Daniel Larison

Trump Hectors NATO Allies, But Praises the Saudis

Trump’s foreign trip has not improved since he arrived in Europe. Once again, he berated NATO allies about what they “owe” (suggesting that he still doesn’t really understand how the alliance works), but this time he did it at a ceremony to dedicate a 9/11 memorial at alliance headquarters. Regardless of the merits of calling on allies to do more for their own security, this was not the right occasion to raise the issue, and the hectoring tone of Trump’s speech could not have been a sharper contrast with the gushing paean to the Saudis and Gulf states that he delivered in Riyadh. Trump even managed to work in another embarrassing endorsement of King Salman as a “wise man” in his Brussels speech. Perhaps Trump would have been kinder to the other NATO members if they had carried out as many war crimes as the Saudis have.

Since members of NATO are our genuine treaty allies and have actually supported the U.S. in our wars, including the war in Afghanistan as part of their alliance obligations, it was churlish at best to dwell on this question publicly at an event that was meant to highlight alliance solidarity and cooperation. Much has been made of Trump’s decision not to make an explicit endorsement of Article V, but to my mind the more egregious error was to spoil a ceremony with a lecture that could have been delivered at a better time in a more appropriate setting. It is legitimate to call on European allies to do more for their own defense, but Trump has probably made many European governments more intransigent on this point because of the way he delivered the message.

Trump also reportedly criticized German trade policies in harsh terms in a meeting with European Commission President Juncker. Depending on the German source, he either described those policies as “very bad” or referred to “the Germans” as such. Whichever version is accurate, I don’t see how that sort of criticism is going to do the U.S. any good in our dealings with the EU.

It is unfortunate that an administration that won’t say anything critical about despotic clients is so ready to share its complaints about our democratic allies. There is nothing wrong with disagreements with other governments, including disagreements in public. Disagreement is inevitable, and interests diverge from time to time. However, to engage in servile bootlicking when dealing with Gulf despots and then turn around and make a point of finding fault with genuine allies shows a very warped set of priorities indeed. It also shows a complete misunderstanding of which relationships are more important to the U.S. Our European allies matter far more than the Saudis et al., and if we are going to flatter and applaud anyone it should be our real allies and not reckless clients that implicate us in their war crimes. Trump has done exactly the opposite on his first foreign trip, and that is just one of several reasons why the trip will be justifiably viewed as a failure.

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A Strained Trump-McMaster Relationship

During Trump’s visit to Israel, he cut his National Security Advisor out of his meeting with Netanyahu while bringing along his son-in-law and Jason Greenblatt:

Two former US administration officials told Kafe Knesset that McMaster’s absence from the meeting is “highly unusual. For the President to prioritize his son-in-law and his lawyer over the National Security Advisor for these kind of strategic discussions is unconventional, to say the least.”

The precise reason for keeping McMaster out of the meeting isn’t known yet, but there is speculation that it is related to some of his earlier statements regarding the Western Wall and references to Palestinian self-determination. It is possible that Trump was penalizing him for saying things that weren’t as reflexively “pro-Israel” as the president wanted, or it may simply be that his relationship with McMaster has become so strained that he doesn’t want him around. This report quotes a New York Times article from last week, which said this:

Mr. Trump, who still openly laments having to dismiss Mr. Flynn, has complained that General McMaster talks too much in meetings, and the president has referred to him as “a pain,” according to one of the officials.

If McMaster is being cut out of high-level meetings with foreign leaders this early on in Trump’s presidency, it will be impossible for him to do his job effectively. It tells other governments that he doesn’t have the president’s full confidence. That will make Trump’s foreign policy team even less functional than it already was. The fact that Trump gives precedence to his son-in-law over the man appointed for exactly this sort of work is an insult to McMaster and further proof that he falls back on using family and friends instead of relying on qualified professionals.

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Lieberman Withdraws from FBI Director Search

In a rare bit of good news, Joe Lieberman withdrew his name from consideration for FBI Director:

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman, once a leading contender for FBI director, on Thursday withdrew himself from consideration for the post in a letter to President Donald Trump, citing the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The former Connecticut senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate works at the same law firm as Marc Kasowitz, whom Mr. Trump retained earlier this week to serve on a team of private attorneys representing him in the broad special-counsel probe of Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election.

