Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

U.S. questions detainees in Yemen prisons rife with torture. The AP reports on possible U.S. complicity in torture carried out by UAE forces in Yemen.

Trump panders on Cuba. Doug Bandow criticizes Trump’s partial reversal of the opening to Cuba.

The new Saudi heir is a dangerous man. Leonid Bershidsky sounds the alarm about Mohammed bin Salman.

Instability and Salman’s power play. Paul Pillar warns that elevating Mohammed bin Salman threatens to destabilize both the region and the Saudi government.

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The WSJ’s Embarrassing Adoration for MBS

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial on Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is remarkably sycophantic even for them:

The Yemen operation has been long and hard, but it has largely succeeded [bold mine-DL] in cutting off Iranian supplies to the Houthis and boosted the confidence of Arab states. Mohammed bin Salman has also spearheaded efforts to diplomatically isolate Qatar over its two-faced policy of cooperating with the West while funding Islamist groups like Hamas.

I know that the WSJ editors have never seen a failed, unnecessary war that they didn’t think was succeeding, but spinning the war on Yemen as anything other than a costly, embarrassing failure is just ridiculous. None of the stated coalition goals for the war (reimposing Hadi as president, expelling Houthis from the capital, etc.) has been achieved. None is likely to be achieved in the future, and none can be achieved except at an appalling cost in civilian lives. In the meantime, Yemen’s population has been made a victim of man-made famine and continues to suffer from a cholera epidemic made worse by the coalition’s blockade and the widespread malnutrition caused by that blockade. Of course, the editors never mention to the steep and horrifying cost of the Saudi-led war, because that would undermine their laughable attempt to portray MBS as a smart “reformist.” It’s true that the crown prince is leading the charge against Qatar, but why we should be impressed that he is responsible for stoking a major international crisis that hurts U.S. interests is anyone’s guess.

MBS’ short, lousy foreign policy record tells us we should expect more bad judgment and reckless behavior from the Saudis, and it is certainly nothing to brag about. The fact that hard-liners here in the U.S. think he is on the right track is further confirmation that he truly is a menace.

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The Qatar Crisis and the Absurd Saudi Ultimatum

The Saudis and their allies have presented Qatar with a maximalist set of demands that seem designed to be rejected:

Saudi Arabia and its allies presented Qatar with a list of demands to end a three-week diplomatic crisis that has roiled the Gulf, the Associated Press reported.

The 13-point list includes shutting the Al-Jazeera TV network, cutting back diplomatic ties with Iran, severing relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and ending Turkey’s military presence in Qatar, AP said, citing a document from one of the boycotting countries. Those nations — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — gave Qatar 10 days to respond, AP said.

This ultimatum amounts to calling for near-total capitulation. No government with any self-respect would submit to these demands, and no one interested in trying to resolve the crisis peacefully would issue such a far-reaching and unrealistic ultimatum. Of course, the purpose in giving Qatar a list like this is to create a pretext for escalation when they reject it, as they seem almost certain to do. The Saudi government is proving once again that it is a destabilizing force and regional menace, and the divergence of its interests and ours is becoming more obvious all the time.

If there was any doubt that the goal of the campaign against Qatar is primarily to settle old scores and force them to toe the Saudi-Emirati line, these demands remove it. Calling on them to close down Al Jazeera, reduce ties with Iran, and close Turkey’s military base in the country shows that the campaign has always been aimed at weakening a rival government and putting an end to its somewhat independent foreign policy. Under different circumstances, the U.S. would denounce this ultimatum as a flagrant attempt to coerce a small state into changing its foreign policy, but the incoherent response from Washington (criticism from State and full-throated support from the White House) has meant that the states targeting Qatar will ignore any warnings from Washington. They heard Trump tell them very plainly in Riyadh last month that they can do whatever they want in the region, and as long as they dress it up as “anti-terrorism” he will credulously play along.

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Another Debacle for May

Theresa May’s weak position just became even weaker:

Theresa May will be forced to unveil a slimmed down and “humble” Queen’s Speech on Wednesday after failing to secure the support of the Democratic Unionist Party for her government.

Speaking ahead of the speech, May acknowledged that the election result was “not the one I hoped for,” but she promised to “respond with humility and resolve to the message the electorate sent.”

