Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Not being defined by genocide. Meline Toumani argues against letting remembrance of the genocide dominate the definition of being Armenian.

Turks begin to address the Armenian genocide. Der Spiegel reports on descendants of genocide survivors rediscovering their heritage and the slowly changing attitudes inside Turkey about the genocide.

Nationalism and the Armenian genocide. Joel Gillin focuses on the role of the Committee of Union and Progress’s nationalist ideology in the genocide.

Rubio’s horribly overrated reputation for foreign policy expertise. Michael Brendan Dougherty highlights some of Rubio’s more egregious errors.

Yemen is “going down the drain.” Lara Jakes reports on the deepening humanitarian crisis.

Iran isn’t to blame for war in Yemen. Mohsen Milani explains Iran’s limited role in the conflict.

Get out of Yemen fast. Fred Kaplan calls on Obama to end the U.S. enabling role in the Saudi-led war.

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The Politics of the Libyan War

Walter Russell Mead responds to Miliband’s Libya criticism:

Expect echoes of such convenient recriminations to reach the United States as well; Hillary Clinton owns the Libya campaign, as her Republican opponents will be sure to crow.

In the meantime, how much of a boost will these accusations give Milliband, who consistently polls behind his own party in popularity?

If the polling from Britain on the Libyan war is any indication, the answer to Mead’s question is “none at all.” Slightly more British voters think the 2011 intervention in Libya was the wrong thing to do than believe it was right. The war is viewed much less favorably in Britain than it was in late 2011. Miliband is faulting Cameron for not being enough of an interventionist in Libya, and that isn’t going to appeal to very many voters. The position that Miliband is defending–that Britain should have done more after the regime fell to stabilize and rebuild Libya–is supported by just 30%.

Conservative voters are most likely to think that the Libyan intervention was the right thing to do (39%) and Labour voters are much less likely to hold the same view (29%). It is extremely unlikely that Miliband is going to be winning any Conservative voters over with this line, and it is more likely that Miliband’s reminder of his own enthusiasm for “humanitarian” intervention could give disaffected Labour voters another reason to look elsewhere. If there are Labour voters considering voting for UKIP or the SNP, this gives them no compelling reason to stick with their party. That’s why it’s such an odd argument for him to make.

As for the Libyan war’s impact on American presidential politics, Mead is engaging in some wishful thinking. If there were some real accountability in electoral politics, the Libyan war and its aftermath would be a huge liability for Clinton. It would utterly discredit her “smart power” rhetoric, and it would confirm that her judgment on questions of war and peace is terrible. Her foreign policy experience, one of her supposed advantages, would be exposed as worthless. If politicians were actually judged on the quality of their record, Libya would be a major problem for Clinton.

In practice, however, we know that the Libyan war wasn’t a liability for Obama, and he was the president who ordered the intervention. Obama owned the war and its aftermath even more than Clinton, and it had no measurable effect on the election. One reason for this was that his opponent couldn’t credibly criticize him on the intervention because he, like Miliband, was all for it when it happened. Romney’s campaign tried to make an argument similar to Miliband’s that there ought to have been a stabilization force, but that was a non-starter for obvious reasons. If there is an opening to attack Clinton over Libya in the next election, it could be exploited only by candidates that opposed the intervention from the beginning and warned about its destabilizing effects, and even then I’m not sure it would do any good.

Another reason that the Libyan war has not had any discernible impact on our domestic politics is that there were no American casualties, which means that for most Americans it’s as if the intervention never even happened. Unfortunately, if the U.S. wages or supports a war whose losses are suffered only by people in the other country, the evil effects of that war go largely unnoticed and the politicians that backed the war suffer no political backlash. That is how interventionists frequently get away with backing ruinous, unnecessary wars without ever having to pay a political price for their terrible record. It would be outstanding if Clinton were held accountable for her role in helping to wreck Libya, but I wouldn’t expect that to happen. Miliband’s hapless attack on Cameron on this issue helps to remind us why.

