Daniel Larison

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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The Unending War on ISIS

Dan de Luce notes that top military commanders expect that the war on ISIS could last decades:

But White House officials, and most members of Congress, are reluctant to speak publicly about how long the campaign may last, much to the frustration of military commanders. For members of both political parties, acknowledging that the war could drag on for another 10 to 20 years is politically risky, if not poisonous, and would require confronting difficult decisions about ordering troops into combat, budgets, and strategy.

When the administration first started its intervention against ISIS last year, officials talked about a war that would last at least three years, but that has proved to be overly optimistic. The war began as a “limited” and defensive action, but quickly morphed into an aggressive, open-ended, multi-year commitment that was never debated and was never put to a vote. The executive branch committed the U.S. to this policy on its own to show that it was “doing something” to combat ISIS, but it did so with no thought for the duration, cost, or difficulty of the war that it started. It has been able to get away with this because Congress is useless when it comes to overseeing the conduct of foreign wars, but it has still left the U.S. holding the bag for a costly conflict in Iraq and Syria with no discernible end. The U.S. is now stuck with a significant military mission that could conceivably last through the end of the next decade, and there has been no serious consideration of the risks or benefits in Congress or anywhere else. As has happened in the past, the U.S. has intervened first and failed to ask any of the relevant questions. This just drives home how unwise and unnecessary U.S. involvement has been from the start, and now that the U.S. is committed it will be extremely difficult to extricate U.S. forces from a war they should never have been fighting.

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The Civilian Victims of the War on Yemen


Donatella Rovera reports on the civilian casualties of the war on Yemen:

The Houthis and their allies are the declared targets of the coalition’s 5-month-old air campaign. In reality, however, it is civilians like little Rahma and her family who all too often pay the price of this war. Hundreds have been killed in such strikes while asleep in their homes, when going about their daily activities, or in the very places where they had sought refuge from the conflict. The United States, meanwhile, has provided the weapons that have made many of these killings possible.

There is good reason to believe that the Saudi air campaign has been deliberately targeting civilians for months. When they illegally declared all of Saada a military target, they were practically admitting that this is what they were going to do, and they have since made good on that threat. While there has been some very good reporting and documentation of Saudi war crimes by journalists and human rights groups, these crimes have largely gone unnoticed here in the U.S. along with the rest of the war. This has made it much easier for the administration to avoid public scrutiny of its ongoing support for the intervention.

Rovera goes on to describe the Saudi use of cluster bombs, which the Saudis purchased from the U.S., and reminds us that they are such exceptionally indiscriminate weapons:

The poisonous legacy of these U.S.-made weapons will plague Yemen for years to come. In Inshur, a village near the northern city of Saada, I found a field full of U.S.-made BLU-97 cluster submunitions — small bombs the size of a soda can that are contained in cluster bombs. Many lie in the field, still unexploded and posing a high risk for unsuspecting local residents, farmers, and animal herders who may step on them or pick them up, unaware of the danger. In one of the city’s hospitals, I met a 13-year-old boy who stepped on one of the unexploded cluster bombs in Inshur, causing it to explode. It smashed several bones in his foot.

Cluster bombs were banned by an international convention in 2008. But in the 1990s, the United States sold the type of cluster bombs now littering the fields of Inshur to Saudi Arabia. Each of these cluster bombs contains up to 200 small bombs, which are dispersed by the bomb’s explosion over a large area. However, many of these smaller bombs often do not explode on impact, leaving a lethal legacy for years to come.

The war on Yemen will continue claiming innocent victims long after the hostilities end, and the U.S. will have provided the Saudis the weapons that will end up killing them.

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Thinking About War and Voting

photo: Dean Terry (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Alan Jacobs proposed an interesting thought experiment yesterday:

You (in this thought experiment) are a Christian and a strong supporter of religious liberty; you are also strongly opposed to unnecessary military adventures and foreign intervention more generally.

How do you vote? And on what grounds do you make that decision?

