I’ve Given Up on U.S. Foreign Policy


Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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144 Responses

  1. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I said it before, and I’ll say it again: ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States; they’re thugs. Starve these f[ish]ers of their oil money and their subjects will rise in rebellion against them. Let their soldiers eat the IED’s, not ours.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      I think it’s a mistake to think of them as just thugs. I mean, they are pretty shitty human beings, to be sure, but they have a leadership structure filled with people with years of experience as military and civilian administration, and a core group of fighters who are, at this point, as experienced in combat as any group in the world, and they’ve managed to do what all of the other little Islamist groups in Syria could only dream of. ISIS was just as small as they were, with only a few thousand fighters, but they have taken over large swaths of both countries while fighting the Syrian army, other Syrian rebel groups, the Iraqi army, Shia militias, and Kurdish militias. Sure, conditions were favorable, with the chaos in Syria and ethnic issues in Iraq, but what they’ve done shows that they are a lot more than just thugs.

      Thugs we might be able to bomb into submission. Such a well-led and organized group? At most, we’ll just move their fighting units into cities where bombing them becomes much more problematic.

      Thugs we might be able to send in any organized military, perhaps even the Iraqis, and root them out. Such a well-led and organized group? It would take years of counterinsurgency fighting to get them out of both Iraq and Syria, and it would be incredibly bloody, particularly in Syria, where human life has become very cheap.

      There’s nothing we can really do, so doing what we’re doing is foolish at best.Report

      • Had we said that we were limiting our involvement to defending the Kurds and other minority groups, and generally just hoping to keep ISIS contained, I probably could have gotten on board. At the very least, I wouldn’t have thought we were inevitably setting things up for yet another disaster. Save those who needed saving and to whom we owe something of a duty of loyalty, let ISIS have to deal with governing, thereby forcing it to keep most of its assets and personnel where they could be seen, and hope it either collapsed under its own rigidity, was slowly worn down by its regional rivals and neighbors, or turned into a more sparsely populated and landlocked version of North Korea.

        Wait, Obama did say that. And I was on board with that, or at least didn’t think that policy was going to ensure disaster.

        But this is not that. Damn Obama let that slope slip fast.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      Whenever I hear “existential threat” I picture someone being bullied by Jean-Paul Sartre.Report

  2. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    They are surrounded by some huge armies that don’t like them. Iran, Turkey, the Kurds. I think our involvement is 100% a result of those beheadings. The last time a war was started over the death of two people was WWI. That turned out really well.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Still better than the war that was fought over someone’s ear.
      Or the civil war that started with a pantsing epidemic.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      They’ve proven their ability to kill unarmed civilians, to sell oil at one-quarter of its market price, and to upload videos of their leader’s screederific rants to YouTube.

      Oooo-ooooh. Scary.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Is the argument that we have an obligation to go to war on behalf of the poor civilians in this former French colony who will end up oppressed by the bad guys?Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Agreed that they’re thugs, @kim; what have they done to us? (Answer: killed two journalists.)Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I don’t make such arguments. I speak only for the moral obligation (not the ethical one) to do something.
        America as a whole may have a gentleman’s agreement to not target foreign powers’ leaders for assassination. But I don’t believe you, Burt, or I have signed such agreements.

        Sometimes, life is an awful lot simpler when people get off their fucking hands and do something.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Oh, they’ve done a good deal more to us than that. Some of it good, other parts bad. Destabilizing Syria has long term strategic effects on Israel and Iran and Lebanon…
        However, this current “state of cold war” is slowly and delicately forging a frail and covert peace between America and Iran.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        “Destabilizing Syria has long term strategic effects on Israel and Iran and Lebanon…”

        Destabilizing Syria is a net benefit to Israel, as that’s one less conventional threat on their borders. After all the crap that Syria has done to destabilize Lebanon in our lifetimes, it’s almost schadenfreude to watch Syria get a taste of its own medicine. And Iran doesn’t need Syria anymore now that it has Iraq. (otoh, Russia still would like a Med port).Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      The 100% thing doesn’t really work given that we were bombing prior to the beheadings.

      The beheadings certainly pretty much took a very limited response to IS’ advance in June off the table politically and tipped things to a more concerted effort to roll them back. But the fact is that, prior to the beheadings, heck prior to the June events, there were <i:reasons to have considered becoming involved. It was against Obama’s inclinatiopn and the country’s, sop they were resisted.

      From the perspective of these politicians, the June advance and the beheadings tied their hands – made them unable not to respond, certainly. But that doesn’t make our involvement 100% because of the beheadings. Having this group control this much territory unchecked across this border destabilizes the region. That’s the basic reason for the action. The beheadings effect on politics here was the reason that that reason stopped being insufficient reason to get (re-)involved. That’s not 100% of the reason we’re involved.Report

    • Avatar Dennis Sanders says:

      I’ve never known you to be snarky and off the cuff so what has ticked you off?Report

  3. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    This reminds me of a belief I’ve long held that the non-hawk party, when in power, must always act more aggressively and violently than that the hawk party, so that they don’t lose ground at election time for being too soft.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      eh. we still haven’t gone to war with Iran (the military talked bush out of that one. with force).Report

    • Avatar Patrick says:

      You want to go to war, go to war. War’s not something to dip your toes into. Kill civilians. Bomb every structure into rubble. Destroy all capability to survive. Scorch the Earth.

      Live a life of horror every night when you go to bed, knowing that you did those things or ordered people to do those things.

      Be the sin-eater for us all.

      If you’re not willing to do that, then you’re just not doing war. I don’t know what you’re doing, really.Report

  4. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    From what I’ve read an overwhelming majority of Americans support the military action against ISIS. What lessons can we draw up from this?

    1. Are Americans prone to militarism under any pretext? I doubt very few people would argue that ISIS are good people but Burt is right that the best course would probably be to let them be and starve them off a different way. There is some anecdotal evidence that Americans might like military action. Jimm Webb once made a comment that fighting/combat is to the Scots-Irish as Bar Mitzvahs are to Jewish people. David Hackett Fisher wrote about the Scotts-Irish tendency to use violence as dispute resolution in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in North America. Other policies in America seem to indicate a strong reverence for Law Enforcement and the Military with any criticism of the military or a military action rendering a person anti-patriotic.

    2. The Munich Problem: Our political pundit class (aka our idiot class) tends to always bring up the specter of Munich when we are in a situation of do or do not use military force. The problem is that our political pundit class (aka our idiot class) forgets that the Munich Agreement was massively popular at the time and that plenty of Americans did not want to enter WWII including after Pearl Harbor. FDR let Germany and Italy declare war on the U.S. before we declared war on Italy and Germany. Many Americans (especially baby boomers who are potentially ashamed of their own cowardice during Vietnam with draft dodging) view WWII with a severe case of rose-colored glasses. We were almost unabashedly good guys (except with the shameful treatment of Japanese-Americans and the segregation of black-Americans into different units) but many Americans seem to be trying to return to the glories of WWII. D-Day presents much better visuals than Mission Accomplished and the Mai Lai massacre.

    3. Americans want a place in world affairs but are not sure how to go about it. I am not an isolationist and believe in America being active in world affairs but I prefer softpower to using military force.

    4. America and Americans never learn from past foreign policy mistakes and we are going to keep doing wars until we get one that is more like WWII than Vietnam.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      you trying to tell me the ScotsIrish still beat their kids to death, as a form of conflict resolution?
      Cultures come from different perspectives, but they also change.

      Everyone prefers softpower to military force. But there are plenty of places where softpower doesn’t work (what the fuck did we do about that civil war in mexico?)Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Jim Webb said that not me and he said that relatively recently.

        Otherwise I agree that not everything can be handled with softpower but I think the US moves to use military force too quickly still.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      People who long for a war like WWII weren’t paying attention during history class. WWII sucked. We won, which was better than losing, but four years of privation and rationing at home, a draft, over 400,000 military deaths, an destructive and humiliating attack on U.S. soil, and incursion of massive national debt were the price we paid for that victory. The world as a whole lost 4% of its total population and three-quarters of global industrial and economic capacity, and the geopolitical reality coming out of that war was a three-generations-long period of unease and hostility in which the survival of humanity itself stood in the balance.

