Daniel Larison

Keeping Up Appearances: Why the U.S. Backs Rebels in Syria

Steven Metz offers an explanation for why the administration is backing rebels in Syria as part of the war against ISIS:

Although the Obama administration would prefer Assad gone, this is not its priority. This creates tension with the Gulf states. It is also why the U.S. supports the Syrian rebels: As Middle East expert Andrew Terrill puts it, backing the rebels keeps the U.S. from being seen as simply the Shiite air force. Supporting the rebels is more about holding the fragile coalition together than directly defeating IS in battle.

Metz’s explanation makes sense, but it doesn’t say much for the value of the coalition members or the wisdom of the intervention that one of the coalition’s supposedly critical elements has been included just for appearance’s sake. This pretense might hold up for a little while, but it can’t last. As it becomes clear to everyone that support for Syrian rebels is just a temporary sop to regional Sunni governments (and the rebels’ boosters here in the U.S.), the political value of offering token support to the opposition will disappear.

In order to keep the coalition together, the U.S. would then have to provide more substantial aid, or it would have to concede that including Syrian rebels as part of the war against ISIS was always being done for show and was never going to contribute significantly to the larger campaign. The latter might cause some of the regional Sunni governments to drop out of the coalition, but then it’s not as if they were contributing all that much, either. That in turn would require the U.S. to acknowledge that it isn’t going to be able to “destroy” ISIS in Syria, which makes the decision to expand the war there even harder to justify.

It would be fair to say that almost the entire coalition has been assembled for the purpose of being able to claim broad multilateral support for what has always been a U.S. military campaign, and much of the coalition is not much more useful for fighting against ISIS than the rebels in Syria are. The U.S. touts the involvement of these “partners” so that it appears that the U.S. isn’t doing almost everything by itself, and it talks up its minimal support for local forces to make an ill-advised intervention seem somewhat less reckless than it really is. The great danger in all of this is that the U.S. could be drawn into conflict with the Syrian government if the administration feels compelled to keep up the pretense that it needs the “moderate” opposition in Syria and therefore has to come to their defense when they are attacked by the regime.

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Cruz’s Demagoguery on Israel and Iran

Newscom

Ted Cruz reminds us that he is a liar:

This is an unprecedented attack on a critical ally of the United States at a moment of international crisis. It is a de facto admission to the mullahs in Tehran that the Obama administration thinks it is too late to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons [bold mine-DL]. It is an inexcusable betrayal of the national security of the American people.

We all know that Cruz is a demagogue, so it isn’t surprising that he is grossly misrepresenting the contents of this story for his own purposes. However, it does get a little tiresome that he is allowed to circulate blatant falsehoods without the slightest accountability. The report he is referring to does not say that the administration believes it is too late to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The anonymous official quoted in the story was making a claim about Israel’s ability to launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The official said nothing that could be interpreted to mean that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons could not be prevented. The point the official was crudely making was that Netanyahu has staked out a public position against this outcome, but lacks the willingness to follow through on his rhetoric. More to the point, the official was quoted as saying that this was the good thing about Netanyahu: “he’s scared to launch wars.” Indeed, that is a good thing.

That doesn’t mean that Iran is going to acquire nuclear weapons. It does mean that Israel isn’t going to launch an attack in a vain attempt to prevent that outcome. It suggests rather that the administration will be able to pursue negotiations with Iran to reach a final agreement on the nuclear issue without the threat of an Israeli attack hanging over everyone. Cruz pretends not to understand any of this, and insists that there has been some “inexcusable betrayal.” Cruz can’t be so ignorant as he pretends to be in this piece, and so he must be attempting to deceive the public. This is why no one should ever take anything Cruz says on foreign policy (or on anything else, for that matter) seriously and why he can’t be trusted.

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2014 Senate Predictions

Republicans appear to be poised to win control of the Senate next week, but there are still enough close races where the Democratic and independent candidates have a chance of winning that a takeover remains uncertain. A lack of Democratic enthusiasm, weak presidential approval ratings, and a more Republican-friendly electorate all make a Republican Senate majority more likely than not. However, Republicans have underperformed in Senate races in the last two elections and could do the same thing again. The wild cards this year are Kansas and South Dakota, where independent candidates have a chance to upset the incumbent or play a spoiler role, and which party they will ultimately align with could depend on how all of the other races turn out. Here are my predictions for the Senate races this year.

