Daniel Larison

Trump and the Iran Hawks

Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom

Scott McConnell urges Trump to shun the Iran hawks:

The blunt fact is that Iran has not been behaving like much of an enemy. Unlike the period in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian revolution, when Iran did seek to destabilize many of its neighbors, it is now become at least latently a fairly orderly power; indeed it may now be the most stable country in the Middle East.

I think McConnell is right about all of this, but the trouble is that Trump has surrounded himself with people that take it as a given that Iran is the leading source of instability and upheaval in the region. Either Trump shares that view, or he doesn’t see anything seriously wrong with it. Given the role of the Saudis and the Gulf states in destabilizing Syria and wrecking Yemen, this view of Iran’s role seems obviously untrue or at least in need of serious qualification, and yet alarmism about Iran is something that all of Trump’s top foreign policy picks seem to indulge in to one degree or another.

Flynn’s obsession with Iran is impossible to miss, but even the people that are expected to act as a check on Trump’s impulsiveness hold similar views. During his confirmation hearing, Gen. Mattis asserted, “Iranian malign influence in the region is growing. Iran is the biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East and its policies are contrary to our interests.” Even the last part is somewhat debatable, but the first two claims are misleading or very much exaggerated. McConnell rightly notes that Iran is “a sworn enemy of ISIS,” but Mattis is on record saying that the two aren’t enemies at all and seemed to be floating conspiratorial speculation that they are somehow working together. At best, this preoccupation is a distraction from more pressing security threats, and at worst it threatens to take the U.S. towards a collision with Iran that could still be avoided.

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Haley and UNSCR 2334

Joshua Keating was following Haley’s confirmation hearing today, and here he comments on her opening statement:

The vision of America’s role in the United Nations laid out in Haley’s opening statement is depressingly myopic. Haley described her background, acknowledged that diplomacy will be new for her, but cited her record as governor as qualification to ” reform the UN in ways that rebuild the confidence of the American people.”

But the only issue she brought up was “the UN’s long history of anti-Israel bias.”

Haley’s later testimony often came back to her opposition to UNSCR 2334 and her belief that the U.S. ought to stand with its “close ally” at the U.N, which confirmed the impression that she thought this was one of her main responsibilities as our ambassador. That much was expected from her prepared remarks, but the odder part of her testimony was this statement about the Security Council resolution:

First, we need to go and make sure that we let Israel know that we are an ally and that we will be an ally. And it is important because what happened with resolution 2334–it basically said that being an ally to the United States doesn’t mean anything [bold mine-DL]. And if we are a strong ally, if we always stand with them, more countries will want to be our allies. And those that challenge us will think twice before they challenge us. What we saw with 2334 was…it not only sent a bad signal to Israel…it told the entire world that we don’t stand with anyone.

These are strange comments in several ways. First, the U.S. abstention meant that our government was allowing the passage of a resolution that was overwhelmingly supported by most other member states and all other members of the Security Council, including several longstanding treaty allies. The position that would have aligned the U.S. most closely with our actual allies was to vote in favor of the resolution. Furthermore, the resolution endorsed existing U.S. policy regarding Israeli settlements. Vetoing the resolution would have represented a rejection of our own position. For that matter, Israel isn’t an ally, so allowing the passage of a resolution that criticizes their illegal behavior has no bearing on our relations with real treaty allies. Far from telling the world that “we don’t stand with anyone,” allowing the passage of the resolution belatedly put the U.S. closer to the broad international consensus that includes almost all other countries in the world.

Haley made other statements during her testimony that were ill-advised, but this one stood out for showing both extreme hawkish “pro-Israel” bias and an almost total misunderstanding of who our real allies are and how the U.S. should manage relations with them.

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Trump’s Hard-liners and Israel

Kelley Vlahos reports that Trump is keeping people on different sides of the debate wondering what his Israel policy will look like:

But no one—not Bergman on the right, J Street on the center-left, or Walt from his realist point of view—knows what Trump is really going to do, how much is bluster, or whether he will actively pursue Israel’s interests or merely pull back from a proactive negotiating role in the peace process and let both sides do their thing.

It is possible that Trump’s hard-line advisers, the language of the GOP platform, and his hawkish rhetoric on Israel, settlements, and the nuclear deal with Iran don’t tell us which way he’s going to go, but it seems fair to assume that hard-line, one-sided backing of Israel is what Trump thinks has been lacking from the current administration. Vice President-elect Pence has a reputation for being similarly hard-line on these issues. More evidence that this is the direction his administration will take comes from his nominee for U.N.ambassador, Nikki Haley, who will make supporting Israel at the U.N. a priority according to her prepared remarks for her hearing today:

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is preparing in her confirmation hearing to harshly criticize the Obama administration for allowing the U.N. Security Council to condemn Israel and pledge never to let it happen again if confirmed as the next U.N. ambassador.