      If there was a war of similar proportions that started today, 288 million people would die as a result of the violence, disease, and starvation appurtenant to a six-year-long all-out global war. (Assuming no special weapons were used by any combatant in proximity to population centers.)

      I understand longing for an unambiguous moral framework for war and the possibility of pursuing a war to force the enemy’s unconditional surrender, but this ignores the fact that the way things looked in 1940 was a whole lot more ambiguous than the way 1940 looks in retrospect, and the price to be paid for obtaining unconditional surrender would today be, as it was then, appallingly, horrifyingly, and nauseatingly steep. If we lose our shit over two journalists being killed, then it ought to be obvious to the casual observer that we haven’t the fortitude to handle the equivalent of WWII today.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        four years of privation and rationing at home

        The US GDP almost doubled during WWII. In fact, many people expected it to drop back to Depression level after the war ended, which would have made WWII a peak of prosperity.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I agree with what you are writing here but I suspect that most people read WWII through the Lens of the Hitler (er History) channel and the unabashed thrall of Greatest Generation books. They are not reading To Esme for Love and Squaler or watching The Best Years of Our Lives which shows the hard homecoming of a guy who lost both arms in combat and a guy born on the wrong side of the tracks who was a soda jerk before being a fighter hero. There is a great scene where the fighter hero goes to a scrap yard to see an old bomber and the bomber is called “The Round Trip?”

        I think even rationing gets viewed through rose-colored eyeglasses because of the implication of shared sacrifice and we are all in this together. Maybe people imagine the scene in The Way We Were where Barbara Streisand tells a smiling Robert Redford about making steak and a pie with her rations for him.

        While you are right about the destruction in the world, US industrial production increased and there were rising wages here. There is also the women in the workforce and the fact that the world’s industrial capacity was so smashed probably contributed to the good wages for blue-collar workers in the post-WWII environment.

        That being said, the Cold War seems like a lot of overreaction in hindsight. One reason I like the Connery Bond movies is that they seemed to sense that the Cold War was absolutely ridiculous.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        The US GDP almost doubled during WWII.

        Yes, massive government spending on a bunch of shit you immediately destroy will have that effect. Looks great on paper, but doesn’t actually create wealth.

        which would have made WWII a peak of prosperity.<

        You might want to re-read that line about privation and rationing.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I’ve said it before and will say it again but people have an uneasy relationship with wealth, comfort, and prosperity. We don’t want to have too much privation but there is a psychological unease about life that is too easy and comfortable. This is a rather old idea. The Roman Empire tried and failed to ban luxuries from time to time because luxuries made the people soft.

        I think we see this in left-wing and right-wing ideologies. The left-wing variant is to rail against consumerism and want to live in a quasi-Bohemian/medium chill lifestyle. I am not fond of McMansions but I think the articles I see on quitting your job, going to live in a Hobbit esque hut or minihouse and just “doing what you want” are kind of silly as well.

        Another version might be yearning for a war like WWII where everyone needs to tighten their belts and go in for the long haul.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Another version might be yearning for a war like WWII where everyone needs to tighten their belts and go in for the long haul.

        In the aftermath of the more recent humiliating and terrifying attack on U.S. soil which occurred in 2001, we were not asked by our leaders to sacrifice. Rather, we were asked to continue our consumption of goods and services.

        In 1941, FDR told us to go out and buy war bonds and rationed meat and clothing.

        In 2001, Bush II told us to go out and buy new TVs.

        In 2014, Obama hasn’t told us to do anything. Not that we should be doing anything, because ISIS isn’t the sort of threat that the Nazis and the Japanese were and ISIS hasn’t done anything to us which even holds a candle to 9/11. One lunatic at a Batman movie has killed more Americans than all of ISIS’s lunatics have been able to do collectively.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        Yes, massive government spending on a bunch of shit you immediately destroy will have that effect. Looks great on paper, but doesn’t actually create wealth.

        Paul Krugman now thinks that you are a knave and a fool.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Paul Krugman now thinks that you are a knave and a fool.

        Wear that like the badge of honor that it is, @james-hanley !Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        I read it. The Depression was a time of great privation too, and not being able to afford things is a lot like rationing. And (to take one example) factories that were built for war production and converted to civilian uses after the war ended are wealth, as are people trained to be machinists and mechanics.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Wow, way to ignore externalities. And the use of government force.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Sorry, I didn’t mean to trample on anyone’s religious beliefs.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        “The price to be paid for obtaining unconditional surrender would today be, as it was then, appallingly, horrifyingly, and nauseatingly steep.”


      • Honestly, I don’t see anything wrong with libertarians acknowledging that WW2 was very good for the US economy even in the long run, so long as we recognize how anomolous that experience was. I mean, even before Pearl Harbor, the US GDP was growing by leaps in bounds for several years, hitting almost 18 percent by the end of 1941 (in no small part thanks to Lend-Lease, obviously), a pace exceeded only by 1942. It’s good to be the only significant economy in the world that’s not getting blown to pieces and that other countries can turn to for loans. After entering the war, well of course the economy continued to grow – we were still largely immune to the direct ravages of war, but now had more incentive than ever to build a ton of shit, and we had quite a bit of room to expand the tax base to keep our own debt situation from getting overly bad for a couple of years.

        Unlike the rest of the world, the infrastructure we were building wasn’t just replacing shit that was getting destroyed.

        I guess what I’m saying is that it’s rare you get a situation where a country participating in a war is not only able to avoid much damage to its infrastructure, but is also the only country in the world, most of which is also involved in the same war and also spending as much as it can for the war, to which other countries can look to help make up for shortfalls in production.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Yes, Paul Krugman thinks I’m a knave and a fool. I can live with that.

        It’s interesting that Mike can call a time of privation and rationing a potential “peak of prosperity.” It’s almost as though he doesn’t understand what “prosperity” means.

        I’d also point out that it’s common knowledge that considerable war profiteering took place in WWII, due to the government’s “cost plus” system of paying for things. This inflated the price of war materials considerably, so the conclusion from a simple-minded focus on GDP growth means that war profiteering by itself improved the economy.

        As to the infrastructure, much of that was previously in place, and was adapted for wartime use. Yes, some was built, but overall I’d guess it was much less than the value of what we built to be destroyed or mothballed after the war. And if economic revival could be produced just by building some new factories, we might start thinking that all FDR had to do in 1933 was subsidize factory building, and he might have gotten us out of the Depression years sooner. I doubt you’ll find an economist who believes that. That the newly built infrastructure did have post-war value is certain; that this was a significant cause of economic recover is not that simply demonstrated.

        Of course I know that Krugman is the only economist anyone actually needs to read today, to have a perfect and complete understanding of the entire discipline of economics. His Nobel Prize in trade theory proves that he’s the world’s leading expert in a different subfield, macroeconomics. And everyone in the discipline who disagrees with him is another one of those knaves and fools–it’s amazing how many knaves and fools there are in economics.

        Cecil Bohanon:

        On paper, measured GDP did drop after the war: It was 13 percent lower in 1947 than in 1944. But this was a GDP accounting quirk, not an indication of a stalled private economy or of economic hardship. A prewar appliance factory converted to munitions production, when sold to the government for $10 million in 1944, added $10 million to measured GDP. The same factory converted back to civilian production might make a million toasters in 1947 that sold for $8 million—adding only $8 million to GDP. Americans surely saw the necessity for making bombs in 1944, but just as surely are better off when those resources are used to make toasters. More to the point, growth in private spending continued unabated despite a bean-counting decline in GDP.

