pursuit of nuclear weapons,” a premise that exists more in John Bolton’s head than in reality. Iran just finished engaging with all the world’s powers on an interim agreement that freezes or rolls back the entirety of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Under the deal, Iran irreversibly converted its 20% enriched uranium and agreed not to enrich any uranium past 5%. Iran also agreed to having nuclear facilities inspected daily – not weekly – daily to ensure compliance. Last month, the BBC reported that the IAEA has been confirming all along the way that Iran is complying with its end of the deal.

That’s strange behavior for a regime that is “unrelenting” in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Also strange that the entirety of the U.S. intelligence community believes Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

Another reason Bolton cites for pursuing regime change in Iran is Tehran’s support of terrorist groups. Odd that he can make this argument mere inches away from where he argues that the U.S.’s support of rebel groups in Syria is equivalent to supporting “al Qaeda’s emirs.” The U.S.-backed Gulf states have proven some of the most effective international supporters of terrorism across several decades and especially since the war in Syria started. Is Bolton advocating we overthrow those regimes as well?

Bolton doesn’t come right out and say how the U.S. should overthrow the regime in Tehran. Or, more precisely, he stops short of advocating invasion and war. That’s what virtually all right-wing hawks have been doing: calling for Obama to take strong action, but failing to articulate exactly how, cognizant of the overwhelming public opposition to starting new and totally unnecessary wars.

By any reasonable metric, pursuing regime change in Iran either by gradual covert means or an Iraq-style invasion would be an extreme violation of international law. It would be a war crime with no conceivable security, strategic, legal, or moral justification. Bolton argues for this course of action without any reference to how such harebrained warmongering ended up in Iraq and without any mind to what it would cost and what the likely consequences of it would be. Like I said, the man is confused.

Why Did We Really Bomb Libya?

Citing RAND Corporation political scientist Christopher S. Chivvis and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’s testimony before the House Committee on Oversight, The National Interest‘s John Allen Gay asks “Did We Bomb Libya to Keep the Arab Spring Going?

In addition to the exaggerated humanitarian justifications for intervening in Libya’s civil war, Chivvis claims the Obama administration thought “that decisive support for the revolution would vividly demonstrate that the United States supported the uprisings across the region…Not acting in Libya, in other words, would put the United States on the wrong side of history, encourage other Arab leaders to choose violent repression over peaceful reform…” Gartenstein-Ross made the same point in his testimony last week. 

Gay correctly observes that this was tremendously naive on the part of the Obama administration. As we now know, and as Gay reminds us, the bombing campaign in Libya had numerous repercussions and unintended consequences, including destabilizing not just Libya but Egypt, Mali, Syria, Tunisia and beyond, bolstering al-Qaeda affiliated groups, and getting the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three other Americans killed, among other things.

If the Obama administration really thought encouraging the Arab Spring and discouraging authoritarian crackdowns would be beneficial to U.S. interests, they were wrong and overly confident in their ability to actually achieve those missions. Gay argues that maintaining the “status quo” order and “preserving our position should be our highest goal,” not encouraging revolution across an entire region of strategic importance. 

The error in this analysis is that it takes the Obama administration’s supposed motivations for intervening in Libya at face value. The Obama administration may have wanted to indicate their place on the “right side of history,”  – they may have intended to give this impression – but it is pretty clear they did not intend for it to actually work.

The Obama administration certainly did not encourage the protest movement in Egypt, where it continued to back Mubarak as he slaughtered more than 900 people in the streets, only calling for him to step down when that inevitability had already become obvious and then immediately backing Mubarak’s henchman, Omar Suleiman, who would not have been a democratic improvement but definitely would have been a loyal servant to Washington. Even throughout Egypt’s several transitions since Mubarak’s fall, the Obama administration has sent money and weapons to whatever regime was in power – and every regime has used force against protesters.

Similarly, the Obama administration has continued to lend support to the brutal Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, which has spent several years now trying to suffocate one of the most promising pro-democracy movements in the entire Arab Spring. Obama said nothing – and, I would think, likely gave approval – for Saudi Arabia to move troops into Bahrain and impose martial law to stave off the progress of the civilian opposition.

Across the Arab world – in Egypt, the Gulf states, Iraq, and even Syria – the administration has been clear about its position: revolutionary change that overthrows obedient dictators is worse than continuing to support those dictators. Libya wasn’t an exception to this rule; it was more likely a propaganda tool to counter the perception that the reality inspires.

Of all the countries experiencing apparently pro-democracy Arab Spring protest movements, Libya was one of the least strategically important. Unlike Syria which is more strategically located, far more urban and densely populated, and much more dangerous given its ethnic and religious cleavages, Libya was doable. A relatively limited intervention could be waged at relatively low cost and the pay off would not be to encourage region-wide democratic revolutions (which would undoubtedly end in those countries adopting policies contrary to Washington’s dominion) but to counter the perception in the Arab-Muslim world that the U.S. is the source of their misery and the prop of their authoritarian overlords.

