Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Dean of the realists. Tom Switzer reviews the career and thought of Owen Harries in the current issue of TAC.

Why did Turkey attack a Russian plane? Philip Giraldi considers the possibility that the downing of the Russian jet was planned.

Europe and the war on ISIS. Leon Hadar makes the case that leading European governments should assume responsibility for the war.

Have a plan to defeat ISIS? Show your work. Christopher Preble challenges the presidential candidates to explain how their proposals will achieve their stated goals.

5 inconvenient truths about the war on ISIS. Ted Galen Carpenter lists the things that many supporters of the war don’t want to acknowledge.

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Cotton’s Unhinged Syria Policy

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Tom Cotton’s views on Russia and Syria are predictably bizarre and dangerous:

Rather than being a constructive partner, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been engaged in a proxy war against the United States in Syria [bold mine-DL], despite Obama’s protestations to the contrary. And when an enemy wages war against the United States [bold mine-DL], it does not get to choose whether it is at war; its only choice is to win or lose. Right now, the United States is losing the proxy war in Syria—and a wider competition for regional influence—against Russia.

Cotton is a hard-line fanatic, as this passage makes very clear. He presents Russian support for the Syrian government against anti-regime forces as a “war against the United States.” This is not only false, but it erases vitally important distinctions between the ineffectual proxies that the U.S. has foolishly chosen to back and the U.S. itself. Treating attacks on proxies as a war against your country throws away any advantage that might come from using proxies in a conflict. It also presents our meddling in that conflict as if it were essential to our national security when it is anything but that.

Cotton is pushing for more aggressive measures (namely establishing a “no-fly zone” and “safe haven” and increased backing for anti-regime forces) in a foreign civil war by dishonestly framing it as a response to a war being waged upon the U.S. when nothing of the kind is happening. He refers to Russia as trying to “spark a proxy war against the United States in Syria” when the U.S. and its allies and clients have been the ones trying to overthrow a Russian client regime for the last several years. Increasing our hostility to that regime and doing more to seek its collapse as Cotton wishes to do have nothing to do with making the U.S. or our allies more secure, and they guarantee increased tensions with Moscow and possibly a direct conflict with Russian forces. In place of a proxy war, Cotton would risk a major war with a nuclear-armed state.

The reality is that the U.S. inserted itself into Syria’s civil war when it had nothing at stake, and has no need now to escalate its commitment on behalf of its proxies. The last thing that the U.S. should do is heed Cotton’s reckless advice for a more confrontational and aggressive policy towards Russia in Syria and eleswhere.

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The Downing of the Russian Jet and the Folly of Intervention

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Philip Giraldi considers the possibility that the Turkish downing of the Russian jet along the Turkish-Syrian border was planned:

Why a relatively minor incursion, if it indeed took place, would warrant a shoot down has to be questioned unless it was actually a Turkish plan to engage a Russian plane as soon as it could be plausibly claimed that there had been a violation of airspace.

Why would the Turks do that? Because Russia is supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, apparently with considerable success, and Turkey has been extremely persistent in their demands that he be removed.

Someone might object that the Turkish government would have to be extremely foolish to take such a risk, but then Turkey’s policy in the Syria for the last four years has been nothing if not foolish. Turkey has proven to be a mostly useless ally in the fight against ISIS, but it is now proving to be nothing but a liability on all matters relating to Syria.

The Russians are also thinking that Turkey may have planned to do this:

Turkey may have planned to shoot down a Russian warplane near its border amid questions over its support for Syrian rebels, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

“We have serious doubts that this was an unpremeditated act,” Lavrov told reporters in Moscow on Wednesday. “It looks very much like a planned provocation” and the question arises whether Turkey is defending areas of Syria to protect rebel infrastructure, he said.

