Chinese dissident and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo has a habit of making headlines from prison. The political reformer began his fourth prison term, this time an eleven-year sentence for “subversion,” in 2009, only to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, and now a surprising congressional move has pulled him into the most local of politics. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to next year’s budget that would rename the address of the Chinese embassy in northwest D.C. to “1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza” in his honor.
David Keyes of the nonprofit Advancing Human Rights explained the position of the move’s bipartisan advocates when the proposal was initially made. As he tells it, the idea is to remind other countries that their domestic policy decisions have an international cost: ”Every time the representatives of tyranny walk outside of their offices, they should be confronted with the faces and names of those whose freedom they deny. Dissidents languishing in prison must know that they are not forgotten.”
Washington street names have been political arenas before. Similar motivations led Congress to rename the address of the Soviet embassy “1 Andrei Sakharov Plaza” after a Soviet dissident and human rights activist in 1984.
Criticism from China on this latest move was to be expected: a spokeswoman from their Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the proposal a “complete farce,” while online commenters proposed renaming the address of the U.S. embassy in Beijing after Edward Snowden. But Americans are faulting the move as well. Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution, for instance, complained that the renaming’s “symbolic shaming” would not accomplish much. “Of course, what the regime did to Liu Xiaobo violated every reasonable moral standard, and this action will make some in the West feel good. But it will not speed his release by even one day.”
Yet no one questions that the move is anything other than symbolic. The proposal’s sponsor, outgoing Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf, defended the move in moral language: “Renaming the street would send a clear and powerful message that the United States remains vigilant and resolute in its commitment to safeguard human rights around the globe.” The question is not whether the U.S. can force China to release Liu Xiaobo by renaming a street. Secretary of State John Kerry has already made the U.S. position on Liu’s case perfectly clear in the past. Rather, Wolf’s message-sending may be aimed in another direction entirely.
Human rights advocacy has taken a back seat as an American foreign policy priority in dealing with China. Taken in that context, the street sign proposal may be sending a message to Americans, rather than the Chinese. Naming the street of the Chinese embassy after a jailed dissident may be a small effort to suggest to Americans that human rights should be a bigger national priority. It is that agenda that should be debated, not the overdramatized foreign policy implications of a street sign.
Last week we convened some of the most significant thinkers in the country from across the political spectrum at George Washington University to address a way forward for American foreign policy, and to build on the emerging mainstream consensus that favors prudence, diplomacy, and the rule of law. If you attended or viewed the conference, we’d love your feedback.
Robert Golan-Vilella was there:
If there was an overriding theme to Tuesday’s event, it was about exploring the costs of the existing consensus strategy. Barry Posen, speaking about his new book Restraint, highlighted the problems posed by the incentives that this strategy gives to U.S. allies, who both free-ride on America’s defense spending and act more provocatively than they might otherwise, thinking that Washington will always have their back. A panel consisting of Adam Serwer, Marcy Wheeler and Conor Friedersdorf made the case that America’s pursuit of absolute safety from foreign threats had resulted in a security state that unacceptably impinged on its citizens’ civil liberties at home. And, of course, running throughout the conference was a recognition of the enormous costs in both blood and treasure of the past dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
What is needed instead, said Daniel McCarthy, editor of the American Conservative, is a “kind of counter-consensus.” It would be made up of a loose alliance of antiwar liberals and conservatives, realists and civil libertarians. It would seek to roll back many of the policies mentioned above, and replace them with an alternative model in which America spends less on its armed forces and uses military force only when its vital national interests—narrowly defined—are truly at stake.
Golan-Vilella wonders if even a foreign policy counter-consensus is desirable in the first place. Michael Dougherty, who participated in the conference, highlights the politics of Iraq, noting that Republicans simply need to admit they were wrong:
As panelists pointed out at the recent “New Internationalism” conference held by The American Conservative and (liberal-leaning) The American Prospect, popular opinion in England and the United States held Congress and the president from committing military resources to another regime change in Syria last year. The American people want a foreign policy that protects jobs, that promotes peace and prosperity. Four out of five Americans who Pew polled say that America should spend more resources concentrating on problems at home rather than abroad.
