Daniel Larison

The Bad Hawkish Case for Intervention in Syria

Noah Rothman makes a bad retrospective argument for intervention in Syria:

The West had its chance to intervene in the bloodshed in Syria when it began. Ample chance, in fact. Western democracies were, however, snakebite by their experience in Libya, where the NATO powers that intervened in that conflict had no plan for the post-Muammar Gaddafi environment and left behind them a vacuum filled by Islamist militants. The West learned all the wrong lessons from that experience. Rather than to embrace of circumspect interventions with forethought applied to the post-war environment, not to mention the nation building required the intervention’s participating powers, the world community shielded its eyes from the terror that followed the Arab Spring.

Rothman misremembers the debate over intervention in Syria. In late 2011 and early 2012, Libyan war supporters were still prematurely and foolishly praising it as a “good” intervention that had “worked,” and they touted it as a model. The case against intervening in Syria in the beginning was that it didn’t meet the criteria that had been used to justify the Libyan war. The Libyan war was sold as a one-off intervention, not the beginning of a string of military actions, and while some in the Syrian opposition may have wrongly believed that they could get the U.S. and its allies to take their side early on that was never in the cards. There was no chance of U.N. authorization, there was no regional support for Western intervention (and there never has been any support for this in the years that followed), Syria was not as internationally isolated as Gaddafi’s regime, and attacking Syria was correctly perceived to be a much costlier, more involved operation. No Western government had any appetite for that. The conditions that had made intervention in Libya politically feasible never applied in Syria, and the subsequent deterioration of Libya and the surrounding region simply drove home how foolish the impulse to join Syria’s conflict was.

Staying out was the right decision then and later for all concerned. Western intervention in Syria’s civil war would almost certainly not have reduced the country’s suffering, but would have worsened it through the direct pursuit of the toppling of the regime. Intervention would not have produced a more stable Syria, but would have led to a more chaotic one that would have created even more refugees and displaced people. As in Libya, the “humanitarian” intervention would have made conditions much worse for the civilian population than they already were. These are just some of the reasons why Marc Lynch was right to describe the avoidance of direct intervention in Syria as “an enormously wise decision that the interventionist policy community will likely never forgive.” It is imperative to remember that advocates for intervention in Syria were focused primarily on hastening regime change and inflicting a setback on Iran at great cost to the people of Syria. The fate of the Syrians that suffered the consequences of that intervention was a secondary consideration at best.

Rothman tries to pin the deteriorating conditions inside Syria on the decision of Western governments not to attack Syria, which is a genuinely bizarre argument. If Syria hawks had had their way all along, the U.S. and its allies would have been inflicting death and destruction on Syrians for a long time, and many of them would have been innocent civilians struck by Western bombs. Supposing that such an intervention “worked” to weaken the Syrian government and make its collapse more likely, that would have exposed even more Syrian civilians to displacement, injury, and death. Had the U.S., Britain, and France pressed ahead with the illegal proposed attack on Syria in 2013, it would have aided the advance of ISIS and the Nusra front to the detriment of anyone that encountered them. There usually is nothing “humanitarian” about military intervention, and in the Syrian case it would have been positively cruel for the U.S. and its allies to add to the country’s misery by joining in the killing.

Interventionists have a warped understanding of responsibility in foreign policy. They would blame the U.S. and its allies for things they did not do, but they steadfastly refuse to hold them accountable for the actions that they take. The Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war in Yemen is producing a humanitarian disaster that is quickly becoming the equal of Syria’s in the estimation of many aid organizations and the U.N., but interventionists either “look away” from this or offer rationalizations for it. We don’t hear that much about the 1.5 million displaced people in Yemen or the twenty-one million in urgent need of humanitarian aid or the Yemenis so desperate to escape that they are willing to flee to Somalia, and the reason we don’t hear about it is that the country is virtually inaccessible to most journalists thanks to the blockade that is also starving the population of basic necessities. Interventionists are eager to fault Western “inaction” for the crimes and abuses of others, but when it comes to our own policies they are indifferent or blind to the consequences. And so we hear lectures about the one humanitarian disaster in the region that the U.S. is least responsible for while the same people ignore the disasters that our government is actively helping to create.

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Walker and the Refusal to Rule Anything Out

Peter Suderman offers an explanation for why Walker has done so badly as a candidate:

Instead, he’s allowed himself to be drawn into a series of news cycle traps, and then handled the aftermath poorly, often by denying that he’d made any misstep in the first place.