Noah Millman has already offered his response, and I thought I would add mine as well. In this experiment, the Christian voter has a choice between voting for a reflexively interventionist party and a party that is “disinclined to adventurism, not isolationist but not interventionist either.” If there were such an alternative, I would say that this voter ought to support the latter party, and it would be a fairly easy decision to make. The reasons for doing so are straightforward enough. Given a choice between a party that would commit the U.S. to near-constant war in various places around the world and one that wouldn’t, the voter’s commitment to protecting human life and dignity would easily outweigh other considerations and would oblige him to vote for the less warlike party. That is not only because he would be inclined not to waste the lives of his fellow Americans on unnecessary wars, but he would also recoil from the advocates of inflicting death and destruction on others created in the image of God. Since this Christian voter is presumably also convinced that he should be trying to be a peacemaker, it would not be a difficult choice to reject a party of militarists.

As we all understand, however, there is no such alternative available (and there definitely isn’t one in the upcoming presidential election), and the compromises one would have to make to support either major party should be unacceptable to the sort of voter Jacobs describes here.

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Rubio and China


Marco Rubio is set to deliver a foreign policy speech focused on China at the end of the week:

Rubio is likely to criticize China when he gives what his campaign calls a major foreign policy speech in South Carolina on Friday.

The Reuters report draws on relevant quotes from Rubio’s recent Foreign Affairs essay, which emphasized the importance of opposing China in East Asia. As I mentioned before, Rubio’s essay contained a number of odd and unfounded statements, and the section on China was no exception. Rubio wrote:

If the United States hopes to restore stability in East Asia, it has to speak with clarity and strength regarding the universal rights and values that America represents.

This statement is strange in a few ways. First, East Asia is already reasonably stable. There are tensions between China and some of its neighbors, and there are outstanding territorial disputes among them, but the region is far from being unstable. Stability there doesn’t need to be “restored.” At most, it needs to be preserved, and there isn’t much reason to think Rubio is actually interested in doing that. This is another instance of how Rubio abuses the meaning of the word stability to mean something very different.

Just as he talks about the importance of stability in the Near East while insisting on regime change in Syria and endorsing the Saudi attack on Yemen, Rubio would like to “restore stability” by doing more to confront and antagonize the major power in the region. The statement is odd in another way, since Rubio’s agenda of confronting China would require the U.S. to have a closer relationship with dictatorships in the region such as Vietnam. That would almost certainly preclude speaking “with clarity and strength” about rights and values as far as Vietnam is concerned. Rubio wants to pay lip service to “rights and values,” but he also favors an aggressive and combative foreign policy that inevitably requires the U.S. to make dubious bargains with local dictators.

Rubio also takes for granted that “the manner in which governments treat their own citizens is indicative of the manner in which they will treat other nations,” but this is frequently not true for democracies or for authoritarian states. Relatively liberal and democratic states in very recent history have attacked and wrecked other countries in unnecessary wars, and many abusive authoritarian states don’t launch aggressive wars or seek to overthrow other governments. The nature of a regime and its treatment of its own people don’t reliably tell us what kind of foreign policy that government will have. Rubio assumes that there is a close relationship between the two because that is what his particular kind of hawk likes to believe, but it usually isn’t true.

He refers to “China’s expansion in East Asia” that needs to be countered, but this is an exaggerated description of Chinese behavior. What “expansion” there is is very limited and it is tied up in the territorial disputes with its neighbors to which the U.S. isn’t and shouldn’t be a party. A more confrontational approach to China runs the risk of increased intransigence and belligerence from Beijing, and that potentially puts its neighbors more at risk than they would otherwise be. As he usually does, Rubio prefers a combative approach without weighing the costs or thinking through the consequences of the hard-line position that he favors. He assumes that more confrontation will force China to change its behavior in the way that Washington and other governments prefer, but this is placing a huge wager based on nothing more than an ideological attachment to “strength.” We can expect to hear more of these misguided and counterproductive ideas in his speech on Friday, when we will be reminded once again why he should not be president.

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Five Months of the War on Yemen

Nancy Youssef reports on how the war on Yemen is strengthening Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP):

Not only is Saudi Arabia failing to stop the group’s expansion, but some fear the kingdom is colluding with AQAP to fight the Houthis, Iranian-backed rebels whom Saudi Arabia considers a bigger threat. Indeed, there have been reports that AQAP and Saudi Arabia worked together in the initial efforts last month to push the Houthis out of Aden.