So let’s practice a little democracy at home and give the people what they want: a Republican Party that is chastened by Iraq.
Threats and Responses: How the U.S. can maintain stability in the long term without war, with William S. Lind, Daniel Drezner, Matthew Duss, and Daniel Larison.
The Case for Restraint: Barry Posen, author of Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy.
National Security State Overreach and Reform: Reclaiming civil liberties in the aftermath of the War on Terror, with Conor Friedersdorf, Marcy Wheeler, Adam Serwer, and Samuel Goldman.
Political Realities: Prospects for realism and reform in the Republican and Democratic parties, with Michael Cohen, Christopher Preble, John Judis, and Robert Merry.
Stay tuned–the conversation will continue in the coming weeks on Bloggingheads.
With the Islamic warriors of ISIS having captured all the border posts between Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, we may be witnessing the end of Sykes-Picot. That was the secret 1916 treaty by which the British and French carved up the Ottoman Empire, with the Brits taking Transjordan and Iraq, and the French Syria and Lebanon. Sykes-Picot stuck in the craw of Osama bin Laden. Now his most fanatical followers have given him a posthumous triumph.
President Obama said over the weekend that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which seeks to create a caliphate out of the Sunni lands of Syria and Iraq it occupies, poses a threat to the United States. Obama has thus committed 300 special forces to assist Iraq’s defeated and demoralized army, and there is talk of U.S. air and missile strikes and drone attacks on ISIS, in Syria as well as in Iraq.
That would constitute a new war. Yet the president, who taught constitutional law, says he does not need Congressional authorization. He is dead wrong. Not only has he no authority to take America into civil wars in Iraq and Syria, he would be insane to do so without the support of his countrymen, as expressed in a vote by Congress.
Obama is about to make a decision fateful for himself and for his country. Does he not realize that he is on the edge of an abyss, about to stumble into a tribal and religious war across the Middle East? The Iraq we left behind three years ago no longer exists. It has been divided up into a Kurdistan, the Sunni region of the north and west, and a Shia-dominated Baghdad and south.
To put the Iraq of Sykes-Picot back together would require thousands of troops to recapture and hold Iraq’s border towns and to reimpose Baghdad’s rule over Anbar and the Sunni Triangle. As the Iraqi army has been routed from this region, recapturing these Sunni lands could require U.S. troops in numbers to rival the surge that enabled Gen. David Petraeus to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq.
Yet the situation in the Sunni region is more hostile today.
The Sunni do not want U.S. troops fighting to force them back under Baghdad’s rule. Some have welcomed ISIS as allies in the fight to be free of a hated Shia-dominated army and regime. Some Sunni Arab states are expressing bewilderment that the United States seems about to start a war on the Sunni regions. Are we really going to send planes to bomb and kill our former allies, with their wives and children as collateral damage?
Among the Shia volunteers on whose side we would be fighting are the Mahdi Army we fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Many have blood debts to collect from U.S. soldiers. Ayatollah Khamenei says that while he might welcome the use of U.S. air power against ISIS, he does not want U.S. troops to return to Baghdad or the Shia south. Is the U.S. Air Force going to become the Condor Legion of the Ayatollah Khamenei?
Assume that we intervened massively, led the Iraq army back into the Sunni north and west, and helped it to recapture Mosul and the border posts. How many U.S. troops would we have to leave behind in Iraq to prevent a future Shia regime from losing its Sunni provinces a third time? The Iraqi army that we trained at a cost of $25 billion and left behind in 2011 folded like a house of cards. How many times must we do this? And if we defeat ISIS, would not these jihadists simply retreat into the Syrian territories they now occupy, as their privileged sanctuary, to come back and fight another day? Read More…
The panic that engulfed this capital after the fall of Mosul, when it appeared that the Islamist fanatics of ISIS would overrun Baghdad, has passed. And the second thoughts have begun. “U.S. Sees Risk in Iraqi Airstrikes,” ran the June 19 headline in the Washington Post, “Military Warns of Dangerous Complications.” This is welcome news. For if it is an unwritten rule of republics not to commit to war unless the nation is united, America has never been less prepared for a Mideast war.
