Daniel Larison

Misrepresenting the War on Yemen

Noah Rothman makes a nonsensical claim:

Perhaps the most glaring example of the undue deference Washington yielded to irresponsible actors like Iran is how the United States turned a blind eye toward Tehran while it sparked a bloody regional proxy war in Yemen.

The U.S. couldn’t have “turned a blind eye toward Tehran” in this case, since Iranian involvement in Yemen is “trivial” by all informed accounts. Iran didn’t spark a “bloody regional proxy war.” This treats the Houthis as Iranian proxies, but they aren’t any such thing. It assumes that the conflict in Yemen was started by Iranian interference, but the causes of the conflict were local in origin. Misreading Yemen’s internal conflict as a proxy war instigated by Iran is about as wrong as one can go. It’s true that the Saudis and other governments in the region have chosen to misrepresent the conflict in this way, and they have chosen to exaggerate the extent of Iran’s support and its role in the conflict to justify their own appalling war on Yemen, but that just underscores how inaccurate and misleading this claim is.

Rothman cites a report from January on the administration’s “informal” contacts with the Houthis after they had taken Sanaa. As the article makes clear, the point of establishing these contacts was to retain Yemeni support for U.S. strikes on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). That was the extent of the “shift” that the article mentioned. At that time, the U.S. was focused on continuing to target AQAP, and to do that there needed to be some coordination with the Houthis, who were in control of the capital and likewise hostile to AQAP. The administration evidently decided in late March that it was more important to “reassure” the Saudis and the other Gulf states by backing the reckless Saudi-led war, and it has done this despite the fact that the war has benefited AQAP and allowed the group to gain ground and to acquire new weapons. Whatever limited significance the contacts with the Houthis had, they obviously didn’t last long and amounted to nothing. Far from “refusing to address Iranian provocations,” the administration endorsed the Saudis’ paranoid fantasy about growing Iranian influence and has been assisting the Saudis in their wrecking of Yemen ever since. Yemen is today being pummeled and starved because the U.S. and its regional clients are only too willing to combat an imaginary “expansion” of Iranian influence.

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A Nuclear Deal Isn’t Going to “Empower” Iran

Shutterstock.com / Vepar5

One of the latest talking points from Iran hawks against any deal with Iran is that sanctions relief will enable the regime to use its new revenues to increase support for its proxies and allies. Like other hawkish objections to a deal, this is mistaken:

But with the budget strained by last year’s heavy fall in oil prices, and public expectations of improved socio-economic conditions in the event of a deal, the authorities will face pressure to invest new funds at home.

“The idea that Iran is going to have its pockets full of cash that it can use for discretionary purposes, I think is exaggerated,” Charles Hollis, managing director for the Middle East at FTI Consulting, said.

The hawks’ claim that a deal will “empower” Iran is as overstated as their other warnings about growing Iranian influence. For the most part, this objection is just an attempt by Iran hawks to change the subject from the nuclear issue, where they have already lost the argument, to fear-mongering about Iran’s regional policies. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand that the Iran hawks are most likely as wrong about this as they have been on everything else involving Iran for the last decade.

But even if the Iran hawks were correct that a post-deal Iran would use most of its new resources to increase support for its proxies and allies, that would be a necessary and acceptable trade-off as part of an agreement to restrict and monitor Iran’s nuclear program. Furthermore, if Iranian influence really were expanding as much as they (wrongly) claim, that would make it that much more important to impose restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran hawks used to insist that limiting Iran’s nuclear program ought to be the main priority, and now that there is a realistic chance of doing so they have changed their priorities and insist that checking Iran’s regional influence is more important. When they aren’t setting impossible goals for U.S. diplomacy, Iran hawks want to switch to an entirely different debate to obscure the reality that they have already lost the debate over the negotiations.

The other major flaw in the hawks’ objection to sanctions relief is that international support for sanctions is very likely to decrease whether a deal is reached or not. Many states that have been cooperative in limiting their dealings with Iran until now will see little reason to continue applying pressure indefinitely, and they will have strong incentives to resume normal business. Whatever Iran’s government decides to do with the new revenues it gets from sanctions relief, it will soon enough be doing it with or without a nuclear deal. As far as the U.S. and its genuine allies are concerned, it would be much better to get an agreement that limits the nuclear program before international support for sanctions disappears.

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Israel and Nonproliferation

The U.S. once again provided cover for Israel’s nuclear arsenal at the recently-concluded Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference:

Israeli officials criticized the Obama administration last week when they thought the U.S. was about to support a United Nations conference on nuclear weapons in the Middle East—with or without Israel’s participation or consent.

But by Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Secretary of State John Kerry and praised the White House for instead blocking the proposed meeting, which might have pressured Israel to disclose its presumed nuclear-arms program.

