Daniel Larison

Starving Yemen

IRIN Photos/Flickr: The UN-administered camp at Mazrak, north-west Yemen, seen on 12 November 2009 is now stretched beyond capacity after a Saudi military offensive against the Huthis starting early November uprooted a fresh wave of IDP families.
IRIN Photos/Flickr: The UN-administered camp at Mazrak, north-west Yemen, seen on 12 November 2009 is now stretched beyond capacity after a Saudi military offensive against the Huthis starting early November uprooted a fresh wave of IDP families.

The full-length video of Nawal al-Maghafi’s report on Yemen’s worsening humanitarian catastrophe can be viewed below:

The video shows the story previously mentioned in this BBC article that I commented on earlier this month. It runs a little over twenty minutes, and very ably sums up the terrible harm that the Saudi-led war and blockade are doing to the civilian population, especially young children.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . Post a comment

Another Blown Opportunity for Johnson

Gary Johnson blew another opportunity while trying to answer an easy foreign policy question:

It was, in Gary Johnson’s own words, another “Aleppo moment.”

During a town hall-style interview on MSNBC on Wednesday night, Mr. Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, was asked by the host Chris Matthews to name his favorite foreign leader.

Mr. Johnson, appearing flustered, was at a loss to come up with a name.

The question may not have been very important, but Johnson’s inability to remember even a single name was cringeworthy. Eventually, he recognized Vicente Fox’s name when it was mentioned to him, but it’s strange that it should have taken much reminding when Fox was president of Mexico at the same time Johnson was New Mexico’s governor. As a border state governor, he had met with Fox on occasion, and under normal circumstances this is the sort of thing that a governor would be eager to cite as evidence of past foreign policy experience. Alternatively, Johnson could have said that Matthews’ question was silly, but he still should have been able to recall someone–anyone–from around the world whom he respected on at least one issue. No one really cares who Johnson’s “favorite” leader is, but when someone wants to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate it does matter whether he has made the effort to get up to speed on basic information about other governments and political leaders.

Back in 1999, then-Gov. George W. Bush was asked to name the leaders of four specific countries or regions around the world. He famously couldn’t name three of them, and was widely (and correctly) mocked for his ignorance. The “pop quiz” that he failed wasn’t that important in itself, but it showed how little Bush knew and how little effort he had made to be prepared on these issues. As we discovered later when he was president, he continued to lack interest in and knowledge about the rest of the world to his detriment and ours. It turned out that Bush’s inability to identify foreign leaders correctly did reflect how little he knew about the world, and the country ended up paying a steep price for having a president who didn’t know much and wasn’t inclined to learn.

My impression is that Johnson’s foreign policy views are better on the whole than Trump’s or Clinton’s, but he can’t win voters over with those views if he can’t answer the most basic questions effectively. Since the major party candidates both have such poor judgment and horrible records, this is the best opportunity for a third-party candidate specifically on foreign policy in decades, and Johnson is letting it slip away.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 12 comments

The Senate Overrides Obama’s JASTA Veto

Paisan Changhirun / Shutterstock.com

The Senate overrode Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terror Act (JASTA) earlier today by a vote of 97-1. Daniel DePetris explains why the bill probably won’t have the effect its supporters desire:

In the end, however, all of the lobbying from the 9/11 families, and the millions of dollars spent by the Saudis in return, obscure an important fact about JASTA: the legislation is far more symbolic than anything else. Any teeth the bill had were taken out when senators amended the legislation to make it more palatable to the Obama administration.

In one of the biggest loopholes in the bill, the attorney general would possess the power to ask a judge to pause any judicial proceeding against a foreign state for 180 days if he or she certified that Washington was engaged in “good faith discussions with the foreign state defendant” on the charges. The government, in effect, could ask the judge to stop the proceedings in order to arrive at some kind of settlement. And if the judge granted the attorney general’s initial request—something that Steve Vladeck, a professor of law at the University of Texas, argues is very likely given past precedent—the U.S. government could receive additional 180-day extensions as long as the discussions continued.

These loopholes give the Saudi government a way to stymie any lawsuits against them as long as there is an administration willing to cover for them. Since that’s the case, overriding Obama’s veto has more to do with striking a popular pose than it has to do with giving the families of 9/11 victims their day in court. The contrast with last week’s debate over the latest arms sale to the Saudis could hardly be greater. When there was a resolution before the Senate that might actually send a meaningful message of disapproval to Riyadh, the vast majority of senators was against it. Present the same group with a defanged bill that probably won’t do anything, and they’re all for it. The Senate had its chance to hold the Saudis accountable for their ongoing destructive behavior in Yemen, and opted to side with the Saudis. Voting for JASTA allows many of the same members to cast a symbolic anti-Saudi vote while still backing the unhealthy U.S.-Saudi relationship and the administration’s disastrous support for the war on Yemen.

