Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The Armenian genocide a hundred years later. Justin Marozzi reviews Ronald Suny and Thomas de Waal’s books on the Hayots ts’eghaspanut’yun.

Our bad friends, the Saudis. Kelley Vlahos reports on U.S. support for the Saudi war and our “ill-fitting alliance” with Riyadh.

Saudi claims on Yemen face skepticism. Bloomberg Business reports on Saudi exaggerations about Iran’s role in Yemen.

What Iran conceded in the negotiations. Richard Nephew reviews what Iran agreed to give up.

Obama’s Cuba critics are wrong. Ted Galen Carpenter explains why attacks on the opening to Cuba make no sense.

The SNP has replaced the Church of Scotland. Alex Massie describes the Scottish National Party as a “faith-based” political movement.

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The Absurdity of U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

As Kelley Vlahos mentioned in her article this morning, John McCain and other Iran hawks have tried to make hay out of the fact that the Saudis organized their attack on Yemen without consulting the U.S. They say this is proof that the Saudis have lost confidence in U.S. support. Military officers dismiss this criticism:

A senior commander at Central Command (CENTCOM), speaking on condition of anonymity, scoffed at that argument. “The reason the Saudis didn’t inform us of their plans,” he said, “is because they knew we would have told them exactly what we think — that it was a bad idea [bold mine-DL].”

Military sources said that a number of regional special forces officers and officers at U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) argued strenuously against supporting the Saudi-led intervention because the target of the intervention, the Shia Houthi movement — which has taken over much of Yemen and which Riyadh accuses of being a proxy for Tehran — has been an effective counter to Al-Qaeda [bold mine-DL].

So the U.S. is aiding a military intervention that many of our own officers consider ill-advised, and it is doing so despite the fact that the apparent goal of the intervention is contrary to our own interests in Yemen, such as they are. Unsurprisingly, the hawks that have pushed the U.S. into every disastrous intervention in the last fifteen years haven’t thought through the consequences of this war, either, and are cheering on the Saudi campaign that threatens to make Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula stronger than it was before. The U.S. is backing a reckless war led by an ugly authoritarian client in an effort to counter an “expansion” of Iranian influence that isn’t happening, and in the process in the process the war is boosting the one group in the country that actually poses a threat to the U.S. and its allies.

The article goes on to quote a Yemen expert, Michael Horton, regarding the claim that the Houthis are Iran’s proxies:

Later, in a telephone interview, Horton expanded on that. “These constant reports that the Houthis are working for the Iranians are nonsense, but the view is right out of the neocon playbook,” he said. “The Israelis have been touting this line that we lost Yemen to Iran. That’s absurd. The Houthis don’t need Iranian weapons. They have plenty of their own [bold mine-DL]. And they don’t require military training. They’ve been fighting Al-Qaeda since at least 2012, and they’ve been winning. Why are we fighting a movement that’s fighting Al-Qaeda?”

Over the last decade, the U.S. has toppled two governments to the later benefit of jihadist groups, and it considered doing the same in Syria. In each case, the U.S. has contributed to the destabilization of the region, and jihadists have made gains as a result. In Yemen, the U.S. is aiding in an attack on a group that is also opposed to the local Al Qaeda affiliate. None of these wars has made the U.S. or the region more secure. On the contrary, they have created more violence and upheaval in the region and strengthened the groups that are most hostile to us.

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U.S. Backing for the Disastrous War on Yemen Continues

The good news is that some U.S. officials are reportedly worried about the Saudi-led war’s awful consequences, but that doesn’t seem to have caused anyone to question continued U.S. support for the operation:

Concerned about reports of hundreds of civilian casualties, Obama administration officials are increasingly uneasy about the U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led air war against rebel militias in Yemen, opening a potential rift between Washington and its ally in Riyadh.

The article quotes one official who privately describes the Saudis’ war as a “disaster,” but that criticism hasn’t translated into a reduction or elimination of U.S. assistance. There doesn’t seem to be any confidence in the administration that the attack they’re supporting will achieve any of its ostensible goals, but that doesn’t lessen the support. On the contrary, U.S. support has continued to increase as the harmful effects of the Saudis’ attack have become harder to ignore. The article portrays this as an attempt to improve Saudi targeting in order to reduce civilian casualties, but this misses the point that all of the civilian casualties yet to be caused by the bombing campaign could be avoided by halting it. The U.S. might be able to help make Saudi bombing slightly more precise, but that can’t change the fact that the war itself is wrong and unnecessary.

