Daniel Larison

Obama, Modi, and U.S.-Indian Relations

Richard Weitz remarks on the results of the president’s recent visit to New Delhi:

Of course, while building long-term diplomatic capital is important, leaders do need some near-term results to keep the relationship from stalling, as it had during Obama’s first term. In this regard, the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, whose details have yet to be released, has apparently created a state-backed insurance scheme to overcome Western companies’ concerns about India’s unlimited liability law for nuclear operators in the country. It also reportedly resolved the problem of keeping track of nuclear materials provided by the U.S to India. Even if no sales result from the agreement, the two governments can affirm that they have met their obligations and created an acceptable mechanism that private firms can use if they so choose.

The liability law threatened to undo the nuclear deal that started under Bush and continued to be worked out under Obama, so it is encouraging that the two governments appear to have resolved this issue to their mutual satisfaction. Considering the potential for deterioration in relations following the BJP victory under Modi last year, the subsequent improvement in U.S.-Indian relations has been all the more notable and welcome. Credit is due to the leaders of both governments, who have made a point of cultivating a better relationship over the last year.

Obama had an opportunity following Modi’s election to solidify U.S.-Indian ties, and fortunately he took advantage of it. Though he did not neglect India nearly as much as hawkish critics claimed, he made a more concerted effort in the last year to improve the relationship than he had before and it appears to have paid off. For his part, Modi chose not to let his old visa issue sour relations with Washington from the start, but instead decided to pursue a constructive relationship with the U.S. regardless of how he had been treated in the past. Washington will have to accept that India is going to continue taking different positions on a number of international issues, but that shouldn’t get in the way of increased cooperation between our governments. As long as the U.S. doesn’t set unrealistic goals for what closer ties with India can provide, there is great potential for a constructive relationship that stands to benefit both countries.

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The U.S.-Israel Relationship and “Reckless Driving”

Jeffrey Goldberg declares Netanyahu’s speech in March to be a “disaster” for him and Israel. Towards the end of his article he says something rather odd:

It is immaterial whether an Israeli prime minister finds an American president agreeable or not. A sitting president cannot be written off by a small, dependent ally, without terrible consequences [bold mine-DL].

That is the way one would expect things to work between a patron and a client, but I have yet to see any sign that there will be any “terrible consequences” to follow. Netanyahu’s stunt may encourage a few more “pro-Israel” politicians to root for his opponents in the upcoming elections, and it might give his domestic critics an opening to attack him, but he’s operating on a reasonably safe assumption that there won’t be serious consequences for Israel’s relationship with the U.S. no matter what he does. Democrats may dislike him more as a result, but that seems unlikely to translate into any change in the way that they view the relationship with Israel. The client shouldn’t be able to act this way in a normal relationship, which is just more proof of how lopsided and unhealthy the relationship has been for a long time.

This latest episode is a good example of the phenomenon that Barry Posen has described as “reckless driving” by U.S. allies and clients. The U.S. enables some of our allies and clients to behave irresponsibly because they take for granted that the U.S. will always be there to bail them out. In this case, the head of the Israeli government feels confident that he can behave irresponsibly in his dealings with Washington because he seems sure that there will be no real consequences for Israel for his behavior.

Netanyahu can’t be “punished” in any meaningful way without significantly changing the U.S.-Israel relationship, and that is exactly what “pro-Israel” politicians in Congress won’t support. This is what comes of being so reflexively and unconditionally supportive of another state: the people in charge of its government become accustomed that support, and they come to expect the one-sided relationship will continue no matter what happens. Since very few politicians are willing to be seen as anything less than staunchly “pro-Israel,” the other government has every reason to expect that the one-sided relationship will remain the same. Maybe one day that won’t be true anymore, but it probably isn’t something Netanyahu has to worry about.

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The Unbearable Fakeness of Being Romney

Wikimedia Commons

Romney still doesn’t understand why so many people dislike him:

If he runs again in 2016, Romney is determined to re-brand himself as authentic [bold mine-DL], warts and all, and central to that mission is making public what for so long he kept private.

