Daniel Larison

Cruz’s Reckless Foreign Policy

Perhaps the most worrisome thing about Ted Cruz is that he now bizarrely thinks foreign policy is his strong suit:

Indeed, ever since he played an instrumental role in last year’s government shutdown, Cruz has narrowed his agenda to focus on international affairs, both as an avenue to raise his profile among GOP donors and to pivot away from his reputation as a conservative kamikaze bent on wreaking havoc inside the halls of Congress [bold mine-DL].

That’s good thinking on Cruz’s part. It’s much better to be known as a hard-line kamikaze bent on wreaking havoc all over the world instead. The interesting thing about this report is that Cruz has largely confirmed the description of his foreign policy that I offered last week: “shoot first and don’t ask any questions.” This is his position in his own words:

“If and when military action is called for, it should be A) with a clearly defined military objective, B) executed with overwhelming force, and C) when we’re done we should get the heck out,” he said.

By his own admission, Cruz is quite open to using force, he wants that force to be “overwhelming,” and he doesn’t want to give the slightest thought to the aftermath. As I said, it is an approach best described as “killing lots of people and then going home.” Apart from being overly reliant on military solutions and oblivious to the consequences of war, the problem with this is that he offers no good definition of what it means to say “when we’re done.” Cruz presents his position as if it were a repudiation of costly, prolonged military intervention, but that is not the case. His preferred approach would create the conditions that would virtually guarantee a long-term U.S. commitment in the countries that he wants to attack. The fact that he can’t or won’t acknowledge this just makes his position that much worse. If Cruz thinks this is the “sweet spot” on foreign policy, he will be sorely disappointed. Conservatives that are interested in a sane, restrained, and responsible foreign policy shouldn’t be taken in by what he has to say.

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Georgia and the War Against ISIS

Anna Nemtsova follows up on an earlier report about a Georgian offer to host a training facility for members of the Syrian opposition as part of the war against ISIS. As soon as the proposal was reported, Georgian officials were quick to disavow it for obvious reasons:

By helping out American forces in the war against both ISIS and Assad, former deputy defense minister Nodar Kharshiladze told The Daily Beast on Thursday, Georgia “automatically becomes a target for Islamist organizations” and raises the dangerous ire of the pro-Assad Kremlin.

When I first read about this proposal, I couldn’t see what Georgia could hope to gain from it. As I said at the time, it seemed like a lose-lose proposition. Georgia takes an unnecessary risk by aligning itself openly with anti-regime forces in a civil war that has nothing to do with Georgian security, thus exposing itself to possible reprisals from jihadists and interference from Russia, and it stands to receive nothing in return. Georgia has already contributed disproportionately to U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the vain hope of currying favor with Washington, but this was never going to produce the results that the Georgian government wanted. It makes no sense for Georgia to repeat that mistake by joining in the latest U.S. war effort when this will just make the country more of a target.

Western governments have consistently misled Georgia to expect that their real contributions and sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan would help to advance its aspirations to join NATO, and that has encouraged the Georgian government to make commitments that make no sense for their country. Georgia keeps being led on with the false promise that someday these contributions will be rewarded with meaningful commitments from the U.S. and NATO, but that isn’t going to happen. It is long past time that Western governments started telling Georgia the truth that no matter how much it contributes to these war efforts it is not going to acquire the support that it seeks.

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“Moderate” Rebels Protest U.S. Strikes in Syria

Many groups belonging to the “moderate” Syrian opposition have denounced U.S. strikes in Syria, especially those that have targeted members of Jabhat al-Nusra, the organization affiliated with Al Qaeda that is on the State Department’s official terrorist list:

On Tuesday, nearly a dozen of the FSA’s most powerful groups signed a declaration denouncing the strikes, demanding they target the Syrian regime, too [bold mine-DL]. In a heated meeting with the Syrian opposition in Istanbul Thursday, U.S. officials demanded an explanation for the statement condemning the American-led coalition, an opposition official said.

“They said ‘friends don’t speak against friends,’ ” said an opposition official with knowledge of the meeting. “We told them, ‘true friendship means coordination.’” The meeting was confirmed by a second opposition official.

It’s not surprising that opposition groups are unhappy with the way that the U.S. is fighting this war so far. After all, their primary adversary is the Syrian government, and so far the U.S. isn’t attacking regime forces. They see the U.S. intervening directly in the civil war after years of not doing so, and they are predictably displeased that the U.S. is targeting other anti-regime groups along with ISIS.

