Daniel Larison

Sessions and the Self-Sabotaging Trump Administration

Jeff Sessions, in better days (Gage Skidmore)

Rod Dreher marvels at Trump’s attacks on Sessions:

Can anybody think of a time when a US president repeatedly attacked his Attorney General in public, and whose White House leaked that he was looking to fire the AG? If only six, seven months into the presidency, Trump is publicly turning on Jeff Sessions, of all people, who is safe?

I have written a few times about Trump’s knack for self-sabotage, but these latest episodes with Sessions are bizarre even for him. It has been clear for some time that his interest in loyalty refers only to how loyal other people are to him, but the strange thing about his treatment of Sessions is that he is denouncing him for doing something that was actually in Trump’s best interest. Regardless, Sessions has been as reliable a yes-man to Trump as the president could hope to have, and he was one of his very early high-profile supporters during the campaign. Very few people would put up with being publicly insulted and rebuked as Sessions has, but for whatever reason he isn’t resigning no matter how many excuses Trump gives him to leave. Beyond the sheer absurdity of it, attacking Sessions may be one of the few things that could alienate both Trump’s core supporters and Republicans in Congress. Trump is already the most unpopular president at this point in his presidency in the history of modern polling, and he seems determined to drive away the few allies he has left.

Other Trump appointees and supporters should take note of all this and get clear of this failing administration before he turns on them next.

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The Cruelty of Iran Hawks

Angelo Codevilla’s recommendations for Iran policy are predictably ridiculous:

The agreement lifted Iran’s economy from its dire state. But the bulk of the new wealth has gone to weapons, foreign adventures, corruption and other inefficient investment bringing little benefit to the Iranian people. Were harsher sanctions to bite now, they might well produce a revolution.

All we need is sufficient courage to impose broad sanctions on a secondary basis. That is: no U.S. entity will be allowed to deal with any entity anywhere that deals with the sanctioned part of Iran’s economy – banking and money transfer, energy, food and all manner of parts for industrial equipment.

The first part of this is not true. Most of what little sanctions relief Iran has received has not gone to those other things, but has been spent on development and infrastructure. It has been a standard hawkish talking point for years that sanctions relief would be a “windfall” for Iran that would be used to fuel destructive policies throughout the region, but that hasn’t happened. Opponents of the nuclear deal have been consistent in misrepresenting what the consequences the deal would have, and they have frequently relied on false and misleading assertions to prop up their extremely weak arguments. Codevilla does the same here.

Imposing secondary sanctions on Iran’s trading partners would mean picking unnecessary fights with many of our most important allies and some of the world’s largest economies. It would be a self-defeating, harmful, unnecessary thing to do. On top of that, it wouldn’t have the desired effect. The idea that “harsher sanctions” would lead to a “revolution” is nonsense that has been discredited many times over the years. The more sanctioned and impoverished a country is, the weaker opposition to the regime becomes. In the meantime, the civilian population suffers from the effects of the sanctions that are supposed to goad them into overthrowing their own government.

Iranian civilians shouldn’t be punished with such sanctions in any case, but it is very likely that they would see new sanctions in the wake of the nuclear deal as an attack on their country and on them, and they would be right. They would not respond by bringing about the regime’s collapse as Codevilla expects, but would be much more likely to rally behind their government. Putting a country under severe economic sanctions in an attempt to force political change is a bankrupt and immoral policy, and it would be both cruel and stupid to try such a thing on Iran.

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The Qatar Crisis, the War on Yemen, and the Hollow ‘Rules-Based Order’

Qatar’s foreign minister made a statement recently that I found interesting:

“They have no right to impose such measures against a country,” said Thani, adding that if the “blockading” nations are not held accountable for their “illegal” actions toward Qatar, it would set an unhealthy precedent for smaller countries elsewhere [bold mine-DL].

This is a high risk for world order, not just for Qatar [bold mine-DL],” said the foreign minister, who said his country was caught in “a baseless conflict” fueled by “disinformation.” That includes what he suggested was the initial spur for the crisis: A hack of Qatari state media, now pinned by U.S. investigators on the UAE, which planted false quotes attributed to the Qatari emir that helped trigger the spat with other Persian Gulf states.

