Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

How fear won in Britain. Freddy Gray reflects on the fear-mongering from both sides of the EU referendum.

The “Brexit” vote shows how hard it is to defend the EU. David Miller observes that even Remain supporters don’t have anything positive to say about it.

Nobody is really pro-EU. Tim Black looks at the EU and finds nothing appealing about it.

The referendum was a great thing for democracy. Brendan O’Neill comments on the significance of the EU referendum and what can be learned from it.

The toxic U.S.-Saudi relationship. Michael Brendan Dougherty rails against the relationship with the Saudis and U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen.

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Cameron’s Failure

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Alex Massie reviews David Cameron’s tenure as prime minister:

No prime minister in living memory has suffered a defeat of such cataclysmic proportions; none has been so thoroughly humiliated by his own electorate. Cameron lost control of his party and then his country. The consequences of that carelessness will be felt, in Britain and internationally, for years to come. Future political historians will ponder a melancholy question: what was the point of David Cameron? And their judgment is likely to be severe.

Cameron promised a vote on EU membership to maintain party unity and stave off the challenge from UKIP, and so it is oddly fitting that in following through on that promise he succeeded in further fracturing his party and opening the door for UKIP to achieve its main goal. Just as he thought he could smother Scottish nationalism with the independence referendum two years ago, he believed he could squash Euroskepticism in the Tory ranks and put the issue to rest for good, and in both cases he miscalculated about as badly as one can.

You might think that Cameron would have learned from the Scottish referendum that these things can backfire and empower the very people it is meant to weaken, but he did not. He seems to have taken an entirely different, wrong lesson from the unionist win in 2014. He seems to have concluded that the side he supported couldn’t lose, and so he may have thought there was no danger that he would if he called a referendum. Whatever else one wants to say about how he conducted himself in these campaigns, what stands out most in all of this is Cameron’s sheer arrogance and poor political judgment. He picked two fights that he was certain he couldn’t lose, nearly lost one, and then lost the other in such a way that makes it very likely that the other result will be reversed as well.

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Why Did Britain Vote to Leave?

JMiks / Shutterstock
JMiks / Shutterstock

The U.K. vote to exit the EU has shocked many observers in Britain and around the world so much because they thought it wouldn’t happen. These people couldn’t imagine Leave winning because the result seemed too horrible to them to consider as a real possibility. In the days leading up to the vote, the “smart money” in the financial markets was betting that Leave would lose, and so there was an assumption that this meant something about how the referendum would go. That eliminated any sense of urgency to get more people to turn out for the Remain side, which was going to be struggling in getting its less-motivated supporters to show up in any case. As it turned out, the “smart money” didn’t know more than anyone else and was caught off guard more than most, which is partly why the negative reaction in the markets has been as great as it has.

The widespread belief that undecided voters usually side with the status quo probably contributed to a certain amount of complacency among Remain voters. If many Remain voters didn’t feel the need to show up–and turnout in many Remain areas was much lower than the national average–there may have also been some Leave voters who thought they could get a “free” protest vote without changing anything. Some people that have become accustomed to voting one way or the other without seeing meaningful changes in their circumstances may have assumed that voting either way wouldn’t matter.

Immigration was the main issue that the Leave campaign used to its advantage, but what made that especially important for their voters was that it affected a number of other important things (health, education, housing, etc.) and it was an issue on which their political leaders resolutely refused to pay attention to their concerns. It was a symbol of everything that they disliked about their own government and its relationship with the EU, and it was an issue over which they knew they had no control as long as things stayed as they are. This was probably most true for disaffected Labour voters, who have already shown a willingness to abandon their party in previous elections because they think (correctly) that their leaders long since abandoned them. There were reports of a working-class rebellion brewing in the U.K., but many on the Remain side seem to have thought that they could continue ignoring these people.

Having had their concerns and interests dismissed for decades, these voters similarly dismissed the pleading of their leaders to vote to stay in. The lack of trust in these leaders was fatal for the Remain campaign, because its case depended so heavily on the leaders’ warnings, and they had already proven many times over that they couldn’t be trusted. The fact that these same leaders relied so heavily on scare tactics to make their case can’t have helped rebuild that lost trust. The more outrageous the fear-mongering became, the less credibility the Remain advocates ended up having with large swathes of the electorate. Decades of neglect and contempt that so many politicians showed these voters came back to bite the political class at the most critical moment.

