Daniel Larison

Rand Paul Caves on Pompeo

Rand Paul abandoned his opposition to Mike Pompeo’s nomination in exchange for practically nothing:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) flipped from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ on Mike Pompeo’s nomination to be secretary of state Monday, paving an unexpectedly easy path for the CIA director to win confirmation from the full Senate as soon as this week.

Paul’s surprising turnabout on Pompeo came after multiple conversations with President Donald Trump, the Kentucky Republican said, as well as getting what he described as “assurances” that the hawkish nominee sees the war in Iraq as “a mistake” and wants to wind down the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

Going from seemingly staunch opponent to credulous supporter is never a good look for any politician, but it is particularly ridiculous in this case. All Pompeo and Trump had to do to get Paul to flip was offer him some meaningless assurances that don’t require them to do anything. If Paul had at least extracted concessions from the administration on war powers or U.S. policy in Yemen or Syria or some commitment about other current issues, that might have made the decision to support Pompeo a little more tolerable. It would still have been a bad decision, but it wouldn’t have been a complete loss. Instead, Paul will get nothing except widespread derision for caving to pressure.

Paul has made reclaiming Congress’ role in matters of war one of his signature issues. Pompeo testified before the Foreign Relations Committee that he doesn’t think the president needs Congressional authorization to order attacks on other states. Trump’s nominee thinks that the president can start wars on his own authority, so Paul should be voting against his nomination for that reason alone. Voting to confirm Pompeo is an effective endorsement of the very illegal and unauthorized warfare that Paul normally condemns.

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The Ridiculous Proposal to Label Russia a State Sponsor of Terrorism

Sen. Cory Gardner made a bizarre proposal last week:

The State Department should consider adding the country to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, alongside its close allies Iran and Syria.

The moral case for such a designation is sound. Russia has invaded its neighbors Georgia and Ukraine, it supports the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad and our enemies in Afghanistan, and it is engaged in active information warfare against Western democracies, including meddling in the 2016 United States elections.

While applying this label to Russia might make some hawks feel better, it is just as erroneous as Trump’s decision to relabel North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. Unless a government is arming or funding or otherwise lending aid to a group that is engaged in international terrorism, it should not be labeled a state sponsor and should not be sanctioned as one. None of the things Gardner lists here makes Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, unless we are redefining terrorism to include all policies and actions that Washington doesn’t like.

As if to call attention to how weak his argument is, Gardner credulously asserts that Russia is supposedly supporting ISIS in Syria based on some uncorroborated news reports:

There is also evidence that Russia is playing both sides of the conflict in Syria — defending the murderous Assad regime, but also fueling the radical insurgency against it. Reporting by Ukrainian news outlets has shown that Russia has provided material support to the Islamic State, including assistance in recruitment.

I’m not sure what is more absurd here: that Gardner thinks that the Russian government would actually want to encourage jihadist recruitment inside Russia, or that he is basing this assertion on the reporting of Ukrainian news outlets that have every incentive to make outlandish claims about Russian behavior. Considering how many U.S.-supplied weapons have ended up falling into the hands of ISIS in the past, these are not accusations that the U.S. wants to be throwing around against other governments without solid evidence.

Gardner’s proposal has no merit, and if it were adopted it would further poison relations with Moscow for no reason.

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The Enduring Shame of U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

Jeremy Konyndyk makes some important observations about the pattern of Saudi coalition attacks on civilians:

The U.S. provides Saudi coalition planes with the arms and refueling they use to carry out these attacks, and it would be much more difficult for them to continue their bombing campaign if that assistance were cut off. Defenders of the indefensible policy of supporting the Saudi-led war insist that coalition attacks would be less accurate and kill more civilians if the U.S. weren’t involved, but there is no reason to believe this is true.

The Saudis and their allies routinely hit civilian targets on purpose. There is no other explanation for the systematic and repeated attacks on farms, water systems, and other civilian infrastructure. There is no other credible explanation for the numerous attacks on funerals, weddings, and schools. Giving them advice on targeting and providing them with more precise weaponry just makes them better at killing innocent Yemenis. Refueling their planes gives their planes more time to carry out additional attacks, and that means that continued U.S. support guarantees more civilian casualties. The despicable practice of “double tapping” the targets that coalition planes strike is further proof that that the Saudis and their allies are hitting civilian targets deliberately.

