Isolationists left and right: The new doctrine of avoidance

For America, there will be no going back to the era before September 11th, 2001, to false comfort in a dangerous world. We have learned that terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness.

George W. Bush, September 2003 [1]

That pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood, and the bombing of the Boston Marathon. Lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism. We must take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them. But as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11… These attacks were all deadly, and we learned that left unchecked, these threats can grow. But if dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11.

Barack Obama, May 2013 [2]

The impasse at which we have arrived in foreign and security policy inside the Western democracies is the result of a return to pre-9/11 thinking.

The substance of this reversion is to be found in President Barack Obama’s conviction that the struggle against Islamist political violence is not a war on terror but a police action, or in the President’s recent words: “We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”[3] This reset strategy has endured despite the terrorist attacks at Fort Hood, Benghazi, and Boston, and the attempted attacks on Times Square, Stewart Air National Guard Base, and Northwest Airlines Flight 253, amongst others.

The effect has been to shift the United States towards a post-neoconservative foreign policy which is best understood as the absence of an assertive or coherent foreign policy of any ideological stripe. This drift might reflect post-Iraq “intervention fatigue” on the part of public opinion but its side effect has been to deprive the West of much-needed leadership amid trying circumstances in the international arena. The symbol of this retreat may be found in the Obama administration’s preferred counter-terror measure, the unmanned aerial vehicle, a remote and impersonal tool for foreign policymakers who favour the clean passivity of aerial coordinates over the messy business of boots on the ground.

To separate foreign policy from security policy is a fool’s errand in the context of the Islamist threat. Borders are no barrier to the ideology of violent jihad and the lines between foreign and domestic threats are increasingly blurred. This interconnectivity of Islamist militants and oppressive regimes, of terrorist violence against Western civilians and tyrant violence against disenfranchised peoples, is symptomatic and causative of a cyclical calculus of human rights abuses multiplied by inaction producing resentment plus anti-Westernism. The proponents of acedia admit as much in their attempts to link terrorist outrages to the foreign policy actions of the United States and its allies, evidence for the futility of intervention in their estimation.

This new doctrine of avoidance differs from both the classical isolationism of the Right and the liberal global ennui characterised by Tony Blair as a “doctrine of benign inactivity”[4]. Instead, it is a reaction to a short period, broadly speaking from Operation Provide Comfort in 1991 until Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, in which humanitarian interventionism was, in a limited sense, in the ascendancy in political and policy elites. Today’s backlash isolationism, emboldened by the perceived shortcomings of recent interventions, rejects not only intervention but even muscular containment of the sort practiced against Saddam Hussein prior to his ouster. This avoidance doctrine is characterised by three main factors:

1) The desecuritisation of political violence. Key policymakers, particularly in the Obama administration, have sought to reposition Islamist terrorism as a criminal rather than military and ideological threat. The results have ranged from the substantive – the White House’s attempts to try Guantanamo Bay detainees in civilian United States courts – to the rhetorical – the abandonment of the “war on terror” terminology.

2) De-emphasis of normative goals. The Bush administration’s appeals to normative constructs such as freedom and democracy have been replaced by language framing US objectives in realist terms. Values-based goals have all but been eliminated in the strategy and rhetoric of the current administration. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” Mr Obama explained in the early days of his presidency, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”[5]

3) Functional containment. The combination of the first two factors has resulted in an approach to diplomatic and military engagement that prizes functional containment, a series of tactics aimed at minimising a rogue actor’s threat to the United States but not restricting the regime’s potential for internal violence. Conventional containment tools such as economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and arms embargoes are eschewed in favour of strategic non-engagement which distances the Western powers from the hostile regime and its belligerency. Foreign ministries continue to issue cautiously parsed statements on human rights abuses and tepid resolutions expressing displeasure are passed at international fora but substantive conflict is avoided at all costs. The containment, therefore, is less of the regime than of the West’s scope for action against the regime.

While Mr Obama is the figurehead of the avoidance doctrine, he is far from its sole practitioner. It is now the reflexive instinct of those persons, organisations and institutions that broadly constitute the liberal-Left to evade the very moral responsibilities once deemed intrinsic to the liberal-Left critique. Avoidance in a rhetorical sense has also marked public discourses on terrorism, particularly in the United Kingdom, where the Woolwich attack shocked a country that had told itself violent jihad was a paranoid concoction brewed by power-hungry neocon imperialists at the (long since defunct) Project for the New American Century. The shock soon passed, however, and commentators and politicians took to the presses and the airwaves to assure us that random madness, not ideology, was behind the attack. Others went further, with The Guardian acting as the bulletin board for the masochist contingent of the British Left, publishing missives blaming Western military actions for Drummer Lee Rigby’s death – a role to which that once great liberal newspaper has become accustomed, apparently without perturbance, after every act of human vandalism carried out by Islamists.[6]

