Daniel Larison

Nothing “Happened” to Walker, He’s Just a Weak Candidate

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Ed Morrissey asks what happened to Scott Walker:

Of all the curiosities of the 2016 Republican presidential race — and there have been plenty — the quietest may also be the most difficult to answer. Over the last two months, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has gone from leading the field to barely making the debate cut.

Walker’s decline isn’t really all that puzzling. He was treated as a “top tier” candidate months before he announced his campaign, and during that time expectations continued to be raised despite Walker’s obvious lack of preparation on national and international issues. Once he started campaigning in earnest, the actual candidate did not compare well with the imagined version of Walker that so many of his fans had created from what little they knew about him from his tenure in Madison. He failed to live up to a version of himself that never existed, and the reality of Walker turned out not to be very interesting.

In other words, nothing “happened” to Walker. His weaknesses as a national candidate were there for all to see, but most Republicans preferred not to see them until Walker made them impossible to ignore. Many of his fans assumed that Walker’s poor grasp of foreign policy issues would be remedied over time, but instead he has just adopted the most hard-line positions he could find with no sign that he has thought seriously about any of them. It is often said that he has been hurt most by Trump’s presence in the race, but that is mostly because he has responded to Trump’s challenge in the most ham-fisted and clumsy way possible.

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Why Democrats Ignore Clinton’s Terrible Foreign Policy Record

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Conor Friedersdorf wonders why there isn’t more Democratic opposition to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. He notes that her foreign policy record is hawkish and riddled with bad decisions:

Most Democrats regard the Iraq War as a historic disaster. Clinton voted for that conflict. That hawkishness wasn’t a fluke. She pushed for U.S. intervention in Libya without Congressional approval and without anticipating all that has gone wrong in that country. She favored U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war as well. Why haven’t Democrats concluded that she has dangerously bad judgment on foreign policy? She certainly hasn’t done anything to distinguish herself in that realm.

I agree that most Democrats should find Clinton’s foreign policy record to be unacceptable and disqualifying, but that isn’t how they have reacted. One reason for this is that foreign policy is not a priority for most Democratic voters. Another is that Clinton’s biggest errors are either considered old news (e.g., her Iraq war vote) or they are part of Obama’s record as well and therefore not something that most Democrats want to criticize. Clinton did vote for the 2002 Iraq war authorization, and she shouldn’t be able to get away from that simply by saying that she made a mistake, but that vote was almost thirteen years ago and the Iraq war is no longer a major issue in Democratic Party politics in the way that it was in 2007-08. Clinton’s vote arguably did cost her enough support to deprive her of the nomination last time, and except for committed antiwar progressives most primary voters now aren’t going to reject her candidacy on that issue alone.

Clinton owns the Libyan war and its aftermath as much as anyone in the administration except Obama, but the Libyan war was essentially a non-issue for Democratic voters in 2012 and is even less important to them today. Because it was a relatively short and low-cost intervention for the U.S., it has never become politically toxic for its supporters despite the enormous harm it did to Libya and the surrounding region. In order to condemn Clinton over Libya, one also has to fault Obama for extremely bad judgment, and that is not something that most partisan voters are going to do when they still approve of a president from their own party. On Syria, Obama has received more criticism from Democratic hawks for being too cautious, so the fact that Clinton advocated for a more aggressive policy there appeals to the more hawkish wing of the party without alarming many others.

Beyond that, many Democratic foreign policy professionals don’t view Clinton’s record in a negative light, so there are relatively few people inside the party that think Clinton’s record should be held against her. There are even fewer that are willing to take the risk of attacking a prohibitive frontrunner. Clinton has also shielded herself to some extent from being attacked on foreign policy by endorsing Obama’s opening to Cuba and the nuclear deal, and that allows partisans that want to vote for Clinton for other reasons to ignore her otherwise terrible judgment on these issues.

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The Saudis Are Trying to Drag the U.S. Deeper into Yemen

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When Saudi Arabia’s King Salman comes to Washington later this month, he will have a laundry list of things he wants the U.S. to do for him:

Beyond military requests, Salman is likely to seek US backing for his more muscular approach to foreign policy compared with his predecessor. That includes beefed-up US support for his campaign against the Houthis in Yemen and a renewed focus on getting rid of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria [bold mine-DL].

