Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

McCain’s tired dogma. Andrew Bacevich responds to John McCain’s Liberty Medal speech.

Yemen’s humanitarian nightmare. Asher Orkaby reviews the origins of the war on Yemen and details the cause and extent of the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

McMaster and Pompeo are given a heroes’ welcome at hawkish think tank. Curt Mills reports on the enthusiastic reception of hard-line comments from the National Security Advisor and CIA Director.

Internal rivalries crippled the Iraqi Kurds. Hannes Cerny describes how rivalries between different Kurdish parties and leaders led to the backlash against the referendum and the fall of Kirkuk.

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Trump’s Foreign Policy of Drift and Neglect

Donald Trump on the campaign trail in March 2016. Credit:Windover Way Photography

I was interested to read Rod Dreher’s interview with William Reno. Professor Reno recounts some of what he has heard from diplomats and officials in Africa regarding their reactions to U.S. foreign policy under Trump:

The exchange was with a former foreign minister of an East African country. We spoke several months ago while I was in his country to meet with army officers for my research on civil–military relations. Well read and well informed, he expressed distress over what he saw as the Trump Administration’s attack on the foundations of American power in the world. He compared Trump to Gorbachev. I was curious about this comparison, given that most Americans generally view Gorbachev in a positive light.

He explained that Russians know Gorbachev as the man who destroyed a superpower. He said that “Trump is your Gorbachev” because he is also destroying his country’s global power.

The Gorbachev comparison is notable because more than a few people made a similar claim about Obama during his presidency. This was always intended as an insult based on the assumption that Obama was presiding over and/or bringing about American decline. I suppose we could have two Gorbachev-like presidents in a row despite their having almost nothing in common with each other, but it makes me wonder if we shouldn’t look for a different comparison that matches Trump a little better.

Trump is widely perceived to be doing harm to “the foundations of American power,” and I don’t think the perception is wrong, but the manner in which he’s doing it makes the comparison with Gorbachev a little strange. If Trump is weakening the U.S., he is doing it mostly through sheer ineptitude, dangerous bluster, and an obsession with “strength.” In that respect, he risks sapping American power in much the same way that George W. Bush did starting back in 2002-03: battering and abusing alliances, threatening to start at least one war, and abandoning international agreements made under previous administrations. Bush did all of that while claiming that he was embracing America’s global “leadership” role, but the deleterious effects on American power and influence were far greater in Bush’s first term than anything Trump has done so far.

The key difference between Bush and Trump is that Trump is content to let his administration drift aimlessly on most foreign policy issues while dwelling on terrorism, Iran, and North Korea almost to the exclusion of everything else. That is one reason why Trump doesn’t value the State Department, and it helps explain why he doesn’t care that there are no appointees for most confirmable positions there. Reno describes the effect this is having abroad:

That’s fine in some respects, but combined with the weakening of the State Department and the failure to fill appointment positions, we’re left with a strategy of tactics, and that’s actually not a strategy at all. Left to its devices, the military keeps chasing bad guys and the mission creeps. There’s no guidance, no strategic thinking [bold mine-DL]. It’s bad enough that a Norwegian diplomat with whom I had lunch in an East African capital lamented that he doesn’t know who to talk to in the US embassy. Most of the experts left and no one is in charge, he said.

Based on what he has done so far, Trump appears to think that conducting foreign policy is limited to making speeches, issuing threats, ordering attacks, and escalating wars. The routine work of maintaining relationships with other governments is allowed to fall by the wayside. That doesn’t remind me of Gorbachev so much as it reminds me of an absentee landlord who can’t be bothered with the work required of him.

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The Absurd Reason Why Chad Was Included in the Travel Ban

Chad’s inclusion in the administration’s travel ban has mystified everyone following the story. It was frequently described by those with knowledge of the country and region as “baffling.” It turns out that the reason why the country was included in the ban is remarkably stupid:

As it turns out, a seemingly pedestrian issue was largely to blame: Chad had run out of passport paper.

Chad and every other country had been given 50 days to prove it was meeting a “baseline” of security conditions the Trump administration says is needed for the U.S. to properly screen potential visitors. One condition was that countries provide a recent sample of its passports so that the Homeland Security Department could analyze how secure they really are.

Lacking the special passport paper, Chad’s government couldn’t comply, but offered to provide a pre-existing sample of the same type of passport, several U.S. officials said. It wasn’t enough to persuade Homeland Security to make an exception to requirements the agency has been applying strictly and literally to countries across the globe, said the officials, who requested anonymity to discuss disagreements within the administration.

