Dear Blob: the world isn’t static

Even though I know it exists, I’m still regularly baffled by the assumption, which appears to be common in DC foreign policy circles, that the rest of the world is this static, unchanging thing that can be affected by American actions but never reacts to them. The best current example of this assumption is the argument for broadening American intervention in Syria to include attacking Bashar al-Assad’s military assets. The immediate objection to this idea is that Russia will forcefully object and probably counter-escalate, and given the intermingling of Russian and Syrian forces, American strikes against Assad might actually kill Russian personnel. This potentially risks escalating the Syrian conflict into a US-Russian shooting war. Maybe you think that’s a risk worth taking, and, hey, I think there’s a compelling argument to be made there even if I don’t find it entirely convincing. But Bomb Bashar proponents, to the extent they address that objection at all, do so in ways that range from the Rube Goldbergian:

Given that Russia would be unlikely in such a scenario to freely share the locations of all of its deployed military personnel, a mechanism would also be put into place through which Russia’s military headquarters in the Latakia-based Hmeymim Airbase would be pre-informed several hours in advance of any U.S. cruise missile strike. The plan to issue warnings to Russia would be made explicitly public to prevent Russia from moving its forces or even civilians or prisoners to an intended target in a cynical attempt to deter a strike. The United States would also make clear that once a warning had been issued, the planned stand-off strike would take place. That any such strikes would be targeting non-critical regime military infrastructure away from populated areas or otherwise sensitive areas would also minimize the necessity for Russia to take what would be an extraordinarily bold move in counter-escalating.

“The United States would communicate, via its Pacific sonar network and a select group of Mongolian horse archers, that in the event of a planned stand-off strike against a Syrian facility, if the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs stamps his left foot three times in quick succession, Russian personnel should be prepared to run 50 meters precisely to the south-southwest of their current position, but if the Chairman claps his hands seven times while circling a large fish tank, Russian personnel should dig a hole and shelter in place. Unless it has been pre-determined that it is Opposite Day, in which case…”

To the outright wishful thinking (you can almost see Lister literally waving his hands here):

Since Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015, the threat of force has undoubtedly acquired an additional level of risk. However, the question remains: to what extent does Russia have any interest in counter-escalating against the United States and risking open conflict with a superior military actor? Skeptics of an assertive U.S. approach to Syria have frequently used this question as an automatic veto, but they themselves have never justified in any level of detail why they think Russia itself actually would seek a “World War III” scenario.


Certainly, the U.S. threat of punitive military action against the Assad regime would need to be credible enough as to deter any Russian advocates of counter-escalation, but the logic behind the Russian counter-escalation argument appears extraordinarily minimal at most. Russia’s intervention in Syria has been conducted at minimal cost, given the country’s economic struggles and the fact that its economy may now be no bigger than that of Spain. To militarily counter limited punitive measures against non-critical regime military infrastructure resulting from especially flagrant violations of a ceasefire would seem to contradict Russia’s own calculated intervention in Syria.



Up until now, and despite its highly problematic military actions and diplomatic posturing, Moscow has made it patently clear that it wants to be seen as a great power alongside the United States and as a partner in solving the crisis in Syria. Russia has also shown no indication that Assad is ultimately a critical long-term component of its strategy, and recent reports would suggest that Moscow has also become increasingly skeptical of the durability of Syria’s armed forces as a long-term partner. It is therefore extraordinarily hard to imagine any scenario whereby Russia would risk jeopardizing its prominent status in Syria over what would be a limited intervention focused on protecting civilians amid an enforced ceasefire. Syria in this policy scenario is not being invaded and President Assad’s most critical assets in the capital and on the coast would be explicitly excluded from the potential target set. Consequently, it is time that the United States called Moscow’s bluff.

In other words, we know Russia won’t counter-escalate because Russia doesn’t want to start World War III over Syria. OK. But, like, we also don’t want to start World War III over Syria…right? And Russia, probably, also knows this…right? So what possible reason could they have to just roll over? Why wouldn’t they counter-escalate to something short of World War III, but close enough to force Washington to be the one to back off?

The assumption, as I say, appears to be that only the United States gets to truly act. Everybody else has to watch the United States act and say “oh well, I guess we can all pack it in, the US has Done Something.” If we’ve learned nothing else over the past half-century in world affairs it’s that this assumption never turns out to be true. There is always a reaction to American action, and too often the reaction comes as a great shock to policymakers and think tank strategists who simply never considered that, say, Iran might overthrow the Shah, or the Iraqi people might resist an American occupation, or some Ukrainians might resent the overthrow of their president.

