Daniel Larison

Obama’s Awful Decision to Resume Miltary Aid to Egypt

The Bloomberg editors rationalize Obama’s decision to end lift the partial restrictions on sending arms to Egypt:

There is no overestimating the importance of the U.S.-Egypt relationship to Middle Eastern affairs.

As this editorial proves, that’s not true. The editors describe Obama’s decision as a “harsh nod to reality,” but it would be more accurate to call it a belated admission that the administration never much cared about opposing the coup or the dictatorship that followed. The administration went to great lengths to avoid calling the coup what it was back in 2013, and it has done almost everything it could to ignore the requirements of U.S. law that dictate that the U.S. suspend military assistance to Egypt. If the U.S. hasn’t quite bent over backwards to excuse the new dictatorship’s abuses, it certainly hasn’t done much to suggest that it disapproves. Now the administration is dropping any pretense that it was ever bothered by Egypt’s post-coup government.

The editorial calls this move a “necessary evil,” but there is nothing necessary about it. The administration is resuming aid to this dictatorship because it can and because it wants to, and it is flouting U.S. law in the process. Any conditions that are attached to the aid won’t provide the U.S. with any real leverage in the future, since the administration has already made clear that it will never use its leverage with Egypt for fear of “losing” its influence. Because of that, it has ensured that the U.S. won’t really have any influence over its client, but it will be implicated in whatever the client chooses to do.

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The Increasing Costs of the Saudi War on Yemen

Not surprisingly, even Yemenis that supported the Saudi-led intervention are quickly turning against it:

Yemenis once supportive of the Saudi-led bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in their country are turning against the operation as civilian casualties mount and vital economic infrastructure is destroyed by airstrikes, including one on Wednesday that killed 29 employees at a dairy factory far from rebel-held areas.

At least 164 civilians have been killed since the airstrikes started last week, according to Yemen’s health ministry, while the United Nations put the figure at 93 dead and 364 wounded. Aid agencies say their ability to provide Yemen with urgent medical and food supplies has been restricted by both ground fighting between local factions and the Saudi airstrikes.

Even those who cheered the Saudi intervention against Houthi rebels are now appealing for its end.

Any local support that the intervention might have had in the country appears to have vanished in a matter of days, which suggests that there was never much support for military action in the first place. While there may have been some sympathy for Saudi hostility to the Houthis, it must now be dawning on everyone in the country that all of Yemen will suffer because of this intervention. Yemenis that oppose the Houthis reportedly want the war to end:

“We hate the Houthis, but they never attacked us or destroyed our property. Why don’t the Saudis just kill the head of the Houthis and save Yemen? It’s the Houthis that they want, but it seems that Saudi is trying to destroy Yemen instead,” said Lutfi a Mahbashi, a San’a resident who lives near the capital’s heavily-bombarded airport.

If the Saudis were hoping to weaken the Houthis by attacking Yemen, the attack has made enemies out of the Yemenis that share that goal. That is an entirely predictable and natural reaction to coming under attack by foreign forces, and it’s one that should have been expected.

As the article tells us, the costs to Yemen from this war continue to grow daily. Dozens of civilians have been killed so far, and that number is only going to rise as the war drags on. According to UNICEF, more than sixty children have been killed in the fighting to date. These deaths are all the more appalling because they are the result of an entirely avoidable and unnecessary war that could be ended at any time. The U.S. ought to realize how senseless and needlessly destructive this campaign is and lean on the Saudi government to halt its operation. Failing that, the U.S. should withdraw all support for the Saudis’ dangerous intervention.

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Rubio Isn’t a “Transformational” Candidate

Gage Skidmore / cc

Rubio’s presidential campaign seems to be based on a fantasy:

Rubio is preparing to launch his presidential campaign on April 13 in his home base of Miami. Ayres, one of Rubio’s top advisers, cast the son of Cuban immigrants as the kind of “transformational” candidate who could expand the Republican Party’s demographic appeal to the diversifying U.S. electorate and take back the White House [bold mine-DL].

