Daniel Larison

Walker’s Reagan Nostalgia and Foreign Policy

Following up on his silly foreign policy remarks earlier this week, Scott Walker made another statement that was no better:

Walker contended that “the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime” was then-President Ronald Reagan’s move to bust a 1981 strike of air traffic controllers, firing some 11,000 of them.

“It sent a message not only across America, it sent a message around the world,” Walker said. America’s allies and foes alike became convinced that Reagan was serious enough to take action and that “we weren’t to be messed with,” he said.

Walker has said something like this before when he claimed that there were “documents” that proved that this had influenced the way that the Soviets viewed Reagan. That wasn’t true, but that didn’t discourage Walker from using this line again. It’s a ridiculous claim on its face, but a few things need to be said about it anyway.

Even if one grants that Reagan’s decision to fire the striking workers had some effect on the way he was perceived by other governments, it is just painfully ignorant to call a purely domestic decision the “most significant foreign policy decision” of the last five decades. There have to be numerous examples of far more significant policy decisions from Reagan’s presidency alone, to say nothing of the decisions made by other presidents during that time. Walker thinks he’s making a clever point about displaying “toughness,” but just keeps drawing attention to the fact that he has nothing substantive to say about foreign policy. He insists on using the crutch of Reagan nostalgia, but he can’t even cite examples from Reagan’s real foreign policy record to make his point.

If Walker believes what he’s saying, he is endorsing an absurdly extreme version of the “credibility” argument. He not only wants us to think that this display of “toughness” made other states take Reagan more “seriously,” but that a purely domestic decision had such far-reaching international consequences that it was the most significant foreign policy decision made in almost half a century. If this was supposed to allay concerns that Walker isn’t prepared to be president, it didn’t work. Indeed, it is becoming very difficult to take anything Walker says on foreign policy seriously.

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Jindal and Rubio’s Confused Talking Points

Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio both seem to think they have discovered a clever way to attack the administration on its handling of the war on ISIS and the negotiations with Iran–by inexplicably linking the two. Here is Jindal:

What I worry about is that this president’s hesitancy in going all the way and defeating ISIS may be linked — I can’t prove that, I suspect that from his actions, his rhetoric —may be linked to his overarching desire to get a deal with Iran.

And Rubio said something similar:

Speaking before the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland, Rubio told radio and TV host Sean Hannity that “if we wanted to defeat them militarily, we could do it. [Obama] doesn’t want to upset Iran.”

Referring to the United States’ ongoing negotiations with Iran to contain that country’s nuclear program, Rubio continued, “In [Obama’s] mind, this deal with Iran is going to be the Obamacare of the second term, and he doesn’t want them sending military to the region because they think the region belongs to them.”

As others have noted already, this criticism makes absolutely no sense. If Obama didn’t want to “upset” Iran, he would probably be committing the U.S. to do far more against ISIS, since the Iranians loathe ISIS and have been fighting them in Iraq. If ISIS were defeated, it would deprive Iran of a hated regional enemy, so they would hardly be “upset” by this outcome. Jindal’s suspicions don’t seem to be founded on anything except a political need to find fault with whatever the administration is doing overseas. In their desire to attack Obama’s policies on two different issues, Jindal and Rubio have made a complete botch of things by trying to force the criticisms together in a clumsy, ham-fisted way. Perhaps they thought they needed to play to their audience and treat ISIS and Iran as if they both belonged to an undifferentiated Islamist blob, or perhaps they don’t want to acknowledge that the U.S. is currently fighting Iran’s enemies. Or maybe neither of them has the slightest idea what he’s talking about. Whatever the reason for their errors, Jindal and Rubio are so confused about these things that conservatives shouldn’t be looking to them for guidance on foreign policy.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

There is no better deal coming on the nuclear issue. Paul Pillar explains why completing the current negotiations is the best available option.

The MEK’s friends in Congress. Ali Gharib and Eli Clifton report on the cult’s relationship with members of Congress, including New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez and former Sen. Robert Torricelli.

The awful CPAC “debate” on war. Matt Welch describes the hard-line views of the CPAC panel on foreign policy.

Libya as a U.N. protectorate? Steven Metz considers whether it is possible to make Libya a protectorate of the U.N.

Biases in world news coverage. Matthew Baum and Yuri Zhukov review the evidence on how news coverage of foreign rebellions differs around the world.