This is naturally a self-serving statement by the minister, but it is instructive in that no one else in Washington talks about the crisis this way. We have heard a lot from foreign policy pundits and analysts about the perceived unraveling of “world order” or the “rules-based order” in recent years, but there has been none of this talk as far as the war on Yemen or the Qatar crisis are concerned. If a different bloc of states ganged up on one of their neighbors and tried to bully it into changing its foreign policy, we would be hearing that this shows how dangerous and disordered the world is becoming without U.S. “leadership.” Because the Qatar crisis is partly a product of U.S. “leadership” and because the members of the bloc are all U.S. clients, we don’t hear anything about the danger to the international order or the rules that supposedly govern it.

Yemen is a much more appalling example. If a different military coalition spent two years wrecking and starving a poor country and caused the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet, there would be no end to the laments for the breakdown of the “rules-based order” and the condemnations of the coalition’s unwarranted aggression. As it happens, most defenders of this concept either have nothing to say about what is being done to Yemen and some openly support the campaign. Because it is a U.S.-backed war waged by our clients, it isn’t held to the same–or indeed any–standard that many cheerleaders for the “rules-based order” apply elsewhere. The point here isn’t just that there is a glaring double standard at work in these cases, though there certainly is one. The point is that they are part of a pattern that shows how indifferent to and contemptuous of the so-called “rules-based order” the U.S. and its clients are when it suits them.

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Yemen’s Rapidly Growing Cholera Epidemic

The Red Cross recently warned that the cholera epidemic in Yemen could exceed 600,000 cases before the end of the year. Considering how rapidly the epidemic has spread in the last three months (there are already more than 360,000 cases), that seems like a conservative estimate. The cholera epidemic in Yemen is already the worst on record, and there are more cases of cholera there in three months than there were in Haiti over the course of a year following the 2010 hurricane. Yemen’s rainy season is beginning, which threatens to accelerate the spread of the disease:

The World Health Organization stressed that Yemen’s cholera outbreak is “far from being under control, with the rainy season having begun, and possibly increasing the pace of transmission,” U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.

Widespread malnutrition–brought on by the war and Saudi-led coalition blockade–is also making the population more susceptible to disease:

Malnutrition is one of the main challenges in containing the disease.

“We need to break the vicious cycle of malnutrition and diarrhea,” WHO said. “Seventeen million people in Yemen are currently food insecure. Malnutrition exacerbates diarrhea, and diarrhea leads to malnutrition.”

All of this contributes to creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It is an entirely man-made crisis, and it is one that the coalition and their Western patrons could still do a great deal to remedy if they wanted. The people of Yemen are in urgent need of a major emergency response if they are to avoid massive loss of life from starvation and disease, and so far the international response has been slow and inadequate. As long as our government and others continue to enable the coalition’s war effort, no amount of aid or funding will have the desired effect. This is what has come from “reassuring” the Saudis and their allies for more than two years by aiding and abetting their wrecking and starvation of a poor country whose people have done nothing to us.

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Trump’s Iran Obsession and the Nuclear Deal

Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom

Trump is looking for a way to ignore reality on the nuclear deal:

After a contentious meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week, President Donald Trump instructed a group of trusted White House staffers to make the potential case for withholding certification of Iran at the next 90-day review of the nuclear deal. The goal was to give Trump what he felt the State Department had failed to do: the option to declare that Tehran was not in compliance with the contentious agreement.

The State Department couldn’t honestly give Trump the “option” he wanted because there is no proof that Iran isn’t complying with the terms of the agreement. When all other parties to the deal and the IAEA agree that the deal is working as intended, it isn’t credible to assert that Iran isn’t complying without simply making things up. Trump wants his advisers in the White House to do just that. The trouble here isn’t just that Trump is desperate to find a way to renege on the deal, but that he wants to do so when the deal is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. That is what comes from Trump’s Iran obsession and his reflexive hostility to anything associated with Obama.

Trump is reportedly frustrated with Tillerson because the secretary is incapable of working miracles:

At the previous review in April, Trump had asked Tillerson for specific preparations, which included speaking with foreign allies and to make sure they were on board. “Literally Tillerson did none of this,” the source said. “Simply, [Trump] no longer trusts the State Department to do the work he orders them to do, in order to provide him the options he wants to have.”

The two other sources declined to go into specifics about what Tillerson did not do, only stressing that Trump no longer has faith in the secretary, who simply did not carry out an assignment from him.

Tillerson couldn’t “make sure” allies were “on board” with what Trump wanted because they see no reason to deny that Iranian compliance is happening when they all know that it is. Unlike Trump, they judge the deal on its merits, and they see no benefit in sabotaging it. Trump gave Tillerson an absurd, impossible job, and then faults him for failing to deliver on it. The problem, as usual, is that Trump has been convinced for years that the nuclear deal is the “worst” deal ever made, and nothing Tillerson or anyone else says is able to make him give up on that.

