Daniel Larison

Why Does the U.S. Support the War on Yemen?

Ryan Cooper asks a good question about U.S. support for the appalling war on Yemen:

But we’re still effectively allowing [the Saudis] to smash a Muslim nation, starve its population, and create a haven for al Qaeda in the process. Why?

The standard answer is that the U.S. wants to “reassure” nervous client governments, and so it has indulged them in their latest reckless intervention in order to prove its reliability. It’s a lousy answer, and it doesn’t explain very much. Encouraging clients in their worst instincts and helping to fuel their paranoia aren’t the actions of a smart patron, but this is what the U.S. has chosen to do in this case. This isn’t so much a reason for U.S. support for the war as it is an excuse. There is no good argument for U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen, and so it has to be presented as part of maintaining good relations with the Saudis. That doesn’t really answer the question, either, since other states that value their relations with the Saudis have refused to participate. If any state is in a position to deny the Saudis support for an unnecessary war, it would have to be the U.S., and yet our government was one of the first to sign on to back the campaign. This is all the more ridiculous when we realize that the war is turning into a disaster for Saudi Arabia as well.

Bruce Riedel reports on growing unease in Riyadh over the war:

Inside the kingdom growing doubts about the war are circulating quietly. The king’s ambitious son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and minister of defense, is derisively called the “little general” behind his back for his role in starting the war.

The late foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal is rumored to have opposed the war and warned that it would be a quagmire or worse before passing away. Saud enjoys great respect among Saudis; invoking him against the young Mohammed bin Salman is a calculated maneuver to undermine the war and the prince.

Whether the former foreign minister actually opposed the war or not, it is significant that such criticism of the war is gaining purchase inside Saudi Arabia. It may take some time, but perhaps eventually the costs of this unnecessary war in Yemen will become too great for the Saudi government to tolerate any longer. That will make our indulgence of the Saudis’ folly all the more disgraceful in the end. There is no good answer as to why the U.S. is helping to wreck Yemen. It is just another example of our needlessly destructive meddling in the affairs of other nations.

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Iran Isn’t Going to Be the Regional Hegemon

Justin Logan thoroughly refutes hawkish alarmist claims about impending Iranian regional hegemony as a result of the nuclear deal:

Iran is a weak regional power that regularly defies U.S. prerogatives and complicates U.S. defense plans for the Middle East. It engages in terrorism and other initiatives that kill and destroy, but fail to produce control over its neighbors. Iran would be similar in any likely version of the future. Far from being a regional hegemon or dominating the Middle East, Iran is a nuisance [bold mine-DL]. Great powers, to say nothing of the self-styled “home of the brave,” should not convince themselves that nuisances somehow constitute peers.

Logan makes a number of excellent points in this article. First, he explains why Iran doesn’t come close to being a regional hegemon, noting that it doesn’t and won’t have either the economic nor military might to exercise that degree of dominance over its neighbors. It cannot project power effectively, and its military is outclassed by its nearest rivals. He goes on to show that Iran isn’t dominating other capitals in the region. Iran has at most varying degrees of influence through its allies and proxies, and this, too, has been exaggerated.

Logan also counters familiar claims about the “windfall” that Iran will receive from sanctions relief:

First, Iran will not be given $100 billion as a consequence of the nuclear agreement. As Treasury Secretary Jack Lew noted in congressional testimony in July, the figure is closer to $50 billion. The Iranian estimate is $29 billion. Moreover, this is not “frozen” money, but rather Iranian oil revenue that has been held in foreign banks and useable for purchases from the countries holding the funds. Iran has not spent all this money because it could not purchase enough Chinese (or Indian, or Turkish) products that it needed. Also, as sanctions scholar Sam Cutler has observed, it bears mentioning that this money would likely become available if U.S. negotiators walked away from the deal, as hawks suggest, because the foreign countries holding the funds probably would stop complying with the extraterritorial provisions of U.S. law that limited the funds’ use in the first place [bold mine-DL].

