Serious Question

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31 Responses

  1. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    I think that there is an expectation that the dominant members of any group will protect the other members of the group from outsiders. I think that this is true of dogs and humans and lots of other social species.

    Which means that in a democratic society, particularly one that is the world’s only military superpower, if a democratically elected leader were to say, “I can’t protect you in that situation”, it leaves rooms for others, who would like to be elected leader to say “I will protect you in that situation”. This speaks to the the lizard brain. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t true, or is a waste of resources, it still makes them look more like the dominant.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      That’s kind of how I see it.

      “We’re going to bomb them back I to the Stone Age. They aren’t going to get away with this and we are going to show them who the big dogs are” is pretty much a mandatory public statement, in whatever phrasing is appropriate.

      Never mind that in many meaningful respects, they already are in the stone age and there are no real strategic reasons to condescend to battle with them as formal opponents. We (and by “we” I mean the State Department) issue travel advisories all the time, and do not guarantee the safety of citizens in a large portion of the world.Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic says:


        there are no real strategic reasons to condescend to battle with them as formal opponents

        First I’d challenge the notion that humanitarian reasons are somehow not strategic. Gross and widespread human rights violations deserve an answer from the international community, and in some instances that answer includes the use of force. Tied up in that is violations of international humanitarian law, the laws of war, and norms against would-be states conducting themselves in thoroughly murderous fashion (that is when not using rape as a weapon of war or causing significant flows of refugees and internally displaced people). If deterrence forces regimes capable of resorting to this kind of brutality to think again, then that’s a significant strategic win for the international community. That’s all strategically significant for a nation with a permanent seat on the international body charged with maintaining international peace and security.

        Second, even granting a narrower vision of what counts as strategic, there is energy. We are a fossil fuel powered global economy. More than half of OPEC’s reserves are in the Middle East. Turmoil there has repercussions the world over. The US Fifth Fleet wouldn’t be in the Persian Gulf if there were not some pretty strategically significant interests there. There’s also the fact of a NATO ally bordering both Iraq and Syria as well as major non-NATO allies bordering or nearing the countries destabilized by ISIL. Only time will tell if this is an option that can be pursued, but there’s also the glimmer of a possibility of some kind of rapprochement with Iran, given past US-Iran relations that’d take extremely deft diplomacy, but another strategic possibility worth considering.

        Last, regarding “as formal opponents”, how would an informal battle proceed? There is significant diplomatic and political cover to be gained by acting in concert with other nations, building an overt coalition, and burden sharing. Covert action only takes you so far before it becomes overt (given the internet, info tech, and cell phones, the age of secret bombing in Cambodia and Laos has passed), moreover the US would be left carrying the can alone. To me, if anything, the knock on the Obama administration should be they waited so long to marshal the diplomatic and military resources to tackle the problem of this particular un(der)governed space. As evidenced by al Qaeda along the Afghan-Pakistan border, threats to US interests emanate from weak and failing states. We under react to these threats at significant cost to our interests.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        And when american companies decided to murder babies by the millions — where was the global response then?
        … did they ever wind up paying for that?Report

  2. I don’t have an informed opinion on the UK, but in my (slightly better informed) opinion on US politicians: no, they couldn’t get away with it.

    However, what you describe seems to be pretty much a big chunk–but not all–of US policy toward ISIS, in the “we won’t negotiate with them” vein. And keep in mind that in Obama’s primetime speech, he concedes that the US hadn’t yet discovered a credible direct threat to the US mainland.Report

  3. Avatar Stillwater says:

    I have a suspicion that this would be regarded as callous and cruel even if it is the best policy.

    Maybe. My suspicion is that it would be regarded as a violation of a basic American Exceptional Right, in this case, the right to travel anywhere an American damn well likes, even if – or especially if! – it takes military power to realize that right’s expression. From the other side, I think a statesmen who said those things would be ridiculed for not taking the felt fears of Murcin’s seriously (I FEEL this way, Senator, so it MUST be true!) insofar as he was telling them, with a heavy sigh or stern voice, that there are some choices even Americans have to take personal responsibility for.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Anyone who believes that is a goddamn moron. There are certainly places in America that it’s not safe to go, let alone other countries.

      If you want safety, pull out your copy of Soldier of Fortune Magazine and hire some fucking bodyguards. It’s not the government’s job to get you out of your stupidity.Report

  4. Avatar trizzlor says:

    I think the problem is that Obama has given us all the speeches. He’s given us the ISIS is a JV team speech; the ISIS doesn’t pose a credible threat speech; the “we will chase them to gates of hell speech”; the “we can’t train Syrian doctors and farmers to be an army” speech; the “we must arm the moderate rebels” speech; the no boots on the ground speech; and the few hundred advisers in a non-military capacity speech.

