Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Antiwar Eastwood. Asawin Suebsaeng reports on Clint Eastwood’s antiwar views and how they relate to the reception of American Sniper.

Congress shouldn’t blow up negotiations with Iran. Daryl Kimball makes the case against new sanctions legislation.

A sanity check on Iran from London. Paul Pillar applauds David Cameron’s opposition to new Iran sanctions.

Prisoners of Oslo. George Hale describes the current state of Palestinian affairs.

Sirisena’s surprise. Taylor Dibbert considers the implications of Sri Lanka’s recent presidential election.

Surveying public opinion in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Gerard Toal and John O’Loughlin report on their findings from late last year.

How China got its aircraft carrier. Zachary Keck describes how China obtained the Varyag (now the Liaoning) from a Ukrainian shipbuilder.

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Netanyahu’s Consequence-Free Stunt

Michael Koplow sees the controversy over Netanyahu’s address to Congress as part of a larger pattern of behavior that will end up harming Israeli interests:

The GOP has an obvious political interest in making Israel a full-fledged wedge issue and using it as a cudgel to hammer the Democrats as often as it can. The burning question for me is why Netanyahu is so willing to allow himself to be used in furthering this outcome when it is so obviously not in Israel’s interests [bold mine-DL].

Koplow makes a number of good points, but I think his “burning question” almost answers itself. Even if we take for granted that turning American support for Israel into a partisan issue is bad for Israeli interests, there are many other things that would seem to be “obviously not in Israel’s interests” that Netanyahu has no problem doing or supporting. Perpetuating the occupation and continuing to expand settlements appear to many observers to be “obviously not in Israel’s interests,” but Netanyahu isn’t trying to end the one or halt the other. This isn’t just a matter of “putting his personal political prospects ahead of Israel’s longterm interests.” That may be part of it, but it doesn’t explain how he so consistently errs on the side of doing things that are by most accounts “obviously not in Israel’s interests.” It should be clear enough by now that his understanding of Israeli interests is a very flawed one, and that affects how he chooses to manage relations with the U.S. It’s also clear that his mismanagement of the relationship with the U.S. hasn’t cost him or Israel anything, and it has arguably helped him at home.

Netanyahu knows that he can now mismanage those relations and sour them so long as there is a president that American hawks are willing to label “anti-Israel,” and as long as that is the case he assumes that neither he nor Israel will suffer any backlash. So far, he’s been right. Maybe this latest stunt will prove to be a bridge too far, but in all likelihood it won’t hurt him politically at home and it isn’t going to affect the relationship with the U.S. in any substantive way. To the extent that there is a backlash among Democrats over this, it will probably be against Netanyahu personally and against his Republican fans. It won’t do much to change the U.S.-Israel relationship because there is no one in our government willing to try to change it.

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A Rubio Bid Is Bad for Rubio and Bush

It seems that I was wrong about Rubio staying out of the presidential race:

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio is preparing to launch a bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, signing on a prominent fundraiser and planning trips to early voting states, a Rubio adviser said on Friday.

I still think there is no room for him in the nomination contest, and it doesn’t make much sense for him to launch a bid that has no realistic chance of succeeding. But just as a Romney candidacy would siphon off support from Bush, a Rubio candidacy would also pull away some votes from Bush, because they appeal to the same kinds of voters and donors. All of that makes it more likely that an insurgent candidate may be able to sneak through and win the nomination, and it further splits the hawkish vote. Beyond the campaign itself, an unsuccessful Rubio bid over the next year will make it harder in later cycles for his supporters to promote him as the answer to the GOP’s woes. Depending on how long he persists in this bid, he could even jeopardize his chances at re-election.

It doesn’t say much for the strength of Bush’s candidacy that his entry into the race doesn’t seem to have discouraged anyone else from challenging him. But then he was never likely to enjoy the easy march to the nomination that his brother had in 2000, which is why his decision to get into the race still seems so strange. The entry of another Floridian with views that are quite similar, if not identical, to Bush’s can only make the contest more difficult for Bush. Rubio’s candidacy isn’t likely to achieve anything for Rubio, but it could be what trips up Bush and keeps him from winning any early contests.

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Netanyahu Isn’t Likely to Pay a “Price”

Haaretz reports on the tensions between the administration and the Netanyahu government:

“We thought we’ve seen everything,” a senior American official said. “But Bibi managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.”

