Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The Senate’s dereliction of duty on NATO expansion. Nikolas Gvosdev reviews the failure of the Senate to ask the right questions during earlier rounds of NATO expansion.

Saving face in Tehran. Paul Pillar comments on the abrupt end of Russia’s use of Iranian airbases.

NATO is an institutional dinosaur. Ted Galen Carpenter makes the case that NATO is obsolete.

Can the Saudis escape endless war in Yemen? Thomas Lippman comments on the failure of the Saudi-led war.

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Yemen Needs Peace, But the U.S. Isn’t a Credible Mediator

U.S. Department of State/Flickr

John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia this week, and called for a settlement in Yemen that would involve creating a new unity government:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday he had agreed in talks with Gulf Arab states and the United Nations in Saudi Arabia on a plan to restart peace talks Yemen with a goal of forming a unity government.

Yemen does desperately need peace, but it is unlikely to get it from the process Kerry is proposing. For one thing, the U.S. is now badly compromised as a mediator in any diplomatic process because of the extensive and continuing support that the U.S. provides to the coalition. The U.S. is and is perceived to be on one side of the war, and so any arrangement that our government favors is bound to be viewed with suspicion by the Houthis and Saleh as well as millions of Yemenis. It isn’t possible for the U.S. to be a credible broker between the warring parties when Washington has thrown its weight firmly behind the Saudis and their allies. That includes the backing the U.S. has given the Saudis at the U.N. when they have stymied all efforts to have an independent investigation of war crimes by all parties to the conflict. Kerry is personally a terrible messenger because of his repeated public statements in support of the coalition. He was also reportedly the strongest advocate inside the administration for backing the Saudi-led war:

Several American officials said that in the two days of White House discussions that followed Mr. Jubeir’s visit, Mr. Kerry was the most forceful advocate in arguing that the United States had an obligation to help the Saudis [bold mine-DL] at a time when the Iran talks had left the kingdom questioning America’s priorities in the region.

Given all this, whatever plan the U.S. devises along with Britain, the Saudis, and the UAE won’t be acceptable to Yemenis that have been living with the dire consequences of the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed intervention. As Peter Salisbury put it in his recent analysis, “the framework for peace will be issued not by neutral parties but four of the foreign countries most deeply entangled in the conflict, along with the UN’s top diplomat working in Yemen.” If the U.S. and Britain were willing to pressure the coalition to halt or at least scale back their campaign, that might create an opening for a political compromise, but the administration has shown no desire to do this. That could change, but the damage has already been done.

Kerry’s initiative is interesting insofar as it shows that the administration has started to be embarrassed enough by the Saudi-led coalition’s crimes that it is making some effort to resolve the conflict diplomatically. Unfortunately, the U.S. has already thoroughly wrecked any chance it might have had at being the author of a diplomatic solution when it became party to a conflict in which it had nothing at stake.

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Mead’s Ludicrous Revisionism on the Green Movement and Obama

Olivier Douliery/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

Walter Russell Mead picks up on Lake’s bad argument about the Green movement and runs with it:

The mullahs are every bit as repressive and corrupt as Mubarak was, for example, and the Saudis and Egyptians continue to wonder, naturally, why the U.S. was so forgiving and conciliatory to its enemies, and so harsh to its allies [bold mine-DL].

Historians may wonder the same thing. And they may further note that Obama’s passion for democracy in the Sunni world and his tolerance of repression in the Shi’a world both haven’t led to much in the way of progress toward either stability or democracy anywhere in the region.

