August 27, 2013

Threats, bluffs, and red lines

I just submitted an article with that title to Ace of Spades. When Gabriel posts it (if he does) I'll link to it.

UPDATE: Well, I'm not sure what's going on with Ace's, so I'll post it here:




All successful diplomacy is backed by threats. If there's good will and no dispute, diplomacy isn't necessary because consensus is easy, but that's the simplistic case. Some believe it's possible to reduce all diplomacy to this case, and Obama seems to have bought into this concept, at least partially. As a result, it seems sometimes as if he thinks that all he needs to do diplomatically is say, "I don't like that" and then his opponents will nod and stop doing it.

I wish we lived in a world like that, but we don't. The most stupid thing you can do in this world in which we all live is to bluff, to make threats and not follow through.

The Europeans are masters at this, and they proved it in Yugoslavia in the 90's. The crown jewel, or tallest pile of shit, was the Srebrenica Massacre. The Europeans decreed that there should be "safe zones", and deployed troops to protect them. Thousands of Bosnians were stupid enough to believe the European guarantee and entered that safe zone at Srebrenica, trusting their lives to the European guarantee.

And then a Serbian paramilitary unit showed up, and rounded up more than 8,000 men and boys in the safe zone and executed them. The Dutch military unit which was supposed to protect them did nothing.

To keep the record straight, I should mention that the Dutch commander on the spot wanted to fight. In fact, he demanded that his superiors permit him to fight. But his superiors ordered him to stand down, so the Dutch soldiers simply stood there and watched while thousands of Bosnian civilians they were supposed to be protecting were gunned down.

And after that, no one in the region paid any attention to anything that the Europeans said. Eventually the Yugoslav civil war was ended when the US Air Force began a sustained bombing campaign of Serbia, targeting infrastructure. (The campaign was nominally "NATO" but it was mainly American air assets which carried it out.)

The US was guilty of similar fecklessness when three of our embassies in Africa were attacked by al Qaeda suicide bombers. An attack on an embassy is ordinarily considered an act of war, but, well, we don't go to war any more. (Carter proved that when our embassy in Iran was overrun.) Clinton dithered, and then ordered a single symbolic cruise missile attack, destroying an abandoned al Qaeda training base in Afghanistan, and a baby milk factory (it was later claimed) in Sudan, and a couple of other meaningless targets. Far from cowing bin Laden, the half-hearted response convinced him to escalate and arguably led to the 9/11 attack.

"Proportional" response is suicidal. Making a threat and refusing to follow through on it when your enemy ignores you is equally fatal. Doing those things leads, in the long run, to worse results. If you draw a red line, you must be willing to follow through on it And what you do must be intolerable to your enemy.

For instance, if you want to prevent use of nerve gas, you announce, "It is United States Doctrine to respond to any use of chemical weapons with nuclear weapons. If the government of Assad uses nerve gas, we will nuke his home town." And then if he goes ahead with use of nerve gas, you have to do it.

I'm not advocating such a thing being said. What I am advocating is that you never draw a redline if you don't have the guts to do something drastic.

After the Holocaust, the world said, "Never again." Well, the problem is that the World didn't keep that promise. Ask the Tutsis in Rwanda; ask the people of Cambodia. There has never been a case of genocide as large as the Holocaust since then, but only because no victim group in the crosshairs was as large. At this point, any group facing the possibility of genocide would have to be insane to assume anyone from Europe (or, unfortunately, the US) would be willing to do anything to save them.

Ask the Bosnians.

Obama's foreign policy has been based on the fundamental idea that "the reason they hate us" is because America has long been the 600 pound canary in the world. And if Obama went around and apologized, and promised a new era in which America would no longer bully anyone, that everyone would nod and smile and become friends.

What actually has happened is that everyone has nodded, and laughed (at him), and then gone ahead with all the things they were afraid to do back when "Cowboy" Bush was president.

Machiavelli said,

In addressing the question of whether it is better to be loved or feared, Machiavelli writes, "The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”

And in this, as in so much else, he was right.

