Shadow Government

"Don't Meddle" Isn't a Foreign Policy

Conservatives are in a bind. They want to support some sort of action against the Islamic State (IS), criticize President Obama for his lack of strategy, and differentiate themselves from George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq -- all while avoiding the label of isolationism. The result is a mess.

Take Mollie Hemmingway, senior editor of The Federalist, an excellent conservative web magazine. I envy Hemmingway because she writes wittily on politics, culture, and religion -- pretty much any topic of interest to a normally educated and inquisitive adult. Nine times out of 10, I learn something from her work.

When Obama started bombing Iraq a few weeks back, Hemmingway rightly argued that the goal of war is peace and wondered what our goal in Iraq was -- a good and appropriate question. Simply bombing bad guys is not a foreign policy; it is a tactic that should be employed in the pursuit of some overarching goal. As the old adage goes, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat (usually attributed to Sun Tzu by those who have never read him).

So far, so good. But Hemmingway also opposes "nation building" and "occupation" and "meddling in others affairs." Aside from her mischaracterization of what advocates for a broader intervention mean, the obvious question is: what if those are the only tools that can build a just and lasting peace? What's more important: pursuing peace, or the purity of your non-interventionist ideology?

The maddening thing is that in the same breath Hemmingway argues that building peace in Iraq would "require so much more from us than we currently do." Quite true. So much more, like investing in Iraq's political stability. "It would mean, first off, actually fighting wars," like we presumably tried from 2003 to 2011. "It would mean our statesmen would have to be clear about our expectations regarding peace,"-does Hemmingway think the problem is a lack of clarity?-"and that we would be willing to back those expectations up,"-but only, apparently, with bombs; not with any diplomacy, reconstruction assistance, coercive bargaining, stability operations, peace building, political warfare, or anything that might approach the dreaded "nation building." "It would mean not meddling in others' affairs,"-what in her last three sentences isn't "meddling in others' affairs"?

Hemmingway, like many a conservative pundit, wants it both ways. She wants the United States to pursue a just and lasting peace in Iraq while simultaneously pretending not to "meddle in others' affairs." She wants the right goal but she wants to avoid any hint of the very tools necessary to do so.

Hemmingway makes these arguments in a piece complaining about the mischaracterization of Rand Paul as an "isolationist." Yet she proves more than able to mischaracterize Paul's opponents. No one stands up says "I stand for a meddlesome foreign policy," or, "We should nation-build the world." Rather, we argue that reconstruction and stabilization operations (as they are properly called) can sometimes be the right tool to foster the lasting peace Hemmingway rightly calls for.

Some critics argue that the United States should not undertake stability operations because they are simply impossible and always fail. This is a classic example of exaggerating the lessons of the recent past and extrapolating a general lesson from a single data point: Iraq failed, therefore all stability operations will always fail. A look at the broader history (self-promotion alert) suggests there are more nuanced lessons we should learn.

Hemmingway exemplifies the difficulty conservatives are having in interpreting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and applying their lessons to the future. If you think the lesson is, "We screwed up because we invaded under false pretenses," then you are likely to argue for extreme caution and careful examination of our motives before undertaking any intervention in the future, much like many liberals currently do.

If you think the lesson is, "We screwed up because we tried to do nation-building, which is impossible and wrong-headed and foolish to even try," then you are likely to gravitate to a sort of paleo-conservatism (since Hemmingway doesn't like the label of isolationism) and the belief that the military should only be used to blow things up, which is sufficient for keeping America safe.

I find the liberals' explanation morally simplistic and not backed up by the facts. Our difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan were manifold and came from many, many problems. Reading it like a morality play in which the gods of war punished American hubris for invading without sufficient cause neglects the problems in the planning, management, and oversight of the wars; the drift in American military doctrine since Vietnam; the problems of coalition counterinsurgency; and the dilemmas inherent in coercive peace building.

The paleo-conservative reading (like Hemmingway's) is no better. It will not build the lasting peace Hemmingway calls for. Killing lots of people and going home isn't war; it is murder, and it is the way to replicate the failures of Versailles after World War I. The statesmen of 1919 famously failed to achieve any sort of political settlement to resolve the underlying causes of the Great War and succeeded only in sowing the seeds for the next one. The difference in World War II was partly in the comprehensiveness of Germany's defeat, yes, but also in the massive and expensive forced democratization mounted afterwards.

So, similarly, we are virtually guaranteed to continue our Thirty Years' War in Iraq and our Hundred Year War with jihadists until, somehow, achieving a resolution to the underlying political causes of them. If "not meddling" means not investing in the political and economic conditions required for lasting peace, then "not meddling" is a recipe for forever war --which is, of course, the worst and most expensive form of meddling.

My reading of Iraq and Afghanistan is that we nearly got there in Iraq until President Obama abandoned efforts to secure a lasting U.S. troop presence and pulled out all troops in 2011. A residual U.S. troops presence would not have solved Iraq's political problems but would have given us leverage for continued bargaining and almost certainly would have blunted IS's growth and prevented the current emergency. The failings of 2003 to 2007 were failings of planning, management, oversight, and coordination, which the United States painfully and slowly improved at the cost of thousands of lives.