The ban as a whole has never made sense, but barring Chad’s citizens from traveling to the U.S. has driven home just how arbitrary and unreasonable the policy is. It is fitting that the cause for adding Chad to the list of banned countries should prove to be something so trivial and absurd as a temporary lack of the right kind of paper. Whatever happens in the courts, there is no doubt that Chad should be immediately removed from the list of countries whose citizens are barred from traveling here, and the administration should extend its apologies to their government for the gratuitous insult.

Joshua Keating comments on the report:

Chad was not previously known as a major source of anti-U.S. terror plots, at least no more than several countries that aren’t on the list, and is in fact considered an important regional counterterrorism partner of the U.S. We now know the answer—and it’s very dumb.

It stands to reason that an administration’s policy process that makes such an egregious error is not very serious or thorough. The decision to include Chad in the ban casts additional doubt on the merits of the entire policy and the competence of the people making it.

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McMaster’s Irresponsible and Alarming North Korea Remarks

Trump’s National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster spoke at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank this afternoon. His remarks on North Korea were particularly worrisome:

Insisting on denuclearization as the only acceptable outcome with North Korea puts the U.S. and North Korea on an unnecessary collision course that could very easily lead to war. North Korea has stated repeatedly that its nuclear weapons and missile programs are non-negotiable, and they consider them essential to the survival of their regime. Repeated threats from this administration have only made them more certain that they are correct to possess a nuclear arsenal and the means to deliver it, and McMaster’s remarks will give them another reason to think so.

The only way that denuclearization could be achieved is through war, regime change, and occupation. The costs of attempting to force North Korean denuclearization would be catastrophic for both North and South Korea and would likely be extremely high for Japan and the U.S. In the event that war led to a nuclear exchange, which is now more likely than it has been in the past, millions would perish and the entire region would be devastated for years to come. This has always seemed unthinkable because the costs would be so great and the war entirely unnecessary, but the administration’s position is nonetheless making it more likely to happen.

Calling deterrence “unacceptable” is a huge error for someone in McMaster’s position to make, and doing so publicly on multiple occasions is the worst sort of malpractice. To make matters worse, he said this later on:

That tells Kim that the U.S. is seriously contemplating an attack on his country, and that could make him think that he has nothing to lose by attacking first. If McMaster is accurately conveying the administration’s real position here, it is dangerous and stupid, and if he is only bluffing it is just as bad. The administration’s refusal to acknowledge that the U.S. cannot undo North Korea’s nuclear weapons progress short of a horrifying war risks creating a situation in which the many opportunities to avoid that war are frittered away through carelessness and arrogance.

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McCain and American Ideals

S.K.Vemmer/Department of State

Andrew Bacevich responds to a recent speech by John McCain:

I’m all for Senator McCain laying into President Trump. But let’s be honest about what’s going on here. On the one side, there’s the guy who manifestly knows nothing. On the other, there’s the guy who quite clearly has learned nothing.

I second Professor Bacevich on all of this, and I would just add a few more observations. The occasion for McCain’s speech was an event to award him the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Giving such an award to someone who has consistently supported the infringement of civil liberties in the name of security would be perverse enough, but it is even more so considering how little respect he has for the Constitution when it comes to matters of war. McCain has not only never seen a foreign war he didn’t want the U.S. to start or join over the last twenty years, but he doesn’t care when those wars are launched without Congressional authorization and shows no interest when his colleagues want to vote on new authorizations. According to the center’s website, the medal is given to those “who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over.” Whatever his intentions, the result of McCain’s efforts has mostly been to unleash death and destruction in multiple countries while the blessings of liberty usually remain elusive. Compared to other past recipients of this award, it is hard to think of someone less deserving of this honor than McCain.

As for the speech, it is difficult to square some of its contents with the record of the person delivering it. For instance, McCain warns against abandoning the “ideals we have advanced around the globe,” and says that we are “custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad,” but he has played a leading part in helping to trash them. This is a senator who praises Saudi despots for their role in turning Syria into a charnel house, embraces any gang of thugs from Kosovo to Libya to Syria that happens to rise up against a government he doesn’t like, and applauds and defends policies like the one we now have in Yemen that enable war crimes and humanitarian disasters. He talks about the benefits of “international leadership,” but in practice this “leadership” frequently amounts to dictating terms to weaker countries and bombing or invading those that say no (and McCain is always one of the first to call for an attack). At the same time, McCain links every bad foreign policy idea he has with the rhetoric of freedom and “values,” so that those things are then tarnished by the association with the endless wars he supports. If we are supposed to be custodians of American ideals, McCain has been a poor one precisely because he has been so determined to have the U.S. “lead” and meddle all over the world. Americans shouldn’t have to choose between “half-baked, spurious nationalism” and the irresponsible interventionism identified with McCain over the last two decades, but instead should reject both.