The opposition complaints are revealing. The “moderate” opposition that the U.S. is foolishly arming and training doesn’t have the same priorities as the U.S. in this conflict (and there was never any reason to think that it would). Many groups in the FSA are opposed to and offended by military action against a jihadist group that the U.S. correctly views as a terrorist organization. That ought to be the latest in a series of flashing warning signs that the U.S. has absolutely nothing to gain in backing such “moderates.” Friends might not “speak against” friends, but it’s long past time that we realized that the U.S. doesn’t have friends–or even useful proxies–in the Syrian conflict. It is yet another reason to doubt the wisdom of expanding the ISIS war into Syria, and by extension it is another reason to doubt the wisdom of the intervention in its entirety.

Supporters of expanding the war against ISIS into Syria seem to assume that “moderate” rebels will pursue Washington’s goals, but that isn’t going to happen. Like any proxy group, the “moderate” opposition was always going to pursue its own agenda, and there was never going to be much that the U.S. could do about this, especially when it was so intent on trying to “shape” events. These opposition protests confirm what opponents of arming Syrian rebels have taken for granted from the start: providing arms to rebels isn’t going to gain the U.S. the influence or control that Syria hawks want, and the belief that the U.S. can build up a “moderate” alternative to both the regime and jihadists has always been a fantasy. As these protests remind us, many “moderate” rebels don’t consider Jabhat al-Nusra and similar groups to be their enemy, but they do predictably view the group as their ally against Assad. That underscores just how absurd the preoccupation with identifying “moderate” rebels in a brutal civil war has been from the start. It is a label created to evade the underlying problem with taking the anti-regime side in Syria’s civil war, which is that it puts the U.S. in league with jihadists or the allies of jihadists.

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Keep Ukraine Out of NATO

The editors at Bloomberg make a familiar case against bringing Ukraine into NATO:

Ukraine, a divided and almost bankrupt nation of 45 million, would first have to receive a Membership Action Plan and then meet its conditions — a process that would take many years. (Albania, which joined NATO in 2009, got its MAP in 1999.) So starting the process would merely set the clock ticking for Russia to do whatever it takes to prevent its neighbor from joining — from rekindling the war to eastern Ukraine to making a full-scale invasion.

Next, imagine that Ukraine were, miraculously, to succeed in joining NATO. It would only further destabilize the country. Even though Russia has lately done much to unite most Ukrainians against it, the east of the country still has strong cultural and historical ties to Russia. As long as the Kremlin sees and portrays NATO as a threat, a substantial share of Ukraine’s population will want no part of it. Before the annexation of Crimea, in 2010, 51 percent of Ukrainians opposed joining NATO. (In the east, 72 percent did.) Even today, polls suggest that less than half of Ukrainians want to join the alliance.

The editorial focuses on why NATO membership would be harmful to Ukraine, and I agree with all of this, but I’ll just add a few other observations. Even if the worst-case scenarios described above didn’t happen right away, Ukraine would still be a major liability for the alliance as soon as it was invited. Its future membership would be an ongoing source of tension with Russia that could erupt into another open conflict before Ukraine becomes a full member. The period between being given a MAP and accession would be extremely perilous for the country, since the alliance would not yet be obliged to defend Ukraine while Russia would have every incentive to derail Ukraine’s membership by any means available. There is now no question that Russia will do this, so it would be inexcusable to pursue further NATO expansion as if we don’t know what will happen next.

If Russia reacted so negatively to the prospect of a mere EU association agreement, we can easily imagine how much worse the Russian reaction would be to a MAP for Ukraine. Considering how unwilling members of the alliance are to extend a security guarantee to Ukraine now, it should be obvious that members of the alliance will be similarly unwilling to back up such a guarantee should the need arise in the future. That is why the notion of bringing Ukraine into NATO should be shelved permanently. U.S. relations with Russia and relations between Ukraine and Russia are best served if Ukraine remains a neutral, non-bloc country, and officially confirming Ukraine in that status is the surest available way to reduce the threat from Russia.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The most dangerous world ever? Christopher Preble debunks alarmist claims about how dangerous the world is.

Reviving the failed logic of the “war on terror.” Ramzy Mardini criticizes the administration’s new war.

Republicans shouldn’t stoke international revolution. Justin Logan refutes some of the incoherent and absurd foreign policy statements of John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

Obama doesn’t want your approval for war. Noah Feldman dismantles the administration’s absurd legal justifications for the war against ISIS.

