Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The duty of General McMaster. Andrew Bacevich comments on McMaster’s appointment.

Does McMaster pick mean “go big or stay home” in using military force? Steven Metz considers McMaster’s possible approach to military intervention.

The world is ignoring a massive starvation crisis. Ishaan Tharoor draws attention to U.N. warnings about current or impending famines in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen.

Beware the Blob. Robert Malley and Marc Lynch warn progressives that they should be careful not to aid hawks while opposing Trump.

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Trump’s Nuclear Babble

Trump has expressed support for building a larger nuclear arsenal:

President Donald Trump said on Thursday he wants to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal to ensure it is at the “top of the pack,” saying the United States has fallen behind in its atomic weapons capacity.

Trump is wrong if he thinks that the U.S. has “fallen behind,” which makes the desire to increase the arsenal even more misguided. Building more nuclear weapons wouldn’t necessarily ensure that the U.S. is “top of the pack,” and it would spur Russia and China to do likewise. Ongoing modernization of existing nuclear forces is already far too costly, and this would add even more expense. Trump is always saying that the U.S. doesn’t have the money for various things, so how can the U.S. possibly afford the cost of building more nuclear weapons? Besides being enormously expensive, a violation of existing treaties, and the start of an unnecessary arms race, the U.S. gains nothing from having a larger arsenal. Increasing our arsenal would represent an abandonment of our commitment to arms control, and it would mean undermining the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in the eyes of most states around the world.

The president also referred to New START as a “one-sided deal,” which confirms that he still doesn’t understand what the treaty does and must be relying on briefings from hawkish treaty opponents. Improving relations with Russia won’t get very far if one of the first things Trump intends to do is renege on a major agreement with Russia.

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The Fear of Being ‘Just Another Nation’

Andrew Bacevich dissects Brooks’ obsession with “national greatness.” This passage ties in to the failure of the foreign policy establishment I talked about yesterday:

In refusing to reckon with the results of the war he once so ardently endorsed, Brooks is hardly alone. Members of the Church of America the Redeemer, Democrats and Republicans alike, are demonstrably incapable of rendering an honest accounting of what their missionary efforts have yielded.

One thing all interventionists have in common regardless of party or other political leanings is an unshakable conviction that the policies they support must be judged according to their best intentions rather than by their consequences. Not only would they have us believe that they supported the illegal invasion of another country for the most high-minded of reasons, but they would also have us ignore the failures and costs of their war so that they can move to do the same thing somewhere else. We are told that opponents of the Iraq war have “overlearned” its lessons, as if one could gain too much understanding of why needlessly attacking another country is wrong and unwise. One of the more risible phrases of the last decade was “Iraq syndrome,” which was supposed to describe a problem that plagued our foreign policy debates in the late 2000s and early 2010s. We were expected to think that recoiling from the costly failure of an unnecessary war was a malady in need of treatment instead of a sign of basic sanity. In order to continue the pursuit of “national greatness” and the peculiarly hawkish form of “American exceptionalism” that is bound up with it, that failure has to be forgotten or minimized as much as possible, or better yet spun as a war that had been “won” until Obama came along. If there were any attempt at an honest reckoning, that would just get in the way of the next big “project” and might cause some people to begin questioning their assumptions about the U.S. role in the world.

Re-reading the recent Brooks column that Bacevich cites, I was struck by its conclusion:

Or are we just another nation, hunkered down in a fearful world?

Those that obsess most over “national greatness” and “American exceptionalism”–and our supposed loss of both–talk about being “just another nation” as if it were a terrible fate to be avoided at all costs. They never really explain why being “just another nation” is undesirable, except that it would take us away from our “mission.” But nothing obliges us to carry on the mission “to spread democracy and freedom,” not least since that more often serves as a pretext for destructive and aggressive policies that advance neither freedom nor democracy. That is a mission that some Americans created for the rest of us not that long ago, and it’s one that many of us never wanted.

The self-important delusion that America isn’t “just another nation” not only leads our government to interfere in the affairs of others in the name of our so-called “mission,” but it encourages doing harm to other countries with impunity. If we aren’t “just another nation,” our actions aren’t judged by the same standard that we apply to others, but are held to a different, lower one. It means that we set ourselves up as judge and sometimes executioner of other countries’ leaders while refusing to be held accountable for anything we do.