Our officials keep repeating that the U.S. “goal is to try to bring about a political resolution to the conflict,” but no one can explain how battering Yemen from the air for weeks and wrecking the country’s infrastructure is going to bring that about. The U.S. has hitched itself to a war it doesn’t control and can’t explain, and it has done this for the sake of pleasing one of the worst clients the U.S. has in the region. It is debatable whether the Saudi war advances some Saudi interest (it is usually not good for a state to launch a reckless intervention in another country), but there is no question that no U.S. interests are being served here.

Kelley Vlahos notes in her article today that when the Saudi campaign began the administration was coming under fire from McCain and Graham for being too slow to back the attack. Perversely, the main criticism that Obama has been getting from Congress on this issue is that it hasn’t been doing enough to help inflict death and destruction on Yemen:

But that Obama should be admonished for a perceived laggardness in the Sunni Gulf states’ swift intervention in Yemen, in what has been called a battle for sectarian dominance in the region, shows how little these men think of the American public. After 14 years of fighting Sunni insurgencies with no end in sight (Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda everywhere, now ISIS), the idea the U.S. could be shamed into joining a coalition of countries espousing highly questionable motives and human rights records, in an intervention no one can rightly explain, should raise a few red flags.

No one can explain this intervention without resorting to propaganda because there is no coherent argument for how a bombing campaign is going to “restore stability” to the country being bombed. The justifications that have been offered are not at all persuasive. The Saudis defend the war as an effort to stop “expanding” Iranian influence, but as I’ve mentioned before claims about significant Iranian involvement are untrue:

Iranian influence in Yemen is “trivial,” said Gabriele vom Bruck, a senior lecturer in anthropology and Yemen specialist at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

“The Houthis want Yemen to be independent, that’s the key idea, they don’t want to be controlled by Saudi or the Americans, and they certainly don’t want to replace the Saudis with the Iranians [bold mine-DL],” vom Bruck said. “I don’t think the Iranians have influence in their decision-making. It’s not a relationship like that between Iran and Hezbollah.”

This wouldn’t be the first time that the U.S. mistakes a local movement for an extension of some monolithic international threat, but one would think that by now U.S. officials wouldn’t be so easily tricked when American hawks and regional clients make such obviously self-serving claims to justify a senseless military intervention.

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Jeb Bush Embraces George W. Bush’s Foreign Policy

Jeb Bush’s foreign policy is just as bad as one would expect:

If Jeb Bush is elected president, the United States won’t be on speaking terms with Cuba and will partner more closely with Israel. He’ll tighten sanctions on Iran and urge NATO to deploy more troops in Eastern Europe to counter Vladimir Putin. And he’ll order the U.S. military to root out “barbarians” and “evildoers” around the globe.

That certainly doesn’t come as a shock, but it should put to rest any lingering doubts about the kind of foreign policy George W. Bush’s brother supports. Despite the presence of one or two realists among his foreign policy advisers, Bush was never going to campaign as a realist, which just makes the hawkish panic over James Baker’s connection to his campaign that much more laughable.

The article goes on to say that Jeb Bush isn’t repudiating his brother’s views. On the contrary, he is “embracing them — and emphasizing them.” Of course he is. There was never any reason to expect him to do anything else. Granted, it is politically foolish for any Republican candidate to endorse Bush-era foreign policy, but that doesn’t stop almost all of them from doing it. Being identified with George W. Bush remains a political liability whether any of these candidates wants to admit it. Being identified with one of the most costly and disastrous parts of the last administration’s record is even worse. It is harder for Bush’s brother to avoid being identified with that record than it is for other candidates, but he is making clear that he has no desire to distance himself from that record. He evidently doesn’t think there was anything seriously wrong with how his brother conducted foreign policy, and his candidacy should be judged accordingly.

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Walker’s Wisconsin Woes

As Scott Walker has risen in Republican primary polling, his approval ratings in Wisconsin have been going in the opposite direction:

A new Marquette Law School Poll finds Gov. Scott Walker’s job approval rating has fallen to 41 percent, with 56 percent of registered voters in Wisconsin saying they disapprove of how he is handling his job as governor.

Much of the recent decline seems to have been driven by the unpopularity of Walker’s budget proposals. For example, his proposal to slash $300 million from the state university system is opposed by 70%. If Walker interpreted his re-election to mean that Wisconsinites were eager for him to push through more controversial measures, it appears that he badly misread the political landscape. This doesn’t bode well for Walker for the coming year, and it is likely to be a liability for him as a presidential candidate as well.