The EU’s multiple failures over the last decade also contributed to driving an already Euroskeptic country out the door. The creation of the euro was a major blunder, and the destructive policies that EU leaders forced on other member states for the sake of the eurozone compounded the original error. The Lisbon treaty process confirmed that the EU would continue its centralizing tendencies without regard for what voters thought about that (and it also provided the mechanism that the U.K. will now use to leave the EU). Merkel’s response to the migration crisis was almost perfectly designed to generate anti-EU sentiment. British voters could see what the EU had done to other member states in these crises, and many reasonably concluded that at some point it could do similar things to them. Because the EU has no meaningful political accountability to correct these errors and was never going to have any, leaving seemed to be the best option.

I don’t know how many voters were impressed by Leave arguments that focused on self-government and democratic accountability, but these arguments cast leaving the EU as a positive and empowering action. That was probably very attractive to voters that feel that they have very little power or influence over the way their country is governed. The Leave camp presented withdrawing from the EU as an affirmation of democracy and an expression of national self-confidence. Compared to the dreary technocratic arguments coming from the other side, it is no wonder that more people found this to be the more appealing message.

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Some Implications of the Leave Win

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Now that the U.K. has voted to leave the EU, no one knows exactly what comes next, but we can see some general outlines of what is likely to happen. The vote itself does not automatically trigger British exit from the EU, and it will be up to the government to carry out what the electorate has endorsed. Much will depend on how punitive or magnanimous EU governments choose to be in dealing with the U.K. They can come to a fairly quick and fair arrangement that allows the U.K. and EU to conduct business with as little interruption as possible, or they can choose to make an example of the U.K. to discourage others from following its example. The latter course would be short-sighted and would only drive more people into the anti-EU camp, but no one has ever accused European political leaders of being particularly wise.

Most pro-Leave Conservatives profess not to want a leadership challenge against Cameron, so he will probably stay on for the foreseeable future, but he will do so as a severely diminished leader. It’s hard to think of any modern political leaders that have gambled and lost on a major issue as Cameron has and remained in office for very long. Despite having all of the country’s major parties and much of the media behind him, he lost the most consequential British election of the last forty years. Instead of quashing his Euroskeptic detractors, Cameron presided over their greatest success to date. Unless Cameron wants to provoke a schism in his party and a leadership challenge, he has to respect the referendum result and begin negotiations with the EU on withdrawal.

The consequences for Labour’s leadership may be no less serious. The party’s current and former leaders were remarkably unsuccessful in rallying their voters to the Remain side, and the support of a large bloc of Labour voters for Leave reflects the extent to which the latter feel abandoned and betrayed by their party over at least the last two decades. That has been obvious in the defection of Labour voters to the SNP and UKIP in recent years, and it is even harder to miss now. The fact that Wales voted for Leave reconfirms that Labour’s leaders have lost touch with their traditional strongholds.

Scotland was solidly for Remain by more than twenty points. It seems certain that the SNP will point to the gap between Scottish support for EU membership and English/Welsh support for leaving as proof that Scotland should go its own way. The concern that “Brexit” could lead to another Scottish independence referendum was valid, and the nationalists have a better chance to win the next vote. All of that will depend on how exactly withdrawal from the EU shapes British politics over the next few years, but it is a safe bet that there will be another referendum on independence within the next ten years.

Update: I was wrong about Cameron. He has announced his resignation, and will stay on for the next few months in a caretaker capacity.

2nd Update: Corbyn is facing a no-confidence motion.

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Leave Narrowly Leads in EU Referendum

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The EU referendum results so far tonight have been very encouraging for the Leave campaign:

The UK’s EU referendum is proving close but the Remain campaign appears to be failing to pick up enough support outside London to win.

At 0345 BST Leave were ahead by over 500,000 votes, with the English shires and Wales voting strongly for Brexit.