    The problem with the “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” policy is that it’s inherently reactive. What’s “stupid” is different at any given time, and it depends substantially on what the public is willing to do and not do. So the strategy has essentially become: be much more hawkish then the left so you’re not seen as weak, be less hawkish than the right so your party doesn’t revolt; and try to stay on top of the polls. In that sense, the caveat emptor policy – which is what we were following for the better part of a year – is fundamentally empty because it will be rescinded whenever the public demands (which is often).

    Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of alternatives. The GOP is mostly running candidates that pride themselves on intervening even if the public doesn’t want it. And the left hasn’t run an isolationist in recent memory, and is even less likely to do so with Clinton. Until our society, and especially our news media, is comfortable with caveat emptor; the president will not be able to bully them into it.Report

  5. Avatar Creon Critic says:

    Is this really what you meant to say, “no risk to the UK or the US”? I get the not an existential threat arguments around these parts, but “no risk” is a significantly more comprehensive claim.

    Also, callous is a pretty apt description of “That swimmer went into dangerous waters. Let them drown”. Humanitarian aide workers and journalists being beheaded should not prompt us to say, “Well you knew the risks going into it”. For one thing, it is pretty important, not especially well paid work, and government abandonment on top of that might lead fewer highly qualified people to go into those fields. Getting accurate information and alleviating the suffering of those going through unimaginably difficult hardship are pretty important principles worthy of promoting. Also, part of the benefits of carrying a passport of any nation is consular assistance. Even if the circumstances are your own fault – there’s thought to be an interest in every state in every one of its nationals. I don’t know that I’d want to do violence to that norm in any way.

    (I also think the timeline you present, like that in the previous post on the issue, is woefully incomplete.)Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      I think you raised some valid points above. I still think the current air war against ISIS/ISIL is a huge waste of resources and money that I would rather be spent domestically on social goods like health care, welfare, infrastructure, education, clean energy development, or even a rainy day fund.

      While I think ISIS are dangerous thugs, I do wonder if they are dangerous enough to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on and I am far from being an isolationist. 9/11 was 13 years ago, there are a whole generation of kids who know we have always been at war in the Middle East. As far as I can tell, ISIS sprung up because of the debacle known as IRAQ II and seems like it could equally be a quagmire and lead to an even more extremist sect.

      Now I think Obama is much smarter than Bush II and the neo-cons. I was impressed by what he said on the root causes of terrorism and what gets guys to sign up but it seems bombing is going to be a non-solution.Report

      • I agree with most of your comment, but true to form, I’ll focus on the part I disagree with, which is your last paragraph.

        I do think Obama is probably smarter than Bush II when it comes to foreign policy, but being smarter is not necessarily an antidote to the problem, especially if one, being smarter, makes comparable mistakes. They’re not the same mistakes, but they’re comparable, especially if they get the US into a quagmire.

        All that said, I certainly don’t know the answer or the solution. My inclination is to oppose the US’s (further) armed intervention in the reason. But then my knee jerks in that direction, even when in retrospect it becomes apparent that intervention may have been the right thing to do after all.Report

  6. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    The U.S. and the UK (and much of the British Commonwealth) implicitly make that statement by having a starkly divergent policy from most of the rest of the advanced world on whether to pay ransoms for kidnapped citizens abroad. Doctor Jay & Burt are right that it would be pretty impolitic to make a big show of trumpeting that policy explicitly in a big speech devoted to the subject, but they in other ways make a point ensuring that the policy is well-enough-known.

    It’s true that the U.S. government isn’t committed to not proteting citizens who get themselves in pickles abroad, as shown by the Special Forces attempt to rescue foley & others before the IS bombing started. But those missions are undertaken far less often than they could be if there really was a commitment to protect citizens from the trouble they get themselves in far afield from U.S. property (embassies, etc.) such that they can’t take refuge there.

    from my perspective, though, I do think that it’s likely that when the IS’ commitment to its tactic viz. Western hostages became clear, pointed messages were sent to news organizations from the governments of both countries saying that their countries really need them to button up on staff and indeed stringer security measures to staunch the flow of new victims. Aid agencies as well, I imagine. the problem, though, is that IS already has more than enough Western hostages to string this tactic out for pretty much as long as it wants. Beyond that, the IS hostage taking problem relating to journalists from what I’ve seen seems to reside mostly among freelancers who in many cases may be unattached to establishment organizations precisely because they find their procedural requirements too restrictive to do the reporting they want to do. Asking folks like that to dial back their intrepidness ion order to deny IS fodder for its propaganda killings one imagines might very well provoke them to be even more reckless out of defiance.