This has become a familiar pattern with the Obama administration. It will make some noises about possibly taking a tougher line with Israel, it will have a few officials make anonymous threats in the press, and when it comes time to do something that might actually inconvenience or annoy the Israeli government the administration balks and backs Israel’s position. The fact that the administration typically backs down and yields to the preferences of a client government doesn’t win it any goodwill or cooperation from that government on other issues. It does tell the client government that it doesn’t have to worry about any consequences for its blatant and public efforts to derail a major U.S. diplomatic initiative. On the contrary, the U.S. is only too happy to try to buy off the client to keep it quiet.

Paul Pillar calls the failure of the NPT conference a “missed opportunity” for nonproliferation, and that’s obviously correct. It undermines the cause of nonproliferation when the U.S. allows its relationship with the region’s only nuclear-weapons state to take precedence over its own nonproliferation goals in the same region. Of course, this has been going on for decades, but it has become harder to ignore when the same state with a nuclear arsenal lectures the U.S. about its efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear program. No one expects Israel to admit publicly to possessing nuclear weapons, and no one seriously expects Israel to ever reduce or dismantle its arsenal, but at the very least the U.S. could stop covering up something that everyone already reasonably assumes to be true and it could stop subordinating its nonproliferation agenda to the preferences of one of the world’s leading flouters and non-members of the NPT.

The article quotes an Israeli official who approvingly said that the U.S. kept its commitment to Israel to oppose “a Middle East resolution that would single out Israel,” which just reminds us that Israel would be “singled out” in this context because it is the only state in the region that possesses nuclear weapons. As the sole state in the region that is not party to the NPT, Israel makes itself a target for criticism from all of its neighbors that belong to and adhere to the treaty.

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Report: Turkey and the U.S. Agree to Give Syrian Rebels Air Support

Reuters reports on a new Syria blunder by the U.S. and its allies:

The United States and Turkey have agreed “in principle” to give air support to some forces from Syria’s mainstream opposition, Turkey’s foreign minister said, in what if confirmed could mark an expansion of U.S. involvement in the conflict.

There had been hints that the U.S. might do this since last year, but nothing seemed to happen in the months that followed. If this report is correct, that appears to have changed. If this is right, the U.S. and Turkey have agreed to go to war against the Syrian government while the U.S. is still bombing ISIS. It would be difficult for U.S. policy in Syria to become more incoherent and dangerous than it already was, but the administration may have found a way to do it. It was always likely that U.S. backing for any part of the Syrian opposition would eventually lure the U.S. into taking military action against the Syrian regime, and now it appears that the U.S. is on track to do just that. That was what Syria hawks hoped for when they started agitating for the U.S. to “arm the rebels” years ago, and now they may finally be getting their deranged wish.

The report says that no decision has yet been taken, so it’s possible that the administration might pull back before making such a huge mistake. If the administration did this, it would not only put U.S. forces on two different sides of a foreign civil war at the same time, but it would increase the risk to U.S. pilots from Syrian air defenses. Up until now, there has been a tacit arrangement that has allowed the U.S. to attack targets inside Syria without any response from the Syrian government. Once the U.S. starts bombing Syrian government forces, that arrangement seems sure to end. Jihadist groups would likely be the main beneficiary of all this. In the process the U.S. could risk triggering a crisis with Iran in the event that Iranian personnel in Syria are killed by U.S. strikes.

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The Evils of Unnecessary Wars

Richard Haass marks Memorial Day with an awful comment:

 

It is warped to commemorate America’s war dead by emphasizing the need to wage wars of choice. Why would anyone think that this is a suitable thought for today? One would like to think that the people most likely to support wars of choice would have some idea to judge whether the “likely benefits outweigh” the costs, but again and again the people that presume that the U.S. “must” intervene somewhere have an extraordinarily poor understanding of how great the costs of intervention will be. Iraq war supporters, including Haass, were very sure that invading Iraq and toppling the regime would yield enormous benefits at low cost. They were horribly wrong, and it was fairly obvious that they were very wrong at the time, but they were very sure of themselves and their estimates.

Not only do supporters of these unnecessary wars fail to anticipate the losses that the U.S. will suffer, because they always underestimate how difficult and dangerous a war will be, but they usually pay no attention at all to the losses that will be inflicted on the country harmed by the intervention. One of the most horrible things about this is that such wars could all easily be avoided if policymakers and their advisers were any good at grasping how ruinous they are. We know from Iraq and Libya that hawks from both parties are unable or unwilling to understand this. Another horrible thing about unnecessary wars is that fighting and lose one seems to have absolutely no long-term effect on the ability of U.S. policymakers to avoid fighting the next one. The U.S. will keep repeating the same blunders in decades to come as long as our debates are shaped by people that think that the U.S. should be fighting wars of choice.