The surviving Russian pilot claims that he received no warning before being attacked. While we should be skeptical of that claim, it contradicts a large part of the Turkish government’s story and suggests that the decision to shoot down the plane was unnecessary. Fortunately, it appears that neither government is ready to use this incident as a pretext for a larger conflict, but it shows how dangerous it can be for outside states to meddle in Syria’s civil war. This incident should be a sobering warning for everyone in the West that wants to impose a “no-fly zone” in Syria, and it should make us realize how unwise it is for outside patrons to be risking a major war for the sake of their proxies in Syria.

The downing of the Russian jet is the sort of thing that some of the more aggressive Syria hawks here in the U.S. have been demanding the U.S. do on behalf of its anti-regime proxies in Syria. The difference is that our hawks want to shoot down Russian jets inside Syria where there is not even a pretext to hide behind. We’re now seeing just how reckless that is in practice. The result has not been to dissuade Russia from attacking anti-regime groups or to stay away from certain parts of Syria, but rather has prompted it to become even more stubbornly committed to its bad decision to intervene:

Russia sent an advanced missile system to Syria on Wednesday to protect its jets operating there and pledged its air force would keep flying missions near Turkish air space, sounding a defiant note after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet.

Luckily, this incident won’t lead to a wider war, but that is not something that the U.S. or any of its allies should be willing to risk again. This ought to discredit even further the reckless Syria proposals coming from our presidential candidates, and it should make clear why agitating for a more aggressive policy in Syria aimed at attacking the Syrian government is so irresponsible.

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Trump and Republican Foreign Policy

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Contrary to the hopes of many party elites, the recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the Near East haven’t weakened Trump’s position in the nomination contest:

National Security ranks as the top issue for many Republican voters after this month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, Mali, Beirut and Egypt. But, to the dismay of the GOP establishment and more experienced candidates, the new foreign policy focus isn’t shuffling the standings in the party’s presidential primary.

The assumption that the attacks would drive voters toward more “experienced” candidates favored by party elites never made much sense. After all, virtually none of the candidates has any significant foreign policy experience, and in general the Republican primary electorate has been allergic to candidates that have substantial governing experience. There is no reason why an electorate hungry for “outsider” candidates would become more interested in conventional politicians because of a few terrorist attacks overseas. Insofar as Republican voters perceive the conventional politicians in the field to be part of a failed political class, high-profile events that further undermine their confidence in the political class can only benefit the candidates that are perceived to be most hostile to or separate from it.

The hope for Rubio, Bush, et al. has been that eventually voters would tire of the completely unprepared candidates that don’t know anything about policy, but as we have already seen for months Trump and Carson supporters don’t care that their candidates know little or nothing about policy. Now that the conversation has shifted to national security and foreign policy instead of immigration, that just gives the “outsider” candidates different subjects to use to their advantage. Trump’s blunt and heavy-handed nationalist rhetoric seems to appeal much more broadly among Republican voters than the dangerous proposals of the other hawkish candidates that want to get the U.S. mired ever more deeply in Syria’s civil war. More to the point, Trump’s lack of foreign policy experience doesn’t hurt him as much in a field in which most of his competitors have little or none of their own. When one of the supposedly most “experienced” candidates is a first-term senator with an exaggerated reputation for expertise, Trump’s unmistakable ignorance has been less of a liability than it likely would have been in decades past.

Meanwhile, Trump’s obnoxious and combative style probably serves him well when he’s trying to win over hawkish voters. The article quotes Tim Pawlenty making just this point:

“I don’t think these developments (terror attacks) hurt Trump in any way because his brashness will be equated with toughness. And for some voters that will be all they hear or all they want to know.”

It is fitting that party elites that have emphasized superficial shows of “toughness” and “resolve” as proof of foreign policy preparedness are now being beaten by a demagogic showman who outperforms their preferred candidates by routinely making such empty gestures to win votes. Having elevated ignorant and inexperienced candidates to be nominee in the recent past (e.g., Bush in 2000 and Romney in 2012), the GOP is ill-prepared to reject a candidate on account of his lack of knowledge or relevant experience. The same people that have treated gut instinct and ideological conformity as the only things that really matter in foreign policy are now deservedly stuck with a loudmouth nationalist who understands virtually nothing about the issues but worships “strength” above all else.