Rubio boosters have often claimed that the senator has the ability to expand the Republican coalition, but there are no examples that they can cite as proof. The original version of this argument was that his biography and his support for immigration “reform” would somehow translate into winning over Hispanic voters in large numbers. That was never very persuasive, and it ignored the many other reasons why most Hispanic voters favor Democrats. Once Rubio ran away from his old immigration position in response to the conservative backlash against the Senate bill, it made no sense at all. Indeed, what evidence we do have suggests that Rubio wouldn’t improve the GOP’s position among Hispanics at all. Nationally, he is not popular with these voters, but then there was never any good reason to expect anything different.

Since it appears that Rubio has decided to make his hard-line foreign policy views the centerpiece of his candidacy, it is even less likely that Rubio can be the “transformational” figure that his supporters imagine him to be. Hawkish voters in the GOP may appreciate his dead-ender position on the Cuba embargo or his support for throwing more weapons into the conflict in Ukraine, but most Americans still aren’t interested in the sort of consistently aggressive foreign policy that Rubio is offering them. Instead of causing voters to “take a fresh look at the Republican Party,” Rubio’s preoccupation with promoting hawkish foreign policy would likely stop many persuadable voters from supporting the Republican candidate. Ayres insists that Rubio is the “most transformational” of all of the Republican 2016 candidates, but there is simply no reason to think this is true.

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NATO and “Arab NATO”

The Bloomberg editors warn against supporting a so-called “Arab NATO”:

It’s worth noting that wealthy little Oman, often the canniest of Arab states, has shown no inclination to join the Saudi cause, either in next-door Yemen or the broader Arab military force. The U.S. and Western powers should be equally cautious of an Arab NATO — especially if it’s not very much like NATO.

Most of the editorial’s points are well taken. A Saudi-led military organization would be designed to facilitate interventions in neighboring countries wherever the Saudi government thought it perceived a threat from Iran, and it is intended to oppose and reduce Iranian influence. That would make it a destabilizing and dangerous coalition, and the U.S. shouldn’t have anything to do with it. The Saudis and many of the other Gulf states already do quite enough damage to regional stability with their current level of support for proxies. A formal military organization would do more. This Saudi-led group would presumably want to intervene to shore up member governments against internal enemies, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it also tried to destabilize regimes that it considered to be too close to Tehran. As a Sunni authoritarian version of the Holy Alliance, it would likely be a force committed to quashing popular uprisings and propping up corrupt governments.

If the U.S. lent support to such an organization, the U.S. would repeatedly be at risk of being pulled into new conflicts along with the members of this “Arab NATO.” In that respect, this new coalition would not be so different from the way that NATO has evolved since the end of the Cold War. When NATO was deprived of its original adversary with the dissolution of the USSR, it kept searching for a new purpose. It found that purpose in conducting “out of area” military campaigns against governments that posed no real threat to its members and by engaging in “humanitarian” interventions that had nothing to do with collective defense. The new Saudi-led bloc won’t be bothering with the pretense of being a defensive alliance, but it probably will imitate the worst habits of the post-Cold War NATO.

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The U.S. Backs a War in Yemen It Doesn’t Understand

Micah Zenko notes that no one in the U.S. government has any idea of what the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen is supposed to accomplish:

At least the Pentagon wasn’t trying to make things up. Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of Central Command, was frank when asked what the purpose of the campaign was, stating, “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.” Despite the astonishing acknowledgment that he did not know why the intervention was occurring and was only given a few hours’ advance notice, Austin declared himself “very encouraged that we have seen what we’ve seen here.”

As Zenko says, the U.S. is directly participating in this intervention. U.S. forces may not be dropping the bombs, but they are (mis)identifying the targets and refueling the attacking countries’ planes, and our government is endorsing the campaign without clearly understanding what it is intended to accomplish. It is superficially tempting to see this as an example of how regional powers can manage their own problems, but they aren’t doing this on their own. As it did in Libya, the U.S. is making an unnecessary war much easier for the governments that want to fight it. “Leading from behind” in practice means facilitating the reckless wars of allies and clients through ill-advised U.S. backing.

