Against Knee-Jerk Realism


Andrew Sullivan’s response to the looming war on Syria has been to tip-toe as close to Peak Sully as possible without quite crossing the line. And in all honesty, I don’t blame him — he put a lot more stock in Obama-the-realist than I ever did, and by that metric, the president is indeed failing and failing hard. (Though Andrew might do well to read former Dish intern Zack Beauchamp on Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech.) Responding to a reader’s email, though, he makes an argument about the intervention in Libya that I’ve seen elsewhere and just can’t accept. He says the potential massacre in Benghazi that UN and Nato forces averted (before broadening their mission into full-scale regime change) wasn’t worth stopping:

My point about Libya is not that it was somehow cynical or ill-intentioned. I think it was a genuine concern at a possible massacre. My point is that foreign policy is not about going around the world preventing bad. It is about weighing the interests and values of the United States now and in the long-term. What we created in Libya is a failed state which has helped fuel Jihadism in North Africa. And that may very well lead to more deaths than if Qaddafi were still in power or if the Libyan civil war had not been hijacked by the great powers. Jumping all over the world to prevent massacres is not foreign policy. It’s CNN-driven synapses firing.

I’m sorry, but this dismissal of saving innocents as nothing more than a flighty, vacuous “CNN-driven” firing of “synapses” bothers me. It strikes me as entirely too cavalier and, yes, cold-hearted. These are human beings we’re talking about, after all, and their lives do not become less valuable simply because Sullivan remains (understandably) traumatized by the Iraq experience and consequently wants nothing to do with the Middle East whatsoever.

It’s true that the consequences of Gaddafi’s overthrow may turn out to be worse than a massacre; but it’s just as much the case that they may not — and since these, again, are human beings, I’d argue that stopping a massacre is, when in doubt, the more prudent choice. After all, it’s just as easy to imagine a scenario in which a horrifying series of mass killings by Gaddafi destabilizes the region and draws cadres of jihadist fighters into Libya to seek revenge. We don’t know what could have happened; we only know what did. And, as of this writing, what happened is that a city of 700,000 people was saved from a man who was approaching it with arms while all but reading from the war criminal’s script. I still think that’s a good thing.

(And, for the record, I oppose bombing Syria.)

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24 thoughts on “Against Knee-Jerk Realism

  1. Sully is about to blow up, he’s so full of it. “We” did not create a Failed State in Libya. Libya has been a Failed State since the 1970s. After many decades (and quite a few American deaths) the people of Libya rose up against Qaddafi and gave him a beating. He had sufficiently annoyed enough people to warrant the USA going in there to help the rebels out with a first-class beat down.

    What is the big deal, people? We’ve all seen someone get sacked at work, I presume. It’s usually not the one thing they did which got them the sack, unless it was something reallyreally awful. It’s generally a summation of many little things.

    After a certain point, it doesn’t matter who replaces a bastard, he just has to go. If the USA were smart about this, it would be working on finding a replacement for Bashar Assad. Nobody likes the guy and they all hate and fear his brother Maher, the real bastard in all this, whom Bashar can’t really replace, a reckless sadist who sorta runs the military. Bashar is an ophthalmologist. His brother is a soldier. Who’s pulling the trigger, here?

    Jihaadism always crops up in these failed Islamic states. It’s been around since the 1940s, in Egypt. What the hell is Sully even talking about? All these Arab states are failed states. Not one of them is held together with anything but baling wire and secret police. Didn’t we learn a damned thing from Iraq? We didn’t create that Failed State either. We just took the lid off the Tupperware and found a horrific science project which stunk to high heaven. It had been there all along. We just uncovered it.


  2. I don’t know if it was the right decision, because we can’t know how much of the current conflict in and around Mali was caused by Western intervention in Libya, and how much of it would have happened without said intervention. Neither I nor any of the policy-makers and commentators can know if we saved more lives than we destroyed with the decision to intervene. I’m extremely skeptical of the idea that 700,000 people would have died had we not acted. (Side observation: prior to the Libya conflict, Libya was the only – only – upper-middle income nation in Africa.)