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NATO Shouldn’t Bring in Montenegro

Tomas Liutkus lays out the case against bringing Montenegro into NATO:

It’s key to remember, however, that NATO helped the Baltics progress along paths they had already started walking. The alliance did not create viable, democratic systems of governance where none existed — nor could it have. Yet that seems to be exactly what NATO is attempting to do with Montenegro.

NATO stands to gain nothing by admitting a country whose citizens are largely indifferent to membership and whose government remains deeply dysfunctional [bold mine-DL]. It would be better for the internal stability of both NATO and Podgorica to wait this one out, push Montenegro to institute much-needed internal reforms, and then revisit expansion when the country is truly ready for it.

This is very well-put, and I agree that NATO shouldn’t take Montenegro in. I would just add that Montenegro isn’t going to add much of anything to the alliance later on even if its government has reformed. Alliance membership has too often been dangled in front of potential members as an incentive to get them to pursue political reforms, but that isn’t what a military alliance is supposed to be for. If it has a reason to exist at all, the alliance exists to enhance the security of its members. Adding another member that isn’t going to pull its weight doesn’t make sense even if it has a fully liberal and democratic government. However, as Liutkus makes clear, Montenegro doesn’t even have that at the moment.

Liutkus makes a good point that indulging Montenegro’s current government with membership despite its serious flaws has another downside:

Djukanovic has long based his legitimacy on his purported support for European integration and NATO membership, while demonizing the opposition as Russian proxies. In reality, the vast gap between Djukanovic’s pro-Western rhetoric and his own corrupt record has only increased Montenegrins’ cynicism toward Western institutions.

Integrating more states into Western institutions has often been justified as a means to promote democratic reform, but in this case bringing in Montenegro seems to have become an end in itself. If most people in Montenegro were enthusiastically demanding such integration, that might make a certain amount of sense, but when there is no consensus in favor of joining the alliance it is a bad idea for both NATO and Montenegro.

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The Revenge of the ‘Blob’

Uri Friedman reports on the backlash from the foreign policy establishment. This quote summed up a lot of what was and is wrong with that establishment:

“We have large problems of perception,” Kagan continued, in reference to the establishment. “Trump says this, but he’s not the only one: ‘The last 30 years have been a disaster in American foreign policy.’ And my answer to that is: Really? Compared to which 30 years? … Would you like the 30 years prior to World War I? Would you like the 30 years from World War I through World War II? Would you even like the 30 years following World War II, with the Cold War and [the wars in] Vietnam and Korea? Actually, the last 30 years have been pretty good in historical terms. And I think that what has been the American foreign-policy establishment’s bipartisan foreign policy since World War II has actually been one of the most successful foreign policies in history.”

The quote is interesting in a few ways. First, it confirms the willful blindness of many foreign policy professionals to U.S. foreign policy failures over at least the last fifteen years. I defy anyone to make the case that the U.S. is better off or more secure than it was when it embarked on the last fifteen-plus years of constant warfare. Lumping that period in with the relatively more peaceful decade before it helps Kagan to muddy the waters, but that doesn’t fool anyone. At best, the U.S. has been able to absorb the costs of huge strategic blunders because it enjoyed such a privileged position at the start of the century, and at worst it has frittered away both resources and missed opportunities while it has waged pointless wars that it didn’t have to fight. If that’s not disastrous, what is? It has been enormously costly, it has consumed a disproportionate share of the resources and attention of our government, and many of the policies in question have clearly failed on their own terms.

If the U.S. hasn’t suffered a debacle on the same scale as Vietnam in the last generation, it isn’t for lack of trying. Surely Iraq was horrible and costly enough. Even if the foreign policy record of the last twenty or thirty years isn’t as disastrous as it has been at other times, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a disaster on its own terms. Kagan says that the foreign policy establishment has “large problems of perception,” which would be true if he is referring to their perceptions of their own record, but that isn’t what he means. Naturally, no one wants to admit failure if it can be avoided, but when grand designs blow up in our faces as spectacularly as those favored by Kagan et al. it is hard to take their supporters seriously when they pretend that things haven’t been that bad. The trouble is that the public correctly perceives that the foreign policy establishment has repeatedly endorsed ill-advised policies that failed at substantial cost, and that establishment doesn’t want to be held accountable for those failures. Hence the misdirection and hand-waving about other eras that we see in that quote.