Update: The House has voted 348-77 to override Obama’s veto.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 5 comments

Indian Foreign Policy and the Value of Restraint

Sameer Lalwani makes the case that India should respond in a restrained way to the recent attack on soldiers in Kashmir:

A second point of conventional wisdom is that the failure to take military action will damage India’s credibility and invite further attacks. Although there is broad recognition that India lacks the requisite military capabilities to inflict punishment without courting significant escalation risks, those concerned with India’s credibility argue that it should take action, regardless of military efficacy, in order to demonstrate resolve [bold mine-DL]. This claim suggests that if India does not fight today, its response will be read as appeasement, and state or non-state actors will doubt its future resolve and strike again.

The debate is ongoing, but some of the international relations literature challenges the claim that military actions are required to bolster credibility. Research by Dartmouth Professor Daryl Press suggests that even in textbook World War II cases of “appeasement,” perceptions of credibility are actually formed on the basis of present calculations of actual capabilities and stakes in a crisis, rather than on past behavior. By this logic, it makes sense that Pakistan has not attempted another Kargil-like incursion; Pakistan knows that India possesses a tremendous advantage in material capabilities and a strong stake in retaining its hold on Indian-administered Kashmir. This contradicts the idea that it would necessarily perceive restraint from India as a sign of weakness.

I hope India refrains from making a military response. India has previously suffered serious attacks that inflicted as much or even more damage than this one, and after both the attack on Parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai attacks its government wisely refused to start a larger conflict. The current government should follow the example of its recent predecessors. This will not only save India from a risky and potentially costly response, but it should earn India the respect of most nations around the world. It would be extremely easy to resort to force in response to such a provocation, but it would be a hasty and ill-considered response that would cost India more in the long run. This episode also shows how potentially dangerous misguided preoccupation with “credibility” can be. Taking military action regardless of its efficacy would be folly. This would not enhance India’s reputation, but would show that its government can be easily goaded into short-sighted and dangerous action.

Lalwani concludes:

The 2009 elections and recent polling data suggest that Indian prime ministers have thus far suffered no real political costs for opting against military actions in retribution for major attacks. Further, the country could actually weaken its credibility if it embarked on a militarily disastrous adventure that exposes gaps in capabilities. Finally, although India has fulminated over its lack options to punish its enemies, it has invested little in the comparatively easier approach of denying its enemies their goals.

Taking punitive action is frequently satisfying in the near term, but it rarely makes the country more secure and often creates unnecessary headaches and racks up costs that could have been avoided with a more restrained approach.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 10 comments

The ‘Credibility’ Argument Is Nonsense

Dianne Pfundstein Chamberlain understandably wants to kill the shoddy “credibility” argument with fire:

I found that the real world does not operate in the way that these critics of U.S. inaction seem to think it does. It is foolish for the United States to undertake military action for the primary purpose of reinforcing its reputation. Refraining from acting when U.S. interests are not directly engaged will not diminish America’s “credibility” or its ability to wield power effectively.

Hawks like to use the “credibility” argument to agitate for military action, they use it to denounce “inaction,” and they rely on it most often when U.S. interests in a particular conflict are few or non-existent. Despite having been debunked many times, the “credibility” argument remains useful to hawks for creating the illusion that U.S. “leadership” and perhaps our entire alliance structure worldwide is at risk unless the U.S. does as they want in each instance. If hawks don’t get their way, they will assert that U.S. “credibility” has been lost. There is no proof that other states see it this way and become more aggressive as a result, but hawks ignore that and consistently frame all undesirable behavior by other states as “responses” to supposed U.S. “weakness.” Our foreign policy debates are already heavily biased in favor of “action,” and the “credibility” argument provides the excuse for taking “action.” The “credibility” argument is now mainly a rhetorical device that hawks use to create fear of what might happen if the U.S. doesn’t attack the country they want to attack, and it still has some success in frightening politicians into backing unwise and unnecessary military action. The “credibility” argument is obviously false and relies on a complete misreading of how other states perceive and react to what our government does or doesn’t do, and yet it never dies because it is a ready-made crutch for proponents of aggressive policies.