He drives home the point that even if Iran received the $100 billion amount and used all of it for military purposes it would still be incapable of coming close to dominating the region. That is because Iran would continue to be outspent by many of its neighbors:

But even if Iran directed all of this money toward its military, it would still be dwarfed by other regional players and their allies.

The reality is that Iran will not have nearly as many additional resources as Iran hawks claim, it is unlikely to devote all of those resources to its proxies, and even if it did that wouldn’t have the substantial impact that they say it will. More to the point, opposing the deal does nothing to rein in Iranian activities in the region, but if the deal were wrecked Iran’s nuclear program would be under far fewer constraints.

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The “Freedom Agenda” and the Cynicism of Hard-liners

Elliott Abrams offers up a risible defense of Bush’s “freedom agenda”:

For Obama and this effort to make History, the Egyptian or Iranian or Cuban people are an obstacle, not the object of the endeavor. That’s the key difference with how Bush saw foreign policy. The Freedom Agenda was ultimately about people, not countries or rulers, and the goal was to empower them.

While this may make for good partisan point-scoring, Abrams’ description of the “freedom agenda” has little to do with how the “freedom agenda” worked in practice. In Iraq, the practical effect of this agenda was to empower sectarian forces and a semi-authoritarian government and to call it successful democratization. The Bush administration was a vocal supporter of the victors of the various “color” revolutions during the 2000s, and in every case this had to do with backing those forces that the administration perceived to be anti-Russian or, in the case of Lebanon, hostile to Syria and Iran.

To the extent that there was any guiding principle behind the “freedom agenda,” it wasn’t the empowerment of people in these countries, but the empowerment of specific factions and leaders that would align their countries with the U.S. That is why Saakashvili was celebrated as a great reformer and democrat by “freedom agenda” boosters in the U.S. despite the fact that Georgia became less free politically under his rule, and that is why the same boosters greeted the defeat of his party in the parliamentary elections with dismay and lies about the “pro-Russian” orientation of the opposition. For the most part, the “freedom agenda” was the rhetorical cover that the Bush administration used to defend its misguided and destructive policies. Meanwhile, the people in the countries that “benefited” from the agenda were often left in worse conditions than they were before.

Hard-liners continue to invoke the plight of the people in other countries while advocating for policies that harm them, who naturally reject them and welcome their end. Abrams pretends this isn’t so:

This nuclear deal ignores the people of Iran and strengthens their oppressors, just as in Cuba.

Yet all indications are that most dissidents in Iran welcome the deal and the sanctions relief that goes with it, and Cubans are overwhelmingly in favor of closer ties with the U.S. and an end to the embargo. When one actually consults the people in these countries, one finds that most of them understandably welcome policy changes that remove barriers and punitive measures that do them harm. Improving conditions inside these other countries isn’t the responsibility of U.S. foreign policy, and it isn’t the primary purpose of the changes in Iran and Cuba policy, but it is more likely to happen now than if these changes hadn’t taken place. As usual, the ones ignoring the people in these other countries are the hard-liners here that want to use them as bludgeons in the debate but couldn’t care less what happens to them. They are the ones so preoccupied with their hostility to the existing regimes that they are oblivious to the effects their preferred policies have on the population.

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Entangling and Enabling Alliances

Dan Drezner comments on the findings of Michael Beckley’s study of the effect of entangling alliances on U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts:

Now saying that there’s a robust finding “except for Vietnam” leads one to think that this is a pretty big exception. That said, Beckley’s findings suggest that if the United States is over-committing resources abroad, it’s not because of alliance dynamics.

I agree that the U.S. isn’t always drawn into foreign conflicts because of its allies and clients, but it’s fair to say that there have been multiple occasions since 1945 where the U.S. has become entangled in foreign conflicts in large part because of the perceived “need” to support an ally or client. The level of that involvement may vary from case to case, but in each one it is fair to say that the U.S. would not have been involved in these conflicts were it not for their relationships with these other states. Besides Vietnam, that would have to include the wars in Kosovo and Libya, and currently it would have to apply to the war on ISIS, U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, and U.S. support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen. The Gulf War is arguably another example of this because of the U.S. relationship with the Saudis, but that is more debatable.