A war of choice is one that the U.S. doesn’t need to fight in order to remain secure. It is a war that the U.S. could easily refuse to fight, but which the government opts to fight because of this or that dubious rationalization. Almost every war of choice that the U.S. has waged since 1945 has inflicted needless losses on both the U.S. and the countries affected by our wars. In every case, the country where the U.S. chooses to intervene suffers losses and destruction that didn’t have to happen. It is wrong and senselessly destructive to wage unnecessary wars, and using the military to fight those wars is an egregious abuse of those that have joined to defend their country.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The new lie about Iraq. Jon Basil Utley recalls how the Bush administration made its deceptive case for war.

Why soldiers lie. William Lind describes the problem of institutional lying in the U.S. military in the current issue of TAC.

The real Iraq war debate’s lessons. Michael Cohen explains why the invasion was a terrible idea based on what was known at the time.

Time to sober up about the Iraq war. A.J. Delgado refutes the arguments of Iraq war dead-enders.

Why the Iraq war happened. James Fallows explains that the “WMD claims were the result of the need to find a case for the war, rather than the other way around.”

Iran, Israel, and the North Korea analogy. Paul Pillar compares the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea and the current nuclear negotiations with Iran.

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Why Congress Shouldn’t Authorize the War on ISIS

The New York Times calls for passage of an authorization resolution for the war on ISIS:

As the war intensifies, it is more urgent than ever for Congress to approve a new Authorization for Use of Military Force that would provide adequate oversight and clearly articulate the long-term strategy for the fight against the Islamic State. The new mandate should replace the ones the administration is currently relying on and set clear limits that would preclude future administrations from using military force around the globe, anytime, anywhere, without consulting Congress.

The editorial makes a number of good points, but this would be the wrong response to the ever-expanding war on ISIS. Obama’s claim that he wouldn’t “allow” the U.S. to be dragged into a new war was preposterous, as the editors say, since he was the one dragging the U.S. into fighting it. They are also right that the legal justifications the administration has offered for the war have always been absurd. That doesn’t mean that Congress should approve of a war that threatens to pull the U.S. deeper into a conflict that it doesn’t need to fight. Congress won’t regain any influence or relevance by becoming a rubber stamp after the fact. Passing an authorization won’t fix the problem that the U.S. blundered into this war without any debate or consideration of the likely costs.

The gradual escalation of the war isn’t surprising. It was always very likely once the administration went on the offensive and declared that the goal of the campaign was to “destroy” ISIS. We know that “limited” interventions don’t stay limited, and we also know that this administration disregards the terms of authorizations when they get in his way. Any limits written into a new AUMF would be adhered to only so long as the president wanted to be bound by them. Obama has already shown that he will interpret authorizations as necessary to justify whatever he does, or he will simply proceed without any authorization to wage a war that he will pretend isn’t really a war.

Passing a new authorization to endorse an ill-conceived and unnecessary war nine months after it began isn’t going to “provide adequate oversight” or “clearly articulate the long-term strategy for the fight against the Islamic State.” Congress has no interest in providing the former and has no more of an idea what the latter is than the administration does. As I’ve said many times, it was a mistake for the U.S. to intervene in Iraq and Syria last year. Congressional authorization obviously can’t fix that mistake, but it would legitimize what has thus far been an unauthorized and illegal military action.

If there were any chance that this or any other president would be expected to respect the limits included in a new authorization, passing a very narrowly-worded resolution might be the least bad option available, but we already know that presidents can get away with interpreting these resolutions as broadly as they want. We know that Congress isn’t going to cut off funds for a war that the president starts, and most members of Congress are more hostile to placing limits on a war than the president is. Any authorization that this Congress produces will probably make things worse by giving a stamp of approval to an open-ended and unrestricted war. If the war remains unauthorized, it could be easier to end U.S. involvement. Once it receives Congress’ approval, it is much more likely to continue on for many more years.

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Yemen and “Humanitarian” Interventionism

Four years ago, the U.S. and a handful of other governments launched an air war in Libya that eventually led to the collapse of the old regime and contributed significantly to the ongoing violence and disorder in that country over the last few years. The official justification for the intervention was the “protection of civilians,” which was supposedly going to be secured by escalating a foreign civil war into an international conflict. As far as I’m concerned, “humanitarian” military intervention is a contradiction in terms, as the Libyan war has shown. Nonetheless, “humanitarian” interventionists were insistent that the U.S. and its allies had to attack and help overthrow a foreign government that was being challenged by an armed rebellion. Four years later, the U.S. is helping several of its Gulf clients (some of which participated in the Libyan war) smash an impoverished country at great cost to the civilian population ostensibly to roll back the gains made by rebels and to reimpose an exiled government.