Not surprisingly, the Saudis are offering almost nothing in exchange for this list of “requests,” but they still expect the U.S. to wade still deeper into two horrific wars to pursue Riyadh’s goals at the expense of our own interests. In return for tepid support for a nuclear deal that would have gone ahead anyway, the Saudis would like to extort the U.S. for more weapons and increased direct involvement in a war that they started. As I said yesterday, this is what comes from “reassuring” bad clients: ever-increasing demands on the U.S.

The administration has opened itself up to this by desperately trying to “reassure” the Saudis and the other Gulf states with more weapons and by lending support to the war on Yemen. It is now being forced to choose between continuing to give in to its demanding clients or do what it should have done in the first place by refusing their unreasonable “requests.” The right thing for the administration to do would be to cut off the support that it has been providing in Yemen thus far, but there is no reason to think that this is going to happen. The best that can be hoped for from the Saudi king’s visit is that Obama won’t commit the U.S. to an even larger role than the disgraceful supporting role that it already has in Yemen.

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Petraeus: Side with Al Qaeda Against ISIS

Jon-Phillip Sheridan

David Petraeus has come up with a horrid idea for the war on ISIS:

Members of al Qaeda’s branch in Syria have a surprising advocate in the corridors of American power: Retired Army general and former CIA Director David Petraeus.

The former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan has been quietly urging U.S. officials to consider using so-called moderate members of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front [bold mine-DL] to fight ISIS in Syria, four sources familiar with the conversations, including one person who spoke to Petraeus directly, told The Daily Beast.

Once someone starts referring to members of an Al Qaeda affiliate as “moderates,” it’s safe to say that he has lost the plot, but don’t expect that to be held against Petraeus. As for the notion of working with the Nusra front against ISIS, it is a wretched idea that no one should be willing to entertain. While these groups may oppose one another, it is not acceptable or possible for the U.S. to work with a group that our government rightly classifies as a terrorist organization. This deranged idea ought to make Petraeus persona non grata in Washington, but unfortunately we can assume that it won’t turn out that way. As the report makes clear, Petraeus continues to have clout in spite of his failures and scandals:

Yet Petraeus and his plan cannot be written off. He still wields considerable influence with current officials, U.S. lawmakers, and foreign leaders.

Petraeus’ suggestion that there are “less extreme” Al Qaeda members that can be won over to America’s cause of fighting ISIS would be considered certifiable if it came from anyone else, and yet because he continues to benefit from the mythology of the “surge” he is able to propose such ludicrous things and they are taken seriously. It ought to be obvious that there are no “moderates” to be found in Jabhat al-Nusra by definition, but the hunt for the ever-elusive “moderate” Syrian opposition continues.

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Walker the Untested and Unready

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A Scott Walker foreign policy adviser is very excited about Walker:

Walker’s resolve differentiates him from not only Obama and Clinton, but also other Republican candidates. When Governor Walker boldly stated that he would terminate the terrible Iran nuclear deal on day one of his presidency, one of his leading GOP competitors demurred, claiming that he would first need briefings and a secretary of state confirmed before he could take any action.

Walker didn’t need to be advised that the Obama-Clinton Iran deal is a disaster for America and our allies. His stand was a Reaganesque and Churchillian response to craven appeasement that would rally our nation and our allies.

O’Brien’s argument is tendentious in the extreme, but that is what we would expect from one of the candidate’s top advisers. The article is mostly just a restatement of Walker’s speech at the Citadel last week, so it doesn’t tell us anything new about Walker’s preferred policies. There are two things that stand out in the piece: the religious devotion to the fantasy that “resolve” is the key to solving all policy problems, and the fiction that Walker has been meaningfully “tested” in a way that is relevant to the conduct of foreign policy. The repeated, paired invocations of Reagan and Churchill are an embarrassing rhetorical flourish that remind us just how ill-prepared for the presidency Walker is by comparison.

It’s important to note that the evidence of Walker’s foreign policy “resolve” that O’Brien provides is limited to the candidate’s embrace of hard-line and impractical positions. Walker’s pledge to tear up the nuclear deal on “day one” is the foolish boast of an inexperienced and ill-informed politician, and it is one that he clings to now because he thinks it makes him seem marginally more hawkish than his competitors. Promising to strain relations with major allies isn’t proof of boldness or “resolve,” but reflects the candidate’s arrogant presumption that the U.S. can force its allies to act against their own interests. No genuine allies would rally behind such a dimwitted move, and it would telegraph to the rest of the world that Walker is desperately overcompensating for the fact that he doesn’t know very much about foreign affairs by engaging in absurd posturing.