Beckley states in his conclusion that U.S. leaders tend “to define national interests expansively, to overestimate the magnitude of foreign threats, and to underestimate the costs of military intervention,” and that’s obviously true. But part of defining national interests expansively includes treating allied and client interests–as defined by their governments–as if they were our own. One of the perils of so many overseas commitments is that it encourages our leaders to conflate the interests of the U.S. with those of allies and clients. In addition to defining our interests expansively, our leaders have an overly broad view of what solidarity with allies and clients requires. Our leaders often see solidarity as something much greater than coming to their aid when they are attacked or threatened. The most hawkish among them take for granted that the U.S. ought to be lending support to their military operations even when these have nothing to do with self-defense. Many of these critics faulted U.S. support for the French campaign in Mali for being too limited and inadequate, as if the U.S. were obliged to facilitate another French campaign in Africa. Hawks have made the same criticism of U.S. support for the Saudi war on Yemen.

The Libyan war was sold in part as a requirement of solidarity with NATO allies, and it was also bizarrely sold as repayment for allied support for previous U.S. wars. Supporters of the intervention in Kosovo presented the war as a defense of the “credibility” of NATO. Even though these wars of choice had nothing to do with defending NATO allies, they were presented to the public as something that the U.S. needed to do to lend support to its allies. The U.S. didn’t attack these governments because of formal alliance commitments, since neither Yugoslavia nor Libya posed a threat to the alliance, but it did so partly because some of its NATO allies wanted it to. It is true that in all these cases “there were other important drivers of U.S. involvement,” but I’d also say that in all of them U.S. allies and clients were essential in getting the U.S. involved in these conflicts.

Allies and clients sometimes drag the U.S. into conflicts that our government wouldn’t otherwise join, and they do this often enough because they need U.S. involvement in order to be able to wage the war. Allies and clients also sometimes enable U.S. wars by providing enough international backing to make U.S.-led interventions appear more legitimate. It is possible that the U.S. would continue to intervene frequently overseas even if the U.S. had far fewer allies and clients than it has today, but it seems reasonable to assume that there would be fewer occasions and fewer excuses for military intervention if there were fewer allies and clients. U.S. commitments to allies and clients may not always drive U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts, and they usually won’t be the sole driver of that involvement, but they provide opportunities and pretexts for that involvement that would otherwise not be present.

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The Nuclear Deal and “Iranian Imperialism”

Michael Gerson makes a typical hawkish criticism of the deal with Iran:

This agreement will fund Iranian imperialism — while creating disincentives for the United States to confront it.

This is one of the more disingenuous and misleading complaints against the nuclear deal. Iran hawks pretend as if there were a simple choice between depriving Iran of extra resources and going ahead with the nuclear deal. The reality is that Iran would soon gain access to additional funds one way or the other. The question is whether Iran will agree to limit its nuclear program or not. In the absence of an agreement, the international sanctions regime on Iran would weaken and collapse in the near future, and whatever funds Iran wants to use to support its allies and proxies would still be made available to them. So opposing the deal in no way restrains or counters Iranian regional activities, but it does fail to impose restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Like every other objection that Iran hawks make, Gerson’s complaint about “funding Iranian imperialism” ignores the consequences of rejecting the deal.

It is also very misleading to refer to “Iranian imperialism” at the same time when the Saudis and their GCC allies are actively fomenting rebellion in Syria and bombing Yemen, so readers should be wary of anyone framing opposition to the deal in these terms. Regardless, if countering Iranian influence is a priority it is important to understand that opposing the deal won’t have any effect on how much influence Iran wields in these other countries. Iran hawks consistently overstate the extent of Tehran’s influence in the rest of the region, and they are reliably wrong about the policies that will undermine it. If they claim that the nuclear deal will strengthen Iran throughout the region, it is very likely that the opposite is closer to the truth.