The liberal-Left’s hostility to Western assertiveness, of the political, cultural, or military variety, is bolstered by a recrudescence of conservative isolationism. This view was served up by former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in a recent speech in which she rejected US intervention in Syria, counselling the world to “Let Allah sort it out”[7]. Mrs Palin’s public statements do not give the impression of a woman whose thoughts are burdened by the nuances of life but her blunt quip, for all its apparent callousness, is a sincere expression of hostility towards the expending of American blood and treasure in far-flung lands. The former governor of Alaska spoke for a growing number of Republicans who impulsively supported military action in Afghanistan and Iraq but who now question the cost, efficacy, and ideological virtue of a neoconservative foreign policy.

Mrs Palin may speak the language of the Republican base but the political and intellectual case against interventionism is more reliably to be found in the votes and speeches of Senator Rand Paul. Senator Paul, in the analysis of Reason magazine, “has figured out a way to sell anti-neoconservative ideas to audiences allergic to his father”.[8] The Kentucky politician does not blame American foreign policy for attacks on US interests; his is a federalist critique in which the pressing questions are not moral or consequential but constitutional. So he speaks about the legal authority of the executive and the rights of Congress to oversight and control of the purse strings. The appeal is still to cynicism and insularity but the talk of reigning in government has an obvious appeal to conservatives. Buttressing this legalistic critique, Tea Party conservatives on Capitol Hill, particularly those swept in on the anti-big government wave of 2010, are articulating a new Republican agnosticism about defence spending.[9]

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has cautioned against weighing in on the side of the Syrian rebels, urging the United States and the United Kingdom not to arm those groups fighting to topple Assad.[10] Although Prime Minister David Cameron helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi and became the first world leader to visit post-Mubarak Egypt, he is a prisoner of his instinctive Burkeanism: an attraction to stability and order and an aversion to political radicalism and foreign entanglements. “I am not a naïve neocon,” he once remarked, “who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000ft.”[11] Stephen Harper of Canada has emerged as a world statesman, particularly in making Canada a serious player in the Middle East, but he too is restrained by public opinion and financial limitations.

These political developments reflect a mood of weltschmerz across the publics of the West, an appetite for insularity and a longing to withdraw from a fractious and complex world as if ignoring the threats ranged against us will vanish them from existence. However, these comforting myths are dangerous to our physical security and the moral integrity of Western liberalism. Threats do not turn benign because they are ignored and our ethical obligations do not cease simply because we have become inured to humanitarian catastrophe and suspicious of external (military) solutions.

Analysts trying to measure the impact of the avoidance doctrine need look no further than Syria, where Bashar al-Assad continues to suppress threats to his position with extreme brutality and some of his opponents come to mimic his tactics and savagery. The international community’s refusal to intervene has legitimated these human rights abuses while facilitating the ascendency within the rebel forces of extremist actors linked to al-Qaeda and other Islamist affiliates. The human cost of these foreign policy failings is clear for all to see, with the death toll from the conflict now exceeding 100,000.[12] The Obama administration’s recent announcement of its intention to arm the rebels almost certainly came too late to achieve a parity between opposition and government forces. Moreover, the Islamist infiltration of the rebels is such that the United States risks flooding a civil warzone with weapons that could easily fall into the wrong hands. The only way forward on Syria is to demand both sides negotiate an interim power-sharing agreement until free and fair elections can be held under the supervision of international monitors. To press this solution, the Western powers should implement a no-fly zone backed up by the option of strikes against strategic regime or rebel targets in response to acts of unprovoked aggression or human rights abuses against civilians. There is, of course, scant hope of realising this strategy, given the determination of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah to keep Assad in power and the enervating weakness of the Obama administration in its failure to face down Putin’s obstructionism. The humanitarian and security crisis in Syria calls for clarity and resolve at a time when American foreign policy has been reduced to opaque statements and evasive manoeuvres in service of a gun-shy president who prefers benign inertia to the risks of decisive action.

The waning of American leadership and the current administration’s doctrine of avoidance may have marginalised interventionism in policymaking circles but this could prove a useful period for interventionists to regroup, contemplate the successes and failures of previous operations, and return to the intellectual and policy field with stronger arguments. The first step in this process of re-examination and renewal is to learn from past mistakes, such as over-reliance on intelligence sources, the drawbacks of the Rumsfeld Doctrine, and post-intervention security policy. Philosophically, interventionists should recalibrate their goals and their tone, both of which have been seen as excessively grand and optimistic. The United States is not an aircraft carrier for liberal democracy and the Royal Air Force is not the armed wing of Amnesty International. There are limits to what we can do.