It’s still important to emphasize that the argument is dangerously wrong. Chamberlain reviewed over sixty years of U.S. threats and the actions to back them up, and reached an interesting conclusion:

When we look at the record of U.S. compellence, however, we find that the opposite is true: America’s compellent threats have been both more frequent and less effective on average since 1990 than they were during the Cold War [bold mine-DL]. The target conceded to U.S. demands in 55 percent of Cold War crises in which the United States issued a compellent threat and in only 25 percent of crises in the post-Cold War period. In other words, despite the fact that the United States has demonstrated that it always follows through on its compellent threats, these threats have become less effective over time. This is the exact opposite of what we would expect given the logic of those who argue that U.S. inaction in Ukraine emboldened Putin to intervene in Syria and that inaction in Syria will similarly embolden him to invade the Baltics.

Will the willingness to bomb a dictator today persuade the same leader to concede to American demands tomorrow? It turns out that the answer is no. When we look at cases in which the United States has attempted to coerce the same target state over time, we find that the willingness to execute past threats — even those involving the use of considerable military force — does not translate into an increased likelihood that the target will concede to the United States’ demands in subsequent crises.

The U.S. doesn’t have to resort to military action in places where it has little or nothing at stake in order to maintain its reputation, and it doesn’t have to fight unnecessary wars to shore up the credibility of its threats. As Chamberlain says, the “world simply does not operate in the way that proponents of the reputation theory argue it does,” and we should all remember that in the next debate when advocates for military action trot out this thoroughly discredited argument.

Posted in , . Tagged , . 5 comments

The First Presidential Debate

Ross Douthat’s assessment of last night’s debate makes sense:

So she won the debate on points, and probably won it in the court of public opinion, and in the process eased liberal anxiety and pushed the race back toward its “Hillary by four” equilibrium.

What she didn’t do, however, was goad Trump into a true meltdown or knock him out with a truly devastating attack.

If the goal for both candidates was to avoid self-inflicted wounds, Clinton certainly had the better showing. Trump showed how easily he could be baited and distracted by criticism, and even when he was gesturing in the direction of talking about policy he fell back on many of his worst arguments (e.g., “take the oil,” inane complaints about the nuclear deal, etc.). As I recall, the only attack on Clinton that really landed was when he hit her on her cynical maneuvering on TPP, and that attack worked because it happened to be true and reminded voters why Clinton isn’t trustworthy, but the vast majority of Americans don’t know or care about TPP and so the effect of this attack will likely be minimal.

Remarkably, Trump mostly failed to use Clinton’s foreign policy record against her, and he spent more of his time having to clarify or defend his own “positions” with little success. He mentioned the Libyan war only in passing, but never even tried to explain why Clinton was responsible for any of it. Clinton was able to deflect this by pointing out that Trump backed intervention in Libya, and that was the end of it. Foreign policy is one of Clinton’s biggest liabilities and one of the most obvious ways to question her judgment, but Trump isn’t prepared enough to talk about policy to use it against her. Clinton also avoided having to say very much about her position on what should be done in Syria. The candidates were never asked about it, and she mentioned the country briefly as part of an answer about the war on ISIS. Overall, the foreign policy section of the debate touched on only a handful of issues, most of which were related to U.S. policies in the Near East. If anyone wanted to know about something other than the candidates’ views on Iran and Russia, last night’s debate wouldn’t have provided many answers.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , . 35 comments

First 2016 Presidential Debate Preview

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Like Noah Millman, I don’t expect to learn anything from tonight’s presidential debate. For those of us that have followed the campaign from the beginning, both of these candidates are thoroughly familiar, and even for people that haven’t paid close attention to the election both Clinton and Trump are very well-known (and not coincidentally deeply disliked by most). There will be no meaningful revelations about either candidate, nor are many people going to be swayed by what they see and hear. It will mostly be an exercise in avoiding self-inflicted wounds, and the one that comes out with fewer unforced errors will likely be deemed the winner.

Trump has never been interested in outlining policy proposals in any detail during debates, and he isn’t going to start now. That gives him a slight advantage in that most voters don’t especially care about policy specifics, and tend not to react well to candidates that are absorbed with them. If there is one thing Trump knows about, it is how to perform on television, so I don’t know that it matters so much that this will be the first head-to-head debate he has done as a candidate. Clinton has considerably more experience with these formats from both her Senate and presidential campaigns, but she has never faced off against an opponent quite as shameless and unconventional as Trump. Clinton probably has the edge in being able to give the canned, scripted answers that these events demand. Trump’s willingness to say almost anything means that he may surprise her with an attack or proposal that she isn’t anticipating.

