Frank Harvey: Every president a hawk
by Frank Harvey
September 9, 2013
Last week, National Post columnist Jonathan Kay invoked Charles Krauthammer’s doctrine of “democratic realism” to make the case against bombing Syria. Unless the West is faced with a “strategic necessity” tied to an “existential enemy” (an enemy “that poses a global mortal threat to freedom”), Mr. Kay argues, the United States and its allies, including Canada, should resist the desire to intervene militarily. The liberal internationalist penchant to intervene in foreign conflicts for humanitarian reasons, Mr. Kay claims, rarely serves our long-term strategic interests or core values.
The basic assumption underpinning Kay’s position is that U.S. presidents have a choice in the matter: Barack Obama can simply select a foreign policy doctrine from among several options in order to satisfy a specific set of values or strategic objectives. But American foreign and security policies are not determined by the President’s political ideology, personal beliefs or personality. In fact, Washington’s foreign-policy postures are consistent across multiple administrations, the product of domestic and international pressures.
Five years ago, candidate Barack Obama criticized the excesses of the Bush administration’s neo-conservative foreign policy and homeland security agenda. As president, however, Mr. Obama has increased the homeland security budget, significantly expanded the use of drones in the war on terror, and remains committed to prosecuting detainees in Guantanamo Bay through the same military commissions established by Bush, despite Mr. Obama’s promise to close the base immediately after assuming office.
President Obama also has strengthened the Bush administration’s National Security Agency surveillance programs, and was instrumental in pushing for a coalition to topple Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. He is now poised to launch a unilateral air campaign against the Syrian regime in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution. The President is now criticized for being a post-9/11 liberal hawk.
Bill Clinton and Al Gore campaigned on promises to focus “like a laser beam” on the failing domestic economy. Yet, once elected, they felt compelled to engage in air campaigns in Bosnia (1995), Iraq (1998) and Kosovo/Serbia (1999), the latter two without a UN mandate, all to strengthen U.S. and NATO credibility. Messrs. Clinton and Gore were criticized for embracing post-cold war liberal internationalism.
George W. Bush forcefully campaigned against the Clinton-Gore legacy of nation building in Bosnia and Kosovo and promised to focus, instead, on the country’s domestic priorities. After the shock of 9/11, of course, Mr. Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and proceeded to mount two of the most expansive and costly nation-building projects in American history. Mr. Bush was subsequently criticized for adopting a neoconservative doctrine but was praised by Krauthammer for practicing democratic realism.
The titles assigned to these actions change but the policies are virtually identical. Doctrines, in other words, are meaningless distractions and, worse, superficial explanations for complicated decisions that presidents are often forced to make regardless of initial plans, ideological predispositions, or recommendations by journalists.
It was perfectly reasonable for any U.S. president to issue some form of explicit coercive “red line” threat against the Assad regime to deter its military from using chemical weapons. No one at the time criticized Mr. Obama for being irresponsible, unreasonable or reckless, and key allies in the region, including Turkey, Israel and Jordan, expected nothing less. Now, having failed to deter the regime from evidently using sarin nerve gas to kill over 1400 civilians (added to the tens of thousands of other civilian casualties from attacks over the previous two years), the only rational, politically acceptable option for the president is to re-establish the resolve required for a credible U.S. deterrent by demonstrating a willingness to respond to Syria’s non-compliance.
Keep in mind that Washington’s strategic objectives go well beyond Syria. A clear demonstration of resolve to impose costs on the Syrian regime is also designed to send credible signals to Iranian officials to deter them from deploying nuclear weapons. Recall President Obama’s March 2013 red-line threat issued in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 News: “I have been crystal clear about my position on Iran possessing a nuclear weapon. That is a red line for us. It is not only something that would be dangerous for Israel. It would be dangerous for the world.” Success and failure in Syria, in other words, is fundamentally connected to the looming nuclear crisis with Iran.
These and other strategic imperatives, when combined with the atrocities committed by the Assad regime, explain why the Obama administration seeks authorization to use force, despite the political risks. The real debate in Congress likely will be over the wording of the President’s mandate as outlined in the enabling resolution.
Of course, congressional authorization (regardless of wording) will enhance the credibility and potency of the president’s threats, but the added leverage also will make it difficult for the President’s national security team to keep the air campaign “limited,” particularly if the initial strikes fail to accomplish any clear objectives or, in the face of weak international consensus, the Assad regime is emboldened to commit other atrocities.
The Assad regime will have no way of knowing the true intentions underpinning the U.S. attacks. Syrian officials will assume the worst and interpret the air campaign as a clear attempt to topple the regime, regardless of statements by White House officials (or congressional resolutions) to the contrary. Bashar Assad will assume that democracies are incapable of sustaining support for war in Syria, and will raise the stakes accordingly. The result? Regime change will inevitably become Washington’s unstated objective.
My point is that American foreign policy is often driven by unexpected events, unintended consequences and the momentum of war itself — factors that lie beyond the control of any president. The notion that priorities can be carefully managed by embracing “democratic realism,” or any other foreign policy doctrine or grand strategy, is a myth.
Frank P. Harvey holds the Eric Dennis Chair of Government and Political Science at Dalhouise University and is a Senior Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. His most recent book, Explaining the Iraq War: Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence (Cambridge University Press), won the 2013 Canadian Political Science Association Book Prize for the best book on international relations.