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Iran Hawks Can’t Stop Lying About the Nuclear Deal

The Wall Street Journal editors don’t like that European governments intend to honor the nuclear deal regardless of what the U.S. does:

The question for Europe is whether to double down on its investment of political capital and its own credibility in a deal Washington increasingly scorns and whose spirit Tehran habitually violates. The main trans-Atlantic crisis that could emerge will be if London, Paris and Berlin—the three EU governments that co-signed the 2015 deal—conclude that business interests with Tehran are more important than helping Washington enforce counter-proliferation measures.

Like practically every argument against the nuclear deal, this is dishonest and misleading. If there is a trans-Atlantic rift over the nuclear deal, it will happen because Trump and other Iran hawks in the U.S. have chosen to create one. Europeans shouldn’t be worried about their credibility in standing by an agreement endorsed by Britain, France, Germany, and the EU. They aren’t the ones that threaten to undermine or renege on the deal. The U.S. is damaging its credibility and needlessly straining relations with our allies by doing just that.

If our allies choose not to cooperate with Trump’s attempts to subvert the agreement by making new, unrealistic demands, they will be the ones trying to keep alive a major non-proliferation agreement in the face of reckless American bungling. They won’t be choosing “business interests with Iran” over helping Washington, because there is no help that needs to be provided. Our allies will be honoring the agreement that our government negotiated alongside them while our new administration chooses to shoot itself in the foot. The WSJ editors laughably call this “Europe’s Iranian moment of truth” when it is our government that is risking harm to our relations with allies by lying about the nuclear deal.

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A Setback for the Preposterous Travel Ban

When Trump issued the third version of his travel ban last month, I saw a number of articles that claimed that this one would be much harder to defeat in the courts because of the changes that had been made to it. So far, two different federal judges have blocked it:

A judge in Maryland has become the second federal judge in the country to block the Trump administration’s latest travel ban hours before it was set to take full effect.

U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang granted a nationwide preliminary injunction late Tuesday, after U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson in Hawaii blocked the revised ban.

These rulings may be overturned by a higher court, but it is worth noting that both of these rulings hold that the third version of the ban suffers from the same fatal flaws that plagued the last two. The arbitrary addition of Venezuela and North Korea and the baffling inclusion of Chad have not changed the fact that the main effect of the policy is to institute a blanket ban on visits from these countries’ nationals based solely on their nationality. The judge in Hawaii said that this amounts to unlawful discrimination, and if that interpretation is right there is no legal way to impose a ban as sweeping and arbitrary as this.

Even if the travel ban isn’t illegal, it remains a stupid and unnecessary policy. It is designed to counter a wildly exaggerated threat in a massive piece of security theater that bars people that pose no danger to the U.S. from traveling here. The inclusion of Chad has illustrated just how preposterous the ban is, since in their case it is being applied to a state that has closely cooperated with the U.S. on counter-terrorism. Including them in the ban may have already contributed to harming regional security:

Chad has not explained publicly why it has been withdrawing its forces, which were fighting Boko Haram militants in the region as part of a multinational task force, and was first reported by Reuters. But security analysts and former defense officials said it was likely connected to its inclusion in President Donald Trump’s new travel ban, which Chad’s government said “astonished” and “baffled” them.

“Chad did say at the time that they would review their security commitments, and it makes perfect, logical sense that they are signaling to the US ‘How about you experience us backing off for a while and see how you like it?’” said Alice Hunter Friend, the Pentagon’s former principal director for African affairs who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The national security justification for this policy has never been credible, and banning Chad’s citizens from the U.S. just underscores how irrational and ill-conceived the policy has been from the start.

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Puerto Rico’s Health Crisis

The Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort was sent to Puerto Rico to assist with relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Weeks later, almost all of its beds are empty and patients in dire need on the island are unable to reach the ship:

Sammy Rolon is living in a makeshift clinic set up at a school. He has cerebral palsy and epilepsy and is bedridden. He’s waiting for surgery that was scheduled before Hurricane Maria smashed into Puerto Rico. Now, he can’t even get the oxygen he needs.

