Daniel Larison

The GOP’s Absurd Israel Litmus Test

The panic over James Baker continues:

But the instant backlash from fellow Republicans that prompted Jeb Bush, the son of Mr. Baker’s best friend, to distance himself underscored just how much their party has changed on the issue of Israel. Where past Republican leaders had their disagreements with Israel, today’s Republicans have made support for the Jewish state an inviolable litmus test for anyone aspiring to national office.

This is fairly accurate, but the story makes it sound as if this were a new or recent development. Republican leaders have had disagreements with Israel in the past, but none of these leaders has been in office in over twenty years. The “shift” that the report describes was well underway by the mid-1990s, and by the turn of the century it was virtually complete among politicians and pundits. The difference between the Republican Party of the ’90s and the party today is that even mild criticism of specific Israeli policies is now considered beyond the pale. For that matter, merely being associated with someone that makes those criticisms is enough to earn the hard-liners’ wrath, as Jeb Bush has discovered this week. That is why we keep seeing stampedes of Republican candidates eager to prove their uncritical support of everything Israel does or might want to do.

Reflexive U.S. backing during the Bush era encouraged this intensification of support, and it has only become worse during the Obama years as hard-liners have sought to portray the current administration as hostile. To that end, hard-liners have redefined support to mean offering a blank check. In fact, it’s even worse than that, since a candidate can offer Israel a blank check as Jeb Bush has done and still be blamed for being too slow or unenthusiastic in his denunciations of others. Another report indicates that Bush hasn’t done enough to placate the hard-liners in his party. The Baker episode seems likely to cost him some backing that he would have otherwise received:

But the flare-up could thrust Mr. Bush into conflict with some of the most hawkish voices in his party, including some leading Republican donors, and a constituency determined to demonstrate its strength in the primary.

“A few months ago, people I speak to thought Jeb Bush was the guy. That’s changed,” said Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, a conservative pro-Israel organization.

It may be obvious, but it is worth emphasizing how deranged all of this is. It is already quite strange when anyone in this country has such a strong ideological attachment to another state, but to demand that all of a party’s candidates must share that attachment and share it to the same degree is madness. If the relationship with the other country were extremely useful to the U.S., it would still be absurd, but it might be a little easier to understand. When the relationship does virtually nothing for the U.S. and imposes significant costs on the U.S., as is the case with Israel, requiring all candidates to give reflexive support to the other state is bizarre and indefensible.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Our unrealistic foreign policy. Christopher Preble asks why the public should be expected to pay for a global “leadership” role they don’t support.

Seven questions for Benjamin Schwarz. Jeremy Beer talks with TAC‘s new national editor about foreign policy, conservatism, consumer capitalism, and Churchill.

Behind Netanyahu’s win. Brent Sasley analyzes the political trends in Israel that gave Likud and its allies another victory.

The folly of outside intervention in Yemen. Adam Baron warns against more interference in Yemen’s conflicts.

Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Ishaan Tharoor comments on the Saudi military intervention against the Houthis.

The Republicans’ Israel problem. Jacob Heilbrunn comments on the recent panic over James Baker and his speech at the J Street conference.

Fearing the success of a nuclear deal. Paul Pillar identifies the serious flaws of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

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Bolton and the MEK

Re-reading part of John Bolton’s op-ed calling for war with Iran, I noticed something that I had overlooked the first time:

An attack need not destroy all of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but by breaking key links in the nuclear-fuel cycle, it could set back its program by three to five years. The United States could do a thorough job of destruction, but Israel alone can do what’s necessary. Such action should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran [bold mine-DL].

Peter Beinart objects to Bolton’s op-ed in part because Bolton, who was a leading advocate for the invasion of Iraq, pays no attention to the possible negative consequences of a war with Iran. That’s a fair point. Hawks frequently ignore or minimize the costs and risks of the military action they’re urging the government to take, they exaggerate the efficacy of hard power to “solve” problems, and they often fail to anticipate or plan for unintended consequences of the wars they support. These are all good reasons to view any hawkish argument for war very skeptically, especially when it comes from someone with such an appalling track record. There is another reason to view anything Bolton has to say about Iran in particular with great suspicion.

