I Think the Right Word Is “Sophistry”

I disagree with Mark Salter’s assessment of President Obama’s foreign policy:

The president who ran for the office boasting he would restore seriousness and realism to American foreign policy has conducted the least serious and most unrealistic foreign policy in living memory. His pronouncements barely make an impression even on cable news anymore and are mocked by apparatchiks from Damascus to Moscow.

I think Mr. Salter’s memory is selective. Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy, predicated on the notion that the United States could function in the world on the basis of moral suasion alone, was clearly “the least serious and most unrealistic foreign policy in living memory”. During his tenure as president, Barack Obama has conducted a much more, er, kinetic campaign in Afghanistan than George W. Bush did (most of the U. S. casualties in Afghanistan over our 13 year campaign there have been during Obama’s presidency), conducted an air campaign that lead to the overthrow of the legitimate government of Libya, and sent U. S. armed drones into action in nearly a dozen countries. That’s a significantly more extensive use of U. S. military force than by Ronald Reagan, cited by some as the paradigm of toughness.

The problems that I have with President Obama’s foreign policy are, essentially, two. I don’t think that the U. S. should make threats as he did against Syria for example, especially if we don’t intend to follow through with them. That’s a problem typical of American presidents—speaking a bit too much.

And I don’t believe you can construct a coherent foreign policy touting the importance of international institutions and law on the one hand while flouting them by exceeding Security Council mandates in Libya or ignoring them with violations of national sovereignty or waging war without Security Council authorization on the other.

The word for that isn’t unserious or unrealistic. It also isn’t realism. The word is sophistry.

38 comments… add one
  • steve

    The problem is that the Security Council just takes one veto to not approve of stuff. If Russia nukes Ukraine, just an example here, the Security Council would not approve any actions, indeed even any criticism, of Russia. If you want to insist upon Security Council approval for any of our actions, you need to figure out how we get around vetoes when one member opposes actions due to financial interests or just because they want revenge for a perceived slight.

    In the case of Libya, there was actually significant support among our (true) allies. Even the Arab League was at least initially supportive. I think this has been consistent with a general approach of building some kind of real international agreement. I think there has also been an emphasis on competent conduct of our actions which has been nice to see after Iraq.


  • If you want to support international institutions and law, it must be those institutions and law that actually exist rather than as you’d like them to exist. The Security Council approved of providing safety for Libyan civilians but not for allowing rebels to overthrow the Libyan government. There has never been a Security Council resolution authorizing us to use armed drones in Yemen or Pakistan (just to name two places). Our use of them in those places is a clear violation of international law.

    Note that I’m not arguing that the president is acting uniquely by doing these things. After all, President Bush invaded Iraq without a Security Council resolution or even a pretext of hot pursuit, a clear violation of international law. What is distinctive, however, is the president’s touting, as I put it before, international institutions while ignoring them.

  • PD Shaw

    I’m completely comfortable defending U.S. military action abroad under international law, except for Kosovo. I know others disagree, but they seem to face two choices: one is to complain about Russian actions as much as they have the West’s, and the other is to wear a sackcloth and invite Russia to invade wherever it wishes.

  • I can see an argument in international law for the use of drones in Pakistan. What’s the argument in Yemen or Somalia?

    My point is not that there is no practical reason for the attacks. My point is that in the absence of a Security Council resolution or the exceptions provided for in international law not everything that’s practical is legal.

    My underlying point is that trying to preach multilateralism and the rule of law while acting unilaterally outside the law undermines both positions. I think we need to pick a side on this question and then stick to it.

  • PD Shaw

    The United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda and associated forces, anywhere and wherever they are. Since the armed conflict is in self-defense, there is no requirement to seek Security Council approval.

  • The United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda and associated forces, anywhere and wherever they are.

    It stopped being self defense a decade ago. And the forces being attacked aren’t al-Qaeda. Unless those being pursued are actually associated with al-Qaeda “associated forces” has no meaning. Some of the people being killed now were primary school age on 9/11/2001 and have never met anyone who belonged to al-Qaeda or was a member of an actual “associated force”. What you’re enunciating is just a pretext for doing whatever we feel like doing whenever we feel like doing it.

