Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Russia: superpower or proxy? Kevin Sullivan comments on Russia’s expanded military role in Syria.

Is Russia’s Syria intervention a “blessing in disguise” for the U.S.? Michael Cohen considers how the U.S. might benefit from Russia’s deeper involvement in the conflict.

South Sudan, forgotten but still in turmoil. Matt Purple describes the current state of the country’s civil war.

How Catalan survived. Irene Boada explains how the regional language has persisted despite having been actively opposed by the Spanish government for decades.

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Syria and the Bizarre Need to Take Sides

Fareed Zakaria offers a useful reminder why U.S. policy in Syria is so muddled:

But if you consider the major groups vying for control of Damascus, the United States is against almost all of them.

The fact that the U.S. can’t support any of them should make it clear that the U.S. has no business being involved in the conflict at all. The hunt for the elusive “moderate” opposition has been driven by the weird desire to find some faction in the civil war that the U.S. can support without openly endorsing jihadists. While interventionists imagined that the U.S. automatically had “allies” in Syria that it needed to aid, the reality was that there was never any side in the war that the U.S. could justifiably support that had any chance of prevailing over the other forces. Instead of taking the lack of obvious allies as a warning to stay out entirely, the U.S. keeps trying to find a way to take sides.

The desire to take sides stemmed at first from hostility to Iran: if Iran backed Assad, the U.S. had to find enemies of Assad to support. It didn’t matter that the U.S. would gain nothing from regime change in Syria, or that pursuing it might impose more costs than it was worth. Hawks just wanted to inflict a loss on Iran. Now fighting ISIS has taken priority, but not so much that it overrules the old hostility to Iran, which is why so many hawks now propose fighting both Assad and ISIS at the same time. The U.S. has scarcely any more effective allies on the ground now than before, but instead of rethinking the entire project the U.S. keeps stumbling ahead with a war in Syria that it doesn’t need to be fighting. All of this comes ultimately from our political leaders’ inability to recognize that there are many conflicts that the U.S. should avoid all together.

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Helping the Saudis to Cover Up Their Abuses

Samuel Oakford has further details on the U.S. role in blocking an investigation into war crimes in Yemen:

A Dutch-led effort to create a human rights mission for Yemen was abandoned Wednesday amid intense Saudi opposition at the UN, but human rights experts are laying blame in part at the feet of the United States, which failed to vigorously back the Netherlands — and may have worked behind the scenes to head off the independent investigation.

According to Oakford’s report, the U.S. paid lip service to supporting the Dutch resolution, but then “simply let it die.” It’s not exactly shocking that our government wasn’t willing to back up an effort to investigate war crimes in a conflict in which its clients have been committing multiple violations of international law for months with U.S. help. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand the lengths to which the U.S. is prepared to go to back up the indefensible Saudi-led campaign. The U.S. has once again shamefully aided the Saudis and their allies yet again in their reckless intervention. In this case, the administration is aiding them in covering up the coalition’s excesses and abuses.

This part of the article sums things up pretty well:

“The resolution tabled by the Arab group represents a shameful capitulation to Saudi Arabia and has denied Yemeni victims their first real opportunity for justice,” said Balkees Jarrah, senior council at Human Rights Watch. “By failing to establish a UN inquiry, the Human Rights Council has squandered an opportunity to deter ongoing abuses in Yemen.”

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The Insanity of a “No-Fly Zone” in Syria

Hillary Clinton has endorsed a deranged idea for Syria:

In an apparent break with the Obama White House, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for the creation of a no-fly zone inside Syria Thursday, the day after Russian warplanes started bombing rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Wall Street Journal and some Republican candidates and members of Congress have called for the same thing, so the hawkish panic over Syria is now a bipartisan affair. A “no-fly zone” in Syria has always been a bad idea because it commits the U.S. directly to the fighting in Syria’s civil war. Now that Russian planes are in the air and carrying out strikes against anti-regime targets in that country, it is an insane idea. If the U.S. was unwilling to go to war with the Syrian government on its own by attacking its air defenses (a necessary part of establishing any “no-fly zone”), it makes even less sense to try to impose this now that Russia is involved. The U.S. would have to be willing to shoot down Russian jets to enforce this, and there is no telling how far the conflict would go from there. The great danger of Russia’s intervention in Syria is that it could lead to a clash with U.S. forces, and establishing a “no-fly zone” would make that clash much more likely to happen. Indeed, it practically guarantees that a clash would occur. Hawks are proposing that the U.S. risk the possibility of armed conflict with the Russians over Syria for no reason, and Clinton has just thrown in her lot with them. This is just the latest example of Clinton’s poor foreign policy judgment and reflexive hawkish instincts.

