Daniel Larison

Why 2016 Won’t Be Like 1980


Ted Cruz offered this thought while speaking to a “pro-Israel” group in New York:

Where we are today is very much like the late 1970s. The parallels between Obama and Carter are uncanny—same failed economic policy, same disastrous foreign policy. And I think ’16 will be like 1980.

Apart from the inaccuracies in this comparison, Cruz’s “analysis” here is entirely derivative and it is exactly the same as Romney’s view of the 2012 election. Romney took for granted that Obama was “the same” as Carter, and assumed that more or less running a reheated, stale version of Reagan’s 1980 campaign complete with policies thirty years out of date was the key to success. The problem wasn’t just that Romney was making the wrong comparison, but that assuming this sort of repetition in electoral politics is extremely misleading. The Republican victory in 1980 happened during the Cold War decades when Republican candidates had normally been winning presidential elections rather than losing them. Whatever the disadvantages that the Democratic candidate faces, 2016 follows six presidential elections in which the Democratic candidate won the popular vote five times.

If Cruz thinks that we are presently going through anything like the “the late 1970s,” that doesn’t say much for his powers of observation. Barring unforeseen disaster, economic conditions today have little or nothing in common with the late 1970s, and as dissatisfying as Obama’s foreign policy record has been there is fortunately nothing comparable today to the hostage crisis. Cruz says this in part because he thinks this is what his target audiences want to hear, and he says it in part to flatter himself that he could play the role of the new Reagan, but if he actually thinks it is true he is doing nothing more than substituting nostalgia for analysis.

Cruz takes for granted that the GOP will lose if the next Republican nominee comes from the “moderate establishment.” His interpretation is obviously self-serving, but it also misses the more important reasons why they lost in 2008 and 2012. Above all, Republicans lost those elections because economic conditions favored the other party both times. If the economy continues to recover over the next two years, that could well be true again next time. The next Democratic candidate will have the baggage of Obama’s record and his approval ratings, which will probably still be mediocre, but it would be fairly strange if the incumbent party were to lose while presiding over continued growth. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, but it suggests that the 2016 election would have more in common with 2000 than 1980.

Another reason they lost is that Republicans ran twice on an exhausted, discredited agenda that had little or nothing to offer most voters. Cruz proposes no significant changes to that agenda, and based on his foreign policy statements he seems eager to emphasize some of the least popular parts of it. Finally, the party was weighed down by its high unfavorability that it inherited from the Bush era and which it has since worked to increase. For his part, Cruz has worked overtime to make himself and his party more unpopular by being gratuitously insulting and pointlessly combative. In terms of temperament and political tactics, Cruz is in many respects almost an anti-Reagan, and a party foolish enough to follow his lead would face a defeat at least as bad as the ones it suffered in 2008 and 2012.

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How Iran Hawks Spread Misinformation

Asia Society / cc

Bret Stephens just makes things up:

Iran came to the table cheating on its nuclear commitments. It continued to cheat on them throughout the interim agreement it agreed to last year [bold mine-DL]. And it will cheat on any undertakings it signs.

This was reported yesterday:

Iran has taken the necessary steps to continue to comply with an interim nuclear agreement, according to a U.N agency report seen by Reuters on Monday, as Tehran and six world powers gave themselves an extra seven months to clinch a final deal.

The International Atomic Energy Agency issued its monthly update on the preliminary accord’s implementation on the same day that Iran and the major powers agreed to extend that deal until June, after failing to meet Monday’s deadline for a comprehensive settlement.

Stephens builds an entire column around an easily-checked falsehood, and without it everything else he says falls apart. In other words, it’s just another Stephens column, but it is a useful window into the thinking of a foreign policy hard-liner. Hard-liners take it as a given that the other party to any agreement is always cheating. They assume all agreements with regimes they dislike to be inherently worthless, which is why they are so hostile to any diplomatic effort to engage with these regimes. Hard-liners cannot imagine the possibility that the other government would comply with the requirements of an agreement out of self-interest, and so they simply assume that it has been cheating on an agreement even when it has been proven otherwise. It’s not at all surprising that hard-liners spread misinformation, but it is remarkable that their baseless arguments continue to be taken seriously in spite of this. It is always possible that Iran will fail to comply with some portion of a future comprehensive deal, but that is not a reason to give up on diplomacy. It is significant that Iran has so far complied with the agreement it made last year. That is as good a foundation for continued negotiations as one could want, which is why opponents of any deal are so keen to misrepresent what has happened in order to make further talks seem futile.