    What we are actually doing is propping up regimes in the absence of which violent radical Islamists would probably take over. That stretches self defense beyond the breaking point. As you know better than I in reality “self defense” is quite narrowly construed. When somebody points a gun at you and cocks the trigger, shooting him is self defense. When you track down someone who has a gun and shoot him because he might point it at you, it’s not self defense any more. It’s even less self defense if you shoot him because he might use it against the thug who lives next door.

  • TastyBits

    @Dave Schuler

    I can see an argument in international law for the use of drones in Pakistan. What’s the argument in Yemen or Somalia?

    Why is the location a problem?

  • steve

    “My underlying point is that trying to preach multilateralism and the rule of law while acting unilaterally”

    You think we acted unilaterally in Libya? I don’t. We got dragged into it by our allies. There was even support by Arabs. I think some of the drone attacks are more problematic.

    What about the military action in Pakistan to kill Osama? It seems pretty clear that pakistan was protecting him. There was zero chance the Security Council would have approved any action.


  • You think we acted unilaterally in Libya?

    No, I think it was illegal since it went so far beyond the Security Council resolution. You clipped off the “outside the law” part. I agree that we were “dragged by our allies” whom I do not believe had the purest of motives.

  • Why is the location a problem?

    After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor would invading Mexico have been justified? Location is always important.

  • michael reynolds

    The government of Muammar Gaddafi was “legitimate?” In what sense? The only legitimate governments are those that govern by the consent of the people, others are not legitimate, I don’t care who recognizes them.

    The idea that we should all alone stick to international law when doing so means allowing terrorist groups to operate with impunity in failed states is putting ideals way ahead of pragmatism. It’s the equivalent of unilateral disarmament. Any American government that pursued that approach would be in dereliction of its duty.

    We should evolve toward international law, and it’s a great goal, but it’s not real, not yet.

  • The idea that we should all alone stick to international law when doing so means allowing terrorist groups to operate with impunity in failed states is putting ideals way ahead of pragmatism.

    I have no problem with that. My complaint is that by doing that you’ve relinquished any right to complain about other countries’ violations of international law. You take your pick. There is no combination plate.

    Both the president and John Kerry have complained about Russia’s violations of international law. To ears other than ours it sounds absurd.

  • Here are a few of the many condemnations of the intervention in Libya as a violation of international law:

    The Legality of the NATO Bombing in Libya
    The Use of Force Against Libya
    Outside the Law
    Bombing Does Not “Protect Innocent People”

    There are thousands more. It’s controversial but not a fringe position.

    I could produce a similar list on drone strikes. You can do it for yourself if you like.

  • TastyBits

    @Dave Schuler

    Your second comment about al-Qaeda seems more appropriate to the drones.

  • ...

    Most of the arguments in favor of US foreign policy that I have seen (and this goes back quite some time now) usually boil down to, “But we’re the good guys!” Usually the only time Americans argue against that are when the other party occupies the White House.

    Just so here. People that argued against the second US war with Iraq argued we didn’t have support from the UN and didn’t have a plan for ‘what next’. They had no such qualms about Libya because it is their President, and they will support everything he does regardless.

    It’s like SEC football, but less serious where it should be moreso, and more serious where it should be less so.

  • PD Shaw

    I rather think most people understand without recourse to legal arguments the differences between Russian military annexation for its own self-aggrandizement, and America using its own blood and treasure for some unrealistic humanitarian goal like preventing genocide.

  • steve

    Dave- You continue to ignore the problem with the Security Council. It makes its decisions based upon the whims of the countries in the Council, not law. If Russia attacked us would the Security Council authorize our retaliation ? No way. There is no perfect solution here. All I am asking is that our foreign policy actions have some reasonable level of international support, especially among our allies. When significant numbers of our allies do not support us, like with Iraq, I think that is a good signal that we are doing something wrong.


  • jan

    Yes, Obama’s presidency did preside over 74% of the deaths occurring in Afghanistan, following his own surge of some 30,000 additional troops to the mission. However, what is most noteworthy about these increased causalities are the policy modifications, accompanying Obama’s orders, weakening soldiers’ abilities to defend themselves. Changing the rules of engagement, is considered by many in the field as a major cause for this up-tick in deaths. And, this is perceived as a poor and detrimental executive decision by those having to follow it, as well as by our foes.