        Robert Higgs:

        Noting that the government had displaced the price system, Wesley Mitchell observed that comparisons of the war and prewar economies, even comparisons between successive years, had become “highly dubious.” Index number problems lurked around every corner. Much output during the war, especially the weapons, consisted of goods that did not exist before the war. Even for physically comparable goods, price structures and output mixes changed radically. Production of many important consumer goods was outlawed. Surrounding everything were the “obvious uncertainties concerning [price] quotations in a land of price controls and evasions.” [Simon] Kuznets declared that the “bases of valuation for the war and nonwar sectors of the economy are inherently noncomparable . . . . It is impossible to construct directly a price index of war products that would span both prewar and war years.”

        Alexander Field:

        Had trends persisted in the absence of war, employment, TFP, and labor productivity would all likely have been higher in 1942…housing construction was robust and growing in 1939, 1940, and 1941, and when the postwar housing boom emerged with full force in 1946, it took off from where it had been arrested in 1941. Since the failure of residential construction to revive fully was one of the major contributors to the persistence of low private investment spending during the Depression, its signs of revival in the years immediately preceding the war suggest that had peace continued, investment, output, and employment growth would have continued as the economy reapproached capacity.

        …There continues to be a popular perception that war is beneficial to an economy, particularly if it does not lead to much physical damaged to the country prosecuting it. The U.S. experience during the Second World War is the typical poster child for this point of view. Detailed research into the effects of armed conflict, however, has usually produced more nuanced interpretations…

        Of course these economists are not right just because I’ve quoted them. But anyone who’s willing to take to think about whether the wisdom they received in high school, or willing to wonder whether maybe a specialist in trade theory is not, after all, the only worthwhile source of knowledge about macroeconomics, might find them worth thinking about.

        The great irony in this whole thread, of course, is Schilling’s snark about religion, given that despite his lack of anything approaching expertise in economics, he has unquestioning confidence in the Keynesian/Krugmanian interpretation, and appears unwilling to give any thought at all to arguments put forward by economists who have actually studied the precise question with more academic rigor than has Mr. Krugman (who has, of course, studied other interesting questions with more academic rigor than have they).Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

        The more interesting thing about WW2, IMO, is the fact that it brought a lot of previously rural people into contact with a lot of technology that was hadn’t been familiar to them. Tanks, aircraft, radios, and radars were all very important to the Allied war effort, and training vast vast numbers of people to be proficient in them, and more importantly familiar with them, made it possible for civilian employers to find a much larger pool of trained labor and a much larger pool of consumers when the war ended.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        Libertarianism isn’t what’s driving my position. You make a good point about infrastructure, though. Not so much that our newly built infastructure was a big economic deal, but that so much infrastracture elsewhere was destroyed while ours remained operational, which allowed us to be the source of production for the world. If someone wants to argue that WWII ended the Great Depression in America by devastating the rest of the world so that we were the only big source of production, ok, there’s a logic to that. But the argument that wartime production ended the Depression…well, there’s a logic to that in the sense that a wartime command economy is not itself a Depression, but there’s a greater illogic to it in that it’s not the same thing as an actual economic recovery.

        And the focus on GDP, as Mike does, shows a fundamental simplicity in economic understanding. In many years, the USSR’s GDP grew far faster than the U.S.’s did. That led many people to think that maybe there really was something to communism. But it was all driven by command-and-control labor mobilization–moving people out of agriculture into industrial production (good in itself, except for the command part, but really nothing other than a belated industrial revolution), and of course it never produced a sustainable economy that provided sufficient consumer goods and services.

        If the government had printed, ala the Simpsons, a $1 trillion bill in 1946, and used it to buy a rock in a farmer’s field, U.S. GDP would have increased by $1 trillion. But it wouldn’t have created actual value or economic growth of anything like $1 trillion. (The resulting flow of that $1 trillion through the economy might, yes, but that would count in addition to the initial spending–so the point here is that the $1 trillion rock would count all by itself as a $1 trillion increase in GDP.)

        As Mike correctly notes, most people expected the economy to collapse again after WWII. That it didn’t, most people simplistically attribute to WWII spending. Of course that may just be an example of the post hoc fallacy. I don’t think there’s anything like consensus on what caused post-war recovery, but there are some interesting factors. One, as noted, was being the source of production for most of the bombed-out world. The post-WWII European famine was good for American agriculture, too. There’s also the very fact of optimism, which even a Keynesian ought to be able to get behind–if recessions/depressions are caused by a lack of demand, anything that pumps up demand can end them, and optimistic people buy enthusiastically, pumping up demand in what may be simply a self-fulfilling prophecy. And of course there was the GI Bill–not only did that provide an education that took a lot of boys out of agriculture and into more productive fields (my dad being one of them, in fact), but it also hid a certain amount of (at least potential) unemployment: these ex-GIs were not working, but they weren’t counted among the unemployed.

        None of these factors requires being a libertarian to think they make the story of post-war recovery somewhat more complex than the simplistic “the government spent lots of money and pulled us out of the Depression.”Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        Good point. There’s so much that lies hidden within the “how are you gonna keep ’em down on the farm line,” that is really explanatory. In some ways the post-war recovery is just another story of labor mobilization, the completion of the industrial revolution that was interrupted by the Depression. To the extent the war played a role in that, as you suggest, and as I suggest in pointing to the GI bill, then obviously the war played a role. But again, that’s a substantially different story than the simplistic Keynesian spending story that is the parable in Mike’s sacred economics comic books.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        The interesting thing here is that the work “privation” is being used both as a fact that doesn’t need demonstrating (it can just be asserted) and that it’s being treated as an absolute. Yes, the country was poorer in 1943 than it is now. Compared to 1932? Not so much. And I have some sense of this because I have lots of family that lived in poverty through the depths of the Depression and started to get a toehold when there was more work because of the war. Ask people of that age (the few who are still around); you’ll hear the same. What Mark said is exactly right. The effect of WWII in the US was an anomaly, and nothing like a recommendation for war as a remedy for a bad economy. But it did make a lot of Americans better off, and denying that is just plain silly.

        It’s funny how heated things get when I don’t even mention Krugman. (In fact, as far as I know I’ve never mentioned Krugman in any post or comment.) Let’s see if we can really blow things up:

        Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman. Krugman.

        Honestly, if this is how things are going to go around here, I have better things to do with my time.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        The how are you gonna keep them on the farm line comes from after-WWI and you forgot the bit where they are talking about Paris, not Tanks.

        Though I suppose the rural were driven to cities during WWII as well especially rural women.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        The interesting thing here is that the work “privation” is being used both as a fact that doesn’t need demonstrating (it can just be asserted) and that it’s being treated as an absolute.

        Well, no, Mike. Not even close. People actually research these things..

        Ask people of that age (the few who are still around); you’ll hear the same.

        Curiously, my mom, born in 1930 and still kicking, doesn’t agree.

        Honestly, if this is how things are going to go around here, I have better things to do with my time.

        In all seriousness, Mike, your understanding of economics is very “pop” econ. How can you possibly be sure that what you believe is correct or complete if you never bother to study alternative perspectives?

        Apply that to any issue you do know really well, and think about how much effort you’ve invested in learning it, and think about the level of argument a person who hasn’t put much in significant effort, but has pop knowledge, would be able to make.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        You, of all people, won’t allow me a little bit of artistic license?! 😉Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        If we lose our shit over two journalists being killed, then it ought to be obvious to the casual observer that we haven’t the fortitude to handle the equivalent of WWII today.

        If we had to handle the equivalent of WWII today, we would handle it. No one wanted to handle it then; it was certainly in doubt whether we could. Whatever we conclude about a need to confront IS with force is utterly irrelevant to that capacity.Report

      • @james-hanley

        Re: post-WWII recovery: I had also heard that during the war, workers saved a lot of money because they couldn’t spend it (because of rationing and shortages). Could that have contributed to the recovery?

        I ask because I really don’t know, but it has a certain common-sense feel to it.Report

      • I think Saul’s right about the “how you’re gonna keep them down on the farm.” It’s not a lie. It’s just a song from WWI.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Listening to Krugman talk about the great depression is… eh.
        But, I’ll ask you, what have you done recently that focuses on current or near-term problems?

