Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Why mourn King Abdullah? James Carden attacks the fawning attention paid to the late Saudi king by Western politicians and officials.

Netanyahu’s stunt damages Congress’ proper role. Steven Metz comments on the implications of Netanyahu’s planned speech on foreign policy cooperation between the executive and legislative branches.

The battle for Zionism. Leon Hadar surveys the political landscape in Israel ahead of the March Knesset elections.

The false beliefs that threaten diplomacy with Iran. Trita Parsi identifies them.

Will Obama follow through on his India success? Nikolas Gvosdev considers the possible opportunities of and obstacles to closer U.S.-Indian ties.

The limits of “strategic patience.” Steve Swerdlow and Andrew Stroehlein highlight the flaws in indulging the authoritarian government of Uzbekistan in its abuses.

India’s Machiavelli. Akhilesh Pillalamari reviews the foreign policy lessons of the Arthashastra.

Invading North Korea: still a terrible idea. Robert Kelly explains why.

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Brooks’ Simplistic Interventionism

David Brooks lectures on foreign policy:

Sticking to our values means maintaining a simple posture of support for people who share them and a simple posture of opposition to those who oppose them [bold mine-DL]. It means offering at least some reliable financial support to moderate fighters and activists even when their prospects look dim. It means avoiding cynical alliances, at least as much as possible. It means using bombing campaigns to try to prevent mass slaughter [bold mine-DL].

In most foreign conflicts, including the one in Syria, adhering to Brooks’ first sentence would require the U.S. to support none of the warring parties, since none of them actually shares “our values.” To maintain the pretense that there are “moderate fighters and activists” to support in these conflicts is to look for excuses to get involved in conflicts that have nothing to do with us. To insist on launching bombing campaigns for ostensibly “humanitarian” reasons is to commit the U.S. to use force in ways that will invariably bolster other illiberal, sectarian, and brutal forces. In the Syrian case, this could mean that the U.S. should bomb the Syrian regime to the benefit of jihadist groups, or it could mean that the U.S. indirectly aids the regime by bombing its enemies. U.S. bombing campaigns directed against one side or the other is bound to benefit groups that oppose “our values,” and attacking both at the same time is its own kind of madness.

Elsewhere in the column Brooks says that the Near East “is not a chessboard we have the power to manipulate,” which is true, but he then ignores the wisdom contained in this statement and proposes all the many ways that the U.S. should keep trying to influence events there. Despite this brief moment of realizing the limits of U.S. power, Brooks can’t entertain the possibility that the U.S. shouldn’t be directly involved in the region’s conflicts. Even though he says that the U.S. should strive to avoid “cynical alliances,” in practice the interventionist approach that he insists on absolutely requires such alliances on a regular basis. Receiving support from Sunni monarchies to fight the war against ISIS is about as cynical and hypocritical as it gets, not least since some of the same governments have been actively backing jihadist groups in Syria for years, but Brooks says nothing about this. He is very worried about a “de facto alliance with Assad” (and I agree that this is also a bad idea) while ignoring the ongoing cooperation with regional regimes that routinely trample on “our values” in their domestic and foreign policies. Brooks wants to pretend that there can be such a thing as scrupulous, “values”-based interventionism, which requires him to ignore the realities of actual U.S. interventions.

In keeping with this argument, Brooks urges us to take the most simplistic approach imaginable:

When you don’t know the future and can’t control events, bet on people. Support the good, oppose the bad.

Gosh, why hasn’t anyone thought of that? Mind you, it is exactly this sort of oversimplified approach to foreign conflicts that keeps luring the U.S. into unnecessary wars. The belief that there are obvious “good” forces available to be supported in a given conflict encourages the U.S. to take sides in a fight when there may be no good reason to take sides. It takes for granted that the government is a consistently good judge of the character, motives, and political goals of actors in other countries that it understands at best superficially. We know from experience, however, that the U.S. is frequently misled by groups that tell our officials what they want to hear, and more often than not many U.S. policymakers make a point of whitewashing the records and views of these groups in order to make them seem more deserving of support. Thus terrorists and criminals are feted as freedom fighters, extreme nationalists are portrayed as liberal democrats, and sectarian fanatics are called moderates. These mistakes keep being made because our policymakers are doing what Brooks recommends. They think they are “supporting the good,” but quite often they realize too late that there weren’t any “good” forces to support or that they picked the worse of the two sides.