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McCain’s Panicked Alarmism

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Michael Brendan Dougherty doesn’t think much of hawkish criticisms of Obama on Syria, but that doesn’t mean he approves of our Syria policy:

Obama’s foreign policy in Syria has been stupid. But the Republican response to it has descended into gibbering insanity.

I thought “gibbering insanity” might be a bit harsh when I first read this, but then John McCain reminded me that this accurately describes a lot of hawkish Republican criticism of Obama’s entire foreign policy record. Responding to a Dave Weigel question about the 2008 election, McCain said this:

I had no idea that some seven years later that this world would be facing the most crises since World War II and the most crises since the end of World War II.

There is no sense in which this statement is true. The world is not going through “the most crises” in seventy years or anything close to it. Certainly none of our current crises poses the same risk to international peace and security that several Cold War-era crises did, and none of them could unless Graham and friends get their way and start shooting down Russian planes over Syria. At almost any time during the Cold War, there were many more conflicts, upheavals, and crises around the world than there are today, and yet somehow our political leaders were not constantly panicking about them as much as so many of our politicians are now. In spite of some serious conflicts in a few parts of the world, the world as a whole is relatively more peaceful than it has been over the last several generations. There are undoubtedly enduring problems in many parts of the world, but compared to almost any previous decade of the last century the world is overall in better shape than it has been in the lifetimes of anyone now alive. That should be something to be welcomed and to be kept in mind amid all the alarmism and agitation for more military intervention, but it doesn’t fit with the bogus “world is literally about to blow up” narrative that McCain and Graham want to promote.

Obviously McCain has several political and ideological axes to grind here and should never be taken seriously on foreign policy for many other reasons, but the danger is that many Americans wrongly think that the world is just as chaotic and crisis-ridden as McCain claims. One reason for this is that McCain and Graham can make outlandish statements about how horrible the state of the world is, and yet they are rarely called out for their shameless fear-mongering and self-serving rhetoric. Their claims are treated as reasonable by journalists, and as a result readers and viewers that are paying limited attention to these issues take these claims far more seriously than they should. Another is that only the worst and most destructive events overseas receive significant coverage here in the U.S., and media outlets have strong incentives to exaggerate and hype these events to hold the public’s attention, which makes the irresponsible and false claims from the McCains in the debate seem less ridiculous. Our foreign policy debate is also slanted heavily in favor of politicians and pundits that make outrageous-but-combative statements about foreign threats and the state of the world, so there are very few people in the debate making the case against threat inflation and alarmism. That creates a situation in which absolutely untrue statements like the one McCain made go largely unchallenged.

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Rubio the Inflexible Hawk

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As I was reading Evan Osnos’ long profile of Rubio and his “political dexterity,” I was struck by this section near the end:

Hillary Clinton favors an activist American foreign policy, and Rubio mentioned to me that he was rereading “The Last Lion,” by William Manchester. He said, “It’s this book about Churchill. It’s really long. Only because I’m just so fascinated by the leadership he provided.” He went on, “Churchill was a guy who was largely ignored through much of the thirties as a warmonger, and a guy that was crying wolf, and Chamberlain was this heroic figure that was going to achieve peace in our time by diplomacy. And I think, in many cases, we’re kind of at a similar moment, where many of us, including myself, are warning about dangers that are percolating around the world and what they could turn into [bold mine-DL]. Whether it’s Iran, Russia, China, North Korea, or radical Islam.”