The WSJ typically describes this dangerous proposal as a way to demonstrate “revived American leadership,” but it would actually be a perfect example of how recklessly and irresponsibly the U.S. can behave overseas.

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McCain’s Disgraceful Answers on Yemen

Alan Freed / Shutterstock.com

Lee Fang cornered some senators at the Washington Ideas Forum and pressed them to comment on Saudi war crimes in Yemen. The exchange with McCain is damning for the senator:

“They may be bombing civilians, which is actually not true,” McCain said, when asked about civilian casualties in Yemen.

“Civilians aren’t dying?” I asked.

No, they’re not [bold mine-DL],” the senator replied. “Oh, I’m sure civilians die in war. Not nearly as many as the Houthis have executed,” McCain continued, referring to the Shiite militia waging an insurgency against the Sunni government in Yemen.

Asked about the recent reports of Saudi forces bombing a wedding party in Yemen, McCain said, “I’m sure in wars terrible things happen and the Houthis however are an extremist group backed by the Iranians who are slaughtering Yemenis.”

As Fang correctly notes, U.N. officials have just this week stated that the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes are responsible for a large majority of the civilian deaths in Yemen. They have also called attention to the ruinous effects of the coalition’s blockade, which is bringing the country to the brink of famine. McCain’s dismissive comments about the thousands of civilians killed and wounded by Saudi-led, U.S.-backed bombing are appalling in both their ignorance and their contempt for innocent life. McCain is either completely uninformed about what is happening in Yemen and repeating the official Saudi line, or he is knowingly reciting dishonest pro-Saudi talking points. Either way, McCain has outdone himself here in denying coalition war crimes in Yemen.

Both sides in Yemen are guilty of war crimes, but it is simply a fact that the Saudi-led coalition has done significantly more harm to the country and caused more civilian deaths and more destruction than their enemies. One of the reasons that the Saudi-led war and its U.S. backing receive no scrutiny here in the U.S. is that so many of our political leaders are indifferent to or supportive of the campaign. McCain distinguishes himself as one of the most shameless and disgraceful supporters of the war on Yemen. I have had a pretty low opinion of McCain for a long time, but today it just sank a little lower.

McCain is a perfect example of the double standard that so-called “humanitarian” interventionists apply when it comes to military intervention and protecting the lives of civilians. If a hostile or pariah government commits human rights abuses, McCain is the first to demand that the U.S. “do something,” and if it is the U.S. or a client that does the same thing McCain will be first to make excuses and to shift the blame.

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Tom Cotton and the Hawkish Syria Panic


Tom Cotton reminds us that his foreign policy judgment is consistently terrible. This is his response to Russian intervention in Syria:

“I think this is a near catastrophe for U.S. foreign policy in the region and really around the world,” the Arkansas Republican said, adding that it goes against a longtime bipartisan understanding that Russia should not be a powerbroker in the Middle East.

As I said last week, Russian intervention in Syria is a mistake on their part, and we are already seeing that their limited number of airstrikes is inflicting additional harm on the civilian population. Careless and inaccurate bombing in Syria isn’t going to do anything except to kill more Syrian civilians. However, one doesn’t need to endorse Russia’s deeper involvement in Syria’s civil war to understand that it isn’t a “near catastrophe” for U.S. foreign policy. I might not as far as saying that it is a “blessing in disguise,” but it is not something that should cause us to panic. As Cohen says in the linked article, the fact that hawks in Washington are panicking tells us little about the significance of Russian moves and everything about how “Washington fetishizes the mere exercise of power.”

Russia is taking on a larger role in a foreign conflict in a bid to shore up a weakened client. This is not a sign of Moscow’s strength or strategic genius, but rather of the weakness of its client’s position and by extension Russia’s relative weakness in the region. As hawks have also tried to do with Iran recently, they are trying to present a deteriorating position as proof of expanding influence, and they are doing it partly to try to build support for the more aggressive policies in Syria that they have wanted all along. You can almost hear them saying, “We cannot allow an intervention gap.” On this, as on everything else in the region and beyond, they are wrong.