The Saudis have made their priorities in the region very clear over the last few years, and combating jihadist groups hasn’t been one of them. Riyadh’s obsession with countering Iranian influence, real or imagined, has consistently taken precedence in both Syria and Yemen, so it should come as no surprise that the Saudis are at best indifferent to the empowerment of jihadist groups in both places and at worst are actively promoting that outcome. U.S. clients in the region are pursuing goals that are at odds with U.S. interests, and especially the case of Yemen they are waging a war that is detrimental to U.S. and regional security. By itself, that wouldn’t be all that surprising, but the remarkable thing is that the U.S. has been pleased to help them from the beginning of the intervention in March. Five months later, despite ample evidence of Saudi war crimes and the horrific effects of their blockade on the civilian population, the U.S. continues to lend aid to its awful clients. Our government is helping to batter and starve an entire country simply to placate a band of despots.

It is often assumed that U.S. support for the cruel and unnecessary Saudi intervention in Yemen is a trade-off to get their support for the nuclear deal, but if that is the real reason for it the administration has made a bad exchange. While it might be preferable to have Saudi and GCC support for the deal, that support isn’t needed. It certainly doesn’t justify backing an appalling war that is empowering some of our worst enemies.

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Iran Hawks vs. the Iranian People (II)

KPG Ivary/Shutterstock

Ishaan Tharoor relays the messages in support of the nuclear deal from many Iranian dissidents and political activists:

Dozens of prominent Iranian activists, both living at home and overseas, have in recent days expressed their support for the successful passage of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, and urged lawmakers in Washington not to thwart the work of many months of concerted diplomacy.

This is consistent with surveys that have found broad support for the agreement from Iranians and specifically from Iranian dissidents. It is obvious that most Iranians would want to have sanctions relief, but it is also easy to understand why Iranians that want political and social reform would welcome an agreement that reduces tensions with other states and makes their country less of a pariah. They correctly see that the regime’s grip will be weaker than it has been once sanctions are lifted, and they also understand that their country is less likely to be attacked now that this deal has been reached.

Iran hawks would prefer to tear up the deal and subject Iranians to greater deprivation, and it is not surprising that most Iranians reject an alternative that would punish and impoverish them. Iran hawks will often profess sympathy for the Iranian people to advance their hard-line policies by claiming that the latter are aimed only against the regime, but again and again it is the people that bear the brunt of those policies while the regime has tightened its grip. The deal offers an opportunity to undo some of the damage that those hard-line policies have done to Iran, so it is natural that most Iranians welcome it.

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The Nuclear Deal and Congress’ Meddling

US Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Bob Corker is unhappy that the attempted sabotage of the nuclear deal isn’t going well:

With the tide flowing in President Obama’s favor on the Iran nuclear deal, the architect of legislation that gave Congress a say in its approval is none too happy about the possibility that the accord may never reach a final vote.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Tuesday that it would be a travesty if Democrats filibustered any resolution disapproving of the accord between Iran and six world powers.

It’s still possible that Republicans could have Democratic votes to end a filibuster, but the fact that Corker is preemptively whining about a filibuster suggests that they probably aren’t going to get them. Corker’s complaint is that supporters of the deal in the Senate are prepared to block a harmful resolution and keep it from coming to a vote. Since Obama is sure to veto the resolution anyway, this isn’t strictly necessary, but it would put an end to the farce of Congressional meddling on this issue sooner rather than later.

As we follow the political theater surrounding the vote on the nuclear deal in the next few weeks, we should remember that Iran hawks are still extremely unlikely to be able to reject the deal. Even if they could get enough votes in both chambers to send the resolution to Obama, they don’t have enough support for a veto override, so the exercise is fairly pointless. That just underscores how unnecessary the Corker-Cardin legislation was in the first place and how ultimately irrelevant Congress has made itself thanks to the majority’s hostility to any deal. Congress didn’t need to insert itself into this process, and every contribution it has made to it has been either useless or harmful. If we have learned anything from the spectacle of attempted Congressional interference on this issue over the last two years, it is that the legislative branch now has an almost completely baleful influence on the conduct of foreign policy. It shrugs at illegal wars while actively working to derail strong nonproliferation agreements. Congress abdicates its genuine responsibilities at the same time that it invents pernicious new ones. It would be fitting if its latest meddling were brought to an end by one of the Senate’s own procedural rules.

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