Some of Trump’s nominees have expressed views at odds with his public statements, but in this case Haley isn’t saying anything that he hasn’t already said before. Haley may have more conventionally hawkish foreign policy views overall (to the extent that she has any), but here she and Trump seem to be of one mind that one of the priorities of U.S. foreign policy should be covering for the illegal behavior of a client state. Unfortunately, I think we are getting a very clear picture how Trump will approach these issues, and it isn’t going to be good for the U.S. or Israel.

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Obama’s Unnecessary Wars and ‘Humanitarian’ Interventionism

Earlier this week, I said that Obama’s legacy was war without end. I said that because I think that will be his most enduring foreign policy legacy, and because it is the part of his record that receives relatively little attention. What I didn’t mention in the previous post was that every war that the U.S. started or joined on Obama’s watch was not necessary for the security of the United States. Obama famously rode his opposition to a war of choice all the way to the White House, but has committed the U.S. to several completely unnecessary wars. I don’t think these wars were necessary for the security of our allies and clients, either, but that is another discussion.

The U.S. intervened in Libya in 2011 in the name of the “responsibility to protect.” No one even tried to pretend that U.S. interests were at stake in the Libyan war, and yet Obama committed the U.S. to an avoidable war anyway. The U.S. started ISIS bombing targets in Iraq and then in Syria. ISIS didn’t pose a threat to the U.S. then and still doesn’t, but Obama ordered a bombing campaign against them all the same. The U.S. wasn’t threatened by the Houthis in Yemen, but Obama has backed the Saudi-led war on Yemen in order to “reassure” Riyadh even though it is making the region more unstable and it is making America more enemies than we had before. The direct costs to the U.S. of all these bad decisions have so far been limited, but they are all costs that the U.S. didn’t need to pay for wars that we shouldn’t have been fighting. This is why I have difficulty crediting Obama as a “reluctant” hawk when someone genuinely reluctant to resort to force would not have involved the U.S. in any of these conflicts.

The very thin silver lining I see in all this is that Obama has probably done more to discredit “humanitarian” interventionism with his policies than any other recent president, and as a result there may be fewer of these destructive and misguided wars in the future. The Libyan war was both an abuse of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine that was used to justify it and an appalling failure when judged by the standard of protecting civilians. With any luck, it will become a cautionary tale for future presidents and a guide to what the U.S. should never do abroad. The later silence of the same advocates for the Libyan war while the U.S. was aiding the Saudis in wrecking and starving Yemen has been remarkable, and it has shown how selective and cynical “humanitarian” interventionists can be. When the U.S. or an allied or client government commits egregious abuses that gets other governments targeted for sanctions or even destruction, most so-called “humanitarian” interventionists have nothing at all to say.

Over the last twenty-two months, Yemen has been devastated with an indiscriminate bombing campaign that would normally drive the “do something” crowd up the wall if it were being done by the clients of another major power. Because it is being done by U.S. clients with our weapons, fuel, and intelligence, there is no criticism from them at all. They have nothing to say in those cases because for many of them these abuses are just a pretext to get a war that they support for other reasons. For them, war crimes count only when they can be used to drag the U.S. into new conflicts. If the U.S. is already deeply complicit in its clients’ war crimes, they couldn’t care less. Meanwhile, Yemen is suffering from one of the worst man-made humanitarian disasters of our time. The Saudi-led coalition’s blockade and other actions over the last two years bear much of the blame for the impending famine that threatens millions of lives. Once again, the moralizing meddlers that are always eager to talk about “values” have nothing to say about any of this, except when some of them (e.g., John McCain) stand up for the governments causing the disaster. The next time that we hear demands from such people that the U.S. must “act” in this or that part of the world to defend our “values,” remember their total silence about the catastrophe that the U.S. has helped to cause in Yemen and refuse to buy what they are selling.

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Anti-Trump Republicans and Trump’s ‘Blacklist’

During the election campaign, many anti-Trump foreign policy professionals and academics declared their opposition to Trump. That is unsurprisingly still being held against them:

Now, just days before Trump is sworn in as the nation’s 45th president, the letter signers fear they have been added to another document, this one private — a purported blacklist compiled by Trump’s political advisers.