Even if the Saudis and their allies were simply incompetent and kept hitting so many civilian targets by mistake, they continue to make “mistakes” at such a high rate that U.S. advice obviously has no effect. Making the U.S. complicit in Saudi coalition war crimes is bad for us and far worse for the innocent Yemenis who keep dying. The Senate made a horrible mistake when it refused to cut off military support for this atrocious war, and they need to correct that error as soon as possible. Support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen is a mark of enduring shame on our country’s reputation, and every day that the U.S. keeps enabling Saudi coalition war crimes that mark gets bigger.

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Saudi Coalition Kills 33 At a Yemeni Wedding Party

Update: The death toll is now reportedly 33 people:

Second Update: CNN confirms 33 killed, at least 41 injured by the strike.

Third Update: Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reports receiving 63 wounded from this attack at the local hospital.

The latest Saudi coalition atrocity against Yemeni civilians was another attack on a wedding party, killing 20 people including the bride and wounding dozens more:

At least 20 people including the bride were killed when an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition hit a wedding party in northern Yemen, health officials have said.

The dead were mostly women and children gathered in a tent set up for the wedding in the Bani Qayis district, according to Khaled al-Nadhri, the leading health official in the north-western Hajjah province.

Hospital chief Mohammed al-Sawmali said the groom and 45 other wounded people were brought to the local al-Jomhouri hospital.

Thirty of those injured were reported to be children, with some in critical condition having suffered severed limbs and shrapnel wounds.

There is no excuse for blowing up a wedding party. There is clearly no military purpose served by attacking these people, and most of the dead and wounded are women and children. The death toll will very likely increase due to the severity of some of the injuries. This is a clear violation of international law, and unfortunately it is just one of thousands like it over the last three years. Other weddings in Yemen have been similarly turned into the sites of Saudi coalition massacres during this war. This is far from the first time this has happened, and unless the Saudi-led war on Yemen is ended it won’t be the last.

The Saudi coalition keeps carrying out these attacks with no regard for the lives of civilians, and our government continues to arm and refuel their planes as they do it. The Saudis and their allies know they can act with complete impunity because the U.S. keeps providing military assistance and diplomatic cover no matter what they do to Yemeni civilians. Our State Department won’t even report on the war crimes that they commit. Instead of being treated as the war criminal that he is during his visit to the U.S., Mohammed bin Salman was feted and embraced by our government, given mostly fawning media coverage, and welcomed by the biggest names in entertainment and business. The murders of these Yemeni women and children and thousands more like them are his doing, and the U.S. is responsible for enabling him and his allies to do it.

The idea that U.S. support is reducing the number of civilian casualties is impossible to take seriously when it seems undeniable that many of the coalition’s attacks on civilians are done on purpose. After three years of bombing and starving Yemen, the coalition is no closer to any of its stated goals, but it has succeeded in raining death and destruction on numerous weddings, funerals, medical clinics, markets, treatment plants, farms, schools, and homes. This is what happens when at least 30% of all coalition strikes hit civilian targets. Providing arms and refueling to the Saudi coalition guarantees that more Yemeni civilians will be killed in this way. For their sake, it is imperative that the U.S. halt its support for this war at once.


Warning: some graphic images of the aftermath of the attack follow

Read More…

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State Department Report Whitewashes Saudi War Crimes in Yemen

The State Department’s annual human rights report whitewashes Saudi war crimes in Yemen:

In the section on Saudi Arabia, the State Department pared down language on the effects of its U.S.-backed bombing campaign in the Yemeni civil war and misquoted reporting from human rights watchdogs, according to Raed Jarrar, a Middle East expert with Amnesty International.

The report, Jarrar says, “sugar-coats” Amnesty International and other nongovernmental organizations in writing “some coalition airstrikes caused disproportionate collateral damage.” Amnesty’s actual reporting says the Saudi bombing campaign constituted serious violations that could be amount to war crimes.