Mead’s interpretation of administration actions in the region is a very familiar, conventional one, and it is also wrong. As many of us remember very well, Obama was widely faulted here in the U.S. in late 2010 and early 2011 for being far too slow to endorse popular protests in Egypt and elsewhere. The same demands to “speak out” that occasioned the administration response to the Green movement protests happened again, but it was at a much greater volume than before. There was some back-and-forth inside the administration for weeks over whether to call for Mubarak to step down. When Obama finally did so, it was because Mubarak’s downfall seemed unavoidable. Further, at that point he was effectively siding with the Egyptian military, whose leaders saw Mubarak as a liability to be cast aside. Once Mubarak was gone, Obama aligned the U.S. with whoever was in power in Cairo, and when that meant going along with Sisi’s military coup that is what he did. Obama’s “passion for democracy in the Sunni world” has been so great that his administration has maintained ties and military aid for a coup government in contravention of U.S. law after it gunned down hundreds of people on the street. Obama has been so harsh to the Saudis that he has silently acquiesced in the GCC crackdown in Bahrain and backed their destabilizing actions in Syria and Yemen. The fantasy that Obama has been “harsh to…allies” may sound credible to paranoid Saudi royals, but in the real world it is nonsense. Far from being “harsh” to regional clients, he has much more often indulged them in their worst behavior.

Earlier in the post, Mead claims that Obama’s response to the Green movement protests amounts to “collusion” with Iran’s government to “destroy” a “promising experiment in the country’s democracy” much like the U.S. did in 1953. Of course, there was no collusion of any kind in 2009-2010. Indeed, the regime’s crackdown derailed Obama’s initial efforts at engagement. But that doesn’t exhaust the sheer stupidity of Mead’s claim. The administration is being faulted here for “failing” to hijack a domestic Iranian political movement for its own purposes. Had Obama done as his critics want, he would have immediately discredited the movement in the eyes of most Iranians and thereby helped the Iranian government, and in so doing he would have earned the lasting resentment of a new generation of Iranians. Instead, the the U.S. deliberately refused to repeat the interference in Iranian politics that produced so much resentment towards the U.S. in Iran over the decades, and it seems to have done so with the understanding that Iranians oppose U.S. meddling in their affairs regardless of their views of their own government. It was precisely because the administration was trying to avoid repeating the error from 1953 that it largely refrained from interfering. That didn’t prevent the Green movement from failing, but the point is that there was nothing the U.S. could have done that would have caused it to prevail. The U.S. doesn’t have much of an ability to “shape” political developments in countries where the U.S. has considerable influence, and in Iran the U.S. has practically none at all. The idea that there was anything the U.S. could have done to change the outcome of Iran’s internal political dispute for the better is ludicrously false.

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The Persistent Hawkish Misunderstanding of the Green Movement

Andrew Partain

Eli Lake wonders about what might have been if the U.S. had meddled more in Iran during the Green movement protests:

There was a chance for a better outcome. There is no guarantee that an Obama intervention would have been able to topple Khamenei back in 2009, when his people flooded the streets to protest an election the American president wouldn’t say was stolen. But it was worth a try. Imagine if that uprising had succeeded.

One of the consistent errors that Iran hawks make when talking about these protests is to treat them as if they had the potential to “topple Khamenei” and the entire regime with him. This is why they are always complaining about the “missed opportunity” for regime change in Iran, but that opportunity was never there. Western supporters of regime change in Iran have projected their preferences and goals onto Iranian opposition groups for years, which is one reason why they keep misreading the political landscape there. The protesters weren’t seeking regime change, and couldn’t have achieved it no matter what the U.S. did to “help” them. So they weren’t trying to “change the regime” in this way. They were objecting to election abuses within the existing system. Even if they had “won,” it wouldn’t have produced the results that Iran hawks want. Regardless, most of them didn’t want U.S. support.

As it happens, Lake briefly mentions a major reason why the administration might have thought interfering was a bad idea that had nothing to do with future negotiations on the nuclear issue:

At the time, Solomon reports, Obama’s aides received mixed messages. Members of the Iranian diaspora wanted the president to support the uprisings. Dissident Iranians from inside the country said such support would be the kiss of death [bold mine-DL].

