I’m still struggling with how to process this. I’ve done a fair amount of reading about the Cold War (if you’re interested, I recommend Arsenals of Folly), so intellectually I know how insane the Cold War was. But to see similar levels of madness coming from allegedly “moderate” politicians in 2016 is still difficult to process.
Here are the facts: out of the ten major-party presidential candidates still in the race, seven have explicitly called for a no-fly zone. This includes Clinton, all four of the allegedly moderate “establishment” GOP candidates (Bush, Rubio, Kasich, and Christie), as well as Carson and Fiorina. Trump has talked about establishing a “safe zone” in Syria, which would realistically entail a no-fly zone, though it’s not clear he understands this. Cruz has said he’s generally opposed to US intervention in Syria, and Sanders has specifically rejected a no-fly zone.
A no-fly zone means a commitment to shooting down planes that violate it. This is not controversial. And because Russia is currently flying bombing missions in Syria to support Assad, a no-fly zone over Syria is a threat to shoot down Russian planes. I had trouble believing this when I first heard it–I assumed there must be some nuance to the candidates’ positions that was being left out of the headlines. But the seven candidates who’ve called for a no-fly zone really do seem to be saying we should threaten to shoot down Russian planes.
For example, here’s what Clinton said in a Democratic debate in December (Raddatz is the moderator):
CLINTON: Martha, that — you know, one of the reasons why I have advocated for a no-fly zone is in order to create those safe refuges within Syria, to try to protect people on the ground both from Assad’s forces, who are continuing to drop barrel bombs, and from ISIS. And of course, it has to be de-conflicted with the Russians, who are also flying in that space.
I’m hoping that because of the very recent announcement of the agreement at the Security Council, which embodies actually an agreement that I negotiated back in Geneva in June of 2012, we’re going to get a diplomatic effort in Syria to begin to try to make a transition. A no-fly zone would prevent the outflow of refugees and give us a chance to have some safe spaces.
RADDATZ: Secretary Clinton, I’d like to go back to that if I could. ISIS doesn’t have aircraft, Al Qaida doesn’t have aircraft. So would you shoot down a Syrian military aircraft or a Russian airplane?
CLINTON: I do not think it would come to that. We are already de-conflicting air space. We know…
RADDATZ: But isn’t that a decision you should make now, whether…
CLINTON: No, I don’t think so. I am advocating…
RADDATZ: … if you’re advocating this?
CLINTON: I am advocating the no-fly zone both because I think it would help us on the ground to protect Syrians; I’m also advocating it because I think it gives us some leverage in our conversations with Russia.
Now that Russia has joined us in the Security Council, has adopted an agreement that we hashed out a long day in Geneva three years ago, now I think we can have those conversations. The no-fly zone, I would hope, would be also shared by Russia. If they will begin to turn their military attention away from going after the adversaries of Assad toward ISIS and put the Assad future on the political and diplomatic track, where it belongs.
Clinton’s answers here are extremely evasive, but it’s hard to read her as saying anything other than, “yes I’ll be threatening to shoot down Russian planes but I think I can get the Russians to back down before I have to carry out that threat.”
Now I’m going to make some judgement calls. It could be that the candidates calling for a no-fly zone have no intention of even trying to make good on this pledge. But I would not count on this. Apparently there’s a fair amount of research showing candidates generally try to keep their promises. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these candidates originally signed on to the no-fly zone idea because they thought it would make them sound like serious foreign policy types. Even if that’s the case, they may feel compelled to keep the promise once in office. Even more frightening, some of them might actually think it’s a good idea. Clinton, after all, has reputation for having been the hawk in the Obama administration when she was Secretary of State.
Whether or not a candidate endorsed the no-fly zone for political reasons, I bet they all believe it’s at least a non-disastrous idea. I bet Clinton really believes the Russians would back down before she had to shoot down a Russian jet. I expect candidates who endorsed the no-fly zone for political reasons to be very good at rationalizing it, telling themselves even if it won’t really solve the problem it at least won’t be a disaster.
But it very likely would be a disaster. To imagine Russia’s response, imagine if Russia unilaterally declared they were going to start shooting down American planes doing bombing missions against ISIS. We would think that was insane and probably most American leaders would want to push back hard–perhaps by carrying on what we were doing and daring Russia to stop us.
Now if America shot down a Russian plane, how likely is it that it would lead to nuclear war? Some people have argued that even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the risk of nuclear war was small. However, I’ve argued this is wrong, and surviving the Cuban Missile Crisis involved a good dose of luck. Even though both Kennedy and Khrushchev wanted to avoid war, there were points where either could have lost control of the situation. Furthermore, last summer Vox.com’s Max Fischer argued in a series of articles that the risk of nuclear war is the highest it’s been since the Cold War. Fischer focused on the possibility of a crisis in Eastern Europe, but some of the same dynamics would be in play in Syria.
I know spy planes sometimes get shot down without that escalating into war, but I don’t think that’s a good analogy for shooting down Russian bombers over Syria. Everyone seems to recognize that countries get to shoot down spy planes over their own territory. But Russia probably does not think the US is entitled to establish no-fly zones wherever it wants.
Another observation: from the reading I’ve done on the Cold War, my sense is that there were two kinds of people (on both sides of the conflict) who drove nuclear escalation. One was people who had lived through World War II planning for World War III on the assumption it was basically going to be World War 2.5. On the American side, General Curtis LeMay, who had organized the mass-firebombings of Japanese cities like Tokoyo, argued nuclear war was not fundamentally different from the mass bombings that had happened in World War II. On the Russian side, some Russian leaders reasoned, “well, nuclear war would be terrible, but getting invaded by Hitler was also terrible, and we survived that, didn’t we?”
But the World War 2.5 crowd at least did things that made a kind of sense from within their questionable worldview. Some of the other decision makers, however, did things that made no sense whatsoever from a military point of view because it was good politics. If someone said, “we’re falling behind in the arms race, we must build this new weapons system to catch up,” it was often very difficult to explain we were not in fact falling behind and/or the proposed weapons system served no conceivable military purpose. Therefore, such claims made good politics even when totally detached from reality. (If you want to watch how this works first hand, just watch the GOP debates where the candidates compete to exaggerate the threat of ISIS to ridiculous extremes, even claiming ISIS is an “existential threat” to the United States.)
The men who escalated the Cold War for personal political gain probably told themselves that their actions didn’t really significantly increase the risk of war. And in a sense they were probably right: probably no one thing any one person did increased the risk by that much. But taken together, their actions created a very dangerous situation. Indeed, it seems likely Putin’s recent escalation in Eastern Europe is driven largely by domestic political considerations.
Because of this, I cannot vote for any candidate who so much as suggests they might shoot down Russian planes in circumstances where those planes clearly do not pose a threat to the US or any country we have pledged to protect. Even if it seems unlikely that the threat would be carried out, the potential consequences are too grave for us to be taking any chances. This means that although I am pretty unhappy with Sanders’ record on immigration, I’d vote for him if the California primary were held today.
One other thing: how crazy is it that it’s the “extreme” candidates (Sanders, Cruz, maybe Trump?) who have resisted calls for a no-fly zone over Syria? I suppose this is because Trump and Cruz’s nationalistic bonafides are not in doubt, so if they feel like rejecting a particular ridiculous policy proposal they can. Meanwhile Sanders actually has a principled commitment to avoiding needless military actions. I think this says something very disturbing about what it means to be a “serious” or “moderate” American politician nowadays.
Note: I created the meme at the top in part based on this conversation between Clinton and Rachel Maddow.