“I thought to myself, how dare you misquote us in the report,” he tells Foreign Policy. “That’s not our language at all, and it was obviously changed for political motives.”

The Trump administration is not the first to indulge the Saudis and their allies in the war on Yemen, but U.S. support for the war has increased and criticism of the coalition has waned since Trump took office. Unfortunately, the administration has every incentive to minimize or deny Saudi coalition crimes in Yemen because the U.S. has been enabling their bombing campaign and supporting their blockade for three years.

On Friday, 20 Yemeni civilians were slaughtered by a coalition airstrike when they were driving near Taiz. Last week, coalition strikes destroyed a water system that displaced people relied on for clean drinking water. Earlier this month, more than a dozen displaced Yemenis were blown up for daring to step outside. Attacks like these happen on a regular basis, and U.S. support for the coalition helps make them possible.

Our government has been aiding and abetting Saudi coalition war crimes for three years straight. The administration doesn’t want people knowing that, and that is why the State Department’s report says nothing about these crimes. There is no possible justification for our continued support for the bombing campaign. Continued military assistance to governments that commit such crimes is a disgrace that ought to be halted at once.

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Trump’s North Korea Fantasy

Kim Jong-un recently announced a moratorium on nuclear weapons and missile testing and the closure of a nuclear test site. That is welcome news and could form the basis for an agreement limiting North Korea’s arsenal, but the reason Kim gave for this decision was that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal did not need additional testing. That strongly suggests that North Korea has no intention of giving up the nuclear weapons that it has built at significant cost:

Mr. Kim made no mention in his latest remarks of dismantling the nuclear weapons and long-range missiles North Korea has already built. On the contrary, he suggested he was going to keep them.

The president this morning keeps repeating the misunderstanding (fantasy?) that North Korea has already agreed to give them up:

At best, it is not constructive to be keeping score in public before the meeting even happens. Even if it were true that the U.S. has given up nothing and North Korea has made all the concessions, it would make it harder to conclude an agreement by pointing this out for all to see. This statement shows how oblivious Trump and his advisers remain to the pitfalls of approaching the meeting with unrealistic expectations. North Korea doesn’t appear to have any interest in giving up its nuclear weapons, and any concessions it does make will come at a price. Kim is acting like the leader of a nuclear-armed state who is preparing to negotiate an arms control agreement with an equal, and Trump thinks that Kim has already agreed to surrender. Taken together with the added demands that the U.S. and Japan just made, this is not a good combination.

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The Danger of Unrealistic Goals for North Korea Diplomacy

The U.S. and Japan released a joint statement calling on North Korea to give up not only its nuclear weapons, but also to abandon all “weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.” TAC contributor Harry Kazianis responded to the statement earlier today:

As the inter-Korean summit approaches and the Trump-Kim meeting draws closer, the gap between the U.S. and North Korean positions does not appear to have narrowed at all. If anything, the demands from the U.S. and Japan have increased and become even more unrealistic than they already were. Instead of moderating demands and tempering expectations about what North Korea is willing to give up, the Trump administration and the Abe government are doing just the opposite. This may succeed in reassuring Japan that the U.S. isn’t going to make a deal that Tokyo can’t accept, but it practically guarantees that no agreement can be reached with North Korea.

If Trump goes to the summit thinking that North Korea is going to agree to any of this, he has been misled and will be setting himself up for failure. If the U.S. and its allies aren’t prepared to make an extraordinarily generous offer in return, it is likely that nothing good will come from the meeting between Trump and Kim. The danger is that the hard-liners around Trump will exploit a summit failure as an excuse to ratchet up tensions and push for military action and he will be more inclined to listen to them.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Senators offer up unprecedented war powers to the president. Kelley Vlahos reports on the awful implications of the Corker-Kaine AUMF.

Repeal, don’t replace, Trump’s war powers. John Glaser and Gene Healy call for repealing the 2001 AUMF instead of passing a worse replacement.