The notion that Walker has been “tested” for future foreign policy crises because he prevailed in a political fight with public sector unions in Wisconsin is silly, but it is the only thing Walker has to fall back on and so he keeps using it as a crutch. The problem here is not just that Walker is making a ridiculous claim in an attempt to revive his political fortunes, though he is, but also that he seems to believe that the experience of facing off against domestic political opponents is sufficient preparation for dealing with an international crisis. That not only confirms that he isn’t ready to be president, but it also suggests that he doesn’t grasp that he isn’t ready and so won’t do much work to make up for his lack of preparation.

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The Pointless Suffering of Yemen

Marc Lynch comments on the U.S. role in Yemen in his recent Foreign Affairs essay on Obama’s policies in the region:

The Obama administration’s willingness to support the Saudi campaign in Yemen has been more cynical. Few in Washington believe the Saudi rationale for war, and even fewer believe the campaign has any hope of success [bold mine-DL]. In reality, the United States was appeasing the Saudis on Yemen in order to prevent them from acting as a spoiler on the Iran talks, thereby condemning millions of Yemenis to pointless suffering.

This has become the standard explanation for why the U.S. is backing the intervention in Yemen, but it remains a very unsatisfying one. If the U.S. hadn’t aided the Saudi-led attack, what exactly would the Saudis and their allies have been doing to “spoil” the Iran talks? They would have expressed their objections to the deal publicly, much as the Israeli government has done in the strongest terms, and then the P5+1 would have pressed ahead with the negotiations regardless. The administration indulged its Gulf clients’ paranoia about Iran and endorsed their reckless war to win tacit acceptance of a deal that those clients had no ability to derail. Like the war on Yemen itself, this was unnecessary and foolish.

The fact that so few in Washington expect the Saudi-led intervention to succeed makes U.S. support for it that much worse. Of course, even if the intervention did “work” to achieve some of the Saudis’ goals (which has never been likely), that wouldn’t make it any less indefensible or appalling. Yemen’s civilian population continues to pay the price for this war, and the humanitarian crisis is set to worsen. This is especially true since the Saudis bombed one of the country’s major ports earlier this month. Mark Kaye explains:

The crisis has been compounded by the fact that getting aid into Yemen and transporting it around the country is very limited. Aid agencies like Save the Children are frantically trying to scale up our response, but it’s almost impossible when we can’t get relief supplies into the country. The recent bombing of Hodeida port – the key entry point for supplies to the hungry people in the north and centre of the country – was the last straw, putting the aid effort in jeopardy at a time when people are running out of food, water and medicine.

As Kaye makes clear, the suffering of the people of Yemen is enormous and is only going to increase under current conditions, and as Lynch says it has all been pointless suffering.

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Yemen and the Folly of “Reassuring” Bad Clients

Rouala Khalaf highlights the costs of “reassuring” our bad clients in the Neat East:

But it is in Yemen that the US mollification of Arab allies could have the most destructive impact. At a time when the US priority is — and that of all its allies should be — the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the group known as Isis, Washington has supported a Saudi-led military campaign that has spread more chaos.

To make matters worse, the U.S. has no need to mollify its clients, but it does anyway. They already get a great deal out of the relationship with Washington, and they contribute virtually nothing in return, but all they need to do to get more out of the relationship is to make noises about how neglected they are. We have an absurd situation in which the U.S. feels compelled to bribe and indulge despotic client states at the same time that those states pursue regional policies that are actually at odds with our interests, and our government does this not to avoid “losing” these clients to another patron but only to keep them from moaning too loudly in public. Far from benefiting the U.S., these client relationships keep pulling us deeper into regional conflicts that our government has no business joining. Yemen is the most obvious example of this, but it isn’t the only one, and if this pattern continues it won’t be the last.

As Khalaf notes later in her column, U.S. support for the campaign in Yemen hasn’t had the effect of “reassuring” the Gulf states, but has prompted a new round of complaints: “Gulf officials are vocal about their frustrations — the US, they say, is not doing enough for them in Yemen [bold mine-DL].” In other words, these officials expect the U.S. to take on more of the costs and risks of an unnecessary and reckless war that their governments started. Since the Saudi-led coalition has struggled to make much progress in their intervention, it’s not surprising that they want the U.S. to bail them out of their horrible blunder, but there is absolutely no reason why the U.S. should do any more than it already has. Indeed, the U.S. should never have lent support to this campaign, and failing that ought to have withdrawn its backing months ago. U.S. backing for this war is one of the most disgraceful episodes of reckless interventionism in recent history, and it is fitting that the administration’s terrible decision to take sides in the war hasn’t even “reassured” the despotic governments that it was meant to satisfy.