The conflict of interest wasn’t just apparent, it was real, and it was present even before Trump went to his “go-to” attorney at a firm that has done legal work for him for years. Lieberman’s withdrawal is welcome news, but then someone as unqualified for the job as he was should never have been on the list of possible nominees in the first place. Trump now has the opportunity to choose someone with a suitable background in law enforcement instead of a former politician and crony, but I won’t be holding my breath.

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The Disastrous War on Yemen Continues

Michael Horton’s analysis of the war on Yemen is excellent as always. Here he addresses the plan to assault the port of Hodeidah:

Even with U.S. assistance, the invasion will be costly and ineffective. The terrain to the east of Hodeidah is comprised of some of the most forbidding mountainous terrain in the world. The mountains, caves, and deep canyons are ideal for guerrilla warfare that would wear down even the finest and best disciplined military. The most capable units of what was the Yemeni Army and the Houthis themselves will inflict heavy losses on those forces that try to take Hodeidah and then, if necessary, move up into the mountains.

The Saudi effort in Yemen hinges on the invasion of Hodeidah. The reasoning behind the invasion is that without Hodeidah and its port — where supplies trickle through — the Houthis and their allies, along with millions of civilians, can be starved into submission.

While there is little doubt that thousands more Yemeni civilians will face starvation, the invasion of Hodeidah will not end the war — far from it. The Houthis and their allies are resourceful and will fight on for months — if not years — to come. They will also intensify their retaliatory cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia, which the Saudi army is incapable of stopping. Rather than end the war, the planned invasion will intensify it across all fronts.

Obviously the U.S. shouldn’t participate in what is very likely to be a costly debacle, and it should do everything possible to discourage the Saudis from launching an attack on the port. Not only would the attack potentially imperil the lives of millions of civilians by pushing many parts of the country into full-blown famine, but it likely wouldn’t produce the results the Saudi government wants anyway. Like the rest of the war on Yemen, it would be a senseless, cruel move that would only raise the costs for everyone involved.

Despite Saudi delusions to the contrary, they cannot win this war, and the U.S. ought to be pressing coalition governments to halt their campaign and pursue a negotiated settlement. At the same time, the coalition needs to be pressured to lift the blockade, and emergency efforts need to be made to raise the necessary funds and to deliver critical aid to those suffering from malnutrition and disease. Regrettably, I have no confidence that the current administration will do any of these things, and after last week’s display in Riyadh I fear that the Trump administration is only too willing to increase support for this disastrous war.

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There Is an Opportunity for Improved Relations with Iran

Hooman Majd comments on the results of Iran’s presidential election, and recommends an alternative to Trump’s hostility towards the country:

A smarter U.S. policy would take into account the fact that these tens of millions of Iranians voted for neither confrontation nor belligerence; rather, they cast their ballots for compromise, peaceful coexistence, and openness. Whatever the U.S. foreign policy toward Iran and the larger Middle East, one thing is clear: Iranians care about their country, care about their voices in its politics, and will support their president extending an open hand to the world. We should probably not — just to be different and for the sake of doing the opposite of whatever the Barack Obama administration did — show them our clenched fist.

Unfortunately, one of the few consistent positions Trump has held as both candidate and president is his hostility to Iran, and it is one that most politicians in Washington share. This would be regrettable at any time, but it is especially so when we can see that most Iranians support international engagement and gradual reform. Hard-liners in the U.S. desperately wanted Raisi to prevail so that they could claim that he represents the “true” face of Iran, but as we saw last week he doesn’t represent most Iranians. There is an opportunity here for the U.S. to reduce tensions with Iran if our leaders were wise enough to take it, and missing this opportunity could have substantial costs for both countries. Paul Pillar identifies what many of these costs are for the U.S.:

The costs arise from the hostility itself and from policies that flow from it, either directly as established by the Trump administration or indirectly by encouraging damaging actions by the U.S. Congress and setting a tone that sustains political support for the damaging actions. The policies in question involve rejection of any positive cooperation with Iran and support only for isolation and punishment of, and aggressive confrontation against, Iran.