The main argument for a Walker candidacy is that he pushed through a conservative agenda in a Democratic-leaning state and won re-election in spite of it. A related argument is that a two-term governor of Wisconsin should be able to make the GOP more competitive in Midwestern states where they have had little success in presidential elections for a long time. Walker was supposed to combine be the electable conservative alternative, and he can’t really be that if most people in his home state think he’s doing a poor job. These arguments are substantially weakened by evidence that Walker’s constituents are turning against him in significant numbers. According to the same survey, Walker trails Clinton by twelve points in Wisconsin, which doesn’t say much for Walker’s supposed electability. When a presidential nominee doesn’t carry his own state, he usually doesn’t win the election. If Walker’s approval ratings remain negative over the next year, it becomes harder to see why Republican primary voters in the early states would want to take a chance on him.

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The Widening Partisan Split on Israel

A recent Bloomberg Politics poll on partisan views of Israel and nuclear negotiations with Iran found something interesting:

Republicans by a ratio of more than 2-to-1 say the U.S. should support Israel even when its stances diverge with American interests, a new Bloomberg Politics poll finds.

This result is being widely interpreted to mean that these respondents think the U.S. should privilege Israeli interests above America’s, but I’m not sure that this is what the poll tells us. The statement that 45% of the respondents said was closest to their own view was this: “Israel is an important ally, the only democracy in the region, and we should support it even if our interests diverge.” This is unfortunately much less informative than it seems. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these respondents think the U.S. should subordinate our interests to Israel’s. All that it definitely does mean is that these respondents think the U.S. should offer undefined “support” to Israel even when there are disagreements between our governments, which is more or less what “pro-Israel” hawks say all the time.

That implies that these respondents would oppose reducing or eliminating U.S. aid and diplomatic cover, but it doesn’t have to mean that they think the interests of another country should be put ahead of our own. While it’s plausible that some of these respondents understood and answered the question this way, it is more likely that most of them don’t think it is possible for U.S. and Israeli interests to diverge. Many Americans do tend to conflate the interests of our two countries, and they probably can’t imagine that those interests ever could diverge in a significant way. When they are presented with clear evidence of that they do, it is easier to explain it away by blaming the current administration and accusing it of undermining both U.S. and Israeli interests.

It would probably have been more useful to ask if there would ever be any circumstances in which the respondents could imagine the U.S. suspending aid or withholding its veto at the U.N., and if so what those circumstances might be. As it is, the Bloomberg poll gives people two options to affirm an “alliance” with Israel that doesn’t exist with differing degrees of intensity. Because Republicans are generally the more enthusiastically “pro-Israel” party now, they disproportionately chose the statement that expressed the strongest affirmation of the non-existent “alliance.” The result is interesting as evidence that the partisan split on Israel is persisting and getting wider, but beyond that it doesn’t tell us very much.

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There Is No “New Isolationism”

James Poulos imagines that there is a “New Isolationism” on the left and that Clinton will be promoting it in her campaign:

Love it or hate it, the New Isolationism that Team Clinton is prepared to promote carries a broad, inherent appeal.

Needless to say, referring to anything related to Clinton’s foreign policy as isolationism, new or otherwise, is completely wrong and wildly misleading. There is no such thing as “New Isolationism,” and using this term just creates needless misunderstanding and confusion. To the extent that Poulos has identified something real when he says that Americans “want experts we can trust to keep our anxious, harried minds away from the endless stress case of global management,” it would be far more useful to describe this as the rational ignorance of voters for whom foreign policy is normally a low priority when deciding how to vote. This relative lack of interest in the “gory details” of foreign policy is not a phenomenon unique to voters on the left, but it is widely shared by almost all Americans. The fact that Clinton’s banal, forgettable announcement video earlier this week made no mention of international affairs doesn’t tell us very much about anything concerning policy, domestic or foreign, and so shouldn’t be taken as anything more than the empty political ritual that it was.

Considering Clinton’s generally unimpressive and hawkish foreign policy record, especially her role in dragging the U.S. into the Libyan war, she would be wise to keep references to foreign policy to a minimum. Those references will remind voters of how bad her judgment has been in the past, and will give them reasons not to trust her on these issues. However, we have every reason to expect Clinton to talk a great deal about foreign policy during the campaign. Her tenure as Secretary of State was not very impressive, and she owns the disaster in Libya more than most American officials, but she is still going to cite her time at the State Department as proof of her preparation to conduct foreign policy. It is more likely that she will be the one throwing the charge of “retreat” back in the face of her eventual Republican opponent. That would probably be true of any Democratic nominee seeking to succeed Obama, but it is virtually guaranteed that the consistently hawkish and interventionist Clinton will want to attack the other party in these terms.