This is what the U.S. was bound to get by indulging these clients in the first place: increased demands for even more indulgence. Client governments know that if they complain loudly enough they will be able to extract more benefits from Washington, which is always far too eager to placate its clients’ whining. The client states in the Gulf therefore have every incentive to blame the U.S. for being too stingy, and they are repeatedly rewarded for doing this. Even though the U.S. is aiding the Saudis and their allies in an unnecessary war that is at odds with our own security interests, they demand even more assistance with the knowledge that many of our political leaders are keen to placate them regardless of the cost to America.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

What Cuba means for Latin America. Catherine Addington considers how normalization with Cuba could improve U.S. relations and help advance U.S. goals in other parts of the hemisphere.

The human carnage of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Donatella Rovera reports on civilian casualties and Saudi war crimes in Yemen.

How the AP got the Iran inspections story wrong. Cheryl Rofer explains what the bad reporting in the AP story on the IAEA and Parchin missed.

Will there be peace in South Sudan? Stephanie Schwartz questions whether the recent deal designed to end the country’s civil war will work.

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Rubio’s China Speech

Rubio’s China speech was as bad as expected, and Rubio’s proposed China policy was a bit more confrontational than his previous statements have suggested. For example, he says this:

We will confront Chinese propaganda in Asia by highlighting U.S. resolve and the flimsiness of China’s territorial claims. And if China continues to use military force to advance its illegitimate claims, I will not hesitate to take action [bold mine-DL].

Rubio doesn’t specify what action he would take, but he is effectively inventing a new set of U.S. commitments to oppose China in its various territorial disputes with its neighbors. Since hawks typically understand “action” to mean aggressive and militarized measures, Rubio’s willingness to “act” without hesitation is especially reckless. The U.S. is not a party to any of these disputes, it has been our policy that our government doesn’t take positions one way or the other on them, and so it makes no sense that the U.S. should be taking “action” to challenge Chinese claims. Doing so not only risks creating an incident with China that could escalate into conflict, but it also risks encouraging our regional allies to be more provocative and intransigent in their own territorial claims in the belief that the U.S. will back them up. Rubio would put the U.S. and China on a collision course, and his pledge to “take action” against China here could lead to clashes over disputes in which the U.S. has no interest. This is a dangerous and irresponsible pledge, and it is one that we can hope Rubio will never be in a position to fulfill.

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Walker’s Meddlesome Foreign Policy

Scott Walker asks an odd question in his foreign policy speech at the Citadel today:

How can we deter our sophisticated adversaries in Eastern Europe and competitors in the South China Sea if we cannot defeat the barbarians of ISIS and roll back the theocrats in Tehran?

The answer is that the former have little or nothing to do with the latter. Demonstrating an ability to “defeat” ISIS or “roll back” Iranian influence doesn’t tell Russia and China anything about U.S. commitments in their respective regions. In fact, it is more likely that the U.S. will have fewer resources to devote to the former if it continues to be bogged down in protracted conflicts in the Near East. The U.S. would have greater difficulty effectively supporting its allies in Europe and Asia if it were preoccupied with “rolling back” Iranian influence.

Then again, applying the concept of “rollback” to Iran makes no sense. Iran’s position in the region has been growing weaker, not stronger, over the last four or five years, and its allies and proxies are under greater pressure from their local enemies than they used to be. Like other Iran hawk, Walker imagines that Iran is “on the march” and must be pushed back, but he unsurprisingly gets both the diagnosis and the remedy wrong.

Elsewhere in the speech, Walker says this:

Clearly, we can no longer afford to be passive spectators while the world descends into chaos.

First, “the world” isn’t descending into chaos. Most countries are enjoying peace and prosperity, and there are only a relative few serious conflicts around the world. It’s also obviously not true that the U.S. has been a “passive spectator.” In some cases, such as the war on Yemen, it would have been better if the U.S. had remained at least a spectator rather than an enabler and participant in the disaster unfolding there. The reality is that the U.S. has been anything but “passive” around the world in recent years, and in more than a few cases the impulse to meddle has helped wreck entire countries. In light of that, it’s absurd to think that the U.S. needs to become even more activist and intrusive in its dealings with the rest of the world, but that is exactly what Walker would do.

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