The people in the best position to judge how U.S. support would be received in Iran thought it would harm the protesters, so it has never made sense how there was a chance for a “better outcome” involving U.S. interference. U.S. interference likely would have changed nothing for the better, and there was a much stronger chance that it would have done harm to the very cause it was supposed to help. Hawks generally don’t like the idea that U.S. “aid” can actually be harmful to its recipients, because that means that “inaction” can sometimes be the more constructive and wiser course of action, but in the case of the Green movement protests a hands-off approach was clearly best. Considering how disastrously later U.S. decisions to “take sides” in subsequent upheavals turned out in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, it is remarkable that anyone would still be trying to fault the administration for doing “too little” to interfere in Iran.

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Pennsylvania and the 2016 Race

a katz / Shutterstock.com

Trump’s path to winning the general election is so narrow as to be invisible:

If Mrs. Clinton carries those states and wins Pennsylvania, she could withstand losses in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and many other swing states—assuming she holds the traditionally Democratic states. She also likely would win with a victory in Ohio or Florida, even without the Keystone State, a sign of her strong position. But Pennsylvania, with its long history favoring Democrats, may offer her the easiest path forward.

“Pennsylvania is key to the entire race” as a must-win state for Mr. Trump, said Mitch Stewart, who was battleground states director for Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election. For Mrs. Clinton, Pennsylvania likely would be the “tipping point’’—the state that puts a candidate over 270 electoral votes when states are listed in order of the winner’s most-likely victories, he said.

If Pennsylvania is a “must-win” state for Trump, Trump isn’t going to win the election. There is no reason to think that Trump will win Pennsylvania, nor is there much reason to think that any other Republican nominee would be able to do that. The state has voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1992. Even when the Republicans won the popular vote in 2004, Pennsylvania still went for Kerry by two points. Obama carried the state by more than five points four years ago and won it by ten points in 2008. Clinton currently leads in the RCP average for Pennsylvania by more than nine in the two-way match-up and more than eight in a four-way contest. All that Clinton needs to do to win in November is to hang on to her lead in a state that has consistently voted for Democrats for president for over twenty years, and right now it appears she will be able to do that easily.

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A Useless ‘Alliance’ with Israel

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Yair Lapid made a risible claim in his article touting the virtues of the U.S.-Israel “alliance”:

A recent Harvard University study found that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost the U.S. taxpayer $4 trillion to $6 trillion. The MoU with Israel is merely a fraction of that. A strong and secure Israel significantly reduces the risk that the United States will need to be involved in another war in the Middle East [bold mine-DL], which would be not only financially costly but also claim the lives of American soldiers.

This may be the oddest defense of U.S. financial and military support for Israel I have ever seen. The U.S. has been engaged in hostilities in the region for almost all of the last fifteen years, and support for Israel has actually increased during the same period. Israel’s “strength and security” appear to do absolutely nothing to keep the U.S. out of wars in the region (it’s not clear why they would), and so the U.S. ends up paying the costs of the wars it fights in the region and pays to subsidize the defense of a wealthy client that contributes little or nothing to U.S. security.

Prior to the establishment of the close relationship with Israel, the U.S. was never directly involved in any wars in the region. The U.S. is not “saving” anything with this arrangement, but rather is frittering even more resources away on a state that doesn’t need it. Insofar as our policies in the region are shaped by what our hawks think is necessary to keep Israel secure, the relationship has contributed to the over-militarization of our foreign policy in the region, the waging of unnecessary wars, and it has made the U.S. more likely to take sides in regional conflicts. That starts with our one-sided approach to the conflict with the Palestinians, but is obviously not limited to that. Because the U.S. is implicated in Israel’s own policies toward its neighbors and subjects, the U.S. bears additional costs in the form of resentment and hostility generated by reflexively backing whatever Israel does. Those costs might begin to be balanced out if the U.S. could rely on Israel to support its other policies in the region, but the interests of the two states diverge too often for that to happen with any regularity. The reality is that our two states aren’t allies and never have been, and it would ultimately be better for both to acknowledge that and act accordingly.

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The Worsening Humanitarian Catastrophe in Yemen

UN OCHA/Philippe Kropf, via Flickr

The humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen continues to worsen:

According to the UN, a shocking one in three children under five in Yemen is now severely malnourished [bold mine-DL].

