The Folly of Striking One Country to Send Signals to Another

The flaw in hawkish claims about Syria and Ukraine. 
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In a thoughtful post on Ukraine and Vladimir Putin's decision to invade it, Ross Douthat suggests that the incursion was plausibly connected to White House fumbling in Syria.

He begins with a nod to those who disagree.

"Many writers I read and respect are dismissive of the idea that concepts like 'toughness' and 'credibility' and 'resolve' meaningfully shape the behavior of foreign actors," he writes. "But I think this dismissal can go too far: The history of warfare and diplomacy is replete with cases where regimes have decided to gamble on a particular course—sometimes wisely, sometimes disastrously—because of their reading of a rival’s leader’s psychology, priorities, skills and sense of purpose. Is it really so ridiculous to believe that the Syria crisis confirmed certain impressions that Putin had already cultivated about America’s willingness to back up its threats and see a given strategy through, and that this influenced his decision to push harder in Ukraine than this White House ... expected?"

Could that be true, as far as it goes? "This push isn’t 'about us' in the sense that, say, Russia’s decision-making in the Cuban Missile Crisis was," Douthat adds, "but Putin surely took account of the steps that the U.S. and its allies were likely to undertake in response, and decided that they would be less effective, and less painful to his interests, than our own foreign policy team clearly expected him to think." Well, I don't think this logic takes us very far at all toward hawkish positions. 

Say that Putin learned, as a result of non-intervention in Syria, that the Obama administration won't start risky wars that don't serve U.S. interests merely to save face. That plausibly increased Putin's certainty that the U.S. wouldn't respond to aggression against Ukraine by declaring war on Russia–that would constitute an even more costly use of force on behalf of a decidedly peripheral interest. 

See where I'm going?

In theory, some past Obama administration action could've persuaded Putin that we might respond militarily, causing him to refrain from his invasion of Crimea.

But if so, that action would've damaged us, because only a risky intervention with costs that far outweighed benefits would've made the necessary point: that we may well do something that's reckless and irrational. And even that attempt to establish what we're calling "credibility" wouldn't necessarily be successful. After all, striking Syria and warring with Russia, to stick with our example, are still different. It's no coincidence that the Syria hawks who think U.S. non-intervention emboldened Putin don't themselves favor a military response in Crimea

They just believe if we had acted in Syria, Putin would be fooled into thinking that we'd act if he invaded Crimea. Why they think that is beyond my comprehension. If an intervention is so foolhardy that even Bill Kristol opposes it, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which a foreign leader would bet on us jumping in.  

Now, perhaps there is a theoretical instance in which the threshold for taking action in one country is crossed, just barely, because it will help us to bluff in a different circumstance. But that gambit seems like an awfully questionable rationale for starting a war. Hawks nevertheless encourage such an approach so frequently that it's as if they regard it as a mainstay of sound geopolitical strategy. 

If you need a refresher on the time they got to try things their way, Ted Galen can help:

Richard Perle insisted that having already destroyed the Taliban in Afghanistan, moving against Saddam’s regime would send the message to Iran (and other supporters of terrorism such as Syria and Libya) that “‘You’re next.’ Two words. Very efficient diplomacy.”

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer contended that the United States could best accelerate an anti-clerical revolution in Iran by conducting successful military campaigns in nearby states, especially Iraq. “Overthrowing neighboring radical regimes shows the fragility of dictatorship, challenges the mullahs’ mandate from heaven and thus encourages disaffected Iranians to rise,” Krauthammer argued. “First, Afghanistan to the east. Next, Iraq to the west.”The ubiquitous Bill Kristol insisted that the potential “political, strategic and moral rewards” of invading Iraq would be great. Among other benefits, a “friendly, free, and oil-producing Iraq would leave Iran isolated.” American Enterprise Institute writers Gary Schmitt and Tom Donnelly predicted: “Defeating the Saddam/Bin Laden axis will send a broader message as well. It will deter Iran, Syria, and the other part-time members of the anti-American coalition in the Middle East.”

If America was, in fact, willing to go to war for a particular cause–the territorial integrity of Canada, say–it would certainly be worthwhile to make sure we've clearly signaled as much. But signaling with actual war to make a bluff more credible? The most likely outcome is that you fight dumb wars and send a signal of incompetence.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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