Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

How not to write about Iran. Ishaan Tharoor offers a guide in how not to talk about Iran.

The conclusion of the nuclear talks. Paul Pillar comments on the closing stages of the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

The three countries that still don’t have normal relations with the U.S. Matt Schiavenza explains why the U.S. has no ties with Bhutan.

The town where the sun doesn’t rise. Kari Leibowitz describes her research into the winter experience of the people of Tromso, Norway.

The war on Yemen is Saudi Arabia’s real embarrassment. Frederick Deknatel reviews some of the revelations in the leaked Saudi cables, but draws attention to the much bigger embarrassment in the failed intervention against its neighbor.

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Cruz’s Risible Cuba Demagoguery

Many Republican candidates were unhappy with the announcement that the U.S. and Cuba will be opening embassies as part of the normalization process, but Ted Cruz wins the prize for the most absurd reaction:

Following the announcement by President Obama that the United States will open an embassy in Cuba, thereby taking a final step to forming normal relations with the Castro regime, Texas Senator Ted Cruz slammed the decision as a “slap in the face of Israel.”

Opening an embassy in Havana has nothing to do with Israel one way or the other, so it’s curious that Cruz wants to link it to the question of where the U.S. embassy in Israel should be located. I suppose Cruz wants to use the “pro-Israel” rhetoric to deflect attention from the fact that he opposes the restoration of ties with Cuba, which is broadly popular across in the U.S. regardless of party affiliation, but if so it’s not a very smart objection. The U.S. doesn’t (yet) acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and so it shouldn’t relocate its embassy to the city before the outstanding issues regarding the city’s status have been resolved.

Cruz’s real objection here is to normalization of relations with Cuba, which would necessarily involve opening an embassy as part of having full diplomatic relations. He doesn’t want the normalization to proceed, but there aren’t actually any good arguments why it shouldn’t. His pretense that he “stands” with the people of Cuba by opposing normalization is risible. Almost all Cubans welcome better relations between the U.S. and Cuba. A broad majority of Americans supports the same thing. Cruz is rejecting what Cubans and Americans say they want. The reference to Israel is a ridiculous attempt to distract from the main issue, which is that Cruz is opposed to something that the vast majority in both countries favors.

The other part of Cruz’s statement that stands out is his fixation on this idea that opening an embassy is a “reward” to the Cuban government, as if we are doing it a favor by increasing U.S. influence in the island. Establishing normal relations isn’t a “reward” to the other government, but offers our government the chance to secure and advance U.S. interests in the other country. It is also possible that establishing normal relations with another state can help to improve understanding and communication between the two nations involved, but that is not the primary purpose of establishing those relations. For some reason, Cruz doesn’t want the U.S. to have that chance to secure its interests, but would prefer instead to hang on to a decades-old antagonism that has done nothing but harm to both countries.

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McConnell and the Iran Hawks’ Loathing of Diplomacy

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Mitch McConnell admits that he doesn’t want any nuclear deal with Iran that could be successfully negotiated:

Reaching the best deal acceptable to Iran, rather than actually furthering our goal of ending Iran’s nuclear program [bold mine-DL], is a flawed premise.

This sums up Iran hawks’ objections to the negotiations very well. McConnell and his colleagues aren’t interested in finding the best deal that Iran will accept, because the goal he’s seeking is one that has always been out of reach. The “ending” of Iran’s nuclear program has never been a possible result of these or any other negotiations. There is no deal that the P5+1 could make with Iran that would get it to agree to giving up on its program entirely, so there is no point in trying to “further” that goal. McConnell’s claim that this is “our goal” is disingenuous, but it confirms that there could never be any deal that would satisfy him and other Iran hawks.

The most likely deal that can be reached will restrict and monitor Iran’s nuclear program for more than a decade at least, and in the absence of a deal the program will be under no constraints. Iran hawks continue to agitate against the one thing that might limit the nuclear program that they have been obsessed with for over a decade, and they are so intent on pursuing an impossible goal that they would rather throw away the last two years’ substantial progress rather than accept necessary compromise.

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Getting Iran Wrong

Illustration: Winai Tepsuttinun / shutterstock

Ishaan Tharoor warns against the frequent and misleading stereotyping that shapes a lot of commentary on Iran, including the recent Stavridis article on Iranian “imperial ambitions” that I criticized earlier this week:

“Iran is an ancient civilization with a rich culture that definitely has roots in its old history,” Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi tells WorldViews. “But to stereotype modern Iran and Iranians based on what happened thousands of years ago is wrong.”

Mortazavi argues that you would never see such simplistic, overreaching appraisals of American allies: “Do we view today’s Europe through the affairs of the Vikings? No. Do we look at Saudi Arabia through the lens of its old Islamic Empire when it was taking over the world? No.”