    Regardless, you hit on the basic weakness in attempts to counter this IS tactic directly, @saul-degraw. People are able to move around pretty much freely in the world these days and are going to. (Not really a new fact that, but true as ever.) And it doesn’t really matter what commitments you do or don’t make to protect them (whether in order to fulfill a notion of government’s function wrt to citizens, or in order to deprive an Enemy of fodder for tactics it’s using in a violent fight against you): the fact is, you can’t reliably protect/prevent them from falling into this situation when a group is this intent on and at least somewhat effective in making it happen.

    It probably also worth reflecting on how it’s all the more difficult to protect people from this the more territory a group who uses this tactic controls. The function of foreign reporting is to go basically anywhere anything important/interesting is happening and send reports. A group pushing out state authorities and proclaiming an Islamic State is at least interesting if not important; where they do that reporters will go and report on it, or at least want to (and they should). The more territory they control, the more reporters will be exposed to a heightened risk of falling into their hands, given their commitment to using this tactic.Report

  7. Avatar Alan Scott says:

    I think that those speeches could have been made if it weren’t for the killings that have already taken place.

    If ISIS had never kidnapped a British victim and the PM went on TV and said. “These people are villains, don’t travel here because if you do we will not aid you”, It would have been fine. But if Cameron does that today, it’s a grave insult to the memory of Alan Henning. The same it true for the US, but to a lesser extent for the exceptionalism reasons given by Stillwater above.Report

  8. Avatar notnme says:


    No one really thought the Taliban was a threat to the US when they took over Afghanistan. They became a threat when they started providing a safe haven for al queda. Hopefully given the experience with the Taliban our leaders won’t be so naive about ISIS.Report

    • Avatar LWA (Liberal With Attitude) says:

      Which illustrates the idiocy of the attacks on ISIS.
      We supported the Taliban enthusiastically when they were the enemies of our enemies, the Soviet Union. Then we were shocked, shocked, when they turned on us and supported Al Queda.

      We supported Hussein when he was the enemy of our enemy, Iran, only to be shocked, shocked when he became the bad guy and archenemy who was going to bomb New York.

      We supported the insurgent groups who were the enemy of our enemy, Syria, only to be shocked, shocked, when they turned and attacked one of our guys.

      So now we are attacking Isis, which means indirectly supporting God-knows-who. But I am sure when those people turn on us, we will be treated to all sorts of shrieking from the media about the existential threat posed by the New Enemy, with whom we have always been at war.

      There just isn’t any way to describe American policy in the Mideast as anything other than madness mingled with hubris.Report

      • Avatar notnme says:


        You make it all sound so simple. Are you channeling Chris today?Report

      • Avatar notnme says:


        Our real problem was totally pulling out of Afghanistan and disengaging so as to leave a power vacuum. Obama didn’t learn that lesson and see Iraq now. Not to mention relying to heavily on the Pakistani intelligence service.

        As far a Saddam he was a good ally in the cold war but got too big for himself.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Notme, you’re confusing countries. You should learn about these things before talking about them, so you don’t rely on things you vaguely remember from talk radio.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        We supported the Taliban enthusiastically when they were the enemies of our enemies, the Soviet Union. Then we were shocked, shocked, when they turned on us and supported Al Queda.

        We also enthusiastically supported Al Queda when they were the enemies of our enemies, for whatever that’s worth.

        (A lot, I think.)Report

      • Avatar notnme says:


        Just for laughs, I’m going to ask which countries you think I’m confusing?Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko says:

        @notnme A good ally that started a war that killed possibly a million people. insofar as weakening Iran was in our national interest we got our money’s worth, but let’s not gloss over his apalling human rights record.Report

      • @notme It would be news to….everyone to learn that we were actually in Afghanistan in the 80s and early 90s in any meaningful sense other than indiscriminately providing lots of heavy weaponry to anyone who was fighting the Soviets. And, well, we haven’t actually withdrawn from Afghanistan if you’re referring to the post-9/11 forces.

        In terms of leaving a power vacuum in Iraq, have you forgotten that: (1) this power vacuum was in fact created by us deposing Saddam, and the fear of creating a power vacuum was why Bush the Wiser declined to depose Saddam after kicking him out of Kuwait; (2) the agreement to withdraw from Iraq more or less completely was signed during the Bush Administration; and (3) to the extent that our withdrawal enabled a power vacuum, that vacuum was going to happen whenever we withdrew, whether it was in 2005, 2010, or 2020.

        And I’ve got no idea what you’re referring to about Obama relying too heavily on Pakistani intelligence when it was his administration’s decision to work around them that finally got UBL.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Oh, General Clarke now counts as no one?
      Check your timetables on when those plans for invading Afghanistan got made.Report

  9. Avatar Damon says:

    If I were pres I’d say it. You leave the borders, we ain’t got any obligation to protect you, especially if you got into the mess because of your actions.

    Go call mamma.Report