Daniel Larison

The Mindless U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

He doesn’t put it quite this way, but Aaron David Miller points out the bad U.S. habit of being pulled into backing its reckless clients’ behavior:

But what’s more intriguing is how Washington tends to buy into policies that appear to serve its friends’ agendas while undermining America’s own.

Nowhere is that principle more clearly demonstrated than in U.S. support for the Saudi campaign to check the advances of the Houthis and their allies in Yemen. In the space of only two months the U.S. has managed to acquiesce in and support a Saudi-driven air campaign that has not worked, alienated more Yemeni actors than it’s converted and turned what had been a principally domestic matter into a regional proxy war. Indeed the Saudis are stuck in Yemen. But so is America.

Miller gets this part mostly right. U.S. assistance for the Saudi-led war on Yemen over the last three months is the product of a foolish desire to “reassure” and “support” client governments even when they are pursuing destructive and reckless policies that ultimately harm U.S. security. The fear in Washington that these useless clients might feel “abandoned” is strong enough to make the U.S. back them up no matter how short-sighted and damaging their actions may be. The interests of the U.S. and the Gulf client states are at odds in both Syria and Yemen, but instead of acknowledging that and acting accordingly the U.S. traps itself into backing dangerous policies that don’t serve any American interests. These clients’ policies are being made more often than not with total disregard for our interests. Clients such as these don’t deserve support or “reassurance,” and it’s embarrassing that Washington is eager to offer both.

How did the U.S. get into this fix? The Obama administration is most responsible for going along and assisting in a military campaign that it didn’t understand, but Congress has contributed to the problem by having said and done nothing about this. The only thing that any members of Congress had to say about the U.S. role in Yemen was that it had been too little and too slow, and there has been no meaningful criticism or opposition to the U.S. role or to the war in general from anyone in either party. Members of both parties buy into the propaganda line that the Saudis are combating Iranian “expansionism,” and as long as they perceive the attack on Yemen to be an “anti-Iranian” effort they have no problem with it or the horrible consequences that the attack has had. If the U.S. is “stuck” with the Saudis in Yemen, that is because our political leaders are embracing the same lie that the Saudis are telling themselves about resisting an Iranian “takeover” of the country. The U.S. could extricate itself very quickly if it simply refused to lend any support to the campaign, but the foolish desire to back our clients up regardless of their actions keeps prevailing.

Miller’s argument goes a bit awry here:

However wrongheaded it’s turning out to be, it’s fairly easy to see why the Saudis launched their campaign against the Houthis. Think about Yemen as within the sphere of a kind of Saudi Monroe Doctrine.

It may be easy to see why the Saudis have launched their campaign (paranoia about Iran, sectarian hostility to any and all Shi’ites, etc.), but “Saudi Monroe Doctrine” is not a very helpful way to think about it. Part of the problem is that Miller is recycling a common misunderstanding of what the Monroe Doctrine was. The key principles of the Monroe Doctrine were respect for the independence and sovereignty of our neighbors and non-interference in their affairs. These were principles we expected the governments of Europe not to violate without incurring our hostility. The meaning of the doctrine was ignored and then completely turned on its head in later decades, but that is what Monroe was proposing. Obviously, Yemen’s independence and sovereignty are annoyances to the Saudis rather than something they wish to respect. Instead of non-interference, Riyadh is very much interested in interfering to reinstall the former president and to exercise influence through him in Yemen. It would be more accurate that the Saudis are engaged in the sort of restoration of authoritarian rule that Monroe was warning Restoration-era European governments against attempting in Latin America.

Miller continues:

Washington is now directly associated, however unfairly, with a humanitarian disaster that has claimed at least 2,500 lives and added to the woes of an already failing state.

Yes, the U.S. is implicated in this, but there’s nothing remotely unfair about it. When a patron directly backs its clients in an attack on another country and endorses the blockade imposed by those clients, it becomes at least partly responsible for the effects of its clients’ actions. If anything, Miller is understating the damage done to Yemen by the war and blockade, which has deprived Yemenis of all basic necessities and has brought many parts of the country to the brink of famine. The U.S. continues to help make all this happen, and to make matters worse it has done it all for nothing.