Most experts agree: arming Ukraine is a terrible idea. Foreign Affairs asks its contributors about sending weapons to Ukraine.

Don’t count on Russian sensitivity to casualties. Simon Saradzhyan reviews the data on Russian public opinion and war and argues that inflicting more casualties on Russian forces is unlikely to sour most Russians on the intervention in Ukraine.

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Brooks’ Lousy Ideas on Iran

Surprising no one, David Brooks is opposed to any realistic nuclear deal with Iran:

If the Iranian leaders believe what they say [bold mine-DL], then United States policy should be exactly the opposite of the one now being pursued. Instead of embracing and enriching Iran, sanctions should be toughened to further isolate and weaken it. Instead of accepting a nuclear capacity, eliminating that capacity should be restored as the centerpiece of American policy. Instead of a condominium with Iran that offends traditional allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, the U.S. should build a regional strategy around strengthening relations with those historic pillars.

Brooks is very wrong about this for a few reasons. He takes for granted that it is only the regime’s confrontational and hostile rhetoric that should be taken seriously, and that these are the only beliefs of theirs that matter, so he already discounts anything that Iranian leaders say that doesn’t mesh with his view of them as “apocalyptically motivated, paranoid and dogmatically anti-American.” So when Iranian leaders say for the umpteenth time that they aren’t pursuing nuclear weapons, when they say that their nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes only, or when they say that the use of nuclear weapons is forbidden, Brooks assumes that they don’t believe what they say and thinks that we should ignore it. He takes it as a given that what they say in these instances is irrelevant, because he is confident that he knows what they really believe. This must be what “epistemological modesty” in action looks like.

The policy recommendations are no better. Brooks wants to “toughen” sanctions on Iran. That’s a lousy idea. Yes, the U.S. could impose additional sanctions in an attempt to “isolate” Iran, but good luck getting cooperation from many of the other states that do business with Iran. Some of these states may have been willing to reduce their dealings with Iran for a limited time, but they aren’t going to be interested in taking a harder line with Iran now that there seems to be an opening for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue. Further “toughening” sanctions will wreck international support for pressuring Iran, and Iran will become less isolated rather than more. Insisting on the eliminating of Iran’s “nuclear capacity” will likewise receive little or no international support, since very few governments in the world accept the idea that Iran should not be permitted to have a nuclear program. Iran will certainly never agree to such terms. So making the elimination of Iran’s nuclear program the “centerpiece of American policy” is to doom that policy to failure or it means putting the U.S. on a path to war with Iran. Brooks’ maximalism is extremely foolish, and ought to be rejected.

If Brooks doesn’t want to offend “traditional allies,” one wonders why he would be so adamantly against agreeing to a deal that three of our oldest and most important allies in Europe are helping to negotiate. Since France, Britain, and Germany are actually allies of the U.S., and the “traditional allies” Brooks cites are just frequently troublesome clients, shouldn’t we be more concerned to cooperate with the former even if it happens to annoy some of the latter? While there may be some states in the region that would welcome the breakdown of talks and renewed U.S.-Iranian hostility, there are many more important allies and major powers around the world that would strongly prefer that the nuclear issue be resolved through these negotiations. Why should the U.S. ignore all of that to cater to the unreasonable preferences of a handful of regional clients?

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Iran Hawks’ Phony Concern for Nonproliferation

Charles Krauthammer makes a number of absurd claims in his latest column. This was the funniest:

Such an agreement also means the end of nonproliferation. When a rogue state defies the world, continues illegal enrichment and then gets the world to bless an eventual unrestricted industrial-level enrichment program, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is dead.

One may reasonably question the sincerity of any hard-line opponent of negotiations with Iran when it comes to support for nonproliferation. If they had their way, the P5+1 would have insisted on such impossible conditions that the interim agreement would have never been reached and Iran’s nuclear program would be under fewer constraints than it is today. Instead of a ten-year deal that limits Iran’s nuclear program over the next decade, there would have been no limits at all. Because they want a deal with conditions that Iran would never accept, the hard-liners prefer an Iranian nuclear program that faces no real scrutiny and has no restrictions placed upon it. Iran hawks feign concern with proliferation while doing all that they can to create incentives for it.