That makes for a good anonymous quote, but does anyone really think that Netanyahu is likely to be made to pay a “price” for supporting new sanctions on Iran or for agreeing to speak to Congress in March? It’s true that Netanyahu has “spat” in the administration’s face on more than one occasion. What price has he paid for it? Israel continues to receive the same reflexive support at the U.N. that it has received for decades, there has been no reduction to U.S. aid and military assistance, nor has there even been a threat to reduce either one.

Apart from some angry quotes by anonymous officials from time to time, the head of a client government has been free to work at undermining U.S. policy in the region, he has ignored virtually everything that Washington has to say about the occupation and the settlements, and he seems not to have suffered for any of it in the least. So when another anonymous official engages in bluster about the “price” Netanyahu is going to pay for his latest slight, it is hard not to laugh. Thus far, the administration has been unable or unwilling to make Netanyahu pay any kind of price for his intransigent and obnoxious behavior, and there is no reason to think that anything will change in the next two years. Maybe if Israel and the U.S. are lucky enough, Netanyahu and his party will lose the elections in March and it will be a moot point, it is more likely that Netanyahu will remain in government and won’t pay any price at all.

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The Politics of “Credibility”

Daryl Press identified a curious phenomenon in Calculating Credibility:

The same leaders who do not use past actions to calculate their enemy’s credibility assume that their own past actions will be used by the enemy to assess their credibility. In other words, leaders invest in their own credibility by taking care to keep their own commitments, but they do not pay attention to whether their adversaries are keeping or breaking commitments. (p.158)

There are some other possible explanations for why leaders would be obsessed with trying to preserve their own “credibility” while dismissing others’ past behavior when assessing theirs. One is that political leaders will assume that the leaders of an opposing government are inherently more aggressive and irrational than they are. If a leader believes this, he will be inclined to assume that any sign of wavering anywhere supposedly invites aggression all over the world. Here in the U.S., credibility-mongers are always reciting the line “weakness is provocative” with cult-like devotion. They take it for granted that other states and groups are ready and willing to take aggressive actions at the expense of the U.S. or our allies if they perceive a lack of American resolve, and so “credibility” has to be maintained virtually everywhere by backing up commitments that the U.S. has supposedly made in places where the U.S. has little or nothing at stake. Further, because hawks consistently inflate foreign threats and overstate the dangers of “inaction,” the imagined consequences of not maintaining “credibility” are similarly exaggerated. Our leaders worry too much about their credibility partly because they are too credulous about the extent of current and future foreign threats.

Another possible explanation is that leaders feel pressured to obsess over “credibility” out of fear of being attacked by hard-line domestic opponents. Hard-liners are already inclined to advocate more aggressive policies no matter what the behavior of other states might be, but it can give a boost to the hard-liners’ argument to warn against the disaster that might befall the country or its allies if their recommendations are not followed. It can also aid the hard-liners’ criticisms of government policy if they can make people in their own country believe that the government has squandered supposedly precious “credibility.” That can make a particular policy appear to be a much bigger failure than it actually is. Perversely, political leaders have more of an incentive to take action–supposedly for the sake of credibility–because they fear that their domestic political standing would take an unacceptably large hit if they “failed” to act. Leaders assume that their credibility will be judged by a more demanding standard than they use to judge the credibility of others because their hawkish advisers and/or critics have conjured up terrible scenarios of what could go wrong if they “fail” to maintain their “credibility.” Whether or not they believe that these foreign scenarios are plausible, they do know that they will nonetheless be denounced by hard-liners at home for the “weakness” of their policy. In other words, the obsession with reputation may be driven primarily by a concern to shore up a leader’s domestic position and in reality has little or nothing to do with how other governments behave or how they perceive our government’s behavior.

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The Harm That the “Special Relationship” Does to America and Britain


Andrew Moravcsik briefly summarizes the thesis of Guy Arnold’s America and Britain: Was There Ever a Special Relationship? for Foreign Affairs:

Arnold argues that the contemporary Anglo-American relationship is a bit of a sham: it demands British loyalty and subservience without securing any consistent American quid pro quo. The United Kingdom would be better served, he contends, by charting a more independent path: establishing closer links to European countries, engaging more with China, reaching a détente with Russia, withdrawing from NATO, reducing British involvement in military interventions around the world, removing U.S. bases from British territory, and increasing British support for global organizations such as the International Criminal Court.