Bolton is hardly the only former official, retired officer, or ex-politician to do this, but for the last several years he has been a vocal cheerleader of the Mujahideen-e Khalq cult (and “former” terrorist group) and its political organization. He has been consistently misrepresenting a totalitarian cult as a “democratic” Iranian opposition group. When Bolton or someone else with this record talks about “vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition,” we can be fairly sure that he means that the U.S. should be backing the MEK in its quest for seizing power in Iran.

This confirms Bolton’s extremely poor judgment and underscores how truly crazy his overall argument for war with Iran is. It also reminds us how oblivious Iran hawks such as Bolton are to the political realities inside Iran. Once again we have a hawkish demand for U.S. support for an exile group that has absolutely no support in its own country in order to achieve regime change. Indeed, the group that Bolton has been helping to promote is widely loathed in Iran for good reason and has no credibility at all with the domestic political opposition. It is Bolton’s embrace of the MEK as much as anything else that ought to discredit his views on Iran policy.

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The U.S. Should Stop Enabling Reckless Clients

James Poulos proposes having a U.S. Israel relationship that is mostly the same as the one that already exists:

This ought to result in an attitude of care and forbearance toward Israel — aid and friendship mixed with quiet thankfulness that its burden is not our own. Unfortunately, in America, it’s easy to view others through the lens of our favorite abstract principles. In Israel, at any rate, the Israeli predicament is not an abstraction. That’s why Benjamin Netanyahu won re-election, and that’s why politicians like Netanyahu aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. For Bush as much as any responsible American leader, the task is to accept that — and to use skilled statecraft not to be drawn too deeply into the punishing pattern of European politics still playing out in the Middle East.

Poulos comments on Jeb Bush earlier in the column, but doesn’t mention that Bush has explicitly said that he thinks the appropriate standard for the relationship is that it should be so close that there will be “no light” between America and its client. I agree with Poulos that it would be better if the relationship were “not too close,” but Bush has already rejected this. If Poulos should fault anyone for “stumbling badly” on this question, it should be Bush and the other candidates that have made similar statements.

It’s never clear in Poulos’ argument why the U.S. ought to be providing Israel with this “care” and “aid.” Because it “is a nation-state created in Europe’s image”? That’s not a very compelling reason. The comparison with European allies is also misleading since they are, in fact, treaty allies, and they do contribute something to their alliance with the U.S. (The U.S. should want to discourage “cheap-riding” by its genuine allies, too, but that is a different question.) Poulos refers to an attitude of “care and forbearance,” which has been more or less the attitude of many “pro-Israel” Americans for a long time. In practice, however, the U.S. has shown “forbearance” by indulging Israeli governments in their worst policies and only occasionally, hesitantly challenging them on settlements. Especially over the last twenty years or so, it has shown “care” and “friendship” by reflexively supporting Israeli actions, and that has led successive Israeli governments to believe that the U.S. won’t seriously object to anything they do. The U.S. enables its client’s reckless behavior, and the client has since responded by demonstrating its contempt for U.S. policy goals. There shouldn’t be “forbearance” for any of that, and the sooner that there isn’t the relationship should be much healthier.

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Walker and Iran Hawks’ Phony Concern for Nonproliferation

Rejecting any achievable nuclear deal with Iran seems to be the latest litmus test for Republican presidential candidates. Scott Walker told Hugh Hewitt that he would repudiate a deal that the U.S. made that permitted Iran to retain some enrichment:

HH: Would you reject that deal if you took the Oval Office?

SW: Absolutely, on Day One. I mean, to me, it is, the concept of a nuclear Iran is not only problematic for Iran, and certainly for Israel, but it opens the doors. I mean, the Saudis are next. You’re going to have plenty of others in the region. People forget that even amongst the Islamic world, there is no love lost between the Saudis and the Iranians. And so they’re going to want to have a nuclear weapon if the Iranians have a nuclear weapon.