        I do give Krugman some credit for being willing to change his research focus, as new problems arise in the world.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      America and Americans never learn from past foreign policy mistakes

      Overlearn from them, really. The German stab-in-the-back myth was a result of WWI’s ending with an armistice, so in WWII we insisted on unconditional surrender even if it meant dropping two atomic bombs on civilians. Korea and Vietnam showed that the American public wouldn’t support drawn-out wars, so GWII was planned and sold as a short war, facts notwithstanding. And Munich, of course.

      And some of the feeling among the idiot class that something needs to be done about ISIS in an understandable unwillingness to abandon the Kurds again, as we did in 1991.Report

    • Many Americans (especially baby boomers who are potentially ashamed of their own cowardice during Vietnam with draft dodging)

      Yeah, they’re cowards because they didn’t want to be forced to endanger their lives in an unjust war.Report

  5. Avatar CK MacLeod says:

    You think you want to live in a world where the murder of Americans as Americans, or politically, could be broadcast to all, in connection with the rescue of innocents from genocide, and our response would be indirectly mathematical, while we turned to comedians to handle whatever stray remainders. IS/ISIL/ISIS/Daesh qualifies as an existential threat to the precise extent that failure to respond would equate with self-nullification. It is only the actual impossibility of non-response that diminishes the appearance of danger.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      I don’t advocate non-response, @ck-macleod . I advocate a response proportionate to the level of threat demonstrated. Isolation, containment, embargo, and boycott.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:

        If we reeeeaally thought that bombing would take care of it, I’d be all for bombing. But I suspect that what’s going to happen is that our military efforts will be largely ineffective and we’ll just end up paying the political cost of having hit our enemy with our “best shot” and failed. Throwing a punch and having them laugh it off is usually worse than not throwing the punch at all.

        This may be just an opportunity for them to show that they’re impervious to our attacks and use that fact recruit more people and funds. Why not just contain them and slowly starve them of resources, making it clear that they’re not important enough for us to engage them in the guerrilla war that they want?Report

      • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

        Those are not proportionate responses. A couple of them hardly qualify as responses at all. “Boycott” IS? Is there some “Made in the Caliphate” product on the shelves you’d like us to avoid? As for “containment” and “isolation,” how they would be possible without destructive violence against IS fighters, positions, commanders, and support systems, with or without the cooperation of local actors, is unclear to me. However, I don’t think Americans would be satisfied, nor necessarily should be satisfied, with passive “containment” and “isolation.”Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        our bombings, combined with Iran’s involvement, should take care of it.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        The “Made In The Caliphate” product to boycott is oil.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        The “Made In The Caliphate” product to boycott is oil.

        We’ll boycott that like Belushi boycotted speedballs.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:


        our bombings, combined with Iran’s involvement, should take care of it.

        Is that true in the sense that our involvement is critical, or is it true in the same sense as, “You can kill a flock of sheep with witchcraft if you also give them arsenic”? And what do we mean by, “take care of it?”Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        good question.
        I think our bombings are likely to result in MUCH MUCH less loss of life, in Syria and Iraq. they may not be critical, as in “if we didn’t do this, the ISIL would prevail” — but saving Iran 10 years of brutal warfare may be worth it…

        I assume what we’re talking about is a return to a brutal dictatorship in Syria (unless we get on better terms with Iran, in which case we might be able to push a bit on the “democratically elected” dictator ala Abdulah al-Hussein), and a democratically elected Iraq, without ISIL around (and probably more egalitarian).Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        An Iraq without a Kurdish population having any political influence, which ain’t happening, and a Syria where the Shi’a can no longer hold power at the barrel of a gun and dare not let go of power.

        I’ve said this before, we’re not going get to get out of this without redrawing the maps.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I feel like an Iraq with a strong Kurdish presence is likely as the end result of all this craziness. Or we could redraw the maps.
        At this point, we’ve involved everyone with strategic interests…Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic says:

        You say proportionate, but that is question begging. There’s a disagreement about what constitutes a proportionate response. One alternative perspective would say that our current response is proportionate. Yet another alternate view holds the Obama administration has underreacting and has been slow to react – so in that view we’ve been disproportionately inactive.

        What response is proportionate to a threat of genocide? or to widespread, systematic, gross violations of human rights? or war crimes and crimes against humanity?

        What response is proportionate to the threat posed by essentially ungoverned spaces in weak and failing states? Keep in mind, those who pose a threat to the US and US interests move into such spaces to plan, fundraise, and train.

        Last, I’d offer that while gauging if a threat is existential or not can help craft a response, quite a bit falls below the existential threat category and is still worthy of action, sometimes military, on the part of the US. (And some species of containment policy include military action, certainly containment during the Cold War involved a number of proxy wars. Obama could reasonably, to me, argue that current military strikes are part and parcel of a containment policy – ISIL was reaching for additional territory in Iraq for instance.)Report

      • Avatar George Turner says:

        Bombing their modular oil refineries will help, and should reduce some of their mobility, but I don’t think it’s sufficient to contain them. Most poor countries don’t have oil refineries to prop them up, and a hundred years ago even many major powers didn’t have much to speak of in the oil department.

        As a side note the “no war for oil” crowd is shockingly silent about the US, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and the UAE bombing a competitor’s oil installations, as if Exxon was in charge of the war plans, pretty much confirming that the prior protests were just the usual partisan politics.

        The Kurds, when sufficiently armed, may form a bulwark against the northward expansion of ISIS, but I strongly doubt they’d be willing for form a large offensive force and invade all the non-Kurdish areas, which would probably unsettle everyone in the region anyway.

        One of the big problems with ISIS is that if they’re not strongly engaged where they are, they’ll get bored with simply directing traffic, run out of people worth torturing, and look to topple other countries in the region, like a roving band of vandals who have to expand to pillage and keep their revenue stream flowing. They’re living in the 7th century in more ways than one, and would love to replicate the original Muslim conquest of the entire region.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        The “Made In The Caliphate” product to boycott is oil.

        In all earnestness, @burt-likko , what do you have in mind here? IS sells their oil on informal if not illegal (Black) markets. We can “advocate” that buyers “boycott” it, sure. Are we actually going to get them to do it?Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        @michael-drew Pipelines and well heads and terminals and the like are things we can easily blow up with missiles at virtually no risk to our own personnel, and rebuild for a friendly government later. They can’t sell the oil if they can’t get it out of the ground or move it to a terminal.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

        As noted below, US and allied forces have already started taking out ISIS’s oil infrastructure. Also, not to quibble too much, but the sort of “boycott” and “containment” you’re referred to is actually more on the level of a blockade, which consequently is also an act of war.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Does that fall under containment? I guess I hadn’t perceived that you were for airstrikes.

        If containment includes airstrikes, then what is the limit of containment? The initial strikes at the dam and at Mt. Sinjar were meant to contain the advance. Were those okay? And if the aim is eventually to restore the Iraqi army’s ability to contain the group in Iraq, might not degrading it in its sanctuaries be indicated?

        I’m certainly dubious of the “ultimately destroy” objective. That seems like wildly best-case-scenario goal setting, and one that clearly could lead to deeper involvement than I’d like to see. But I’m not sure what harm it does in itself, either, if in the process of seeking to destroy them, we degrade their strength and thus allow them eventually to be contained by local forces.