It’s still possible that Remain will end up pulling it out, but as of 11:00 p.m. Eastern supporters of withdrawing from the EU have done better than expected and their opponents have not turned out in the numbers that they need to secure a victory. The Remain side was buoyed early on tonight with reports of new polls that showed them winning by 4-8 points, but then as actual results started to come in Leave began scoring larger-than-expected wins and did better than most people expected in many other places. The anecdotal evidence indicating strong support for Leave in many constituencies appears to have been correct. The financial markets and bettors had too much confidence in predictions of a Remain victory, and have been panicking in response to evidence that they have misread the situation.

Turnout throughout the country was quite high (roughly 72%), which makes Leave’s apparent success all the more remarkable. The conventional wisdom was that Remain would benefit from a high-turnout election, but it seems that Leave has benefited from having many people that don’t normally vote show up at the polls. Turnout in reliably Remain parts of the country (e.g., Scotland) has been lower than anticipated, and that is in keeping with the assumption that Leave supporters are more motivated to vote. The final result will likely be quite close, and Leave has a decent chance of an outright win. If that happens, Cameron will be humiliated, but he may be able to hang on in office for a time because of the support he has received from so many of the pro-Leave Tories. Even if Remain holds on to win by a narrow margin, it seems certain that another referendum on this question will be held in just a few years’ time.

A Leave win would represent an extraordinary repudiation of Britain’s political class, and it would be an unprecedented expression of popular dissatisfaction with the EU. Both of these are healthy and long overdue. While they may have some negative short- and medium-consequences for Britain and the EU, a vote for withdrawal would nonetheless be a welcome outcome.

Update: The BBC projects that Leave will win.

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The Indefensible U.S.-Backed War on Yemen Continues

UN OCHA / Philippe Kropf, via Flickr

Michael Brendan Dougherty sums up the damage caused by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war on Yemen:

Consider Saudi Arabia’s unjust war with Yemen, which has become a grotesque humanitarian disaster. American involvement in this war has hardly been acknowledged by our political class, and is barely even known to the public. Understandably, perhaps, people want to look away from what is happening: With the help and connivance of the British and American governments, Saudi Arabia has been deliberately starving the country of Yemen, a nation unusually dependent on food imports.

The UN reported this week that nearly 14 million people, half of Yemen’s population, are suffering a food “crisis” or “emergency.” The next classification after emergency is “famine.” The UN’s efforts at relieving the hunger of Yemen reach just 3.5 million Yemeni people, and even this project is desperately underfunded. Beyond the starvation conditions, Saudi-led airstrikes have knocked over humanitarian relief resources in Yemen, and just this week killed another eight innocents in a single strike.

The situation will soon be even worse than this. As I’ve mentioned before, the U.N.’s food program will shortly be out of money. A new report confirms that this week:

Khoury said in an interview on Wednesday that without more funding, ‘we don’t have enough money to feed even these people’.

The WFP would need about $US200 million ($A268 million) to keep its food distribution at current levels in the coming months, he said.

UN agencies requested $US1.8 billion in overall aid for Yemen in 2016, but only 20 per cent of that money has arrived, Khoury said.

Losing that aid will obviously make the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen even worse than it already is. It can’t be emphasized enough that the Saudi-led blockade is mostly responsible for depriving the population of basic necessities, and it has been doing so for the last fifteen months. The near-famine conditions in Yemen today are a man-made disaster, and the Saudis and their allies bear the largest share of responsibility for it. This is what the U.S. is supporting in order to “reassure” a clutch of despots of our commitment to them.

Dougherty asks the obvious questions:

Why is this mission valuable to the U.S.? Why are we participating, despite repeated warnings that it is a humanitarian disaster?

What kind of friendship requires something so transparently wicked?

I suspect that one of the reasons that U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen receives so little attention is that there are no good answers to any of these questions, and so people prefer to avoid the subject. The Saudi-led intervention has been indefensible, and almost no one even tries to defend it. But because very few politicians are willing to criticize the Saudis publicly, almost everyone shrugs and accepts what the U.S. has been helping them to do.

U.S. support for the war on Yemen is an especially disgusting example of the tendency to give reflexive backing to the actions of client states. That tendency regularly implicates the U.S. in the wrongdoing of these states, creates new enemies, and strengthens existing resentments against us. Backing the Saudi-led war is morally abhorrent and one of the worst foreign policy decisions of this century, and it is also one of the more needlessly stupid things that our government has done in my lifetime.