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The U.S. Isn’t “Assisting” Iran’s Rise

Charles Krauthammer repeats a goofy but increasingly popular argument:

This is the new Middle East. Its strategic reality is clear to everyone: Iran rising, assisted, astonishingly, by the United States.

Unsurprisingly, Krauthammer is wrong on both counts. The few governments in the region aligned with Iran or relying on Iranian support have been significantly weakened in the last few years, and they have lost control of large sections of their countries to insurgencies. Almost all regional governments are opposed to Iran’s allies and proxies, and the slightest suspicion that the Houthis were Iranian proxies has prompted the appalling Saudi-led, U.S.-backed attack on Yemen. That is not a description of a state that is on the rise. Yet opponents of negotiations with Iran want to keep promoting this false story that Iran is “on the march” because they think this story would make a deal that restricts Iran’s nuclear program appear less desirable. In fact, if Iran were making great gains throughout the region, that would make the case for reaching a final nuclear deal that much more compelling, but the reality is that this isn’t happening. Since it isn’t happening, the U.S. can’t be helping to bring it about. There is no evidence that this administration has any intention of reaching such an arrangement with Iran.

Not only is the U.S. not assisting a “rising” Iran, but it is so eager to “reassure” its regional clients that it isn’t reaching an understanding with Iran that it is disgracefully aiding the Saudi-led coalition in battering Yemen. The Saudis are attacking Yemen at least partly out of excessive, baseless fear of increased Iranian influence, and the U.S. publicly sympathizes with their paranoia. Contrary to Saudi claims, Iran’s role in Yemen is trivial, but that hasn’t stopped the U.S. from indulging its clients in their massive and unwise overreaction to an imaginary Iranian takeover. If this is what “assisting” Iran looks like, I wouldn’t want to see what hostility involves.

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Miliband’s Odd Libya Attack

The British general election is less than two weeks away, and the Labour leader Ed Miliband has chosen to go on the offensive over Libya of all things:

But since the action, the failure of post conflict planning has become obvious. David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya’s political culture and institutions could be left to evolve and transform on their own.

Cameron was responsible for involving Britain in the Libyan war, which was an intervention that might not have happened if he and French President Sarkozy had not agitated for it, so it’s fair to hold him to account for that dreadful decision. What makes Miliband’s criticism hard to take very seriously at this point is that he strongly backed the intervention at the time, and supporters of the intervention emphasized that there would be no “post-conflict planning” nor any effort by the U.S. and its allies to stabilize the country after the regime was toppled. They considered this one of the main selling points of their war in Libya. What was supposed to have made the Libyan war better than previous intervention was that it would not have to involve the deployment of ground forces for any long-term mission in yet another foreign country, and so there was never any intention to make a serious effort to follow up the war for regime change with much of anything. Libya would be nothing like Iraq, except for the unnecessary war and regime change and the interventionists’ reckless indifference to the consequences of both.

Interventionists understood that there would be no support for the war if it seemed that Libya would become another prolonged, open-ended mission, so they made a point of insisting that no such mission would be necessary. As long as they could promise that the war would be relatively cheap and short, they could have their war, and then when the regime had fallen there was no appetite anywhere in the West for continued involvement in the country. So it is a bit rich for a vocal supporter of the intervention that helped to create the disorder and violence in Libya to find fault now with a lack of “post-conflict planning.” Like Libyan war supporters here in the U.S. or Democratic supporters of the Iraq invasion, Miliband can’t fault the government for the real blunder of pursuing regime change in Libya because he endorsed the government’s goals. Because he can’t reject the intervention in Libya without discrediting himself, he is reduced to complaining after the fact about the consequences of a war he backed all the way.

The odd thing about Miliband’s decision to attack Cameron on Libya is that it draws attention to the worst part of Miliband’s own foreign policy record. Attacking Cameron reminds voters that Miliband gladly fell in line behind the worst foreign policy decision Cameron made in the last five years, which underscores how useless he was as leader of the opposition in that case. Supporting intervention in Libya was Miliband at his most Blair-like in the worst possible way.