Our commander in chief is a reluctant warrior who wants his legacy to be ending our two longest wars. And just as Obama does not want to go back into Iraq, neither does the U.S. military. The American people want no new war, and Congress does not want to be forced to vote on such a war. Our foreign policy elites are split half a dozen ways—on whether to bomb or not to bomb, on who our real enemies are in Syria and Iraq, on whose support we should and should not accept, on what our strategic goals are, and what are the prospects for success.
Consider the bombing option.
Undoubtedly, U.S. air power could blunt an attack on Baghdad. But air power cannot retake Mosul or the Sunni Triangle that Baghdad has lost, or Kirkuk or Kurdistan. That will take boots on the ground and casualties. And nobody thinks these should be American boots or American casualties. And why should we fight to hold Iraq together? Is that a vital interest to which we should commit American lives in perpetuity? When did it become so?
No. Bombing cannot put Iraq together again, but it may tear Iraq further apart. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has succeeded in northern Iraq because it has allied with the same militias, Baathists, and tribal leaders who worked with Gen. David Petraeus in the Anbar Awakening. And if we use air power in Sunni provinces that have seceded from Baghdad, we will be killing people who were our partners and are not our enemies. Photos of dead Sunnis, from U.S. air, drone, and missile strikes, could inflame the Sunni world.
Upon one thing Americans do agree: ISIS and al-Qaeda are our enemies. But is bombing ISIS and killing Sunnis the way to destroy ISIS? Or does bombing martyrize and heroize ISIS for the Sunni young? And if destroying ISIS is a strategic imperative, why have we not demanded that the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia cease funneling arms and aid to ISIS in Syria? Why have we not told the Turks to stop permitting jihadists to cross their border into Syria? Why are we aiding and arming the Free Syrian Army to bring down Bashar Assad, when Assad’s army is the only fighting force standing between ISIS and the conquest of Syria? Read More…
A critical moment of the TAC-sponsored New Internationalism conference occurred when Daniel Drezner said that a key debate in the months ahead will be over whether Washington fears more an ISIS state in parts of Iraq and Syria (or even an ISIS seizure of Baghdad) or the rise of Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf. If I had been quicker to the microphone, I would have asked how could this even be a debate? One hears echoes of the phrase “moral clarity,” a neoconservative catchword of the Cold War era, which always made less sense when they sought to apply it to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But though a polemical term, it’s not meaningless, and what would it mean here?
It should be obvious: Iran is complex country, with both secular and religious leaders, a semi-democracy whose rulers are influenced by public opinion, where there are meaningful competitive elections. It is certainly not free, there are far too many political prisoners and arbitrary arrests, but its level of democracy compares favorably to, say, China. It is quite modern, has a middle class, a scientific infrastructure, is a producer of world-class films and cuisine.
ISIS is by contrast barbaric, the ideological offspring of those who brought down the twin towers. The group wants to introduce sharia to the regions it rules, and commits mass murder and brags about it. Iran has been long been accused of sponsoring terrorism, but Shi’ite terrorism has always been a different animal than Sunni terrorism, less suicidal, less messianic, more like the terrorism of say, the IRA—brutal means against specific targets for concrete political aims.
People who know the Mideast better than I argue that American air strikes and drone strikes won’t bring the end of ISIS—and there is rightly no desire to re-send an American army to seize and try to hold hold the major Sunni population centers of Iraq. Joint Iranian-American military action would potentially play into the hands of ISIS and al-Qaeda—alienating the many Sunni Muslims who are right now politically on the fence. When Hillary Mann Leverett, the former NSC aide and State Department official, and as outspoken an advocate of American outreach and detente with Iran as exists in Washington, pours cold water on the idea of American-Iranian military cooperation, I tend to listen. Retired ambassador and Mideast expert Chas Freeman makes a similar point: America has no good military options. Rushing arms to Maliki’s government would ensure that they eventually get used against us, captured and/or sold by corrupt Iraqi forces. Read More…
As the Islamic warriors of ISIS rolled down the road from Mosul, John McCain was an echo of French Premier Paul Reynaud, when word reached Paris that Rommel had broken through in the Ardennes: “We are now facing an existential threat to the security of the United States of America,” said McCain. But nothing that happens in Mesopotamia is going to threaten the existence of the United States. As for the terrorist threat from ISIS, for us it is neither greater nor less than it was a week ago.
