Daniel Larison

Why War Opponents Usually Lose

Andrew Bacevich reviews Michael Kazin’s War Against War. Here is his sobering conclusion:

Today, long gone is any aversion to war that Americans might once have felt. Principled opposition to war has been consigned to the margins of national politics. In the Senate, there is no heir to Robert La Follette. And contemporary equivalents of Jane Addams don’t get invited to the White House to consult on foreign policy.

Against steep odds, Kazin’s protagonists came up short. Today those odds have become steeper still.

Unfortunately, that assessment is correct. A new report out today tells us that U.S. military involvement in multiple countries is increasing “with no end in sight,” but this intensification of our foreign wars isn’t likely to produce much opposition. Even when the U.S. was not used to involving itself in the wars of other nations, pro-war hysteria prevailed. Now we are so accustomed to unending war that there is no need for pro-war hysteria to overwhelm the opposition. New wars have become so common that they are greeted with a shrug or bored acceptance.

Our foreign policy debates have long been biased in favor of action, which almost always means military action in practice. Our collective bar for what our leaders think merits that action has been lowered so much that it is nearly on the ground. Even though the burden of proof should be on the side that advocates starting or escalating wars, that burden is always put on the side that wants the U.S. to stay out. The warped understanding of American “leadership” that supposedly requires us to “act” in response to conflicts that have nothing to do with us is pervasive, and very few people in Congress or elsewhere seem willing to reject it. Almost all of the political incentives are on the side of supporting new wars, and most politicians respond to those incentives accordingly.

War opponents always operate with a number of disadvantages, and one of the most important of these is the lack of sufficient time to organize before the war has already begun. With the notable exception of the backlash against the proposed bombing of Syria in 2013, the U.S. often goes to war so quickly before the issue has been debated that there is never a chance to stop U.S. involvement until after the damage has already been done. In that case, the U.S. would have been at war with the Syrian government without any debate at all if the House of Commons had not recoiled from another unnecessary intervention. The lesson interventionists learned from that episode was that elected representatives should just be bypassed, and so they have been. In several recent instances, the U.S. has simply started or joined a war without authorization from Congress, and there is never an occasion when war opponents might voice their objections.

The biggest disadvantage that American war opponents may have today is that keeping out of other nations’ wars is no longer considered the normal and traditional role for the U.S. as it was a century ago. Americans that have grown up in the last three decades would have almost no memory of a time when the U.S. wasn’t actively engaged in hostilities overseas for most of their lifetimes, and few of us can recall a time when the U.S. was continuously at peace with the rest of the world for more than a decade. The extraordinary thing is that virtually every war that the U.S. has fought over the last century has been one that our government chose to fight when it didn’t have to.

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‘Brexit’ Begins

Britain has officially started the process of negotiating its exit from the EU:

The U.K. on Wednesday formally began the process of exiting from the European Union, starting on an unprecedented path to reshape its relationship with its closest allies in some of the most complex negotiations the country has ever undertaken.

Nine months after Britain voted to leave the EU, Tim Barrow, Britain’s ambassador to the bloc, hand delivered a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk formally notifying the bloc that the U.K. will be the first country ever to leave. U.K. government officials say there is no going back from there.

We won’t fully know how Britain’s departure will affect the EU and the U.K. until the negotiations are concluded, but it seems likely that there will be some economic disruption in the short term and there will necessarily be renewed interest in the question of Scottish independence. Earlier this week, Scotland’s parliament voted in favor of a second independence referendum to be held within two years, and that authorizes Scotland’s First Minister to seek permission from the U.K. government to hold another vote. May doesn’t want to agree to that yet, but now that the process of leaving the EU has begun another vote on independence can only be postponed and not avoided all together.

As much as the EU referendum result surprised most observers, British membership in the EU was not likely to last as long as the EU was seeking “ever closer union,” which was something that most people in the U.K. (and in some other member states) don’t support. Given the increasingly divergent political preferences of people in Scotland and the rest of the U.K., it seems that the Union may not be around for much longer, either. It will be much harder for unionists to argue against independence after so many of them used the same arguments about identity and self-government during the Leave campaign. The success of Leave has not only given the nationalists another chance soon after the last referendum, but it has also shown that voters are willing to make a major and potentially costly change if they think it will give them more control over their own affairs.