The official Saudi line is that they are intervening to “protect” Yemen and its people, which is as credible as having Israel claim that its periodic bombing campaigns in Gaza are intended to “protect” Gaza and its inhabitants. This “protection” will come at the expense of a great many Yemeni lives and it is presumably happening against the will of most people in Yemen, but so long as an unnecessary war is dressed up in the rhetoric of protecting the population it doesn’t seem to raise very many red flags.

Asher Orkaby reviews the history of a previous failed intervention in a Yemeni civil war in the 1960s, and reaches this conclusion:

With each falling bomb, the Yemeni population grows increasingly more sympathetic for the Houthi movement which is emerging as the Yemen’s heroic defenders against foreign elements looking to destroy the country. With both Saudi Arabia and Egypt announcing their intentions to commit ground troops to the northern highlands, it seems that both countries are playing with fire and ignoring their own history of failed military interventions in Yemen.

If the Houthis are seen as defending their country from foreign attack, it makes sense that this would only benefit them politically. When a country comes under attack, the population doesn’t normally reward the attackers by falling in line behind their political goals. We should assume that most Yemenis won’t want any part of the “protection” that the Saudis are pretending to offer.

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Report: U.S. Increasing Support for Saudi War on Yemen

The U.S. plans to increase its support for Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen:

The U.S. military is preparing to expand its aid to Saudi Arabia in its air campaign against rebel forces in Yemen by providing more intelligence, bombs and aerial refueling missions for planes carrying out airstrikes there, American officials said Friday.

It can’t be stressed enough that no U.S. interests are served by aiding a Saudi attack on its neighbor. The fact that Hadi needs foreign military intervention to restore his rule should tell us how little support there is in the country for his return. If there is anything more misguided that U.S. support for toppling foreign governments, it is U.S. military support to reimpose rulers that have been driven from their country. Even if Hadi were restored, it would probably be just a matter of time before he was ousted, and in the meantime the U.S. is gaining new enemies and generating even more resentment because of our interference in the region.

The air campaign is already inflicting many civilian casualties:

An air strike killed at least 40 people at a camp for displaced people in north Yemen on Monday, humanitarian workers said, in an attack which apparently targeted a nearby base for Houthi fighters battling President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The more deeply involved the U.S. gets in this campaign, the more it will own the awful consequences of the Saudi war. Yemen will be more unstable as a result of this intervention, the U.S. will be implicated in the ruin of yet another country, and all for the sake of putting a dictator back in power.

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The U.S. Shouldn’t Support Saudi Arabia’s War on Yemen

Sarah Phillips draws attention to the humanitarian crisis that the Saudi air attacks on Yemen are creating:

Civilian casualties from the bombings are already mounting, but the consequences will spread beyond this sad tally. Yemen imports around 90% of its wheat and all of its rice. With its runways bombed and airports closed, Yemen’s already food-insecure population is in a dire humanitarian predicament.

This makes it even more important that the U.S. stop aiding the Saudis with their intervention and try to get Riyadh halt this operation before it inflicts any more damage on the country. It is bad enough that U.S. clients are doing this, but it is even worse that U.S. is supporting it. It makes no sense for the U.S. to assist in wrecking Yemen for the sake of reinstalling an unpopular president. If another authoritarian state were doing what Saudi Arabia is doing to Yemen now, we all know that every Western government would be condemning it as unprovoked aggression against its neighbor. I know that isn’t how Western governments are going to treat the Saudis, but our government could at least refuse to participate in any way in this dangerous and unnecessary military intervention.

Phillips concludes:

The notion that outsiders now need to “pick a side” between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen is extremely dangerous.

If the Saudis insist on pursuing their rivalry with Iran to the point of attacking their neighbors, the U.S. should be looking for ways to rein them in or else start considering how to reduce our support for Saudi Arabia.