    That’s why humanitarian intervention is, outside of a very small number of circumstances a terrible idea. We don’t need to gamble on whether we save more lives than we destroy; we can save and improve more lives for the same amount of money without killing anyone by spending it fighting disease, hunger, and poverty around the world. William Easterly, one of the most prominent critics of foreign aid, claims that it’s “failed” on the basis that the developed world has spent 3 billion over the past half-century without eradicating poverty. That’s the same level of money as the Iraq War (including veterans pensions’ etc.) cost by itself – means a lot when you’re looking at one country over a decade, but a lot less when you’re looking at spending by dozens of countries (and on over a hundred countries) over 50-some years. And unlike the Iraq War, it’s actually yielded positive results (contra Easterly), including the eradication and near-eradication of some diseases.

    We don’t need to kill people in order to save lives. I might start considering that doing so could be an acceptable action after we’ve solved every problem in the world that we can solve without killing people. Until then, the entire concept of R2P is just a way of trying to con humanitarians into backing needless wars.


    • Mali is a separate problem. You’ve got it backwards. If anything, Mali’s Tamashek were Qaddafi’s mercs. If they were run out of Libya and back to Mali (and other places) that’s hardly Libya’s problem.


    • Kat,
      Long term perspective:
      Eliminating diseases may not actually be a good thing, if it leads to overpopulation and more resource drain.
      (Malaria is an obvious exception, as that drains resources in the here and now.).


      • Malthus was wrong 200 years ago, and he’s still wrong now.

        Diseases pretty much invariably cost people money, either for health care or through inability to work while ill or while caring for a young person. Reducing diseases increases people’s ability to earn income (in addition to the fact that it increases their well-being in obvious ways, i.e. health). And almost invariably, when income goes up, rates of reproduction go down. It’s happened worldwide. Keeping poor people poor contributes to overpopulation rather than alleviating it.

        (I won’t entirely discount women’s empowerment as a factor in reducing childbearing-per-woman, but it doesn’t appear to be a necessity – in the last 30 years, the average fertility rate in the Middle East and North Africa has fallen from 6 to 2.7 despite a continuing poor record in the area of women’s rights.)


  3. Obama made his “red line” threat so now he must back it up or look even more foolish than he does already. We are only in this position because he can’t keep his mouth shut. Sadly some Dems like Rep Norton will vote for bombing just to save him the embarrassment not b/c it is a good idea.


  4. I’m with Sullivan on this one. As bad as knee jerk realism can be, it’s not really worse than knee jerk humanitarian interventionism, which can only see each moment’s crisis and lacks either foresight or historical insight. Synapses-firing response is, IMO, as on target in describing that crowd as it is for the knee-jerk neo-con crowd. One side gets emotionally worked up over cheap patriotism and fantasies of Anerican power, the other side gets emotionally worked over cheap moralism and fantasies of helping oppressed masses. Neither demonstrates capacity for serious analysis of the situations that excite their synapses–they each can focus only on desired outcomes, not how those outcomes could really be achieved.

    The humanitarian interventionists pride themselves on their moral superiority to neo-cons and realists, but as long as they only think short term and don’t give serious consideration to the ultimate outcomes of the policies they favor they are not on the moral high ground. Caring is not enough. Taking action because you care also is not enough.

    Good lord, this issue keeps bringing out the preacher in me.


    • So are you saying there is a theoretical better class of analysts and policymakers out there who have foresight and historical insight who should be making decisions about humanitarian (or other) intervention, but that they’re not located in these two camps (which are pretty poorly defined in terms of who’s in them and who’s not, but that aside…), and that we should seek to get them into decision making positions, where they maybe will sometimes intervene on humanitarian grounds and sometimes on other grounds, and often not? Or are you making a policy argument vis-a-vis intervention that isn’t really dependent on who’s doing the analysis, i.e. that the problem isn’t that we have people who aren’t able or inclined to do good enough analysis, but simply that the correct analysis is X (maybe: countries should only intervene when their critical interests are threatened to a dangerous extent, or etc.)?


      • 1. Hanley’s first rule of policymakimg: you make policy with and for the humans we actually have, not the humans we wish we had.

        2. Hanley’s second rule of policymaking: Don’t focus on the outcomes you desire; focus on the incentives you create.

        3. A necessary corollary to these two rules is that policymaking–producing the outcomes we seek–is inherently more complex than most people think.