It’s almost funny how hawks that are dead-set against a nonproliferation agreement pretend to care about nuclear proliferation in the rest of the region. If they were genuinely concerned about nuclear future proliferation by U.S. allies and clients, you would think they would be eager to reach an agreement with Iran that significantly limits Iran’s nuclear program. If one assumes that there would be a wave of proliferation as a result of an Iranian bomb (which has strangely failed to happen for fifty years since Israel acquired its nuclear weapons), imposing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program through a negotiated deal would seem to be imperative in order to stop that future proliferation.

Then again, I doubt that there are any hawks that really believe this will happen. If they did, they wouldn’t so cavalierly propose the idea of attacking Iran, as John Bolton does again today in The New York Times, since such an attack would push Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and, if the hawks are to be believed, that would then prompt Iran’s neighbors to do likewise. If one wanted to “open the doors” to future proliferation, tearing up an agreement made in good faith with Iran regarding its nuclear program is a good way to start. Walker and Rubio have both committed to doing this if they become president, which is another excellent reason why neither of them should be allowed to hold that office.

Once again, Iran hawks oppose the means that has the best chance of ensuring that Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons while many of them demand military action most likely to make the Iranian government want to have them. They feign concern about future proliferation while vowing to repudiate an agreement that has a good chance of preventing it. They claim to be interested in preventing a nuclear-armed Iran while doing everything in their power to make that outcome more likely.

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Boehner and the “Anti-War President”

Politico reports on some of the Speaker’s recent comments:

Speaker John Boehner called President Barack Obama an “anti-war president,” and said the world is “starving for American leadership.”

I briefly criticized this on Twitter earlier. As I thought more about it, it occurred to me that Boehner’s remarks include almost everything wrong with the way Republican hawks talk and think about foreign policy. We have the obsession with ill-defined “leadership” as some sort of cure-all. Boehner assures us that if America “leads,” “our allies in the region would be tickled to death and would be happy to join a coalition.” It doesn’t seem to occur to Boehner that our so-called “allies” are not doing very much to contribute to a coalition effort because the U.S. is already offering to do almost all of the work at our expense for them. Then there are the dishonest misrepresentations of past or current policy. Obama is anything but an “anti-war president.” His record of starting two unnecessary wars and escalating a third should make clear. That doesn’t include the strikes that Obama has ordered in many other countries. When Boehner calls Obama an “anti-war president,” he is obviously lying, but he is also making clear that under his definition of leadership the U.S. ought to be fighting even more wars more aggressively than it already is.

We can also recognize the presumption that action should always be preferred to “sitting on the sidelines.” Boehner probably can’t imagine that the U.S. has no interest in embroiling itself more deeply in the internal conflicts of other countries. “America has to lead,” and by this he means that the U.S. has to keep joining unnecessary foreign conflicts. Finally, there is the boilerplate complaint about a lack of strategy while refusing to offer anything that might resemble one. There is nothing cheaper, easier, or less meaningful than to say that there isn’t a strategy. It might or might not be true to say that the U.S. has no coherent strategy in the region, but as criticism it is utterly useless unless the critic explains what he thinks ought to be done. This is what passes for “serious” foreign policy discourse at the highest levels of government. No wonder our foreign policy record in recent decades has been so poor.

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The Warren Mirage

Damon Linker talks up a Warren-Webb alternative to Clinton. I found this section to be the least persuasive:

As for foreign policy — well, let’s just say that given her left-leaning preferences in every other area of policy, I don’t fully believe Warren’s wan statements in defense of the status quo. I think she’s probably given foreign affairs little thought, and she’s picking her battles. And anyway, in my dream she’d have Jim Webb around to try and convince her to revisit her conventionally hawkish positions.

That’s not very compelling. Linker admits earlier that Warren has “said very little to indicate that she diverges from the bipartisan Washington consensus in favor of endless warfare.” That’s true, and it’s probably because she doesn’t reject that consensus, or because changing U.S. foreign policy has never been one of her priorities. She may be a progressive hero on some domestic issues, but there is no reason to assume that she shares progressive criticisms of Clinton’s record across the board. Linker then rationalizes this by saying that she probably hasn’t thought about these things very much, as if that were a good defense when arguing for her to seek the presidency. It is almost guaranteed that a first-term senator who hasn’t given much thought to foreign policy would be politically cautious on these issues to a fault, and if that senator doesn’t have much of a background in these issues that would make her that much more likely to defer to “centrist” hawks in her party. To the extent that Warren is perceived to be a progressive on foreign policy, she would probably have to go out of her way to “reassure” Democratic hawks by copying many of their positions.