A common charge laid by realist and neorealist critics is that interventionism is sheer quixotic universalism, a saviour complex for Western liberals. Much of this is crude caricature but there is also a kernel of truth. Interventionists, of liberal and neoconservative stripes, must find a way to negotiate their political goals and values with the practical facts of international affairs. To this end, the foreign policy commentator Julie Lenarz argues for an instrumental rather than ideological interventionism: “It would be a mistake to see humanitarian interventionism as a rigid, evangelical code of principles. We should see it as a flexible tool to achieve what it should achieve, and that is saving lives.”[13]

But rethinking should not be confused with ponderous soul-searching or self-flagellation. In appraising achievements and missteps, neoconservatives and muscular liberals would be justified in contrasting their prescriptions with those of their opponents. Interventionists are regularly accused of hostility towards multilateralism – a charge to which some neoconservatives would happily confess – but for multilateralism to be effective it must temper respect for the role of the United Nations with recognition of the sclerotic effect of UN bureaucracy and politics on the deliberative process. Muscular liberals must remind their flabbier confreres that the responsibility to protect, while by no means a blank cheque for military adventurism, is more than a statement of humanitarian ambitions.

The tyrannies of the Arab world serve to exacerbate anti-Western sentiment while the free movement of terrorists and weapons that can be best facilitated under an authoritarian regime ensures yet more instability in the region, threatening the security of Israel, and empowering radical Islamist groups always ready with a narrative and a suicide belt for every impressionable youth who comes their way. Fail in Syria and we risk kick-starting yet another vicious cycle of hatred and resentment that reaches from the killing fields of Aleppo to the planes and trains and coffee shops of Europe and North America. The opponents of intervention caution against the fallout from action but they must be pressed on the costs of inaction. Realists, after all, must deal with the real world.

Liberals and neoconservatives have always been uneasy bedfellows in the interventionism project and the outstanding questions about the significance and consequences of their divergent philosophies, goals and strategies deserve to be addressed more candidly than heretofore. But for the present, the two camps have a common interest in the defence of liberal democracy and the defeat of its enemies. Democratic polities, if they can rekindle their belief in political liberalism and recapture the instinct to win, can forge a moral mission not merely to defend at home but to assert around the world the promise and opportunities of Western civilisation, democratic institutions, and human freedom.


[1] ‘President Bush’s Address to the Nation’ New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/08/international/08PTEX.html?pagewanted=3&pagewanted=all 8 September 2003
[2] ‘Remarks by the President at the National Defense University’ The White House http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/05/23/remarks-president-national-defense-university  23 May 2013
[3]Ibid.
[4] Blair, T ‘A Global Alliance for Global Values’ The Foreign Policy Centre http://fpc.org.uk/fsblob/798.pdf September 2006
[5] ‘News Conference by President Obama’ The White House http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/news-conference-president-obama-4042009 4 April 2009
[6] See e.g. Milne, S ‘Britain’s wars fuel terror. Denying it only feeds Islamophobia’ The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/29/britain-wars-terror-islamophobia 29 May 2013
[7] Tenety, E ‘Sarah Palin at Faith and Freedom conference: ‘Let Allah sort it out’ in Syria, Middle East’ Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/wp/2013/06/16/sarah-palin-at-faith-and-freedom-conference-let-allah-sort-it-out-in-syria-middle-east/ 16 June 2013
[8] Welch, M ‘Rand Paul Mainstreams Non-Interventionism’ Reason http://reason.com/archives/2013/02/05/rand-paul-mainstreams-non-interventionis 5 February 2013
[9] Brannen, K ‘Republicans Raise Questions About Defense Spending’ Defense News http://www.defensenews.com/article/20110708/DEFSECT05/107080308/Republicans-Raise-Questions-About-Defense-Spending 8 July 2011
[10] Johnson, B ‘Don’t arm the Syria maniacs’ Daily Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10124089/Boris-Johnson-Dont-arm-the-Syria-maniacs.html 16 June 2013
[11] Watt, N ‘Cameron says UK prejudiced for believing Muslims cannot manage democracy’ The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/feb/22/david-cameron-uk-muslims-democracy 22 February 2011
[13] International Edition with Levy & Counsell, ‘Episode 11: Julie Lenarz’ Ricochet http://ricochet.com/main-feed/Julie-Lenarz 2 April 2013

A paper prepared for the Human Security Centre. 

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