This is a revealing quote that shows just how predictable and ideologically hawkish Rubio is. Of course Rubio is reading a biography of Churchill, and of course he’s “so fascinated” by his leadership. While he may not be explicitly identifying himself as the Churchill of our time, he is using the same tired, uninspired rhetoric that hawks have been using for decades by invoking the 1930s and comparing that time to current events. Santorum has done something similar in the past when he ran for re-election and again when he ran for president in the last cycle. This isn’t just a hackneyed line. It shows how badly Rubio is misjudging the current state of the world.

It bears repeating that the world today is nothing like it was in the 1930s in terms of international security, and the “dangers that are percolating around the world” are all much less severe and threatening. In every generation there are hawks that fancy that they are issuing prescient warnings about growing foreign threats, but they usually end up proving that they are just easily provoked alarmists. Given what we’ve heard from Rubio just in the last few days since the Paris attacks, that describes Rubio very well. Judging from his first national television ad, that is how he wants to be known.

The odd thing about this part of the profile is that Rubio’s foreign policy is one area where he hasn’t usually displayed the same opportunism that we see in the rest of the article. No one would ever mistake Rubio for a realist or non-interventionist, and he has never tried to make people think that he was one. On these issues, Rubio appears to be a hard-line true believer, and at least since he has been on the national stage he has never hinted at being anything else. When Osnos asks him “if his instinct for intervention was out of step with a generation that is exhausted by war and confrontation,” Rubio responds sharply with a rote recitation of the importance of U.S. “leadership”:

He responded instantly: “We’re not Luxembourg. We’re the United States of America—the highest-profile, most important, most influential country in the world.” He went on, “And we may ignore problems that exist far away, but those problems don’t ignore us. America, in the world today, is the only nation capable of convening collective action.”

Between his excessive confidence in the ability of the U.S. to handle foreign problems, his enthusiasm for U.S. “leadership” for a “new American century,” and his extremely dangerous and confrontational approach to every international crisis or conflict, Rubio is showing that when it comes to foreign policy he has none of the dexterity or flexibility that is often ascribed to him.

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Clinton’s Reckless and Flawed Syria Policy

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Scott McConnell points out that Clinton’s CFR speech last week contained some reckless statements and proposals:

In other words, not six days after ISIS slaughtered 130 people in Paris; a few more after it brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt and blew up a Hezbollah neighborhood in Beirut, Hillary Clinton is calling for tougher measures against… wait for it… ISIS’s enemies in the Mideast.

Specifically, Clinton reiterated her call for a “no-fly zone” in Syria and endorsed safe zones that she claimed could be protected by “opposition forces.” In other words, she would commit the U.S. to attacking Syrian air defenses, which means starting a war with the Syrian government and risking one with the Russians, and she would create “safe” zones that would likely become vulnerable targets for both regime forces and ISIS. These measures expose the U.S. to unacceptable risks and would involve the U.S. to be fighting two sides of a civil war at the same time.

Clinton’s plan suffers from many of the same flaws as Bush’s. Both of them talk about getting additional contributions and changes in behavior from allies and clients, but neither of them can explain how the U.S. will persuade any of them to cooperate. For instance, Clinton says that “we need to get Turkey to stop bombing Kurdish fighters in Syria who are battling ISIS, and become a full partner in our coalition efforts against ISIS.” Maybe we need that, but that doesn’t mean that Turkey is going to stop prioritizing its hostility to Kurdish groups. Clinton seems to think that because we “need” another government to change its behavior that its behavior can be made to change. The larger problem with Turkish involvement in the coalition is that Ankara has been obsessed with toppling Assad, which is one reason why they have been so dilatory and negligent when it comes to opposing ISIS.

She goes on to address the Gulf states’ lack of support for the war on ISIS:

At the moment, they’re focused in other areas because of their concerns in the region, especially the threat from Iran. That’s why the Saudis, for example, shifted attention from Syria to Yemen. So we have to work out a common approach.