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Jeb Bush and W.’s Second-Term Foreign Policy

Photo by John Pemble / Flickr

Scott McConnell looks for some sign that Jeb Bush might not be as horrible on foreign policy as he seems to be. He finds one in the latter half of George W. Bush’s second term:

But it is often overlooked that by the middle of his second term, George W. Bush had ceased pursuing a neoconservative foreign policy.

This is partly true from late 2006 on, but the change after the midterms can be exaggerated. While it might be an improvement over the horrible record of the first term, the substance of Bush’s record from the second term is also nothing for advocates of restraint to get excited about. Bush responded to the repudiation of his agenda and his party in the ’06 midterms by ignoring the public’s preferences on Iraq and choosing instead to escalate the war. One can find evidence that some neoconservatives were less than thrilled about some of the administration’s policies late in the second term, especially where Iran and North Korea were concerned, but they were the biggest cheerleaders of the “surge” and they remain the fiercest defenders of the myth that the “surge” was a great success.

Even if the last half of Bush’s second term was not as strongly defined by neoconservative ideological excesses, there were still many issues on which Bush continued to display arrogance and recklessness. It was the second-term Bush who delivered the insane, ideological Second Inaugural, and it was from late 2004/early 2005 that the disastrous so-called “freedom agenda” really got started. Bush’s enthusiasm for this project never really waned, and arguably only intensified as it produced one failure after another. This was the “freedom agenda” that helped Hamas get elected, unwittingly strengthened Hizbullah in Lebanon, empowered a sectarian government in Iraq (a mistake for which Iraq is still paying), and backed a semi-authoritarian ruler in Georgia and a new dictator in Kyrgyzstan in the name of “democracy promotion.” Rice may have prevailed on Bush to back a cease-fire in the Lebanon war, but she was also the one to defend the excesses of that war by declaring that they were the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” That statement reflected the mostly uncritical backing that the U.S. gave to Israel during that war.

During the last two years of the Bush presidency, the administration committed one of its most irresponsible acts by promoting NATO expansion that included Ukraine and Georgia. Fortunately for the U.S., some of our major European allies balked at this at the Bucharest summit, but U.S. support for NATO expansion and for Saakashvili in Georgia nonetheless helped contribute to the increasing tensions between Russia and Georgia that led to the August 2008 war. Even when W. was under more “realist” guidance, he still had terrible judgment. It’s not clear that Bush had learned very much from his earlier blunders by the end of his second term, and so I wouldn’t have any confidence in another Bush administration that was relying on the advice of such a failed president.

As for Jeb Bush, it is true that many neoconservatives are less enamored of him than they are of Rubio, but the same could be have been said of then-Gov. George W. Bush in his contest with John McCain. Like McCain, Rubio offers the neoconservatives the unvarnished, ideologically hard-line candidate they long to have, but as we learned only too well in the 2000s they didn’t need to have a McCain administration to get many of the policies they wanted. Unlike his older brother in the 2000 campaign, however, Jeb Bush isn’t even pretending to support foreign policy restraint of any kind.

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Iran Hawks Still Want to Sabotage a Nuclear Deal

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Politico reports on the latest Senate Republican maneuvers to attempt to wreck a nuclear deal with Iran. This detail stood out:

In a private conversation this spring, Corker told Secretary of State John Kerry he can define his legacy by walking away from a “bad deal.” [bold mine-DL]

If Obama and Kerry now backed out of the negotiations, that would definitely define their “legacy” on foreign policy, but not in the way Corker means. Walking away from the Iran talks now would define Kerry as a failure as Secretary of State, and it would be the most absurd and embarrassing capitulation to hard-liners that Obama has yet made. It’s difficult to take Corker’s warnings seriously when critics of the negotiations are intent on defining any deal that can actually be reached as a “bad deal.” Meanwhile, Corker’s own legislation has made it more likely that Obama will agree to terms that are even less satisfactory to hawkish critics. According to the Corker-Cardin legislation, Congress will have at least 30 days to review the deal if it is presented to them before the 10th of next month, but after that Congress will get 60 days to review it. Fred Kaplan explains:

Congress put this extension in the law to put pressure on Obama to get a deal that its critics might find more palatable, but in fact, it may have the opposite effect. To the extent Obama feels pressured at all, this bill might push him to take a fast deal—to wrap things up if not by Tuesday, then at least before July 10, so that the deal’s critics have only 30 days, not 60, to rally the votes against it. Certainly the Iranians realize this; as a result, they may put off their final concessions, thinking that Obama has a greater incentive to rush. In other words, in their power grab, the congressional critics have, if anything, removed some of the American negotiators’ leverage in the talks. If the critics truly fear that Obama might agree to a less-than-good deal, they have pushed him to do so.