Colorado: Largely thanks to his own missteps, incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall has taken what should have been a reasonably secure seat and turned it into an extra Republican pick-up. By running a campaign strangely preoccupied with social issues, Udall has managed to fritter away the advantages of his famous Western political family name and his mostly admirable record on foreign policy and civil liberties. That has helped to give his opponent, Cory Cardner, a small but consistent lead in the polls. Udall made a serious mistake in approaching a midterm election as if the electorate would be the same as the one that Obama faced in 2012, and that is one important reason why he is losing this race. Result: Republican pick-up.

North Carolina: Incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has managed to stay just ahead of North Carolina House speaker Thom Tillis, and she seems to be benefiting from a backlash against Tillis’ record in the state legislature. My guess is that Hagan will be able to eke out a narrow win, but if there is a surprise on Tuesday night this might be where it happens. Result: Democratic hold.

Georgia: The race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss is one of the more interesting and notable contests this year, pitting Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, against David Perdue. Changing demographics in Georgia and a competent campaign by Nunn (with the added benefit of the connection to her father) have made what has normally been a very safe Republican seat a toss-up. Nunn has used Perdue’s recent remarks boasting of his pride in outsourcing to great effect, and if Georgia votes for Nunn next week it will have a lot to do with the Republican candidate’s tone-deafness on economic issues. The hitch in this race is that Georgia requires the winner to receive more than 50% of the vote, so there will probably have to be a run-off in January, and that is more likely to hurt Nunn’s chances of becoming senator. Result: Nunn wins next week, but loses in January, so Republican hold.

Arkansas: Sen. Mark Pryor was staying even with Rep. Tom Cotton over the summer, and in some polls even held the lead for a short time, but gradually the sheer unpopularity of the president and Pryor’s own missteps have managed to give the decidedly uncharismatic Cotton a significant and growing lead. Despite his underwhelming campaign performance, Cotton will be going to the Senate to add another member to the chamber’s already large group of extremely aggressive foreign policy hawks. Result: Republican pick-up.

Iowa: Republican Joni Ernst has taken a small lead in the polls, and seems likely to retain that lead going into next week. Democrats really have no excuse losing this seat, and along with Colorado this is their biggest blown opportunity this year. Result: Republican pick-up.

New Hampshire: Incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is facing a tough challenge from the peripatetic Republican Scott Brown, who recently migrated to New Hampshire in the hopes of finding a more favorable electorate. Brown has closed the gap in recent weeks, but Shaheen remains narrowly ahead and should manage to hang on for the win. Result: Democratic hold.

Montana & West Virginia: The Republican candidates have been running away with these races all year, and they have always been guaranteed losses for the Democrats. Results: 2 Republican pick-ups.

Alaska: Sen. Mark Begich has done his best to separate himself from Obama as much as any Democratic candidate can, but it is likely not going to be enough to keep him in office. He has consistently trailed Dan Sullivan for the last several weeks, and I assume he will be voted out. Result: Republican pick-up.

Louisiana: Incumbent Mary Landrieu may come out ahead in the jungle primary next week, but won’t win the run-off. Result: Republican pick-up.

South Dakota: The more curious of the two potential wild cards this year, the South Dakota race is a three-way contest between Gov. Mike Rounds, Democrat Rick Weiland, and independent (and former Republican Senator) Larry Pressler. Rounds has been dogged by a scandal connected to a visa program that was expanded on Rounds’ watch, and that has caused Democrats to start throwing money at the race in the hope that they can steal away a seat that everyone had written off as an easy Republican pick-up. In spite of the scandal, however, Rounds retains the overall lead in the race, and he only needs a plurality to win, and that is what he is likely to get. Result: Republican pick-up.