Kagan also wants to have things both ways. He wants credit for everything that went right over the last seventy years, and he wants to avoid blame for errors that he and his fellow ideologues made over the last decade and a half. Whatever successes the “bipartisan foreign policy since World War II” had, 21st century interventionists don’t get to hide their failures behind them. Remember that Kagan’s favored policies of preventive war and reckless intervention were based on a rejection of the ideas of containment and deterrence that prevailed during the Cold War. The world changed with the fall of the USSR, but U.S. foreign policy became more meddlesome rather than less. A more aggressive foreign policy may have made some sense when the Soviet Union still existed, but ceased to do so when it vanished.

Of course, Kagan and his allies weren’t actually the ones that “won” the Cold War, nor did they preside over detente, and by and large they opposed arms control agreements that helped to reduce tensions in the closing decades of the rivalry with the Soviets. Almost everything that Cold War-era leaders got right, they usually opposed, and they and people like them supported the disastrous blunders. They and their forerunners were among the alarmists that were decrying engagement with the Soviets as appeasement and weakness until the last minute, and if they had their way the U.S. would have remained far more intransigent and confrontational all along. The same people that viscerally loathe realists and all their works want to take credit for successes achieved by the same people they despise, and then when they have the chance to influence or make policy they reject all of the lessons that realists have to offer.

In any case, the horrible blunders of previous generations don’t absolve Kagan’s of the destructive and irresponsible policies that they supported (and still support). Kagan’s argument amounts to dismissing the costs of their incompetence, hubris, and ideological fantasies because other generations made similar or worse mistakes. He can’t really defend the record of the last fifteen or even thirty years on the merits, and so he deflects attention from it. If this is the best that the foreign policy establishment can offer, they are in bigger trouble than I thought.

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The Horrifying Starvation of Yemen Continues

IRIN Photos/Flickr: The UN-administered camp at Mazrak, north-west Yemen, seen on 12 November 2009 is now stretched beyond capacity after a Saudi military offensive against the Huthis starting early November uprooted a fresh wave of IDP families.

The horrifying conditions in Yemen continue to get worse:

Seven million Yemenis are closer than ever to starvation, the UN humanitarian coordinator in the country warned Tuesday, almost two years since a conflict escalated between the government and rebels.

“Seven million Yemenis do not know where their next meal will come from and are ever closer to starvation” in a country of 27 million people, Jamie McGoldrick said.

“Over 17 million people are currently unable to adequately feed themselves and are frequently forced to skip meals — women and girls eat the least and last,” he said in a statement.

Yemen suffered from food insecurity before the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led intervention began in 2015, but that intervention, the ensuing damage to the country’s infrastructure and ports (most of it caused by coalition bombing), and the coalition’s cruel blockade have brought millions of people to the brink of famine. By enabling the coalition’s campaign, the U.S., Britain, and other supporting governments are partly responsible for creating the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, and they have had a hand in causing the famine that is now unfolding there.

The disaster that engulfs Yemen was entirely predictable at the start of the intervention, and month after month many people kept warning that this is what would happen as a result of this reckless military intervention. The war has received intermittent coverage, but has been largely ignored. Millions of people are close to perishing from hunger and preventable diseases in a crisis that need not have happened and might still be ameliorated if there were a coordinated international response. Unfortunately, the international response has been anemic at best, and there is scant attention paid to the crisis in the Western countries whose governments have been working to exacerbate the civilian population’s misery.

Our government has aided and abetted the Saudis and their allies not only in their indiscriminate bombing, but has also fully backed the blockade without any criticism. The coalition has repeatedly targeted port facilities and critical roads and bridges needed to bring in and distribute basic necessities. Through all of it, the U.S. has reliably armed and refueled coalition planes so that they can continue to wreck the country. The U.S.-backed Hadi government further compounded the disaster by relocating the central bank to Aden, which in turn made it all but impossible to secure financing for what few imports still make it into the country. Obama began the disgraceful policy of backing the Saudi-led war, and Trump has continued it and given every indication that U.S. support will only increase.

The horror of what has been deliberately done to Yemen over the last two years is matched only by the near-total international indifference to the plight of its people.

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McMaster and Permanent War

Andrew Bacevich describes McMaster’s challenge as Trump’s National Security Advisor:

Through an ironic twist of fate, McMaster now finds himself called upon to fill the role of blunt, candid truth-teller for his generation of military officers—and to do so while serving a commander-in-chief who gives little evidence of valuing those qualities. Yet circumstances demand more than mere straight talk. Only by transcending the role of “military strategist” will General McMaster succeed in doing what duty plainly requires: identifying a course that leads away from permanent war and imparts to what remains of U.S. grand strategy a semblance of coherence.

