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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization would have deleterious consequences in many Arab states:
Of all the initiatives of the Trump administration that have set the Arab world on edge, none has as much potential to disrupt the internal politics of American partners in the region as the proposal to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood, the pre-eminent Islamist movement with millions of followers.
“The impact would be great,” said Issandr El Amrani, an analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Morocco, where a Brotherhood-linked party won the last election in October. “It could destabilize countries where anti-Islamist forces would be encouraged to double down. It would increase polarization.”
Perhaps the most striking thing about the proposed designation is that it would be quite harmful while being completely useless. It is self-defeating in the extreme to treat peaceful Islamist parties in aligned states as criminals, and it would harm our relations with many states that have traditionally been among the most cooperative in the region. At the same time, it would be perceived as an endorsement of the repression of despotic clients, and that would make even more enemies for the U.S.
The costs to these countries in terms of greater instability would be significant, but there would be no security benefit derived from such a designation because the group doesn’t merit being listed as a terrorist organization. Like issuing a blanket ban on allowing in nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries, designating the Muslim Brotherhood does nothing to thwart terrorism and imposes unnecessary burdens on large numbers of people mainly to satisfy a clutch of fanatics here at home. Worse, wrongly designating nonviolent groups as part of a terrorist organization feeds into jihadist propaganda and potentially encourages political violence. The administration’s main “counter-terrorism” initiatives so far have nothing to do with countering terrorism and everything to do with indulging excessive fear of people that do not pose a threat to the U.S.
Update: Noah Feldman spells out the serious domestic consequences of designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization:
At the maximum, the material support statute could become a tool of anti-Muslim suppression by the government. That represents a tremendous threat to free speech and civil liberties in the U.S.
And it would be difficult to challenge in the courts. The designation itself is reviewable by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. But if it survives review, the Holder decision stands as a basis to prosecute speakers whose advocacy can be characterized as “coordinated” with the Brotherhood or its affiliates.
The civil liberties community has shown early success in responding to Trump administration initiatives. In this instance, it would be far better and safer to nip the threat in the bud. Civil libertarians should strongly object to the designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, before it becomes the battleground for the next big civil liberties fight in the U.S.
John Bolton’s name keeps turning up as a possibility for a Trump administration position. Now he is being interviewed as a possible replacement for Michael Flynn:
The potential replacements who visited Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida were Army strategist Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, acting national security adviser Keith Kellogg, and U.S. Military Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen.
McMaster would seem to be the best choice of these four, and Bolton is clearly the worst. The fact that Bolton is even being seriously considered for the job is worrisome, and if he were to get it the benefit from Flynn’s departure would disappear immediately. The Trump administration already suffers from a dangerous Iran obsession, and having Bolton as National Security Advisor would undoubtedly make it even more intense. In addition to being a vehement opponent of the nuclear deal and a frequent advocate for illegally attacking Iran, Bolton has been a proud booster of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), the deranged cult and “former” terrorist organization that seeks regime change in Iran. Like Flynn, he is a hard-liner across the board, and appointing him would mean endorsing some of the very worst that the GOP has to offer on foreign policy.
Jon Finer faults Trump for his foreign policy incoherence:
What is different is that right now not only is there no discernible doctrine guiding President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, the United States currently has no real foreign policy at all. By that I mean not that the policies are objectionable, or that the Trump team is struggling with the learning curve each new administration faces at the outset, as it reviews its predecessors’ approach and settles on its own. Rather, I mean that we are experiencing an unprecedented degree of policy incoherence on virtually every major issue the country faces.
Zbigniew Brzezinski and Paul Wasserman make a similar complaint in an op-ed this morning, and urge Trump to provide “a bold statement of his vision, including his determination to provide America’s leadership in the effort to shape a more stable world.” I don’t deny that Trump’s foreign policy is unusually incoherent even for a novice, and I don’t fault these people for wishing that it were not so, but there is no reason to think that this is going to change in the years to come. For one thing, articulating a coherent foreign policy vision of the sort that Brzezinski and Wasserman want seems to hold no interest for Trump or his closest advisers. They are asking for something more than a bumper sticker-level of thought from an undisciplined president who doesn’t understand these issues very well, and they simply won’t ever get it.