Clinton doesn’t spell out what this means, but the fact that she talks about “the threat from Iran” in Yemen as if it were credible suggests that she doesn’t disagree with what the Saudis and their allies have been doing for the last eight months. She also offers no hint of what this “common approach” would yield. She does make clear that her administration would be even more fixated on “reassuring” our lousy clients in the region and would be even more inclined to share their paranoia about Iran than the U.S. already is:

Raising the confidence of our Arab partners and raising the costs to Iran for bad behavior will contribute to a more effective fight against ISIS.

That assumption seems entirely unfounded. For the last eight months in Yemen, the U.S. has sought to “raise the confidence” of these clients by supposedly “raising the costs” for Iran, and the result has been the effective abandonment of the war on ISIS by those clients while Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, ISIS, and Iran benefit in different ways. Indulging our bad clients in their anti-Iranian obsession isn’t going to make them more effective or useful in combating jihadists. We have seen very clearly for the last several years that they have little or no interest in doing the latter and want to devote their attention and resources to opposing Iran and its allies (real or imagined), and they will be only too happy to keep doing that. Like other Syria hawks, Clinton would indulge Turkey and the Gulf states in their preoccupation with Iran and Assad even though it comes at the expense of the war on ISIS.

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Yemen and the War on ISIS

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Matt Purple wonders if the renewed focus on the war on ISIS will cause the U.S. to drop its support for the war on Yemen:

The United States is bankrolling this distraction by providing equipment and logistics to those attacking Yemen. That bloody little war was always a bad idea. Will we finally withdraw our support and nudge our Sunni allies back to the real fight?

It’s a good question, but we already know what the answer is: no, the U.S. won’t withdraw its support, and the clients that are waging the war on Yemen will continue to neglect the “real fight” because it isn’t the fight that matters to them. Contributions from the Gulf states to the campaign against ISIS were minimal from the start and were never going to be that great. Their support for the “broad coalition” was useful primarily in that it allowed the U.S. to point to regional support for the intervention in Iraq and Syria. No one seriously expected the Gulf states to do more than mount a token effort, because it was understood that this was all that would be offered. When you hear presidential candidates boast that they will use U.S. “leadership” to form a regional Sunni military force to wage a ground war in Syria, as Rubio has done recently, it is safe to laugh at them.

The relatively much greater commitment that the Saudis and their Gulf allies have made in Yemen reflects how much more they care about combating Iranian influence even when there is scarcely any Iranian influence to combat. The campaign in Yemen diverts their resources from what Washington considers the higher priority, but our clients have never seen the war on ISIS this way and it seems unlikely that they are going to start. The U.S. ought to stop supporting the Saudis and their allies in Yemen, but that would be the right and smart thing to do regardless of the effect it might have on any other issue. Unfortunately, we can be fairly sure that isn’t going to happen.

Even if the U.S. withdrew its support from the war on Yemen and prevailed on the coalition governments to halt their campaign and blockade, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that they would increase their support for the war on ISIS. This article helps explain why:

“The Gulf states are pursuing contradictory policies,” suggests Abdullah Saleh Baabood, an Omani academic. “On the one hand there is this official undertaking to fight Daesh but at the same time they are involved in a struggle against what they consider to be the Shia/Persian domination of the region. Yes, they want to be seen to be helping their allies but they are deeply concerned about domestic views. They don’t want to be seen to be fighting Sunnis [bold mine-DL]. It is a very difficult situation for them.”

The U.S. wants these client states in the anti-ISIS coalition because their countries are predominantly Sunni, and yet it is because of sectarian considerations that they would rather focus on attacking the allies and proxies (real and imagined) of Iran. The thing that supposedly makes these states valuable in opposing ISIS is what makes them ignore the fight against ISIS in favor of attacking Shi’ites and their allies across the region. The U.S. should end its involvement in the war on Yemen, and it should also seriously reevaluate what benefit the U.S. derives from having clients that consistently work at cross-purposes with our policies.