        My impression is that Burt realizes we’re targeting oil infrastructure (if it can be called that – it sounds like some of what they’re working with is pretty primitive), he’d just like us to stop there with the high explosives.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Hypocrisy is universal. Realism triumphs over idealism always.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Is bombing them meant to deter future groups (or ISIS) from beheading Americans, or is it a merely symbolic act? I realize these aren’t the only options, but reading you, it seems like your position is that one of those two is necessary, or perhaps both (symbolic act to deter).Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        A building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it. Symbols are given power by people. Alone, a symbol is meaningless, but with enough people, blowing up a building can change the world. Report

    • Avatar Kolohe says:

      Were the dudes that murdered William Buckley and Robert Stethem an existential threat?Report

    • Avatar RTod says:

      Not responding to the individual comment so much as I am just to say that it’s good to see you, @ck-macleodReport

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


      I will admit that I re-read your comment about 12 times to try to unpack your unique prose and failed miserably. The only thing I was really able to fully understand was that basically we HAVE to respond to ISIS. My question is, why? Our national reputation in the region is already terrible, there are a bunch of other armies in the region that are capable of dealing with them and the Caliphate is never, never, never going to happen.Report

      • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

        Really, Mr. Dwyer, I’m sure #13 would do the trick.

        I think that despite my flaws as a writer, you’re actually getting my meaning fairly well. The main problem from my point of view is that you insist on treating a counterfactual fantasy as reality, leading you to read my unreadable words as saying “basically we HAVE to respond to ISIS.”

        “Have to” tends to suggest a “because if we don’t…,” but “because if we don’t…” returns us to the counterfactual reality in which “we might not” or “aren’t” or “possibly wouldn’t”: We ARE responding to ISIS, and we were and are always going to respond to a group like ISIS acting like ISIS has towards us, for as long as referring to “us” means anything at all.

        I hasten to add that you’re far from alone in the assumptions that make the other, nonsensically fantastical way of viewing current events possible. Indeed, in my observation those assumptions are pervasive, and for the same reason attempts to understand events apart from them, or while treating them as questionable assumptions, may come across as mystifyingly obscure or disorienting.

        To reply to James K, Chris, and Burt Likko, I will indulge in the commenter’s sin of linking to my own blog, as I have by now written several thousand words on IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. The post in which I focused most intensively on this question of the form of the American response was this one: http://ckmacleod.com/2014/09/15/chastising-their-insolence/ In the list of ISIS-related posts in the sidebar there is one entitled “essential threat” that looks, as you might perhaps expect, in more detail at the question of an “existential threat” and the transfiguration of James Foley.

        You might find two passages from the work of Paul W Kahn helpful, or at least they might encourage you to consider the possibility that I’m not completely out of left field or my mind on this alternative perspective on “the threat.” Both passages come from his 2009 book SACRED VIOLENCE, which focuses more on the torture discussion, but, as in most of his work, tries to restore a sense of politics or the life of the nation as a primary if often unreflectively experienced realm of meaning-creation for the many, sooner or later for all of us, and not simply as a realm for narrow utilitarianism, instrumental rationalism, or one or another variety of ideal liberalism/liberal idealism:

        The new terrorism… represents an existential threat to the nation. This, at least, is what many Americans imagine. They don’t imagine that the United States is about to be defeated, but they do imagine the terrorist as someone who seeks to accomplish his ends by killing Americans—as many as possible. They read the terrorists’ message as a statement that we are not secure within our borders and that the government cannot protect us. Ordinary individuals are forced to think that their political identity alone makes them a potential target of violence. They already see that the terrorist threat is causing profound changes to what is loosely called “our way of life.” They cannot imagine a resolution of this conflict outside the defeat of the enemy, for they see no grounds for compromise. These are the conditions under which citizens can be asked to kill and be killed for the maintenance of the state.


        …terrorism is such a powerful presence today precisely because it asserts an existential threat to the state. This is not a question of measuring the actual threat, which may or may not be serious, but of understanding the meaning the terrorist conveys. The terrorist who blows himself up attacking Israeli targets expresses the idea that Israel should not exist. He is not violating the law; he is denying sovereignty. The September 11 attacks targeted the symbols of the United States as the most powerful political entity in the world. At issue was not a difference of opinion but an expression of disregard for the existence of the state. To recognize this is already to move from law to war. Israel has engaged in a practice of extrajudicial killing—that is, targeted assassinations. So has the United States since 9/11. Both do so because they find themselves in a situation of “extrajudicial” dying: political deaths that are not murder but sacrifice.


      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


        I read your piece that you linked to. This is troubling:

        “We do not now actually require the group to be fully eliminated – assuming we could even agree on what level of destruction equated with elimination. We require that its members now suffer grievous punishment at our hands, and we know we are capable of causing them to suffer and die virtually without limit, a fact whose brute significance they, and anyone tempted to stand too close to them, may come to recognize.”

        So this is basically a revenge thing? I will repeat this notion: ISIS wants us to do this. They know what we are capable of and yet they poked the bear anyway. So, why are we complying? What would have more impact in the region; another outmatched Islamic group getting their asses kicked until they decide to disperse and re-convene at a later date or that same Islamic group being surrounded and destroyed by their fellow Muslims who have simply had enough of Radical Islam?Report

      • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

        Thanks for reading the piece.

        So this is basically a revenge thing?

        Depends on what you mean by “revenge.” To “avenge” the deaths of “two of our own” might be seen as entirely just and rational, even if that was all there was to it, but whether the decision to achieve vengeance or to inflict punishment must precede or follow its rational justifications as ever articulated is a deeper question.

        I will repeat this notion: ISIS wants us to do this. They know what we are capable of and yet they poked the bear anyway.

        What is “rational” for ISIS and appears rational to us may not be the same thing. The acts that ISIS performs serve multiple purposes. The notion that lashing out against or challenging us or otherwise escalating must be an externally oriented stratagem of some kind, or carefully calculated, or “a trap,” rather than, in short, an action in their nature or in the nature of revolutionary, expansionist, and terrorist groups, is unjustified. They’re like all the rest of us path-dependent sharks. They keep swimming forward on the course they’ve set.

        So, why are we complying? What would have more impact in the region; another outmatched Islamic group getting their asses kicked until they decide to disperse and re-convene at a later date or that same Islamic group being surrounded and destroyed by their fellow Muslims who have simply had enough of Radical Islam?

        To the first question, it’s in our nature as well, though I don’t concede that the alternative you seem to be advocating would in fact be better for the people there in the short or the long term. I also wonder why you proceed from the assumption that our primary interest is or can be “impact in the region”? Our primary interest can I think be better understood in the terms Kahn proposes, or in terms that would formerly have been second nature for our chattering classes as well as for the broad populace.

        There is a good case to be made that Assad’s regime is as bad as or worse than ISIS by many measures. That case tends to put particular interests aside, or to focus on some kind of global humanitarian ideal. The key difference between today and a year ago, aside from the passage of time and the ebbing of isolationist/realist sentiment in the US, is that Assad has not identified himself or his regime as our enemy by acting directly against us. ISIS, on the other hand, is an enemy of a familiar type, just as the Yazidis and the Kurds are familiar subjects of our sympathetic concern – “friends” in the latter case. ISIS, for its own reasons, could not accept our intervention – or “containment” of their ambitions – without counter-escalating. Violent conflict between them and ourselves was all but inevitable.Report

    • Avatar James K says:


      What’s your definition of “existential threat”? There is no sense in which IS threatens the existence of the United States. One might as well worry about being conquered by Belgium.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      IS/ISIL/ISIS/Daesh qualifies as an existential threat to the precise extent that failure to respond would equate with self-nullification.

      So, then, a probability of about .0000001?

      While I firmly disagree with you, sir, like our friend, Burt, I must say it’s good to hear from you again.Report

  6. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    How do you deal with a problem like ISIL or Boko Haram? They aren’t an existential threat to us or most of the world. They are to other countries and societies but those countries and societies seem completely incapable with confronting them for a variety of reasons. This allows both groups to commit atrocities that seem to come out of bad movies and paperback thrillers than real life but are absolutely terrible in nature and scope. In a movie, some rag tag bunch of misfits would come and save the day but history gives us no real example of how nation-states should go against comic book villains.Report

  7. Avatar zic says:

    I am just thinking out loud here, not supporting attacking ISIS one way or another, just thinking with brain-to-finger-to-internet out loud.