As Pillar explains, pursuing a purely anti-Iranian policy in the region will make it harder to resolve the war in Syria, and it distorts our understanding of the region’s problems by laying the blame for most or all of them at Tehran’s doorstep. U.S. allies in Europe are interested in resuming trade with Iran, and pushing for more sanctions will put unnecessary and undesirable strains on relations with them. The more hostility the U.S. shows towards Iran, the better it is for Iranian hard-liners and worse it will be for the prospects for political and social reform. Finally, increased tensions with Iran makes it more likely than there could be a war that starts out of an incident or misunderstanding that gets out of control. Pursuing at least limited cooperation and engagement with Iran would benefit the interests of both the U.S. and Iran, it would bring our Iran policy closer to that of our genuine allies, and it would avoid putting our two governments on a collision course. If Trump and Iran hawks in Washington have their way, that opportunity will be squandered, and it will be worse for all involved.

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The ‘Titanic Shift’ in U.S. Foreign Policy That Wasn’t

Newt Gingrich makes a lot of questionable claims in this op-ed, but this one is simply risible:

The United States and Saudi Arabia signed a $110 billion arms deal, the largest in U.S. history, which will bolster the kingdom’s ability to contribute to counterterrorism operations across the region [bold mine-DL]. This will reduce the burden on the U.S. military and send a clear message that this administration takes the threat of Iran seriously.

U.S. weapons sales to the Saudis mostly consist of planes, tanks, ships, helicopters, and munitions, and the Saudis have lately used these weapons to destroy and terrorize a neighboring country with indiscriminate bombing. Their government is not only uninterested in contributing much to “counterterrorism operations across the region” (see how quickly they abandoned the war on ISIS in favor of destroying Yemen), but doesn’t have the ability to contribute much of value because they waste so much of their money on buying big-ticket items that are supposedly for the purposes of “defense.” Selling the Saudis more weapons doesn’t mean that there is a less of a burden on the U.S. It just binds our governments together more closely and leaves the U.S. to combat the jihadists that they ignore and/or fight alongside. The U.S. has long allowed itself to be played for a sucker by its regional clients, but Trump has proven to be the biggest mark of all.

Gingrich thinks Trump’s Riyadh speech represented a “titanic shift” in U.S. foreign policy and no one noticed, but the reason no one else picked up on this is that there wasn’t much of a shift at all. Trump’s bowing before the Saudis just compounded the error the U.S has been making in aligning itself so closely with Riyadh. He may have wanted to “unite the civilized world, including the nations of the Middle East and Africa, against the forces of terrorism,” but the message he sent was that he would indulge our clients as much as possible in their obsession with opposing Iran. At best, that is a diversion from combating jihadism, and at worst it actively undermines that effort by opposing a government that also considers ISIS and other jihadists to be their enemies. That’s not a titanic shift. It is a grievous blunder.

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Bowing Before the Saudis

Donald Trump and King Salman sign statement in Riyadh (Ninian Reed/Flickr)

The Washington Timeseditorial on Trump’s Saudi visit is an exercise in self-parody:

Now a new president is making the rounds in the troubled region, this one with head held high. Mr. Obama bowed deeply to everyone with sword or title. President Trump, understanding that Americans bow only to God, met King Salman of Saudi Arabia with an open hand of friendship and a firm look straight in the eye.

Partisans will inevitably praise presidents from their own side for things they would have condemned if a president from the other party did them, but this is even more ridiculous than that. Trump’s visit to Riyadh was an embarrassing spectacle of groveling and sucking up to some truly wretched leaders, and in policy terms it amounted to bowing very low before the Saudi king. John Glaser and Benjamin Friedman explain:

Whether Trump bent, bowed or curtsied before King Salman in receiving a gold medal, in policy terms, the trip was an emphatic U.S. bow to the Saudis. Trump praised Saudi counterterrorism efforts without a word of criticism for their funding of Wahhabi extremists around the world. He offered the Saudis a massive $110 billion arms deal despite the fact that their brutal bombing of Yemeni civilians makes it potentially illegal. Trump even adopted the Saudi pretense that their Yemen campaign serves counterterrorism.