Most recently, for example, Walker seemed to suggest that he was open to the possibility of a building a wall along the Canadian border in order to stop illegal immigration. He responded by saying that he’d been asked this question by people in New Hampshire, that the people asking the questions had “very legitimate concerns,” and that the idea of building a wall would be “a legitimate issue for us to look at.”

It’s not exactly a “damn right we should build a wall!” But Walker’s response clearly takes the idea seriously, and pointedly does not rule it out [bold mine-DL].

Walker’s response to that question was just the latest example of his strong commitment to not ruling things out. He first displayed this on the national stage during a Sunday morning show interview in which he wouldn’t rule out sending ground forces into combat against ISIS in Syria. Walker didn’t explicitly endorse doing that, but he thought it was crucially important not to rule it out, because for him there is apparently no course of action so unwise or unnecessary that it should be rejected immediately. This later tripped him up when he was asked if he favored a “full-blown re-invasion of Iraq and Syria,” which he also refused to rule out. I have said before that Walker doesn’t want to rule things out because he hasn’t given much thought to the positions he has taken as a candidate, and that’s probably a main reason why he doesn’t know how to articulate or defend those positions very well.

As Suderman observes, he doesn’t know how to respond to criticism of his ill-advised statements, and so often retreats into denial:

This is the Walker campaign playbook: Say something awkward or ill-advised, watch as the media swarms to cover it, then insist that there was never anything to see.

Walker has to do this because he isn’t prepared to be a national candidate and doesn’t know how to cope with the scrutiny that goes with running for president.

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The Nuclear Deal and the Politics of Foreign Policy Debate

Michael Hogue

Michael Cohen comments on the political implications of the failed attempt to sabotage the nuclear deal:

The consequences of this shift are likely to live on far past the Iran nuclear debate. For years, fear of political attack drove Democrats into dangerous positions on the use of military force, most of all with the 2002 Iraq War vote. With the Iran vote, Democrats are discovering that support for diplomacy rather than war is the more fertile political terrain. If anything, Democrats may have the opportunity now to put Republicans on the defensive for their insufficient dovishness and “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to the use of military force. If that were to happen, the Iran deal might represent more than an historic nonproliferation agreement—it might actually put America on the path to a sane foreign policy.

I certainly hope this is the case. I have said before that the successful conclusion of the nuclear deal represents a major blow against threat inflation, and that still seems mostly correct. The deal undermines the hawkish case for attacking Iran, and it also weakens the alarmist case regarding the Iranian “threat” by significantly limiting and monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, and all of this was achieved during one of the most sustained campaigns of fear-mongering and deception in recent history. Iran hawks have done everything they could to try to undermine diplomacy with Iran, and they have fallen short at every step. More than that, their heavy-handed, clueless attacks on the deal and its supporters repeatedly backfired on them and helped to discredit their cause.

However, that shouldn’t blind us to the reality that the majority party in Congress appears to be completely in the thrall of hard-liners on this issue, so much so that it appears that there won’t be a single dissenting Republican voting in support of the deal. Maybe there are some courageous House members that will surprise us, but it’s not looking promising. Considering how lacking in merit the anti-deal arguments are, that is worrisome in itself. If purveyors of threat inflation and alarmism failed in this instance, they nonetheless have a very receptive audience in the GOP, and unfortunately they have a decent chance to have a president inclined to view the world their way in two years’ time. I suspect that the party’s continued embrace of hard-line policies will be a liability for them in presidential elections for the foreseeable future, and I assume that hard-line opposition to the deal will hurt the eventual Republican nominee, but it isn’t going to weaken their control of Congress that much. Until the GOP pays a significant and sustained political price for its hard-line foreign policy agenda, the party will never contemplate serious changes, and that will continue to warp our foreign policy debates for some time to come.

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Trump and Iran

Scott McConnell asks what we could expect from Trump on foreign policy, specifically on Iran:

The greater neoconservative goal, of course, is the prevention any American rapprochement with Iran, keeping the sanctions going till they have a president willing to start a war on the country. How does Trump fit into that?