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The Dangerous Saudi Intervention in Yemen

Ken Pollack warns about the dangers of the Saudi-led and U.S.-backed intervention in Yemen:

The news that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states along with Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Sudan have launched air strikes against Houthi forces in Yemen should give every American pause. Yes, the Houthis are Shi’a who receive some degree of backing from Iran, but this is a very dangerous escalation that is unlikely to improve the situation in Yemen and risks the stability of Saudi Arabia over the medium to long term. Moreover, the Iranian role has been greatly exaggerated in what is first and foremost a Yemeni civil war.

The U.S. is providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudis for their attack on Yemen, but Pollack dismisses the rationales for doing this because they “place short-term needs ahead of far greater long-term interests.” As he says, the U.S. shouldn’t be doing anything to encourage the Saudis and the other GCC countries to become more deeply involved in Yemen’s internal conflict. If the Saudis and their neighbors insist on blundering ahead with an intervention, at the very least the U.S. shouldn’t be helping them. Ideally, Washington should be trying to restrain them.

Writing before the Saudis began their attack, Adam Baron made many of the same points as Pollack:

But what is abundantly clear at the moment is that this remains, by and large, an internal Yemeni political conflict—one that, despite frequent sectarian mischaracterizations and potential regional implications, remains deeply rooted in local Yemeni issues.

And if history is a guide, foreign intervention will only stand to exacerbate the situation.

The U.S. has no reason to take or to support actions that are likely to intensify and prolong a conflict in Yemen. Instead of enabling our latest reckless client, Washington should be pressuring the Saudis and other regional governments not to interfere. In another article, Baron argues that the sectarian nature of the conflict in Yemen has been overstated so far, but warns that Saudi intervention will serve to stoke sectarianism:

It’s worth noting that [former President] Saleh’s support has put swathes of Sunni Yemeni soldiers and tribal fighters into the field on the side of the Shia Houthis, underscoring the fact that the roots of this conflict are not purely sectarian. Still, the conflict certainly has a sectarian tinge. The Houthi movement is rooted in the revival of Zaidism, a heterodox Shia sect found almost exclusively in the Yemeni highlands. And many of the Houthis’ Sunni opponents have framed their conflicts in religious terms.

The Saudi-led intervention has exacerbated the sectarian dimension.

To make matters worse, it appears that the intervention Hadi’s behalf has hardened the positions of the Houthis and Hadi so that both are less likely to agree to a compromise than they were before the intervention began. Baron continues:

But the Houthis have dug in — defiantly rejecting the idea that they will be bombed into submission — while Hadi, empowered by the groundswell of foreign support, has expressed unprecedented confidence.

Intervening on behalf of the weaker side in a conflict is always a good way to make sure that a conflict drags on longer than it has to and costs many more lives. If the U.S. must have some role in this conflict, it should be to pressure its clients to avoid escalation and to halt their military action.

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There Is No “Coming Break” with Israel

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Reihan Salam gets a bit carried away:

So no, [Obama's] efforts to radically remake our relationship with Israel isn’t a reflection of ignorance or a lack of familiarity with the basics of the conflict. If the president chooses to pursue this dangerous course, let no American who values our alliance with Israel, or for that matter our national honor, ever forget it.

If Obama decides to lend U.S. support to a new Security Council resolution on Israel and Palestine (or, more likely, if the U.S. refuses to veto such a resolution), that is hardly going to “radically make” the relationship. It would be one thing if Obama were actually proposing a “break” with Israel as significant as the one Salam claims, but that isn’t even under consideration. Hawkish critics have a bad habit of attributing “radical” goals to Obama when he is usually pursuing much more modest goals that they happen to dislike. There isn’t a “coming break” with Israel, but there might be a temporary end to some of the usual reflexive support.