Paul Pillar spells out what could happen if Trump gets his way next time:

If Trump rejects the truth about Iranian compliance, the most favorable possible outcome would be for Iran and the other five non-U.S. powers that negotiated the JCPOA to try to continue the agreement despite U.S. noncompliance. Even that outcome would have significant negative consequences for the United States in the form of lost business in Iran, lost opportunities to build on the JCPOA in addressing other regional problems, and further isolation of the United States and estrangement from its allies. Less favorable outcomes would involve complete breakdown of the JCPOA and an accelerated Iranian nuclear program, with renewed concern about diminishing breakout time until a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, increased uncertainty about the Iranian program in the absence of the enhanced international inspections established under the JCPOA, and heightened danger of U.S. involvement in a new Middle Eastern war.

There appears to be no one inside the administration capable of explaining the benefits of the deal–and the dangers of reneging on it–as well as this. The administration doesn’t have any committed defenders of the agreement prepared to fight for it, and Trump seems determined to ignore what supporters of the deal have to say anyway. Trump hasn’t scrapped the deal yet, but he clearly wants to and it is just a matter of time before he does. That will be detrimental to U.S. security, the security of the region, and the cause of nonproliferation, and Trump and the U.S. will receive full blame from our allies for undermining the agreement.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Iran and the collision between Trump and reality. Paul Pillar comments on Trump’s instincts to scrap the nuclear deal despite Iranian compliance.

Is the military losing its ability to fight capable foes? Daniel Davis calls for withdrawing from “inconsequential military operations” while rebuilding “the ability of our armed forces.”

9/11 doesn’t justify today’s wars. Jerrod Laber and Lucy Steigerwald make the case for repealing the 2001 AUMF.

The human toll of Yemen’s unending war. Alexandre Faite reports on the horrific conditions and humanitarian disasters created by the war on Yemen.

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Trump’s First Foreign Trip and the Qatar Crisis

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

It seemed likely from the start that Trump’s Riyadh trip provided the catalyst for the subsequent Qatar crisis, and now we have some confirmation from one of the members of the Saudi-led bloc:

United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash confirmed this week that Trump’s “very, very successful” trip to the Gulf in May had helped trigger the decision by his country — together with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain — to launch a political and economic assault on Qatar.

That admission strengthens the case that the beginning of Trump’s first foreign trip had significant, negative consequences. It shows how his wholehearted embrace of the Saudis and their allies encouraged them to take reckless actions contrary to U.S. interests. Fittingly, Trump’s conceit that he had united the region’s governments in common cause contributed to score-settling among U.S. clients, and that in turn made a complete mockery of the facade of unity and Trump’s pretensions to leadership. Trump credulously accepted pledges from clients to combat terrorism in Riyadh. They turned around and cynically pursued a vendetta against one of their neighbors while pretending that it was related to combating terrorism, and Trump accepted their claims at face value once again. The Saudi leg was considered to be the most successful part of Trump’s first trip abroad as president, and two months later we can see that it was actually a destabilizing and embarrassing episode that continues to create headaches for the U.S. and the region’s governments.

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Yemen’s Cholera Epidemic Is the Worst on Record

Oxfam reports that Yemen’s cholera epidemic is now the worst on record:

Yemen is suffering from the world’s largest cholera epidemic on record, Oxfam said on Friday morning.

The organisation documented more than 360,000 suspected cases of cholera in a three-month period, topping Haiti’s 340,000 cases after an earthquake in 2011.

Oxfam said that 2,000 people have died from the disease since the start of the outbreak in April.

“It is quite frankly staggering that in just three months more people in Yemen have contracted cholera than any country has suffered in a single year since modern records began,” said Nigel Timmins, Oxfam’s humanitarian director.

Yemen’s multiple, overlapping crises daily grow worse. Widespread malnutrition and near-famine conditions make the population vulnerable to preventable disease, and those conditions continue to worsen as the coalition blockade continues and the coalition refuses to allow new cranes to be brought in to the port of Hodeidah after their bombing campaign destroyed or damaged the old ones. The spread of preventable disease has been hastened by collapsing public services and lack of clean drinking water, and the delivery of needed treatments is made difficult or impossible because of the devastated health care system and ruined infrastructure. Ten days ago, there were over 300,000 suspected cases of cholera, and now there are more than 360,000. There will be many more tens of thousands of cases by the end of the month, and potentially a hundred thousand more beyond that in another month if things continue as they have.

