Daniel Larison

The Cost of Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as Terrorists

Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization would have deleterious consequences in many Arab states:

Of all the initiatives of the Trump administration that have set the Arab world on edge, none has as much potential to disrupt the internal politics of American partners in the region as the proposal to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood, the pre-eminent Islamist movement with millions of followers.

“The impact would be great,” said Issandr El Amrani, an analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Morocco, where a Brotherhood-linked party won the last election in October. “It could destabilize countries where anti-Islamist forces would be encouraged to double down. It would increase polarization.”

Perhaps the most striking thing about the proposed designation is that it would be quite harmful while being completely useless. It is self-defeating in the extreme to treat peaceful Islamist parties in aligned states as criminals, and it would harm our relations with many states that have traditionally been among the most cooperative in the region. At the same time, it would be perceived as an endorsement of the repression of despotic clients, and that would make even more enemies for the U.S.

The costs to these countries in terms of greater instability would be significant, but there would be no security benefit derived from such a designation because the group doesn’t merit being listed as a terrorist organization. Like issuing a blanket ban on allowing in nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries, designating the Muslim Brotherhood does nothing to thwart terrorism and imposes unnecessary burdens on large numbers of people mainly to satisfy a clutch of fanatics here at home. Worse, wrongly designating nonviolent groups as part of a terrorist organization feeds into jihadist propaganda and potentially encourages political violence. The administration’s main “counter-terrorism” initiatives so far have nothing to do with countering terrorism and everything to do with indulging excessive fear of people that do not pose a threat to the U.S.

Update: Noah Feldman spells out the serious domestic consequences of designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization:

At the maximum, the material support statute could become a tool of anti-Muslim suppression by the government. That represents a tremendous threat to free speech and civil liberties in the U.S.

And it would be difficult to challenge in the courts. The designation itself is reviewable by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. But if it survives review, the Holder decision stands as a basis to prosecute speakers whose advocacy can be characterized as “coordinated” with the Brotherhood or its affiliates.

The civil liberties community has shown early success in responding to Trump administration initiatives. In this instance, it would be far better and safer to nip the threat in the bud. Civil libertarians should strongly object to the designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, before it becomes the battleground for the next big civil liberties fight in the U.S.

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Bolton Would Be a Horrible Choice for National Security Advisor

John Bolton’s name keeps turning up as a possibility for a Trump administration position. Now he is being interviewed as a possible replacement for Michael Flynn:

The potential replacements who visited Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida were Army strategist Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, acting national security adviser Keith Kellogg, and U.S. Military Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen.

McMaster would seem to be the best choice of these four, and Bolton is clearly the worst. The fact that Bolton is even being seriously considered for the job is worrisome, and if he were to get it the benefit from Flynn’s departure would disappear immediately. The Trump administration already suffers from a dangerous Iran obsession, and having Bolton as National Security Advisor would undoubtedly make it even more intense. In addition to being a vehement opponent of the nuclear deal and a frequent advocate for illegally attacking Iran, Bolton has been a proud booster of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), the deranged cult and “former” terrorist organization that seeks regime change in Iran. Like Flynn, he is a hard-liner across the board, and appointing him would mean endorsing some of the very worst that the GOP has to offer on foreign policy.

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Trump’s Foreign Policy Incoherence

Jon Finer faults Trump for his foreign policy incoherence:

What is different is that right now not only is there no discernible doctrine guiding President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, the United States currently has no real foreign policy at all. By that I mean not that the policies are objectionable, or that the Trump team is struggling with the learning curve each new administration faces at the outset, as it reviews its predecessors’ approach and settles on its own. Rather, I mean that we are experiencing an unprecedented degree of policy incoherence on virtually every major issue the country faces.

Zbigniew Brzezinski and Paul Wasserman make a similar complaint in an op-ed this morning, and urge Trump to provide “a bold statement of his vision, including his determination to provide America’s leadership in the effort to shape a more stable world.” I don’t deny that Trump’s foreign policy is unusually incoherent even for a novice, and I don’t fault these people for wishing that it were not so, but there is no reason to think that this is going to change in the years to come. For one thing, articulating a coherent foreign policy vision of the sort that Brzezinski and Wasserman want seems to hold no interest for Trump or his closest advisers. They are asking for something more than a bumper sticker-level of thought from an undisciplined president who doesn’t understand these issues very well, and they simply won’t ever get it.