There’s no question that the Democrats need to have some challengers to run against Clinton, and ideally they would nominate someone less beholden to Wall Street and much less inclined to meddle overseas, but the focus on Warren is misplaced. It distracts much-needed attention from the would-be presidential candidates that Democrats actually have available. If Warren were somehow lured into doing what some of her fans claim to want, it would be a huge waste of her time and would make her a less effective advocate for her preferred causes in the Senate. One might almost think that all the “draft Warren” enthusiasm was a clever way to keep anti-Clinton Democrats preoccupied with a fantasy so that they neglect the real alternatives.

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Obama’s Venezuela Blunder

Frida Ghitis sums up the administration’s blundering in Venezuela:

Venezuela is one country where U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama had struck the right tone—until a few weeks ago.

A diplomatic miscalculation by Washington has strengthened the repressive Venezuelan regime and derailed the Obama administration’s campaign to bolster ties with Latin American nations after December’s landmark reopening of relations with Cuba.

Venezuela is just the latest case in which U.S. sanctions have backfired and have contributed to the strengthening of the regime they were meant to hurt. Though they were ostensibly intended to punish leading members of the Venezuelan government for their abuses and corruption, the sanctions have provided an unwelcome boost to Maduro, who has milked the absurd declaration of his country as an “extraordinary threat” to the U.S. for all it is worth. Ghitis continues:

The Venezuelan legislature approved the “anti-imperialist” law, which gives Maduro the right to bypass the legislature and rule by decree until the end of 2015.

This development has not only strengthened Maduro’s position, it has altered conditions for Washington in the rest of Latin America.

U.S. action has therefore directly made life considerably more difficult for the opposition, which condemned the U.S. action for its interference in Venezuelan affairs. The U.S. has clumsily helped a flailing demagogue and his allies shore up support. This was entirely predictable, and sanctions skeptics warned against imposing them here for precisely these reasons. I wrote this in May of last year:

If the U.S. imposes sanctions on Maduro and his cronies, it will be because it has decided that it should actively encourage one side in a foreign political dispute. That will most likely backfire and hurt the opposition forces that supporters of sanctions think they are helping.

This was not hard to guess, because this is what keeps happening again and again when the U.S. sanctions other governments for its internal abuses. As we’re seeing now, even targeted sanctions that are aimed at a handful of officials can be used by the regime to its own advantage over its internal opponents. The sanctions were never likely to have the desired effect on the regime’s behavior, and they were always more likely to make conditions inside the country worse, and so they have. It is probably too late to repair the damage done by this short-sighted meddling, but it should be remembered as a cautionary tale the next time that hawks start demanding that the U.S. show our support for a foreign opposition by taking some punitive action against their leaders. Sanctions are typically worse than useless, and they tend to have nothing but harmful effects on the people of the targeted country.

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Cruz Is Going Nowhere Fast

Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock

Jonathan Bernstein pushes back on the idea that Cruz can win the nomination:

But Williamson is assuming Cruz can be nominated. Sure, nothing in politics is impossible. And it’s possible the process has changed substantially, and we just haven’t noticed it; maybe the Republican Party has changed significantly, and we missed it. Barring that, however, everything we know about presidential-nomination politics cuts against Cruz as a plausible candidate.