    First, I don’t think that because these two victims were journalist, there does need to be some deeper consideration. Yes, they were just two people, doing dangerous work in a war zone. But because they had media attention, they were also selected to convey that message; and what the message is and how we respond bears thought. Also, it bears consideration that war correspondents have been killed at an alarming rate of late; in Russia, as well.

    Second, there is intent here that feels close to genocide, and I dislike saying this, except I feel it’s true. Now genocide is an after-the-fact thing; it’s always already-happening when we recognize and react. When we react earlier, we prevent a probability of genocide, we don’t prevent genocide. And if it is genocide, we’ve waited too long. I hate this, but it also merits consideration no matter how it discomforts me.

    A third consideration is what the other governments in the area need in order to be able to respond; and the potential growing instability from infrastructure gains is an important factor here.

    But I say these things not because they are American problems, they are human problems. We, the good ol’ USA, owns nearly half the world’s military might. They say if your carpenter, all solutions look like a hammer and saw. A military response is American Exceptionalism on display.

    I do have one preference: not distributing guns in the area, it’s awash already.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      Ugh, first point — journalist — should not have been a negative. Just drove for 5 hours.Report

    • @zic

      Now genocide is an after-the-fact thing; it’s always already-happening when we recognize and react. When we react earlier, we prevent a probability of genocide, we don’t prevent genocide. And if it is genocide, we’ve waited too long. I hate this, but it also merits consideration no matter how it discomforts me.

      Yes, a thousand times this.Report

  8. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    A lot of what is driving the call to arms against ISIL and a desire for a bombing campaign that is probably doomed to fail is a horrific realization that there are sometimes very bad things that occur that you can’t do anything about. Its extraordinarily difficult to be a by-standard to attrocities and it makes people feel useless or impotent.Report

    • Avatar James K says:


      I agree, people don’t like to feel that their government is impotent to act. This unfortunately leads governments to do foolish, often counter-productive things because the alternative is to admit to their voters, and to themselves, that they can’t fix the problem.Report

  9. Avatar Creon Critic says:

    Two Americans being beheaded has led to us spending millions (billions?) bombing more people in the Middle East.

    I’d suggest this isn’t a fair summary of events or of Obama administration policy. Quite a bit happened prior to the beheadings, including threats to minority populations, refugee flows out of ISIL-controlled territory, and then-unchecked gains in Iraq. Also a part of the case the US is making: plots emanating from ISIL-controlled territories threaten the US and US interests. If you have taken these elements into consideration and dismissed them as unconvincing or inadequate, it isn’t apparent to me.

    And as for the Seth Meyers video, he suffers from the limitations of his medium. He is going to have difficulty accurately capturing complexity in a three minute comedy segment. So for instance, there are more than two sides to the conflict in Syria. The US wants to strengthen those groups who most nearly reflect US preferences and weaken all sides who don’t. The US can be against ISIL and against Assad at the same time. There are all sorts of tightropes US foreign policy walks all the time: strategic ambiguity regarding Taiwan, pivoting to Asia without upsetting China, the elusive two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict…

    Support some rebels, oppose some rebels, and oppose the Assad government is pretty straightforward. Difficult to execute, yes. But we wouldn’t need intelligence services or special forces if this stuff were easy.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

      @creon critic

      “Quite a bit happened prior to the beheadings, including threats to minority populations, refugee flows out of ISIL-controlled territory, and then-unchecked gains in Iraq. Also a part of the case the US is making: plots emanating from ISIL-controlled territories threaten the US and US interests.”

      None of those things is a direct threat to the U.S. I mean, people can plot things in a basement in Paris or a garage in Milwaukee or somewhere in the Syrian hinterlands. With regards to the rest, the various governments around the region have plenty of motivation to step up and deal with this. And honestly, the people of the region don’t want Sharia law. That’s plenty of motivation in itself.Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic says:

        people can plot things in a basement in Paris or a garage in Milwaukee or somewhere in the Syrian hinterlands.

        And in all cases, where there’s a real capability of doing harm to the US, that would be of interest to the US government. The responses wouldn’t be identical precisely because the circumstances differ. Those plotting from un(der)governed spaces might require something on the order of covert/special forces actions to overt airstrikes.

        the various governments around the region have plenty of motivation to step up and deal with this

        Should other governments, especially regional powers, be doing more? Yes. I agree. We could have an extended discussion about the various inadequacies of regional governments. Ultimately, the US can’t rely on these other governments to protect US interests – they have their own interests, which don’t always match those of the US – and they certainly won’t protect US interests without US engagement. (I’d also highlight the point that regional governments have their own conflicts with each other, American participation can help cement a coalition that the regional powers might have a great deal of trouble coming to on their own.)

        The US has the world’s most capable military, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a body charged with maintaining international peace and security, and a huge voice in the international system (as Albright said, “We are the indispensable nation.”). When there is a crisis of these proportions in the world, frankly, the US should expect a phone call.

        (Just to be clear, I’m all in favor of burden sharing, coalition building, etc. But I don’t see the US as able to dodge responsibility. The US can’t build durable coalitions without actively engaging itself in the effort to rollback ISIL. So far, Obama has done quite a bit to push responsibility to the region, insisting Iraq form an inclusive government, pressuring regional powers to do more with Kerry’s recent visit to the region, etc. The groundwork is there for the burden to be shared. But to me, it is a pipedream to imagine the regional powers, absent US engagement, will just sort it all out amongst themselves. As I mentioned before, they have their own conflicts with each other.)Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic says:

        Sorry @mike-schilling , that 5:21 pm comment should be @mike-dwyerReport

  10. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I’m 100% down with the idea that these fellers need killin’.

    My hesitation comes with the whole “therefore, we need to start doing X, Y, and Zed” part of the plan.

    We’re not good at X, Y proved to fail every single time we attempted it, and Zed isn’t even a real letter.Report

    • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

      We’re great at X, but don’t like to admit it or admit our satisfaction with it. Y can be a bit fanciful, but not too much of a problem unless you take it too seriously, which, in the peculiar case of Y, means taking it not seriously enough. Zed is irrelevant.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Okay, let’s use your X and Y instead of mine.

        Is X on the table? Is Y on the table?

        We’d need a media blackout, for one thing. Not only no landline phones, no cellphones, no satellite phones, no internet phones. No internet, for that matter. We’d need to control the information to control the narrative in order to do X.

        And that ain’t on the table.Report

      • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

        Jaybird, I don’t recognize my X in your X. My X is pretty much what we’re in the process of executing. Y for me has more to do with the possible whys and therefores we add to X, and also, relatedly but not or never identically, whatever we say at any given time as to why we X. (As for Zed, Zed’s dead.)Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I don’t know that what we’re executing will work.

        I mean: what are we hoping to accomplish? I don’t think that what we’re executing will accomplish that.

        If anything, we’d be better off saying “hey, it’s your country” and letting whatever government floats to the top be in charge. If the Iraqi people aren’t willing to put in half the effort to creating IEDs to blow up the cars of the government as they were to blow up the transports of the US military, then they’ve communicated that they’ve finally got the government that is good enough.

        What if Iraq created Saddam instead of the other way around?Report

    • Avatar Patrick says:


      I read your piece, and on the face of it, it’s not particularly objectionable*

      I agree, fundamentally, that ISIS/ISIL requires a response in the way that you phrase it, here:

      “In sum, it is hard to imagine a world in which acts like the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff simply as Americans, in connection with an American decision to rescue others from imminent annihilation, did not produce among Americans a demand for punishment as both practical and moral necessity.”

      I don’t think that’s particularly debatable. From a policy-wonk standpoint a fairly straightforward utility calculus approach has a tendency to become your default framework. But it’s readily apparent that the larger body politic don’t go a thinkin’ with that framework as either their first or second method of analysis.

      So the guys like me who have a tendency to think in wonky sorts of terms, checking ourselves against public opinion is kinda important, because we do live in a democratic republic and the feelings of the general public do figure quite prominently in both our public perception of events, and particularly in our leadership’s payoff calculus.