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Cotton’s Dishonest Attack on Diplomacy with Iran


Tom Cotton makes an odd claim to start his latest op-ed:

A nuclear-capable Iran is the gravest threat facing America today.

If that were true, the U.S. would be even more secure than anyone thought, since a “nuclear-capable Iran” is not much of a threat to the U.S. or to anyone else outside of its immediate vicinity. It may be less than optimal for Iran to have a nuclear capability, but it is far from being “the gravest threat” that America faces. This is the foundation of the rest of Cotton’s argument, and it is very wrong. Everything that follows from it is therefore badly misguided. Cotton is petrified of a thoroughly manageable and relatively minor threat. His assessment of the threat is mistaken, and his recommendations are necessarily unwise.

Cotton continues:

Our negotiating “partner,” Iran, is not a rational or peaceful actor.

Iran may not be peaceful, but it is a regime that desires its own preservation and acts accordingly. It is as rational an actor as any other authoritarian state with which the U.S. has had dealings over the decades. To assert that it is not a rational actor requires us to ignore over three decades of self-interested behavior by this regime.

Cotton portrays the negotiations with Iran as an “endless series of concessions,” which is either misinformed or dishonest. Since Cotton is not a stupid or poorly-informed person, I have to assume it is the latter. The U.S. has conceded almost nothing in these talks. Acknowledging that Iran can continue limited enrichment gives away very little, since Iran has been able to operate without any limitations for a decade before the interim agreement was negotiated. In return for agreeing to minimal Iranian enrichment, Iran’s nuclear program has been significantly constrained and Iran is now farther away from the ability to build a nuclear weapon than it was a year and a half ago. The U.S. has gained far more from the interim agreement so far than Iran has, and Iran has given up far more than the U.S. and the other members of the P5+1 have. Cotton’s presentation of this advantageous arrangement as “appeasement” is so thoroughly misleading that it is discredits everything else he has to say. His insistence on “complete nuclear disarmament” of Iran (i.e., the abolition of Iran’s nuclear program) is totally unrealistic, and if it became U.S. policy it would commit our government to wage a new and costly war.

Unlike some of his Senate colleagues, Cotton has been blunt in stating his view that Congress should be seeking to end the negotiations with Iran. This is irresponsible and dangerous for all parties. To end negotiations with Iran at this stage would not only throw away the best chance to limit Iran’s nuclear program through peaceful means, but it would put the U.S., Iran, and the entire region on a path towards unnecessary conflict. Cotton is a hawkish ideologue, and it seems clear enough that he welcomes the prospect of a new conflict, but that is all the more reason why it is imperative that his reckless counsel be ignored.

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Senate Hard-liners Press Ahead with New Iran Sanctions

Josh Rogin reports that Iran hawks continue to press ahead with new sanctions legislation in spite of Obama’s veto threat:

Illinois Republican Mark Kirk told me in an interview today that even if the Senate delays until late March on voting on the new sanctions bill he crafted with Democrat Robert Menendez, his party’s leadership is committed to moving forward and he is confident the Senate will pass it.

There has never been much doubt that a GOP-controlled Senate would pass a new sanctions bill at some point. Even if Flake and Paul don’t support the bill, Republicans have enough votes to pass the legislation on their own, and the only reason they need Democratic votes is to make the effort appear bipartisan. There were never going to be enough Democratic votes to override Obama’s veto, so the purpose of passing the bill now is to demonstrate how thoroughly opposed to diplomacy with Iran the majority is.

Kirk is unhappy that the administration doesn’t welcome his continuing efforts to sabotage the negotiations:

“I’m very tired of being seen as the enemy by the administration,” Kirk told me. “They tend to only talk to people that agree with them. They like to stay only inside their left-wing appeasement bubble, only talking to left-wing appeasers.”