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Bringing Montenegro into NATO Is a Mistake

The Senate voted to approve Montenegro’s entry into NATO:

The Senate voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to admit the small Balkan nation of Montenegro to the NATO military alliance, in what is seen as a crucial step in pushing back against Russian meddling in Eastern Europe.

The vote ended up being just as lopsided as expected, but that doesn’t make bringing Montenegro into the alliance any less ridiculous. Admitting Montenegro into NATO won’t do a thing to counter “Russian meddling” anywhere, but it does mean that the alliance has a new security dependent that adds nothing to the organization. It is foolish to extend a new security guarantee to a country that can’t possibly make us or the alliance more secure. In doing so, the Senate has failed in one of its most basic responsibilities. I applaud Sens. Paul and Lee for voting against an unnecessary and pointless expansion of NATO, and I know it will earn them nothing but grief from their colleagues. Adding Montenegro to the alliance was an easily avoidable mistake, and I very much hope that this will be the very last round of expansion.

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Trump Compounds Obama’s Terrible Error in Yemen

The Wall Street Journal reports on increased U.S. support for the war on Yemen:

The Trump administration has significantly increased military support for Sunni Arab states fighting al Qaeda and Iranian-backed militias in Yemen, said U.S. and Arab officials, drawing the U.S. deeper into the two-year civil war there.

American support now includes greater intelligence and logistical support for the militaries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, these officials said.

The Trump administration also is moving to resume the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia, which were frozen during the final months of the Obama administration due to concerns about the rising numbers of civilian fatalities in Yemen.

Giving the coalition even more support further encourages and rewards the worst behavior of the Saudis and their allies, and it shows that the administration’s Iran obsession is leading it to escalate the worst Obama-era policy for all the wrong reasons. The administration’s Iran hawks support a policy that will do enormous harm to the people of Yemen and involve us in an atrocious war, but it will not reduce Iranian influence in the region. It will only make the region less stable, fuel sectarian hatreds, and strengthen jihadists as they take advantage of the situation. Republican hawks berated Obama for his treatment of regional clients, and many have called for having “no daylight” between them and the U.S. This is what “no daylight” looks like in practice: indulging and enabling their most destructive behavior and making the U.S. complicit in their crimes.

The report is somewhat misleading about the coalition campaign, almost all of which is focused on fighting the Houthi/Saleh alliance and virtually none of which has been aimed at Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Houthis still receive only limited support from Iran, so to call them “Iranian-backed” suggests that there is far more Iranian involvement and influence than there is. Insofar as Trump administration officials accept the coalition line about “Iranian expansionism” in Yemen, they are letting themselves be played for fools. If they think that the coalition will suddenly take more of an interest in combating AQAP in the future, they are kidding themselves.

Support for the war on Yemen was arguably Obama’s greatest foreign policy blunder, and now Trump is starting off his presidency by compounding Obama’s terrible error with even more support for the Saudi-led coalition.

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The Indefensible War on Yemen

Micah Zenko has been covering the war on Yemen and the U.S. role in it since the beginning. He marks the second anniversary of the start of the war by reviewing its costs and commenting on its futility:

Other than dropping weapons with an unconscionable lack of discrimination and proportionality, it appears there are no clear goals and objectives to this day.

On a personal note, in the nearly 20 years of having had the privilege of working and interacting with U.S. national security officials and staffers, I have never followed an issue that virtually nobody can justify or defend [bold mine-DL]. Military officers who have watched or played a role in the Saudi-led bombing campaign are especially sickened by the brutality and strategic pointlessness of the airstrikes.