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Obama’s Many Abuses of the 2001 AUMF

Micah Zenko marvels at the Obama administration’s absurd legal reasoning behind its decision to use force to defend U.S.-backed Syrian rebels against their attackers:

As we approach the first anniversary of the start of the illegal war on ISIS, the fact that the administration continues to abuse and distort the 2001 AUMF shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. If they can get away with using this authorization as a legal basis for attacking rival splinter groups hostile to Al Qaeda (as they have done in the war on ISIS), I suppose there’s no particular reason why they can’t pretend that the authorization covers using force against Syrian government forces that are opposed to both Al Qaeda and ISIS. It’s a nonsensical and dishonest way to interpret the AUMF, but that’s no different from what the administration has done for the last twelve months. The administration’s legal arguments regarding the war on ISIS have been absurd from the start, and it is just more egregious in this instance.

The fact that the administration continues to warp the 2001 AUMF to mean whatever they want it to mean underscores how pointless the debate over a new specific authorization for the current war has always been. If members of Congress want to rein in presidential war powers, they need to repeal the 2001 AUMF. Whatever restrictions they put in a new authorization will be ignored and the the 2001 resolution will continue to be invoked as a carte blanche by the White House. That effectively gives this administration and future administrations license to start wars against whatever group or regime at their discretion, and most members of Congress have demonstrated for the last year that they have no interest in doing anything about that.

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The Cruel and Indefensible War on Yemen

U.S. Department of Defense/Flickr

Matt Purple describes the effects of the Saudis’ “unconscionable war” on Yemen. He concludes with a question:

So the pointless carnage in Yemen will drag on, but how much longer can America stomach it?

Unfortunately, it seems that our government can “stomach” the horrific effects of its client’s reckless war for a long time. For more than four months, the U.S. has enabled the pummeling and strangling of another country so that it can indulge the excessive and largely unfounded fears of a group of despotic governments. There is no sign that this is going to change. The Obama administration is backing the Saudis as they create famine conditions in one of the world’s poorest countries so that it can “reassure” them that our government is a reliable patron. This has been one of the ugliest and cruelest episodes of harmful U.S. meddling in the last thirty years, but remarkably it continues to be one that goes mostly unnoticed here at home. The public can “stomach” the wrecking of Yemen forever because most Americans are at best only vaguely aware that it is happening, and there is even less understanding of the supporting role that the U.S. has in all of this.

The more disturbing thing about the response to the war on Yemen in the U.S. is that many of the people that are paying attention to it seem to have no problem with it. Many members of Congress are displeased with the Obama administration on this issue, but their complaint is that Obama was too slow and too stinting in his support for the Saudis. To the best of my knowledge, no members of Congress have voiced any objections to the U.S. role in this war. As Purple notes, because the war is framed as an anti-Iranian effort it doesn’t receive the scrutiny that other regimes’ behavior receives, and it definitely doesn’t generate the same outrage. It’s a depressingly familiar pattern: the abuses and war crimes of allies and clients are ignored or justified and their civilian victims are viewed as being less deserving of protection.

Purple observes earlier in his article that a war that empowers Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and slaughters civilians isn’t in America’s national interest, and he’s certainly right about that. If that’s the case, perhaps it is long past time that the U.S. reevaluate its relationships with the clients that it has been aiding in this atrocious war. If helping them to destroy another country at the expense of our interests is the cost of “reassuring” them, we ought to acknowledge that our interests and theirs diverge often and widely.

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Obama’s Ongoing Folly in Syria

Freedom House/Flickr

The U.S. keeps getting more deeply ensnared in the Syrian civil war:

President Barack Obama has authorized using air power to defend a new U.S.-backed fighting force in Syria if it is attacked by Syrian government forces or other groups, raising the risk of the American military coming into direct conflict with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The U.S. and Turkey had agreed in principle to do this over two months ago, and U.S. officials had talked about defending U.S.-backed rebels long before that, so this doesn’t come as a great surprise. Like every other step the administration has taken to get the U.S. more involved in Syria, this is a foolish decision, but one that has been slowly coming ever since the U.S. pledged to back some part of the Syrian opposition. The only good news is that the program to train and arm “moderate” rebels in Syria is such a joke that there may not be many occasions to come to their defense.