If Trump’s team is blacklisting all the people that signed these letters, that is somewhat short-sighted on their part, but hardly unexpected. It had to be obvious that Trump and his advisers would hold a grudge against these people, so it can’t exactly come as a shock that they are now holding a grudge. Remember that these letters weren’t just a dry list of objections to specific policy statements, but almost always included very pointed attacks on Trump’s personal flaws. Trump’s opponents were within their rights to make those attacks, and most of them were accurate, but they had to know that Trump’s people weren’t going to forget about it later. It is probably the case that many of the letter-signers assumed Trump would lose in the primaries or in the general election, so they didn’t worry about being shut out of a Trump administration that they didn’t think would happen. I assumed most of the people that declared Trump unfit for office would be unwilling to work for him, but even if they are willing they should have known that they wouldn’t be welcome. Dan Drezner makes much the same point today:

For the love of God, people, what did you think was going to happen? Did you think that Donald Trump, of all people, would be the bigger man? Did you think that the foreign policy flunkies and D-listers who attached themselves to Trump during the campaign would now act like mature, responsible adults? Because if you did, maybe your threat assessment capabilities are not as good as you think — in which case Trump’s folks are pretty smart not to hire you.

If there’s a lesson in any of this, it is that professionals that want to serve in government should refrain from signing their names to denunciations of candidates unless they are prepared to be shut out from government positions as a result. That doesn’t mean that they can’t take sides in the primaries or the general election, but it does mean that they should stick to advocating for their preferred candidates rather than vainly trying to block one they don’t like.

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Obama’s Legacy: War Without End

Gene Healy comments on the dreary foreign policy legacy Obama leaves behind:

In a speech to US troops last month, he denounced the “false promise” that “we can eliminate terrorism by dropping more bombs,” and piously proclaimed that “democracies should not operate in a state of permanently authorized war.”

An audacious statement—given that it is Obama himself who’s made perpetual warfare the new normal, and the president the ultimate “decider” in matters of war and peace. Where George W. Bush secured congressional authorization for the two major wars he fought, Obama has launched two undeclared wars (in Libya and against ISIS), ordered 10 times as many drone strikes as his predecessor, and this summer bombed six different countries just over Labor Day weekend. And it is Obama who is largely responsible for warping the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force—passed three days after 9/11 to target Al Qaeda and the Taliban—into an enabling act for endless war, anywhere in the world.

Obama has been able to do this in part because he has had the luxury of facing virtually no organized opposition to any of his wars on any grounds. Media coverage of his interventions has tended to be favorable or neutral, and even when his policies have come under some criticism it has never been sustained for long enough to do him much political damage. He has faced scant opposition within his own party, and in most cases he has faced even less from his otherwise vehement political opponents. Even when he is challenged on waging unauthorized wars, very few oppose his interventions outright, and there aren’t even enough of the former in Congress to force a debate or vote on any current U.S. military engagements.

While presenting himself as the president responsible for ending America’s foreign wars, he has involved the U.S. in at least four new ones to one degree or another since the spring of 2011. However, his decisions to initiate, escalate, or join these wars have faced remarkably little scrutiny and even less resistance. Obama is responsible for his own policies, but he could not have done so much at such low political cost if both Congress and the press weren’t so content to accept presidential warmaking. Thanks to the constant berating of hawks that he is too “passive” and the bleating of foreign policy pundits that Obama is guilty of “inaction” abroad, the president has been able to get away with being one of the most interventionist foreign policy presidents in modern U.S. history while being viewed by many in both parties as very nearly the exact opposite.

Perhaps the most horrifying and least-known part of this legacy is the disgraceful U.S. support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen. U.S. refueling, arms, and intelligence have enabled the coalition to wreck Yemen’s infrastructure and devastate its economy while committing numerous documented war crimes through indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on civilian targets. The U.S. has backed this war at the same time that the coalition has blockaded and starved the civilian population of basic necessities, and millions of lives are at risk from starvation and preventable diseases as a result. U.S. involvement here is quite insidious because it is enabling enormous destruction while being much less visible than in other places. Throughout this shameful war, the U.S. has pretended that it is not a party to the conflict, and for the most part the Obama administration has been able to get away with this. Except for a small number of members from both houses, Congress has either been completely indifferent to the catastrophe our government has helped create or they have been openly supportive of the Saudis and their allies. Obama has occasionally come under criticism in major papers for his indefensible support for the war on Yemen, but because there is no danger that Congress might oppose him he has easily dismissed that criticism.