For one thing, Trump claims to prize being unpredictable, and he bluffs his way out of tough questions by saying that he doesn’t want to let our adversaries know what the U.S. is going to do. He seems to think this is a clever use of ambiguity, but it is not. As we are seeing, it creates needless confusion and misunderstanding. That requires his VP and Cabinet officials to spend their time putting out fires that he started for no apparent reason. Mattis and Pence feel compelled to “reassure” allies that have been put off by Trump’s rhetoric, and Mattis tells the Iraqis that the U.S. is not, in fact, going to seize their oil despite Trump’s frequent references to doing just that. Trump’s dismissive remarks about a two-state solution prompt an affirmation of the same from his U.N. ambassador. Trump blundered into questioning support for the “one China” policy before conceding that he still supports it. All of this is made worse by administration dysfunction and the lack of coordination with Cabinet members. Any one of these episodes might be unimportant on its own, but together they form a pattern in which the president says whatever happens to come into his head and the administration is stuck either defending or walking back the random thing that he said. So we don’t need Trump to give a new foreign policy speech, since that would probably just muddy the waters even more.

Trump’s incoherence on foreign policy was one of the few things we could be sure to expect from his administration. His positions have ranged from one extreme to the other. He has expressed support for forcible regime change in the past, and then as a candidate he expressed his supposed hostility to the very concept of regime change. He claims to want to “get along” with Russia, but he mocks the “reset” and criticizes New START in the same terms as a typical Russia hawk. On some issues, he can stake out opposing, irreconcilable positions in the course of the same interview or even the same paragraph. The only reliable constants have been Trump’s conviction that the U.S. is always and everywhere being ripped off in bad deals, an abiding hostility toward Muslims here and abroad, and an almost cartoonish enthusiasm for Israel. On everything else, he tends to follow the lead of his advisers, who are hard-liners on the issues they care most about. Insofar as his advisers have a more coherent view of the world than he does, it tends to be one that exaggerates foreign threats and commits the U.S. to more aggressive policies almost everywhere. In practice, that means that the administration is reliably belligerent but otherwise unreliable, which is a truly awful combination.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The new battle for Afghanistan. Kelley Vlahos reports on the war in Afghanistan and the new push for sending more U.S. soldiers there.

Why does Congress accept perpetual wars? Andrew Bacevich calls out Congress for abdicating its responsibilities on matters of war.

Iran on notice. Michael Horton warns against using the war on Yemen as a pretext for conflict with Iran.

Iran’s election will be a referendum on Rouhani and the nuclear deal. Rouzbeh Parsi looks ahead to Iran’s upcoming presidential election.

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Trump’s Choice to Replace Flynn Doesn’t Want the Job

Trump’s choice to replace Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor has reportedly turned down the job:

But Mr Harward is said to have turned Mr Trump down. “Harward is conflicted between the call of duty and the obvious dysfunctionality,” said one person with first hand knowledge of the discussions between Mr Trump and Mr Harward. The second person said Mr Trump had asked Mr Harward to return to the White House for another meeting to try to change his mind.

Former Vice Adm. Harward had been the favorite to be selected as Flynn’s replacement of the three most likely candidates, but it seems that the task of cleaning up Flynn’s mess and working with such an erratic president didn’t appeal to him. One of the reasons given in the FT report for Harward’s refusal was a concern that he would be stuck with Flynn appointees:

One of the people familiar with Mr Harward’s decision said he was concerned about whether the top advisers around Mr Trump would allow him to install his own staff on the NSC — particularly after suggestions that KT McFarland, Mr Flynn’s deputy, had been asked to remain.

I can scarcely blame Harward for not wanting the job, but by all accounts he would have been a marked improvement over Flynn and might have been able to get the NSC running in a more orderly fashion. He was seen as a likely ally for Secretary Mattis, and if he isn’t taking the job that makes Mattis’ influence more limited than it might have been. Maybe Harward will change his mind, but it seems more likely that Trump will have to look elsewhere for Flynn’s replacement.

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The Ongoing Disgrace of U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war on Yemen claims more civilian lives:

Eight women and a child have reportedly been killed in an overnight air raid on a funeral reception near Yemen’s rebel-held capital, Sanaa.

At least 10 more women were wounded, medical sources said.

A Houthi rebel spokesman said the strike was followed by a second which hit emergency responders in Arhab, 40km (25 miles) from Sanaa.

Once again the Saudi-led coalition has bombed a civilian target, and then conducted a despicable “double-tap” strike to attack the people coming to help the wounded. This is part of a consistent pattern of attacking targets that the coalition must know aren’t legitimate military targets. The funeral hall massacre last fall was the most egregious example of this behavior, but it has been a regular part of the bombing campaign ever since it began in March 2015. The U.S. continues to aid and abet the coalition as it carries out war crimes such as these, and based on what we’ve been hearing from the new administration that support is only going to increase. Our government is providing the weapons and fuel that allow coalition planes to blow up women and children at funerals, and it is doing this just so we can “reassure” a few despotic governments. U.S. support for the indefensible war on Yemen is an ongoing disgrace and an enduring blot on our country’s reputation.

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The U.S. Should Have Nothing to Do with an Arab Anti-Iran Coalition

The Trump administration is trying to create an Arab military coalition against Iran:

The new alliance would expand upon the existing Saudi-led coalition of Sunni countries fighting in Yemen, the officials said.