      So. To that extent, “the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff simply as Americans”, as a driver for public policy decisions… yes, that’s going to include *necessarily* more than just a simple nod to the produced feelings among Americans for chastisement.

      This applies even if whoever is sitting in The Chairs of the Hollowed Halls of Power doesn’t particularly think that chastisement is a good idea. In fact, given our particular methods of choosing our leadership, it probably applies in many cases even if the folks in The Chairs believe that chastisement will be, in fact, counterproductive to our long-term goals.

      But I think your criticism is somewhat off-base, in this piece, because you’re arguing, essentially, that attempting to interact with and manage this public populism, to reduce the impact of the feelings in an attempt to get Americans’ attitudes in line with our long-term utility, is in some what itself misguided.

      I don’t know that I buy that.

      It does not seem to matter to the legion of critics how much emphasis the President puts on what he calls a “core principle of [his] presidency,” as he reiterated it in his speech to the nation: “If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

      I think it *does* matter, in the sense that the critics of the President probably would respond to this by saying, “that’s a great public speech line, but as a matter of practicality, this is an absolutism that is about as true as ‘if it saves only one child’ or ‘if it prevents only one tragedy’ or any one of a number of other politician’s favorite absolutisms that become in practice terrible guidelines for public policy”.Report

      • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

        Thanks for your thoughtful response, Patrick. I wish I had more time to reply today, and I wonder if the League is still closing down threads after 3 days or whatever. If I can’t return to this conversation in time, I’ll try to return to it in another venue. I’ll just say for now that, in my opinion, we also have to consider whether many men and women occupying those chairs in the Hollowed/Hallowed Hellhalls may have faulty or finally dysfunctional and simply wrong concepts of the good for us, long- or short-term. An open inquiry would consider the possibility that a politician in touch with the people or even, as we say, with his or her crass political self-interest may intuit a better response than any army of wonks or high-level super-wonk appointees likely will. It seems to me that not to be open to this possibility is implicitly to deny the democratic-republican concept (which for better or worse is our concept) and advocate its replacement with a different one.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:


        It’s four days, I think. But if I get a bug up my ass I may just promote this discussion from “comment threads” to a blog-back-and-forth because you have an interesting point that deserves to be flushed out more than “some”. On the other hand, this is the first week of classes, and I’m more than a little busy 🙂

        An open inquiry would consider the possibility that a politician in touch with the people or even, as we say, with his or her crass political self-interest may intuit a better response than any army of wonks or high-level super-wonk appointees likely will.

        Oh, I’ll consider that possibility.

        Unfortunately, in judging that sort of a contest, I get the feeling anyone involved would be bringing in so much baggage in the form of their ideological priors that trying to assess whose response was “better” in any given case would astonishingly fall right down the line on fairly predictable patterns.

        It seems to me that not to be open to this possibility is implicitly to deny the democratic-republican concept (which for better or worse is our concept) and advocate its replacement with a different one.

        Don’t confused acceptance with endorsement.

        I accept our democratic-republican concept as the least worst available option (at the moment). I don’t necessarily endorse any particular instance of democratic-republican policy-making as inherently better than technocracy, though.

        If I was going to write this up as Pat’s Formal Thoughts of Government Models, I would say that I expect that in most cases people with more data and more expertise will result in better decisions (or at least, less-worse bad decisions)… but (big but) attempting to measure expertise is very difficult… and in particular attempting to *formalize* measured expertise leads to people suborning the process to get into the seats of Expertism without actually being experts, on account of they want power.

        So a formalized structure of technocracy will probably be less stable than a democratic-republic, and less stable governments are inherently worse, as the failure mode for states is particularly gruesome.Report

  11. Avatar NobAkimoto says:

    This is ridiculous.

    Let’s start with a different premise:
    What do the Iraqis (and for that matter other regional governments) want in this situation?

    Well, the Iraqi government has specifically asked for US support to fight ISI(Letter of the Week), by leading what they term an international coalition. That is, as a practical matter, this is less a matter of existential threats to the US, as it is an exercise of collective security. And given that, at least for the moment, the lawful government of Iraq is a US ally, taking their request for help in attacking the Islamic State should be seen as pretty much a no-brainer.

    Next: The bombing campaign and training non-IS fighters is clearly part of a larger strategy that includes targeted financial sanctions and generally rallying regional powers to cut off supply, aid, and money to the Islamic State. What is perhaps most remarkable about this effort is that it’s getting extremely broad international support. You have at least 5 Sunni Arab states (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain) conducting combat operations over Iraq and Syria. You also have every regional power discussing ways of contributing to the cause. You can see that map here: https://admin.govexec.com/media/gbc/docs/pdfs_edit/isisstrikesfinal1.png

    Finally: What the heck does “boycotting oil” even mean? Oil is a global commodity that’s fully fungible. That is, you can’t differentiate the source of the oil as it comes to market. This has been a common fallacy since the whole Citgo chainmail about Venezuelan ownership of Citgo. Basically unless you’re willing to stop consuming oil altogether, it’s nigh impossible to selectively enforce a boycott against oil products.

    Rather the only real way to break down an oil state (or quasi-state)’s capacity to export oil is to blockade it with military force then systematically degrade its capability to produce said oil.Not surprisingly this appears to be what the US is currently doing.Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

      Put it this way: The last time this many different countries agreed to send their air forces against someone, this was the speech the President gave before it:

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


      Are we really using ‘global support’ as a means of deciding whether a war is a good idea or not? There were over 40 countries in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’. How did that work out? My position isn’t that no one should go after them. My position is that the countries in the region that actually have something to lose should go after them. Or would you suggest that we continue to keep ourselves involved forever?

      We’ve been at war with Al Qaeda for 13 years. The Taliban still exists. What does this end-game look like with ISIS?Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

        The MNF in Iraq never numbered over a dozen countries, despite whatever rhetoric the “coalition of the willing” pushers in the Neocon cabinet were willing to push.

        With that said, I think international support, particularly from the UN Security Council is an important barometer of whether there is a legitimate need to intervene in a country. Just as important is requests from the countries involved in particular for help (as in this case where the Iraqi government is, again, asking for help), and the relative capabilities of regional powers to handle the conflict.

        Moreover the near east is a region where the US has substantial strategic interests. To suggest that the US has “nothing to lose” by simply turning a blind eye and letting things go to pot is both short-sighted and ignores the fact that, economically, petro dollars and the regional stability of the region both have a significant effect on the US economy. Further, given that much of the situation is the result of US meddling, if the countries in the region want the US to help them keep things together, then the US should at least have a moral responsibility to back them up.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        With that said, I think international support, particularly from the UN Security Council…

        I’d like to see the ante for the Security Council raised. No more of this nuclear sh*t, no one’s actually going to use those anyway. Or who ended up on the right side of a war that ended almost 70 years ago. Say, 50,000 troops, mixed infantry, armor, and air support, transport capability to put them anywhere in the world on three months notice, and ability to keep them supplied in the field. Run these “bail someone’s ass out again” drills on a rotating basis: it’s China’s turn to eat a $100B exercise in the desert, and take the heat for 100K civilian deaths. Turn down a job and you lose your seat.

        Besides, they’ve got as much to lose if the oil gets cut off as anyone.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Run these “bail someone’s ass out again” drills on a rotating basis: it’s China’s turn to eat a $100B exercise in the desert, and take the heat for 100K civilian deaths. Turn down a job and you lose your seat.

        That’s going to go over well in Congress and among the American people.

        “But we don’t want to go to war in West Absurdistan, putting American lives at risk for a regional conflict that doesn’t affect how much we pay at the pump.”

        “Tough! The UN says we have to.”Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        When was the last time that there was a war anywhere that we didn’t want to go to badly enough to decline an invitation to show up?Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        When was the last time that there was a war anywhere that we didn’t want to go to badly enough to decline an invitation to show up?