Nixon’s advice to Reagan. John Gans revisits a memo Nixon sent to Reagan after the 1980 election and considers its relevance to contemporary foreign policy debates.

Why our foreign policy can’t be fixed. Walter McDougall comments on a recent essay by Angelo Codevilla.

The very modern presidential salute. Brian Adam Jones reviews the very short history of this odd presidential habit.

Klaus on Europe and Russia. Neil Clark of The Spectator interviews former Czech prime minister Vaclav Klaus.

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The Folly of Fighting Against Both Sides in Syria (II)

Micah Zenko picked up on something important in recent Senate testimony from Secretary Hagel and Gen. Dempsey:

MCCAIN: How will we help them—will we repel Bashar Assad’s air assets that will be attacking them?

HAGEL: Any attack on those that we have trained and who are supporting us, we will help ‘em [bold mine-DL].

In short, because the U.S. is foolishly arming and training some of the Syrian opposition, the administration believes that it is also committed to defending them from regime attacks. Note that Hagel said that “any attack” on those opposition forces would trigger U.S. “help.” So the administration appears to have committed the U.S. to go to war against the Syrian government if the regime attacks U.S. proxies, which the regime almost certainly will continue to do. That would put our forces in the absurd and dangerous position of fighting both ISIS and the Syrian regime at the same time. The legal justifications for the ISIS war are laughably weak, but there is no legal justification in U.S. or international law for what the administration is proposing here. Just in case we might hope that this was just an off-the-cuff, meaningless answer from Hagel, his position was later confirmed by the Pentagon.

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The U.S. and Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal

Jeffrey Lewis calls for ending the official U.S. pretense that Israel’s nuclear arsenal is some closely-guarded secret:

Since the late 1960s, the United States has treated the fact of Israel’s nuclear weapons as an important state secret. This is absurd, and it doesn’t do anyone any favors, least of all our friends in Israel. It’s time to declassify the fact of Israel’s bomb even if Jerusalem doesn’t admit it.

The reasons to do this are straightforward enough. Everyone already knows that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, and it has been a matter of public record for decades, so pretending that it is being kept a secret is pointless. Pretending to keep it a secret means that people can lose their security clearances and their jobs for admitting something that is already public knowledge. As Lewis points out, the rule isn’t enforced consistently. It was used earlier this year to punish Jim Doyle, a LANL employee who wrote an article that included a reference to Israel’s arsenal, but it hasn’t been enforced in other more high-profile cases:

One obvious downside to our absurd policy of refusing to acknowledge Israel’s bomb is that it ends up being enforced in an arbitrary and capricious manner. When Bob Gates, during his 2006 confirmation hearing to be secretary of Defense, referred to Iran being surrounded by nuclear-armed neighbors including “the Israelis to the West,” nothing happened — even though he had served as director of central intelligence and maintained his clearances. I’ve certainly heard plenty of current and former officials, in private conversation, state the obvious. It’s hard not to mention. Hell, even Ehud Olmert, when he was Israeli prime minister, slipped up once. As a result, the classification is little more than a handy excuse to prosecute someone we don’t like for some other reason — such as writing annoying articles about disarmament while working for a nuclear weapons lab or something.

As Lewis goes on to explain, the solution is very simple:

Change WPN-136 Foreign Nuclear Capabilities to declassify the “fact” that the United States intelligence community has believed that Israel has possessed nuclear weapons since the 1970s. That’s it. We don’t have to declassify the details of the stockpile. And we don’t have to hold a press conference….But U.S. officials should be free to acknowledge the obvious without fear of losing their clearances and their jobs. That’s all.

Israel is free to continue its policy of not acknowledging the existence of its nuclear weapons, but the U.S. shouldn’t be forcing people working for the government to “keep” a secret that was revealed long ago.

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Why Cameron Recalled Parliament and Obama Ignored Congress

Photo: Crown copyright
Photographer: Paul Shaw
Photo: Crown copyright Photographer: Paul Shaw

Carol Giacomo praises Cameron for recalling Parliament to debate and vote on U.K. participation in the ISIS war:

One democratic leader has decided to ask his country’s legislature to vote before going to war. Pity that it isn’t President Obama.

Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday recalled Parliament, which was in recess (just as Congress is). It will convene on Friday to consider whether Britain should cooperate with the United States in conducting air strikes against Islamic State targets in northern Iraq.