In other words, we tried the right thing, but the United States is far less capable of doing the right thing than is widely appreciated -- not because our military isn't capable, but because it isn't useful for the kinds of things we need to accomplish. For that, we need different tools -- the tools of reconstruction, stabilization, coercion, political pressure, diplomacy, the whole package. This is an emotionally unsatisfying explanation because it is complicated and doesn't come wrapped in a tidy Tweetable moralistic bow (like "Bush lied, people died!" or "nation building is hubris!").

But it is true. If you want to see the next four presidential administrations lob bombs at Iraq and Mali and Somalia and Pakistan with no end in sight, then our military is well equipped to do the job, and we will live in a world of forever war. If you want a just and lasting peace among nations, our military cannot build it alone. Some sort of broader, messy, and complicated intervention -- by the United States, the U.N., NATO, the Arab League, the African Union, someone -- will have to be part of it. "Not meddling" isn't a foreign policy.

HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Is Japan’s Grand Security Strategy the Key to Preserving U.S. Power in Asia?

A quiet revolution is transforming Japanese diplomacy. As a new German Marshall Fund report lays out, for more than a decade Tokyo has worked to diversify its democratic partnerships beyond the anchor of the U.S.-Japan alliance, forging closer relations with like-minded governments in the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere. Japan's ultimate success in this endeavor could determine whether the U.S. maintains its leadership in a region buffeted by dynamic power shifts.

Tokyo's strategic outreach has focused mainly on militarily capable democracies that also enjoy close relations with the United States. As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained in 2013: "From now on the Japan-U.S. alliance must effect a network, broad enough to ensure safety and prosperity encompassing the two oceans [Pacific and Indian]. The ties between Japan and America's other allies and partners will become more important than ever before for Japan."

Japan's National Security Strategy for 2013 highlighted the convergence of interests and ideals that underlies the policy. "Japan will strengthen cooperative relations with countries with which it shares universal values and strategic interests," the document states, pointing to examples such as South Korea, Australia, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, and India.

Japan is developing broad and deep strategic ties with both Australia and India. Joint military exercises and so-called 2+2 meetings of foreign and defense ministers are explicitly modeled on U.S.-Japan alliance conventions. 

The country has also become a leading provider of security assistance to some ASEAN countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia. For all the unfortunate tension in relations between Tokyo and Seoul over historical issues, the Japanese and South Korean armed forces continue to pursue quiet security cooperation. Beyond Asia, Japanese officials have an ambitious agenda to institutionalize military ties with NATO.

Recent policy shifts have facilitated Tokyo's strategy of democratic outreach. Constitutional reinterpretation has made it easier for Japan's armed forces to cooperate with foreign militaries. A new national security secrecy law enables closer intelligence cooperation with friendly powers. 

The lifting of a ban on arms exports should enable joint defense production with nations such as India, as well as the provision of advanced submarines to Australia. Abe has declared defense assistance a new "pillar" of Japan's overseas development aid in countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which share Tokyo's wariness of Chinese power.

It is possible to imagine a more robust Asian architecture of cooperation and reassurance emerging from the growing web of countries tied to Japan and the U.S.-Japan alliance. This web would not contain China, but could shape the context of its rise in ways that deter conflict. 

Such a network could encourage China to embrace regional norms of democratic cooperation and the resolution of international disputes through peaceful negotiation, rather than military intimidation or outright force. It could also help to integrate transitional countries, such as Myanmar and Vietnam, into a broader grouping to help sustain a pluralistic and rules-based regional order.

The future of the U.S.-Japan alliance, and of U.S. leadership in Asia, is closely bound up with Japan's outreach project. From an American perspective, Japan's new stance on regional and global security is welcome. The alliance rests on a stronger foundation when Tokyo, and not just Washington, enjoys close relations with a host of friendly regional powers. 

Japan's democratic diplomacy remains a work in progress. To create a network of cooperation among democracies in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, and to reinforce a rules-based international order, Japan will need to build partnerships based on specific issues. Three stand out.

The first and most important is maritime security. Maintaining a free and open maritime system is an objective Japan shares with other democracies. While Japan's project of democratic outreach includes a maritime component, there is considerable scope for new initiatives. Japan could focus its security assistance on strengthening a region-wide system of maritime domain awareness. That would enable countries like Indonesia and the Philippines to better police their home waters. It would also create an integrated picture of threats to freedom of navigation, enabling joint responses.

The second area for expanded democratic partnerships is military preparedness. New types of military cooperation with like-minded and capable partners could enable Japan to prepare for potential contingencies, deter aggression, and maintain a favorable balance of power. Japan could work with the United States, Australia, and India to develop a joint plan for patrolling the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific sea lanes, for example.

The third area is human rights. As Tokyo looks to deepen linkages with other democratic capitals, promoting shared values should constitute a natural focal point of cooperation. This could include a more coordinated approach with other nations to support the development of free institutions in Myanmar, and greater support for programs to nurture good governance and promote individual rights run by the Bali Democracy Forum, an Indonesian-led regional club.

As Japan looks to diversify its democratic partnerships, the stakes are high. If Tokyo can leverage its bilateral diplomacy and the U.S.-Japan alliance to construct a network of democratic cooperation, the rules-based order in Asia will endure even as China's ascent continues.  

The alternative is probably a dangerous conflation of raw military balancing and armed conflict over peripheral territories. That should appeal as little to Beijing and Tokyo as it does to Western capitals observing the 100th anniversary of another regional conflagration.

A version of this article appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.

MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images