Every time that there has been a “deadline” for each stage of the negotiations, the U.S. has been the only one put under pressure by the “deadline.” Each time the negotiations have gone past the official “deadline,” and Iran has had more leverage as a result because U.S. negotiators have had to cope with interference from Congress throughout the process. Everything that hawks in Congress have done in the name of supposedly pressuring Obama to strike a better deal has worked to the benefit of the Iranians, and the unnecessary Corker-Cardin legislation is just the latest example of this. Iran hawks want to kill the deal entirely, but since they haven’t been able to do that their interference will probably just end up producing a relatively weaker deal than if they hadn’t tried to meddle in the process at all. Unsurprisingly, the people most alarmed about “empowering” Iran have been strengthening Iran’s hand in the negotiations for months.

The Politico article continues:

Still, a resolution of approval that barely registered 40 votes in the Senate would broadcast to critics across the globe that the American public disapproves of the deal — not the message the White House wants to send.

I’m sure that’s what hawkish opponents of the deal want the world to think, but it isn’t true. Every credible survey of American public opinion on the deal shows that the public is broadly supportive of the negotiations, and when they are presented with the outline of a likely deal there is likewise broad support for that. Congress is completely out of step and at odds with the public on this issue. The more important point is that there aren’t going to be enough votes to kill the deal, which means that our wildly unrepresentative “representatives” won’t be able to block a deal that the public supports.

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South Sudan and the Partition “Solution” for Foreign Conflicts

The New York Times laments South Sudan’s continuing descent. This line was a grim reminder of the U.S. role in creating the country:

What makes the South Sudan tragedy all the more astounding is that the country was initially hailed as a triumph of American foreign policy.

The creation of South Sudan as an independent country was “hailed as a triumph” mainly because very few people wanted to think through the implications of creating a new state that seemed bound to become a failed state and international ward in a short period of time. South Sudan’s independence is a testament to a deeply-ingrained belief in the West and elsewhere that a country’s serious problems can and should be addressed by partitioning the country and setting up a new state that has most of the same failings as the earlier one. This is worth bearing in mind the next time we hear the calls to divide Iraq, which is once again becoming a more popular option for a “solution” to the country’s current conflict.

More often than not, partition has been a response to an internal conflict that then turns it into an international one. The editorial is right that the U.S. does have some responsibility for the new country that it helped to create, and that obliges the U.S. to try to find a resolution to the current civil war. However, if the U.S. assumes responsibility for the fate of the new states it has worked to establish, that is one more reason why we should be extremely wary of resorting to the partition “solution” anywhere else.

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McCain and Wars of Aggression

John McCain writes this and shows his usual lack of self-awareness:

Among the core principles of that order is the conviction that might does not make right, that the strong should not be allowed to dominate the weak and that wars of aggression should be relegated to the bloody past [bold mine-DL].

One of the many reasons that it is hard to take anything McCain says on Ukraine seriously is that he has been a reliable advocate for launching aggressive wars against other states when he thinks it appropriate. He would deny that this is what they are, but he has repeatedly called for the U.S. to attack other countries and he has supported the U.S. each time that it has attacked. McCain was not just a supporter, but was also a leading booster of the wars in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya. Furthermore, he wanted the U.S. to attack Syria in 2013 and was angry when the attack didn’t happen. All of the interventions McCain has supported were aggressive wars. They were rationalized in various ways, but none of them had the slightest thing to do with the defense of the United States or our allies. In order for wars of aggression to be “relegated to the bloody past,” one thing we can do is to stop listening to McCain’s foreign policy recommendations.

McCain and other hawks like him have nothing but contempt for international law and other states’ sovereignty when they decide that U.S. intervention or a client state’s military action is desirable. But they can’t stop talking about the importance of the “core principles” of international order when some other government does the exact same thing that they would praise under other circumstances. They’re very concerned about preserving the “international system that has kept the peace for decades” except when they want to violate the rules of that system and violate the peace on some flimsy pretext. It goes without saying that McCain has no problem at all with what the Saudis and their allies are currently doing to Yemen.

