Daniel Larison

Why Congress Shouldn’t Authorize the War on ISIS

The New York Times calls for passage of an authorization resolution for the war on ISIS:

As the war intensifies, it is more urgent than ever for Congress to approve a new Authorization for Use of Military Force that would provide adequate oversight and clearly articulate the long-term strategy for the fight against the Islamic State. The new mandate should replace the ones the administration is currently relying on and set clear limits that would preclude future administrations from using military force around the globe, anytime, anywhere, without consulting Congress.

The editorial makes a number of good points, but this would be the wrong response to the ever-expanding war on ISIS. Obama’s claim that he wouldn’t “allow” the U.S. to be dragged into a new war was preposterous, as the editors say, since he was the one dragging the U.S. into fighting it. They are also right that the legal justifications the administration has offered for the war have always been absurd. That doesn’t mean that Congress should approve of a war that threatens to pull the U.S. deeper into a conflict that it doesn’t need to fight. Congress won’t regain any influence or relevance by becoming a rubber stamp after the fact. Passing an authorization won’t fix the problem that the U.S. blundered into this war without any debate or consideration of the likely costs.

The gradual escalation of the war isn’t surprising. It was always very likely once the administration went on the offensive and declared that the goal of the campaign was to “destroy” ISIS. We know that “limited” interventions don’t stay limited, and we also know that this administration disregards the terms of authorizations when they get in his way. Any limits written into a new AUMF would be adhered to only so long as the president wanted to be bound by them. Obama has already shown that he will interpret authorizations as necessary to justify whatever he does, or he will simply proceed without any authorization to wage a war that he will pretend isn’t really a war.

Passing a new authorization to endorse an ill-conceived and unnecessary war nine months after it began isn’t going to “provide adequate oversight” or “clearly articulate the long-term strategy for the fight against the Islamic State.” Congress has no interest in providing the former and has no more of an idea what the latter is than the administration does. As I’ve said many times, it was a mistake for the U.S. to intervene in Iraq and Syria last year. Congressional authorization obviously can’t fix that mistake, but it would legitimize what has thus far been an unauthorized and illegal military action.

If there were any chance that this or any other president would be expected to respect the limits included in a new authorization, passing a very narrowly-worded resolution might be the least bad option available, but we already know that presidents can get away with interpreting these resolutions as broadly as they want. We know that Congress isn’t going to cut off funds for a war that the president starts, and most members of Congress are more hostile to placing limits on a war than the president is. Any authorization that this Congress produces will probably make things worse by giving a stamp of approval to an open-ended and unrestricted war. If the war remains unauthorized, it could be easier to end U.S. involvement. Once it receives Congress’ approval, it is much more likely to continue on for many more years.

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Yemen and “Humanitarian” Interventionism

Four years ago, the U.S. and a handful of other governments launched an air war in Libya that eventually led to the collapse of the old regime and contributed significantly to the ongoing violence and disorder in that country over the last few years. The official justification for the intervention was the “protection of civilians,” which was supposedly going to be secured by escalating a foreign civil war into an international conflict. As far as I’m concerned, “humanitarian” military intervention is a contradiction in terms, as the Libyan war has shown. Nonetheless, “humanitarian” interventionists were insistent that the U.S. and its allies had to attack and help overthrow a foreign government that was being challenged by an armed rebellion. Four years later, the U.S. is helping several of its Gulf clients (some of which participated in the Libyan war) smash an impoverished country at great cost to the civilian population ostensibly to roll back the gains made by rebels and to reimpose an exiled government.

These interventionists are now mostly indifferent to or supportive of the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war on Yemen. If any are opposed, they are doing a good job of keeping it a secret. The main difference between the two cases seems to be that the rebels in this case are deemed to be on the “wrong” side of the conflict, and for that reason the entire country can be made to suffer and the civilian population can be subjected to the most horrible deprivation without so much as a word from the hawks that so often babble about a “values”-based foreign policy. If a different coalition of states not aligned with the U.S. were doing this to a poor neighboring country, the response from “humanitarian” interventionists would likely be quite different. When the Saudis are strangling Yemen and bombing its cities indiscriminately, it doesn’t seem merit even a shrug.