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Why We Should Believe Candidates’ Foreign Policy Pledges

Dan Drezner is skeptical that a Republican president would follow through on the threats to renege on a nuclear deal that Rubio, Walker, and Perry have made so far:

In the end, I think this is still the 2016 equivalent of renegotiating NAFTA, for a very simple reason. No Republican thinks that the Iranians will honor the terms of any deal. Therefore, any current debate will be overtaken by negative events come January 2017. Therefore, Rubio et al can say any damn thing they want about Iran now without any policy consequences.

So here’s the fun thought exercise to consider: If the Iran framework surmounts the obstacles to become an actual deal, and there is no evidence as of early 2017 that Iran has violated the terms of the deal, what would a GOP president do?

When it comes to foreign policy pledges, it is usually a safe bet that a candidate will at least try to fulfill the most prominent ones that he makes as a candidate. Indeed, a candidate sometimes ends up boxing himself in by making very firm commitments during the campaign that are then used to pressure him to act accordingly once in office. Instead of Obama’s lip service about renegotiating NAFTA, consider his repeated arguments as a candidate that the war in Afghanistan was the “good” war that needed the resources that had been mistakenly diverted to Iraq. Obama’s later decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan was entirely in keeping with his previous campaign rhetoric, and the rhetoric made that decision harder to avoid once Obama was president. I submit that Republican candidates’ promises to scrap the nuclear deal are more like this than they are like Obama’s half-hearted pandering to Midwestern workers on trade almost twenty years after NAFTA was approved.

Because hostility to diplomacy with Iran is widely-shared among Republican candidates and members of Congress, a promise to renege on a deal with Iran is one that a Republican president would likely feel compelled to keep in order to keep the leading members of his own party satisfied. Unlike Obama’s line about renegotiating NAFTA (which his own chief economic adviser dismissed as pandering soon afterwards), rejecting the Iran deal is as close to a consensus view inside the GOP as one is likely to find. Republican Iran hawks are fiercely opposed to a nuclear deal and have been all along, and if nothing else the Cotton letter tells us that the senators that signed it, including Rubio, don’t expect any deal to survive an election of a Republican. If their presidential candidates say they intend to scrap it as soon as they have the chance, we should not doubt that they mean to do this. It’s always possible that one of these candidates could change his mind between now and 2017, but on such a high-profile and contentious issue on which almost all of the party’s candidates agree it seems very unlikely.

Apart from anything else, I assume that these candidates really do intend to scrap any deal reached with Iran because it is fairly common for a new president to define himself in opposition to his predecessor on at least a few significant foreign policy issues. Just as Bush began his tenure by ostentatiously engaging in unilateral actions that distinguished him from Clinton (e.g., withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, the rejection of Kyoto, etc.), and Obama made a point of reversing certain Bush-era policies, it is safe to assume that a Republican president would start 2017 with repudiations of some signature Obama policies. On most issues, there will probably be continuity from one administration to the next, but on a few prominent issues where there are real and substantive differences between the parties we should assume that a Republican hawk in the White House would do the things that Rubio, Walker, and Perry are threatening to do. I don’t think anyone doubts that a Republican president would cut ties with Cuba and revert back to the pre-2015 status quo. It is reasonable to assume that a Republican president would likewise reject the results of diplomatic engagement with Iran that he and most of the elected officials in his party have opposed from the beginning. Rubio and the other hard-line candidates want to define their campaigns by their loathing of diplomacy. We should take them at their word and judge them accordingly.

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Enabling Reckless Clients and the War on Yemen

U.S. Department of Defense/Flickr

Noah Millman makes some smart comments on the war on Yemen and U.S. hegemony:

It’s easy to say we should stay out, or that we should try to mediate between the two sides instead of siding with Saudi Arabia – that these would be neutral postures and who could fault us for that? But they would not be perceived as neutral – they would be perceived, at least in the Gulf, as more evidence that we were tilting toward Tehran.