Despite the fact that the Saudi-led war is just as unnecessary and unprovoked as Russian actions in Ukraine, McCain’s main complaint about it is that the U.S. was not quick enough to provide support to the Saudis. The point here isn’t just that McCain is highly selective in his outrage about illegal and aggressive wars, but that he is using this rhetoric to agitate for another misguided and dangerous idea–in this case sending arms to Ukraine–that would contribute to further escalation and would therefore cause more suffering and destruction in Ukraine. No matter the conflict, McCain can be counted on to take the position most likely to make things worse for the people caught up in it.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The fear of cowardice. Chris Walsh explains the role the idea of cowardice has had in causing and prolonging wars.

Disastrous “aid” for Haiti. Lauren Carasik details the scandalous failures and abuses of the U.N. and Red Cross in Haiti.

Yemen needs a life-line. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorializes on the humanitarian disaster caused by the U.S.-backed war in South Arabia.

The odd American view of negotiation. Paul Pillar refutes more criticisms of the nuclear talks with Iran.

India reassesses its hard power. Harsh Pant comments on India’s recent raid into Myanmar.

Abe’s Okinawa problem. Yuki Tatsumi reports on the latest developments in the ongoing dispute over relocating Futenma on Okinawa.

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O’Malley’s Conventional Foreign Policy

Jesse Walker comments on Martin O’Malley’s mildly hawkish foreign policy:

Declaring that “our country’s security—and our children’s prosperity—demand that we be more engaged with the world around us, not less,” the former Maryland governor put himself firmly in the liberal-interventionist tradition.

Walker notes that O’Malley is “much less warlike” than Clinton, but then that isn’t saying very much. He makes some of the right noises about being reluctant to send American ground forces against ISIS, and he says that we should think through what will happen after toppling a foreign government, but this doesn’t amount to much of an alternative to what Clinton represents on foreign policy. Like many Republicans have before him, O’Malley tries to score points against Clinton on Benghazi without offering a substantive argument against the Libyan intervention itself. It wouldn’t be necessary to prepare for what comes after regime change if the U.S. weren’t involved in overthrowing the regime by force.

O’Malley’s view that we need to “know in advance” who will likely take power following the fall of a regime is a fairly odd one, since one of the many dangers of launching a war for regime change is that we can’t know this with a high degree of certainty. It would seem to be a better bet not to seek the overthrow of other governments through military intervention. That would make more sense, but it isn’t something that his audience at the Truman Project is likely to appreciate. O’Malley’s choice of venue for the speech is revealing in itself, since it suggests that he wants to be associated with the more hawkish side of the Democratic Party. Instead of offering a clear or interesting alternative to Clinton on these issues, he is more likely to offer a faint echo of her views.

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Christie’s Dead-End Candidacy

Chris Christie will join the ever-expanding field of Republican presidential candidates next week:

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will join the crowded Republican 2016 field Tuesday, two people with knowledge of his plans said.

Christie is a good example of how quickly politicians that are touted as rising stars can become so deeply disliked and unappealing even to broad swathes of their own party. I never quite understood the fascination many Republican pundits had with Christie, and I definitely didn’t understand the desire to draft him into the presidential race four years ago. Still, it’s undeniable that he was once held up as one of the future leaders of the party, and he is now unpopular enough inside the GOP that his presidential bid is dead on arrival. Christie now belongs to an unfortunate fraternity of politicians that were once presumed to be leading contenders for the party’s nomination and fell into political disgrace before they could even begin to run. Where Christie had been celebrated as proof that a center-right politician could win in a very Democratic state and expand the Republican coalition, he is now distrusted by conservatives and his own constituents overwhelmingly disapprove of his performance as governor. Sometimes Christie has been dismissed as another Giuliani, but this comparison actually overstates Christie’s chances at the nomination. Despite being more at odds with his party over more issues, Giuliani was much better-liked in 2007 than Christie is today. At this point, Christie would be fortunate to do as well as Giuliani did in 2008, and there is no reason to expect that he will be that lucky.

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“Credibility” and The Right Way to Lose a War

I was struck by this passage from Mark Moyar’s review of The Right Way to Lose a War by Dominic Tierney:

He acknowledges that withdrawal can have a great many unfavorable effects. Pulling out American forces can “undermine the credibility of our promises elsewhere,” he writes. “Allies may desert us and enemies may no longer be deterred.” Hence the need for a temporary surge, astute diplomacy and careful withdrawal.

