Daniel Larison

Scotland and Illegal Wars

greensambaman / cc

greensambaman / cc

Gideon Rachman is opposed to the breakup of the U.K., which is fair enough. However, he uses some strange and irrelevant arguments to make his case:

Yet the Scottish referendum campaign has been conducted as if the rest of the world stops at London. There has been almost no discussion of foreign affairs – apart from the nationalists’ inane refrain that a morally superior Scotland will not have to join in “illegal wars” [bold mine-DL]. The nationalists also insist that an independent Scotland will get rid of nuclear weapons. (Ukraine did just that, when it became independent, and now bitterly regrets it.)

The fact that Rachman considers that refrain to be “inane” is telling. On the foreign policy issue that typically matters most to voters in every country–whether and when their government chooses to go to war–the pro-independence side is offering a clear rejection of at least one kind of military intervention overseas. It is taken for granted that the U.K. probably will continue to participate in new foreign wars of both the legal and illegal variety in the years and decades to come, and that would happen whether people in Scotland support those wars or not. Rachman’s problem with this pledge doesn’t seem to be that it is false of misleading (as many other claims from Salmond and his allies are), but that it is likely to be fulfilled.

In fact, the commitments to stay out of illegal wars and to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons are probably the two most (only?) credible promises that the nationalists have made during the campaign. Which illegal wars does he think Scotland will feel compelled to join in the future? Why would it? Rachman can’t really explain why either of these positions is wrong, so he throws in a reference to Ukraine to make us think that something terrible will happen to a non-nuclear Scotland. Set aside that Ukraine couldn’t have afforded to keep a nuclear arsenal even if it wanted one, and overlook that possessing a nuclear arsenal wouldn’t have done Ukraine any good in the current crisis. How is Ukraine’s experience in any way relevant to what’s being debated in Scotland? Obviously, it isn’t. What exactly does Rachman think is going to happen to Scotland once the nuclear weapons have been removed? Probably nothing that anyone needs to worry about, but he wants to create an impression of danger where none exists.

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Is the Idea of Scottish Independence Baffling?

esfera / Shutterstock.com

Niall Ferguson is predictably against Scottish independence, which isn’t particularly interesting. However, there was something he said about American views of the referendum that deserved a short comment:

Even to the millions of Americans whose surnames testify to their Scottish or Scotch-Irish ancestry, the idea that Scotland might be about to become an independent country is baffling [bold mine-DL].

I am part Scots-Irish on my mother’s side, and I don’t find it the least bit baffling. It isn’t up to me or any other Americans what happens later this week, but it would be extremely easy for me to understand if a majority voted for independence on Thursday. Nothing could be easier to understand than the desire of a people to try to get more control over how (and by whom) they are governed. This impulse never seems to baffle anyone when we see it in other parts of the world.

Western policymakers and pundits are normally too enamored of the benefits of partition, secession, and the creation of new states when it applies to states that they don’t like or that they view as intractable problems. Iraq isn’t stable? Maybe we should split it up into sectarian and ethnic enclaves, regardless of what the people living there might want. Sudan suffers from a protracted civil war? Let’s create a new, automatically failed state as part of the “solution.” Ukraine is politically divided and dysfunctional? Maybe we should cut it in half! Over the last few months, advocating for an independent Kurdistan has suddenly become popular again, as if that weren’t potentially very dangerous and explosive for the entire region. But when there is a popular movement to establish a new state peacefully and it affects a Western country that they know well, it suddenly seems mystifying and bizarre. “Why would anyone want to do that?” they ask. Self-determination and national independence are supposed to be what nations somewhere else want. People living in modern Western democracies are supposed to have outgrown that sort of thing.

If anything, I would think that Americans would generally have a better appreciation than most for why people would want to establish an independent state in spite of the very real costs and economic disruptions that could come with it. After all, the promise of independence for Scotland isn’t that the country will definitely be more prosperous or successful (it may not be), but that the people living there will be able to govern it in a way much closer to their preferences than they can now. That can be worth a lot more to people than sticking with a status quo that may be easier and safer in the short term.

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Israel and Public Opinion

ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com

Dan Drezner draws attention to some of the more remarkable results from a new survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was surprised by how limited the public’s support for Israel was, and cites the results:

64 percent of Americans say they prefer not to take sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

53 percent of Americans oppose sending U.S. troops to defend Israel if it is attacked by one of its neighbors.