The article says that he would talk more about his religious background in another campaign, but this isn’t going to fix anything. The biggest problem that Romney had as a candidate wasn’t that he couldn’t talk openly about his religious beliefs, but that he so frequently altered or abandoned his political positions. He seemed willing to say almost anything to win an election, and he gave the impression that he had very few political views that weren’t negotiable or for sale. As a politician, Romney has always seemed phony, and he has encouraged people to perceive him that way by trying to be whatever his intended audience wanted him to be. And nothing could be more phony than to try to “re-brand himself as authentic.” Maybe authenticity is overrated in our political culture, but if it means anything it is something that can’t be invented as part of a “re-branding” exercise. The fact that Romney doesn’t seem to understand this guarantees that whatever persona he assumes in another campaign will be correctly perceived to be just as fake as all of the others that have preceded it.

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Republicans and Foreign Policy Restraint

Noah Millman makes some bleak observations about the electorate and foreign policy:

Meanwhile, I increasingly suspect that there is no actual peace constituency in the Republican party, but rather a below-the-surface unease about the kinds of people who are making decisions about war and peace for our country. And part of the price of admission to proving you are the right kind of person to trust with our national security is believing in American exceptionalism and standing with our allies and all of that – that is to say: speaking the language of the hawks.

Millman could be right about this, but I don’t think that’s true. The peace constituency in the GOP is obviously not a majority of the party’s supporters, but it exists and existed even during the Bush years. At least a fifth to a quarter of Republicans were against the Iraq war from fairly early on, and by last year only 58% of Republicans were willing to say that invading had been the right decision. That number is appallingly high, but it continues to drop as the failure of the Iraq war becomes harder for its former supporters to deny. That doesn’t make for a huge Republican constituency against unnecessary wars, and so far it doesn’t have many people to represent it, but it’s there all the same. I also suspect that there is much more support for foreign policy restraint among Republicans than there would be for any particular “peace candidate.” There is no great appetite among Republicans (or any other Americans) for prolonged nation-building missions, perpetual war, or the constant meddling in virtually every crisis that hegemonists insist on, but that is what their party leaders keep backing at every opportunity.

When Republican voters are consistently presented with arguments that show that our many wars of choice have been and continue to be unnecessary for U.S. security, we may find that there are many fewer hawks among than anyone supposes. One problem is that there is almost no one making those arguments to Republican voters, and those that do are heavily outnumbered among elected officials and conservative pundits. Almost all movement and party elites insist on knee-jerk hawkishness as the default and only appropriate view, so that is the view that most Republicans encounter on a regular basis. Until these voters are regularly presented with a clear alternative to what their leaders have been offering them, the hawks will continue to drive the debate.

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Has Rubio Been Underestimated?

Michael Brendan Dougherty thinks that Rubio is being underestimated as a presidential candidate:

But Rubio has charisma, at least the sort that works in American politics. He’s an impressive campaigner. And he can give a good speech. Even in a crowded GOP field, Rubio could be a formidable candidate.

Dougherty is right that Rubio’s immigration foibles alone are not reason enough to dismiss his chances. If support for some form of immigration amnesty disqualified Republican candidates from receiving the nomination, neither George W. Bush or John McCain would have ever been GOP standard-bearers. The bigger problem that Rubio has on that issue is that he is closely identified with endorsing part of Obama’s agenda, and apart from the debacle over the Senate immigration bill one would be hard-pressed to think of anything that he has done in the Senate except to call for more foreign wars, attack diplomacy with Iran, and defend a bankrupt Cuba policy.

Rubio has gone out of his way to give himself McCain’s political profile (i.e., pro-immigration, comically hard-line on foreign policy) without the rest of McCain’s biography, and in a party that is relatively more conservative than it was seven years ago that is a terrible place to be. Yes, McCain won the nomination in 2008, but that was after he had run against Bush and after he had served in the Senate for decades. A Rubio campaign now would be far more quixotic than McCain’s 2000 run. There are already a number of other better-funded, better-known candidates that fill the space that he would occupy as a candidate, and it is very difficult to see what Rubio offers–apart from delivering speeches well–that the other likely candidates don’t. In a less crowded, very different field of candidates, maybe Rubio would be formidable. In this cycle, he is more likely to be a distant also-ran, and if he’s not careful he’ll end up being a footnote.