If Tierney thinks that withdrawing U.S. forces can undermine “credibility” elsewhere, it would be interesting to know why he thinks this. It doesn’t make sense that U.S. promises to its allies elsewhere in the world would suffer from U.S. withdrawal from its wars of choice. Withdrawing from these wars would put the U.S. in a better position to come to their aid if needed, and the U.S. decision to withdraw from a given war doesn’t tell us anything about its commitment to other allies. There is no doubt that supporters of our unnecessary wars claim that withdrawal would harm U.S. “credibility” elsewhere, but that relies on a misunderstanding of how other states judge U.S. commitments.

After all, why would an ally have deserted the U.S. after the withdrawal from Iraq? We know that no such thing happened, but it isn’t reasonable to expect that it would. Putting an end to a war that many of our allies vocally opposed and viewed as a horrible blunder can only reassure them that our government has come to its senses. For that matter, why would an enemy no longer be deterred because the U.S. ended one of its wars of choice? Calling off a wasteful expeditionary campaign where the U.S. actually has very little at stake doesn’t tell a hostile state anything useful about our willingness to defend genuine allies and truly vital interests.

Moyar writes later on:

Mr. Tierney sagely rejects the notion that the U.S. should sit out of all messy wars simply because it finds them unpleasant.

I’m not sure why this is evidence of Tierney’s sagacity. It seems to take the most obvious lesson from the post-1945 American experience in foreign wars–don’t enter into foreign conflicts unless absolutely necessary–and casts it aside. Of course, the problem with these wars is not that Americans find them “unpleasant,” but rather that they have usually not been the least bit necessary for U.S. or allied security. The danger is not that the U.S. “sits out” too many wars of choice, but that it keeps finding excuses to be drawn in to conflicts where its interests are not at stake. Even if the U.S. could find a way to win more of these wars, that is no reason to be fighting them in the first place.

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The Many Failures of the War on Yemen

Dmitry Chulov / Shutterstock

The New York Times reports on how the Saudi-led war has made things worse in Yemen:

With the failure of talks last week in Geneva to establish even a short-term cease-fire, it increasingly appears that Saudi Arabia lacks a realistic strategy to end the war, according to analysts and Yemenis interviewed in different parts of the country. In fact, many of them said Saudi intervention had made matters worse, expanding the violence while making resolution even harder to achieve.

“It is very clear that the Saudis did not do their homework before they went into Yemen,” said Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. “They thought it would be really easy, but it has not turned out that way.”

It is remarkable how the Saudis have copied so many of the biggest mistakes of past foreign interventions in their attack on Yemen. Like other intervening powers, the Saudis greatly underestimated the difficulty of imposing their will on another country. Yemen has a history of resisting outside invaders with some success, but that doesn’t seem to have factored into Saudi planning at all. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that their intervention would play into the hands of the people in Yemen that they wanted to undermine.

The Saudis also seemed to expect that Egypt and Pakistan would sign up to send their soldiers to die for the Saudi cause, and they had no alternative plan when these governments balked at letting the Saudis use their people as cannon fodder. They have put far too confident in being able to achieve their goals through force (specifically through the use of air power), and they resorted to using force without giving much thought to what they should do if the initial stages of the bombing campaign didn’t succeed. The Saudis overestimated the amount of support that Hadi would have in the country, and they didn’t take into account the hostility their intervention would create. The Saudis’ goals and the means they were willing to commit were mismatched from the start, and their goals were never very realistic in the first place.

One of the more interesting things in the Times article is the description of the anti-Houthi forces, some of which are also opposed to the Saudis because of their bombing campaign:

Many share nothing other than their hatred of the Houthis. Few are loyal to Mr. Hadi, and some even oppose Saudi Arabia, despite its air support against their enemies.

Most of the Saudis’ would-be allies on the ground don’t share their goals, and some don’t even support their intervention. The Saudi-led war is already a failure on its own terms. What makes the war that much worse was that its likely failure was foreseeable months ago, but the Saudi leadership plunged ahead with the attack anyway. The intervention was entirely unnecessary, and it has caused even more harm to Yemen than many skeptics expected when it started.

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