        4. Situations like Syria are of unusual complexity.

        5. Therefore, few, if any, people are competent to design a successful humanitarian military intervention in Syria, where success is defined as resulting in less human carnage over the next generation than non-intervention.

        6. Those few are unlikely to be found either among the neocons or the humanitarian interventionists, who share the quality–because they don’t grasp rules 1 and 2–of being very naive about the possibilities of successfully manipulating people through the exercise of power.


      • James,
        Oh, five is fairly easy to create, if you don’t care about
        shiny things like democracy. Get a good, hard strongman
        and give him enough backing.
        … it works for saudi arabia (and jordan), doesn’t it?


      • have to agree with Kim on that – much of the actual complexity comes from the fact that nation-state-level policymakers don;t actually have the luxury of a adopting a definition of success that simple, though of course that only magnifies James’ point.

        Something that slightly detracts from James’ point is the fact that it doesn’t only apply to military solutions to problems like Syria – arriving at whatever the best policy solution will be equally complex. So it only works against military intervention particularly strongly to the extent to which you can define how disinclined a country ought to be to employing military force as a part of the best all-things-considered policy approach. Now, presumably that is to some degree. But if it’s to a not-presumptively-prohibitive degree, then the complexity issue only works against military force as compared to other options to that degree. And if the presumption (or preference) against military force is prohibitive, then it’s going to be almost as inadvisable in a low-complexity situation as in a high-complexity one. There just are only going to be a very small number of types of situation (granted, mostly relative non-complexity) where it’s warranted anyway: in all cases, you just very probably won’t find yourself in one of them, and in the small number of those where you do, you’ll probably have no doubt of it.


      • Policymaking is something of a contradiction in terms. We might wish for rational outcomes but in accordance with Hanley’s First, you are dealing with human beings, who are not rational.

        Nonetheless, people are highly predictable. They are motivated by the same things: self-interest, fear, avarice, faith, nationalism/tribalism, usually with a binder glue of obligations to those who give them power and mandate.

        The essence of statecraft is understanding these motivations. We may safely put aside all rational bases for policy: these are subsumed under Self-interest. See Hobbes and any standard accounting textbook. Peace benefits a whole nation, war benefits only a few.

        Military intervention takes many forms but its goal is always the same. Two forces meet, one must leave. Where neither can leave the field of battle, either wars of attrition commence or a political solution arises, a cold peace. Often, clever enemies find reasons to cooperate. But there’s nothing particularly rational about their actions: periodically they must butt heads and lash out at each other to maintain the status quo. Perceived weakness. Enforcing one’s writ. That sort of thing.

        Dictators never sleep well of nights. They’re assholes, mostly because they have to be assholes. Syria is no exception. Bashar Assad is surrounded with enemies, as was his father. The Alawites have always been a persecuted minority in their own country. The Ottomans treated them like dirt. Nobody’s ever loved them, they’re sorta unlovable people. Whoever comes to power after Assad will face the same problems and will like as not arrive at the same solutions. The persecuted become the persecutors with startling speed and regularity in human history, given half a chance.


      • ,
        Something that slightly detracts from James’ point is the fact that it doesn’t only apply to military solutions to problems like Syria – arriving at whatever the best policy solution will be equally complex. So it only works against military intervention particularly strongly to the extent to which you can define how disinclined a country ought to be to employing military force as a part of the best all-things-considered policy approach

        That’s probably correct. But keep in mind I’m emphasizing general rules, not special ones, and just applying them to a special case. That said, I suspect that military power itself has a higher quotient of harm to benefit than most non-military interventions. (That said, even purely humanitarian efforts like food and medicine might help prolong a hopeless fight, resulting in even more dead in a lost cause than otherwise. But it’s also clearly helped some people, particularly non-combatants (or so we hope) along the way; so while there can be harm, the harm to benefit ratio is almost certainly lower.)


      • The essence of statecraft is understanding these motivations.

        My training in rational choice theory leads me to a slightly different interpretation of rationality than Blaise uses, but he is not wrong in saying it can be subsumed under self-interest, and he is absolutely right in the statement I have quoted here.