The war on Yemen and our government’s support for it have been indefensible from the start, and on the few occasions when U.S. officials have been pressed to explain why the U.S. is involved they have had to resort to echoing Saudi propaganda or simply making things up to deflect attention from what is being done to Yemen and its people. The reason virtually no one can justify or defend the policy is that there is no good reason for what our government is doing there, nor is there any good reason for what the coalition is doing. The standard explanation for our role is that Obama wanted to “reassure” the clients in the Gulf of Washington’s backing, but that has always been an unconvincing and frankly pathetic excuse for enabling war crimes and helping to create the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

The frustrating reality is that both the Obama and Trump administrations have been able to back the war without ever having to face much serious scrutiny from Congress or most of the media, and so they have not had to defend a policy that has shamefully encountered relatively little criticism and minimal resistance. Even when the U.S. role in fueling and arming the coalition’s planes has been acknowledged in reports, it is often mentioned only in passing and then minimized as much as possible. It is very difficult to organize opposition to a policy that most people in the country may not even know is happening. I suppose it is good that our officers are sickened by what the U.S. has been helping the Saudis and their allies do, but most of our politicians and policymakers don’t appear to be bothered in the least. On the contrary, the administration is considering how to deepen our involvement and make things even worse.

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Mattis’ Dangerous Request to Increase Support for the War on Yemen

Mattis is one of the people in the Trump administration proposing increased U.S. support for the war on Yemen:

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has asked the White House to lift Obama-era restrictions on U.S. military support for Persian Gulf states engaged in a protracted civil war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, according to senior Trump administration officials.

In a memo this month to national security adviser H.R. ­McMaster, Mattis said that “limited support” for Yemen operations being conducted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — including a planned Emirati offensive to retake a key Red Sea port — would help combat a “common threat.”

Mattis is wrong about this, and his request should be rejected. The restrictions that the Obama administration put in place shortly before leaving office were a belated, half-hearted gesture ostensibly aimed at protesting indiscriminate coalition attacks on civilian targets. It was far too little, much too late, but it was better than nothing. Lifting those restrictions would tell the coalition that the new administration has no problem with the way they have been conducting their campaign, and it will encourage them to be even more reckless and irresponsible than they have been.

Giving the coalition even more support at this point would further implicate the U.S. in their war crimes, and backing an offensive on Hodeidah would make a horrifying humanitarian disaster in the country even worse. Millions are on the brink of famine in large part because of the Saudi-led intervention and blockade. More attacks on the port will push many of them over the brink. Increasing U.S. support would just deepen our complicity in wrecking and starving Yemen, and there can be no justification for doing that.

On top of that, the justification that Mattis gives is a bad one. It is important to emphasize that the coalition’s enemies in Yemen don’t pose a threat to the U.S., and the little support they receive from Iran has never warranted our involvement in this war. Mattis’ “common threat” rhetoric is based in a dangerous misunderstanding of the conflict. If Trump agrees to Mattis’ request, it will lead the administration to escalate U.S. involvement in a war in which we should have no part. The people of Yemen are already paying a terrible, steep price as a result of a war that our government has enabled for two years, and doing more to back the Saudis and their allies will achieve nothing except to inflict even more harm on the civilian population.

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Congress Shouldn’t Pass a New AUMF for the War on ISIS

The New York Times ran an editorial yesterday calling on Congress to debate and approve a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) in the war on ISIS:

But as the American military is doing its job, Congress is refusing to do its duty. Nearly three years into the war against ISIS, lawmakers have ducked their constitutional responsibility for making war by not passing legislation authorizing the anti-ISIS fight. This is not merely a bureaucratic issue. While the president has the power to order troops into battle, the founders were adamant about ensuring that only Congress could commit the nation to protracted overseas military actions.

It is true that Congress has been ducking its responsibility in matters of war for years, but the bigger fault in this case lies with the former and current presidents that have been waging a war for two and a half years without authorization. It is their overreach that is more obnoxious than Congress’ pathetic acquiescence. Calling on Congress to endorse the war years after it started makes the legislative branch little more than a rubber stamp for a policy that has never been seriously debated in Washington. That would effectively pardon and reward two presidents for waging an illegal war.

No president has the authority to do what the Obama administration did and the Trump administration is now doing in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and that is the real constitutional problem here. The danger isn’t the absence of Congress’ ritual approval of a foreign war long after it began, but the president’s essentially unchecked ability to initiate wars whenever and wherever he wants. Endorsing the war over thirty months after its start isn’t going to keep this or any future president from starting new illegal wars, and it will simply give legal cover to the current open-ended, unnecessary war that the U.S. is fighting in at least three countries.