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Debunking Rubio’s Exaggerated Reputation on Foreign Policy

Michael Brendan Dougherty doesn’t think much of Marco Rubio’s reputation as a foreign policy expert:

Rubio has a reputation for foreign policy expertise because he chooses to talk about foreign policy often, promises large budgets to the Pentagon, and mostly pronounces the words correctly. Rubio’s foreign policy consists of babyish moralizing, a cultivated ignorance of history, and a deliberate blindness to consequences.

Dougherty probably could have gone on at much greater length listing examples of Rubio’s poor judgment on foreign policy, but he was constrained by a word limit. I have made many of the same points over the last few years, so of course I agree with Dougherty’s harsh but accurate appraisal of Rubio’s record. That appraisal raises the question: if Rubio is as overrated on foreign policy as Dougherty says (and he is), what else does he have to offer as a presidential candidate except perhaps an appealing story about his family? In other words, if Rubio’s foreign policy reputation is a sham, what possible reason would anyone have to support him for president?

Foreign policy is supposed to be Rubio’s calling card, as it is supposed to be Lindsey Graham’s, but this has more to do with the politician’s undeserved high opinion of his own understanding of these issues than it does with a record of competence or good judgment. There are naturally hard-liners that agree with Rubio’s positions, and so they flatter him for his alleged expertise. That doesn’t mean very much, since these hard-liners are happy as long as a politician mouths the correct phrases and passes their ideological tests. Rubio isn’t just a predictable hard-liner on everything from Cuba to Iran to Russia, but his arguments frequently don’t even pass the laugh test. In the end, I suspect that not even most hard-liners would want to have him as their candidate.

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Bumper Sticker Foreign Policy and the 2016 Election

Philip Stephens comments on the Republican presidential candidates and foreign policy:

An old friend in Washington, a foreign policy veteran of the Reagan administration, calls this a “bumper sticker” view of the world. He is right.

The chatter in an already crowded Republican field is that 2016 will be a “foreign policy election”.

The potential political advantage of having a “bumper sticker” view of the world is that it can be fairly easy to communicate a simplistic approach to foreign policy during an election. The very things that make the bumper sticker foreign policy so atrocious when it comes to making policy decisions are what can make it appealing through electioneering slogans. The trouble for a candidate with this sort of foreign policy is that the bumper sticker slogans that he thinks the public wants to hear may turn out to be off-putting and annoying. The Republican field generally thinks that the public will be receptive to a message that emphasizes confrontation with other states, hostility to diplomatic engagement, and increased military spending wrapped up in rhetoric about “American exceptionalism” and “leadership,” but this just shows how out of touch with most of the country they still are. The Republican candidates want 2016 to be a foreign policy election because they mistakenly imagine that this gives them an advantage, but there is not much reason to think that an election defined by foreign policy issues benefits their party.

The 2016 field’s relative inexperience is one reason for this. All of the declared and likely Republican presidential candidates have almost no foreign policy experience between them to speak of. That might not be a major problem if most of these candidates demonstrated real competence and expertise on these issues otherwise, but there isn’t a lot of evidence of that, either. Marco Rubio is often described as having a stronger grasp on these issues than his competitors, but as Michael Brendan Dougherty pointed out yesterday his reputation for expertise is greatly exaggerated. Hawks are inclined to believe that Rubio has a foreign policy advantage as a candidate for the same reason that most Republican candidates think their party will have an advantage in the general election: they mistakenly believe that voters are craving a more aggressive and interventionist foreign policy than the one we have now. That still isn’t true of the electorate as a whole, and it probably won’t be true of a large number of Republican voters as well.