However, in a sign of growing disarray at the top of government, May will push ahead with her Queen’s Speech, despite having failed to secure the support of the DUP to vote for it.

It was hard to see how May would be able to do much of anything even with a partnership with the DUP, and if she can’t get their support her predicament is even worse. SkyNews’ Ireland correspondent David Blevins has described this failure as a “a quite extraordinary debacle,” but at this point debacles of this kind are becoming more and more ordinary under May’s leadership.

Katy Balls comments on the content of the Queen’s Speech:

Today’s Queen’s Speech is notable not for what’s in it, but for what’s been left out. With no Tory majority and no agreement with the DUP, Theresa May has had to gut her 2017 Conservative Manifesto.

As Balls notes later on, the speech shows “May’s growing impotence.” The prime minister may still be in office for a little while, but she won’t be able to govern effectively.

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The Qatar Crisis and the Incoherent U.S. Response

The State Department criticized the Saudi-Emirati campaign against Qatar in another very public disagreement with the White House:

The State Department on Tuesday issued a blistering critique of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries for enforcing a two-week embargo against Qatar without giving the tiny country any specific ways to resolve a crisis over accusations of Qatar’s funding of terrorism.

The statement seemed to put President Trump and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson further at odds about who is to blame for the dispute, which threatens a host of American diplomatic and security priorities in the gulf.

The State Department statement faulted the Saudis and their allies for failing to provide evidence to back up their charges against Qatar:

“Now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo has started, we are mystified that the gulf states have not released to the public nor to the Qataris the details about the claims they are making toward Qatar,” Heather Nauert, the department’s spokeswoman, said in a news briefing.

This would be a fair criticism if we seriously thought those claims were the reason for the standoff. Since they weren’t the real reason, it is strange to think that these governments would bother with providing “details” when it was obvious that the attempt to coerce Qatar had little or nothing to do with matters of terrorism and everything to do with Qatar’s rivalries and disputes with its neighbors on other issues. The Saudis and their allies understood that they had a green light from the president to do what they wanted to Qatar, and he confirmed that again earlier this month when he publicly contradicted Tillerson on this question. While Trump may have been gullible enough to accept the Saudi-Emirati cover story for their actions at face value, few others were fooled. The State Department official acknowledged that at least one part of our government has finally caught on:

“The more time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.,” she said, referring to the United Arab Emirates, which joined the Saudi embargo along with Egypt and Bahrain.

“At this point,” she added, “we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long simmering grievances” among countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, who share both common interests and rivalries.

Recognizing that the U.S. is being conned about the real motivations for the Saudi-Emirati campaign is a welcome change from State, but it probably comes too late to do much good. That is particularly true when we remember that the punitive measures against Qatar continue to have the full backing of the White House. That allows our reckless clients to dismiss criticisms from the State Department as meaningless, and that is exactly what is happening:

“When was there a crisis when the State Department did not say we need to de-escalate?” he said. In his own communications with the White House, [UAE Ambassador to the U.S.] Otaiba said, he had gotten no pushback.

The State Department deserves a little credit for finally taking the Saudis and their allies to task for something, but other governments know by now that they don’t really speak for the Trump administration. Whatever value their criticism might have had was already negated by the president’s willingness to indulge our despotic clients in whatever they want to do.

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Failing Upwards: The Rise of Mohammed bin Salman

King Salman has ordered major changes in the Saudi government, most notably promoting his son Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to be the new crown prince:

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Wednesday designated his son as his successor, paving the way for the young, assertive prince to assume the throne at a time when it is facing tumultuous change at home and intensifying rivalries in the Middle East.

Salman has replaced his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN), who had previously held the role of crown prince and interior minister. MBN was well-regarded in Washington for his competence on security issues, and he was much more cautious than his uncle and cousin regarding Saudi policies in the region. Removing MBN from his posts and promoting the reckless, inexperienced, and incompetent MBS bodes very ill for the future of Saudi policy in the region. MBN was known to be an opponent of the disastrous war on Yemen, of which MBS was a leading architect. There is also speculation that he may have been similarly wary of the attempt to bully Qatar into submission, and that may have provided the pretext for removing him. In contrast to MBN’s caution, the king’s son is closely identified with the turn towards a more aggressive and destructive foreign policy, and he continues to be deluded about the kingdom’s ability to win the war on Yemen. As defense minister, he is one of the people in the Saudi government most responsible for the failed campaign in Yemen, and despite the obvious failure there he is being rewarded by being put in line to be the next king.