Believe it or not, Lister’s piece wasn’t the one that made me mad enough to write something about it. The straw that broke this camel’s back came in the form of a separate piece, one whose conclusion I actually agree with, on the need for the US to reassess its entire security relationship with Saudi Arabia over the conduct of its obliteration of Yemen. The authors, Richard Sokolsky of the Carnegie Endowment and Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations, are righteous both on the reason for the reassessment and the fecklessness of Washington’s behavior with respect to Yemen:

The Saudi Arabian intervention in Yemen, which began in March 2015, has been aided and abetted from the beginning by the United States. U.S.-supplied military aircraft, refueled by U.S. tanker planes and directed by U.S. intelligence assets, are bombing Yemen almost daily with U.S.-made weapons.


America’s responsibility was brought into stark relief earlier this month, when Saudi planes mistakenly bombed a packed funeral in the Yemeni capital, killing 140 and wounding over 500 people. It was only the latest in a series of Saudi attacks that have killed civilians, leading U.N. experts to condemn Saudi actions in Yemen as war crimes. In the aftermath, the White House announced that U.S military assistance to Saudi Arabia does not amount to a blank check and that it would begin an immediate “policy review” of this aid to Saudi Arabia.


The “policy review” is an old and established Washington technique for avoiding tough decisions. Faced with a choice between unpalatable alternatives, the government initiates a review to study the question in depth. The hope is that by the time the review is finished, the political pressure to take action will have passed. The purpose of a review is often to buy time and create space for an administration to keep doing what it has been doing, not to create clarity or to change policy.

Hot damn, yes. They also diagnose the situation correctly:

A proper review would begin by acknowledging that the sale of U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia is big business. During the span of the Bush and Obama administrations, total U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia increased by nearly 97 percent. The U.S. has offered $115 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the Obama administration. Over the last three years alone — since the start of negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program — America has sold nearly $36 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia. These sales are certainly in the commercial interests of the United States and the American firms that manufacture the weapons. They create jobs, generate corporate profits, and improve the U.S. balance of trade.


But whether the massive sale of American arms to the Saudis serves U.S. geopolitical interests is a much more debatable proposition. U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia is a mere tool of American policy toward the Kingdom, not an end in itself. As such, it should serve broader objectives in the relationship. It should influence the Saudi government to make decisions that support American interests and priorities in the relationship and in the region more broadly.

Their main suggestion is fantastic: the US should simply stop selling the Saudis any weapons that can be used in an offensive capacity. The Saudis can buy what they want for their own defense, but America is done arming Saudi wars of aggression. Again, hot damn. But what if the Saudis decide to take their business elsewhere? This is where Sokolsky and Shapiro fall right into the static world assumption:

It is, of course, possible that the Saudis would turn to Russia or China for arms if U.S. restrictions become too burdensome. But the Saudi military strongly prefers U.S. weapons for both political and military reasons. Integrating Russian and Chinese weapons into their force structure would create serious logistical and operational problems. Further, Saudi dependence on the U.S. military logistics system will ensure a continued long-term service and support contracts with the U.S. defense industry. It would also be imprudent for the United States to continue selling certain weapons systems to the Saudis solely out of fear of losing business.

Look at those hands waving! Yes, the Saudis have built up a certain dependence on US military assistance and US hardware that keeps them coming back to buy more US materiel. But that’s in a world where the US lets them buy whatever they want. Sokolsky and Shapiro are recommending that the US stop letting the Saudis buy whatever they want, and in that world, it is entirely possible they would turn to Russia or China. Why wouldn’t they? Yes it would cost them a lot of time and money and logistical effort, but the Saudis are still doing pretty well on the money front, low oil prices notwithstanding, and if they literally cannot purchase offensive weaponry from the US anymore, then they might very well decide that the time and effort it would take to shift to Russian or Chinese weaponry would be worth it. Obviously I have no gift for predicting how a hypothetical scenario like this would play out, but the idea that the Saudis would turn elsewhere for their military needs seems a lot less wishful to me than the idea that, prevented from buying any more offensive US weaponry, they’ll suddenly realize the futility of trying to forcibly shape the entire Middle East to their wishes and completely rethink everything about their foreign policy.

The willful blindness to the fact that other countries have their own agendas and their own capacities to act independent of the United States strikes me, as an outsider, as one of the most consistent problems with the Washington foreign policy universe. It makes for bad analysis which leads to bad policy, over and over again. We all had a good chuckle (well, when we weren’t alternately being horrified) over the Bush administration’s “reality-based community” craziness, but you’re fooling yourself if you don’t think that this is a mindset shared by a substantial part of the DC establishment.

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