For one thing, Trump claims to prize being unpredictable, and he bluffs his way out of tough questions by saying that he doesn’t want to let our adversaries know what the U.S. is going to do. He seems to think this is a clever use of ambiguity, but it is not. As we are seeing, it creates needless confusion and misunderstanding. That requires his VP and Cabinet officials to spend their time putting out fires that he started for no apparent reason. Mattis and Pence feel compelled to “reassure” allies that have been put off by Trump’s rhetoric, and Mattis tells the Iraqis that the U.S. is not, in fact, going to seize their oil despite Trump’s frequent references to doing just that. Trump’s dismissive remarks about a two-state solution prompt an affirmation of the same from his U.N. ambassador. Trump blundered into questioning support for the “one China” policy before conceding that he still supports it. All of this is made worse by administration dysfunction and the lack of coordination with Cabinet members. Any one of these episodes might be unimportant on its own, but together they form a pattern in which the president says whatever happens to come into his head and the administration is stuck either defending or walking back the random thing that he said. So we don’t need Trump to give a new foreign policy speech, since that would probably just muddy the waters even more.
Trump’s incoherence on foreign policy was one of the few things we could be sure to expect from his administration. His positions have ranged from one extreme to the other. He has expressed support for forcible regime change in the past, and then as a candidate he expressed his supposed hostility to the very concept of regime change. He claims to want to “get along” with Russia, but he mocks the “reset” and criticizes New START in the same terms as a typical Russia hawk. On some issues, he can stake out opposing, irreconcilable positions in the course of the same interview or even the same paragraph. The only reliable constants have been Trump’s conviction that the U.S. is always and everywhere being ripped off in bad deals, an abiding hostility toward Muslims here and abroad, and an almost cartoonish enthusiasm for Israel. On everything else, he tends to follow the lead of his advisers, who are hard-liners on the issues they care most about. Insofar as his advisers have a more coherent view of the world than he does, it tends to be one that exaggerates foreign threats and commits the U.S. to more aggressive policies almost everywhere. In practice, that means that the administration is reliably belligerent but otherwise unreliable, which is a truly awful combination.
The new battle for Afghanistan. Kelley Vlahos reports on the war in Afghanistan and the new push for sending more U.S. soldiers there.
Why does Congress accept perpetual wars? Andrew Bacevich calls out Congress for abdicating its responsibilities on matters of war.
Iran on notice. Michael Horton warns against using the war on Yemen as a pretext for conflict with Iran.
Iran’s election will be a referendum on Rouhani and the nuclear deal. Rouzbeh Parsi looks ahead to Iran’s upcoming presidential election.
Trump’s choice to replace Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor has reportedly turned down the job:
But Mr Harward is said to have turned Mr Trump down. “Harward is conflicted between the call of duty and the obvious dysfunctionality,” said one person with first hand knowledge of the discussions between Mr Trump and Mr Harward. The second person said Mr Trump had asked Mr Harward to return to the White House for another meeting to try to change his mind.
Former Vice Adm. Harward had been the favorite to be selected as Flynn’s replacement of the three most likely candidates, but it seems that the task of cleaning up Flynn’s mess and working with such an erratic president didn’t appeal to him. One of the reasons given in the FT report for Harward’s refusal was a concern that he would be stuck with Flynn appointees:
One of the people familiar with Mr Harward’s decision said he was concerned about whether the top advisers around Mr Trump would allow him to install his own staff on the NSC — particularly after suggestions that KT McFarland, Mr Flynn’s deputy, had been asked to remain.
I can scarcely blame Harward for not wanting the job, but by all accounts he would have been a marked improvement over Flynn and might have been able to get the NSC running in a more orderly fashion. He was seen as a likely ally for Secretary Mattis, and if he isn’t taking the job that makes Mattis’ influence more limited than it might have been. Maybe Harward will change his mind, but it seems more likely that Trump will have to look elsewhere for Flynn’s replacement.