Wednesday, May 28, 2014

White House Can’t Regain a Deterrence It Never Had

by Seth Mandel

The stories previewing President Obama’s upcoming foreign-policy address at West Point leaves the impression that the president might somehow just verbalize a word cloud of catchphrases instead of an actual speech. The New York Times story over the weekend, for example, explains that the president will seek to “chart a middle course between isolationism and military intervention.” It quotes national-security aide Ben Rhodes as saying the speech, at tomorrow’s commencement ceremony, is “a case for interventionism but not overreach.”

“People are seeing the trees, but we’re not necessarily laying out the forest,” Rhodes also said. The Times tells us Obama will seek to “offer more than competent crisis management”; engage in “long-shot diplomacy”; make the claim he “showed firm leadership” in uniting the world in scowling at Vladimir Putin; portray the U.S. as “the ultimate guarantor of an international order”; and, of course, he won’t forget good old “coalition-building.” Perhaps taking a cue from the first lady’s Do You Really Need That Second Donut campaign (or whatever it’s called), the president will serve the graduates a guilt-free, low-calorie word salad.

The one policy change alluded to in the speech seems to be a case for doing slightly more than nothing in Syria. But the danger in a speech of clichés and platitudes is that it runs the risk of implying the terms are interchangeable. And there’s one term the administration is contemplating, according to a companion piece the Times ran with its speech preview, that doesn’t possess that sort of portability:

Deterrence, of course, is all about the perception of power. It hinges on convincing adversaries that, with force, guile or economic isolation, you can make them think twice about acting against American interests. And if there is a common element to the complaints being voiced these days about Mr. Obama, it is that he is on the verge of losing the momentum he gained in the first term when his “light footprint” strategy — the substitution of high technology and laser-focused action for brute force — created its own, subtle deterrent effect.
Whatever one’s view of the morality of using drones, the strikes in Pakistan during Mr. Obama’s first term — nearly a sixfold increase over the Bush years — wiped out Al Qaeda’s central command. Then there were the cyberstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the first use of a digital weapon that, with a few keyboard strokes, blew up roughly 1,000 centrifuges and delayed the Iranian program by upward of a year. And of course there was the Navy SEAL mission to kill Osama bin Laden three years ago; the primary mission was to settle scores with the most wanted terrorist on the planet, but the secondary effect was to amplify the message that if you attacked the United States, sooner or later you would be hunted down.

One of the problems with this story is the task of proving a negative. So the Times absurdly asserts that the Obama strategy “created its own, subtle deterrent effect” without offering anything to back it up. It’s fair enough to respond that the public doesn’t generally know what’s been deterred, but for an administration accused of weakness that begins to sound like the embarrassing “saved or created” formulation it used with regard to jobs (which the media also parroted, much to its own discredit). It sounds even more farfetched when you remember the paragraphs immediately preceding that declaration:

[French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius] went on to argue that in failing to enforce red lines with Syria, by backing away from a military strike that he threatened if the country used chemical weapons, Mr. Obama made an error that he is paying for to this day.
A few days later a top Southeast Asian official looked up from his lunch and asked, “If you were running China today, would you be convinced there is anything that America would take the risk of casualties to protect?” Certainly not some uninhabited islands off Japan, he added, referring to one of the several disputed territories China is aggressively claiming as its own.

In other words, the Obama administration’s “deterrent effect” is not so much “subtle” as nonexistent. And if the administration wants to build a true deterrent effect, Syria is the wrong place to look. Had the president hit Bashar al-Assad’s regime directly after it used chemical weapons, it might have established some deterrent to other dictators contemplating the use of chemical weapons. (Though it raises the question of whether we ought to spend our time building deterrence against the method by which dictators kill rather than the killing itself.)

But the president balked. Giving more assistance to the rebels, after they have lost so much momentum and after the administration has suggested its desire to see a stalemate instead of a victory by either side, is unlikely to make much of a difference and it’s certainly not going to establish deterrence. Just who and what behavior would such token gestures deter?

The president, according to the Times, wants to build the case for more intervention in Syria on the grounds that it’s no longer just a humanitarian crisis but one that poses a threat to Western security. That’s true–and it’s about time. But the declaration that he doesn’t want to intervene in humanitarian catastrophes and that he’ll intervene, ever so mildly, in other conflicts years after they begin means he’s not threatening to deter either kind.

Seth Mandel


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