The point here isn’t just to draw attention to “humanitarian” interventionists’ inconsistent and arbitrary policy preferences, but to emphasize that the interventionists that use humanitarian crises in some conflicts to agitate for U.S. involvement have little or no interest in talking about the humanitarian crises that the U.S. and its clients are creating. The same people that normally can’t shut up about the need to “do something” and to take sides a foreign conflict become strangely quiet when the U.S. is actively taking sides in a war that is inflicting enormous harm on a civilian population.

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The Strangling of Yemen

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Lama Fakih reports on the cruel strangulation of Yemen by the Saudi-led blockade:

The harsh and arbitrary restrictions imposed by the Saudi-led coalition on importing vital supplies, including fuel, have slowed to a trickle the flow of life-saving assistance and basic goods needed for survival. The World Food Programme (WFP) says it has managed to ship some 300,000 liters of fuel and other supplies into the country during the humanitarian ceasefire. But this shipment is only a fraction of the amount needed for the WFP’s operations in one month.

In a rare joint public statement, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders on May 4 expressed deep concern about the obstruction of deliveries of humanitarian aid, noting that the coalition’s restrictions on imports, “have made the daily lives of Yemenis unbearable, and their suffering immense.”

The war on Yemen has been going on for two months, and for almost all of that time the Saudis and their partners have been depriving the civilian population of crucial supplies of food, medicine, and fuel. Last week’s “humanitarian pause” was just long enough so that the U.N. and other organizations could assess how much worse the humanitarian crisis in the country had become. Unfortunately, aid organizations were not able to do very much to ameliorate that crisis because the “pause” was so brief. The U.N. now estimates that more than half a million people have been displaced by the war, and that number will only keep increasing as the campaign drags on. The number of civilians put at risk from the shortages imposed by the blockade is many times that number.

The situation for civilians in Yemen is dire, and it has come about mostly because of the Saudi-led coalition’s decision to attack and blockade the country. The intervention has been both entirely unnecessary and extremely harmful. The Saudis could halt the attacks and the blockade at any time, and that would remove two of the major causes of the country’s current woes, but of course we know that they aren’t going to do that. The U.S. continues to lend support to this indefensible war, and in so doing endorses the Saudis’ strangling of Yemen.

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Graham’s Odd 2016 Campaign

Jim Antle considers the effect that Lindsey Graham’s odd presidential bid could have on the race:

Yet Graham is, in some respects, a perfect foil for Paul. It’s a lot easier for a libertarian-leaning presidential candidate to make a case against aggressive military intervention when the poster boy for the neocon cause is a cartoonish, blustery senator who never met a hyperbole he didn’t like.

Graham’s candidacy is an unusually odd one, since he is running mainly to promote the hard-line foreign policy views that are already overrepresented in the current field. It makes some sense for a politician to launch a hopeless presidential bid in order to promote a particular cause or advance a pet issue, but in this cycle Graham’s fear-mongering and alarmism about the state of the world are redundant. He may be the most vocal and most ridiculous of the alarmists, but he will be just one among many.

Antle mostly focuses on how Graham’s campaign could benefit Paul, but Paul might be the least affected by Graham’s decision to join the contest. His entry into the race is an implicit rebuke to Rubio, who has made foreign policy hawkishness one of the main themes of his own campaign, and it presents Rubio with an additional obstacle. Rubio has been trying to present himself as the leading hard-liner in the field, and cites his alleged foreign policy experience as the thing that separates him from the current and former governors that will make up most of his competition. The trouble is that Rubio’s foreign policy views are virtually identical with Graham’s, and Graham can easily claim to have more experience in supporting terrible hawkish policies. The last thing that probably distinguishes Rubio from the rest of the field fades into the background if Graham is in the mix.

It’s true that Rubio doesn’t have quite as many problems with conservatives as Graham does, but at least on immigration and foreign policy Rubio could easily be seen as just a younger version of Graham. The good news for Rubio is that Graham is polling so poorly that he probably won’t qualify for most of the debates in which Rubio will be participating. Even so, most of any support Graham gets is probably going to come at Rubio’s expense. Graham has no realistic chance to become the nominee, but he could end up helping to sabotage the chances of a candidate that is closest to him on foreign policy.