A new resolution might theoretically set limits on the duration, scope, and conduct of the war, but that isn’t going to limit what the executive actually does. Obama claimed that the 2001 AUMF gave him authority to launch this war when it clearly didn’t, and Trump can and will claim authority to do things he isn’t authorized to do if a new resolution is passed. Unless there is some consequence when a president abuses existing authorizations, the limits written into these resolutions don’t matter and won’t have any effect. If that’s the case, going through the motions of debating and voting on a new resolution seems like an exercise in futility.

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Trump’s Misunderstanding of NATO and Our ‘Cheap-Riding’ Allies

Trump reportedly tried to bill Germany for what it supposedly “owes” NATO during his meeting with Chancellor Merkel:

Donald Trump handed the German chancellor Angela Merkel a bill — thought to be for more than £300bn — for money her country “owed” Nato for defending it when they met last weekend, German government sources have revealed.

We already knew that Trump didn’t understand how the alliance works when he said that Germany “owed” NATO money, but if the report is true it also shows how thoroughly inept Trump is in his dealings with allied leaders. Most NATO members don’t meet the defense spending target, but they won’t be goaded into doing so by being told that they owe some huge amount that the administration pulls out of the air. When they are presented with a bill like this, allies will view it as an insult and will probably be less willing to cooperate than they were before.

U.S. allies don’t spend more on their own defense because they don’t think they have to, and as long as the U.S. keeps its military spending at such high levels they will have no incentive to increase theirs. If Trump wants European allies to provide for more of their own defense, he needs to make significant reductions to our military budget. Of course, he is proposing to do just the opposite, so he can count on our allies to continue their “cheap-riding” ways.

Update: The German government denies the story about being given a bill.

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Is the GOP Capable of Governing?

Paul Ryan, unluckiest man in Washington (Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com)

Reading about the fallout from last week’s health care bill failure, I was struck by this statement from the Speaker of the House:

We were a 10-year opposition party [bold mine-DL], where being against things was easy to do,” Mr. Ryan said at a sheepish news conference shortly after the bill was pulled, adding with uncharacteristic candor that Republicans were not yet prepared to be a “governing party.”

That’s a remarkable statement from the top House leader of a party that has been in the majority in that chamber continuously for the last six years and has controlled the House for all but four years during a period of more than two decades. The “10-year opposition party” was in charge of at least one chamber of Congress for more than half that time, and controlled both chambers for at least part of that period. Ryan’s statement is a candid admission of incompetence, but more than that it is a window into the mindset of the party’s leadership about their role during the past eight years.

Despite having a House majority starting in 2011, the GOP didn’t consider itself and didn’t act as if they were responsible for governing. That pose could be maintained only so long as the other party controlled the White House. To the extent that they were ever capable of governing in the past, they let that ability atrophy to the point where they no longer know how to do it. Assuming that he has some idea how to fix this, Ryan won’t have much time to do it before midterm campaigning begins. If the GOP doesn’t learn how to be a governing party very soon, voters will relieve them of that burden in a year and a half.

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The Appalling Idea of Increasing U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr: air strike in Sana’a, May 2015

Dan de Luce reports that the Trump administration is considering increased support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen:

The Pentagon is looking to increase support for Saudi Arabia’s two-year-old war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, signaling a possible expansion of Washington’s controversial backing for a campaign that human rights groups say has killed hundreds of civilians and fueled a growing humanitarian crisis.

Two years ago, the Obama administration backed the Saudi-led intervention even though our officers didn’t know what the coalition hoped to accomplish and many U.S. officials rightly didn’t think it would succeed. Now that the coalition has spent the last two years wrecking and starving Yemen without achieving any of their stated goals, it is even more absurd and irresponsible for the U.S. to continue support for the war, much less increase it. If the original decision to back the Saudis and their allies was shameful, giving them even more support now would be simply appalling. It was bad enough to make the terrible mistake of making the U.S. complicit in an atrocious war that has destabilized the region, ruined Yemen, and strengthened Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but it would be deranged to commit the U.S. to an even larger role in enabling this disaster now that we know how much damage the intervention has already done.

The U.S. ought to be actively looking for ways to rein in the coalition, pressure them to lift their blockade, extricate the U.S. from the war, and try to repair some of the damage done by this horrific policy. I have no reason to think that the Trump administration will do any of that, but at the very least they should refrain from deepening U.S. involvement in a disgraceful and indefensible war.

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