    “In Afghanistan, the [rules of engagement] that were put in place in 2009 and 2010 have created a hesitation and confusion for our war fighters,” Wayne Simmons, a retired US intelligence officer who worked at NATO headquarters in Kabul under McChrystal and Petraeus, told the Times.

    “It is no accident nor a coincidence that from January 2009 to August of 2010, coinciding with the Obama/McChrystal radical change of the ROE, casualties more than doubled,” Simmons went on. “The carnage will certainly continue as the already fragile and ineffective [rules] have been further weakened by the Obama administration as if they were playground rules.”

    Furthermore, the air campaign in Libya was first preceded by foot-dragging and hesitancy, which many say led to a broader expansion of the struggle to overthrow Gaddafi. This same ‘dithering’ was noted earlier in the Iranian Green Movement, as well as attempts, 3 years ago, of people in Syria to overthrow Assad. In the case of Iran, we seemed disengaged. With Assad, there was no follow-through with the U.S.’s threats or promises, which is why, IMO, our VP going around to the eastern bloc voicing reassurances we will be there for them, should Russia demonstrate further aggression, is laughable, and not taken seriously by NATO or other allies.

    Yes, The U.S. has overseen greater drone activities and strikes under this presidency. However, it’s a detached, anonymous way to commit war atrocities, much like playing video games where you see the blood spatter, but none of it gets on you. IMO, killing and maiming, by whatever means, is still killing and maiming. It’s just a cleaner, more sophisticated way of doing the same thing — one that requires little military courage, just some good technical hand/eye coordination, and an executive power willing to make kill lists.

    Basically, the United States is like the great shrinking power, under the last 5 years of leadership. We may still utter a bellow or two, but few are listening attentively. Whether this is by design, or simple incompetent happenstance, is anyone’s guess. But, I do think Mark Salter has reasoned points in his commentary, that validate some of his conclusions regarding the lack of seriousness in either President Obama’s foreign policy considerations nor whatever implementation he manages to give it.

  • jan

    Obama’s style of leadership in foreign affairs, has been demonstrably one that follows the lead of others — IOW, the much acclaimed ‘leading from behind’ label applied to his presidency. Perhaps, this is seen as a less aggressive or in-you-face kind of super power diplomacy. But, it nonetheless puts the U.S. behind the eight ball, rather than being out in front of it, where there are more options available to defuse simmering problems like the one we’ve have seen by Russia suddenly invading Crimea.

    The kind of preventive foreign policy-making we should be engaging in requires a country to flex it’s muscle beforehand, in order to deter a bully from making untowards moves, rather than wringing hands afterwards, stitching together symbolic-like punitive sanctions as a way of indicating any impotent displeasure. We, though, have become merely an “Oops, pardon me, please don’t do that” flimsy kind of country — polite, but not worth much in any international discussion or decision-making.

  • Dave- You continue to ignore the problem with the Security Council.

    Fine. Then the president and the Secretary of State should stop appealing to international law and international institutions in their public statements. To do so is sophistry, as is the point of my post.

    You either behave as though international law and international institutions were effect or as though they were not effective. You don’t appeal to them rhetorically and then effectively ignore them.

  • Andy

    Well, I think this and the other thread illustrate some fundamental problems with what we term, probably incorrectly, “international law.” A couple of observations:

    1. For the US, at least, Constitutional authority trumps international law. The Congress can still declare or authorize war regardless of what our agreements or the UNSC says.

    2. There is no formal system to arbitrate legal disputes or settle interpretive disputes. So each side can claim international law is on their side and, in many cases, each side may have a legitimate argument.