There is help available for the 18-year-old — right offshore. A floating state-of-the-art hospital, the USNS Comfort, could provide critical care, his doctor says. But nobody knows how to get him there. And Sammy is not alone.

Clinics that are overwhelmed with patients and staff say they don’t even know how to begin sending cases to the ship. Doctors say there’s a rumor that patients have to be admitted to a central hospital before they can be transferred to the Comfort. Only 33 of the 250 beds on the Comfort — 13% — are being used, nearly two weeks after the ship arrived.

It does the people of Puerto Rico no good to have a hospital ship offshore if hundreds of people that could benefit from it can’t receive treatment on it. There are evidently some serious failures of communication and/or coordination between the military and federal and local authorities that need to be fixed right away. Anything that can alleviate the burden on the island’s strained health care system will obviously be an important improvement over the current situation.

However, that will only begin to address the island’s larger health crisis:

More than three weeks after Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, the situation remains bleak and dangerous for the infirm and the elderly. The island is running low on medicine. Many hospitals aren’t fully operational, and with the electrical grid practically wiped out, many are still running with backup generators.

Puerto Rico’s health care facilities clearly need more fuel and medicine than they are receiving, and those are shortfalls that the government and aid organizations should be able to make up. Even allowing for the difficulties in distribution, shortages of basic supplies should not be allowed to happen this many weeks after the storm.

An added danger is that accumulating trash, debris, and dead bodies on the streets are creating conditions for a major public health disaster:

Three weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, killing at least 44 people, Jose Vargas Vidot surveyed street after street lined with mounds of soaking garbage mixed with mud, trees and sometimes dead animals.

You couldn’t make a better breeding ground for rats, roaches and all sorts of nasty diseases, the public health volunteer said. And every day the fetid piles stay there, the risk of an epidemic grows.

“We’re already building the next disaster,” he said.

When we combine this with the contamination of water sources and the lack of potable water for hundreds of thousands of people that I discussed yesterday, we have the makings of a very serious crisis. Puerto Rico still needs a great deal more assistance, and it will need that assistance for a long time to come.

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End the Wrecking and Starving of Yemen

Asher Orkaby reviews the origins of the war on Yemen and describes the horrible humanitarian catastrophe that it has created. Here he notes that the Saudis’ justification for the intervention was made up to win international backing:

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab nations from the Gulf Cooperation Council launched a military campaign to push back the Houthis and restore the government. Saudi Arabia presented the intervention as a response to the threat of Iranian expansionism, arguing that the Houthis were effectively an Iranian proxy. This won it the support of other Arab countries and the United States. Yet Saudi rhetoric has grossly misrepresented Iran’s role in the conflict. Although some small arms and money have flowed from Iran to the Houthis, the amounts are not large, and there is no real Houthi-Iranian alliance [bold mine-DL].

It has been common in Western coverage of the war to frame it as a “proxy war” between the Saudis and Iran, and also to describe it primarily in sectarian terms, but both of these are inaccurate and have been promoted by the Saudis and their Western supporters to obscure the real reasons for the conflict. Hawkish supporters of the war on Yemen have been eager to echo Saudi claims about Iranian “expansionism” because it dovetails with their other alarmist claims about Iran’s role in the region, and it somehow makes the wrecking and starving of Yemen more acceptable to our political class if it is being done for anti-Iranian reasons. Regardless, the war is indefensible, and the U.S. should have no part in it. Because the U.S. has backed the war from the start, it is incumbent on our government and the public to bring it to an end and attempt to repair the damage that has been done to Yemen.

The famine and cholera crises that the Saudi-led campaign and blockade have caused are the worst in the world. Orkaby reminds us of the details:

The intervention, which began as a series of air strikes against Houthi military targets, has morphed into an attempt to destroy Yemen’s economic infrastructure in order to turn public opinion away from the Houthi movement and its anti-Saudi stance. Hospitals, factories, water mains, sewage facilities, bridges, and roads have all been demolished in bombing raids. The Saudi coalition, with help from the United States, has blockaded Yemen’s ports and rendered it dangerous for civilian aircraft to fly over the country, making it difficult for aid agencies or businesses to bring goods into Sanaa’s airport and for wounded Yemenis to go abroad for treatment [bold mine-DL].

Yemen’s economy, already weak, has collapsed under the pressure. For many Yemenis, buying food or medicine is now difficult or impossible. According to the UN, two-thirds of Yemen’s 28 million people face food shortages and do not have access to clean water. Seven million of them live in areas on the brink of famine, and nearly two million Yemeni children are acutely malnourished [bold mine-DL]. Without working public services, rubbish and sewage have piled up on the streets and leached into drinking wells. Since April, cholera, which spreads in contaminated water, has infected over 600,000 people, killing more than 2,000.