P.S. When recalling McCain’s presidential campaigns, we shouldn’t forget the extremely friendly media coverage he received in 2000 and the generally positive coverage he got prior to winning the nomination in 2008. Rubio won’t have anything comparable to that.

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What the Iran Hawks Hope to Gain from Netanyahu’s Speech

James Zogby comments on the Netanyahu speech controversy:

The Boehner-Netanyahu insult to the president may get cheers from some weak-kneed members of Congress in both parties, but it won’t sway voters either in Israel or the U.S. And if Congress attempts to buck the president by passing new sanctions legislation, he will, as promised, veto the bill. And so it appears that the instigators of this entire affair will get little more than a black eye for their efforts.

I hope Zogby is right about this, but that’s still not much consolation. Netanyahu and the Iran hawks here in the U.S. may lose on new sanctions legislation in the near term, but they are likely to get away with their outrageous behavior without suffering any real political consequences. We can hope that Israeli voters will recoil from Netanyahu’s abuse of their country’s foreign policy for his own political ends, but there are many examples of how nationalist leaders are rewarded by their voters for acting this way. This episode has made clear how committed both Netanyahu and Republican leaders are to a mindless, hard-line Iran policy, and at the moment the only thing that is keeping their sabotage from working is the fact that Obama can veto the legislation.

If Iran hawks are getting a black eye from this, it must be the most well-concealed black eye in a long time. Before the invitation was announced, there was never any realistic chance that the GOP could have rounded up enough Democratic votes to override a presidential veto, so losing a few Democratic votes for a new sanctions bill isn’t that important. The Republicans can still easily pass the bill, Obama will have to veto it, and then they will raise a hue and cry about the terrible “appeasement” that they are trying to prevent. They probably would have preferred to dress up the bill’s passage as a “bipartisan” effort, but that obviously doesn’t matter to them. What matters to them is staking out a maximalist position on Iran so that they can denounce the administration for being “weak,” and having Netanyahu openly taking their side in this fashion helps them do that.

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Walker and Foreign Policy

Jim Antle sees an opportunity for Scott Walker on foreign policy, but points out some of the potential pitfalls:

The first is that less interventionist conservatives feel burned by Bush’s “humble foreign policy” talk in 2000 and would likely want assurances of the kind that would get Walker in trouble with his party’s hawks, which is probably a no-go. The second is that candidates polling where Walker is, even a year out, usually lose the Republican nomination. It’s not entirely clear he’s even a likelier nominee than Paul.

Antle is correct that Walker has so far “said the least that will automatically repel realists, libertarians, and others on the right looking for a more cautious and restrained approach to military force abroad,” but that’s mainly because he has had so little so say on these issues. Insofar as he has said anything about foreign policy, he has given antiwar conservatives and libertarians no reason to think that he is any different from the hawkish crowd. Worse, he seems to rely excessively on buzzwords and tired Reagan nostalgia when he does talk about these things, which is usually a sign that a candidate hasn’t given it much thought. The best that can be said about his position on using torture on detainees is that he has pathetically dodged the question in the past. It doesn’t help that his ghostwriter remains one of the top defenders of the use of torture.

Based on the reaction to his speech in Iowa over the weekend, Walker appears to have had the broadest appeal of any of the attendees, but then it also helped him that many of his policy views are unknown. Other would-be 2016 candidates encounter more resistance within the party because they have taken at least one or two high-profile positions that split Republicans. Walker appears to be a “consensus” candidate because he has been focused thus far on issues that don’t create these divisions. Perhaps he will be able to sneak through a crowded field by being the least polarizing candidate in a contest that is full of them, but it is also possible for a candidate to be so generic and dull that few people see any reason to prefer him. Walker hasn’t given Republican voters strong reasons to oppose him as the nominee, but there isn’t a very strong argument for why they should want him more than any of the others. That is a problem that dogged another Midwestern governor touted as a “consensus” alternative in 2012, and it didn’t work out very well for him.

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No One Will Have to Answer for the Libyan War

Michael Brendan Dougherty expects Clinton to continue escaping public scrutiny for her role in the Libyan intervention:

My prediction is that absent Paul winning the nomination, Clinton will never again face a tough question about Libya. But as a matter of honesty for our nation, and justice for the people of Libya, she owes us her answers.