    3. Tied to that, there is a lot of gray area. Let’s take drones in Yemen and Somalia – their use is authorized by the local governments (such as they are). In the case of Somalia we’ve also attacked with manned aircraft and done raids with special operations forces. However, in Somalia there is a UN-authorized war against Al Shabaab. The UN didn’t specifically authorize the use of drones, or SEALS, or AC-130’s against Al Shabaab, but it did authorize the creation of ANISOM to fight them as well as for nations to provide assistance to the current government in Mogadishu (as opposed to the the quasi-states of Puntland and Somaliland – it’s complicated). So are drone strikes legal or illegal in Somalia? Probably legal but there’s no body or legal institution which can definitively decide one way or the other. Finally…..

    4. There is no enforcement mechanism. Even when, for instance, the UNSC passes a chapter VII resolution the means of enforcement must also be passed, which happens with much less frequency.

    So altogether “international law” is really just a more formal form of geopolitics. A more cynical view is that it is simply a tool to be used or ignored as the situation may dictate. I tend toward the cynical view with the caveat that I think it does provide incentives for norming behavior.

    PD Shaw,

    Sorry, I forgot to mention in the STEM thread (which dropped off the front page), that you and your daughter are welcome to talk with my wife (engineering doctorate) about women in engineering. She knows first-hand about the challenges for women in the field. Feel free to contact me at: me (at) nonpartisanpundit dotcom if you are interested.

  • TastyBits

    The people who call Putin a thug have no experience with thugs. What most of them mean is a school bully. A street thug is not a school bully, and a show of force does not intimidate a street thug. The police show of force in a gang’s territory does not intimidate the thugs.

    Putin is a regional thug with tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons, and a show of force is not going to intimidate him. Putin is not stupid. He knows that any serious military action will take months of mobilization, and without a military mobilization, there can be no serious military action. All talk of “keeping all options open” is empty, and he knows it.

  • Andy

    The problem with calling Putin a thug is that sooner or later you will have to deal with him as an equal.

  • PD Shaw

    @Andy, good points, particularly about gray areas. I don’t insist anybody agree with my views on international law since they are substantially disputed.

    It should also be recognized that Obama’s internationalism, as it is, served to restrain him in taking military action in Syria. He made an appeal to international law, sought to put together international support (though not from the U.N.) and was confounded by Russia’s offer to secure the international law principle by agreement. If only Putin was so inclined to seek international support for his concerns (assuming they are grounded in the treatment of Russian minorities).

  • PD Shaw

    @Andy, thanks for the offer; I did miss your reply. The d. is a long way from deciding what she wants to do, and I just try to encourage her to keep an open mind and keep doors open.

  • TastyBits


    You cannot possibly believe that the Iranian Mullahs would have sat around while the Green Movement overthrew the government. This is not the IRS going after the Tea Party. The Green Movement would have meet the fate of every other US encouraged uprising since the 1950’s – dead bodies.

    Assad was not Gaddafi. Syria was not Libya. The Syrian military was not the Libyan military. Russia was not going to get screwed in Syria like they got screwed in Libya. The US was never going to send in the troops necessary to overthrow Assad.

    All President Obama’s red line and bowing nonsense has not helped any, but I can assure that Putin has made the same assessment as me. Nobody is going to war over Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia. Europe could not sustain a campaign against Libya for over two weeks. I doubt this was missed by Putin, but all the pundits have missed this little tidbit. Why?

    I think you, Mark Salter, Sen. McCain, and the pundits you follow seriously underestimate the Iranian Mullahs, Assad, and Putin.

  • TastyBits


    I suspect Putin is long past caring about being called a thug, assuming that he ever did. At this point, it is probably a “badge of honor”.

    My point is that people call him a thug, and when he acts like a thug, they are surprised. I assume that they do not know what a thug is, but maybe, they think they can shame him out of being a thug.

  • I think I may have confused people. I am not by predisposition an internationalist. I think that we should enter into few international agreements and only when it’s obviously in our best interests to do so. Once having entered into the agreements we should either adhere to them strictly or withdraw from them.

    However, our president and SecState are internationalists, at least rhetorically. The problem with invoking international law and institutions, as they both have done as I surely should not have to point out, is that failing to honor them yourself vitiates both your internationalism and your pragmatism. You’re either a fool or a knave.

  • TastyBits


    President Obama’s mistake’s were:

    In Libya, he should have backed Gaddafi. Gaddafi was an important intelligence resource, and Benghazi would never have happened. This would also have kept the Europeans from revealing that NATO is a paper tiger. If anybody was not aware Europe was weak and feckless, they know it now.