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The World Isn’t Better Off Because of the Iraq War

A.J. Delgado offers counseling to Iraq war dead-enders:

IDS sufferers’ second favorite argument is: “Well, the world is better off without a bad guy like Saddam, so it wasn’t a mistake.” OK, except this is completely inaccurate. The world is not better off without Saddam. Why? Because for all his faults, Saddam Hussein presided over a stable Iraq, served as a buffer to (a now more powerful) Iran and was no religious fanatic. When we invaded and removed him, we created a power vacuum in the country, a vacuum then filled by brutal ISIS.

The hawkish argument that “the world is better off” because of the Iraq war isn’t just obviously false, but it’s the sort of desperate ends-justify-the means claim that only ideologues and propagandists find compelling. If we take Iraq war dead-enders at their word that they think the world is better off, this just confirms that they have no understanding of the consequences of the war they supported. More than decade of conflict in Iraq has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, injured countless more, displaced millions, driven millions more into exile, and has brought about the complete ruination of an entire country. The war empowered sectarians and jihadists, and exposed the country’s religious minorities to an unending nightmare of persecution. Only a fanatic could look at the devastation wrought by the Iraq war and its aftermath and conclude that the world is better place because of it.

Hawks like to pose as clear-eyed moralists, but give little or no thought to the practical effects of the policies they support. They mouth phrases about rights and freedom, and help turn other countries into lawless killing fields. Hawks tend to assume that by smashing a bad regime that the U.S. is doing the targeted country and the world a favor, but by ushering in only more violence and destruction wars for regime change wreck the country and expose the world to dangers that would not otherwise exist.

Iraq war dead-enders are just the most extreme form of hawks that cannot imagine that there is something worse than the awful dictator currently in power somewhere. They point to the genuinely horrible crimes of this or that dictator and scoff at the idea that anything could be worse than what follows the current regime, and then time after time we see that the results of the regime change they desire is only even more suffering and mass killing. They can’t grant that military intervention is frequently a deeply wrong and unwise thing to do, and so they have to keep concocting excuses for why the disaster they supported was somehow beneficial.

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The Administration’s Desperate Bid to “Reassure” Israel

Haaretz reports on the administration’s latest desperate bid to “reassure” a bad client government:

Although neither side has said so explicitly, the Obama administration plans to provide Israel substantial defense compensation if an agreement is signed between Tehran and the world powers to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

Reports that Israel will be “compensated” for accepting a nuclear deal that is obviously in their interest make clear just how unbalanced and dysfunctional the U.S.-Israel relationship truly is. Restricting and monitoring Iran’s nuclear program benefits Israel, and that won’t happen unless the current negotiations are successful. Despite the best efforts of the current Israeli government to undermine and sabotage those negotiations, the talks are drawing closer to a final agreement that will impair Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon for more than a decade at least. The idea that Israel needs to be “compensated” to accept an arrangement that ensures that it will be the sole nuclear-weapons state in the region for a long time to come is absurd. If anything, Israel should be offering “compensation” to Washington for the needless headaches regarding the nuclear talks that it has caused over the last year and half. If the U.S. goes ahead with providing the additional military aid mentioned in these reports, it shows that the administration will generously reward the Israeli government’s attempts at sabotage. The U.S. is volunteering to bribe a client government that has actively tried to derail a major U.S. diplomatic initiative. That can only invite more of the same behavior in the future.

The U.S. is proposing to buy off Israel to agree to something that makes Israel more secure. That’s not because the U.S. actually needs Israeli approval for an agreement to which Israel is not a party, but because in spite of everything that Netanyahu has done to interfere with the nuclear talks the administration is incapable of refusing to send Israel more weapons and support. The Obama administration is frequently criticized by hawks for not doing enough for allies and clients, but these latest reports should remind everyone that it obsequiously caters to U.S. clients’ complaints and demands to an extraordinary degree. If the Obama administration doesn’t do absolutely everything that client governments want, it does far more than it has to or should.

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Jeb Bush’s Iraq Fantasies

Jeb Bush is reduced to peddling fantasies about Iraq:

“ISIS didn’t exist when my brother was president,” he said, using a different acronym to refer to the group. “Al Qaeda in Iraq was wiped out when my brother was president. There were mistakes made in Iraq for sure, but the surge created a fragile but stable Iraq that the president could have built on and it would not have allowed ISIS, or ISIL, depending on your view.”