The debate “topics” that have been announced in advance are very vague, but I assume “securing America” will be the section of the debate related to foreign policy and national security. Because of her tenure at the State Department, this is the section during which Clinton will be expected to dominate Trump, who knows little and understands even less about the rest of the world. However, because of her record of poor judgment on foreign policy, especially as it relates to military intervention, Clinton will be vulnerable to attacks that Trump won’t hesitate to make regarding the Iraq and Libyan wars. Trump may be a lousy messenger for these criticisms, but they are attacks that she was mostly spared during the primaries and for that reason she hasn’t had much practice in defending against them. This section of the debate seems likely to serve as a microcosm of the election as a whole: Clinton has experience but also has lousy judgment, while Trump is a shameless opportunist who doesn’t know much except for how to take advantage of his opponents’ poor records.

P.S. I will be covering the debate tonight on Twitter (@DanielLarison). The debate begins at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 11 comments

Obama’s Horrible Legacy in Yemen

Samuel Oakford and Peter Salisbury review the Obama administration’s record of enabling the Saudi-led war on Yemen:

The once-improbable now seems imminent: unless the Obama administration ends refueling and logistical support for the Saudis, it appears all but certain to hand off the war in Yemen to his successor.

The Obama administration started its support for the Saudi-led war in the name of “reassuring” the Gulf clients, and so there seems to be nothing that the coalition does to Yemen that can put that support at risk. When the goal of a policy is simply to placate other governments regardless of what those governments do with the assistance, it becomes impossible to stop the support without angering those governments and thus defeating the purpose of the policy of “reassurance.” Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom in Washington has been that Obama has been too hard on the Saudis and other Gulf clients, so the next president is likely to indulge them even more and criticize them less than the very limited criticism Obama has offered. In the case of Clinton and Kaine, we have every reason to expect this. Kaine “urged” the administration to continue providing logistical and intelligence support to the coalition from the very beginning of the bombing campaign, and everything Clinton has said about the relationship with the Saudis and their allies indicates that she has no desire to cut off the assistance. As far as I know, Trump and Pence haven’t said anything publicly about U.S. support for the war, but what Trump has said about Yemen isn’t encouraging.

Last week’s Senate debate on the latest arms sale was dispiriting but instructive in showing the lengths to which supporters of the war on Yemen would go to frame the conflict in pro-Saudi terms. According to the warped view of the Saudis’ allies in the Senate, the aggressive war on Yemen has been reinvented as a defensive war against Yemeni “aggression.” Some of the supporters will butcher basic geography in order to spin the Saudis’ war as a necessary one. I don’t know how many people in the administration genuinely share this upside-down view of the conflict, but judging from their public statements over the last year and a half U.S. officials are more likely to lie and echo Saudi propaganda than challenge it.

I have said many times that U.S. support for this war is a black mark on Obama’s record. It is arguably the worst thing he has done overseas, and enabling the coalition bombing campaign and supporting its blockade are among the worst things the U.S. has done to another part of the world in my lifetime. The candidate who once claimed to oppose “rash” and “dumb” wars will leave office after helping to fuel one of the most reckless and most foolish wars of the last twenty years. Thanks to Obama’s indulgence of the Saudis, millions of Yemenis are on the brink of famine, and many have already perished because the Saudi-led blockade has deprived them of necessary food and medicine. Yemen will be living with the consequences of Obama’s “reassurance” for decades after he leaves office, and his legacy there will be that he helped Yemen’s wealthier neighbors wreck an entire country so that despotic rulers might whine a little less about being neglected by Washington.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , , , . 5 comments

No, Really, Clinton Will Be Very Hawkish as President

Stephen Walt isn’t persuaded that Hillary Clinton will be as hawkish a president as her record suggests:

If Clinton goes overboard with more globalization, expanded U.S. security guarantees, open-ended nation-building in distant lands, or even expensive acts of international philanthropy, all those skeptical people beguiled by Trump or Sanders will be even angrier. By contrast, if she can win over some of the people during her first term, her popularity will soar and re-election would be easy. The lesson? Clinton should focus on domestic reforms and not on international crusades. And as former State Department officials Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky suggest, that’s been her basic inclination all along.

Clinton would be unwise to pursue an even more activist and militarized foreign policy agenda as president, but Walt and I agree about this because we generally view that sort of foreign policy as dangerous and contrary to American interests anyway. It does seem foolish for any president to want to do the things that Clinton thinks the U.S. should do, but that is not a reason to think it won’t happen. I have made my objections to Shapiro and Sokolsky’s piece before, so I won’t repeat all of them here, but there are at least four major reasons why we should assume that Clinton’s foreign policy will be even more hawkish and interventionist than Obama’s .