This is one of the more irritating habits of Iran hawks. They vehemently denounce any and all engagement with another regime as appeasement, they vilify the people conducting the negotiations for supposedly selling out the U.S. in deals that are “worse than Munich,” and then they complain that their objections aren’t being taken seriously. “Why won’t you listen to what I have to say, you miserable Chamberlain clone?” It would be much more alarming if the administration were trying to find some way to placate hard-liners that are dead-set against any deal that could realistically be reached. It’s a good thing that the they aren’t trying to cater to Kirk and other Iran hawks like him, since there is nothing that could possibly satisfy them that wouldn’t derail the talks and take the U.S. on a path to another unnecessary conflict.

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Netanyahu’s Stunt and Public Opinion

In the last post I said I doubted that most Americans would side with Netanyahu. YouGov has released the results of a new poll that suggest I was on the right track:

43% answering that it is inappropriate is a bit lower than I would have expected, but it still shows that there is significant public opposition to this sort of behavior from Congress. There is certainly no majority in favor of it. Barely a third of Americans approves of bringing in a foreign leader to undermine U.S. policy. Since the respondents are aware of the controversy over Netanyahu’s speech, the partisan divide isn’t too surprising. Most Republican respondents are siding with their party leaders in this case, but 30% still consider Boehner’s invitation to be inappropriate. If Boehner thought that he was making a clever political maneuver by bringing in Netanyahu, it seems clear that he badly miscalculated.

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The Folly of Siding with Netanyahu

Bill Kristol comments on a new report about the administration’s anger towards Netanyahu and his ambassador, Ron Dermer:

So we have an angry president, increasingly desperate for vindication of his failed foreign policy, accelerating both his appeasement of Iran and his attacks on Israel. The good news is that the Republican party and the conservative movement—and most of the American people—stand with Israel and against President Obama.

Kristol’s remarks are worth noting because they make plain that Iran hawks see it as entirely appropriate to side with the head of a client government as he openly seeks to sabotage a major U.S. policy initiative. That’s not all that surprising, since hard-liners in the U.S. are bound to be in agreement with hard-liners in Israel, and they are just as likely to have the same antipathy for anyone attempting to resolve the nuclear issue through diplomacy. It should put to rest once and for all the absurd notion that Iran hawks want to strengthen the U.S. position in the negotiations. On the contrary, they want the negotiations to fail, and they are doing what they can to make that happen.

Kristol makes many errors here, but perhaps the most obvious one is his equation of supporting Netanyahu’s stunt with “standing with Israel.” The two are quite different, as many Israeli opposition politicians will be happy to confirm. There is also no evidence yet that “most of the American people” take the same position as Iran hawks in Washington, and I doubt that most Americans would take the side of a foreign leader, no matter which country’s government he happened to be leading. If Republican hawks were wise, they wouldn’t be going out of their way to identify themselves so closely with Netanyahu’s stunt, but that is what almost all of them are choosing to do. I suspect they will find that most of the public won’t be pleased by this, and it will give voters a powerful reminder why their party can’t be trusted on foreign policy.

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The GOP’s Foreign Policy Ignorance Problem


It appears that the 2016 Republican field will be getting its comedy relief after all:

Sen. Lindsey Graham launched the Security Through Strength committee that will underwrite his political activities as he travels the country to gauge support for a presidential campaign.

The odd thing is that Graham thinks that he has a place in the contest because of his supposed foreign policy “expertise.” As Michael Cohen points out in a recent column, Graham has distinguished himself for being consistently wrong on every major foreign policy issue for at least the last fifteen years. Of course, Graham is not the only hawkish politician who combines a terrible track record with an unmerited confidence in his understanding of these issues. As we know, Romney believes that his aggressive foreign policy views have been vindicated by events. Sam Kleiner has explained a couple times in recent weeks that this is nonsense, but that doesn’t seem to stop him from making these claims and it doesn’t stop many in the GOP from claiming to believe them.

Other former and current senators besides Graham think that emphasizing foreign policy will help them to stand out from the crowd. Rick Santorum went out of his way in the Bush years to criticize the administration for being too “soft” on Iran and others, and he was the chief alarmist warning about the Venezuelan menace. In retrospect, especially as Venezuela is tottering and in no position to threaten anyone, Santorum’s fear-mongering and hard-line views look even more ridiculous than they did back in ’06. Nonetheless, he thinks voters should take him seriously when he indulges in more of the same fear-mongering today. Finally, Rubio has acquired a reputation in GOP circles for foreign policy acumen, but he has shown to be just as clueless and prone to endorsing absurd, alarmist fantasies as any of the others. The confidence with which he lectures others on the Iranian desire to hasten the return of the non-existent “13th imam” is matched only by how easily he has been duped into repeating a laughable theory on multiple occasions.