When the president curries favor with a regime guilty of numerous war crimes and lavishes praise on their leaders, that is bad enough, but doing so while aiding and abetting those crimes with more weapons sales is truly disgraceful. On top of that, despite his posturing as a great negotiator he gave the Saudis everything they wanted while subordinating our policies in the region to theirs.

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Congress Must Oppose the Saudi Arms Deal

Kudos to Sen. Rand Paul for his willingness to oppose the new arms deal with the Saudis:

Sen. Rand Paul will attempt to force a Senate vote on the $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia announced over the weekend by the Trump administration, according to Senate staff.

Part of the $110 billion is a deal that had already been made by the Obama administration, so that portion is probably not going to be blocked, but the bulk of it still could be. Because it is likely that at least some of the weapons being sold to the Saudis will used in the commission of war crimes and because the Saudi-led coalition has already committed many such crimes, there is a strong argument that the sale itself would be illegal:

Citing “multiple credible reports of recurring and highly questionable [air]strikes’’ by the Saudi military that have killed civilians, the U.S. “cannot continue to rely on Saudi assurances that it will comply with international law and agreements concerning the use of U.S.-origin equipment,” Michael Newton, a prominent Vanderbilt University law professor and former military judge advocate general, said.

Newton, in his 23-page opinion, said the strikes have continued “even after Saudi units received training and equipment to reduce civilian casualties.”

“Continued sale of arms to Saudi Arabia ― and specifically of arms used in airstrikes ― should not be presumed to be permissible” under the two statutes covering most sales of military equipment by the U.S government to foreign nations [bold mine-DL], he said.

Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin recently wrote about the famine being caused by the coalition’s intervention and addressed the need for Congress to step in:

If Trump’s deal with the Saudis ignores the suffering of millions of Yemenis on the brink of starvation, I can assure you that members of Congress will act swiftly, using every tool at our disposal — from blocking weapons shipments to forcing a debate and vote on U.S. military involvement in Yemen — to end this incomprehensible tragedy.

There is no hint that the administration has put any pressure on the Saudis regarding their war on Yemen, and there is no reason to expect that they will. During his Riyadh speech Trump applauded the coalition’s “strong action” in attacking the country, and he has consistently shown no understanding of the war or its consequences. Insofar as he thinks he understands what’s going on, he has just been echoing pro-Saudi talking points. So it falls to Congress to try to rein in U.S. support for the atrocious war on Yemen. Failure to do so will further deepen U.S. complicity in wrecking and starving Yemen.

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The Sickening Manchester Attack

Police in Manchester have reportedly identified the man responsible for the appalling suicide attack on children and teenagers at a concert:

U.K. police identified the bomber who killed 22 people and injured dozens of others Monday outside a pop concert in Manchester as a 22-year-old named Salman Abedi.

He hit one of the softest of targets: a mostly young crowd pouring from the exits after the show, police said.

The Manchester bombing is the worst terrorist attack in the U.K. since the 7/7 London attack in 2005, but it seems especially horrible because it targeted a venue full of children. We don’t know yet why this event was specifically targeted, but presumably the goal was to attack a vulnerable crowd to cause the greatest loss of life possible.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, but this may just be a case of opportunistically seizing on an attack carried out by someone else. A U.S. official questioned the veracity of the ISIS claim:

A U.S. official in Washington cast doubt on the claim, at least until more information was available. The official said the lack of details suggested the group could be claiming the attack opportunistically, rather than having any real role in its planning.

Abedi appears to have carried out the attack by himself, but may have had accomplices. The bomber was U.K.-born, the son of Libyan refugees who had come to the country decades ago.

All party leaders condemned the attack, and campaigns for Britain’s upcoming general election have been suspended. The attack probably will have an effect on the election, but it remains to be seen what that will be and we’ll save speculation about that for another time.

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Realism Doesn’t Need to Be ‘Reclaimed’

Photo credit: Tim Markatos

Ted Bromund, Michael Auslin, and Colin Dueck want to “reclaim American realism,” and spell out what they mean by that in a new article for American Affairs. The idea that realism needs to be “reclaimed” is the first sign that the foreign policy they have in mind has little in common with the one most realists want:

A new foreign policy can be built by recovering a traditional realist approach that held for much of the Cold War era and which was shared by both parties. Doing so will reclaim American realism from those on the right who have made it the handmaiden of neo-isolationism [bold mine-DL], while ensuring that it avoids the overreach that since 2003 has undermined support for America’s role abroad.