Mr. Cameron’s proposal to join the U.S.-led military operation has the backing of all three main political parties, so it is expected to win approval comfortably.

Cameron has done the right thing here, but it’s worth reflecting a little more on why Obama hasn’t. Last year’s Syria debate evidently taught Obama that he shouldn’t ask for Congressional approval for something that he already falsely believes he is permitted to do on his own. He waged illegal war in Libya for the better part of a year, and almost no one cared. He delayed a foolish intervention in Syria to ask for Congressional support, and he was chastised for “dithering,” and then in the face of overwhelming opposition he called off an attack that he should never have contemplated. As a result, he was the subject of boundless scorn and derision for undermining American “credibility.” Obama took a lesson from all this, and it was that Congress should simply be bypassed whenever possible. Unlike Cameron, Obama isn’t permitted by our laws to start a war on his own authority, but he is quite willing to do so on the assumption that no one can or will stop him. Unless there is a huge public outcry against it, Congress has shown that it will acquiesce to whatever Obama wants to do when it comes to using force.

If Obama had had his own way last year, Congress would not have been involved in debating whether to authorize military action in Syria. His plans for intervention took a detour only after the House of Commons rejected U.K. involvement in the attack, which unexpectedly removed Britain from taking part in the “limited” strikes against the regime and put Obama in the awkward position of going ahead with an attack that the legislature of one of America’s closest allies had just rejected. Even though Cameron and Obama suffered similar political humiliations last year over intervention in Syria, the two have reacted very differently since then. Cameron seems to have accepted that he shouldn’t commit the U.K. to a foreign war without explicit support from Parliament. By contrast, Obama concluded that his mistake was not in trying to intervene but rather in bothering to ask for support. Officially, Cameron is not obliged to seek authorization from Parliament for military action, but he did so last year and has done so again now because he feared the political danger of not doing so. Such is the awful nature of our political culture that the greater risk for Obama was to defer military action until after Congress had debated and approved it.

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The ISIS War and America’s Role in the World

DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett (Released)
DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett (Released)

Ross Douthat explains his view of the ISIS war’s expansion into Syria:

But as someone who burned pretty hot against our bombing campaign in Libya, where it was so very easy to imagine both American interests and regional stability suffering more (as I think they pretty clearly have) from Qaddafi’s fall than from his continued tyranny, my skepticism is a little cooler this time in part because the existing situation is already such a disaster, with no upside for American interests whatsoever, that the downsides simply don’t look as frightening as they otherwise might [bold mine-DL]. With the Libya intervention, we risked creating an ISIS-like abyss in Africa; in Iraq and Syria today we already have one, and unless we intend to just shrug off our current role in the world there is a clear need for some kind of American response. I’m doubtful that this is the right one, but not knowing what the right one is my sympathies are with President Obama, and I’ll be hoping that events as they unfold will lay some of my skepticism to rest.

I take Douthat’s point, but this seems the wrong way to judge the current intervention. Like Douthat, I was very much against the Libyan war, and we were opposed to it for many of the same reasons. The fact that intervention there has proven to be so disastrous because the intervention achieved its goal of regime change should make us much more wary of a war whose goal appears to be unachievable. Even though the administration officially claimed not to be fighting a war for regime change in Libya, supporters of the the Libyan war argued that it had “succeeded” because the Libyan government was overthrown. Gaddafi’s downfall was taken as proof that the Libyan intervention had “worked,” and the many foreseeable, negative consequences of this “success” were waved away or simply ignored. Even so, at least with the Libyan war there was some clear idea of how the war (or at least direct U.S. involvement in it) would end and what “success” would look like. Neither of these is true of the ISIS war. In this case, the U.S. isn’t trying to topple an established government, which we know the U.S. can do (however foolish and dangerous it may be to do it), but instead it is trying to eliminate a quasi-state that is very likely to benefit politically from a militarized American overreaction to its provocations. It seems very unlikely that the current intervention can possibly succeed on its own terms, which suggests that the only thing it will do is inflict more death and destruction on two war-ravaged countries for no discernible purpose. It is not enough to say that the potential downsides of this intervention aren’t as frightening as those of previous wars. There needs to be a case made that the intervention is likely to improve conditions in one or both of the countries being bombed, and as far as I can tell that case doesn’t exist. Maybe “some kind” of American response would be useful, but it seems very clear that the response being offered by the administration isn’t it. It is up to the administration to persuade us that the new war is both worth fighting and is likely to succeed, and so far they have failed to do so. That should make us far more skeptical of this war than we were of the war in Libya, and the fact that Obama still thinks intervening in Libya was the right thing to do in spite of the damage it has caused should make us question his judgment on launching this new war even more than we did three years ago.

