A Realist Takes on Liberal Hawks

Reading Room for Debate’s contributers on US Syria policy made me think about the difference between beltway foreign policy wonks and international relations scholars. The former subscribe overwhelmingly to liberal hegemonism; most of the latter to some version of realism. While there is a lot of variation within both groups, the gulf between the two is considerably wider.

Liberal hegemonists have a vertical frame of reference. They look at the world’s problems from a managerial perspective; strategizing as to how the United States can solve them. They uniformly take it for granted that the US can and should be the world’s policeman. The doves in this group urge the US to solve humanitarian crises and champion basic freedoms around the world. The hawks want to contain near-peers and get rid of irritating regimes in minor states. Both agree that the United States ought to be propagating the gospel of market democracy to every corner of the planet. What you will never hear any of them spell out is what US interest would be served by any of their specific policy proposals.

Realists have a horizontal frame of reference. They are cognizant of the fact that there are other actors in the arena who have their own agendas and must be reckoned with; that the United States does not have the power to obtain its preferred outcome in every situation; and that, because the US is so much stronger and so far away from other strong states, it is remarkably secure. When realists looks at a given situation, the first question they ask is: What is the US interest at stake?  When proposing a specific policy, they think through the responses of the other players in the system. They know that the United States cannot prevail in any given situation if the balance of power, the balance of interests, or the balance of resolve is unfavorable.

These observations are illustrated in the debate. The only realist contributer and the only academic scholar on the panel, Steven Simon, uses the word “interest” no fewer than six times. The other three panelists, all of whom are nonacademic researchers at think tanks, use the word zero times.

Kori Schake at the Hoover Institution wants to establish a no-fly zone (presumably over northern Syria) which she compares to the no-fly zones imposed on Saddam by the US and the United Kingdom in the nineties. What she fails to mention is that in order to establish such a zone the US would have to threaten to shoot down Russian warplanes. Andrew Tabler at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy wants to go further and establish a safe-zone on the Syro-Turkish border with the help of US Special Forces.

Jessica Ashooh at the Atlantic Council wants to provide vetted Syrian rebel groups with anti-aircraft weapons. She does not even raise, much less answer, the question of how the US can be sure they would not fall into the hands of Salafist-Jihadists and later used against commercial airliners. Three US-backed groups have been disarmed and absorbed by Jabhat al-Nusra in the past year alone.

Contrast these shaky logics to Simon’s reasoning:

At this stage, the U.S. is no more likely than it ever was to intervene as a combatant directly against the regime because the obligation that this would incur is far out of proportion to the strategic interest at stake, the likelihood of winning and the cost of any eventual victory.

It’s hard to gainsay this logic. Were the U.S. to topple the regime, it would have to maintain order in the devastated and traumatized country it had liberated and shepherd its transition to a durable, reconstituted pluralistic state. The precedent of Libya shows that help would not be forthcoming. The occupation of Iraq shows that even a tremendous military and economic effort does not guarantee success. And public support for such commitment would probably be unsustainable, since it would depend on a broad consensus that the stakes were vital and that victory was achievable swiftly at an acceptable cost. American intervention in Syria would self-evidently not meet these criteria.

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