    In Syria, he should have backed Assad. Assad would have quickly killed the terrorists, and many of the dead civilians would be alive. There would not be the existing terrorist havens, and the instability in the region would not be as bad. Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia would not have gained anything.

  • steve

    “the policy modifications, accompanying Obama’s orders, weakening soldiers’ abilities to defend themselves. ”

    That was done by Petraeus.

    @TB- There is eventually a price to be paid for backing evil dictators. There are also consequences for not backing allies who have lost lives giving you assistance.


  • TastyBits


    There is eventually a price to be paid for backing evil dictators. …

    There are prices to be paid for all actions, and I listed the price for toppling two dictators. (Assad was elected.) Backing dictators is not done openly. You back the dictator behind the scenes, and publicly, both parties denounce each other. This is how realpolitik works, or at least, how it did.

    Had Gaddafi not been overthrown, Syria never would have occurred, and there would have been no need to be associated with Assad.

    If you would like, I could add the price for Iraq, but I suspect you would have a different answer. I suppose he was a good, evil dictator. Like the others, his being in power served a purpose.

    … There are also consequences for not backing allies who have lost lives giving you assistance.

    I am not sure which allies you mean, but has anyone informed US allies of this?.

  • jan

    That was done by Petraeus.

    And, who was Petraeus’s boss at the time — the Commander-in-Chief? President Obama was very much engaged with his general’s decisions, oftentimes going against their recommendations. This was his call, his decision to approve or disapprove.

  • jan


    Interesting way to look at Libya and Syria, however, can’t say I agree with it.

    IMO, timing was Obama’s Achilles heel, in that he waited around too long to make his decisions, and by the time he did so the events got way out of hand, blowing up into bigger tragedies than they had to be.

    Gaddafi’s rule was coming to an end. If the U.S. had stepped in sooner, with no-fly zones etc., he could have been ousted or killed in a less painful amount of time. The same with Assad. Obama intervened verbally, regarding the brutality of the Assad regime, giving his misgivings and threats should the turmoil continue. They proved to be empty threats, which become fuel for greater fires promoting even more aggression, finally evoking the infamous ‘red line’ remark, creating the embarrassing fiasco that some say has led Putin to be in a better position to flex power in Crimea, and perhaps Ukraine.

  • TastyBits


    I did not expect you to agree, but at least, you are consistent regarding Libya, Syria, and Iraq. Others are willing to twist themselves into intellectual knots to create a difference based upon politics.

    I am a hardcore realist, and I expect few to agree with me. I find the newly minted realists a little too idealistic for me.

    If the Europeans had not screwed over Russia in Libya, Assad would have been gone long ago. No-fly zones have no affect against ground troops or artillery, and they have little or no affect on helicopter assaults. The problem with arming rebels should have been realized on 9/11.

    The big difference between me and the people who say that Assad could have been easily overthrown is that they are consistently wrong, and they have absolutely no shame about being consistently wrong.

  • steve

    “And, who was Petraeus’s boss at the time — the Commander-in-Chief? President Obama was very much engaged with his general’s decisions, oftentimes going against their recommendations. This was his call, his decision to approve or disapprove.”

    Presidents dont micromanage at that level. Even the SecDef doesn’t interfere on that level. Go read Gates’ book. Would be nice if Obama had been willing to buck his generals a bit more.

  • steve

    TB- Russia will always act in Russia’s interests. They want their port in Syria. They were going to keep Assad. CAS very much affects ground troops.


  • TastyBits


    Had the Russians not been screwed over in Libya, they would have been willing to get rid of Assad. They were concerned about their bases and economic interests. They did not care who was running the place. There were several ways for Assad to go, and the Russians would have facilitated it.

  • TastyBits


    And now for the rest of the story.

    In Libya, Russia had economic interests, but Russia did not act to protect those interests. Russia trusted the Europeans to honor those interests after they overthrew Gaddafi, but the Europeans did not. Those agreements went into the grave with Gaddafi, and Russia was excluded from any new contracts.

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