The first is that Clinton has consistently sided with the conventional wisdom in Washington at the time about what the U.S. should do in response to any conflict or crisis. She has reliably backed more aggressive measures abroad in part because that is what pundits and analysts in Washington are usually demanding on any given issue. She isn’t one to resist demands to “do something,” because she typically sees no reason to resist them, and often enough she is making the same demands. The second is that Clinton won’t be able to “focus on domestic reforms” alone because foreign events and her public enthusiasm for U.S. “leadership” won’t allow her to do that. There will probably be a new civil war or international crisis at some point over the next four years, and she will feel compelled to be seen doing something about it, and given her record that will almost certainly mean deeper U.S. involvement than most Americans would prefer. The third is that Clinton will have few opportunities to advance a domestic agenda in the face of determined resistance in Congress. Even if Clinton has a Senate majority, she won’t have one in the House, so it is doubtful that she will be able to get any “domestic reforms” passed. The one area where Congress is totally submissive to the executive is foreign policy, and that is what Clinton will spend a disproportionate amount of her time on because she will mostly be stymied at home. Clinton won’t be hemmed in by budgetary concerns. The other party has been insisting for years that we must throw more money at the Pentagon, and there is no reason to think that Clinton worries about paying for this through borrowing. Finally, Clinton will be inheriting at least two ongoing wars, one of which she will be under significant pressure to escalate, and she will also inherit the Obama administration’s horrible enabling of the Saudi-led war on Yemen. In that sense, it won’t be entirely up to Clinton how much time these matters take up in her first term, because she is already committed to continuing these missions for the foreseeable future.

It is quite possible that governing as an liberal hawk will “derail her presidency,” as Walt says, but we have at least one example that tell us that isn’t necessarily true. Obama has presided over eight continuous years of war, including at least two interventions that he started and continued illegally without Congressional approval, and yet he is poised to leave office with a reasonably good approval rating and (if this scenario is to be believed) about to be succeeded as president by a member of his own party. That isn’t going to discourage Clinton from her usual interventionism. The Obama years have reminded us of the unfortunate truth that the public will tolerate quite a few foreign wars as long as the direct costs to the U.S. in American lives are low. So we should expect Clinton to rely heavily on air wars and missile strikes as Obama and her husband did. There presumably won’t be a repeat of something on the scale of Iraq, but we should assume that there will be other Libya-like interventions and some of them will be in places that we’re not even thinking about at the moment. Remember, Clinton doesn’t think that the Libyan war was a failure or a mistake, but rather considers it “smart power at its best.” I’m fairly sure about all this because Clinton has never given us any reason to think that she doesn’t want to govern this way, and almost everything in her foreign policy record says that this is how she will govern.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 8 comments

Cruz’s Boundless Opportunism

Ted Cruz is reportedly going to endorse Trump after all:

Multiple sources close to Ted Cruz say the Texas senator is expected indicate his support for Donald Trump as soon as Friday.

It is unclear whether Cruz will say only that he is voting for the Republican nominee, as other lawmakers have done, or offer a more full-throated endorsement, but the idea of throwing any support to Trump is controversial within Cruzworld.

“If he announces he endorses, it destroys his political brand,” said someone who had worked for Cruz’s campaign.

As I said after he refused to endorse Trump, Cruz is nothing if not an opportunist. When Trump first started running in 2015, Cruz didn’t attack him and praised him on occasion, and then when Trump became his main rival Cruz became fiercely hostile. Once Trump secured the nomination, Cruz calculated that Trump was doomed in the fall and that the smarter bet to distance himself from the nominee. Now that the race has tightened and Trump still has an outside chance at winning, his calculation has changed once again, and he is ready to get on board the Trump bandwagon in one form or another. Of course, all politicians are self-promoters and opportunistic, but Cruz is an extreme case of a politician who jumps at each new chance for self-promotion without considering the efficacy or long-term consequences of what he does. He refused to endorse Trump because he bet that his stock would rise inside the GOP as a result. Instead, his favorability among Republicans cratered, and now he has to reverse course to repair some of the damage that has been done.

The trouble for him is that Cruz’s self-seeking maneuvers have mostly done his political career great harm, and because he has tried to sell himself as the “consistent conservative” his record of switching back and forth between pro- and anti-Trump positions is all the more damaging. His convention performance cost him the support of many Republicans that backed Trump in the primaries, and if he endorses Trump he will lose the support of many of the people that lauded him for his “courage” and “honor” two months ago. Each time Cruz has tried to seek his own short-term advantage, he has made the wrong choice, and at the end he left himself looking more ridiculous to all sides of the party.

Posted in . Tagged , . 35 comments
← Older posts