It’s very likely that withholding support for the Saudi-led war would be perceived by the Saudis and many others in the GCC this way. My first reaction to this is to ask, “So what?” Our clients are always claiming to be anxious that our government is abandoning them or not giving them enough support. They do this in the hopes that the U.S. will rush to reassure them and throw more resources or attention their way, and administrations from both parties and most members of Congress seem only too happy to oblige in most cases. Giving in to their complaints doesn’t make them any less likely to complain about supposed neglect a few years later. Indulging them by supporting their genuinely dangerous and destructive actions, such as the current war on Yemen, just makes this habit worse. It tells the clients that the U.S. is happy to be suckered into supporting them in whatever reckless operations they want to undertake, and it also tells them that U.S. support for them doesn’t depend on how responsibly they behave. The clients expect our support to be unconditional, and our government encourages them in that belief. To put it mildly, this isn’t a smart way to manage relations with these states. Not only does it fail to secure U.S. interests, but often enough our interests are damaged so that a client’s foolish preference can be indulged.

Clients should be afraid of losing their patron’s support, but we have things set up so that the U.S. is desperate to placate grumpy clients while the clients are free to spurn and ignore U.S. preferences without having to fear any serious consequences. This is a peculiar sort of hegemony in which the putative hegemon is lured into supporting and participating in senseless conflicts in which it has nothing at stake by the states that are supposed to be helping to advance its interests. This is all the more absurd when the hegemon justifies its preeminent role by claiming to be acting to uphold an “international order” that it and its clients violate with impunity.

There is also reason to believe that stern U.S. opposition to a client’s reckless war could discourage the client from action, or it might at least discourage other governments from cooperating with that client. Other governments have refused to join the Saudis’ coalition, and no one thinks they’re “switching teams.” Though it is a part of the GCC, Oman isn’t participating in the campaign and has been offering to mediate the conflict. Pakistan’s parliament unanimously rejected getting involved in the war on Yemen while affirming its general support for the Saudis. These are states that arguably have more to lose by refusing to participate in the Saudis’ war, but they have been willing to do it anyway. How much easier would it be for the U.S. not to have any part in a reckless and unnecessary war?

Besides, it’s not as if helping the Saudis to commit a disastrous error is good for them, either. Our leaders are often quite good at pretending that the U.S. is being forced by necessity to do something that it could easily avoid doing. Based on reports on what U.S. officials think about the war on Yemen, they are doing it again here. Because “we weren’t going to be able to stop it,” we are told, the U.S. “had” to join in the attack. But our government didn’t have to do this, and a desire not to appear too “pro-Iranian” simply isn’t a good enough reason to become involved.

If the U.S. is stuck with the clients it has for the time being, surely it must have the ability as a hegemonic power to pick and choose the degree and kind of support it is willing to provide. This is especially true when we’re talking about backing a client’s offensive war of choice. It’s not as if the U.S. would be refusing to come to the defense of a client when it is under attack. All that the U.S. would be doing is refusing to participate in the client’s unprovoked attack on its neighbor. I don’t really expect the U.S. to have a “principled” foreign policy at this point, but it could at least try to have one that isn’t quite so stupid and cruel.

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Cuba and Rubio’s Terrible Foreign Policy Judgment

Marco Rubio responded to the decision to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism by denying reality:

Well, the decision made by the White House today is a terrible one, but not surprising unfortunately. Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism.

This would be another example of the “expertise” in foreign policy that Rubio supposedly has. He makes ideological assertions that are contradicted by the evidence, and then he keeps repeating those assertions. When he insists that Cuba is a sponsor of terrorism, all that this really means is that he despises their government. He wants to keep them on the list because it makes things more difficult for them and because it hinders the normalization of relations that he also opposes. As the Bloomberg editors pointed out in their editorial on the administration decision yesterday, Rubio’s assertion is false:

And as the State Department’s terrorism reports have acknowledged for several years, there is no indication that Cuba’s government has provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups. Its ties with Basque liberation groups have become distant, and it has been a sponsor and host for peace talks between Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Joshua Keating commented on the decision and called it “an acknowledgment of reality.” The reality is that Cuba hasn’t engaged in the behavior that landed it on this list in a very long time. That change in behavior should be recognized by our government, even if the recognition is very long overdue. Refusing to take Cuba off a list when its external behavior has changed for the better would be perverse. That he would do exactly this shows that Rubio’s views on Cuba policy are driven primarily by ideology. He and the other hard-liners on Cuba can’t admit that anything has changed since the end of the Cold War, which is why they’re stuck defending policies that haven’t made any sense in decades.

Keeping Cuba on this list would be bad enough when it doesn’t belong on it, but it would be even harder to justify while not including the U.S. clients around the world that are indisputably engaged in sponsoring terrorism. If Qatar and Pakistan don’t qualify for this label, Cuba certainly doesn’t. Attacking the decision to remove them from the list is more proof of Rubio’s remarkably bad judgment on foreign policy.

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