I have tried to avoid writing about Trump as much as possible over the last few months, because it is generally a waste of time to attempt to analyze the policy views of an opportunistic demagogue, but since the question has been asked here I’ll try to answer it. As far as I can tell, Trump endorses the hard-liners’ position on the nuclear deal. He has characteristically denounced it in the most hyperbolic terms, he is preparing to share a stage with the only other presidential candidate that can match him in demagogic rhetoric to repeat these denunciations, and two of the groups sponsoring the rally that Trump will attend are among the most fanatical hawkish organizations in the U.S. He has also repeated some of the most ludicrous and dishonest hawkish talking points about what the deal requires of the U.S. For instance, he recently repeated the lie that the deal obliges the U.S. to defend Iran from an Israeli attack:

He then claimed that there’s something in the Iran deal saying if someone attacks Iran, “we have to come to their defense.” And so he interpreted that to conclude, “If Israel attacks Iran, according to that deal, I believe the way it reads… that we have to fight with Iran against Israel.”

This is complete and utter nonsense, so it doesn’t surprise me that Trump believes it (or at least claims to believe it). This is the sort of deliberate distortion of the deal’s contents that hard-line “pro-Israel” hawks like to indulge in. Rubio said something similar to this in his questioning of Kerry earlier in the summer. It should tell us everything we need to know about Trump’s views on foreign policy that he buys into these lies and repeats them. There are all kinds of reasons not to trust Trump’s judgment, but his statements on the nuclear deal are sufficient to prove that his foreign policy judgment is horrible.

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Nothing “Happened” to Walker, He’s Just a Weak Candidate

Ray Cross/Flickr

Ed Morrissey asks what happened to Scott Walker:

Of all the curiosities of the 2016 Republican presidential race — and there have been plenty — the quietest may also be the most difficult to answer. Over the last two months, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has gone from leading the field to barely making the debate cut.

Walker’s decline isn’t really all that puzzling. He was treated as a “top tier” candidate months before he announced his campaign, and during that time expectations continued to be raised despite Walker’s obvious lack of preparation on national and international issues. Once he started campaigning in earnest, the actual candidate did not compare well with the imagined version of Walker that so many of his fans had created from what little they knew about him from his tenure in Madison. He failed to live up to a version of himself that never existed, and the reality of Walker turned out not to be very interesting.

In other words, nothing “happened” to Walker. His weaknesses as a national candidate were there for all to see, but most Republicans preferred not to see them until Walker made them impossible to ignore. Many of his fans assumed that Walker’s poor grasp of foreign policy issues would be remedied over time, but instead he has just adopted the most hard-line positions he could find with no sign that he has thought seriously about any of them. It is often said that he has been hurt most by Trump’s presence in the race, but that is mostly because he has responded to Trump’s challenge in the most ham-fisted and clumsy way possible.

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Why Democrats Ignore Clinton’s Terrible Foreign Policy Record

stocklight / Shutterstock.com

Conor Friedersdorf wonders why there isn’t more Democratic opposition to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. He notes that her foreign policy record is hawkish and riddled with bad decisions:

Most Democrats regard the Iraq War as a historic disaster. Clinton voted for that conflict. That hawkishness wasn’t a fluke. She pushed for U.S. intervention in Libya without Congressional approval and without anticipating all that has gone wrong in that country. She favored U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war as well. Why haven’t Democrats concluded that she has dangerously bad judgment on foreign policy? She certainly hasn’t done anything to distinguish herself in that realm.

I agree that most Democrats should find Clinton’s foreign policy record to be unacceptable and disqualifying, but that isn’t how they have reacted. One reason for this is that foreign policy is not a priority for most Democratic voters. Another is that Clinton’s biggest errors are either considered old news (e.g., her Iraq war vote) or they are part of Obama’s record as well and therefore not something that most Democrats want to criticize. Clinton did vote for the 2002 Iraq war authorization, and she shouldn’t be able to get away from that simply by saying that she made a mistake, but that vote was almost thirteen years ago and the Iraq war is no longer a major issue in Democratic Party politics in the way that it was in 2007-08. Clinton’s vote arguably did cost her enough support to deprive her of the nomination last time, and except for committed antiwar progressives most primary voters now aren’t going to reject her candidacy on that issue alone.