The potential danger here, as Dan Drezner emphasized earlier today, is the possibility that Russian and U.S. forces could clash over Syria. That is obviously something that must be avoided, and it is the latest reminder of why it was never a good idea to expand U.S. intervention into Syria with its multi-sided civil war. This could be an opportunity to reassess the wisdom of waging an unnecessary and illegal war in Syria, but we all know that this opportunity will be squandered.

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The Rubio/Fiorina Mirage

Gage Skidmore/Flickr,  Marc Nozell/Flickr

Mona Charen makes a questionable assertion:

A Rubio/ Fiorina ticket (or Fiorina/Rubio) could win in 2016.

I doubt that these candidates will be on the 2016 ticket in either position when all is said and done, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that Republicans choose Rubio and he then chooses Fiorina as his running mate. That would leave the GOP with a ticket that has the least experience in national politics in almost seventy years. The two candidates would have remarkably little foreign policy experience between them, the presidential nominee would have no executive experience at all, and the vice presidential nominee would have some experience marred by a tenure widely regarded as unsuccessful. The ticket would be dogged by attacks on Fiorina’s corporate background and layoffs at H-P, and it would suffer from the fact that neither of them has a single legislative accomplishment or policy success. This is a ticket that would likely thrill movement conservative pundits, but they have an uncanny instinct for picking candidates that even Republican primary voters end up rejecting. By almost any measure, this would not be a successful presidential ticket for the GOP, and I suspect that Republican voters will realize that by the time it comes to vote.

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Why Backing Kurdish Independence Still Doesn’t Make Sense

Peter Weber means well here, but this is a bad idea:

If Obama wants to get ahead of ominous developments in Syria for once, he should consider throwing U.S. support behind an independent Kurdistan, one that is carved out from the decaying husks of Syria and Iraq.

The problems with backing an independent Kurdistan are well-known. The short version is that backing the creation of such a state would put the U.S. in the position of guaranteeing the independence of a new client against its neighbors, all of whom would be hostile to its existence to some degree. Because of Turkey’s fear of a reviving Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), U.S. support for independent Kurdistan would put the U.S. and Turkey on a collision course and might very well trigger Turkish military action against the new state. If that seems unlikely, remember that Turkey is already launching airstrikes on Kurdish targets in Iraq and “joined” the war on ISIS mostly because it was alarmed about Kurdish gains in Syria. Imagine how much more alarmed it would by the formal creation of a new Kurdish state. The Iraqi and Syrian governments aren’t likely to accept a new state “carved out” of their territory, and it is doubtful that Iran would be indifferent to something that undermines these governments. If the U.S. were seen as instrumental in the creation of an independent Kurdistan, that could also make it an attractive target for terrorists hostile to the U.S. Depending on the terms of the relationship with Washington, the U.S. might find itself obliged to defend the new state, and that would be yet another security commitment for the U.S. to fulfill.

In exchange for all that, creating an independent Kurdistan would probably not yield that many benefits, at least not for the U.S. or the war on ISIS. Weber presents it as providing the U.S. with “a base of operations in a country that has invited its help,” but once an independent Kurdistan is established the new state would probably be concerned with securing itself and would be less inclined to join itself to the U.S. war effort. The new Kurdistan would probably not be recognized by that many other states, since its creation will almost certainly have come over the objections of the governments in Baghdad and Damascus. All the states that are wary of encouraging their own separatist and nationalist movements would likely be against recognizing the new state, which would leave the new state as a sort of semi-pariah on the international stage. Once independence has been achieved, it is also possible that internal rivalries between different Kurdish factions would lead to a conflict over control of the new state, and that would leave the U.S. with the task of trying to resolve a new civil war. Carving out a new state creates a number of new problems for U.S. policy and doesn’t do much to solve existing ones. It would leave the U.S. with a long-term commitment to sustain the new state that it helped create for the hope for a short-term fix for a war the U.S. shouldn’t even be fighting. Even if doing this provided “a rare moment of positive feeling about its mideast policy” (which is not a good reason to do anything of this magnitude), that feeling would likely evaporate soon thereafter because of the many headaches that it would cause.