More Americans prefer cutting economic and military aid to Israel than increasing it (although the plurality is fine with the status quo).

As the survey report notes, this is consistent with earlier surveys from the Chicago Council, and it’s also in line with other surveys of Americans’ views on what U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine ought to be. There is always a significant minority that definitely wants the U.S. to side with Israel in the conflict, and there are always twice or three times as many that want the U.S. to remain neutral. That is, the overwhelming majority probably thinks that the U.S. should be acting as an “honest broker” in the conflict by not openly backing one side against the other, and yet that has never been the reality of U.S. policy towards these two nations. The 20-30% is the constituency for the Israel policy that the U.S. has had over the last few decades, and the broad majority of Americans doesn’t and never has endorsed the overwhelmingly one-sided policy that receives the backing of almost all elected officials in Washington. It doesn’t surprise me that most Americans don’t want to send U.S. troops to defend Israel, since according to some surveys most Americans don’t consider Israel an ally.

Some “pro-Israel” hawks will cite polls showing greater sympathy towards Israel relative to the Palestinians as proof of Americans’ supposedly profound attachment to the country, but being sympathetic towards another nation and supporting a policy of extensive support for its government are and always have been very different things. More than most kinds of policy, foreign policy often does not reflect what the public wants. Since there are relatively few Americans that make these issues a priority in their voting, elected officials are more likely to pay attention to what the loudest, most activist, and best organized Americans have to say on a particular issue. On most of these issues, it is safer for an elected official to ignore the voters’ preferences and stay on the right side of the activists for a given cause.

That is the point that many critics of the U.S.-Israeli relationship have made for years: the current policy is not simply an expression of what most Americans prefer, and a policy that was more representative of the preferences of the majority would look dramatically different from the one that we have. It’s not that “powerful interest groups have somehow hoodwinked the American public” into endorsing the current policy, because most Americans don’t want the U.S. backing Israel to the hilt, but that these groups have successfully pushed for a policy that is more or less reflexively supportive of most things that Israeli governments do. Likewise, they have created political incentives for elected officials without strong views on the subject to take even more aggressively “pro-Israel” positions than most Israelis do. That 20-30% may not speak for most Americans, but they are typically more organized, more interested, and more committed to their position than the broad majority that doesn’t want the U.S. to take a side because they don’t particularly care one way or the other. That is part of the explanation of why their position prevails in the policy debate: there is scant organized opposition to it.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

What Scottish independence would (and wouldn’t) mean. Angus Roxburgh reflects on what it means to be Scottish and why he will vote for independence next week.

How do you kill an idea? Alex Massie comments on why unionists have done such a poor job of persuading Scots to vote against independence.

Being Scottish and British. Massie also explains why he’ll still be voting ‘no’ next week.

The effects of Scottish independence on the rest of Britain. Adam Taylor considers the many things that would or could change after the September 18th referendum.

Obama’s “dumb war.” Rosa Brooks lists the reasons why the new war in Iraq and Syria fits the definition of being a “dumb” war.

Authorization for the use of a military forever. Robert Golan-Vilella explains why the 2001 AUMF doesn’t authorize the new war against ISIS.

How the U.S. made ISIS a threat. Zachary Keck makes the case that U.S. attacks on the group are responsible for its targeting of Americans.

Ted Cruz crashes the In Defense of Christians summit. Jonathan Coppage reports on Cruz’s ridiculous display at an event focused on Christian persecution.

Catalans wants independence, too. Der Spiegel reports on the upcoming Catalan independence referendum that Madrid refuses to recognize.

Moving Argentina’s capital. Filipe Campante considers the downsides of relocating the capital from Buenos Aires.

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The American Conservative: Realism and Reform

The American Conservative has been an indispensable outlet for the ideas and arguments of dissident and traditional conservatives for the last twelve years, and it continues to offer a vitally important and necessary alternative to movement conservatism and its tendency to subordinate conservative principles of wisdom, prudence, and restraint to the needs of partisan loyalty and ideological obsessions. Since its founding, the magazine and its website have been the principled voice of conservative opposition to the many follies of the Bush and Obama eras and the reliable defender of local communities, constitutional government, a broad distribution of power and wealth, and the causes of liberty and peace.