Dougherty’s prediction is almost certainly right. That isn’t just because most likely Republican candidates supported the war and can’t credibly criticize Clinton on Libya. There is a general aversion in our country to holding policymakers accountable for obvious failure, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Leading defenders of the Iraq war continue to speak for the GOP, and supporters of the Iraq war continue to have significant influence in the Democratic Party. Clinton’s preeminence within her party is just the most glaring example of this. If there has been virtually no accountability for the Iraq war, which was a disaster and failure on a far larger scale than the Libyan war, why should we expect the disaster of the Libyan war to create a serious political problem for its backers years later?

Most of Clinton’s Republican opponents wouldn’t even know how to start to use Libya against her, and Democratic challengers she might face that could credibly challenge her on this issue are hard to find. There is also significant resistance in Washington to admit that the U.S. and its allies wrecked Libya by taking military action. The strong bias in favor of action in response to foreign crises doesn’t allow most members of either party to fault U.S. policy for being too meddlesome. As far as a lot of our foreign policy pundits and professionals are concerned, the only thing that the U.S. can really get wrong is when it doesn’t do “enough.” Indeed, most supporters of the Libyan war will deny that Western intervention is to blame for Libya’s current state. They will point at the country’s woes and say, “This is what happens when you reject nation-building.” Perversely, most Libyan war supporters think they can get credit for the war’s “success” (i.e., killing Gaddafi) while pinning them blame for Libya’s chaos on everyone that never wanted to intervene in the first place.

The lack of accountability for the Libyan war is in some ways more dangerous for the U.S. and the rest of the world. It would be much easier to repeat something like the Libyan war because it is still considered by its supporters to be an example of how to do a “good” and “cheap” intervention, and presumably the Libyan war will be cited in future debates as an intervention that “worked.” As long as there are very few or no American casualties, some future administration will be able to wage a similarly illegal war and get away with it. There’s a depressingly good chance that this administration will be led by Clinton.

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McDonough’s Absurd Israel Claim

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Obama’s White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough made the following absurd statement on Sunday regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship:

Let’s take a step back: This is the most important relationship we have in the world [bold mine-DL].

It is nonsense to claim that the relationship with Israel is the “most important” one that the U.S. has. This isn’t some technically false statement. It is preposterous. Israel is a small client state that doesn’t contribute very much and doesn’t do much to help advance U.S. interests anywhere. There are dozens of international relationships that the U.S. has that are more important than this one, starting with our treaty allies and closest neighbors. Even if we grant that flattery of this kind is sometimes needed in diplomacy, there is really no excuse for indulging in such over-the-top dishonesty. It is definitely the wrong way to talk about a bilateral relationship when the government of the other country is going out of its way to undermine and sabotage a major U.S. diplomatic initiative.

No wonder the head of Israel’s government believes he can do whatever he wants in his dealings with the U.S. A top administration official is praising the relationship between our governments as “the most important” in the world just days after the head of their government effectively “spat” in the administration’s face (to use the word of another administration official). The “price” that Netanyahu is paying seems to involve having U.S. officials fall over themselves in public to reaffirm their enthusiasm for the relationship. That more or less guarantees that Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders in the future will know that they can do whatever they like without risking any serious damage to ties with the U.S. When presented with an opportunity to make the relationship a little less lopsided and dysfunctional, the Obama administration seems to be content to keep things just the way they are.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Antiwar Eastwood. Asawin Suebsaeng reports on Clint Eastwood’s antiwar views and how they relate to the reception of American Sniper.

Congress shouldn’t blow up negotiations with Iran. Daryl Kimball makes the case against new sanctions legislation.

A sanity check on Iran from London. Paul Pillar applauds David Cameron’s opposition to new Iran sanctions.

Prisoners of Oslo. George Hale describes the current state of Palestinian affairs.

Sirisena’s surprise. Taylor Dibbert considers the implications of Sri Lanka’s recent presidential election.

Surveying public opinion in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Gerard Toal and John O’Loughlin report on their findings from late last year.

How China got its aircraft carrier. Zachary Keck describes how China obtained the Varyag (now the Liaoning) from a Ukrainian shipbuilder.

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