Almost none of what Bush says here is true. The group currently calling itself ISIS or the Islamic State didn’t use that exact name when Bush was still in office, but it traces its origins back to the jihadists that came to Iraq to exploit the chaos caused by the invasion and occupation. There is direct continuity between the jihadists that terrorized Iraq during the Bush presidency and ISIS today, and those jihadists would not have been in Iraq at all had it not been for Bush’s decision to invade. It did suffer setbacks in the final years of the Bush administration, which had more to do with the local backlash and opposition to its brutal methods than anything else, but it was not “wiped out.”

The notion that a small residual U.S. force would not have “allowed” the group to make the gains that it has made in recent years is risible. The group was able to hang on even at the height of the U.S. occupation, so it is fanciful to say that its advances could have been prevented if only a few thousand American soldiers had remained in Iraq. Jeb Bush is so wedded to the mythology surrounding the “surge” that he can’t admit that it plainly failed on the Bush administration’s own terms, and so he pretends that there was something there for the next administration to “build on.” The U.S. was scheduled to withdraw during the term of the president after Bush under an agreement that the Bush administration negotiated. Unless the U.S. was prepared to fight against new insurgencies and keep its soldiers in Iraq over the objections of most Iraqis, there was never any question of staying. The idea that U.S. forces could have stayed without sparking more violent opposition and losing even more soldiers in a fruitless “stabilizing” role is every bit as much a delusion as the pre-war belief that Iraqis would welcome the invasion of their country by a foreign army.

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Jindal Wants to Start Another War

Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock.com

Bobby Jindal is worried that all the Iraq war talk of late is distracting us from the important business of fear-mongering about Iran:

Every minute we spend arguing about what should, could, or would have happened in Iraq a dozen years ago is a minute our nation is not talking about what must happen about Iran now.

In other words, Americans are spending far too much time talking about the last hawkish foreign policy debacle that they can’t focus on how to create another one. After all, why should we get hung up on the last disastrous war when we can start planning the next reckless intervention? This is Jindal’s idea of a clever response to the recent arguments over the Iraq war, which tells you most of what you need to know about his foreign policy views and his judgment.

Jindal might be right about one thing, but it doesn’t prove what he thinks it does. At one point, he says that “Iran is much more of a threat now than Iraq was then.” That’s true, but all that this means is that Iraq was such a small, manageable threat to anyone that attacking it was absolutely unnecessary and indefensible. Iran today is more powerful than Iraq was then, and unlike Iraq it does have a nuclear program, but that doesn’t give the U.S. or any other state cause or license to attack it.

Jindal must believe his readers to be thoroughly ignorant and gullible:

The Russian military just sold Iran a passel of new missiles — belying the belief that this rogue regime can be easily contained.

The “passel of new missiles” he refers to is the S-300 air defense missile system. These weapons are used to defend against aerial attack. There is no reason to think that the ability to “contain” Iran is limited by this system, unless one wants to define “containment” as the ability to attack the country at will. Jindal cites this as proof that Iran “has not lacked for military strength,” and yet Iran’s military budget pales in comparison to that of neighboring Saudi Arabia, which spends more than five times as much as Iran does.

Jindal professes to believe that war is a last resort, but he also thinks that launching a “preventive” war on Iran is a legitimate and acceptable option. If Jindal genuinely believed that war should be a last resort, he couldn’t consider “preventive” war to be acceptable, since waging “preventive” war requires using force long before it is needed. Like many other hawks, Jindal claims to be reluctant war supporter, but endorses a position that would have the U.S. start another illegal and unjustified war.

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Yemen and the Folly of Intervention

Bloomberg reports on the dwindling support in Yemen for the exiled President Hadi:

Hadi still enjoys support in parts of Yemen, especially the south. That’s being eroded, as Yemenis on the ground view him as endorsing prolonged airstrikes amid severe food and fuel shortages, said Farea al-Muslimi, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

The Riyadh meeting “is simply irrelevant to everything,” al-Muslimi said. It will make Hadi more unpopular, because “you’re going on TV and asking the world to keep bombing your country.”