Clinton owns the Libyan war and its aftermath as much as anyone in the administration except Obama, but the Libyan war was essentially a non-issue for Democratic voters in 2012 and is even less important to them today. Because it was a relatively short and low-cost intervention for the U.S., it has never become politically toxic for its supporters despite the enormous harm it did to Libya and the surrounding region. In order to condemn Clinton over Libya, one also has to fault Obama for extremely bad judgment, and that is not something that most partisan voters are going to do when they still approve of a president from their own party. On Syria, Obama has received more criticism from Democratic hawks for being too cautious, so the fact that Clinton advocated for a more aggressive policy there appeals to the more hawkish wing of the party without alarming many others.

Beyond that, many Democratic foreign policy professionals don’t view Clinton’s record in a negative light, so there are relatively few people inside the party that think Clinton’s record should be held against her. There are even fewer that are willing to take the risk of attacking a prohibitive frontrunner. Clinton has also shielded herself to some extent from being attacked on foreign policy by endorsing Obama’s opening to Cuba and the nuclear deal, and that allows partisans that want to vote for Clinton for other reasons to ignore her otherwise terrible judgment on these issues.

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The Saudis Are Trying to Drag the U.S. Deeper into Yemen

Richard Messenger/Flickr

When Saudi Arabia’s King Salman comes to Washington later this month, he will have a laundry list of things he wants the U.S. to do for him:

Beyond military requests, Salman is likely to seek US backing for his more muscular approach to foreign policy compared with his predecessor. That includes beefed-up US support for his campaign against the Houthis in Yemen and a renewed focus on getting rid of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria [bold mine-DL].

Not surprisingly, the Saudis are offering almost nothing in exchange for this list of “requests,” but they still expect the U.S. to wade still deeper into two horrific wars to pursue Riyadh’s goals at the expense of our own interests. In return for tepid support for a nuclear deal that would have gone ahead anyway, the Saudis would like to extort the U.S. for more weapons and increased direct involvement in a war that they started. As I said yesterday, this is what comes from “reassuring” bad clients: ever-increasing demands on the U.S.

The administration has opened itself up to this by desperately trying to “reassure” the Saudis and the other Gulf states with more weapons and by lending support to the war on Yemen. It is now being forced to choose between continuing to give in to its demanding clients or do what it should have done in the first place by refusing their unreasonable “requests.” The right thing for the administration to do would be to cut off the support that it has been providing in Yemen thus far, but there is no reason to think that this is going to happen. The best that can be hoped for from the Saudi king’s visit is that Obama won’t commit the U.S. to an even larger role than the disgraceful supporting role that it already has in Yemen.

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Petraeus: Side with Al Qaeda Against ISIS

Jon-Phillip Sheridan

David Petraeus has come up with a horrid idea for the war on ISIS:

Members of al Qaeda’s branch in Syria have a surprising advocate in the corridors of American power: Retired Army general and former CIA Director David Petraeus.

The former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan has been quietly urging U.S. officials to consider using so-called moderate members of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front [bold mine-DL] to fight ISIS in Syria, four sources familiar with the conversations, including one person who spoke to Petraeus directly, told The Daily Beast.

Once someone starts referring to members of an Al Qaeda affiliate as “moderates,” it’s safe to say that he has lost the plot, but don’t expect that to be held against Petraeus. As for the notion of working with the Nusra front against ISIS, it is a wretched idea that no one should be willing to entertain. While these groups may oppose one another, it is not acceptable or possible for the U.S. to work with a group that our government rightly classifies as a terrorist organization. This deranged idea ought to make Petraeus persona non grata in Washington, but unfortunately we can assume that it won’t turn out that way. As the report makes clear, Petraeus continues to have clout in spite of his failures and scandals:

Yet Petraeus and his plan cannot be written off. He still wields considerable influence with current officials, U.S. lawmakers, and foreign leaders.

Petraeus’ suggestion that there are “less extreme” Al Qaeda members that can be won over to America’s cause of fighting ISIS would be considered certifiable if it came from anyone else, and yet because he continues to benefit from the mythology of the “surge” he is able to propose such ludicrous things and they are taken seriously. It ought to be obvious that there are no “moderates” to be found in Jabhat al-Nusra by definition, but the hunt for the ever-elusive “moderate” Syrian opposition continues.

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Walker the Untested and Unready

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A Scott Walker foreign policy adviser is very excited about Walker:

Walker’s resolve differentiates him from not only Obama and Clinton, but also other Republican candidates. When Governor Walker boldly stated that he would terminate the terrible Iran nuclear deal on day one of his presidency, one of his leading GOP competitors demurred, claiming that he would first need briefings and a secretary of state confirmed before he could take any action.