Over the last year, TAC has been a consistent critic of reckless and ill-conceived military interventions in Syria and now again in Iraq and Syria. Earlier this summer, we co-hosted a successful conference promoting a foreign policy of restraint, and we continue to warn against the folly of wars of choice. TAC is a valuable resource for all Americans that want to rediscover a foreign policy conservatism that is dedicated to securing the national interest without being wedded to perpetual war. TAC has been promoting the cause of reforming and improving the foreign policy debate in the Republican Party and in the country as a whole since its inception, and our arguments are more necessary than ever as the U.S. has begun a war in Iraq and Syria that will continue for years to come.

In addition to this, the magazine and our website offer trenchant and insightful political and social commentary from all of our contributors and bloggers, and our writers regularly address many policy issues that other conservative outlets ignore or refuse to take seriously. Along with content from the magazine and our other regular online contributors, our website hosts Noah Millman‘s insights on politics, theater, and film, Rod Dreher‘s reflections on literature, religion, and culture, Micah Mattix’s outstanding literary blog Prufrock, and Jonathan Coppage’s project on New Urbanism that is promoting conservative ideas for creating humane and sustainable cities. In order to continue this important work, The American Conservative needs the continued support of its readers, without whom we would be able to do nothing. All donations to the magazine are tax-deductible, and anything that you are able to give would be greatly appreciated. If you are able to donate something, please donate here.

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Cruz, Israel, and In Defense of Christians

Gage Skidmore / cc

Gage Skidmore / cc

Jonathan Coppage reports on the embarrassing display that Sen. Ted Cruz put on at a summit organized to draw attention to the plight of persecuted Christians:

A humanitarian crisis. Christians, are being systematically exterminated,” Cruz then turned to the 1948 formation of Israel, a sensitive subject for many Palestinian Christians, and declared that ”today, Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state.”

It was at that point that some in the audience objected to Cruz turning a celebration of Christian unity into a lecture on a divisive subject that many in the crowd experienced as part of their everyday lives. Cruz returned accusations of hatred.

In Defense of Christians (IDC) put out an irenic and balanced statement in response to the incident. As one would expect, Sen. Cruz pretended that he had done nothing wrong, and went so far as to make the ridiculous claim that he had taken a stand against anti-Semitism. Cruz’s behavior was unnecessary, it was insulting to his hosts, it was needlessly provocative to the audience, and it was an embarrassment to his voters. Because he has proven time after time to be a shameless demagogue, none of that will bother him.

An important point that has been lost in many of the reactions to this incident is that Cruz was completely out of line to set some kind of ideological litmus test for the attendees that requires them to endorse the “pro-Israel” views that Cruz happens to hold. Cruz is free to hold those views, and many of his voters agree with him, but it is obnoxious to demand that others, including many Arab Christian clergy in attendance, subscribe to those views in order to obtain Cruz’s sympathy for their plight. Not only is “standing with Israel” irrelevant to the reason for the summit, but as this incident has proven it is a completely unnecessary distraction from the work of the organization that sponsored the event.

The issue should be important enough that it transcends other policy and political disagreements. The fact that Cruz could not recognize this, but instead chose to emphasize and dwell on those disagreements to the point of accusing members of the audience of being “consumed with hatred” reflects very poorly on him. Cruz chose to abuse his place at this gathering for cynical and self-promoting reasons, which unfortunately has become part of a recurring pattern for the junior senator from Texas. The good news is that his shameless behavior may have unintentionally helped to bring more attention to the suffering of Christians throughout the region.

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Obama’s Foreseeable Escalation

Ross Douthat comments on the ever-expanding war on ISIS:

And I wouldn’t blame war-skeptics who listened to the president outline a more open-ended campaign last night for feeling some vindication at how swiftly this war’s aims have expanded.