As for the U.S. role in the world, one needn’t assume that the only choices are to “shrug off” that role or wade into another unnecessary war. The U.S. has trapped itself into fighting unnecessary wars in the past because of the misguided belief that its “credibility” and/or “leadership” was at stake, and it is usually only later after the war ends that we come to realize that the U.S. could continue to have an important and even a leading role in the world without wasting its resources on regional conflicts that posed no direct threat to our security. The U.S. is “indispensable” only in that it permits itself to be lured into unnecessary conflicts out of a misguided sense of obligation, and more often than not U.S. involvement in these conflicts undermines respect for and trust in the U.S. and sometimes even makes the U.S. and the countries involved less secure than they were. Then again, if the only choices are between unnecessary war and “shrugging off” our current role in the world, it seems clear that the wiser thing for the U.S. to do would be to redefine its role in the world so that it is not obliged to act as the world’s fire brigade.

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How Long Will the Public Support the War on ISIS?

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Earlier this week I said that public support for the ISIS war would likely decrease over time. Trevor Thrall made an extended version of the same argument last week:

Public opinion has turned against every American military engagement that has lasted more than a year with the exception of World War II. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: a good number of the majority who supports intervention at the outset has not factored into their thinking all the eventual costs and consequences of the campaign [bold mine-DL]. Eventually, the accumulation of costs—be they casualties, increased terrorism or the economic toll of war—will start to overwhelm the initial support, especially for those without particularly strong reasons to support the war in the first place.

It is impossible to imagine this campaign avoiding a similar fate if it indeed stretches out to three years or beyond.

One of the reasons that many early supporters of military interventions don’t factor costs and consequences into their thinking is that the proponents of the intervention make a point of minimizing and obscuring these from view. Like all advocates pushing a particular policy, interventionists emphasize and exaggerate the dangers of not adopting their recommendations and oversell the benefits of “action.” They typically have a dismissive, cavalier attitude towards unforeseen and adverse consequences of military action and they assume that “there is no real harm in trying.” That arrogance and overconfidence make “action” seem appealing early on, but set the U.S. up for disappointment, frustration, and bitter recriminations later.

In most cases, the near-instant bipartisan consensus that congeals around an interventionist policy and the attendant media demands to “do something” tend to drown out countervailing arguments during the first few months of the campaign. This boosts public support for military action in the short term, but like any bait-and-switch trick it also causes people to sour on the intervention more quickly than they might have done otherwise. More Americans gradually become aware that the threat to the U.S. was overstated (or simply made up) all along, and they start to realize that the war they were originally told about at the beginning is not the one that the U.S. is actually fighting. Because presidents often set unrealistic goals for these interventions, there is usually even greater disillusionment because the war comes to be seen as “not working.” That is a trap that presidents set for themselves. They are the ones promising results that aren’t possible, and those results certainly aren’t possible at the very low cost that the public is willing to accept.

In addition to length of time, the costs of a prolonged intervention naturally drive down support as they increase. Support for military action often starts vanishing as soon as the war involves the loss of American lives or the extended commitment of U.S. resources. Another factor that makes public support for military intervention relatively fleeting is that almost all of the wars that the U.S. has fought in the last fifty years have been unnecessary ones. If a war were genuinely necessary to keep the U.S. secure from a foreign threat, a majority would likely keep backing it for a very long time, but since almost none of our modern wars falls into this category it is unreasonable to expect that there would be sustained public support for a war that didn’t have to be fought. That is especially true for illegal wars waged without Congressional authorization. Whatever the polls may say at the start of a war, the president can’t claim to have obtained the consent of the public unless their representatives have voted specifically to authorize it. The longer that a president waits to seek that authorization, the more that he and his party will come to “own” the war. As a result, it will be easier for the rest of the country to turn against it and make it very unpopular. Clinton and Obama were able to get away with their illegal wars in Kosovo and Libya despite limited public support, but those wars were over in a matter of months. Waging a multi-year war without explicit Congressional authorization and relying on obviously bogus legal arguments to justify doing so will likely make this war unpopular much sooner rather than later.

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