The new alliance’s first test would be in Yemen. The U.S. would step up military aid to the Yemen campaign [bold mine-DL] and secure the Red Sea, a vital global shipping route threatened by the war, according to two officials.

It seems that the Trump administration is not just preparing to increase its support for the indefensible war on Yemen, but wants to create a formal organization so that regional clients can do the same sort of thing elsewhere in the name of “countering” Iran. If Yemen is the model for what this coalition is going to be doing, it will be a menace to its neighbors and will likely produce more instability.

The chief problem with the idea of this coalition is that it relies on exaggerating the threat from Iran to make it seem necessary. There is no need for a coalition to counter Iran in this way, because Iran is not as powerful as they are often made out to be. A mutual defense pact among these Arab states would at best be superfluous, and at worst the coalition would enhance its members’ ability to interfere in their neighbors’ affairs when it suits them. It is likely that this coalition would become a vehicle for launching attacks on neighbors in the name of “opposing” Iranian influence where it is already negligible (as in Yemen) or non-existent. The U.S. should never have supported the Saudi-led war on Yemen, and it shouldn’t have anything to do with this proposed coalition.

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An Unfortunate Shift in U.S. Policy on Israel and Palestine

The Trump administration won’t bother with seeking a two-state solution:

The White House said Tuesday that finding a solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians doesn’t have to include an agreement to establish two separate states, marking a dramatic break from decades of U.S. policy.

On the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House to meet President Donald Trump, a senior administration official said the Israelis and Palestinians have to agree on what form peace between their countries will take—and that didn’t necessarily include two states.

In practice, the Israeli government has been working to eliminate the possibility of a two-state solution for many years, so the main short-term effect of this shift is to encourage them to continue what they are already doing. “Pro-Israel” hawks can then dispense with the fiction that they were ever interested in a diplomatic settlement, and pressure on Israel to halt settlement-building will disappear all together. Insofar as that closes off the possibility of resolving the conflict through negotiations, it is likely to produce more unilateral efforts to obtain recognition of Palestine and possibly more violence.

The administration official quoted in the story claims that the U.S. will be happy with whatever arrangement the parties agree on as long as it leads to peace, but this is pure sophistry. Both parties claimed to support a two-state solution because it seemed the most achievable compromise available that both could accept, and the alternatives were unacceptable to one or both of them. If the U.S. now shrugs and says that it doesn’t matter if there are two states at the end of the process, it is an admission that there will be absolutely no effort to secure an independent Palestinian state and the status quo will continue indefinitely. This strips away the thin pretense that the U.S. even wants a Palestinian state, and makes the U.S. position even more lopsidedly in favor of Israel than it was before. That is consistent with what we have come to expect from Trump on these issues, but over the longer term it is bad both for Israelis and Palestinians and it is bound to be bad for the U.S. to continue to be identified as an enabler of the occupation.

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Flynn Resigns

Michael Flynn. Photo: Department of Defense

Michael Flynn has resigned:

Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, resigned on Monday night after it was revealed that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other top White House officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, according to a person close to the Trump administration.

Flynn’s departure is very good news for the country, and it could be good for the Trump administration if he is replaced by someone less fanatical and much more competent. It was obvious for a long time that Flynn’s worldview was warped and a terrible influence on the president, and he never seemed ready for the position he was given. The dysfunction of Trump’s National Security Council may not have been entirely his fault, but it was his responsibility and he was clearly not getting the job done.

His early resignation marks the quickest exit of a top presidential adviser that I am aware of, and very few will be sorry to see him go. The danger is that Trump will choose someone else just as unprepared or possibly even less qualified to do the job, but the exit of one of the most hard-line Iran hawks from the administration is practically the only good thing that has happened related to foreign policy since Trump was sworn in. The Trump administration continues to have many top officials that share Flynn’s Iran obsession, but perhaps with his exit that obsession will grow a little bit weaker.

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Don’t Bring Montenegro into NATO

A Gallup survey of central and eastern European attitudes toward NATO contains some interesting findings. For instance, it found that only 21% of Montenegrin respondents associate NATO with protection of their country, while 29% perceive it as a threat and 35% associate it with neither protection nor threat. There is evidently little popular enthusiasm for NATO there, and there is still quite a lot of residual hostility that dates back to the 1999 NATO bombing campaign. Last week, the main opposition party called for a referendum on joining the alliance, and suggested March 24–the anniversary of the bombing campaign’s start–as the date. Expanding the alliance is a bad idea in any case, but if most people there don’t want to join it is even harder to justify.

There are several other reasons why bringing Montenegro into the alliance makes no sense, but the apparent lack of popular support for the alliance makes it a poor candidate for membership. If almost a third of the people in Montenegro thinks of the alliance as a threat to their country, that will make it an exceptionally weak member that the alliance doesn’t need and shouldn’t want. The U.S. doesn’t need to take on any more security commitments than it already has, and it definitely doesn’t need to take on an ally when a large bloc of its citizens don’t want to join.

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