Well, I was one of those skeptics, but there’s no feeling of vindication. It is all so depressingly predictable and familiar, and I would have been thrilled to be proven wrong about this. Unfortunately, things have proceeded more or less as I expected they would when the bombing started a month ago:

These airstrikes are at best a stop-gap measure to slow the advance of ISIS’s forces, and to the extent that they are effective they will likely become an ongoing commitment that the U.S. won’t be able to end for the foreseeable future. Administration officials claim that there is no plan for a “sustained” campaign, but now that airstrikes have begun it will be only a matter of time before there are demands for escalation and deeper involvement, and sooner or later I expect that Obama would yield to those demands. Having made the initial commitment and having accepted that the U.S. has a significant military role in Iraq’s internal conflicts, the U.S. will be expected to continue its commitment for as long as ISIS exists, and that will leave the U.S. policing the Iraqi civil war for months and years to come.

Admittedly, I didn’t think that the war would be expanded to Syria so quickly, but that was bound to happen once Obama committed to the goal of “ultimately destroying” ISIS. What I don’t understand is why anyone ever believed that U.S. goals weren’t going to expand significantly after the bombing that began last month. Skeptics were right about this, but it was almost certain to happen, so why weren’t more people just as skeptical as we were? More to the point, why wasn’t the likelihood of an expanding, open-ended war enough reason to reject the original intervention as the mistake that it was?

Escalation was always very likely, because that has been the pattern in U.S. interventions over the last twenty-five years. Obama already demonstrated in Libya that the U.S. would go far beyond the original stated goals of an intervention, and he is now on record saying that his greatest regret about the Libyan war was that the U.S. didn’t follow it up with a post-war military presence. That should be something to bear in mind when you next hear Obama pledge that there won’t be any American ground forces in combat in this new war. That’s why we should have expected this from Obama, but what made escalation even more likely is that our current political culture and foreign policy debate don’t really permit the U.S. to limit itself to small, achievable goals when it uses force overseas. That is especially true once administration officials irresponsibly stoke public fear about a group being an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” Sooner or later, the mismatch between the administration’s alarmist rhetoric and the initial “limited” action was going to be fixed by adopting a more aggressive policy.

If an intervention succeeds in its initial goals, the U.S. typically doesn’t stop there. Instead, the U.S. is encouraged by its early success and adds new goals. Soon enough, the U.S. is pursuing maximalist ends without having considered how to reach them or whether they can even be reached. Then again, if an intervention fails early on or incurs higher-than-expected costs, there is still enormous resistance in Washington to cutting American losses and calling off the mission, because to do so would signal “weakness” and harm our “credibility.” This is why it is unwise to take military action unless it is strictly necessary, no matter how small or limited it may appear to be initially, because the pressures for escalation will be great and usually overwhelming.

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The “Broad” Coalition That Doesn’t Exist

One of the more questionable claims in Obama’s speech last night was the claim that the U.S. was acting with a “broad coalition of partners.” Obama failed to identify who these “partners” are, which makes it more difficult to judge how many there are or whether these “partners” will be of any use. If the Libyan war is any guide to how this will work, the U.S. and a handful of other governments will do the bulk of the fighting, and others will be included on the official list to give an impression of substantial international support that doesn’t exist. The reference to the “broad coalition” seemed to be a matter of paying lip service to the idea that this is a multilateral effort rather than being the U.S.-led war that it mostly is.

Since Obama spoke last night, we have learned that the U.K. won’t be engaging in airstrikes in Syria, and Turkey has reportedly refused to allow the U.S. to use its bases to conduct its airstrikes against ISIS targets in either country. So one of the few major European allies that can contribute significantly to the air campaign is strictly limiting its involvement to part of the territory under ISIS’ control, and the main U.S. ally that borders on both Syria and Iraq won’t be cooperating at all. The lack of Turkish cooperation will presumably make the air campaign more difficult and therefore make it last even longer. The more striking thing about this is that the U.S. is going back to war in the region and still cannot count on support from its sole NATO ally in the region. That draws attention to one of this war’s basic flaws: the U.S. is taking the regional threat from ISIS more seriously and doing more to oppose it than many of the regional states that have far more to lose. The U.S. has allowed itself to be pulled into a new, open-ended war for the sake of “partners” that are contributing little or nothing to the war.