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How Extension Benefits Foes of a Nuclear Deal

Negotiations with Iran are being extended into next year in order to provide more time to reach a final agreement on the nuclear issue. However, as John Hudson reports, that additional time provides opponents of any deal new opportunities as well:

The failure of Barack Obama’s administration to secure a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program by Monday’s self-imposed deadline hands a significant gift to hard-liners in both countries: a seven-month window to criticize, and potentially sabotage, a final deal between Iran and the West.

There is a reason why Netanyahu was pleased by news of the extension, and it isn’t because he has suddenly become a supporter of diplomacy with Iran. He guesses that the longer the negotiations wear on, the more pressure opponents of any deal can bring to bear on the administration. The more time that it takes to reach a deal, the more likely it is that opponents can spoil the negotiations by pushing for new punitive measures against Iran. Unfortunately, he’s probably not wrong. While it is better to have extended the talks and kept the possibility of a deal alive, the fact that the talks had to be extended gives opponents of any deal an opening to reject further diplomacy as a waste of time. They are wrong about this, but the longer that the negotiations take without conclusion the harder it becomes to argue that the talks are still worth pursuing.

The changed composition of the Senate in the new year makes it much more likely that a new sanctions bill will pass both houses of Congress. Even though there presumably won’t be enough support for such a bill to override a veto, majority support in Congress for additional sanctions still risks derailing a deal by proving to Iran that the U.S. won’t be able to follow through on promised sanctions relief. While this was true of the aborted push for new sanctions earlier on, the difference next year is that the new Senate leadership won’t care about derailing negotiations. On the contrary, the new leadership will welcome a vote on such a bill. A Republican majority was always likely to try to undermine a deal with Iran once it was concluded, but the delay in reaching a deal has made that task that much easier. That doesn’t mean that a good deal with Iran can’t be had, and it’s no guarantee that the saboteurs are going to succeed, but a successful conclusion to the negotiations just became much more difficult.

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Scapegoating Hagel

Secretary of Defense / Flickr

Julia Ioffe points out the big flaw in firing Hagel:

All of this adds up to a rather strange way to address the criticism leveled at the administration’s foreign policy: If you fire the guy least responsible for it, it’s essentially a doubling down on what you’re already doing, thereby denying there’s a problem with it.

That confirms the view that Hagel has been made a scapegoat for administration policy failures that he had little to do with, and it tells us why replacing Hagel probably isn’t going to lead to any significant changes in policy. Dumping Hagel is a way of appearing to shake up the administration following the midterms without doing anything that would change the way that the administration operates. Superficially, it mimics Bush’s firing of Rumsfeld, but in some respects it represents something very different from it. Instead of holding the official most responsible for a failed policy accountable for his errors, it gets rid of him because he has been relatively unimportant in shaping administration policy.

Where Rumsfeld was removed for being too stubbornly committed to his chosen failing approach to a war, Hagel seems to have been pushed out because he was becoming somewhat too critical of the administration’s aimless prosecution of a war. The firing of Hagel fits into a pattern of odd and dubious decisions by Obama that the president has made, the main purpose of which seems to be squelching domestic criticism. There have been many calls for a shake-up in the administration’s national security personnel, and so Obama has obliged by throwing Hagel overboard on the mistaken assumption that this will satisfy the critics, but it doesn’t mean that Obama intends to make any changes to how his administration makes policy. Of course, this won’t satisfy the critics, and just creates another reason to question Obama’s decision-making on these matters.

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So Much For Hagel

DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released

So Chuck Hagel “resigned” from his post as Defense Secretary this morning:

Administration officials said that Mr. Obama made the decision to remove Mr. Hagel, the sole Republican on his national security team, last Friday after a series of meetings between the two men over the past two weeks.