This country earned a reputation for gutlessness in the 1990's, beginning with Operation Desert Storm. The Iraqi's got their butts kicked but we didn't finish the job. The job should have ended with Saddam being deposed, except that Bush got negotiated into ending the campaign once Kuwait was liberated. (It was the price for allied participation and UN approval.)

8 years of Clinton only made things worse, and as a result we had to spend billions of dollars and thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, showing that we really would do what we said.

Unfortunately, Obama's foreign policy threw away every bit of credibility that Bush earned in those wars. Obama's only interest in Iraq was to get out. And now his only interest in Afghanistan is getting out. And as a result, al Qaeda is resurgent in Iraq, where recently terrorist attacks have cost thousands of lives, and they will be resurgent in Afghanistan once we leave.

And when Obama frowns at anyone these days, and draws a red line, all they do is laugh at him. His bluffing (for that's what it's been) has led to America now having the same reputation as Europe, and because of it he has increased the chance of nuclear weapons being used in future. The Iranian government has every intention of continuing their program to make and use nuclear weapons, and now when Obama says "We won't accept that" they think, "So, what you gonna do about it, fella?"

The number 1 rule of diplomacy is, Never make a threat unless you're willing to follow through on it. This is a rule Obama has violated many times, and now we're paying the price.

And if Obama decides to respond to the Syrian nerve gas attack with a single, half-hearted cruise missile strike, it will be just as counter-productive as Clinton's was. Our enemies will think, "Is that all? Heck, that's nothing."

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in Weird World at 05:25 PM | Comments (8) | Add Comment
Post contains 1202 words, total size 7 kb.

1 Classic DenBeste.  I feel like it's 2002 again...

Posted by: ubu at August 28, 2013 09:21 AM (SlLGE)

2 I wish I could write like this routinely, but it isn't possible any more.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 28, 2013 09:58 AM (+rSRq)

3 One funny part is that rebels were spraying that Sarin, not Assad, and this is not the first instance, either. The ones before were smaller scale. But it's Assad who's going to get hit with the missiles, haha.

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at August 28, 2013 11:00 AM (RqRa5)

4 There have been earlier cases where the rebels were responsible, but it's claimed that there's strong evidence that this particular attack came from an Army division commanded by Assad's brother.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 28, 2013 11:30 AM (+rSRq)


Syria is a no-win situation because all the sides involved are bad guys (Including the FSA, who the US have been funding and providing assistance to - which means we are helping the local branch of Al Qaeda in many places of Syria.).  The usual course of action is to see which side is the least bad and/or could be persuaded into being 'our SOBs'.  The problem is that none of factions qualify.

I would add that those hostile regimes in the world that took one look at GW Bush kicking the crap out of Afghanistan and Iraq and decided that it was best to play nice and cooperate with the US and do the things we wanted them to (Because no one wanted Tomahawks, Abrams, and 1 MEF coming for them.), would only do so as long as they thought the US would maintain the same attitude.  Once the US demonstrated its gutlessness, those regimes were not going to stay nice and cooperative (Libya comes to mind.).

Posted by: cxt217 at August 28, 2013 11:38 AM (ZHkcY)

6 The rebels may have some sarin gas, but they don't have the delivery systems for it to cause the fatalities in this attack.

The FSA still has secular and democratic groups; they're probably the majority. They were the ones who first rose up against Assad. Jihadists filled the gap because of the same Obama fecklessness in not supporting the uprising initially. Al-Qaida linked groups have even rehabilitated some of the reputation they lost for killing civilians in Iraq, now being seen as standing up for their ideals by fighting in Syria.

Assad isn't just a brutal dictator, he's also Iran's agent in expanding their influence. As Charles Krauthammer said, we faced this choice before in supporting Stalin against Hitler. We had to face the Iron Curtain and 50 years of nuclear threat, but it was still the right thing to do.

Posted by: muon at August 28, 2013 07:59 PM (jFJid)


Both Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal and Rusty at My Pet Jawa have differing views regarding the composition of the rebels.  And the leadership of the rebels certainly is not all that liberal or secular. 

Posted by: cxt217 at August 28, 2013 08:19 PM (ZHkcY)

8 Sorry, folks, I think I'm going to close comments on this now.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 28, 2013 09:31 PM (+rSRq)

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