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The Illegal War Against ISIS

Saul Loeb/CNP/AdMedia/Newscom
Saul Loeb/CNP/AdMedia/Newscom

Obama’s ISIS speech last night was underwhelming, but then there was almost nothing in it that hadn’t been expected. He barely mentioned any legal justification for the campaign that he was announcing, saying only that “I have the authority” to do it. Perhaps Obama didn’t want to say more than this, because the administration is reportedly relying on the 2001 AUMF for this so-called authority, which no one else thinks applies to ISIS:

Obama’s using the law that authorized attacks against al Qaeda to justify his new fight in Syria and Iraq. One small problem: ISIS and al Qaeda are at each others’ throats. Legal experts were shocked to learn Wednesday that the Obama administration wants to rely on that 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against al Qaeda for the new ISIS war.

“On its face this is an implausible argument because the 2001 AUMF requires a nexus to al Qaeda or associated forces of al Qaeda fighting the United States,” said Robert Chesney, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. “Since ISIS broke up with al Qaeda it’s hard to make that argument.”

The 2001 AUMF clearly doesn’t apply here, so the president doesn’t have the authority that he pretends to have. This is similar to the administration’s claim back in 2011 that U.S. forces weren’t engaged in “hostilities” and therefore Congressional authorization of the ongoing war in Libya wasn’t required. Since they can’t pretend that U.S. forces aren’t fighting a war this time, they have looked around for a fig leaf and chosen one of the weakest legal arguments they could find. They have staked out another flimsy, absurd position, and because they got away with it three years ago they probably assume they can do the same thing again.

It is a little strange that Obama wouldn’t ask for a new authorization specifically for attacking ISIS, since Congress and the public would appear to be behind the war at the moment. It seems unlikely that there would be a repeat of the Syria debate in Congress. If pressed to vote on this war, both houses would likely vote yes in large numbers. However, we already know that many Democrats in Congress don’t want to have to vote on this ahead of the midterms, and there are just as many Republicans that are happy to let the president start a war that they don’t have to vote on. That way all of the members can avoid taking a hard and potentially unpopular vote, and they can collectively avoid any responsibility for the war. They will probably be grateful that they can avoid voting on this war, since it seems likely to be an open-ended conflict and its goal of “destroying ISIS” still seems just as unrealistic as it was before the speech.

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Threat Inflation and Foreign Policy Debate

Mollie Hemingway is dissatisfied with the state of foreign policy debate defined by two “extremes”:

Yes, the debate here is dominated by the “We must intervene across the globe and spread democracy” crowd and the “these global threats are always overrated” crowd.

It would be more accurate to say that our foreign policy debate is typically dominated by the former from both parties, and there are also a relative few operating at the edges of that debate that criticize U.S. policies and object to threat inflation. Hemingway doesn’t like either “extreme,” and wants there to be some alternative in between them. I’m not sure where Hemingway would put realists on this spectrum, and they would seem to be the most likely representatives of the view that she supports, but she doesn’t specifically mention them one way or the other. All of this is fine as far as it goes, but it’s also a rather odd complaint. Most policy debates are defined to a large degree by politicians and activists with diametrically opposing views, and those views tend to be strongly held and expressed. Most people are going to sympathize with one side of the debate more often than the other, which doesn’t require them to agree with everything its loudest and most active advocates say or write.

Hemingway has also chosen a curious example to illustrate her point. On the specific question of ISIS and the threat it poses to the U.S., one of the “extremes” that she rejects is substantially correct about the extent of the threat and the other is not. She quotes Nick Gillespie, who argues that Americans shouldn’t panic about ISIS and objects that the threat to America has been wildly exaggerated, but she doesn’t ever tell us why Gillespie is mistaken. He belongs to the “threats are overrated” crowd, and apparently that’s enough for his argument to be dismissed. The government has said once again that there is no evidence that ISIS has plans to attack the U.S. The group also lacks the ability to do so. So the threat from ISIS to the United States really has been greatly exaggerated over the last few weeks, and that has been fueling the public’s mistaken impression that the U.S. is at risk of being attacked by them. When hawks declare ISIS to be an “imminent” or “existential” threat, as some have done, they are wrong on the facts and they are irresponsibly exaggerating the dangers to the U.S., and they are doing so in order to frighten Americans into supporting policies whose costs and risks haven’t been seriously thought through or debated. This has nothing to do with being “naive about how bad the world is or how much of a threat some groups and countries pose.” It has to do with accurately judging foreign threats and devising appropriate responses to them.

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