And if getting food to those in need is not already hard enough, last week the Saudi coalition bombed the last bridge linking the port to the capital [bold mine-DL].

“Seven hundred thousand children need specialised support in terms of nutritional support. Of that 700,000 people, we’ve only got enough support for 70,000, so that’s 10 per cent,” the UN’s Jamie McGoldrick says with frustration.

“So, who knows what’s happened to the other 600,000 plus?”

It can be difficult to fathom the scale of the humanitarian disaster in Yemen. The country’s infrastructure has been devastated, its health system is in ruins, more than three million people have been displaced internally, and half the country’s population is on the verge of famine or close to being so. 14 million people are considered “food insecure.” In terms of the sheer number of people at risk from starvation and preventable diseases, Yemen is now pretty clearly the worst humanitarian crisis on earth, and it has reached this point in just the last seventeen months since the Saudi-led intervention began. The blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition is most responsible for making the crisis as bad as it is.

The victims of the coalition’s blockade often go unnoticed by the outside world, and there is scant awareness of the responsibility that the coalition and its Western backers have for creating this calamity. This report includes brief descriptions of two such children:

At Al Sabheen hospital in Sana’a, we meet the parents of 17-month-old Eissa, hovering over their son. He is severely malnourished and close to death.

Over in the next ward is Emtiaz. She is two but so acutely malnourished she weighs as much as some newborns. Her grandma says all they have had at home recently is tea and bread.

These children and hundreds of thousands more like them are in mortal peril largely because of the Saudi-led intervention backed by our government. We do not yet know the full extent of the horrible damage this war is doing to the civilian population of Yemen, but it is likely to be much worse and even more appalling than it seems right now.

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The U.S. Can’t Be the World’s ‘Umpire’

Michael Hogue

Christopher Preble explains why the U.S. can’t be an international “umpire”:

This essential condition of umpiring—disinterestedness—obviously doesn’t describe the United States’ conduct in world affairs.

The partiality and inconsistency that the U.S. displays in upholding the “rules-based international order” is obvious to anyone that has paid close attention to the news in recent years. When certain states break the “rules,” they face sanctions, opprobrium, and possibly even military attack from the U.S. and our allies, and when others–most often our client states–engage in similar or worse behavior they are shielded and aided by some of the same governments. Destabilizing behavior by one set of states is treated as a threat to “world order,” while the same or worse behavior is either ignored or praised as contributing to “stability.” A massacre in Egypt that might have prompted a U.S.-led war for regime change in another country doesn’t have any meaningful consequences for the government responsible for the killing. International aggression by multiple states against Yemen not only doesn’t lead to punitive measures against the states carrying out the attack and blockade, but the U.S. and other Western governments also aid and abet the war from the start.

When clients, usually misidentified as “allies,” commit outrageous crimes against their own people or neighboring countries, the U.S. tolerates and sometimes even facilitates and rewards that behavior. The U.S. will hold other major powers to the strict letter of the law, but will trample on it when it gets in the way. Of course, this isn’t new or unusual for a major power, but it reminds us that enforcement of the so-called “rules-based international order” is often arbitrary and selective and frequently permits flagrant violations of the “rules” so long as the government doing the violating is considered to be on “our” side.

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A ‘Russia-Iran Condominium’ That Doesn’t Exist

KPG Ivary/Shutterstock

Last week, Charles Krauthammer was wringing his hands about U.S. “powerlessness” and “withdrawal” in response to reports that Iran had allowed Russia to use one of their airbases to launch attacks in Syria:

The reordering of the Middle East is proceeding apace. Where for 40 years the U.S.-Egypt alliance anchored the region, a Russia-Iran condominium is now dictating events. That’s what you get after eight years of U.S. retrenchment and withdrawal.