A candidate with little or no foreign policy experience is likely to opt for a “bumper sticker” view of the world. That keeps the candidate from making too many egregious errors and keeps him away from talking about these issues in great detail, and it gives him some ready-made soundbites that voters can identify with his campaign. That can succeed in an election when these issues are a very low priority for the electorate, but it is harder for an unprepared presidential candidate to be taken seriously when voters are paying much closer attention to what the candidate says on foreign policy. The less important foreign policy is to an election, the easier it is for inexperienced candidates to persuade voters that they can be trusted with the presidency. The assumption that 2016 will be a foreign policy election is based on the belief that conflicts and disorder elsewhere in the world will loom large in the thinking of voters next year. If that’s right, it isn’t good news for the Republican field.

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The U.S. Continues to Enable Its Reckless Client’s War


Fred Kaplan also makes the case for ending U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen:

President Obama should try to convince the Saudis to reverse their course—and, if that doesn’t work, he needs to get out.

Kaplan is correct, but he already gives Obama a bit too much credit for trying to end the U.S. enabling role in this war. While the administration may have been trying to rein in the Saudis in the last week or so, it needlessly threw its support behind the intervention, echoed Saudi propaganda in public statements, and offered absurd justifications for an intervention whose goals it never really understood. We should be abandoning “our role as enabler as quickly as possible,” as Kaplan says, but then the U.S. should never have been in that role in the first place. It is Obama’s fault that the U.S. is involved at all in this war. If he belatedly manages to get the U.S. out of it, that will be the least he could do to start making up for the appalling decision to involve the U.S. in the conflict.

It doesn’t seem likely that the Saudis are going to be persuaded to give up on their intervention. Unfortunately, the announcement Tuesday that the bombing campaign was over didn’t mean what many people hoped it would. In those parts of Yemen where the bombing has relented for the moment, the effects of the war are still being felt and resented:

In Sana, which was overrun by the insurgents months ago, Houthis organized large street demonstrations Wednesday denouncing the Saudi-led bombing campaign, which has received logistical support from the United States. Many in the capital, even those who oppose the Houthis, are furious at both Riyadh and Washington.

A halt to the war should not just be a matter of words — Yemen is still under siege [bold mine-DL],” said Manal Aidroos, a dentist. “Our lives are completely turned upside down, so this pause means nothing.”

In central and southern parts of the country, Saudi bombing has continued over the last two days. Meanwhile, U.S. support for the campaign has not slackened, and it seems that it isn’t going to be reduced any time soon:

American assistance to the Saudi-led air campaign will continue, officials told us. That assistance has included intelligence, aerial refueling and logistical support.

There is no good reason for continued U.S. support for this war. At the very least, that support ought to have been halted the moment that the Saudis made their announcement earlier this week. Continuing to assist in the wrecking of Yemen is indefensible.

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Bolton’s Iran Fanaticism

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Rouala Khalaf talks to John Bolton about his crazy Iran proposals and his possible presidential campaign:

The one thing he’s right about is that Iran is different from Iraq — far more powerful and with a real, rather than imagined, nuclear programme. It is also more likely to retaliate to strikes on its nuclear facilities and, after that, to accelerate the quest for the bomb.

To prevent that, Mr Bolton says the US should work with Iran’s opposition to topple the Islamic regime. I mention that having travelled to Iran many times I’ve never met a credible opposition leader who wants to work with the US on overthrowing the regime [bold mine-DL]. “It’s not easy, it’s not like turning on a light switch,” he says. “The US should have been pursuing a regime change policy for decades.”

Khalaf is correct that there are no credible opposition leaders in Iran that want to aid the U.S. in overthrowing their government. The idea that there are any Iranians that would welcome a U.S.-backed effort to topple their government has always been fanciful at best. In Bolton’s case, it’s worse than that. When Bolton and many other hawkish former officials and politicians talk about working with “Iran’s opposition,” they are referring primarily to cooperation with the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK). This is the totalitarian cult and “former” terrorist group that they have been defending and boosting for many years, and they have gone out of their way to help the group in its effort to rehabilitate its reputation in the West. These boosters pretend that this cultish exile group is a major part of Iran’s opposition, but in reality it has no support in Iran, it is widely hated there, and real opposition leaders want nothing to do with them. It’s too bad that Bolton’s past MEK boosterism didn’t come up in this profile, because it would drive home just how fanatical and unmoored from reality Bolton’s ideas on Iran policy truly are.