The existential threat here is to Iraq. Its survival as one nation is now in question, with the possibility it could be torn apart in a civil and sectarian war. But this is preeminently Iraq’s problem, not ours. And if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his 900,000-man army, and Shia militia cannot defend Baghdad from a few thousand Islamist warriors, America is under no obligation to do it for them. Maliki told us to go home three years ago. We did. And before we plunge back into that misbegotten war, let us consider what the real threats are—to America.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria consists of fanatics who seek to carve a caliphate out of territory they now control from Aleppo in Syria to 60 miles north of Baghdad. Yet they have halted before Baghdad. And among the reasons is that Iraq’s Shia majority is not going to allow Sunni zealots to capture their cities, smash their shrines, and murder their fellow Shia. They will fight, as the Iraqi army did not.
Secondly, ISIS has as allies in the north and west of Iraq Sunnis who detest Maliki and wish to be rid of him. But these Sunni are not demanding a Taliban regime to abolish smoking and drinking. Nor are they fighting to cut off the heads of their Shia countrymen. If ISIS goes beyond the liberation of the Sunni triangle to trying to take over all of Iraq, they will lose many Sunni allies and find themselves facing Iraq’s Shia majority, backed up by Iranian forces, virtually alone.
But while the Iraqi army and Shia militia may well hold Baghdad, it is hard to see how Maliki can soon reconquer the Sunni provinces. For the Sunnis want no part of him or his regime. Nor does Maliki seem capable of taking back Kirkuk, which the Kurds seized in the chaos as a step toward independence. What should America do? Take a hard look at our entire Middle East policy.
Consider. We are now providing weapons to the Free Syrian Army to oust Bashar Assad. “Assad must go!” blared Barack Obama in one of his many ignored ultimata. But should Assad fall, the result will be the persecution of the Syrian Christians, a massacre of the Alawites, and a possible takeover of the country by the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front and ISIS. Is any of that in America’s interests?
Vladimir Putin lately raised a valid question: Why, in Syria, are the Americans on the same side as the people who took down the twin towers? Indeed, why are we? And who is fighting al-Qaida and ISIS in Syria, battling those McCain calls an “existential threat” to American security? Bashar Assad. Hezbollah. Iran. Russia.
Tehran has reportedly volunteered to work with us in providing military aid to prop up the Maliki regime and keep ISIS out of Baghdad. If we regard the survival of the Maliki regime to be in our national interests, why would we not green-light the Iranians to do this? When Hitler turned on his partner Stalin, the United States rushed military aid to save the monster whom FDR and Truman took to calling “Good Old Joe” and “Uncle Joe” at Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam. Is the Ayatollah somehow worse than Stalin? Read More…
Note: The conference is now over. Check back again soon for a full video. In the meantime, you can access the segments that have aired on C-SPAN here.
This morning, The American Conservative, in conjunction with The American Prospect and the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University, is convening many of the best foreign policy minds to sketch out a new foreign policy consensus, one fit to the challenges of the post-9/11, post-Afghanistan and Iraq wars world. For those unable to join the discussion in person at George Washington University, please join us on this thread, which I will updating throughout the conference. As the conference unfolds in the stream embedded above, please also join us in the comments below. For those on Twitter, please use the hashtag #newconsensus to participate in the conversation there.
8:30am Introduction: Charles L. Glaser, George Washington University Institute for Security and Conflict Studies and Daniel McCarthy, The American Conservative
8:45am Threats and Responses: How the U.S. can maintain stability in the long term without war.