Support for the war on Yemen exemplifies many of the worst aspects of our foreign policy. It is remarkably cynical, completely divorced from any identifiable American interest, driven by a misguided desire to please reckless clients, and senselessly cruel to a nation of people that has never done anything to us. I would like to think that most Americans would be appalled by this if they fully understood what was happening and the U.S. role in it, but that would require a lot more than the very limited coverage that the war has received so far.

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‘Brexit’ and the Unappealing EU

Tim Black observes that even supporters for staying in the EU can’t muster any enthusiasm for it:

Just listen to someone make the case for Remain: they’ll admit the EU is flawed; they’ll say it could be more democratic; and they’ll even acknowledge that, despite some left-ish postures, it has screwed whole peoples over, strangling the life out of Greece, economically colonising Italy and Ireland, and causing chaos in Ukraine. It makes for a dispiriting sight. When Remainers make their furtive pitches, their hearts don’t swell; they sink, weighted down by caveats, bad faith and dead-eyed pragmatism.

As I’ve said before, a major reason why the Remain camp can’t make a positive case for the EU is that a distant, dysfunctional, transnational organization can’t inspire any loyalty or affection. That is why the case for staying has relied so heavily on appeals to economic interests and fear-mongering about the dangers of withdrawal. The EU today already is a disaster for tens of millions of people that live in it, and the simplest way to keep people from voting to flee it is to paint an even darker picture of what life would be like outside of it.

Fear of the unknown may end up winning the day, but if it does it will be the most grudging sort of victory for Europhiles. A narrow victory is all they’ll need to claim that the question is now “settled,” but Leave voters aren’t going to be satisfied with that. The referendum campaign has made the supposedly “unthinkable” option of withdrawal a plausible, debatable option, and if Leave doesn’t win today it may not be very long before there is another vote. If Leave wins (and my guess is that it will), it will be a fitting rejection of Remain’s attempt to terrify voters into submission.

Black continues:

There really is nothing appealing about the EU. As a pragmatic, political arrangement, which has done terrible damage to whole nations, it is steadfastly rebarbative. Its supporters cannot be attracted to it. They see its flaws, the way it treats people, its flight from accountability. So, no, they’re not attracted to the EU – they’re repelled towards it, repelled by the sight of ordinary people being able to determine their political future, by the spectre of the democratic will, in all its grubby uncontrollability and aspiration. It is fear of people, not love of the EU, that makes Remainers’ hearts beat that little bit faster.

The conventional wisdom is that most voters end up preferring the status quo option in votes like this, but I think this could be one of the exceptions. When so much of a deeply distrusted political class is on one side of the debate, and when the status quo option involves something as unappealing as the EU, it would be very tempting for most people to repudiate both by backing the other side. If the referendum is a contest over the country’s identity, Remain is at an even greater disadvantage. They are trying to defend a political arrangement that inspires no one, while the Leave side believes they are protecting their country’s traditions and self-government. Given that choice, it would make sense if voters reject the devil they know for the chance of something different.

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Rubio’s Running Again

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Because he said he wasn’t running for re-election, I included Rubio as one of the Senate hawks that would be out of office next year in my article for the current issue of TAC. I should have known better than to expect Rubio to stick to what he said. The Post reports that Rubio will run for a second term:

Sen. Marco Rubio will announce Wednesday he will seek re-election to the Senate, reversing a pledge he made a year ago to either assume the presidency or return to private life in Florida, instantly transforming an already competitive race and improving the chances that Republicans can maintain the Senate majority.

Rubio does have obvious and significant advantages over his competitors in the primary in terms of name recognition and fundraising, so he should be able to secure renomination. However, the fact Rubio is getting back into a race that he repeatedly said he wouldn’t enter may create an opening for his remaining opponents. One of them, Carlos Beruff, is looking to paint Rubio as an untrustworthy establishment figure. Rubio has alienated enough Republicans over the last five years that he could have a bit of a fight on his hands in the primary.

The senator has a few serious weaknesses. Rubio didn’t do much for his constituents during his first term, and one of the few things he tried to do–the Gang of Eight bill–blew up in his face. He justified his extensive Senate absenteeism by deriding the importance of being in the Senate, and now he is going to come back and insist that he really wants to go back there. His reputation for opportunism and inconstancy has started catching up with him, and he will have a hard time defending his record of neglecting his job while trying (and failing) to use it as a springboard to higher office.