Hagel was reportedly dumped because of “concerns that he wasn’t up to the job of leading the Pentagon during its escalating war with the Islamic State.” I don’t know if that’s the real reason, but even so it’s still a somewhat odd decision to get rid of him at this point. The war against ISIS is going poorly because the policy itself is flawed. Replacing Hagel isn’t going to change the fact that U.S. bombing in Syria is driving anti-regime Syrians into making truces with ISIS and in some cases even joining up with the jihadists. Nor is a new Defense Secretary going to be in a better position to achieve the war’s unrealistic goal of “destroying” ISIS. Perhaps Hagel was not interested in being responsible for overseeing an ever-expanding, open-ended war for the next two years.

If a change had to be made at Defense, this is still not very good timing for the administration. Removing Hagel sets up another confirmation battle in the new year with a hostile Republican Senate majority that is already intent on causing the White House as much discomfort as possible on national security and foreign policy issues. While the confirmation hearings for Hagel’s successor can’t be as contentious and ugly as Hagel’s were, that’s not saying much. Whoever ends up accepting Obama’s offer will face a thoroughly unpleasant confirmation process as the Republican members of the relevant committees use the nominee as a punching bag to score points against Obama’s policies. Since the next nominee will probably be a Democrat this time, that makes it more likely that the process will be a fairly difficult one.

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The Weak Objections to a Nuclear Deal

Jeffrey Goldberg makes a silly objection to a time-limited nuclear deal with Iran:

Ten or 15 or even 20 years might seem like a long time in the U.S., but the people of the Middle East are patient. Any agreement that contains an expiration date is an inadequate agreement, because it will, in essence, grant Iran time-delayed permission to build nuclear weapons [bold mine-DL].

Let’s consider just a few of the flaws in this argument. First, it is quite reasonable for an agreement like this one to expire at some future date. Allowing for expiration of the agreement a decade or two in the future allows both sides to commit to a deal for an allotted period of time without locking them into its provisions forever. It makes it easier for both sides to accept a deal that they might otherwise reject. For instance, START expired in 2009, and then it was replaced by the more recent arms reduction treaty. If Iran and the P5+1 reached a comprehensive deal that expires at some future date, that means that there would have to be a re-negotiation of another agreement in ten or twenty years. There is no guarantee that a future Iranian government would be interested in renewing the deal, but then it’s also possible that the Iranian government twenty years from now will not be the same as the one currently in power. Besides, all of this is putting the cart before the horse. Ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program is being used purely for peaceful purposes for the next fifteen or twenty years would be a great success. Rejecting a significant agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue because it may expire decades from now is mindless.

As for Goldberg’s other claim, he couldn’t be more wrong. Once such a deal expired, that wouldn’t give Iran “permission to build nuclear weapons.” Iran is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prohibits this. The purpose of the deal currently being negotiated is not to deny Iran permission to build nuclear weapons. It can never have “permission” to do this so long as it adheres to the NPT. The purpose is restrict Iran’s nuclear program in such a way that it becomes very difficult to try to do something that the NPT already forbids.

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Wrecking a Deal with Iran Is Dangerous

Paul Pillar issues a warning about the dangers of derailing a deal with Iran:

Blowing the opportunity for an agreement would be all the more a shame because, according to the preeminent criterion of preventing any Iranian nuclear weapon (not to mention other consequences of an agreement), the choice between a deal and no deal is almost a no-brainer. No deal would mean fewer restrictions on the Iranian program and lesser inspection and monitoring of it. Iran would have a much clearer path to a nuclear weapon, if it chose to take it, without an agreement than with one.