Kansas: The other wild card is the race between incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts and independent businessman Greg Orman. Following the decision by the Democratic candidate to bow out of the race and the court decision that removed Taylor’s name from the ballot, Orman is in a good position to exploit dissatisfaction with Roberts and with the state Republican Party. Roberts has rallied a bit in the final weeks of the campaign, but he continues to poll in the low 40s, which is terrible for an incumbent. Orman will end up coming up with the win, and then will have to decide which party he will caucus with. While Democrats have been pinning their hopes for retaining the majority on an Orman victory, it is always possible that Orman will choose to help Republicans take over the chamber instead. If the other races turn out as I expect (eight Republican pick-ups and no losses), Orman will likely join the winning team and caucus with the GOP. Result: Orman wins and gives Republicans a majority of 53.

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The Implosion of the Labour Party

The Economist reports on the aftermath of the referendum in Scotland and the Labour Party’s multiplying woes:

To look at Scotland’s two main political parties six weeks after its independence referendum, you would not know that Scots had rejected secession. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which led the failed case for separation, is buoyant. By contrast the Labour Party, which led the winning campaign against, is plagued by rancour and recrimination. On October 24th Johann Lamont, Scottish Labour’s beleaguered leader, stepped down. An ugly leadership contest looms.

As if on cue, a new Ipsos/Mori poll shows that support for Labour at the next general election has collapsed in Scotland. If the poll is to be believed, only 23% will support Labour, and 52% say they would vote for the SNP. As Alex Massie notes, that is very unlikely to be the final result since that would leave Labour with almost no seats in one of its traditional strongholds. Even so, it does reflect the extent to which Labour has been imploding over the last few months. The referendum outcome may have prevented the dissolution of the U.K., but the ensuing weeks have been extraordinarily good for the nationalists. One could have reasonably expected that the failure of the independence campaign would hurt the SNP’s immediate political fortunes, but the reality has been quite the opposite. If Labour’s support keeps eroding like this in Scotland and elsewhere, Cameron and his party may end up winning another term in spite of themselves.

There are some lessons that other parties could learn from Labour’s recent travails. The most important lesson is that a party can neglect its core supporters for only so long before they give up and move on to an alternative. Taking support from any constituency or region for granted will eventually come back to haunt the party, and this can happen at the worst possible times. If a party is effectively representing the interests of its voters, it won’t keep suffering mass defections to its competitors.

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The Mirage of “Nation-Building”

Paul Miller takes an unpersuasive swipe at Rand Paul:

What if “nation building” is the best or only means available to “extend the blessings of freedom” to a country like Afghanistan? Which is more important, “spreading the blessings of freedom,” or avoiding nation building at all costs?

The correct answer is that the latter is obviously more important for the United States. The former might be desirable in some cases if it were possible, but the U.S. has just spent more than a decade confirming that our government doesn’t know how to do this. U.S. “nation-building” has such a sorry record for the simple reason that no outside government could succeed in an effort to design and impose a new system of government on another people whose culture and society we don’t understand very well. If U.S. security depended on “nation-building,” we would be in some serious trouble. Fortunately, it doesn’t. It is a wasteful, optional exercise on the part of our government that shouldn’t be repeated in the future. Nowhere that the U.S. attempted “nation-building” in the last fifty years have we seen an extension of the “blessings of freedom” to anyone. These efforts have been good at empowering local dictators, but other than that they have been truly useless. If there were the slightest evidence that the U.S. knew how to “nation-build” successfully, Miller’s objection might have some merit, but everything points to the futility of outside “nation-building” efforts by the U.S. in countries that it poorly understands. If the choice is between Miller’s endorsement of “nation-building” and Paul’s rejection of it, there’s no question that most Republicans and most Americans will prefer the latter every time.

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The U.S. and Israel: Don’t Call It a Crisis

Dan Josephson / shutterstock

Paul Pillar dismisses talk of a U.S.-Israeli “crisis”:

The only reason the term crisis comes up regarding U.S.-Israeli relations is the fictional, deliberately inflated view of the relationship as something qualitatively different that ought to defy any of the usual rules that apply to any patron and client or to any bilateral relationship. Sweep aside the politically-driven fiction about two countries that supposedly have everything in common and nothing in conflict and instead deal with reality, and the concept of crisis does not arise at all. What you have instead is a bilateral relationship that is like many others the United States has, with some parallel interests and objectives along with other objectives that diverge—sometimes sharply—and with honest recognition of the latter being a normal part of business.