Walker didn’t need to be advised that the Obama-Clinton Iran deal is a disaster for America and our allies. His stand was a Reaganesque and Churchillian response to craven appeasement that would rally our nation and our allies.

O’Brien’s argument is tendentious in the extreme, but that is what we would expect from one of the candidate’s top advisers. The article is mostly just a restatement of Walker’s speech at the Citadel last week, so it doesn’t tell us anything new about Walker’s preferred policies. There are two things that stand out in the piece: the religious devotion to the fantasy that “resolve” is the key to solving all policy problems, and the fiction that Walker has been meaningfully “tested” in a way that is relevant to the conduct of foreign policy. The repeated, paired invocations of Reagan and Churchill are an embarrassing rhetorical flourish that remind us just how ill-prepared for the presidency Walker is by comparison.

It’s important to note that the evidence of Walker’s foreign policy “resolve” that O’Brien provides is limited to the candidate’s embrace of hard-line and impractical positions. Walker’s pledge to tear up the nuclear deal on “day one” is the foolish boast of an inexperienced and ill-informed politician, and it is one that he clings to now because he thinks it makes him seem marginally more hawkish than his competitors. Promising to strain relations with major allies isn’t proof of boldness or “resolve,” but reflects the candidate’s arrogant presumption that the U.S. can force its allies to act against their own interests. No genuine allies would rally behind such a dimwitted move, and it would telegraph to the rest of the world that Walker is desperately overcompensating for the fact that he doesn’t know very much about foreign affairs by engaging in absurd posturing.

The notion that Walker has been “tested” for future foreign policy crises because he prevailed in a political fight with public sector unions in Wisconsin is silly, but it is the only thing Walker has to fall back on and so he keeps using it as a crutch. The problem here is not just that Walker is making a ridiculous claim in an attempt to revive his political fortunes, though he is, but also that he seems to believe that the experience of facing off against domestic political opponents is sufficient preparation for dealing with an international crisis. That not only confirms that he isn’t ready to be president, but it also suggests that he doesn’t grasp that he isn’t ready and so won’t do much work to make up for his lack of preparation.

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The Pointless Suffering of Yemen

Richard Messenger/Flickr

Marc Lynch comments on the U.S. role in Yemen in his recent Foreign Affairs essay on Obama’s policies in the region:

The Obama administration’s willingness to support the Saudi campaign in Yemen has been more cynical. Few in Washington believe the Saudi rationale for war, and even fewer believe the campaign has any hope of success [bold mine-DL]. In reality, the United States was appeasing the Saudis on Yemen in order to prevent them from acting as a spoiler on the Iran talks, thereby condemning millions of Yemenis to pointless suffering.

This has become the standard explanation for why the U.S. is backing the intervention in Yemen, but it remains a very unsatisfying one. If the U.S. hadn’t aided the Saudi-led attack, what exactly would the Saudis and their allies have been doing to “spoil” the Iran talks? They would have expressed their objections to the deal publicly, much as the Israeli government has done in the strongest terms, and then the P5+1 would have pressed ahead with the negotiations regardless. The administration indulged its Gulf clients’ paranoia about Iran and endorsed their reckless war to win tacit acceptance of a deal that those clients had no ability to derail. Like the war on Yemen itself, this was unnecessary and foolish.

The fact that so few in Washington expect the Saudi-led intervention to succeed makes U.S. support for it that much worse. Of course, even if the intervention did “work” to achieve some of the Saudis’ goals (which has never been likely), that wouldn’t make it any less indefensible or appalling. Yemen’s civilian population continues to pay the price for this war, and the humanitarian crisis is set to worsen. This is especially true since the Saudis bombed one of the country’s major ports earlier this month. Mark Kaye explains:

The crisis has been compounded by the fact that getting aid into Yemen and transporting it around the country is very limited. Aid agencies like Save the Children are frantically trying to scale up our response, but it’s almost impossible when we can’t get relief supplies into the country. The recent bombing of Hodeida port – the key entry point for supplies to the hungry people in the north and centre of the country – was the last straw, putting the aid effort in jeopardy at a time when people are running out of food, water and medicine.

As Kaye makes clear, the suffering of the people of Yemen is enormous and is only going to increase under current conditions, and as Lynch says it has all been pointless suffering.

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