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Bush’s Syria Policy Is Still Foolish and Costly

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Dov Zakheim praises Jeb Bush’s ideas for Syria:

His prescriptions for defeating ISIS include a ramped-up air campaign, more American troops on the ground and aid to the Kurdish fighters who have proved most effective in combatting ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. All told, his prescription was for true American leadership—in front, not behind—which would act as a magnet for other allies to join the fight against ISIS in a serious way. Most notably, the Arab states who have the most to fear from ISIS would be far more likely to contribute their own forces to the fight if they saw that America truly had “skin in the game.”

Bush’s speech last week at The Citadel was notable for including almost exactly the same content as an earlier foreign policy speech he delivered back in August. Despite the fact that Russia intervened directly in Syria in between Bush’s two speeches, this has had absolutely no effect on Bush’s thinking or his recommendations. Like other Syria hawks, he remains wedded to the idea of toppling Assad even though there is less international support outside the region for doing this than at any point in the last four years.

The belief that Arab states that have largely abandoned–or never joined–the fight against ISIS will start contributing more once the U.S. commits ground forces seems entirely unfounded. Daniel DePetris noticed this problem in his review of the speech:

How Jeb Bush would convince NATO and Arab partners to contribute more resources, money, and manpower towards the fight against ISIL is left out of the equation.

Not only are many of these Arab states preoccupied with their disastrous war in Yemen, but their priority in Syria has always been overthrowing Assad. As they have in Yemen, these states are much more concerned with fighting Iran and its allies (real or imagined) than they are in combating jihadist groups, and in some cases the Gulf states have helped to promote those very jihadists. If the U.S. does more in the war on ISIS, it is a given that almost all of our allies and clients will take that as license to do nothing more or even to do less than they are doing now. Once the U.S. is roped into bearing the bulk of the costs of a larger war effort, the other states in the region will be only too happy to sit back and watch us. An increased U.S. military commitment isn’t going to act as a “magnet” drawing other states deeper into the fight, but on the contrary will announce to these states that the U.S. has once again been lured into fighting other nations’ wars.

Elsewhere Zakheim approvingly mentions that Bush said that the U.S. isn’t going to be the world’s policeman, but it is telling that the hawks that say this never seem to see a conflict that the U.S. shouldn’t join. Interventionists disavow the role of “world’s policeman” when they are arguing for more intervention in order to make their immediate proposal seem less alarming, but the truth is that they are arguing for more intervention in this case because they assume that policing the conflicts of the world is a major part of America’s role in the world. If being the “world’s leader” amounts to much the same thing as being the “world’s policeman” in practice, it makes no difference if a hawkish politician rejects one name in favor of another. In fact, saying that the U.S. is the “world’s leader” could mean that the U.S. is expected to police the world’s conflicts and do a lot more besides that. It’s small consolation that Bush didn’t advocate “America’s involvement in every conflict around the globe” when he pushes for significantly increasing U.S. involvement in one of the world’s worst conflicts. Even if Bush doesn’t want to police every conflict in the world, he absolutely wants the U.S. to bear a much larger share of the costs of policing Syria for the foreseeable future, and that is already bad enough.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

There is no Obama doctrine. Leon Hadar reviews Colin Dueck’s The Obama Doctrine for the current issue of TAC.

In the battle against ISIS, where are the Arab states? Bruce Riedel explains why the Arab states that nominally belong to the anti-ISIS coalition have removed themselves from the U.S.-led bombing campaign.

The limits of ISIS. Olivier Roy makes the case that the Paris attacks show that ISIS has stalled in its efforts to expand its control over territory.

Declaring war on terror is good rhetoric, but bad policy. Noah Feldman identifies several of the pitfalls of the French government’s decision to respond to the Paris attacks with a declaration of war.

Intervention produces instability, not stability. Andrew Bacevich challenges advocates of another military intervention to explain why it will be any more successful than our previous failed wars.

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