The king has been grooming his son for some time to prepare him for this promotion, but it was not expected to come so soon or so suddenly. Trump’s wholehearted embrace of the Saudis presumably did nothing to discourage Salman from ousting the person in Riyadh that many U.S. officials trust most. Elevating a young royal with such a thin and poor record reflects poorly on Salman’s judgment, and it promises to create a lot of problems for Saudi Arabia, the region, and the U.S. We should expect Saudi policies in the region to continue to be as aggressive and ill-conceived as they have been, and they could very well become even worse. The need to disentangle the U.S. from the noxious relationship with Riyadh has just become much more urgent.

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The Sources of Our Meddlesome Foreign Policy

Ryan Cooper is likewise appalled by America’s “moronic” Syria policy:

In reality, I don’t think any of the actual actions really suffice to explain why America won’t stop meddling in Syria. We’re there because The Blob has a hysterical obsession with the Middle East, because interventions are a lot harder to stop than they are to start, because President Trump is an absolute chump, and above all because of the almost universal article of faith that the American military can do no wrong.

There isn’t a good or compelling reason why the U.S. has been meddling in Syria’s conflict for at least half a decade, but here are what I think seem to be some of the more important factors driving the policy under both the Obama and Trump administrations. The main argument for taking sides in Syria’s civil war has relied heavily on the idea that U.S. “leadership” in the region (and the world) is supposedly at stake, and by opting to stay out of the conflict the U.S. would be “abdicating” a role that devotees of this “leadership” believe is essential for our government to have. The fixation on taking sides in Syria is intensified by bipartisan hostility to Iran, which has been cultivated in Washington for decades. That hostility is driven in large part by the desire of our political leaders to demonstrate their support for our reckless regional clients, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, as a way to show off their hawkishness and prove that they are “tough” on adversaries. The desire to “hurt” Iran by stoking conflict in Syria has long been a top priority of many Syria hawks.

Finally, there is the incessant demand that the U.S. “do something” in response to foreign conflicts. That is related to the preoccupation with “leadership,” but is distinct from it. It is a product of the biases in favor of action and dividing up the world into allies and enemies that plague our foreign policy debates. Our pundits and analysts wrongly assume that there is a “pro-Western” or “moderate” side in every conflict that the U.S. is somehow obligated to support, and they insist that we will be “betraying our values” or some such nonsense if we don’t help members of one faction kill members of another. Our government is now committing acts of war against another state that hasn’t attacked us in part because of this misguided confidence in our supposedly “moderate allies” in Syria.

The “hysterical obsession” with this part of the world that Cooper mentions is at least partly a product of accepting a handful of false assumptions: 1) the U.S. has valuable “allies” in the region; 2) the region is critically important to the U.S.; 3) uncritically backing our “allies” is good for the U.S. and the region. In fact, the “allies” in question aren’t allies at all, and frequently pursue their own goals at our expense and sometimes actively work to undermine our policies. The region isn’t all that important for U.S. security. Support for our reckless clients has mostly produced misery and destruction (see Syria and Yemen as prime examples). Many pundits and analysts are reluctant to acknowledge any of this, and are even more reluctant to say so openly. Then there is of course the significant role of extensive lobbying on behalf of client governments and weapons manufacturers in keeping the U.S. mired in the region’s wars, and that is one reason why there is so little sustained, vocal opposition to the policies that keep taking the U.S. into unnecessary wars.

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The Problem with Kurdish Independence

Iraqi Kurdistan will hold an independence referendum on September 25, and there is no international support for that:

On Monday, the European Union joined the United Nations, the United States, Turkey, and Iraq to discourage Iraqi Kurds from holding an independence referendum on Sept. 25.

That was to be expected, and won’t deter regional government authorities in Erbil, said Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government representative in Washington.