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The Republican Nomination and the Politics of Immigration

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A recent YouGov survey asked what policy positions would make a candidate unacceptable to voters. This is what the survey found on Republicans and immigration:

73% of Republicans say that supporting a path to citizenship, as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush do and Scott Walker once did, makes a candidate unacceptable, though only 35% say that a candidate who supports a path to citizenship is totally unacceptable.

That’s not a surprising result. This has long been an unpopular position inside the GOP, and it has probably become more so in the years since McCain won the 2008 nomination. It’s true that McCain won in spite of his support for an immigration “reform” bill, but in 2007 the issue nearly destroyed his candidacy. Since then, we have seen that Republican primary voters have been even less forgiving of these views than they were in the 2008 cycle. While most Republican nominees have been pro-immigration going back decades, it appears that being identified as a supporter of anything that could be construed as amnesty has become a much larger liability than it used to be. That could explain why Walker has been lurching so dramatically towards a more restrictionist position over the past few months. We have seen that he is eager to pander to what his audience wants to hear, and it’s likely that he’s found that they don’t want to hear what Bush, Rubio, et al. have been saying on this issue.

These survey results stood out because just yesterday we were being told that this wouldn’t be a serious obstacle for Rubio’s candidacy. David Brooks assures us:

His weaknesses are not killers. Rubio’s past support for comprehensive immigration reform irks activists. But it’s not clear if it will hurt him with the voters who are more divided on reform.

Whenever someone wants to talk up Rubio’s chances or warns against underestimating him, he dismisses the idea that the senator’s record on immigration could be a major problem. But there have already been surveys from early states that show that two-fifths of Republicans considered Jeb Bush’s immigration views to be a deal-breaker. Why would it be any different for Rubio or any other candidate that has held similar views? Immigration is a bigger weakness for both Rubio and Bush than their boosters would like to admit, and the supporters of these candidates fail to see this because they don’t want to accept that their preferred immigration policy is deeply unpopular with most other Republicans.

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The War on Yemen Hasn’t Ended

The announced end of the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen wasn’t the end of the intervention. It was just the end of the beginning:

Saudi Arabia has resumed air strikes against Yemen less than 24 hours after announcing that it was halting its aerial bombing campaign after “achieving its military objectives.”

Shia Houthi rebels, defiant in the face of Riyadh’s announcement, on Wednesday made significant gains in the country’s central highlands by taking a brigade base in the city of Taiz. Their advance sparked a response from Saudi Arabia, which sent warplanes to try to stem the advance.

That is consistent with what the Saudis said they would be doing as part of this “new phase” of their intervention, since their officials had said that they would still be taking military action to “prevent the movement” of the Houthis. It was clear that the formal end of the bombing campaign wouldn’t mean the end of Saudi interference. Now we see that it doesn’t mean that there will be an end to the bombing, either. There may be fewer air strikes, but the Saudis and their allies seem intent on battering and blockading Yemen for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Yemen continues to suffer from the disastrous effects of this war:

Ominously, the spike in prices isn’t because of interrupted growing seasons or stagnant internal commerce, but because food simply can’t reach the country under current conditions. Yemen imports 90% of its food, according to Pritchard, while the conflict has effectively knocked out the ports in Aden and Hudaydah — according to MarineTraffic.com, the last ship arrival in Aden was back on April 10th. Food comes into Yemen from the outside, usually by sea. But ports are shut down, and internally instability makes it incredibly difficult to move even the available food from place the place.

“Very few planes have been allowed to land, and very few ships have been able to dock,” said Pritchard. “It means there is a massive shortage of essential commodities.”

As long as the Saudi-led blockade continues, it seems very unlikely that the desperately needed aid will be able to come into the country. The Saudis may now be killing fewer Yemenis from the air, but their blockade is slowly strangling the country and depriving the civilian population of basic necessities.

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