These interventionists are now mostly indifferent to or supportive of the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war on Yemen. If any are opposed, they are doing a good job of keeping it a secret. The main difference between the two cases seems to be that the rebels in this case are deemed to be on the “wrong” side of the conflict, and for that reason the entire country can be made to suffer and the civilian population can be subjected to the most horrible deprivation without so much as a word from the hawks that so often babble about a “values”-based foreign policy. If a different coalition of states not aligned with the U.S. were doing this to a poor neighboring country, the response from “humanitarian” interventionists would likely be quite different. When the Saudis are strangling Yemen and bombing its cities indiscriminately, it doesn’t seem merit even a shrug.

The point here isn’t just to draw attention to “humanitarian” interventionists’ inconsistent and arbitrary policy preferences, but to emphasize that the interventionists that use humanitarian crises in some conflicts to agitate for U.S. involvement have little or no interest in talking about the humanitarian crises that the U.S. and its clients are creating. The same people that normally can’t shut up about the need to “do something” and to take sides a foreign conflict become strangely quiet when the U.S. is actively taking sides in a war that is inflicting enormous harm on a civilian population.

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The Strangling of Yemen

Rod Waddington / Flickr

Lama Fakih reports on the cruel strangulation of Yemen by the Saudi-led blockade:

The harsh and arbitrary restrictions imposed by the Saudi-led coalition on importing vital supplies, including fuel, have slowed to a trickle the flow of life-saving assistance and basic goods needed for survival. The World Food Programme (WFP) says it has managed to ship some 300,000 liters of fuel and other supplies into the country during the humanitarian ceasefire. But this shipment is only a fraction of the amount needed for the WFP’s operations in one month.

In a rare joint public statement, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders on May 4 expressed deep concern about the obstruction of deliveries of humanitarian aid, noting that the coalition’s restrictions on imports, “have made the daily lives of Yemenis unbearable, and their suffering immense.”

The war on Yemen has been going on for two months, and for almost all of that time the Saudis and their partners have been depriving the civilian population of crucial supplies of food, medicine, and fuel. Last week’s “humanitarian pause” was just long enough so that the U.N. and other organizations could assess how much worse the humanitarian crisis in the country had become. Unfortunately, aid organizations were not able to do very much to ameliorate that crisis because the “pause” was so brief. The U.N. now estimates that more than half a million people have been displaced by the war, and that number will only keep increasing as the campaign drags on. The number of civilians put at risk from the shortages imposed by the blockade is many times that number.

The situation for civilians in Yemen is dire, and it has come about mostly because of the Saudi-led coalition’s decision to attack and blockade the country. The intervention has been both entirely unnecessary and extremely harmful. The Saudis could halt the attacks and the blockade at any time, and that would remove two of the major causes of the country’s current woes, but of course we know that they aren’t going to do that. The U.S. continues to lend support to this indefensible war, and in so doing endorses the Saudis’ strangling of Yemen.

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Graham’s Odd 2016 Campaign

Jim Antle considers the effect that Lindsey Graham’s odd presidential bid could have on the race:

Yet Graham is, in some respects, a perfect foil for Paul. It’s a lot easier for a libertarian-leaning presidential candidate to make a case against aggressive military intervention when the poster boy for the neocon cause is a cartoonish, blustery senator who never met a hyperbole he didn’t like.

Graham’s candidacy is an unusually odd one, since he is running mainly to promote the hard-line foreign policy views that are already overrepresented in the current field. It makes some sense for a politician to launch a hopeless presidential bid in order to promote a particular cause or advance a pet issue, but in this cycle Graham’s fear-mongering and alarmism about the state of the world are redundant. He may be the most vocal and most ridiculous of the alarmists, but he will be just one among many.

Antle mostly focuses on how Graham’s campaign could benefit Paul, but Paul might be the least affected by Graham’s decision to join the contest. His entry into the race is an implicit rebuke to Rubio, who has made foreign policy hawkishness one of the main themes of his own campaign, and it presents Rubio with an additional obstacle. Rubio has been trying to present himself as the leading hard-liner in the field, and cites his alleged foreign policy experience as the thing that separates him from the current and former governors that will make up most of his competition. The trouble is that Rubio’s foreign policy views are virtually identical with Graham’s, and Graham can easily claim to have more experience in supporting terrible hawkish policies. The last thing that probably distinguishes Rubio from the rest of the field fades into the background if Graham is in the mix.

It’s true that Rubio doesn’t have quite as many problems with conservatives as Graham does, but at least on immigration and foreign policy Rubio could easily be seen as just a younger version of Graham. The good news for Rubio is that Graham is polling so poorly that he probably won’t qualify for most of the debates in which Rubio will be participating. Even so, most of any support Graham gets is probably going to come at Rubio’s expense. Graham has no realistic chance to become the nominee, but he could end up helping to sabotage the chances of a candidate that is closest to him on foreign policy.

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