To refer to a “Russia-Iran condominium” in the region is to distort and misrepresent the facts beyond recognition, and to say that it is “dictating events” credits them with far more control and influence than they have. Their combined efforts are scarcely “dictating events” in Syria, and they certainly aren’t doing so anywhere else. Calling it a condominium implies that they hold sway over the entire region and have divvied it up between them, but the reality is that the influence of both in the rest of the region remains sharply limited because of their support for the Syrian government. A more accurate assessment would say that they are both struggling to keep that government propped up at considerable cost.

Krauthammer repeats the usual falsehood that the U.S. is engaged in “retrenchment and withdrawal” in the region in order to pin blame for events on an imaginary U.S. foreign policy and to avoid acknowledging the numerous failures of constant warfare and meddling for more than a decade. Hard-liners in the U.S. routinely misrepresent what is happening abroad to make their preferred policies of even deeper interference in other countries seem more palatable, and it is important to understand how much of their “analysis” is simply made up or extremely misleading.

Take Russia’s use of Iranian airbases, for example. While it did briefly show a greater degree of cooperation between Russia and Iran in the war in Syria, it ended almost as soon as it began. Iran didn’t care for Russian boasting about the use of the base, and now won’t let them use it:

An Iranian official said Monday that Russia would no longer use the Islamic Republic’s air bases to strike targets in Syria — an apparent rebuke of Moscow for announcing the deployment in the press last week.

At a news conference in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said that Russia’s use of Iran’s Hamadan Air Base was “temporary, based on a Russian request,” and that it is “finished for now.” Russia “has no base in Iran,” Ghasemi added, according to an Associated Press translation of his remarks.

This episode was unusual, but as it turns out it was also ad hoc and temporary. Instead of illustrating a supposed Russian-Iranian “condominium,” it proved to be insignificant and fleeting.

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The War on Yemen and the Folly of Enabling Reckless Clients

Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr: air strike in Sana'a, May 2015

Samuel Oakford reviews the effects of the Saudi-led war on Yemen and the U.S. role in enabling it:

In the span of four days earlier this month, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen bombed a Doctors Without Borders-supported hospital, killing 19 people; a school, where 10 children, some as young as 8, died; and a vital bridge over which United Nations food supplies traveled, punishing millions [bold mine-DL].

In a war that has seen reports of human rights violations committed by every side, these three attacks stand out. But the Obama administration says these strikes, like previous ones that killed thousands of civilians since last March, will have no effect on the American support that is crucial for Saudi Arabia’s air war.

One of the more striking details in the op-ed is that the administration specifically told the Saudis not to bomb the bridge that connected Hodeidah and Sanaa, but the Saudis did it anyway. They have since bombed other bridges on the same route. Destroying the bridge has made the already very severe humanitarian crisis even worse:

More than 14 million Yemenis suffer dangerous levels of food insecurity — a figure that dwarfs that of any other country in conflict, worsened by a Saudi-led and American-supported blockade. One in three children under the age of 5 reportedly suffers from acute malnutrition. An estimated 90 percent of food that the United Nation’s World Food Program transports to Sana traveled across the destroyed bridge [bold mine-DL].

The administration has claimed that its involvement in the conflict helps make the coalition bombing campaign more accurate and less likely to cause civilian casualties, but the truth appears to be that the Saudis and their allies bomb whatever they like with our help and disregard any contrary advice they are given. The U.S. has been unstinting in its support for the coalition campaign and blockade, and it seems that there is nothing the coalition can do to put that at risk.

This is one of the dangers of reflexively and uncritically backing irresponsible clients: it implicates the U.S. in whatever the clients do with our government’s assistance and forfeits any chance of reining the clients in when they commit excesses and crimes. The clients are also more likely to commit crimes when they assume they have carte blanche from Washington. When the purpose of the entire exercise is to “reassure” the clients for reassurance’s sake, the U.S. has already handcuffed itself to the coalition and made itself a prisoner of their war. It puts the patron in the bizarre position of trying to curry favor with its clients, and it allows the clients to take as much as they can get while always claiming to be unsatisfied and neglected. When indulging their destructive policy is the only discernible goal of U.S. support, it seems that there is nothing that the Saudis and their allies can do to jeopardize our government’s backing.

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