This is right, and I would just add a few more points. What we know about Republican nomination politics tells us that Cruz is an extreme long-shot candidate. Republicans almost never nominate an insurgent candidate, and they certainly don’t choose to nominate the one with the least experienced in elected office when they have a large number of alternatives available. Many people are comparing Cruz now to Obama in 2007, and there are some similarities, but Cruz is even more of a novice in elected office than Obama was when he announced his candidacy and he doesn’t really have any major issue that he can use to propel his candidacy. There is no significant constituency that Cruz will be able to mobilize on his behalf, and there is no issue that he will be able to “own” to the detriment of his rivals. He suffers from the flaws of being an over-eager junior senator, but he cannot credibly claim to have been prescient about a major national or international issue. Neither does he have any substantive record to run on. The proper question isn’t, “Can Cruz win?” but rather “What’s the point of a Cruz candidacy?”

Ross Douthat has suggested that he could attack his rivals on immigration, and that might allow him to score some points, but with the exception of Bush all of the other candidates are going to take positions on immigration that are almost indistinguishable from Cruz’s. He is positioning himself as an insurgent in a fight with a party leadership that agrees with him on almost all policies, and so there is no particular reason why primary voters should prefer him rather than one of the many other conservative candidates that will also be running.

Williamson makes a crack at the end of his article about Cruz’s Senate primary race against David Dewhurst. Cruz won that race before being elected to the Senate against even weaker opposition. This is supposed to be a clever rebuke to Cruz’s doubters, but it doesn’t prove what Williamson thinks it does. Yes, Cruz was the “anti-establishment” insurgent in the primary race in 2012, the state party backed his opponent, and Cruz still won. This overlooks that Cruz had to first force a run-off and then was able to have a head-to-head contest with Dewhurst. He had the luxury of appealing to a primary electorate that was very well-suited to him, and in the end he had just one opponent. None of this will be true over the next year in the contest for the presidential nomination. There is no run-off in this contest. Cruz will have to compete with perhaps as many as a dozen rivals (or perhaps more), almost all of whom will be more qualified than he is, and all of whom are more personally appealing. He won the Senate primary in large part because the Texas primary electorate welcomed his uncompromising approach, but he won’t get the same reception from voters in the presidential race.

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Jeb Bush and the Crowded 2016 Field

The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia / Flickr

Jonathan Bernstein notes the weakness of Jeb Bush’s candidacy so far:

If Bush (or anyone else) was decisively pulling ahead, some marginal candidates would be dropping out. For that matter, Florida Senator Marco Rubio would probably have decided not to run. No sign of that.

It is remarkable how many other Republicans have been willing to signal that they intend to run in the months following Bush’s decision to “explore” a presidential bid. Most observers expected that the 2016 field would be larger and more competitive than usual, but it is a bit surprising that Bush’s entry into the race seems to have had no effect on the calculations of the other candidates. Instead of clearing the field or discouraging challengers as his brother’s candidacy did sixteen years ago, Jeb Bush’s candidacy seems to have been underwhelming enough to give his many challengers no pause at all in preparing their own campaigns. Rubio’s candidacy still doesn’t make any sense for many reasons, but it is telling that Bush’s bid didn’t keep Rubio from preparing his own. I still assume Rubio’s campaign will go nowhere, but it is a reflection of how unimpressed Bush’s rivals are by his candidacy that Rubio would choose to pursue a presidential campaign instead of his own re-election bid.

Bernstein continues:

If party actors remain split or uncommitted and prefer to wait for tests of electoral strength, it’s easy to imagine Bush finishing fifth or lower in Iowa, failing to rally in New Hampshire, and then finding himself almost a non-factor in South Carolina. One thing’s for sure: Waiting for the Florida primary to come around isn’t going to be a successful nomination strategy.

That’s a possibility. It’s not entirely fair to liken Bush to Giuliani. Giuliani’s “wait until Florida” plan was transparently desperate and absurd. Bush has at least some qualifications to be president. Even so, Bush could have some similar difficulties in the early states. The early evidence suggests that his support is not nearly this weak in New Hampshire or South Carolina. Jeb Bush seems to be somewhere between being another Giuliani and another McCain. He may not be able to eke out a nomination win as McCain did, but he isn’t going to be thoroughly humiliated and forced to drop out early on. It’s certainly true, as E.J. Dionne observes, that the more conservative candidates there are in the race the better Bush’s chances are. There are going to be so many of these candidates running this year that the perceived weakness of Bush’s candidacy could help keep him afloat.

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