As Reuters reported earlier this month, the widespread malnutrition and famine are the result of the coalition blockade. The cholera epidemic has become even worse than it was when Orkaby was writing this, as there are now over 840,000 cases. The Red Cross estimates that there will over one million by the end of the year, and that is probably a conservative estimate. Millions of lives are threatened by starvation and preventable disease, these crises are being caused in large part because of the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed campaign and blockade, and the suffering of the civilian population could be significantly ameliorated if those were brought to an end.

The Trump administration has shown no sign of halting its support for the coalition or pressuring the Saudis to end their failed war. If it is left up to the executive, U.S. support for the war will never end, and that is why Congress must assert itself to end our involvement. That is why it is imperative that the House pass H. Con. Res. 81 next month. The vote is expected to be held on November 2, so there is still time to contact your representatives and urge them to support the resolution. The House will have the opportunity to repudiate the disgraceful support that the U.S. has been providing to the coalition, and I urge them to take it.

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The Wrecking of the State Department Hasn’t Stopped

The State Department (Wikimedia Commons)

Jason Zengerle’s long profile of Rex Tillerson recounts how Trump’s Secretary of State has presided over the wrecking of the State Department. I was struck by this passage describing the workload that has fallen on the head of the department’s office of policy planning:

With so many crucial assistant-secretary positions — including some responsible for Asia, the Middle East, and South America — still either vacant or filled with acting officials, Hook has had to pick up the slack. “He’s trying to do the job of 30 people [bold mine-DL],” a 25-year veteran Foreign Service officer says. “He’s just knee-walking.” Worse, the office of policy planning, which has traditionally functioned as the secretary of state’s in-house think tank, is now tasked with handling day-to-day operations at the expense of formulating long-term strategy [bold mine-DL].

Any organization that is hemorrhaging people and doesn’t fill countless vacancies is going to be dysfunctional and ineffective in whatever it tries to do. That is what has been happening in the State Department all year, and it doesn’t appear that things will change anytime soon. Career department officials can be forgiven for assuming that the purpose of gutting the department has been to make it so useless that it can be ignored. If Hook is stuck doing the jobs of 30 people, he can’t possibly be doing any of their jobs or his own well. That’s not a criticism of him, but a statement of the obvious. Even if the people still working the department are superhuman, there is only so much time and attention that they can devote to “picking up the slack” for all the positions that remain unfilled. In practice, that means that there won’t be enough people to do the basic work of maintaining relationships and representing the U.S. in international fora. It also means that important warning signs of potential problems and possible openings for diplomatic engagement are going to be missed because people at the department are too busy trying to keep their heads above water.

There was another anecdote about Hook that provides an example of how department officials are being demoralized:

I noted that on his conference table he had a book by Daniel W. Drezner, an international-politics professor at Tufts University who writes regularly for The Washington Post website and is a frequent critic of Trump and of Tillerson. In fact, just that morning, Drezner had published a column calling on Tillerson to resign. I jokingly told Hook that he might want to hide the book. Instead, R.C. Hammond, Tillerson’s communications director, who was sitting in on the interview, immediately seized it.

“This is the guy who has the thing at The Post?” Hammond asked Hook. “Where’s your trash can?” He made as if he was going to throw the book across Hook’s office. Hook raised his hand to block Hammond.

“No!” Hook said. “It’s a book on policy planning! This was written before Rex Tillerson was even considered.”

“Trash can,” Hammond reiterated [bold mine-DL]. Hook kept his hand up. The fifth of Bombay gin and the liter bottle of tonic water on his desk suddenly made more sense.

Note that the book had nothing to do with Tillerson or Trump, but was concerned with the subject that Hook is supposed to know about in order to do his job. Because it happened to be written by someone who later became a critic of Hammond’s boss, Hammond wanted Hook to throw it away and disregard what it said. If that is the environment that department officials have to work in, it is a small miracle that there is anyone left.

As I’ve said before, the wrecking of the State Department matters for a few reasons. It is driving out career diplomats with decades of experience and relevant regional and policy knowledge that this administration in particular desperately needs. It is discouraging talented people from wanting to work there, and so ensures that the damage to the institution won’t stop in four or eight years. Finally, it is seriously harming the main institution in our government that specializes in matters of diplomacy and development, and the weaker that institution becomes the more militarized our foreign policy will be to the overall detriment of the country and the world.

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