The broad international opposition to a Kurdish independence referendum underscores the problem with trying to create an independent Kurdistan: the new state would be immediately isolated, it would lack recognition from most other governments, and would face intense disapproval from all of its new neighbors. Iraqi Kurdistan would forfeit the benefits of its current semi-autonomous status in exchange for a formal independence that would impose numerous costs on it. Iran isn’t mentioned in the article, but their government has likewise expressed opposition to the referendum.

Supporters of the referendum say that a vote in favor of independence isn’t a declaration of independence, but for the many regional opponents of a Kurdish state it might be taken as one. It is doubtful that the Turkish and Iraqi governments would limit their opposition to rhetoric, so a new Kurdish state would find itself besieged and under attack very early on, and Iran would presumably aid the Baghdad in trying to prevent the separation of the region. The last thing the region needs is even more instability and violence, and a push for Kurdish independence would produce more of both. Contrary to the hopes of Western partition fans, Kurdish independence would spark new conflicts and complicate existing ones. It would resolve none of them.

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Syria and Our Illegal Acts of War

Syria’s famine sparked its civil war (Piotr Krzeslak/Shutterstock)

I mentioned the illegality of U.S. actions in Syria in an earlier post, but I wanted to say a bit more on that point. There has never been a Congressional vote authorizing U.S. military operations in Syria against anyone, and there has been scant debate over any of the goals that the U.S. claims to be pursuing there. The U.S. launches attacks inside Syria with no legal authority from the U.N. or Congress, and it strains credulity that any of these operations have anything to do with individual or collective self-defense. The U.S. wages war in Syria simply because it can.

Obama expanded the war on ISIS into Syria over two years ago, and the U.S. was arming the opposition for at least more than a year before that. The U.S. has been a party to the war in Syria in one form or another for more than four years, but the underlying assumption that it is in our interest to take part in this war has not been seriously questioned by most members of Congress. The president had no authority to take the U.S. to war in Syria, and the current president still has no such authority. We are so accustomed to illegal warfare that we barely notice that the policy has never really been up for debate and has never been put to a vote. If this illegal warfare eventually leads us into a larger conflict, we will finally notice, but by then it will be too late.

The latest episode with the Syrian jet shows the dangers that come from conducting a foreign policy unmoored from both the national interest and representative government. The Syrian jet was shot down because it was threatening rebels opposed to the Syrian government, and the U.S. is supporting those rebels up to and including destroying regime forces that attack them. The U.S. has no business supporting those rebels, and it has no right to have its military forces operating inside Syria. Shooting down a Syrian plane inside its own country under these circumstances is nothing less than an unprovoked act of war against another state.

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Trump’s Misguided Partial Reversal of the Opening to Cuba

Trump announced the partial undoing of the opening to Cuba last week:

Trump’s new policy, outlined broadly in a speech Friday, would stop individual Americans from traveling to Cuba under the so-called people-to-people exemption and ban business that directly benefits the Cuban military.

Even a partial reversal of engagement with Cuba is a mistake. The U.S. has tried punishing the Cuban government for decades, and it has neither changed the way the government behaves nor helped the Cuban people, so going back to any part of that failed policy will yield the same poor results. The bar on business that would benefit Cuba’s military almost certainly pulls the rug out from under many American companies that have already made or were planning to make significant investments in the country, and that will mean losses for American firms that didn’t have to happen. Reimposing restrictions on Americans’ ability to travel to the country is one of the least defensible moves the administration could make. This restriction punishes individual American citizens by blocking them from traveling where they wish to go, and it does Cubans no favors.

American academics, tourists, and others should not be prohibited from traveling to Cuba on their own, and in some cases doing so is the most practical way for them to go there. Interfering with that just to spite Havana creates barriers to Americans’ travel that shouldn’t exist. These measures are a sop to hard-line dead-enders that loathe diplomatic engagement and never wanted an opening to Cuba at all, and by caving once again to foreign policy hard-liners Trump has shown his own weakness and poor judgment.

The pretense that this has anything to do with the Cuban government’s abuses and violations of human rights might almost seem credible if it came from someone else, but coming from the Saudi-embracing, Sisi-praising, Duterte-admiring Trump it is an insulting and blatant exercise in hypocrisy.

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