What all of these would-be candidates have in common is a record of being thoroughly, sometimes hilariously wrong on several major foreign policy issues and an entirely undeserved reputation with their party for having a solid grasp on those same issues. In order to acquire a reputation for “expertise” in this party, all that a politician needs to do is to engage in a lot of unfounded bluster and fear-mongering, endorse aggressive policies, and then wait for the hawkish pundits to praise him for his insights and his”prescience.” Accuracy and knowledge are irrelevant, since they will just get in the way of the threat inflation that all of these would-be candidates engage in on a regular basis. Far from being discredited by their many glaring errors, they are bizarrely feted and promoted as leaders within the party on foreign policy. Faced with these perverse incentives, it is no wonder that most elected Republicans play it safe and repeat hawkish boilerplate at every opportunity.

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When Democratists Blame America

President George W. Bush 2nd Inaugural Address

Elliott Abrams makes an extremely simplistic link between U.S. foreign policy and the newest Freedom House rankings:

What is the relationship between these unhappy trends and American foreign policy? Complex question, to be sure, but the regression in freedom and the decline in perceived American power overlap. Moreover, the decline in freedom and the decline in perceived U.S. government interest in advancing freedom also overlap. Hard to believe all this is coincidence.

Having admitted that the question is complex, Abrams then gives the most predictable and convenient answer possible. One would be hard-pressed to prove that there is any meaningful link between “the decline in freedom and the decline in perceived U.S. government interest in advancing freedom.” For one thing, local conditions in dozens of countries are bound to matter far more than anything the U.S. does or doesn’t do. For another, the decline that Freedom House has been measuring dates back to the start of Bush’s second term, which is when Abrams would have us believe that the U.S. was actively interested in “advancing freedom.” That was the period following Bush’s Second Inaugural when his supporters made a lot of noise about the so-called “freedom agenda” and when they claimed credit for various “color” revolutions around the world.

However, the “freedom agenda” had precious little to do with the advance of anyone’s freedom. The governments that came to power through “color” revolutions usually proved to be just as authoritarian and abusive as the ones they replaced, if not more so. In practice, the “freedom agenda” empowered nationalist and sectarian leaders that said the things Washington wanted to hear, and in return Washington praised them for their supposed devotion to democratic principles. The demise of the “freedom agenda” had no more to do with the decline in freedom in many places around the world than the “freedom agenda” had to do with any gains that happened to take place. It is a typically American conceit that the political developments of the rest of the planet depend heavily on what the U.S. is or isn’t doing, but in this case as in many others it simply isn’t true. That doesn’t tell us whether the U.S. should back democracy promotion efforts or not, but it should remind us that the U.S. normally doesn’t and can’t have that much influence in “shaping” other nations’ politics.

Obama has indeed emphasized democracy promotion less than his predecessor, but that is almost beside the point. According to Freedom House’s findings, freedom has been retreating around the world every year for the last decade no matter how much support the U.S. gives to democracy promotion efforts. Some of this has happened because established authoritarian regimes have clamped down and imposed additional restrictions, and some of it has happened because existing democratic governments have been toppled by coups or have given way to one-party rule or middle-class backlashes in favor of more restricted regimes. In other cases, freedom has declined because some countries have become more democratic, and therefore more majoritarian and illiberal. There have also obviously been severe economic upheavals that have affected countries all over the world in the last seven years. Those are the factors that help to explain these developments. Trying to find some way to pin this on U.S. “inaction” or lack of interest in democracy promotion is ridiculous.

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Israel and the “Jacksonians”

Peter Beinart reminds us why the term “Jacksonian” is misleading when talking about foreign policy attitudes:

To hear Netanyahu criticized so bluntly on Fox, the conservative bastion where Israel is usually above reproach, is remarkable. Even more intriguing is the nature of that criticism. Wallace and Smith aren’t angry at Bibi for being hawkish; Wallace flatly agrees that Iran represents an “existential threat.” They’re angry at him for being insolent. For decades now, Netanyahu has alienated American progressives. With this incident, he’s alienated some American “Jacksonians” too.