The good news is that McMaster seems well-suited to the first role. He has a record of speaking his mind and telling superiors things that they won’t want to hear. That is a good trait in any adviser, and there clearly needs to be someone at the highest levels of Trump’s administration willing to tell the president the truth rather than indulge his preferences. In that respect, the contrast with Flynn couldn’t be starker. Flynn was not only essentially a Trump loyalist and yes-man from the start, but he was actively misleading Trump with bad information and poor analysis shaped by a warped worldview. Even when Flynn imagined he was telling Trump hard truths, he was usually feeding him nonsense, and unfortunately it was nonsense Trump was only too willing to believe. McMaster has a reputation for at least sometimes breaking with established assumptions, but as far as I can tell he does not break with reality as Flynn routinely did.

As for the second role, I share Bacevich’s doubts that he could or would try to lead the U.S. away from permanent war, but since Trump will be the one ultimately making the decisions it may not matter. There is no evidence that Trump wants to put an end to any of our current wars, and quite a bit more evidence that he doesn’t. Even if he take seriously his throwaway lines about rejecting “nation-building,” that doesn’t tell us whether he thinks the U.S. should get out of the business of wrecking other nations. He ran explicitly on a platform of escalating at least one of the wars that the U.S. is currently fighting, and he never said that he wanted to end the others that the U.S. was fighting or supporting. McMaster can presumably tell Trump why his proposed “safe zones” in Syria would be dangerous and ill-advised, but will he recommend against sending more U.S. forces to fight ISIS or to Afghanistan? I hope so, but I have no reason yet to think that he will.

In the end, the U.S. will only move away from permanent war if Congress and the public consistently demand it, and as Prof. Bacevich pointed out last week Congress appears to have no interest in that. Until they do, there won’t be much pressure on this or any other president to halt our involvement in open-ended and unnecessary wars, and without that pressure the U.S. will keep fighting indefinitely.

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‘American Exceptionalism’ and Our Warped Foreign Policy ‘Idealists’

Michael Gerson complains about the “abandonment” of “American exceptionalism”:

During the Barack Obama years, the United States retreated from internationalism in practice. At first, this may have been a reaction against George W. Bush’s foreign policy. But Obama’s tendency became a habit, and the habit hardened into a conviction. He put consistent emphasis on the risks of action and the limits of American power.

One of the more tedious arguments from hawks over the last eight years is that the U.S. “retreated” under Obama. This was always false, and there was no real “retreat” from the world. Nonetheless, the lie became a habit and it has since hardened into conventional D.C. wisdom. Obama didn’t “retreat” from internationalism, but the purpose in promoting this falsehood was to identify internationalism with extremely meddlesome interventionism and to treat everything else as the rejection of internationalism. This nonsense made for a somewhat useful talking point so long as hawks didn’t get too specific about what they meant, but when forced to describe what Obama’s “retreat” was they had to acknowledge that they meant that he didn’t start or escalate enough wars to their satisfaction. According to them, Obama’s big failing is that he didn’t involve the U.S. enough in the killing of Syrians. To put it mildly, that is an odd understanding of what internationalism means.

The abuse of the concept of “American exceptionalism” has been similar. Once again, hawks insisted that Obama didn’t believe in it, misrepresented his words to shore up their garbage argument, and then repeated the lie for years until it became automatic. In the process, they ended up defining “American exceptionalism” so narrowly that no one except advocates for a very aggressive foreign policy could qualify as supporters. Gerson’s complaint that Obama emphasized risks and costs of direct military action in Syria reflects this. If a president doesn’t use American power to inflict death and destruction somewhere overseas, or if he even pays closer attention to what it will cost the U.S. to do so, Gerson thinks that amounts to an “abandonment” of what makes America unique. That’s profoundly warped, but unfortunately it is what passes for “idealism” in foreign policy commentary these days.

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Whose West?

Bret Stephens thinks Western societies lack the “civilizational self-belief” that others have:

Mr. Lavrov understands something that ought to be increasingly clear to American and European audiences: The West—as a geopolitical bloc, a cultural expression, a moral ideal—is in deep trouble. However weak Russia may be economically, and however cynical its people might be about their regime, Russians continue to drink from a deep well of civilizational self-belief. The same can be said about the Chinese, and perhaps even of the Islamic world too, troubled as it is.

The West? Not so much.