Both famine and disease could still be halted if there were an emergency international response to combat these disasters, but it would require a drastic about-face from the U.S. and its clients and a dramatic increase in funding for relief efforts. The alarms about Yemen’s crises have been blaring for years, and very few have paid any attention. If there is not a major response to these disasters soon, it will be too late for countless victims of starvation and disease.

It is no wonder that the coalition bars journalists from flying to Sanaa on U.N. flights, because they want as few witnesses to what they have done to Yemen getting word out to the rest of the world. Yemen’s multiple crises are all man-made, and they have combined to create the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. The Saudi-led coalition and its Western patrons are among the chief authors of nightmarish conditions that threaten the lives of millions of innocent civilians.

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The Noxious U.S.-Saudi Relationship Must End

Michael Brendan Dougherty is disgusted with the noxious U.S.-Saudi relationship:

It’s simply embarrassing to be friends with the Saudis. No, we cannot conduct foreign policy with only neutral and peaceful countries. But sometimes a man looks at his pals and sees something so ugly he thinks less of himself. Our alliance with this squalid little Kingdom is demoralizing.

The U.S. may have to work with abusive and authoritarian regimes under certain circumstances, but we should always remember that these regimes are at best partners of convenience and are usually not all that useful. When the best thing that can be said about a government is that it occasionally helps us fight the people inspired by its own ideology, there is not much to be said for keeping the relationship as it is. There may have been a time during the Cold War when the connection with Riyadh made sense and benefited the U.S. more than it cost us, but since 1990 the costs have steeply mounted and the benefits are hard to find. Since the new king took power, Saudi foreign policy has gone from being merely harmful to becoming a threat to the stability of the entire region. If the costs of the relationship were already very high before Salman’s adventurism, they are unacceptably so now.

So I second what Dougherty says, but I will still quibble with calling the relationship an alliance. The Saudis aren’t allies by treaty or by their actions, and the habit of referring to them this way clouds our thinking about what the U.S. owes them. They routinely undermine and work against U.S. policies, they pursue their petty feuds at our expense, and their interests and ours increasingly diverge. They are not reliably on “our side,” and we should recognize that by now. The truth is that the U.S. owes them nothing, we should give them nothing, and we should sell them nothing, and we should rethink our policies in the region accordingly. The Saudis have never been more than clients, and lately they have become exceptionally bad and destructive ones. Washington should have no compunctions about severing a noxious relationship that hurts our interests and endangers the wider region.

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Tillerson and the Wrecking of the State Department

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a meeting for the Global Coalition on the Defeat of ISIS at the State Department in Washington, D.C., March 22, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

Dan Drezner wonders what Tillerson is trying to accomplish at State:

What, however, is he trying to do as the head of it? How is he making it a better organization? Does he understand how the secretary of state exercises influence in the world? Every single step he has taken appears to weaken and undermine the very department he heads. I simply do not understand why he is in charge of the State Department.

I see why Drezner finds Tillerson’s behavior baffling. It is baffling if we assume that he is trying to make the State Department a more effective, influential department. That is traditionally what most Cabinet appointees try to do for the departments they lead, if only because this makes them appear successful, but it clearly isn’t what interests Tillerson. Remember that this is a job that he didn’t really want, and it is one that Trump offered to Tillerson without knowing much about him. He took the job out of some commitment to public service, but he wasn’t suited for it and a better president wouldn’t have offered it to him.

Tillerson seems more interested in eliminating large parts of the department and making it as unappealing a place to work as possible because he and many others in the administration, especially the president, don’t think that the department does anything worthwhile in the first place. Trump obviously doesn’t think much of diplomacy or diplomats, and Tillerson appears to be happy to indulge that disdain. Ever since Tillerson endorsed the White House budget that proposed to gut his department, it has been pretty clear that he is there to hollow it out and make it as dysfunctional as he can. If so, it’s working, and the U.S. will be paying the price for this willful neglect for a long while.

One problem with Tillerson’s total lack of foreign policy and government experience is that he doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing, but another is that he has little or no sympathy for or interest in what the State Department does. Because he doesn’t know (and probably doesn’t care) about a lot of the diplomatic work that the department does, he probably deems it wasteful and unnecessary, and because he mostly isn’t listening to the people that work in the department he never hears from anyone that will tell him why he’s wrong.

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