Obama’s legacy is continuing U.S. involvement in wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen, and he bequeaths to his successor the ability to start, escalate, and join wars at will without Congressional authorization.

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Needlessly Provoking a Major Power Isn’t Good for the U.S.

On Friday, Trump toyed around with the “one China” policy again:

Asked if he supported the One China policy on Taiwan, Mr. Trump said: “Everything is under negotiation including One China.”

Trump should know that something can be negotiated only when both parties are willing to talk about it. As far as Beijing is concerned, there is nothing to negotiate here, and there is nothing that the U.S. could offer them that would cause them to accept a change to the status quo. There are always some things that can’t be bargained for and some things that the other side will never accept (and some that they are prepared to fight for), and Trump either doesn’t understand this or he just wants to provoke China for the sake of provoking them. Poking China in the eye over this issue in particular continues to be remarkably ill-advised, and it is setting the stage for an acrimonious relationship between the U.S. and China in the coming year.

His remark does prompt a couple questions: why should the “one China” policy be revised, and how could it possibly benefit the U.S. to reopen a question that has been effectively settled for almost forty years? The current arrangement has helped maintain peace and stability in East Asia for decades, and attempting to change it potentially brings with significant costs that the U.S. isn’t prepared to pay and shouldn’t want to pay. There is already more than enough uncertainty about what Trump might do abroad, and the U.S. risks sparking an unnecessary crisis with China by deliberately creating more. Trump often says that the U.S. needs to be more unpredictable, but in our dealings with other major powers there is nothing less desirable than an approach to policy that leads the other government to miscalculate and overreact.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Obama’s reckless interventionism. Bonnie Kristian reviews the record of Obama’s many wars.

Does promoting American values make the world safer? Akhilesh Pillalamarri counters the conceit that “American values and security can be preserved only so long as the United States promotes democracy and liberalism throughout the world.”

Resisting the urge to “do something” overseas. Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky identify some of the causes of the impulse to “do something” in foreign policy.

Saudi cash can’t buy military clout. Bloomberg reports on the growing costs of the unsuccessful Saudi-led war effort in Yemen.

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Cruz and Graham’s Tantrum Against the U.N.

Mark Leon Goldberg explains why Cruz and Graham’s proposal to cut off funding for the U.N. in response to UNSCR 2334 is a terrible idea:

“If you cut off their money, that gets their attention,” Ted Cruz told Morning Joe. That’s certainly true. But if enacted, this legislation would undermine the ability of the United States to set the agenda at the United Nations in ways that advance American interests and values. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of cutting off one’s nose to spite the face.

Cruz and Graham’s proposed bill is a typical hawkish reaction to something they don’t like: it is cruelly punitive, it won’t produce the change they want, it will hurt people that have nothing to do with the issue they are protesting, and it will reduce U.S. influence in the world in a vain bid to show “strength.” Penalizing the U.N. as a whole over one vote that hard-liners don’t like would be a petty and destructive move that will only generate more resentment against the U.S., and it won’t do anything to reverse Israel’s international isolation on the issue of settlements. If this bill were passed and Trump signed it, it would amount to having the U.S. throw a tantrum that hurts us on behalf of the illegal behavior of a client state. This is yet another example of how “pro-Israel” hawks are no good for the U.S. or Israel.

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Another Pointless Provocation of China

Tillerson’s remarks yesterday about denying China access to its artificial islands in the South China Sea have stirred up a strong reaction in China:

Mr. Tillerson’s comments, with the possible implication that the United States might use its armed forces to deny the Chinese access to the islands, garnered reactions including confusion, disbelief and warlike threats from analysts in China.

These comments were the most dangerous position Tillerson has taken so far. We have to hope that this won’t become Trump’s policy, because it would put us on a very risky collision course with China over something that is frankly not worth fighting over. Meanwhile, making these statements isn’t helpful, and serves only to increase tensions with Beijing:

“This is the sort of off-the-cuff remark akin to a tweet that pours fuel on the fire and maybe makes things worse,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “Short of going to war with China, there is nothing the Americans can do.”

Suffice it to say, the U.S. shouldn’t be going to war over this, and I doubt China’s government believes that the U.S. would go to war over it. If that’s right, it is difficult to see what the U.S. would gain by making threats that it isn’t going to carry out. Possibly Tillerson was just engaging in more hawkish posturing to make his confirmation process easier, but that’s no excuse. Whatever Tillerson’s reason for making these comments might be, it risks worsening relations with China without gaining the U.S. anything.

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