Rubio probably does give the Republicans a better chance of holding the seat, but it isn’t certain that they will. He polls better against Rep. Patrick Murphy than other Republican candidates because he is better-known, but his support remains below 50%. His best recent approval rating in Florida is an underwhelming 45% (the worst is 30%), and it’s entirely possible Rubio will end up losing the race. The 2016 electorate will be larger and less hospitable to Rubio than the 2010 electorate was, and even in that very good year for Republicans Rubio won a three-way race with just under 49% of the vote. He won’t have the advantage of a Crist independent candidacy splitting the Democratic vote, and this time he will be running with the baggage from his first term and his failed presidential campaign.

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Will the EU Learn Anything from a ‘Brexit’ Vote?

Efired / Shutterstock
Efired / Shutterstock

Noah Millman makes a good case that “Brexit” could be good for the EU by forcing its leaders to make their institutions more accountable, but he may be a bit too optimistic in his conclusion:

Similarly, if the EU’s leaders take Great Britain’s departure to heart [bold mine-DL], they will work to redress Europe’s democratic deficit, and make its institutions more responsive to Europe’s electorate. If that happens, Britain may discover that joining again makes sense further down the road.

I agree that British withdrawal could shock EU leaders enough that they do this, but that depends on their learning the right lesson from it. They would need to admit that the democratic deficit in the EU is a flaw that needs to be repaired instead of an essential feature to be preserved at all costs. Everything we have seen from the EU’s responses to crises over the last decade suggests that when they are put under pressure they redouble their commitment to the project of building centralized European institutions and concentrating more power in them. If some member states have to be impoverished in exchange for keeping the project going, that is what they will do. Like adherents of any ideological project that has gone awry, the EU’s supporters seem to believe that there is nothing wrong with the project that can’t be fixed by more of the same. Insofar as they believe that the EU cannot fail, but can only be failed, they will probably conclude that “more Europe” is the answer.

As I said yesterday, the drive for “ever closer union” doesn’t much popular support anywhere in Europe, but I should have added that a lack of popular support has never stopped EU leaders from doing whatever they liked regardless of the political or economic costs. EU leaders will almost certainly greet a “Brexit” vote with dismay, anger, and increased contempt for voters, and my guess is that they will conclude that the problem lies with the voters and not with their institutions. That will be the wrong response, and it would presumably make more people in more member states start considering the merits of leaving, but it would be entirely consistent with the poor decision-making that has brought the EU to this point.

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Clinton’s VP Choices

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Clinton is narrowing down her choices for running mate:

Those on the shortlist include Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a favorite of progressives who has emerged as a blistering critic of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump; Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a well-liked lawmaker from an important general election battleground state; and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro of Texas, a rising star in the Democratic Party.

Kaine would seem to be the best choice of these three. In addition to having worked much more on foreign policy and war powers than Warren, Kaine was a governor from a purple state. Kaine has the relevant experience and preparation to be president that the other two simply don’t have, but choosing him would not be the attention-grabbing or “exciting” one that selecting one of the others would be. Having Kaine on the ticket would show seriousness about governing, and having someone prepared to take over in an emergency would be the responsible thing to do. Because Kaine has been leading the effort to get a vote on authorizing the war on ISIS and has been an advocate of restoring Congress’ role in matters of war, it is possible that Kaine could help check some of Clinton’s hawkish tendencies. I wouldn’t expect too much on this score, but it is something to bear in mind.

Taking Warren out of the Senate would be a mistake for Democrats, since that is where she is likely to have the greatest impact on the party’s agenda. Picking Warren would be seen as a concession to Sanders supporters, but the effect of it would be to make her a defender of whatever Clinton chose to do. Progressives would probably rather have her in the Senate acting as a critic of Clinton’s policies than as the person assigned the task of selling those policies to the left. Regardless, Warren doesn’t have much in the way of foreign policy or executive experience, and there is no obvious electoral advantage in naming a senator from a deep blue state. If Warren is not prepared to be president, Castro is even less prepared than she is, and choosing him would be a fairly odd choice in a year when the Democratic ticket isn’t going to have much trouble winning over Hispanic voters.

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