Stephens complains that nations all over the world wanted to join “the West” twenty-five years ago, but that today this is not happening. Two obvious responses come to mind. First, Western leaders have done a particularly poor job in the last twenty-five years with commensurate results, so there is less interest in imitating a “civilization” that doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. Second, if other nations are not as interested in Westernization as they once were (assuming they ever were), but are instead looking to their own histories and traditions for models, that is to be expected and doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about us.

This bit seemed especially odd:

Russia took itself off the Westernization track shortly after the turn of the century. Turkey followed a few years later. Thailand is on its way to becoming a version of what Myanmar had been up until a few years ago, while Malaysia is floating into China’s orbit. Ditto for the Philippines. Mexico may soon follow a similar trajectory if the Trump administration continues to pursue its bad-neighbor policy, and if a Chavista-like figure such as Andrés Manuel López Obrador comes to power in next year’s presidential election.

Here we can see clearly that Stephens’ problem here has nothing to do with lack of Western “self-belief,” and it has everything to do with changing internal politics of other countries and perceived drift of some states into the orbit of another major power. Russia “took itself off the Westernization track” to the extent that it did in no small part because many Russians found the experience of Westernization in the ’90s to be painful and humiliating, and not because we didn’t have enough “self-belief.” On the contrary, one might argue that for most of the last twenty-five years that many Westerners have been obnoxiously overconfident in the promotion of their political and economic systems and this has generated a reaction in the opposite direction in many places. Regardless, the political changes mentioned here are driven almost entirely by local factors that are beyond our control, and won’t be fixed by becoming more confident in the merits of our “civilization” (whatever that might mean in practice).

Is Mexico any more or less “Western” depending on which party its voters choose? If so, the definition is flawed, or it is such a superficial political definition that it doesn’t mean very much. Maybe Malaysia is “floating into China’s orbit,” or maybe it isn’t, but at what point was authoritarian Malaysia ever meaningfully part of “the West” in any case? As for the Philippines drawing closer to China, why isn’t that considered a normal development instead of a cause for alarm?

Except as a category for organizing different areas and periods of history, “civilization” is not a terribly useful unit of analysis. When those lines are drawn, they are almost always done after the fact and they are drawn somewhat arbitrarily. Few consider the inheritors of Byzantium to be traditionally part of “the West” despite the fact that they share the same legacy of Greece, Rome, and ancient Christianity, and they have almost always been defined as part of some other “civilization” opposed to “the West.” In modern times, “the West” has often been even more narrowly defined to exclude nations that objectively share the same intellectual and religious heritage for contemporary political reasons. Stephens’ column unintentionally confirms exactly that.

The appeal to studying Western Civ is fine, and I did just that in college, but anyone that has carefully studied that history will know that the definition and values of “the West” have not been constants across centuries, nor have the boundaries of “the West” remained the same. The point is that there isn’t and hasn’t been a single “West” and people that belong to it have quarreled among themselves over its definition throughout our history, and I assume they will continue to do so. Indeed, Stephens’ main problem is that many people in Western countries are no longer buying into the ideological definition of “the West” that he favors. Frankly, that doesn’t seem like a problem that needs to be solved.

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McMaster Named as National Security Advisor

Trump has chosen Gen. H.R. McMaster as his new National Security Advisor:

HR McMaster, an army lieutenant general whose unconventional career has earned him widespread respect in US defense circles, will be Donald Trump’s next national security adviser.

The choice of McMaster has received widespread praise, and it seems that much of it is deserved. Trump made what seems to have been the best choice out of the four candidates he was considering, and it is good news that he didn’t select Bolton. Whatever else one might say about him, McMaster seems an obvious improvement over the man he is replacing. Flynn had become very much the unhinged ideologue by the time he joined Trump’s camp, and as far as I can tell McMaster is nothing of the sort. Above all, he has a reputation for integrity and competence, and the administration is desperately in need of someone like that running the NSC. He’ll still have his work cut out for him, but there is no question that Trump will be getting better advice than he was when Flynn was there. Whether Trump takes that advice remains to be seen.

Having said all that, one disturbing detail in the Guardian report jumped out:

Previewing a possible future appointment, Trump also said during Monday’s announcement that his administration will be asking John Bolton, a hardline senior diplomat in the George W Bush administration, “to work with us in a somewhat different capacity [bold mine-DL]… He had a good number of ideas that I must tell you, I agree very much with.”

That suggests that Bolton will still be getting a job somewhere in the administration, and that reflects very badly on Trump’s judgment in spite of what seems to be a good choice in McMaster.

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