The authors’ framing of the problem suggests that they think there has been too much of a reaction against the foreign policy errors of the last sixteen years, but they are not quite willing to identify their preferred policies with the ones that led to those errors. Their reference to “Barack Obama’s retreats” is a giveaway that they are going to argue for a generally very aggressive set of policies–at least more aggressive than those of the Obama era–and then call it realism. I suspect most realists won’t buy it, but the bigger problem is that it abuses the name of realism and tries to use that name to smuggle something else into the debate. The result will be something that Republican hawks and hard-liners will have little to complain about precisely because it has so little to do with realism as understood by Posen, Walt, et al.

The would-be reclaimers aren’t very worried about needing to learn the lessons of the Iraq war. As far as they’re concerned, there has already been too much worrying about this:

Just as importantly, we recognize that we cannot live by postmortem. An obsessive focus on the past—above all, on the Iraq war—risks paralyzing us today.

The implication here is that taking the Iraq war as a cautionary tale about the dangers of overreach and unnecessary intervention runs the risk of preventing tomorrow’s unnecessary intervention, and so that must be avoided. Because they don’t want an “obsessive focus” on the past, the authors don’t address the problems of the overreach they say they want to avoid. Doing that would require revisiting and criticizing Bush-era policy errors.

The authors dismiss the charge of “free-riding” against allies:

But the problem is not that our allies are free riding on us, for when we cut our defenses, they do not increase theirs. It is that the history, culture, and politics of our allies now make them unwilling to accept that military strength is vital to diplomacy and deterrence alike.

Since the U.S. rarely reduces military spending and spends as much as the next seven countries combined, we don’t know that our allies wouldn’t increase theirs to pick up the slack if we made substantial reductions. As soon as there are even slight reductions in military spending, we hear overwrought warnings that the military is being gutted. The U.S. almost never decreases military spending by a large enough amount for long enough to see how our allies would react, and there are always hawks insisting that the military budget be even larger than it already is. The authors say that the U.S. “cannot sustain our alliances unless the American people believe that every member nation is making a fair contribution,” but then proceed to make excuses for why that contribution will never be forthcoming. Many realists have usually argued just the opposite: wealthy allies have the means to provide for more of their own defense, and the U.S. shouldn’t continually bail them out and help them avoid the political debates at home that they need to have.

They take the enviable geographical position of the U.S. as a reason to be entangled in alliances overseas:

Given our good fortune, and our strength, it is inevitable that we are the ones who are forward deployed, because we are the ones who have the geopolitical freedom to help.

But this is not inevitable. It is because we are remarkably secure on account of our location that we do not need to be “forward deployed” and that is why so many of our alliance commitments are unnecessary. Seventy-two years after the end of WWII, the U.S. continues to treat wealthy European and Asian allies as dependents that cannot fend for themselves, and many of them have been content to remain so as long as we keep assuming the costs and risks of protecting them. If these allies aren’t ready to assume more of that burden for themselves now, they never will be, and that arrangement is becoming increasingly untenable.

The authors also seem to have little interest in diplomatic engagement with rivals, which is a very odd trait for supposed realists:

Starry-eyed “resets” or “open hands” towards aggressive, repressive regimes only confuse those who wish to rally beneath a flag of freedom and liberalism. Trying to win over the whole world risks losing those already on our side.

Put another way, they think making efforts to improve relations with these states is a waste of time and shouldn’t be attempted at all. The goal of engagement isn’t to “win over the whole world,” but to secure cooperation on specific issues in the American interest. Even if such engagement delivers tangible results in terms of cooperation or the resolution of a longstanding dispute, the authors would rather that the U.S. keeps its distance for fear of “losing” states currently aligned with us. The odd thing about this is that engagement with Iran didn’t “confuse” our allies in Europe, and it didn’t cause any of them to move away from us. It pleased them, and some of them were directly involved in the negotiations that produced the nuclear deal. The only states put off by the nuclear deal were regional clients, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with a “flag of freedom and liberalism.”