One of several things that’s wrong with trying to understand Iran–or any other country–in this way is that it is bound to obscure many parts of contemporary reality from view and to distort whatever is still visible to such an extent that it is sure to be false. It is no coincidence that the people that tend to indulge in these sorts of arguments most often also happen to be very hawkish on Iran, since they have every incentive to try to use Iran’s ancient history and crude stereotypes about Iranians for the purpose of threat inflation and sowing distrust.

Hawks may be hoping to alarm Western audiences by invoking Iran’s different imperial pasts, but the funny thing is that they are unintentionally highlighting the many significant differences between Iran’s foreign policy over the last two centuries and that of the Achaemenids or Sasanians. When someone is reduced to talking about the imperial designs of Xerxes or Khusrau I, he is trying to distract from the reality that modern Iran has not been trying to conquer foreign lands in a long time.

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The Indefensible War on Yemen Continues

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The U.N. is drawing more attention to the disastrous humanitarian crisis created by the Saudi-led war on Yemen:

Pressure is mounting on the Saudi-led military coalition that seeks to stanch a rebellion in Yemen, as aid officials prepare to add Yemen to the ranks of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises and human rights groups point to what may be war crimes.

United Nations officials are expected to declare Yemen a so-called Level 3 — or most severe — humanitarian crisis, as the de facto military blockade on commercial ships restricts the supply of food and fuel into the Arab world’s poorest country, diplomats said Tuesday.

As the article notes later on, the other countries that have received the Level 3 designation are Iraq, Syria, and South Sudan. The difference is that Yemen’s crisis has dramatically worsened in just the last three months, and most of the harm that has been done in this time could have been avoided if there had been no Saudi intervention. Fourteen weeks later, a country that already had serious humanitarian needs has been kicked into the abyss thanks to an unnecessary war that our government continues to support.

In addition to the extraordinary harm the Saudi-led coalition has been doing to the country through its blockade, Human Rights Watch has charged the coalition with possible war crimes in its indiscriminate attacks on Saada province:

Saudi-led coalition air strikes on a rebel stronghold in Yemen have destroyed houses, markets and a school, killing dozens of people in what could amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.

It was fairly clear when they started targeting the whole of Saada province that they were going to be committing war crimes, since they had outrageously declared the entire area to be a military target. This was a flagrant violation of international law, but it didn’t matter to the Saudis, and it seems not to have had any effect on U.S. support for the campaign.

The additional scrutiny of the Saudis’ indefensible war is very welcome, but I wonder if the “mounting” pressure the article describes will have any effect on the intervention. As the article goes on to relate, the U.S. doesn’t even want to admit that the blockade that is starving Yemen should be called a blockade:

The preferred term, as one United Nations Security Council diplomat put it, is a “controlled maritime area.”

It is usually a good sign that a government intends to persist with an indefensible policy when it can’t call things by their proper names. As long as the U.S. can pretend that the blockade strangling Yemen is something else, that makes it a little easier to ignore the effects that the blockade is having. If there is to be any chance of pressuring the Saudis to give up on their failed war, it will need to come from Washington and their other supporters. So far, there is no sign that this is likely to happen. The administration keeps blundering on with its mindless and disgraceful backing for the campaign.

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Christie’s Hawkish Errors

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Christie’s announcement speech contained some nonsensical statements on foreign policy that need a brief response. He said:

And in a world that is as dangerous. As dangerous as frightening as I’ve seen it in my lifetime [bold mine-DL], there is only one indispensable force for good in the world. And it is a strong, unequivocal, America, that will lead the world and not be afraid to tell our friends we’ll be with you no matter what [bold mine-DL]. And to tell our adversaries that there are limits to your conduct and America will enforce the limits to that conduct.

This is generic hawkish rhetoric, but it reflects some of the biggest mistakes that hawks make when thinking about foreign policy. First there is the threat inflation. Christie is 53 years old, so he was an adult before the end of the Cold War. The world has only become less dangerous since then, and in most parts of the world it is less dangerous than it has been in generations. So Christie confirms that he is just as bad at assessing foreign threats as his hawkish competitors for the nomination.

The second error is potentially worse, because it implies that Christie would give America’s “friends” a blank check of U.S. support. The U.S. should be prepared to support and defend genuine allies when they need it, but the U.S. does this because the interests of its allies align with its own. When that is not the case, or when an ally or client behaves in an atrocious fashion, the U.S. shouldn’t confuse its interests with theirs, and it shouldn’t enable behavior that is detrimental to U.S. security. The root of this error comes from thinking of allies and clients as “friends” that should be helped regardless of their behavior. That blinds many Americans to the divergent interests that allies and clients inevitably have, and it causes many Americans to conflate their preferences and ours. No international relationship can be one of unconditional support, and that cuts both ways. Just as the U.S. shouldn’t be expected to side with an allied or client government “no matter what,” Washington should not expect its allies and clients to fall in line behind every U.S. policy. That also means that the U.S. shouldn’t feel compelled to “reassure” its allies and clients at every turn when it pursues a policy that they oppose.