John Bolton: in search of Carthage. Michael Shindler compares Bolton’s warmongering to the fanaticism of Cato the Elder.

What Iran really wants. Paul Pillar explains what Iran is trying to do in the region and “how detached from reality the Iran debate has become.”

A new name for Swaziland. Max Bearak reports on the decision to rename the country eSwatini.

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Trump Should End the Illegal U.S. Military Presence in Syria

Max Boot predictably wants to keep U.S. forces in Syria on a mission that has no end:

There is no deus ex machina: Either America keeps its own troops in Syria or it risks a revival of the Islamic State and an expansion of Iranian power. Our allies won’t do our job for us.

Boot criticizes the ridiculous Bolton plan to replace U.S. forces in Syria with Egyptians, Saudis, and others, and it’s true that Bolton’s plan can’t and won’t work. It doesn’t follow that the U.S. should maintain its illegal military presence in Syria.

A continued U.S. military presence in Syria isn’t necessary for U.S. security or the security of our allies. Our military presence there has been and will continue to be illegal under both international and U.S. law. Congress has never voted to authorize the president to send American soldiers to fight in Syria against any enemy, and the president has no legal authority to send them there on his own. If something is both unnecessary and illegal, there is no good reason to keep doing it. It is also potentially risky. The longer our forces stay there, the more likely it is that they will clash with the forces of the Syrian government or their allies.

The mission that Boot wants them to have couldn’t possibly end as long as Iran and Syria remain allies. There is always some chance that ISIS revive or that some other jihadist group could spring up in its place, so committing to preventing that means that U.S. forces would have to remain in Syria indefinitely. Preventing an “expansion of Iranian power” in Syria would be another permanent assignment. Any territorial gains by the Syrian government would be treated as Iranian “expansion” by the same geniuses that supported the invasion of Iraq and did more to increase Iranian influence than anyone else. It would be a stupid waste of resources, money, and manpower to illegally occupy northeastern Syria in perpetuity mainly to spite the ally of the recognized government of that country. The president should reject Bolton’s plan and dismiss Boot’s advice, and instead he should bring U.S. forces out of Syria as soon as possible.

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The Bad Arguments for Trump’s Terrible Nominee for State

Mike Pompeo, CIA director (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

Marc Thiessen rushes to the defense of Mike Pompeo:

For the first time in the history of the republic, it appears increasingly likely that a majority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote against the president’s nominee for secretary of state. If this happens, it would be a black mark not on Mike Pompeo’s record, but on the reputation of this once-storied committee.

If a nominee is considered to be so toxic that a majority of the relevant committee can’t bring themselves to vote for him, doesn’t that suggest that the fault for the unprecedented repudiation rests with the nominee or with the president who nominated him? Trump is trying to replace a bad Secretary of State with a worse successor, and we’re supposed to believe that the committee members are disgracing themselves by refusing to act as a rubber stamp? This complaint doesn’t pass the laugh test, and yet this is what Pompeo’s defenders are reduced to arguing.

“There is simply no excuse for this,” Thiessen whines, but there is a perfectly good reason for it: Pompeo isn’t qualified to be Secretary of State and shouldn’t be confirmed solely because of that. Thiessen asserts that “no one questions that he is extraordinarily qualified for the job,” but in fact lots of people explicitly deny that he is. They question his judgment, question his record, and have no confidence that he knows how to conduct diplomacy. It’s simply not true that no one questions Pompeo’s readiness for this position. That is the main complaint against him.

Pompeo served in Congress for a few terms, and he ran the CIA (badly) for a year. In all that time, he showed no aptitude for or interest in diplomacy or the compromise that it requires. He has developed a reputation as a hard-liner, and in tandem with Bolton he would make Trump’s foreign policy even more dangerous than it already is. Pompeo was nominated first and foremost because he knew how to cultivate the president and successfully gained his confidence. That isn’t nothing, but it isn’t a reason to confirm him to be Secretary of State.

Pompeo may be confirmed by the narrowest majority of all time, or maybe he won’t be, but the people opposed to the nomination have nothing to be ashamed of and every reason to fight it until the end.

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