The authors are arguing that we have to defend front-line states because they are threatened by rivals, but on no account should we try to reduce tensions with rivals through engagement. That seems like a recipe for needless confrontation that increases the danger to “those already on our side” and risks pulling us into a larger conflict. Once again, this is not the realism you are looking for.

The authors then take refuge behind the hoariest of hawkish cliches:

It is our weakness, not our strength, that is provocative, because American weakness makes our allies fearful and encourages our competitors to take chances.

There are never any examples provided to prove the “weakness is provocative” thesis. It may occasionally be true, but it is more likely that adversaries find our aggressive actions to be far more provocative, and these are the actions that prompt more aggressive behavior from them in turn. The belief that “weakness is provocative” takes for granted that adversaries perceive weakness from us if our government doesn’t respond forcefully in every dispute. That ignores our adversaries’ own understanding of their interests, and explains their behavior primarily in terms of taking advantage of our supposed weakness. Meanwhile, our allies and clients tend to become more reckless and irresponsible when they think they have U.S. backing. Believing that “weakness is provocative” is frequently misleading, and it means that policymakers that accept it as true will err on the side of being too aggressive.

The authors seem to reject pursuing regime change, but leave a caveat large enough to launch an invasion through:

Our method should not be imposed regime change, except in cases of vital national need…

The trouble is that advocates for regime change always insist that overthrowing this or that regime is vitally important for U.S. security. They are always wrong, but they always make this claim. The authors don’t offer specific examples of when they think regime change was/is necessary and when it wasn’t/isn’t, so we are left wondering what they think “vital national need” means. It shouldn’t be difficult for ostensible realists to say that they are opposed in principle to starting wars to overthrow foreign governments, but they don’t say that here.

Later on, they make clear that they think the U.S. should be willing to risk war to defend states, even non-allied ones, that are in conflict with the world’s two major authoritarian powers:

Second, the United States must support sovereign nations that are resisting attempted subjugation by outside pressure, if that pressure is exerted by a nation that has the strength to alter the global balance of power. This means that we must oppose actions such as Russia’s assaults in Ukraine and the Caucasus, and China’s expansionism in the South China Sea.

We cannot rule out the use of military force in cases such as this: if we do, other powers will simply escalate in any crisis until we quit.

Risking a major war over Ukraine or Georgia makes no sense for U.S. security, and no responsible president would do that. Risking war over territorial disputes in the South China Sea is similarly unwise. These are exactly the kinds of crises that could be avoided or contained through greater engagement, but the authors have already dismissed that as “starry-eyed” nonsense. Courting great power conflict in this way seems like the exact opposite of what a realist foreign policy would do.

They think imposing punitive sanctions is worth doing even when they don’t change the targeted government’s behavior:

It is therefore not right to criticize responses—such as the sanctions that the United States imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine—by arguing that they did not resolve the crisis, for the point of such responses is not to resolve the crisis: it is to open another front in the wider competition, and to do so in ways that impose long-term costs on our opponent.

In other words, punitive sanctions are often useless, but we should use them anyway. Even though imposing them almost certainly makes resolving the crisis harder and worsens relations with the targeted government, they should be imposed simply for the sake of imposing costs. I can’t think of many realists that would agree with this approach.

The authors make another curious claim:

The danger rests not so much in any particular crisis, but in the rise of the belief among the powerful that the world is there for taking.

The idea here is that the U.S. doesn’t have to have anything at stake in a particular crisis, but it has to oppose other great powers in each instance anyway. The problem with this is that it sets the U.S. up to fail in the competition with these powers in crises where our interests are few or non-existent and theirs are much greater. If we insist on trying to check them at every turn (and then inevitably backing down because we have nothing at stake in most cases), it makes it more dangerous and difficult to check them when it might really matter.

One frustrating aspect of the article is that it addresses so few contemporary issues. There are a few references to conflicts involving Russia and China, and a passing swipe at the nuclear with Iran, but for the most part it isn’t clear how the authors’ “reclaimed realism” would differ in practice from the preferred policies of hard-liners in Washington. But then I suppose that’s the point. “Reclaiming” realism means dubbing hard-line policies as realist and throwing most actual realist arguments out the window.

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