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Graham’s Iran Panic

Lindsey Graham reminds us why he and many other Iran hawks should be ignored:

Graham was unequivocal about the Iranian regime and the U.S.-led negotiations over its nuclear program. “I think these guys are religious Nazis with an end-of-days view of their religion and that they’re dangerous as hell,” he said. He attacked the Obama administration for “sitting down and talking to people who’re nuts as if they’re not nuts.” An Iranian nuclear weapon, he said, would be shared with a terrorist organization “at a minimum,” and might be used by Iran itself. “Do they want to kill a lot of us?” he asked. “I think they do.”

Almost everything about Graham’s “analysis” is wrong or very misleading. Many hawks routinely portray other regimes to be more fanatically ideological than they are to make them seem impossible to deter, and they also routinely assume that certain leaders of other regimes are so mad that they would invite their own annihilation. Every time hawks have made this claim, they have been proven wrong. It was once taken for granted by some hard-line anticommunists the Soviets were so committed to their cause that they would invite their own destruction, and then they believed the same thing about Mao’s China when the USSR had demonstrated that it did not desire to commit nuclear suicide. Then it turned out that the Chinese government wasn’t intent on destroying itself, either. It was fairly common in the 1990s and early 2000s to describe Hussein as a “madman” who could not be deterred, and this nonsense was an important part of the Bush administration’s shoddy case for attacking Iraq. Each time these hawks were certain that the other regime was “nuts,” and each time they were just engaged in baseless fear-mongering. All of the regimes that hard-liners have assumed to be so bent on destruction that they could not be deterred have, in fact, been far more concerned with self-preservation and survival.

Graham takes for granted that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be shared with a terrorist organization, but no nuclear-weapons state that has gone to the enormous expense and trouble of building such a weapon would just give one away to a third party that it can’t control. This is especially true since Iran would be blamed for an attack once the weapon was traced back to it. Never mind that a post-deal Iran won’t have a nuclear weapon that it can give away to anyone. Even if Iran acquired such a weapon, it wouldn’t be giving it away. The idea that terrorists would be provided with a nuclear weapon by a pariah regime is one of the more common fears that hawks encourage when talking about proliferation by “rogue” regimes, but it is also one of the most fantastical and least likely to happen. The fact that Graham thinks it is very likely should tell us all we need to know about his grasp of the relevant issues.

It is quite common among Iran hawks to endorse the “martyr-state myth” about Iran’s willingness to usher in its own destruction. That’s a crazy idea, and one for which there is no supporting evidence. It ought to discredit them and undermine their arguments against the nuclear deal, but that never seems to happen.

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Iran’s “Imperial Ambitions” Are Greatly Exaggerated

Illustration: Winai Tepsuttinun / shutterstock

James Stavridis’ argument that Iran is an imperial power relies heavily on very superficial analysis:

We don’t tend to think of today’s Iran as an imperial power, but the Iranians certainly do — indeed, it is woven into their national DNA and cultural outlook.

Whenever someone starts a foreign policy article about another country by talking about a certain trait being “woven into their national DNA,” it’s a safe bet that the author is making a very biased and tendentious argument. Debating Iran policy isn’t the only occasion when analysts indulge in such crude stereotyping and lazy essentialism, but it is more common in this debate than in many others. Stavridis points out that there have been powerful Persian empires that have dominated large parts of the Near East and then asserts that something similar is happening again today. The evidence for contemporary Iran’s “imperial ambitions” is very thin, especially when it comes to Tehran’s ability to realize such ambitions.

Stavridis leans heavily on the assumptions behind the “march of conquest” narrative popularized by Netanyahu:

Iran is deeply and successfully dominating politics in the capitals of four major states in the region from Beirut to Baghdad, Sanaa to Damascus.

It would be much more accurate to say that Iran has significant influence in three of these capitals, but it grossly exaggerates the degree of Iranian power and control to say that they are dominating the politics of these states. The claim about Yemen is extremely misleading, since it accepts at face value the notion that the Houthis are little more than an extension of Iranian power. Even when the government relies on Iranian support against its internal enemies, as it does in Syria and Iraq, that means that Iran is being forced to waste resources to prop up its allies and clients. To the extent that Iran has influence in Damascus and Baghdad, it is being bought at a high price. If we look carefully at Iran’s role in the region, we see that it has been limited to being little more than the patron of Shi’ites and Alawites, and that puts it at odds with most of the region’s governments. That may cause the Saudis and other Gulf states alarm for their own sectarian reasons, but it should tell us that Iran’s regional reach is very limited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miller’s argument goes a bit awry here:

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

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

Miller continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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