Whether or not one agrees with Arnold’s policy recommendations, his description of how the “special relationship” between the U.S. and U.K. works seems accurate. While the U.S. and Britain should have a strong and constructive relationship, the relationship that our governments have had over the decades, and especially during the last fifteen years or so, has been a largely one-sided and destructive one for both countries. It has been worse for Britain in that it has imposed unnecessary costs on them while leaving them with virtually nothing to show for their troubles. At the same time, the very “loyalty and subservience” that the relationship requires from Britain has been bad for the U.S. by making it somewhat easier for the U.S. to embark on reckless military interventions. As we saw in Libya, it also sometimes leads the U.S. to join wars that Britain (unwisely) wants to fight but cannot wage without U.S. support. Rather than simply being allies committed to mutual defense, as they could have been, the U.S. and British governments have spent the better part of the last two decades egging one another on to enter or start wars that were in the interests of neither country. If the British military keeps shrinking, perhaps the relationship could become more normal and less harmful for both countries.

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Scotland and Britain’s General Election Mayhem

the_justified_sinner / cc

Sebastian Payne looks at the latest polling in Scotland and finds that the SNP are still set to win the vast majority of Scottish seats in the May general election:

The SNP remain on 52 per cent of the vote — exactly the same as in October. According to STV, this would give the SNP 55 seats in Westminster, while the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would be left without any MPs north of the border. The Scots also appear pleased with the new SNP leadership: nearly 70 per cent stated they are satisfied with Nicola Sturgeon’s performance as First Minister.

Continued high levels of support for the SNP in general election polling suggests that the post-referendum boost for the nationalists wasn’t a brief or passing phenomenon. Labour’s weakness hasn’t been remedied at all by the change in local party leadership, and Labour is still on track to be all but wiped out in Scotland. That would make it practically impossible for Labour to win the general election on its own, which it was already going to have some difficulty doing without its problems in Scotland. That could put Scottish nationalists in a position to extract huge concessions from Labour as part of a coalition deal, or it could leave Britain with no party that is able to form a stable government. No matter which party emerges to lead the next government, Scottish voters are about to give a huge endorsement to the SNP, or at least a huge vote of no confidence in the other parties. It is difficult to see how Scotland can be kept part of the union for that much longer when most of its voters don’t want to be represented by any of the unionist parties and instead mostly support the parties that want independence.

Cameron just announced some new powers for the Scottish parliament on taxation and welfare, but inevitably they do not devolve enough power to Edinburgh to satisfy the nationalists:

But the Scottish National Party, which spearheaded Scotland’s independence campaign, immediately accused the prime minister of not going far enough in devolving powers. The party said aspects of the legislation appeared to be significantly watered down from what was originally promised and that too many of the proposals impose restrictions on the powers given to Scotland.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, said the proposals for full devolution of unemployment benefits fall short of what was promised, reserving important levers in the hands of U.K. minister.

Of course, the SNP has every incentive to dismiss any concessions from London as insufficient, but the trouble for the unionist parties is that they led Scottish voters to expect far more than they were ever going to be able to deliver. The SNP’s refrain that Cameron isn’t going far enough is likely to appeal to many “No” voters that backed staying in the union on the assumption that the promises made during the campaign would be fulfilled. Since those promises can’t be fulfilled, anything that the government does offer will be seen as lacking, and that will strengthen the SNP still further.

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Paul and Netanyahu’s Speech

Rand Paul makes another unforced error:

Hailing from the more libertarian wing of the GOP’s foreign policy plank, Paul has sometimes angered conservatives by supporting a less stringent approach than traditional hawks like Graham. But he was supportive of Netanyahu’s speech.

“He’s always welcome,” Paul said.

Maybe Sen. Paul thinks he is being diplomatic by saying this, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense for him to endorse Boehner’s maneuver. Paul has previously argued that diplomacy should be given a chance in the talks with Iran, and most recently he has been working on a bill with Barbara Boxer that offers what they call a more “moderate” alternative to the Kirk-Menendez new sanctions legislation. So it makes no sense to approve of an invitation extended to a foreign leader when the sole purpose of that invitation is to promote the cause of additional sanctions on Iran with the obvious goal of sabotaging the negotiations. Netanyahu has been invited in large part to promote the cause of a confrontational Iran policy that Paul professes to oppose. Why would Paul want to welcome that?

I know that Paul thinks he can thread the needle of placating “pro-Israel” hawks without antagonizing the core supporters he expects to have in 2016, but I suspect that he is wrong about this. He will never be able to satisfy the “pro-Israel” hawks, since they decided long ago that he was not one of them. The more that he equivocates and temporizes on these issues, he is running the risk of losing a lot of the supporters that might have otherwise backed him. More important, he isn’t fully seizing the opportunity to challenge his party as it pursues a truly foolish and dangerous course on Iran.