If all this sounds unduly pessimistic, I would point out that the skeptics of drastic action and sudden political change have been proven much more right than wrong over the last decade. In any case, it is necessary to consider the consequences of such a major political change as fully as possible. One of the reasons that the U.S. finds itself in its absurd position in its war with ISIS is that the policy was never thought through or debated at any length, and the U.S. plunged into an unnecessary war in two countries without considering what came next. Plunging ahead with another ill-considered policy in a panicked attempt to “get ahead of ominous developments” is the last thing that the U.S. should be doing now. It would better if it reconsidered the merits of its original decision to intervene and scaled back its goals to match what it is actually prepared to commit to this part of the world. Midwifing a new state in the midst of regional upheaval and conflict is far more than the U.S. is going to be prepared to do over the coming years, and it would better for all concerned not to start down that path.

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Help TAC Help America

Michael Hogue

“A contrarian thorn in the side of the establishment right.” That’s what the New York Times called The American Conservative. And they’re not wrong: ever since our founding in 2002, the magazine and its website have served as an indispensable outlet for the ideas and arguments of dissident and traditional conservatives.

We have been the principled voice of conservative opposition to the many follies of the Bush and Obama eras, from Iraq to—well, Iraq. We have served as the reliable defender of local communities, constitutional government, a broad distribution of power and wealth, and the causes of liberty and peace. That opposition and that defense continue to be crucial, and we need your support to continue that work.

This year alone, TAC has been a consistent critic of the ill-conceived military intervention in Iraq and Syria. We’ve been a leading opponent of U.S. support for the reckless and unnecessary Saudi-led war on Yemen. We’ve argued for the importance of diplomatic engagement with Iran and CubaTAC was founded in part to express principled conservative opposition to the invasion of Iraq, but it has become the voice for a much broader critique of the harmful bipartisan consensus that continues to deform America’s foreign policy. The American Conservative is dedicated to promoting a foreign policy of peace and non-intervention that secures American interests, and we need your help to continue doing that important work.

Last summer, we co-hosted a conference promoting foreign policy alternatives to the existing failed consensus, and in November we are building on the success of that conference with a TAC Summit on Realism and Restraint. At this new conference, our editors and contributors will join with other foreign policy thinkers and politicians to make the case for a conservative and realist approach to foreign policy that is sorely lacking in Washington today.

TAC is a valuable resource for all Americans that want to rediscover a foreign policy conservatism that is dedicated to securing the national interest without being wedded to perpetual war. We have been promoting the cause of reforming and improving the foreign policy debate in the Republican Party and in the country as a whole since our inception. Our arguments are more necessary than ever as the U.S. will be fighting the new war in Iraq and Syria for years to come.

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In order to continue all of this important work, The American Conservative needs the continued support of its readers, without whom we would be able to do nothing. Join with us in defending prudence, restraint, and common sense by becoming a member of The American Conservative—or committing to a monthly gift of your choice. All donations to the magazine are tax-deductible, and anything that you are able to give would be greatly appreciated.

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Whitewashing the Saudi-Led Coalition’s Crimes in Yemen

The Dutch government has withdrawn its proposed resolution calling for a U.N.-sponsored mission to investigate war crimes in Yemen:

Human rights groups expressed disappointment with the withdrawal of the proposal.

“The question is really what happened — and why is Saudi Arabia simply off the hook for massive bombing affecting civilian life and (that) probably may constitute war crimes?” said Philippe Dam, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Geneva.

The U.S. briefly expressed support for the Dutch resolution, but it seems that this support was meaningless. In its place there will be a Saudi-sponsored resolution that calls for providing “technical assistance” to the Hadi government, which will then report back on the situation. Nothing could be better designed to ensure that the report on human rights abuses in Yemen will whitewash the Saudi-led coalition’s crimes and cover up for the campaign that is aimed at putting Hadi back in power.

It took just a few days for the Saudis to make a mockery of Samantha Power’s assertion on Sunday that Saudi Arabia’s position on the Human Rights Council was purely a “procedural” one that would have no bearing on “anything the United Nations does on any human rights issue.” The Saudis won’t have to worry about the Hadi government reporting on their crimes, since it has every incentive to deny them or pin them on the government’s opponents. Meanwhile, human rights organizations and journalists will continue to document what the coalition is doing to Yemeni civilians with the Obama administration’s backing.

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