Nonetheless, Obama’s latest decision illustrates the danger of yielding to hawkish demands to “arm the rebels” in the first place: once the U.S. has taken the side of anti-regime forces in a foreign civil war, it risks being drawn into direct conflict with the regime that its proxies oppose. Administration officials think that this isn’t likely to happen because these rebels are supposed to be our ground forces for fighting ISIS in Syria, but this decision takes the U.S. one step closer to starting a new war with yet another government in the region. The prospect of fighting two opposing sides at the same time in the same civil war remains just as absurd as it did last year and the year before that, but thanks to this decision that is exactly what the U.S. may end up doing.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The British Empire and WWII. William Dalrymple reviews Yasmin Khan’s The Raj at War (a.k.a. India at War).

Will Republicans fall for the Iran trap? Robert Merry warns the GOP of the pitfalls of opposing the nuclear deal.

The costs of the nuclear deal debate. Michael Cohen fears that the benefits of the deal will be obscured by a “torrent of hand-wringing and threat-mongering.”

Yemenis starve, and Saudis are accused of war crimes. Vice‘s Samuel Oakford reports on the latest developments in the war on Yemen.

The return of the Venezuelan boundary dispute. Nick Miroff reports on the role of Jim Jones’ cult in the territorial dispute and the tensions between Venezuela and Guyana that have once again flared up over the boundary.

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Will’s Unpersuasive Case Against the Nuclear Deal

State Department/Sipa USA/Newscom

George Will makes a wholly unpersuasive case against the nuclear deal. This was probably the weakest part of his argument:

The best reason for rejecting the agreement is to rebuke Obama’s long record of aggressive disdain for Congress — recess appointments when the Senate was not in recess, rewriting and circumventing statutes, etc.

This isn’t the “best reason” to reject the deal. It’s not even a good reason. If one wants to rebuke Obama for ignoring and going around Congress in other situations, it would make sense to rebuke him directly on those. Obama has been waging an illegal war against ISIS for almost a year now, but Congress seems quite content to allow Obama’s disdain for their role to continue indefinitely. It is only when he is proposing to strike a nonproliferation deal that they are suddenly concerned to take an interest. Congress has desperately sought to meddle in diplomacy in which it has no proper role. This is one case where Obama’s treatment of Congress has been defensible and appropriate. If this is the “best reason” for rejecting the deal, it’s a safe bet that there aren’t any good reasons.

Later on, Will asserts that the “Iran agreement should be a treaty.” There’s no particular reason why it should be treaty, except perhaps that it would make it easier to kill the agreement. He then compares it to the Treaty of Versailles, with which it has nothing in common, and regrets that Obama did not imitate Wilson by embarking on a fool’s errand of trying to get a hostile Senate to ratify something it hates. Wilson ended his presidency in failure and practically killed himself stumping for a treaty that was never going to be ratified, and then Will wonders why Obama didn’t want to follow his example.

Will also says that the deal “should not have been submitted first to the United Nations as a studied insult to Congress,” but that doesn’t make much sense. For one thing, previous presidents have gone to the Security Council regarding possible military action before going to Congress, so unless Will thinks those were “studied insults” to Congress his objection doesn’t hold up at all. Besides, why wouldn’t an agreement negotiated between the permanent members of the Security Council and a member state be submitted to the Security Council first? Will wants to treat this as if it were a bilateral agreement with Iran, but that is exactly what it isn’t.

It is somewhat encouraging that the arguments against the deal are consistently so weak and unpersuasive. That reflects the bankruptcy of the opponents’ position. But it is also dismaying that so many people on the right are only too willing to repeat and endorse such incredibly weak arguments.

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