This is the problem that crops up whenever an ordinary relationship between two states is turned into a “special” one. In order to maintain the fiction of the “special” relationship, it becomes necessary to pretend that the two states’ interests converge on almost everything and that the relationship is exceptionally important and “unshakeable.” This obscures the extent to which the two states’ interests diverge quite often, and it allows hard-line supporters of the “special” relationship here in the U.S. to portray the normal quarrels and disagreements between governments as a disaster. Of course, it is something of a disaster for those that want it to be exempt from the rules that govern all other bilateral relationships, which can only mean that it is a healthy development towards a more normal and balanced relationship between the patron and its client. Insofar as the latest episode helps to show how imbalanced and one-sided that relationship is and how little it benefits the U.S., it has brought having a normal and constructive relationship in the future a little bit closer.

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Paul and the War Against ISIS

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Rand Paul talks to Reason about “conservative realism” and his support for the war against ISIS:

I see the airstrikes really as defending vital American interests, and that would be our embassy in Baghdad as well as our consulate in Erbil.

It is hard to see how this is a vital interest. While it may be preferable to keep these posts open and functioning, the U.S. wouldn’t suffer significantly from having them evacuated and shut for some period of time. If a host government is incapable of protecting our embassies and consulates against its internal enemies, that isn’t an argument for taking sides in that country’s civil war. Paul presumably wouldn’t argue that the U.S. should have resumed military operations in Libya in the name of defending the embassy in Tripoli. That embassy was quite appropriately evacuated earlier this year amid the worsening violence in that country. That doesn’t seem to have harmed U.S. vital interests, and it’s not clear why doing something similar in Iraq would have been worse than committing the U.S. to a new military campaign.

Besides, the expansion of the bombing campaign into Syria has nothing to do with defending U.S. personnel or installations. Sen. Paul is still talking about the war against ISIS as if it were still the ostensibly “limited” and defensive operation that Obama claimed it would be at the beginning. It has become something far more ambitious in the last three months, so it’s no longer sufficient to use the original justifications for the “limited” intervention in Iraq to explain support for the open-ended campaign in Iraq and Syria that has been going on for weeks.

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Is There a Point to Publicizing U.S.-Israel Tensions?

John Allen Gay wonders what purpose has been served by statements from anonymous administration officials directed against Israeli politicians:

What does the Obama administration hope to accomplish by trashing Israel in the press? This is the most important question after an apparently coordinated wave of anonymous quotes welled up in Tuesday’s press. Relations with Israel have steadily worsened over the course of Obama’s presidency, and little of what was said was out of step with some views being expressed in broader policy circles. But why say it, and why now?

I don’t know what people inside the administration are thinking, but my guess is that the White House and State Department are fed up with the gratuitous abuse and insults they’ve been subjected to in recent months and they want their displeasure made known to as many people as possible. Why does anyone give negative quotes to journalists about other politicians if not to hurt their reputations and shift blame onto them for whatever has happened? Presumably administration officials are saying these things to reporters now because their superiors no longer care if these views are publicly known, and those superiors no longer care because they have decided that they can’t work constructively with the current Israeli leadership.

Is this a smart thing to do? That depends on what Obama hopes to do in the remaining two years on issues related to Israel. If he has (correctly) concluded that there can be no progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the time left to him, and if he now realizes that the Israeli government is implacable on the most contentious issues related to the conflict, he may want to try causing Netanyahu some political headaches of his own. As widely disliked as Obama is personally in Israel, it is not good for Netanyahu politically if he is perceived as having badly damaged the relationship with Washington. Especially because Netanyahu claims to have a special understanding of how to influence the U.S., he is potentially more vulnerable to charges that he is botching things. The goal may not be so much to “topple” Netanyahu (and Gay is right to think this isn’t going to happen) as it is simply to repay him in kind for his obvious attempts to interfere in our politics on behalf of Romney ahead of the 2012 election. Now that there is no chance that the defunct peace process is going anywhere in the foreseeable future, Obama and his officials may have decided that this was the time to air their disagreements and frustration with Netanyahu and his ministers.