Beinart is exaggerating the significance of the criticism of Netanyahu on Fox News. Netanyahu’s behavior may genuinely offend some of the people there, but it isn’t going to change the way they present the relevant issues and it isn’t going to make the network any less reflexively “pro-Israel.” If their hosts are still repeating the nonsensical claim that Iran is an “existential” threat, that does more to bolster Netanyahu’s position in the Iran debate than any criticism of his tactics. In exchange for having his crazy policy views regularly validated on American television, I suspect Netanyahu would be happy to take a few shots from his friends.

As for alienating “Jacksonians,” I don’t really see it. I wouldn’t assume that all Fox News hosts are necessarily “Jacksonian” in their attitudes, but then it’s difficult to determine who qualifies for this label because it is such a vague and arbitrary one. The label has never made much sense to me, not least since Jackson himself would have belonged to the same tradition of Jeffersonian/Democratic foreign policy that existed more or less without significant alteration until the early 20th century. It is supposed to refer to a specific strain of combative American nationalism, but beyond this there isn’t much content to the idea of “Jacksonianism.” It is the label applied to Americans that don’t care much about foreign policy most of the time, and as such it becomes the catch-all term to classify whoever is left over from the other three “traditions.”

As it relates to support for Israel, the label is close to being useless. People labeled as “Jacksonians” may be “pro-Israel” for any number of reasons, some of which may be religious in nature, and some of those will even trump nationalism. “Pro-Israel” hawkish voters are more likely to blame bad relations between the U.S. and Israel on our government. To the extent that they support Israel’s hard-line policies, they will likely take Netanyahu’s side in a quarrel with Obama because they perceive him as a fellow hard-liner. If Netanyahu is behaving badly, they will say, it is because Obama has “forced” him to behave this way. Hard-liners are among the first to fault the U.S. for failing to manage relations with allies and clients, especially when someone from the other party is in power, and they will view all of this in terms of their opposition to Obama’s diplomacy with Iran. The funny thing here is that in this case many so-called “Jacksonians” will blame their own government and make excuses for another government’s shoddy behavior, which is exactly what “Jacksonians” aren’t supposed to do.

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What Rubio Revival?

The recent Koch-sponsored gathering in California has reportedly given Rubio a small boost:

In an informal straw poll of some conference donors, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida came out ahead of four other would-be GOP presidential candidates who had been invited, according to an attendee familiar with the results.

This news has prompted some premature speculation that Rubio is enjoying a comeback inside the GOP. Even if the results of this informal poll are reliable, it doesn’t tell us very much. If the donors that attended this event are supposed to be libertarian-leaning, some of them are likely to change their tune when they hear that Rubio wants to make NSA domestic surveillance practices permanent. That is a position that will be hard to sell to a Republican electorate that is much more skeptical of and hostile to government surveillance than it used to be. Perhaps when it is pointed out to these donors that Rubio’s “13th imam” fear-mongering about Iran is all a lie, they also won’t be so keen to trust him on foreign policy. Rubio wants a more intrusive government at home and a more meddlesome one abroad. What is there here for ostensibly libertarian-leaning donors to like? For that matter, what is there for small-government conservative voters to like?

So it is strange to read about Rubio’s political “resurrection” this week. Ever since his foray into the immigration debate ended in failure and backlash, people keep trying to conjure up the ever-elusive Rubio revival, and of course the revival never comes. This happened when he gave some hawkish speeches in 2014, but it amounted to nothing. As I said at the time, there was no Rubio comeback in the offing. Many Republicans did not care about Rubio’s hard-line foreign policy shtick (or were alienated by it), and many of them had simply written him off by that point for other reasons. When he started giving some domestic policy speeches to bolster his credentials as a reformer, this was also touted as proof that he was regaining lost ground, but there was still no revival in his political fortunes nationally. Once again we are hearing about a “resurrection” without much proof that Rubio is gaining any new support. Nationally, he receives 4.5% in the RCP average (excluding Romney), and when Romney is included he drops to 3.5%.

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