I agree entirely with Pillar, but it’s worth thinking a little more about why there is so much concerted opposition to securing a deal that is “almost a no-brainer.” Yes, other regional governments are hostile to a deal for their own reasons, but those reasons mostly don’t make any sense. The failure of negotiations with Iran would not be to the advantage of Israel or any of the Gulf states that claim to be so horrified by a deal. Failure would strengthen Iranian hard-liners, it would likely increase tensions between Iran and many other regional governments, and would leave the path open for the nuclear program’s continued development. Republicans may want to deprive Obama of a major achievement for partisan reasons, but Republican Iran hawks shouldn’t want the negotiations to fail. A deal that imposes significant limits on Iranian enrichment would restrict the Iranian nuclear program in a way that nothing else available could. Despite this, the regional governments and hawks here at home have been demanding conditions for a final deal that can’t possibly be met, and they have declared their hostility to any agreement that could be reached. The only conclusion we can reach from all this is that most of these actors are hostile to any diplomacy with Iran and want to make conflict between the U.S. and Iran more likely.

The politics of a nuclear deal are somewhat strange in that the people that are the least alarmed by Iran’s nuclear program are the ones most in favor of an agreement that would do the most to limit it, while those that claim to be absolutely terrified by it are firmly against the same agreement. The latter believe containment to be unacceptable, but they are doing everything they can to make that outcome more likely. The trouble with being an alarmist about Iran’s nuclear program (e.g., calling it an existential or intolerable threat) is that it also tends to make one a maximalist in demanding a complete end to the program. Since completely ending the program is not going to happen, the next-best result for the alarmists ought to be the program’s negotiated limitation, but because they are so irrationally afraid of Iran’s nuclear program they won’t settle for anything short of maximalist, unreachable goals. And so they will set out to wreck a deal that gives the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 the best opportunity to prevent the development of Iran’s nuclear program that they claim to dread. The would-be saboteurs of the deal get none of what they claim to want if diplomacy with Iran fails, and all parties will be worse off if the saboteurs succeed. If the consequences weren’t so serious, it would almost be comical.

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Why Threat Inflation Flourishes

Micah Zenko sees a lack of accountability as one reason for the flourishing of threat inflation:

I have thought a great deal about why senior officials so routinely engage in threat inflation that is so starkly at odds with reality. I have no good answer, because it is impossible to read minds or understand the micro motivations of such officials. However, the practical reason is simple: They are rarely confronted nor are they held accountable by their peers, congressional members, or the media for continually making such erroneous assertions.

Our foreign policy discourse and political culture create perverse incentives that encourage officials and politicians to overstate foreign threats. Politicians and policymakers are often praised for showing prescience about far-off dangers, which gives them the incentive to portray virtually every threat as an extremely menacing one that must be countered early on. No matter how ludicrous a politician’s fear-mongering becomes, he will be treated respectfully as a “responsible” person on foreign policy and national security. No matter how many times an official makes what should be discrediting statements about foreign threats, he will be considered “serious” because he is blowing foreign threats out of proportion. Threat inflation absurdly doesn’t undermine an official’s credibility, but can even serve to enhance it.

Someone that offers a much more accurate assessment of the same threat will be dismissed for being “naive” about the danger. So it’s not just there is no accountability for making laughably false and exaggerated claims. The incentives in our foreign policy debates are the reverse of what they should be. Politicians and officials are penalized for accuracy and rewarded for exaggeration and alarmism, and so they keep providing more of the latter and less of the former.

Another reason for this behavior is that officials are much more likely to be condemned for failing to recognize the full extent of a threat, however minor it may actually be, than they are to be faulted for having grossly exaggerated a minor threat into an “imminent” or even “existential” one. That is, there is a sort of “accountability,” but it is one that reinforces the tendency to exaggerate threats and discourages people from keeping foreign threats in perspective.

Meanwhile, there is bound to be more media coverage of an official issuing dire warnings and making unfounded-but-alarming claims about an “imminent” threat. It catches our attention when an official intones that this is the “most dangerous world” he has ever seen. If an official were to make the much more accurate statement that the U.S. has not been so secure in decades, he would go unnoticed. A more genuinely responsible official explaining how manageable and small a threat is doesn’t make for splashy headlines, nor does it offer a ready-made video clip with which news outlets can terrify their audiences and thereby keep their attention.