Gay makes a fair point that launching into a public row with Israel could complicate the negotiations with Iran. That’s possible, but the administration may assume that it is going to bypass Congress on the nuclear deal anyway so that this doesn’t matter as much. More to the point, Netanyahu already made his opposition to the interim deal very clear, so it’s doubtful that Israeli opposition to a final deal would be kept in check by keeping these criticisms under wraps. The administration may also assume that the Iran hawks in Congress intent on sabotaging the deal will be committed to doing so no matter what the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship is, so there is nothing to be lost by broadcasting that the relationship is in very bad shape. That’s the trouble with being implacable foes of diplomacy–no one has any incentive to treat you as anything more than an obstacle to be overcome. That appears to be how the administration sees Netanyahu as well, and they are treating him and the rest of his government accordingly.

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Leave the Reagan Doctrine in the Past

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Rep. Dana Rohrabacher makes a dubious claim:

The Reagan Doctrine of assisting local, pro-freedom insurgents to overcome tyrannical regimes was then and is today the most effective way of defending against an enemy that threatens our safety.

That’s a strange assumption to make, since backing insurgencies against communist governments was often unsuccessful or at best inconclusive. When it did “work” as planned, it left chaos in its wake. Even so, there were hardly any U.S.-backed insurgent groups that overcame the regimes they were fighting, and the regimes they were fighting posed no serious threat to the U.S. The purpose of arming these insurgents was to undermine governments that were aligned with the USSR, but it really had nothing to do with keeping the U.S. safe. It was an exercise in inflicting humiliations on an ideological and political rival. That policy might have made a certain amount of sense when the U.S. was in a rivalry with another superpower, but today it is just an invitation to unwise meddling and destabilization for its own sake. Which “pro-freedom insurgents” does Rohrabacher suggest that the U.S. help in the future? More to the point, why should the U.S. be in the business of facilitating the overthrow of foreign governments? At best, the U.S. will subject the affected countries to years and perhaps decades of upheaval and violence, and at worst the U.S. will be pulled in to police the chaos created by the support for these “pro-freedom insurgents.” This may be cheaper than large-scale deployments of U.S. forces, but it doesn’t make any more sense.

The Reagan Doctrine was one of the least impressive parts of Reagan’s record, and it inflicted enormous damage on the countries where it was put into practice. Moreover, it proved to be entirely unnecessary, since the dissolution of the USSR and collapse of communism in Europe underscored just how irrelevant these interventions in Third World civil wars were to the outcome of the Cold War. It would be better to leave the Reagan Doctrine in the past and stop trying to import it into the foreign policy of the present.

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Why Israel Won’t Attack Iran (II)

Mikhail Levit / Shutterstock.com

Buried in this Jeffrey Goldberg report on the state of U.S.-Israel relations is a somewhat encouraging piece of news:

This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said that Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal [bold mine-DL]. “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”

Two years ago, Daniel Levy made the case that Netanyahu was too risk-averse as a politician to do anything as hazardous and potentially disastrous as starting a war with Iran. That seemed very plausible at the time, and I still find it persuasive. It has never made much sense that the Israeli government would launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Even if Netanyahu were inclined to do this, which he reportedly isn’t, starting a preventive war against Iran wouldn’t prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

On the contrary, a foreign attack would probably make the acquisition of such weapons a priority for the Iranian government. Especially if one believes the worst about the Iranian government’s intentions, it would be the height of folly to take action that would practically guarantee that Iran gets a nuclear arsenal, and that is what an Israeli or U.S. attack would do. The more important reason why such an attack didn’t make much sense is that it isn’t necessary for Israeli security. Even if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, Israel would have a much larger nuclear arsenal with which it would deter unconventional attacks. If Netanyahu is also risk-averse enough that he doesn’t want to take reckless military action against Iran, so much the better for all involved.

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