We are used to seeing what comes from ill-conceived wars for regime change, but the conflict in Yemen is reminding us that a war to restore an unpopular leader can be equally foolish and destructive. Trying to reinstall a deposed leader must be one of the most dubious justifications for waging war against another country, but this is the explicit, stated goal of the Saudis’ war on Yemen. Doing this subordinates the long-term well-being of the country and its people to the desire of the ruler and his backers to regain power and influence. It assumes that the lives and welfare of tens of millions of people are less important than putting a disgraced leader back in his former place. Even if the leader is briefly restored to his position, it will have come at such a high price for the civilian population that he will and should be quickly driven out again. In both kinds of wars, outside government try to undo and remake the political landscape of another country, and predictably they are unsuccessful. Intervening governments can do enormous damage and destroy many existing structures in the country they attack, but they have neither the patience, wit, nor resources to replace the things they have destroyed. Indeed, most governments that use some pretext to intervene militarily in the affairs of another country don’t even bother with the pretense that they intend to repair any of the damage they have done.

Intervening governments at some level know that they are needlessly inflicting death and destruction on the country that they attack, and so they invent self-congratulatory lies about the reasons for their meddling. Like the Saudis in Yemen, they claim that they are doing it for the good of the other country and its people, and they imagine that they are “saving” the country that they are, in fact, devastating. These lies are even more important for the exiled leaders that support the intervention that is destroying their country, since they probably have to believe that they are not complicit in the ruin of their own land. For their part, the intervening governments take consolation from the support they receive from the exiles, and they choose to see the exiles as the “real” spokesmen for what the people in the targeted country want. The exiles and the interventionists typically favor the same policies for different reasons, and so they are natural partners in the effort to pummel the targeted country into submission. Both end up hated by most of the people that have had to endure the effects of the war, which leaves the interventionists without their desired puppet and the exiles without their desired restoration. In the meantime, thousands are killed, tens of thousands injured, hundreds of thousands are displaced, and millions are put at risk of starvation, disease, and dehydration. A government that was genuinely concerned to protect and defend its own country would not lend its support to such a shameful and indefensible attack upon the same country, but that is what the “legitimate” government of Yemen has been doing for almost two months.

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The Saudi-Led War Keeps Failing at Everything Except Wrecking Yemen

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Bruce Riedel notes that the Saudi-led war continues to fail in achieving any of its objectives. Because of the war, the new Saudi leadership has earned a reputation in the region for recklessness:

There are mutterings around the Gulf states now that the Saudi leadership is impulsive and rash. The Saudis have traditionally been very conservative and risk averse. From Faysal to Abdullah, Saudi Kings were cautious and careful. Now there is hushed talk of a team out of its depth with no plan for an endgame.

It was clear from the beginning of the campaign that the Saudis had no “plan for an endgame.” As interventionist states often do, the Saudis and their partners rushed in to a conflict they were never likely to win and declared goals that they were always very unlikely to achieve. The Saudi decision was a classic case of choosing to intervene in a conflict because they could. The Saudis sought to impose their political preferences on Yemen through force, which they should have already known would be a fool’s errand.

The Saudis evidently underestimated the difficulty of what they were trying to do and never considered what they ought to do if the initial campaign failed. They can continue to bludgeon and starve Yemen, and they seem intent on doing so, but the war is likely to provide them with nothing except increasing costs and increased insecurity along the border with Yemen. As Riedel mentions, the Houthis are now shelling targets inside Saudi Arabia, so at this point the war is exposing Saudi territory to attacks that would not be happening were it not for the intervention.

Meanwhile, Iran can just sit back and watch as the Saudis sabotage themselves with an ill-conceived and unnecessary war. Riedel writes:

Instead — after weeks of air attacks on the Zaydi Shiite Houthi rebels and their allies — the prince’s war looks like a stalemate. The immense damage done to Yemen’s weak infrastructure has created considerable bad blood between Yemenis and their rich Gulf neighbors that will poison relations for years. Yemenis always resented their rich brothers, and now many will want revenge. Iran is scoring a victory on its Gulf rival without any cost to Tehran and with only limited Iranian assistance to the Zaydis.

Exaggerated fears of Iranian influence in Yemen contributed to the Saudi decision to launch their dangerous intervention, so it is fitting that the Saudis are hurting their own cause with self-inflicted wounds in their desperate gamble to thwart an “expansion” of Iranian influence that was not actually taking place.

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