The absurdity of Krauthammer’s complaint is made all the more clear by the fact that multiple states that are not party to the NPT have acquired nuclear weapons in the past, and the U.S. is now on good terms with all of them. Israel, India, and Pakistan are not members of the nonproliferation regime, they have fairly large nuclear arsenals, and yet the NPT remains in force. Indeed, it is because Iran belongs to the NPT that its nuclear program is placed under so much international scrutiny. In spite of the obvious spread of nuclear weapons that has taken place, the proliferation in states that don’t belong to the NPT hasn’t killed off the NPT. Almost all states around the world are signatories, and they adhere to its provisions. Even if one state that belongs to the NPT violates the terms of the treaty, that doesn’t make the treaty any less successful in discouraging nuclear proliferation everywhere else. The best way to ensure that Iran continues to adhere to the terms of the NPT is to press ahead with the negotiations and to reach a final deal. Failing to do this won’t limit Iran’s nuclear program, but it will take away the best chance the U.S. and the other members of the P5+1 have to resolve this matter peacefully.

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Walker’s Silly Foreign Policy Remarks at CPAC

Speaking at CPAC, Scott Walker must have thought he was being very clever when he said this:

If I can take on 100,000 protestors, I can do the same across the world.

This is a very silly thing to say, but unfortunately I think Walker was saying this in earnest. There really is no comparing facing down domestic political opposition with addressing challenges and threats from overseas, but Walker’s national political identity is wrapped up with his battle with public sector unions and so every other issue that he talks about ends up being linked back to that. It doesn’t follow at all that an ability to overcome one’s own democratic political opponents in a budget dispute translates into the knowledge or ability to handle threats to the U.S. Michael Brendan Dougherty had this to say about what Walker said:

Instead of offering reassurance that Walker would have some idea of what to do as president, these remarks remind us that he has nothing substantive to say about foreign policy and seems to know remarkably little about it. That was confirmed by Walker’s unwillingness or inability to articulate what his preferred policy towards ISIS would be:

The all-but-certain Republican presidential hopeful sharply criticized the Obama administration’s foreign policy, but when asked about how he would deal with the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), dodged.

Walker does a lot of dodging, or “punting” as he likes to call it, when presented with questions he won’t or can’t answer. That is the sort of evasiveness that badly undermines his pretense to being a leader proposing “big, bold ideas.” The truth is that Walker doesn’t have any “big, bold ideas” on foreign policy and national security, and worse he doesn’t appear to want to have any. On the contrary, he assumes that he can get away with the lowest-common denominator hawkish talking points and suffer no political price for it. That may work with the audience at CPAC, but it won’t and shouldn’t fly with the public at large.

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The SNP Surge and the British General Election

Alex Massie considers the implications of a big SNP general election win:

Scottish votes could well determine the outcome of this general election, but the matter of Scotland — that is to say, the battle of Britain — will not be resolved this May. This is just a preliminary skirmish for the other, larger, battles that lie ahead. David Cameron would be wrong to think that his mission in May is to sneak over the finish line: his fight will have just begun. So unionists are entitled to feel a deep and heavy sense of foreboding. This election is going to be a disaster.

This further confirms my view that the unionist win last September may have only delayed the dissolution of the union and Scottish independence rather than preventing it all together. The problems besetting unionist parties in Scotland now are comparable to the predicament of the ‘No’ campaign during the referendum. The nationalists set the terms of the debate, and the unionists were compelled to fight the election on the ground that the nationalists have chosen. The unionist parties still can’t seem to overcome the deep distrust felt for them by at least half of Scottish voters, and the nationalists are more than happy to exploit that distrust to their advantage. Since the unionists are divided among themselves and have never had much of a compelling argument for their side, it is not surprising that they have continued to bleed support. It is unlikely that they are going to be able to stop the bleeding before the general election, and after that it may then be too late for them.

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Britain’s Many Wars of Choice

Marc Champion bemoans the shrinking U.K. military budget:

Perhaps this rapid British retrenchment was inevitable given the severity of the financial crisis and the still raw memory of overreach in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet defense budgets should be determined by security needs, not the other way around [bold mine-DL]. With no political party arguing for U.K. defense ahead of May’s election, the outcome is likely to be a weaker, more insular Britain [bold mine-DL], increasingly undeserving of its permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.