        George T.,
        Thanks for the link.


  5. I’m about ready to tune this all out because I can’t take any more implicit scolding for even entertaining the idea that an action here might be advisable from people (read: Sullivan, but there are others) who cheerled us into the very war whose lessons put them in the mood to do that scolding.

    Maybe I’m wrong to feel that way; maybe I should be admiring them for their ability to adjust their thinking. But I don’t. All I can do scorn their lack of humility. These were both tough problems, even if the reasons not to engage in the course of action proposed were overwhelmingly more compelling in one case than the other. If you got the most obvious one loud-wrong, then I wish you’d be a little muted in your indignation over the prospect of a more restrained (though still ill-advised) reaction to a much more dramatic set of circumstances this time. Basically, you acted like a child last time, so let the adults figure this one out. Obviously, that’s too much to ask. Well, I can ask anyway.


    • Can I do the scolding, since I opposed Iraq (1 and 2*), too? I’m not humble, but at least I’m pure. ;)
      *Though to be sure, I was young during Iraq 1, and I’m no longer confident I was right about that one.


      • Absolutely, that’s my point! Actually, I’d prefer not to be scolded by anyone just for entertaining the idea long enough to make a considered judgement about it, but if I were to come down on it clearly wrong (I’ve come down on this I thnk clearly, though narrowly, “right” in that sense), I’d expect to be scolded by anyone who didn’t come down even more wrong on an even more obvious call on the same broad kind of question (war & peace, not that it’s a completely similar situation, as I’ve gone to some length to argue), the wrongness of which was what got them to the place where they’re inclined now to scold me. If you didn’t do that, I can take some scolding from you for being wrong.

        OTOH, I’d prefer if we could all just acknowledge that these are tough issues (even when they’re also obvious calls, which is actually a thing!) and just elect not to adopt the kind of scolding tone Sullivan does on them (hopscotching from one basic inclination to the other from decade to decade). But I can take the scolding from anyone who wasn’t even wronger on the same kind of question ten years ago. People who were, though, ought to be a little more sheepish than Sullivan currently is.


      • If you take the scolding out of political punditry, what fun is it?

        I do respect people suspending judgement while thinking the issue through. I think part of the problem is that someone who has thought about some issue a long time come–over that time–to find certain points clear and obvious, and forgetting that it took them a while to learn those points, find it fantastic that others don’t know those same points. Not that this makes it right, and of course that has no bearing on the issue of pure hypocrisy that you’re critiquing.

        ought to be a little more sheepish than Sullivan currently is.

        Were I a snarky person, I might be tempted to suggest that Sullivan was a sheep then and is a sheep now.


      • Scolding is great a lot of the time. But it’s precisely what you say: fun. I don’t subscribe to this ultra-serious notion of public shaming where people should be shamed and scolded out of the public square for getting something wrong. Actually, as the stakes go up, I wish the seriousness level would do so as well, and that means more calmness, more presumption of good faith, less scolding for the sake of theatrics and self-righteousness, etc. So on war and peace, I wish people would be more humble, whatever side they’re on, then be humble in discussing others’ previous wrongness, etc. But that should be magnified if you yourself were loudly and massively wrong on a previous war question, which is what got you to the position that you now think is so clearly right. And good for you for finally figuring out how to be right! but now you should be even more humble due to your slowness to get to the right answer (and possibly the simplistic trial-and-error method of arriving at your views that you seem to be displaying) – and you already should have been being relatively humble!

        That’s basically what I’m critiquing in Sullivan. I wish he’d be this reckless and scoldy on marriage and pot (he does try, I’ll give him that). This is, in my view, a more serious topic that demands a more serious discursive mien, which means sobriety and humility, IMO, and all the more so when you have a shitty track record (which is more the issue than straight-up hypocrisy, since he has at least admitted his mistakes, though I guess, yeah, it is somewhat hypocritical to get as indignant in one direction now is you did in the other direction a decade ago without stopping somewhere in the middle at the “Well maybe I’m just an idiot” stage and seeing what that feels like, and then before letting yourself off the hook of actually being said idiot, at least resolving to be a little more humble and circumspect in your approach).


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