Threat inflators in and around government also trade on the public’s ignorance of relevant details and the common, frequently wrong assumption that “they must know things we don’t.” So when a government official or someone in elected office makes a brazenly untrue statement about the nature and scale of a foreign threat, his statement is treated with deference because of information that many people suppose that he has that the public doesn’t have. More often than not, however, the official is indulging in rhetorical excess and wouldn’t be able to back up his statement if he were forced to provide evidence. Sometimes the rhetorical excess is intended to push through a dubious administration policy. Sometimes it is used to convey how “seriously” the official is taking the threat: the more outlandish the exaggeration, the more “serious” the official is perceived to be. And at other times it is used preemptively to ward off attacks from even more hawkish critics that the official neglected to pay attention to the threat. Once again, the perverse nature of our debates makes it seem more appealing and politically smarter to speak falsehoods and be thought an overzealous hawk than to offer an accurate and non-alarmist opinion and be considered “unserious.”

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Conservatives, Hard-liners, and Diplomacy

John Allen Gay makes the conservative case for a nuclear deal with Iran:

No nuclear deal will be perfect, and it would certainly be preferable for Iran to have no centrifuges and to come clean about all its past nuclear activities. But conservatives have always taken special pride in their emphasis on what is possible, not what is ideal. We do not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Gay makes a compelling case that reaching a comprehensive deal on the nuclear issue is the prudent, wise, and responsible thing to do. I very much hope that conservatives listen to what he’s saying, but recent experience and prevailing views about Iran on the right don’t give us many reasons to think that leading Republicans on this issue will take his advice. Gay observes that past Republican presidents have struck deals and made compromises with even uglier regimes than the one in Tehran, but these compromises were usually made over the loud objections of anticommunist hard-liners in their own party. When presidents from the other party attempted to make similar deals, the hard-liners were even more determined in their opposition. One need only think back a few years to the bizarrely contentious debate over New START to see how this works. Republican hard-liners were eager to portray even a modest arms control treaty as a giant sell-out to Russia, which it wasn’t, and they very nearly killed it. That wasn’t because the treaty was a bad one for the U.S., but simply because it was an agreement between a government that they loathed and an administration they wanted to oppose.

That points us to the differences between ideological hard-liners and temperamental conservatives. The former reject mutually beneficial deals because they usually reject the diplomatic engagement and compromise required to reach them, while the latter are quite willing to use diplomatic means to advance U.S. interests. Hard-liners are dead-set against reaching deals with Iran, even if they are actually better for all parties involved, because nothing short of total capitulation on the other side is considered acceptable. The only kind of negotiation that interests such people is negotiating for the other side’s surrender, which is one reason why they are so quick to denounce any compromise by our government in similar terms. It is in the nature of a hard-liner to see every deal as a betrayal and every compromise as a giveaway to the other side. If hard-liners saw the value in diplomatic compromises, they wouldn’t be hard-liners.

Conservatives should recoil from the mentality of such hard-liners for all the reasons Gay mentions. To do that, they first need to recognize that the hard-liners that are eager to sabotage the deal aren’t judging it on its merits, but have been determined to derail it from long before the moment when negotiations began. The hard-line position on the nuclear deal is an imprudent, unreasonable, and harmful one. Conservatives should want nothing to do with that, and should instead be open to a successful deal that advances both U.S. and Iranian interests and reduces the chances of conflict in the future.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Libya and the tides of history. Noah Millman reflects on Shakespeare and the lessons from the Libyan war.

Blaming the generals isn’t enough. Andrew Bacevich reviews Daniel Bolger’s Why We Lost.

Rand Paul and late-regime politics. Julia Azari sees all of the early attention being paid to Rand Paul’s likely presidential candidacy as evidence that “we are nearing the end of the Reagan regime.”

The damaging myth of “winning” the Iraq war. Paul Pillar explains why the conceit that the war was ever won is so harmful to U.S. foreign policy.

The myth of the caliphate. Nick Danforth reviews the history of a contested idea.

The colonies of the “caliphate.” Der Spiegel reports on ISIS’ sympathizers in North Africa.

Reflections on the Arab uprisings. Marc Lynch reviews the claims and predictions political scientists made about events in the Arab uprisings from 2011 on.

UKIP keeps rolling. The Economist reports on UKIP’s latest by-election victory.

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