        Sure, we may think it’s cool to be non-interventionist now, but when Friday night rolls around and we’re sittin’ at home twiddlin’ our thumbs while all the other nations are out there blowin’ stuff up, we’ll be sorry.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        True, our tendency is to realize we should have declined the invitation about 30 minutes after arriving, when we’ve had too much to drink and are making fools of ourselves.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        “When was the last time that there was a war anywhere that we didn’t want to go to badly enough to decline an invitation to show up?”

        Syria a year ago, no? We were all dressed up in our 6th fleet top hat and tails, then our Brit date bailed, so we wound up staying home and just played cards with the Russians.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        That example would have more punch if we weren’t there now.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Fair point. Then it’s probably the Jay Treaty.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        More correct answer – when we didn’t fight over 54-40.Report

  12. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    ISIS’ enemies include the governments of Iran and Syria, which the US has been opposing and warmongering against for some time. That alone is enough reason to not get involved. Let your enemies fight each other.Report

    • Avatar j r says:

      Not that I am necessarily in support of bombing IS and arming Syrian rebels, but uninvolving ourselves might be the worst of a bunch of bad options.

      In this particular case, letting your enemies kill each other means: allowing Iran to continue using its Kudz Force and Hezbollah to destabilize various nations in the region; doing nothing to support anti-Assad forces in Syria, allowing the regime to kill lots of Syrian people; and not even trying to stop IS from killing or cleansing any Iraqi Shia civilians in their path, along with Kurds, Christians, Druze and any Sunni Muslims who don’t happen to share their extreme version of Wahabism.

      To put it another way, our enemies are not so much fighting each other as killing anybody they can who happens to be a part of a different sect.Report

  13. Avatar Dennis Sanders says:

    It’s interesting to see how much you have changed politically since I’ve known you. I think the Mike I knew five years ago would have had a somewhat different observation.

    Concerning ISIS, I think this is a more complicated issue than let’s go to war/it’s someone else’s problem. I think there are big problems with getting involved in a war with no visible end and also not getting congressional approval. And of course we could be creating problems that could bite us in the ass years from now.

    However, I think it’s a mistake to see ISIS as not an immediate threat to us. I think a lot of people didn’t think much of Al Qeuda (sp) in the 90s. The attacks that happened were far away in Saudi Arabia or Africa. The thing is, some of these groups could be building up something in the near future that could harm the homeland. I have no idea if that will happen, and I’m not saying that we should just go a ‘bombing. What I am saying is that there is a lot of hubris in not taking some kind of action (with the belief that they won’t bother us) just as there is hubris in thinking bombing will solve all our problems.

    The thing is, foreign policy is difficult. American history is repleat with times when we rushed into war with disastrous consquences (Vietnam, Iraq) or times when we chose not to get involved with disasterous consequences (Rwanda, Bosnia). There are dangers on both sides.

    I don’t think we went to war because two people were beheaded. We were already somewhat involved in protecting Iraqi Christians and Yazidis. What the reasons are just aren’t clear right now to me.

    I am wary at what we are doing, but I am not dismissive of this as I was of say Iraq.Report

    • @dennis-sanders

      I get that there’s some hubris in saying we’ll never be harmed by ISIS. But I do think it’s wrong to say it’s hubristic to posit that they’re not an *immediate* threat, the key word being “immediate.” Even Obama, in his prime time speech, acknowledged that no direct threats to the US mainland had so far been uncovered.

      I, too, am less dismissive of this than Iraq. But I think I still oppose the action the US is taking.

      (As an aside, I like that you’re commenting more. Or maybe you’re not and I’m just noticing it. At any rate, I like reading your comments and OP’s even if I don’t often respond to them.)Report

      • Avatar Dennis Sanders says:

        @Gabriel Conroy

        The question is, what constitues “immediate?” I need to do some more checking, but there were plans found that show ISIS was planning attacks in the US.

        As to the current situtation, my other concern is that this is too open-ended. I think any military action needs to be focused and time-limited using other methods in addition to at least contain ISIS. If this is a long haul ala the Cold War, then we need to use methods that can counter the threat in the way we dealt with the Soviets. Containment was what in time degraded the Communist bloc, not a war, thank God.

        I’m not against using military force even if it isn’t an immediate threat, but we need to have a definable and realistic objective and an exit strategy ala the Powell Doctrine. What we are doing now is rather dangerous.

        Thanks for the compliments by the way!Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


      “It’s interesting to see how much you have changed politically since I’ve known you. I think the Mike I knew five years ago would have had a somewhat different observation.”


      I think looking back, my support for the war in Iraq was actually probably the anomaly on my foreign policy timeline. Prior to that I actually had a pretty good track record as a non-interventionist. I even opposed the war in Afghanistan, or at least the way in which we fought it.

      As for ISIS, if their threat to the U.S. is their role in a possible terror attack, I’m not sure how that is prevented by bombing oil rigs and such. If we are truly worried about a terror plot then the only thing to really do is to kill every single one of them. Since that doesn’t seem to be our actual goal, then I don’t see the benefit of our involvement.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Terrorists are not deer, their success rate depends on their infrastructure.
        That’s the theory, at any rate.
        Personally, i just think people don’t want to come to terms with exactly how dangerous giving Americans weapons is.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Terrorists are not deer

        You are in rare form this morning.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        too much time talking to people employed by DARPA.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        You opposed the war in Afghanistan but not in Iraq? That seems to be the opposite of the usual pattern for those who supported one but not the other. What was your reasoning?Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


        I never liked the idea of removing the Taliban and taking responsibility for the country. I always thought it should have just been a special forces exercise where we hunted down and destroyed Al Qaeda. It seems like we would have spent billions less with that strategy.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        @mike-dwyer In that case, why yes on Iraq?

        For the record, I had no strong opinion on either intervention. I’m not a big fan of war, for obvious reasons, but I realize that it’s the least-bad alternative in some cases. I have no illusions of being qualified to identify those cases, especially since it usually depends on information to which I don’t have access.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


        To be honest, I was convinced about WMDs. It’s embarrassing in hindsight but I think the majority of the American public believed what we were being told on that subject. With that understanding I suppose the premise of ‘state-sponsored terrorism’ seemed a little scarier.Report

  14. Avatar Philip H says:

    A few random “the coffee is fighting the cold medicine” induced thoughts:

    1). In as much as the response to Al Qaeda turned us into a surveillance/authoritarian state, the response to ISIL/ISIS/IS is in fact an existential threat to the U.S since it will no doubt drive us to do things to ourselves to MAKE US SAFE that further erode our democracy. Individual terrorist attacks on US soil – as shocking as they are when successful – are so rare as to not constitute any threat. And any politician who worries more about the later then the former is a thumb sucking Pansie in diapers.

    2). After our 13 year mis-adventure in Iraq and Afgahnistan (both of which I have long opposed) and our continuing one sided blindness to Israeli atrocities, the US really needs to sit out a generation or two in the Middle East. We utterly failed at nation building in Iraq; we missed the chance to get and keep genuine democracy in Egypt because the initial elected leaders weren’t our guys; Afghanistan is well on its way marching back to a feudal society because the people there – smart and driven though they may be – have been pawns in too many European nation building fantasies over the years.

    3). Given that most countries in the Middle East are European creations meant to control oil flow, exactly how long did anyone reasonably believe that the internecine civil war between various tribes and Muslim sects could be contained? And other then our need to for oil, what is the US strategic interest in maintaining the playing field as it is now – which necessitates interfering in ISIL dismantling Syria. Israel has its own nukes, and keeps violating all the international finger wagging over its illegal settlements in Palestine – at what point do we say enough is enough?

    4). On the scale of things to worry about the failure of the outgoing Attorney General to prosecute American financial leaders for their misdeeds leading up to the Great Recession is far more of a threat then the apostate wanna be jihadi’s trying to destroy Syria so the can rebuild it in a warped version of Sharia law that is only guaranteed to fan more conflict in the region.

  15. Avatar notme says:


    Maybe our foreign policy would be better if our dear leader listen to our intel agencies. Apparently he doesn’t listen and then blames his mistakes on other.