It’s true that military budgets should be determined by security needs, but then the British military hasn’t needed to be involved in any of the fights it has been in over the last fifteen years. British security wasn’t actually threatened by Iraq, but that didn’t stop its government from more than a decade-long involvement in the “no-fly zones” and its participation in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Likewise, it didn’t need to aid in the overthrow of the Libyan government, but Cameron pushed for intervention there. Once again, Britain is involved in a new war in Iraq, this time against ISIS, that it doesn’t need to be fighting. The problem here isn’t that its contribution is a token one, but that there is no reason for Britain to be participating in the first place.

All of Britain’s wars over the last two decades have been wars of choice that it could have avoided, but which it chose to fight for what were usually dubious or bad reasons. That has understandably made the British public sick of military action overseas, and has made it much easier politically to cut funding for the military. If Britain were interested in improving its conventional capabilities, the first thing it ought to do is to scrap a costly nuclear arsenal that it also doesn’t really need, but which it hangs on to for reasons of prestige and status. Of course, this is the last thing that British hawks would ever consider doing, and so the cuts come at the expense of Britain’s conventional forces.

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The Absurd “No Light” Approach to Managing Allies and Clients

Jeb Bush is all for it:

I think a better solution is to have a forceful foreign policy where we’re supportive of our friends, where there’s no light between our closest allies [bold mine-DL], like Israel, like our neighborhood, like NATO.

Bush is hardly the only hawk to favor this approach to managing relations with allies and clients, but I believe he is the first would-be candidate of this cycle to put things in these terms so far. The idea that there should be “no light” between the U.S. and its allies and clients might be superficially appealing at first, but it doesn’t take much scrutiny to understand why this is an impossible and undesirable standard to have. First, U.S. interests and the interests of other states, even close allies, are bound to diverge some of the time. It is impossible to avoid some “light” to come between the U.S. and these other states, since no two states’ interests are ever in such perfect alignment. Because of this, it is extremely unhealthy and even dangerous to try to deny it when these interests diverge, since that will mean pursuing a policy that isn’t in the American interest or compelling an ally or client to pursue a policy that is not in theirs. That could lead the U.S. to take on unnecessary risks and costs in order to satisfy a client, or it could force an ally or client to follow the U.S. into an unnecessary war.

If the U.S. never allowed any “light” between it and its allies and clients, that would mean letting those allies and clients dictate what U.S. policy ought to be. We have seen in recent years how some allies and clients in Europe and the Near East would prefer U.S. policy to be more in line with their preferences, and then they whine about supposed neglect when the U.S. doesn’t do just what they want. American hawks are only too happy to bemoan the “betrayal” or “abandonment” of these states so long as it makes it easier to promote aggressive policies in these regions, and so they echo the complaints of allied and client governments that the administration has not been giving them enough “support,” which is to say that it has not been behaving exactly as those governments desire. Though he doesn’t say it in so many words, Bush sees no problem with letting U.S. policies be driven by what our allies and clients want us to do for them, and presumably that is what he would allow if he were president.

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Bush’s Fatuous Views on Iraq and ISIS

Jeb Bush indulged in some convenient revisionism regarding Iraq and ISIS in a recent appearance on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show:

Well, had we kept the 10,000 troop commitment that was there for the President to negotiate and to agree with, we probably wouldn’t have ISIS right now.

There are many ways to describe this statement, but the best would probably be fatuous. No one can seriously believe what Bush said, so either his understanding of the relevant issues is painfully shallow or he is just reciting a line he knows to be untrue. Bush completely ignores that ISIS had its origins among the jihadists that flocked to Iraq because of the invasion and occupation. Admitting this would reflect badly on the Iraq war and his brother’s administration, and he appears to have no intention of saying anything that would do that. There was nothing that a smaller U.S. force would have been able to do to prevent the group’s gains. They would hardly have been able to make them cease to exist. He fails to acknowledge that the Iraqis were not going to agree to a continued U.S. military presence beyond 2011, so there was never any realistic question of keeping such a force in Iraq beyond the deadline that his brother’s administration negotiated. He evidently wants his audience to believe that a small residual force could have somehow prevented the Iraqi army from collapsing.

Bush’s statement combines the worst sort of second-guessing with a magical belief in the power of an American military presence to forestall undesirable developments in other parts of the world. The implication of Bush’s statement is that he thinks American forces should have remained in Iraq for the last three years, and his remarks suggest that he believes American forces ought to stay there indefinitely. There is every reason to assume that he would be more than willing to escalate U.S. involvement in the war against ISIS, and this statement tells us that he would be strongly opposed to withdrawing U.S. forces from any part of the world where they are currently engaged in hostilities.

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