Supposing that Obama does what Salam fears, what is likely to happen? If the Security Council passes a new resolution that sets out the terms of a final settlement, we can be certain that Israel will ignore this resolution as well. If Israel is then in greater danger of being treated as a “pariah state,” that will be due in large part to its own behavior. The U.S. has been doing Israel a disservice for a long time by shielding it from the consequences of its policies, which has allowed its government to continue policies that are incompatible with a resolution of the conflict. If there is to be any chance of changing those policies, the Israeli government has to be confronted with the full costs of pursuing them, and that won’t happen as long as it can always count on the U.S. to cover for them.

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War with Iran Would Be a Disaster for the Region

Dan Drezner writes:

Take the “deal or war” perspective. The prospect of the U.S. having to use air power against Iran does sound pretty bad. Well, it did sound bad, back before the U.S. was using air power in Iraq. And Syria. And providing support for others to use air power in Yemen. And lengthening the stay of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

When you think about it that way, does adding another country to the bombing list really matter all that much? [bold mine-DL]

The answer, from a foreign policy perspective, is that of course it does. Bombing Iran is an order-of-magnitude difference that what the U.S. is doing in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. But my point is that the optics of greater U.S. use of force in the Middle East doesn’t look as problematic as it did, say, in January 2014. The disastrous counterfactual does not look too far removed from reality.

Well, yes, it does matter quite a bit. A war with Iran would be a huge change for the worse for the entire region, and would be a major new burden for the U.S. to take on. If the region appears horribly chaotic and violent now, it might seem hard to imagine how it gets worse, but bombing Iran would make us see how much worse it can get.

For one thing, there are the U.S. forces present in Iraq and Afghanistan that could be attacked in reprisals by Iranian proxies if the U.S. “added” Iran to “the bombing list.” The air war against ISIS stays out of the headlines and remains popular here in the U.S. because it doesn’t involve any American casualties. The U.S. also has at least the nominal approval, if not support, of the rest of the world in fighting ISIS. War with Iran wouldn’t be like that. It would be much more costly and dangerous for U.S. forces, and it would be an illegal war condemned all over the world. Attacking Iran would invite retaliation against U.S. forces and clients in the Gulf, and according to the Iran hawks that argue for bombing this would just be the start of a series of attacks on Iran. That would destabilize the region even further, and it would turn the Persian Gulf into a war zone with negative consequences for the global economy. Robert Farley describes this scenario:

And the core argument is this: the United States should regard itself on more or less permanent war footing with the Islamic Republic, and should expect to regularly use air and sea power in order to curtail Tehran’s ambitions.

If the United States launches a major strike on Iran, it can expect to launch another strike in a few years, and another strike a few years later. Each time, Iran will improve the security of its nuclear facilities, and each time, it will build sympathy within the international community.

Attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities would be the beginning of a new open-ended military commitment and the start of a prolonged war with Iran whose effects will probably surprise us by being even worse than we imagined beforehand. On top of all that, it is likely that such a “preventive” war wouldn’t stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but would virtually guarantee that outcome. As Geoff Wilson explained over the weekend, attacking Iran would just drive their nuclear program deeper underground. Iran hawks like to invoke Osirak as proof that military action can halt another country’s nuclear program, but Wilson reminds us that the attack on Iraq in 1981 produced the exact opposite result:

Both Bolton and Cotton’s accounts of the strikes on Iraq in 1981 are completely wrong.

Those strikes actually drove the program underground, where it expanded. This is just what Gates warns would happen with Iran. As Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Kahl wrote in 2012, “new evidence suggests that Hussein had not decided to launch a full-fledged weapons program prior to the Israeli strike.”

So in addition to making the region’s problems even worse, the war would likely produce the result it was intended to stop. I understand that Drezner wants to make advocates of both positions reconsider their arguments in light of regional events, but regional instability and U.S. involvement in these other conflicts make the awful case for starting a war with Iran seem far worse than it already did. If a quarter of a neighborhood is already on fire, that doesn’t make setting the rest of it ablaze any less abhorrent or foolish.

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