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Rubio and the “Martyr-State” Myth

Gage Skidmore / cc

Marco Rubio isn’t giving up on 2016:

Sen. Marco Rubio pitched himself Wednesday as a potential presidential candidate with top-notch foreign policy credentials [bold mine-DL], a sign of how the young Florida Republican plans to counter the argument he’s too green for the White House.

It is a reflection of how little foreign policy experience most would-be 2016 candidates have that Rubio’s four years in the Senate might give him a slight advantage over the others, but it’s still difficult to take this claim all that seriously. It gets even harder when Rubio runs around saying completely ignorant things on these issues. For instance, here he was last night talking to O’Reilly about Iran:

By the way the difference between Shia and Sunni — I mean they both have violent adherence. Shia actually wants there to be an apocalyptic showdown because they believe that that will then usher in the appearance of the hidden — the 13th imam…I mean you listen to their speeches, they’re very clear about that. [bold mine-DL]

Attentive readers will note that Twelver Shi’ites do not look forward to the return of a 13th imam, but the bigger problem with this statement is Rubio’s uncritical repetition of one of the most ridiculous myths about Iran currently in circulation. This is the so-called “martyr-state” myth that holds that Iran’s leaders are motivated by a desire to hasten an apocalypse in order to bring about the return of the Mahdi. There is no basis for this claim. It is a spurious, nonsensical claim that cropped up in the last decade (made famous by Bernard Lewis’ silly prediction here), and has since been eagerly repeated by Iran hawks that unsurprisingly know very little about the country or its culture. As for listening to “their speeches,” I doubt that Rubio has done much of this, since he evidently has no idea what Khamenei’s views are. Matt Duss commented on this back in 2011:

According to Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who spent years studying Shia theology in the Iranian seminary city of Qom, Ayatollah Khamenei — who, unlike Ahmadinejad, actually controls Iranian foreign policy — is much more concerned with the here and now. “Not one of [Khamenei’s] speeches refers to any apocalyptic sign or reveals any special eagerness for the return of the Hidden Imam,” Khalaji wrote in a 2008 report [bold mine-DL], Apocalyptic Politics: On the Rationality of Iranian Policy. “As the theory of the guardianship of the jurist requires, the most significant task of the Supreme Leader is to safeguard the regime, even by overruling Islamic law.”

Like other hawks that endorse the “martyr-state” myth, Rubio is relying on the fact that his intended audience doesn’t know any more about these things than he does. That is also how he will try to be recognized for expertise on foreign policy that he clearly doesn’t have.

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Netanyahu Will Address Congress…Again

Speaker John Boehner / Flickr

Pushing for new sanctions legislation isn’t the only thing that hawks have in mind for sabotaging diplomacy with Iran:

Speaker John Boehner has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress about Iran next month, a move sure to inflame the Obama administration, which is trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with the Islamic republic.

Boehner is free to invite whom he likes, but it is still a fairly obnoxious move. The invitation is clearly timed to interfere with the ongoing nuclear negotiations, and it is also a transparent attempt to influence the Israeli elections the following month. I suppose it is intended to be a sort of repayment to Netanyahu after he did his best to side with Romney in the last presidential election, since it will probably give Netanyahu a boost at home to be seen receiving countless standing ovations from our members of Congress. It doubles as an opportunity to rally “pro-Israel” hawks in Congress behind the bad cause of undermining a deal on the nuclear issue. While they will portray this as opposition to a “bad deal,” it has become hard to miss that they won’t accept any deal that the Iranians would be able to accept. In other words, hard-liners on this issue see any deal as a “bad deal,” and would prefer to return to the state of affairs before the interim agreement imposed constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. They would like to see the P5+1 talks with Iran fail and be replaced by nothing but increased hostility and suspicion, and they’re calling on Netanyahu to help them.

The frequency with which Israeli leaders have been addressing Congress in the last decade is remarkable in itself. This will also be the third time overall that Netanyahu has addressed Congress as Israeli prime minister, and the second time in four years that he will have done so. It will be the third address to Congress by an Israeli prime minister within a decade, and fifth since 1995. No other country’s head of government has spoken so often to our Congress in the last twenty years. (It is not an accident that the last five appearances have taken place while the GOP controlled the House.) That might make sense if Israel were actually a treaty ally of the United States, but it isn’t. It also might make sense if the relationship with Israel were extraordinarily valuable to the U.S., but the U.S. gets almost nothing from this relationship except political and diplomatic headaches. It is one more example of how one-sided and strange the U.S.-Israel relationship has become.

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