- Daniel Drezner, Washington Post and Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
- William S. Lind, The American Conservative
- Matthew Duss, Center for American Progress and The American Prospect
- Daniel Larison, The American Conservative
9:45am The Case for Restraint: Barry R. Posen, MIT Security Studies Program, author of Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy.
11:15am National Security State Overreach and Reform: Reclaiming civil liberties in the aftermath of the War on Terror.
- Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic
- Marcy Wheeler, Emptywheel
- Adam Serwer, MSNBC.com
- Samuel Goldman, The American Conservative and George Washington University
12:15pm Political Realities: Prospects for realism and reform in the Republican and Democratic parties.
- John B. Judis, The New Republic
- Michael Cohen, Century Foundation
- Christopher A. Preble, Cato Institute
- Robert W. Merry, The National Interest
1:15pm Closing remarks: Maisie Allison, The American Conservative
The conversation will continue in the coming weeks thanks to our partners at Bloggingheads. Join us!
8:39: Charles Glazer opens the conference, noting that this conference “could not have come at a better time.”
8:44: TAC editor Daniel McCarthy takes the stage, declares this “a moment of profound reorientation in our country,” on the political and policy level. The past weeks have seen the foreign policy establishment hold conferences echoing their same consensus. This conference forges a new consensus that is wiser, more realistic, and better suited to the challenges of the day. Read More…
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, has recently overtaken the major Iraqi city of Mosul, causing an exodus of more than 500,000 that took some of Iraq’s last remaining Christians with it. The city itself, mentioned in the Bible as Nineveh, has harbored Christianity since the very dawn of its tradition and was one of the last havens for Iraqi Christian communities.
Despite these deep roots, past U.S. policy has ignored the vulnerable position of Christians in the Middle East. Andrew Doran wrote a strikingly prescient piece for TAC almost exactly one year ago, saying:
[D]emocracy in the Middle East is proving less tolerant than the regimes it has succeeded. Unless swift action is taken, these democracies will evolve into bastions of intolerance and violence beyond our comprehension. These democracies will not march ineluctably toward liberty and pluralism, as some naïve optimists continue to forecast despite the evidence, but will end in the ordered barbarism of Saudi Arabia, where punishments include beheading and crucifixion[.]
As it so happens, ISIS is the jihadist organization renounced by al-Qaeda for its brutality. Maliki’s abusive government, propped up by $20 billion in American aid, allowed Mosul to be claimed with alarming ease. One CNN article reports that “[p]olice and soldiers ran form their posts rather than put up a fight, abandoning their weapons as they went. The militants took their place in the city’s boulevards and buildings.” Marc Lynch of the Washington Post argues that the Iraqi military isn’t resisting is because Maliki has lost its loyalty:
The most important answers lie inside Iraqi politics. Maliki lost Sunni Iraq through his sectarian and authoritarian policies. His repeated refusal over long years to strike an urgently needed political accord with the Sunni minority, his construction of corrupt, ineffective and sectarian state institutions, and his heavy-handed military repression in those areas are the key factors in the long-developing disintegration of Iraq.
If ISIS succeeds, the regnant regime will be the “ordered barbarism” Doran foretold. In the hierarchy of a new caliphate, there will be no room for diversity or religious tolerance; there will no longer be any room for Christianity. According to a World magazine report, most of the Christians, so long a presence in Mosul, have already been driven out:
“Ninety-nine percent of the Christians have left Mosul,” pastor Haitham Jazrawi said today following the takeover of Iraq’s second largest city—and its ancient Christian homeland—by al-Qaeda-linked jihadist militants.
Catholic Archbishop Amil Shamaaoun Nona is reported to have said that the decline has been occurring since the U.S.-led campaign began. “In 2003 there were still 35,000 faithful living in Mosul,” Nona said. “Three thousand were still there in early 2014. Now probably not one is left here, and that is tragic[.]” According to Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute notes that, once the Christians are gone, they may not be coming back:
When the army does eventually succeed in reversing jihadi control in Mosul, it may be too late for the Christians. Once Middle Eastern Christians flee to the West, they don’t return.