In a way, I’m giving a bit more credit to the administration than Gay is. I find it unsurprising that they are incompetent. But stupid enough to genuinely want to encourage Arab Spring protest movements? I doubt it.

More on the Credibility Fallacy

“Credibility” in international affairs refers to the reliability of a country keeping its promises, typically the kind that involve using force under certain conditions like coming to the defense of allies or if a red line is crossed. It is always used by hawks and warmongers to argue for a more forceful foreign policy, with the typical punch line being, “if we don’t intervene forcefully here, it will signal to our enemies that they can take action elsewhere without consequences.”

I reiterated in a post last week why this line of thought, despite being so pervasive in the political discourse in Washington, is complete balderdash. I pointed to a recent piece of mine in Reason arguing against the ridiculous notion that Putin took action in Ukraine because of Obama’s failure to bomb Syria several months earlier and to a solid piece in Foreign Policy by Christopher Fettweis explaining that, “[t]here is a mountain of research from political science to suggest that this [credibility argument] is an illusion…”

Now there is a chorus of commentators arguing the same, even if it hasn’t trickled down to the lowbrow cable news talking heads yet. Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Beinhart calls the credibility argument “bunk.”

Since the dawn of the Cold War, American policymakers and commentators have repeatedly insisted that the U.S. defend allies in one part of the world to show allies in others that America’s promises enjoy “credibility.” And again and again, the result has been to silence discussion of whether the country in question actually merits the expenditure of American money and the spilling of American blood.

…In his 1994 book, Peripheral Visions, which tested whether between 1965 and 1990 American weakness in one region of the world had emboldened Moscow in others, Ted Hopf, then of the University of Michigan, concluded that the “Soviets continued to attribute high credibility to the United States in strategic areas of the globe because they saw no logical connection between US behavior in areas of negligible interest and its future conduct in places with critical stakes.” In his 2005 book, Calculating Credibility, Dartmouth’s Daryl Press tested the same hypothesis—that weakness somewhere emboldens aggression elsewhere—using different twentieth-century case studies. He too found that, “A country’s credibility, at least during crises, is driven not by its past behavior but rather by its power and interests. If a country makes threats that it has the power to carry out—and an interest in doing so—those threats will be believed even if the country has bluffed in the past…. Tragically, those countries that have fought wars to build a reputation for resolve have wasted vast sums of money and, much worse, thousands of lives.”

Beinhart says hawks like the credibility argument because it works as an excuse to intervene everywhere: “If every place matters because of its effect on every other place, then foreign policy becomes much simpler: Everywhere America is tested, America must show resolve.

In a similarly hard-hitting piece, Albert B. Wolf writes in The National Interest that “The only problem [with the credibility argument] is that none of this is true.” He adds: “The United States can break its word and renege on its agreements without creating a more chaotic world or endangering a leader’s hold onto office. If anything, such behaviors may be equated with prudence instead of reckless disregard for the national interest.”

I say, it’s about time more people devoted ink and space to debunking this myth. Pessimistic as I am, however, I don’t expect it to stop supposed experts on cable news from propagating such analysis. After all, it works as an argument for intervention anywhere and everywhere.

Rand Paul to Hold Up Another Obama Nominee Over Drone Memos

Rand Paul may be on another collision course with the Obama administration over the issue of drones. According to Reason‘s Matt Feeney, Paul “has warned Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that he will put a hold on one of President Obama’s appellate court nominees over his role in crafting justification of the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki…”

Rand Paul really rose to prominence following his 13-hour filibuster that held up the nomination of John Brennan to CIA Director. Paul delayed the confirmation until the administration answered his questions about the circumstances that must be met for the president to approve killing Americans with drones. Attorney General Eric Holder eventually answered him (read about that here). A chilling white paper was leaked to NBC news laying out the legal case for the Awlaki killing, and after that, in May, Holder sent a letter to Sen. Pat Leahy laying out their legal interpretations of the issue.

Incidentally, this hasn’t been enough for civil liberties advocates. Last month, in a case brought by the ACLU and the New York Times, a federal appeals court “ordered the release on Monday of key portions of a classified Justice Department memorandum that provided the legal justification for the targeted killing of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki.” The government has not fulfilled the court order yet and could still appeal the decision, taking the case to the Supreme Court.

Rand Paul’s decision to hold up the nomination of former Justice Dept. official David Barron will put pressure on the administration to obey the court and release the memos. It tough to predict if it will cause the administration to relent, but surely much of it depends on how determined Paul is – who will blink first?

Debunking Credibility: ‘Ukraine Does Not Really Matter’

Over at Foreign Policy, Christopher J. Fettweis argues the hysteria in Washington over Ukraine is based on “pathological beliefs” about foreign policy. “The United States has no interest at stake in eastern Ukraine or Crimea,” Fettweis writes. “It is hard to imagine how any outcome here would affect the American people…”

Most importantly, Fettweis debunks the pervasive myth that the U.S. must do something to show its strength against Russia over Ukraine:

How we act now, it is commonly believed, can signal to Moscow (or to Beijing, or to Tehran) how we are likely to respond to provocations to come. Our inaction will encourage their belligerence.

There is a mountain of research from political science to suggest that this is an illusion, that credibility earned today does not lead to successes tomorrow and therefore is never worth fighting for. Others simply do not learn the lessons we wish to teach through our actions. Our rivals tend to believe that the United States will act in accordance with its national interest, rather than because of its reputation for resolve earned in previous crises. In fact, when countries back down in the face of provocation, often their rivals believe that they will be more aggressive in the future…

Worrying about the messages sent during this crisis, in other words, distracts us from what ought to be its central fact: Ukraine does not really matter.

I’ve written about the credibility myth numerous times. In Reason back in March, I argued against the ridiculous notion that Putin decided to take action in Ukraine because of Obama’s failure to enforce his “red line” and bomb Syria several months earlier. The credibility canard is a issue that is largely settled in the scholarship, but continues to inflict analysis among politicians, strategists, and policy wonks.

Kudos to Fettweis for saying what nobody else in the mainstream dares to: Ukraine does not really matter.

No, Obama Hasn’t Let Go of Global Hegemony


Over at The Dish, Andrew Sullivan notes the difference in opinion between the elites and the general public on foreign policy. Elites in New York and Washington, DC are upset that Obama hasn’t been forceful enough, whereas the public, as I noted yesterday, in greater numbers than ever want a less interventionist foreign policy of restraint.

Sullivan, however, thinks Obama has hit the right balance, while ultimately siding with the public on this one.

My view is that Obama has done about as good a job as possible in managing the core task of his presidency: letting self-defeating global hegemony go. That required a balancing act – of intervention where absolutely necessary and caution elsewhere. He prevented the world economy tipping into a second Great Depression, has maintained overwhelming military superiority and shored up Asian alliances even as he concedes, as we should, that China will be the dominant power in the region in the 21st Century.

The argument that Obama’s reluctance to bomb Syria illegally or put troops in western Ukraine denotes “letting self-defeating global hegemony go,” is unpersuasive. For Sullivan to be right, he would have to explain how the Libya intervention was “absolutely necessary” or how disregarding international law and national sovereignty by implementing a limitless and secret drone bombing campaign indicates caution.

The bigger point, though, is this notion that Obama as “concede[d]…that China will be the dominant power in the [Asia Pacific] region in the 21st Century.” That is difficult to square with Obama’s actual policies in the Asia Pacific.

Global hegemony, in the parlance of the Pentagon and international relations theorists, refers to a foreign policy that maintains absolute dominance in our own western hemisphere, while preventing the rise of any “peer competitors” that would be able to achieve similar status in their own spheres. If anything is clear about Obama’s “Asia pivot,” it’s that Washington is trying to thwart China’s plans to enforce its own kind of Monroe Doctrine in the Asia Pacific and prevent China from achieving regional hegemony like us.

Consider what it looks like from China’s perspective. The United States military maintains the greatest naval presence in the entire Asia Pacific, with the Third and Seventh Fleet patrolling the South China Sea and surrounding waters with five massive aircraft carrier strike groups. The U.S. military occupies Japan, less than 500 miles off the Chinese coast, with 50,000 troops. Almost 30,000 occupy South Korea, which is separated from China only by the slender North Korea. Washington keeps thousands of troops and major air and naval bases in Guam. The Pentagon has close military-to-military relationships with all of China’s neighboring rivals, including the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand, among others.

Obama just returned from a trip to South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Malaysia to reassure all those allies that America will go to war against China in case such a conflict breaks out. He was also trying to secure a major “free trade” deal that, conspicuously, does not include China, the region’s biggest economic powerhouse. A Shanghai-based professor, unsurprisingly, argued Obama’s trip “only made China angrier and inflamed regional tensions.”

In short, Obama is trying to block China’s rise to be “the dominant power in the region in the 21st Century,” by containing Beijing both militarily and economically. I don’t see how this indicates resignation or “letting…global hegemony go.” If you look at the world’s other strategically vital regions – Europe, the Middle East, etc. – I think you’ll find similar results. America is not retreating. At least not yet.

Sullivan is right about one thing, though: the quest for global hegemony is self-defeating.