Of course it isn’t yet clear what Eric Cantor’s stunning and decisive defeat at the hands of an unknown challenger with one twentieth the campaign funds means for the direction of the House GOP. On domestic issues, including immigration, Cantor has been a chameleon—an establishment figure, a reformer, a “young gun,” a Tea Party insurgent with legislative tactician skills, a supporter of immigration reform (aka amnesty), and then a professed opponent of the same immigration reform. (I should note there was a time, in the 1990s, when immigration “reform” meant tightening the borders and tinkering with the legal immigration system so it was more skills-based, less based on “your brother’s wife got in a few years ago, so you are now eligible for a visa.”) The only ads I’ve seen from David Brat, the surprising victor, attacked Cantor’s readiness to hang out with big-money immigration boosters (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) while ignoring the labor market and wage impact large-scale immigration has for voters in his district.
One issue wasn’t talked about, though I wonder if it subliminally registered with some anti-Cantor voters. Cantor in 2010 more or less presented himself as Bibi Netanyahu’s congressman. Newly elevated by the GOP House takeover as the incoming majority leader, he held a private meeting with the Likud leader at the New York Regency. No other Americans were present; Netanyahu was joined by Israel’s ambassador and national security advisor.
It was a tense time in American-Israeli relations: the Obama administration was pushing hard for progress on peace talks and trying to get Israel to stop expanding settlements on the West Bank during the negotiations, an idea vigorously resisted by Israel’s government. During the meeting, Cantor gave Netanyahu assurances that the House would have his back in any showdown with the Obama administration. The Republicans, he told Bibi, “understand the special relationship” and would obstruct American initiatives which made Israel uncomfortable. Ron Kampeas, a veteran and centrist observer of U.S.-Israeli relations, said he could not “remember an opposition leader telling a foreign leader, in a personal meeting, that he would side, as a policy, with that leader against the president.” So Cantor was, in his way, making history.
The ties to Israel made Cantor popular in the GOP caucus. Cantor could raise money more easily than other southern congressmen—from pro-Israel billionaires, for example—and spread it around. Sheldon Adelson poured millions into his PAC. Cantor knew his way around the Regency.
More recently, Cantor has spearheaded House opposition to Obama’s negotiations with Iran, speaking frequently of Iran in terms that echo Netanyahu. His Mideast positions track completely with Likud’s, whether it be aid to the Syrian rebels or aid to Egypt after the Sisi coup. He may be hard to pin down domestic issues, one day a moderate, another a hard rightist, but he is always a hawk—whether it be Ukraine or Syria or Iran, he will be a force pushing the most belligerent policies.
I wonder if this registered in the district in some ways. Pat Lang, of the interesting Sic Semper Tyrannis blog, meditated on Cantor (his congressmen) several years ago, wondering whether this sophisticated Richmond lawyer was a natural fit for a district that trends barbecue. Some have pointed to an ethnic angle, which could well be a factor. But it may be simply that conservative southern Republicans are beginning to get tired of neocons telling them they have to prepare to fight another war. Antiwar Republican Walter Jones won his North Carolina primary earlier this spring, standing strong against a major media assault by Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel. Now, in an election result that stunned political observers more than anything that happened in their lifetime, Cantor goes down before an underfunded Tea Party candidate.
We’ll see what happens with David Brat, but he’s already made history.
On June 17, The American Conservative will convene leading thinkers from across the political spectrum at George Washington University for a wide-ranging conversation about American foreign policy after the War on Terror.
The goal of the New Internationalism conference is to address America’s role in the world after Afghanistan and Iraq, and to discuss alternative visions for protecting America’s core security and economic interests in the new global framework.
The American Conservative and our co-sponsors The American Prospect and the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at GW will build on the emerging consensus that favors prudence, the rule of law, and diplomacy. We hope you can join us!
For more information and to register, visit theamericanconservative.com/newinternationalism. The event schedule is after the jump: