Daniel Larison

Non-Combatants and Gaza

Thane Rosenbaum unintentionally endorses the logic of every terrorist group in history:

On some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization as statesmen, invite them to dinner with blood on their hands and allow them to set up shop in your living room as their base of operations. At that point you begin to look a lot more like conscripted soldiers than innocent civilians. And you have wittingly made yourself targets.

This is perverse and absolutely wrong, but it’s the sort of argument that one will end up making in order to defend a military operation that has already killed hundreds of non-combatants. Civilian deaths reportedly make up the overwhelming majority of Palestinian casualties in Gaza over the last few weeks, and these have resulted from the indiscriminate use of force in a densely populated area. More to the point, Rosenbaum’s argument is extremely similar to the justifications that terrorist groups use when they target civilians in their own attacks. It is based on the completely false assumption that there are no real innocents or bystanders in a given country because of their previous political support for a government and its policies, which supposedly makes it permissible to strike non-military targets. It is very important to reject this logic no matter where it comes from or whose cause in a conflict it is being used to advance, because this is the logic that has been used to justify countless atrocities down through the years.

Rosenbaum muddies the waters a bit by talking about civilians when he is really talking about non-combatants. Non-combatant status can be forfeited only by becoming a combatant, and that doesn’t happen by having voted for the current rulers or simply by living under their rule. Forfeiting non-combatant status requires taking up arms or directly lending aid to those that are fighting, and that doesn’t appear to apply to the civilian victims killed during the current operation at all. It may please Hamas to make use of these victims’ deaths for their own purposes, but that doesn’t absolve the Israeli government of its responsibility for causing those deaths. If Hamas benefits politically from these civilian deaths, and it seems likely that they do, it would seem obvious that Israel should not want to cause any more, and yet at each step over the last few weeks Israel’s government has responded with tactics that are guaranteed to continue killing many more non-combatants for as long as this operation continues.

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Grassroots Republicans and Foreign Policy Reform

Jim Antle considers the prospects for Republican foreign policy reform. He writes that hawkish arguments still have greater emotional appeal with rank-and-file Republicans:

But it is equally true that even today the arguments marshaled by reflexive hawks hit the right emotional buttons for the Republican grassroots in a way that more dovish conservatives’ appeals for caution, prudence, and restraint frequently do not.

Based on what I’ve seen, that depends heavily on what the issue under debate happens to be. Proposed interventions and other policies that have little or nothing directly to do with U.S. security understandably leave grassroots Republicans cold. The fact that their policy and political elites are constantly trying to sell them on new conflicts to join and new international causes for the U.S. to take up may be gradually having the unintended effect of making Republicans sick of hearing about the need to “do something” in response to virtually every crisis around the world. Far from hitting the right emotional buttons, hawkish arguments may now be grating on the nerves of a very large number of Republicans.

When intervention in Syria was being debated last year, like most other Americans most Republicans were remarkably immune to the arguments that the U.S. had to take military action for the sake of our “credibility.” Invoking “credibility” is one of the most common hawkish rhetorical moves, but most Republicans evidently found it a very poor justification for resorting to the use of force. Even taking the inevitable partisan reasons for opposition into account, Republican opposition to attacking Syria was impressively high. Republican aversion to deeper involvement in Ukraine was almost as great as that of other Americans. If some Republicans still respond favorably to boilerplate hawkish claims, just as many now seem to be rejecting them.

There is also broader skepticism among many conservatives and other right-leaning Americans that the U.S. has the ability to remedy international problems, which should make them very receptive to the case for restraint. Except among so-called “business conservatives,” there would seem to be little confidence that U.S. involvement overseas is beneficial. I would assume that there is likewise little support among conservatives for the conviction that the world’s problems are made worse by an absence of U.S. “leadership.” In fact, socially conservative populist Republicans are more likely to believe that U.S. involvement makes international problems worse:

Majorities in Three Groups Say U.S. Global Efforts Make Problems Worse

Except when it concerns direct security threats to the U.S., rank-and-file Republicans are not really all that receptive to knee-jerk hawkish demands for greater U.S. involvement overseas, and in that respect they are not all that different from the rest of the country. That suggests that there is less of a need for non-interventionists and conservative realists to pander to an imagined hawkish audience and a much greater need to articulate a coherent alternative to the alarmism and threat inflation that so often pass for foreign policy arguments on the right.

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How the U.S. Keeps Enabling Reckless Clients

Shashank Joshi criticizes the slow U.S. response to the conflict in Gaza:

Eleven days ago, discussing the paucity of possible mediators, I warned that “unless someone steps up, Israel and Hamas could find themselves hurtling into a wider war that neither truly wants”. This is precisely what has happened. Those with leverage over the combatants [bold mine-DL] have shown themselves to be every bit as useless as I feared.

Although US President Barack Obama has called for an “immediate ceasefire”, and US Secretary of State John Kerry was caught on tape sarcastically criticising Israel (“It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation. We’ve got to get over there. I think we ought to go tonight. I think it’s crazy to be sitting around”), Washington has been unpardonably slow to act. There is no sign that the White House did anything to caution Israel against escalation, and only today – Monday – has Kerry travelled to Cairo.

Joshi makes many fair points here, but there is unfortunately nothing surprising or unusual in Washington’s tardiness in half-heartedly trying to restrain its client. U.S. politicians make ritual declarations of support for Israel’s “right to defend itself,” which is expanded as needed to apply to whatever Israel happens to be doing, and then some of them later call for restraint after the client escalates the conflict with their blessing. The calls are usually too late to do any good, and they are always ignored anyway because the client government knows that it won’t suffer any consequences for paying no attention to them. Despite being complicit in what Israel does during its military operations, the U.S. tries to create the impression that it is not fully endorsing Israeli actions. Washington does this for the benefit of the international audience, but I don’t think very many people outside the U.S. are buying it. This leads to an odd arrangement of giving the client a blank check on the one hand and feigning shock at the client’s excess on the other.

He refers to the leverage that the U.S. has over Israel, but he and everyone else knows perfectly well that the U.S. won’t use whatever leverage it has to get Israel to halt its current operation (or to do anything else). U.S. clients know they can behave however they wish, and U.S. aid will continue to flow because enough people in the U.S. have convinced themselves that we cannot afford to “lose” these clients. We saw something similar in the wake of the coup in Egypt: the U.S. was never willing to cut off aid to Egypt or seriously penalize its military for what it had done for fear of “losing” Egypt, so any leverage the U.S. might have thought it had was useless. Washington didn’t want to risk losing its limited influence, and in the end had none at all. Likewise, everyone involved knows that the U.S. will never cut off its aid to Israel or firmly oppose its actions even when Washington may consider them to be foolish, because the administration and members of Congress are much more anxious to demonstrate their support for Israel than they are interested in putting conditions on that support. The U.S. doesn’t really have any leverage over its clients because there is absolutely no desire in Washington to use the aid it provides to make the clients change their behavior. The U.S. enables the reckless behavior of clients with its unconditional support, and its clients will keep behaving recklessly for as long as they can do so with impunity.

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The MH17 Disaster

Last Thursday’s downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was an inexcusable crime. It fully deserves to be condemned, as the U.S. and other governments have already done, and there seems little doubt as to who the responsible parties are. Available evidence tells us that rebels opposed to the Ukrainian government and supported by Russia shot down the plane, and they did so with weapons that they would almost certainly not have had if Russia were not providing them with arms and support. Russia appears to bear significant responsibility for what has happened in two ways: by encouraging rebellion inside Ukraine, and by providing rebels with advanced weapons and assistance. The downing of the plane was presumably unintentional, since neither the rebels nor Moscow could be so stupid as to have done this knowingly, but that doesn’t change the fact that this horrific mistake killed almost 300 civilians who had absolutely nothing to do with the conflict below them. The Ukrainian authorities shouldn’t have been letting the plane fly there, but that hardly absolves the killers of their guilt.

It would be much wiser for Moscow to denounce the act and accept some responsibility for helping to create the conditions that led to this disaster, but it appears that the Kremlin would prefer to make lame attempts to shift the blame onto others. It would also be wise for Moscow to take this opportunity to withdraw or at least significantly reduce its support for rebels inside Ukraine, but I wouldn’t expect this to happen, either. It would be ideal if the disaster served as a catalyst to bring the war to an end, but that seems least likely of all.

Fortunately, it also isn’t going to serve as the spark for a larger conflict, because no one’s interests are served by escalation. The arguments against supplying U.S. arms to Ukrainian forces remain just as persuasive as they were several months ago and may even be a bit stronger now. If there is one thing that can be learned from this awful slaughter, it is that providing weapons to proxies can have dangerous and unexpected consequences, and it makes the patron complicit in whatever the proxies then choose to do with the weapons they receive. On top of that, providing arms doesn’t necessarily mean that the patron has the ability to control the proxies, which can drag the patron deeper into a conflict that it might prefer to avoid.

As Joshua Keating argued last week, in spite of all the claims that the destruction of MH17 will be a “game-changer,” it will probably change very little:

When the story eventually falls out of the headlines—and it certainly already has competition—the conflict will likely remain. I should note that while all the examples of passenger planes being shot down mentioned in my last post raised global tensions, none of them actually led to a war, or ended one.

The U.S. shouldn’t rush to take any action, and it should coordinate its response with its allies in Europe, especially the Dutch, since they have suffered the greatest loss and have the most at stake in this case. Russia should be called on to make a formal apology for the downing of the plane, and it should be expected to make restitution to the families and the countries of the victims. Slapping more sanctions on Russia will be as useless as ever, and pushing for additional sanctions is more likely to fracture whatever unity the U.S. and its European allies have in the wake of the disaster. There will understandably be a strong temptation to take some “tough” but foolish action now, but this is exactly the sort of outrage that requires a calm and cautious response so that it does not become the cause of even more bloodshed and conflict.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The war for the “Greater Middle East.” Andrew Bacevich summarizes the reasons for America’s entanglements in the affairs of the region over the last thirty years.

Oakeshott’s idealism. John Gray reviews Michael Oakeshott’s notebooks.

Iraq and longing for Vietnam. Gregory Daddis explains why hawkish Iraq revisionists want to liken the current situation in Iraq to the end of the war in Vietnam.

Britain’s Cabinet reshuffle as it happened. The Spectator reports on Cameron’s major changes to his government.

Reform conservatism’s blind spot. Justin Logan explains why reforming Republican foreign policy has to be part of the agenda.

Rick Perry’s nine sins. Sean Kay and Ryan Evans list the many errors in the Texas governor’s recent op-ed.

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Israel and Partisanship

Pew finds an increasingly large partisan gap in sympathy for Israel:

Mideast sympathies topline party break

I have long thought that the framing of this question is guaranteed to give a misleading result, since it asks respondents which side in the conflict they sympathize with more. Respondents are rarely asked whether they think the U.S. should be actively backing one side or the other. When they are asked this, Americans overwhelmingly favor neutrality, and this is obviously not the position that the U.S. takes in the conflict. The sympathy question greatly overstates the degree of American support for Israel.

Considering how uniformly and uncritically “pro-Israel” our politicians tend to be, it is remarkable that only 51% say that they sympathize more with Israel in the conflict. If popular support for Israel were as great and widespread as is commonly claimed, one would expect it to be much higher. The partisan gap is interesting in that it comes entirely from a huge increase in Republicans’ sympathy for Israel over the last twenty years or so. Sympathy among independents and Democrats is identical to what it was in 1978, but among Republicans it has shot up twenty-four points in the same period.

The influx of evangelicals into the Republican coalition may account for some of that, but it can’t explain all of it. This large increase is almost certainly driven in large part by the relentlessly positive coverage given to Israel in conservative media and the near-total “pro-Israel” uniformity among conservative pundits. Not only have Republicans been constantly propagandized on this subject in one direction, but being “pro-Israel” in a particularly hawkish way has become for all intents and purposes an important litmus test for being a “good” Republican in the eyes of party elites. For the most part, rank-and-file Republicans go along with this, or at least do not strongly object to it. I suspect that this isn’t because most of them have a particularly strong attachment to or enthusiasm for Israel, but because this is something that party leaders and pundits say that Republicans are supposed to believe.

If we look at all non-Republican political groups, we find that sympathy for Israel is not a majority view with any of them:

Mideast sympathies race age education ideo religion

The partisan gap is also a generational one. Older respondents are much more likely than younger ones to sympathize with Israelis. To some extent, that is a measure of how much less conservative and Republican most younger Americans are, but it is telling that the Americans that have come of age over the last thirty years are much less likely to be sympathetic. For Americans under 50, the Israel that they have seen on the news is the one that invaded and occupied Lebanon, consistently expanded its occupation of Palestinian territories, bombed Lebanon and Gaza more recently, and openly talks about doing the same to Iran. Younger generations of Americans see fewer reasons to sympathize with Israel than their parents and grandparents do, and Israeli governments are giving them more reasons not to, and that suggests that American sympathy for Israel is going to keep dropping in the years to come while Republicans will be increasingly identified–to their gradual political detriment–as the “pro-Israel” hawkish party.

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Reform Conservatives and Foreign Policy (II)

Ross Douthat responds to criticisms that reform conservatives are omitting foreign policy from their agenda:

I suppose I must fall under the “exceptions” Larison cites, but I’m uncertain who’s establishing the rule. There’s my co-author Reihan Salam (though his self-proclaimed neoconservatism is highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly), and a few others with more hawkish views in the reformocon tent … but mostly it seems that my friends are being judged primarily on their associations (working at the American Enterprise Institute, publishing in the Weekly Standard) and friendships rather than on anything remotely resembling a hawkish movement line.

Is this judgment fair? Well, no in one sense, maybe in another. No, because internal conservative debates are generally in a pretty unsettled place right now, the wider debate over foreign policy is equally unsettled, and I don’t see any necessary reason why people focused on rebuilding a coherent conservative domestic policy must simultaneously choose sides on national security at a time when it isn’t always clear what the stakes are or even what the “sides” are.

Douthat is right that it isn’t entirely fair to expect people that focus almost all of their attention on other issues to take clear positions on contemporary foreign policy questions. It isn’t all that productive to complain that people that specialize in one area of policy haven’t spent much time working in or writing about another. That said, I still think that reform conservatives would benefit from taking more of an interest in distinguishing themselves on foreign policy, and that could have a salutary effect on Republican foreign policy and on the broader foreign policy debate.

Reform conservatives have a few reasons why they should want to take a more active interest in foreign policy. First, it is in their interest to put as much distance between themselves and the Bush legacy on foreign policy, especially because they are generally more closely associated with Bush’s domestic policy agenda than anyone else on the right. Second, they should know better than anyone just how ruinous the Iraq debacle was for the political fortunes of the GOP, and that has also made their task far more difficult than it would have normally been. Avoiding similar foreign policy blunders in a future Republican administration should be a relatively high priority for those that want to have the opportunity to pursue a domestic reform agenda. That will require challenging the party’s worst instincts on foreign policy with a reasonably coherent alternative, and that will mean taking sides in at least some current debates.

Many conservatives complain that they aren’t represented by neoconservatives or non-interventionists, and they are looking for someone to represent their foreign policy views. That could be the role for at least some reform conservatives. Or they can make the same mistake that they made in the last decade and leave foreign policy to the same people that drove the U.S. into a ditch.

One reason that the omission of foreign policy from the reform agenda seems so notable is that foreign policy is one of the largest, most glaring policy weaknesses that the GOP has. In addition to being responsible for the costly policy failures of the previous administration, Bush-era foreign policy has been politically toxic for Republicans in three of the last four national elections. There is good reason to assume that it will continue to be an important liability in future presidential elections unless the party makes a clear break with at least some of its Bush-era assumptions and positions, and for the most part that isn’t happening at all. Until that happens, everyone outside the party will reasonably assume that the GOP hasn’t changed, that it has learned nothing, and that it still shouldn’t be trusted with the responsibility to conduct foreign policy. It seems unlikely that a domestic reform agenda will even get off the ground as long as the public doesn’t trust a Republican president to carry out some of his most important primary responsibilities.

Douthat acknowledges the importance of restoring that trust:

It’s that trust that was forfeited by some of the Bush administration’s follies, and that needs to be recovered if the G.O.P. is to deserve anybody’s vote. But because it’s a trust, ultimately, in competence and caution, it’s a bit hard to say exactly what this kind of “new realism” or “realist internationalism” or “chastened idealism” (or whatever phrase you prefer) would look like case by case….

If it is hard to say what it would look like in each case, it might be useful to begin by reviewing the “follies” mentioned here and identifying the assumptions and unrealistic goals that produced them and then throwing out assumptions that have been shown to be unfounded or misleading. The next step would be to consider what the U.S. should do in one specific, high-profile case (e.g., Iran’s nuclear program), and then build from there. Obviously, reform conservatives don’t have to do any of this, but to the extent that they stay silent on these questions they make it a little easier for hard-liners to dictate the party’s foreign policy agenda to the detriment of all of us.

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Israel and “Western Values”

Douglas Murray makes a very strange argument in response to an earlier article by Hugo Rifkind:

Geography aside, it is Israel that is still truly a western country. Far more than many parts of western Europe now are.

A gap may well be emerging. But not because Israel has drifted away from the West. Rather because today in much of the West, as we bask in the afterglow of our achievements — eager to enjoy our rights, but unwilling to defend them — it is the West that is, slowly but surely, drifting away from itself.

There’s a lot wrong with Murray’s response, starting with the plainly false claim that Israel has to “fight for its survival.” This was true once, but it hasn’t been true for at least thirty years, and possibly longer than that. The claim that Israel’s survival is jeopardized by external enemies is one that I have heard all my life, and it has become decreasingly true with every passing year. This is the excuse that is always trotted out, but it doesn’t persuade nearly as many people as it used to. Hawks have cried “existential threat” once too often, and it no longer has the same effect that it had in the past. If a “gap” is opening up between Israel and Western countries, it is because fewer and fewer people in the West believe this excuse.

Murray also says that Israel “takes western values seriously and fights for the survival of those values,” but that seems to be almost exactly the opposite of what has been happening in Israeli politics over the last ten or fifteen years. Some of this may depend on what Murray wants to include as “Western values” and what he thinks it means to “fight” for them, but it would be fair to say that Israel under its last two governments has become increasingly illiberal domestically and even more heavy-handed in its dealings with its immediate neighbors. The occupation has become more entrenched than it was at the turn of the century, and support for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians has dwindled significantly. If Murray is right that this is what being a “Western country” involves, then I suspect most people in the West would rather be something else. As it happens, I think Murray has it wrong. It isn’t that Westerners are drifting away from their values that accounts for this “gap,” but that many of them are no longer willing to indulge Israeli governments when they make a mockery of them.

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The Useless “What Would Reagan Do?” Foreign Policy Debate

Illustration by Michael Hogue

Dan Drezner rightly sees the debate over “what Reagan would do” on foreign policy as a useless exercise:

Beinart’s effort is a noble one, but let’s be blunt — after a point, this parsing of Reagan’s legacy starts to look like Communists trying to find a Lenin quote that justifies their pre-existing worldview. Or, to put it even more bluntly, who cares what Reagan would think? [bold mine-DL] Ronald Reagan had a decent foreign policy record, but confronted a world radically different from the one we face today. In Reagan’s time, the United States faced a clear, overarching threat that defined the way Americans thought about every part of the globe. In the 21st century, the threats are more variegated and far less potent than the Cold War era Soviet Union. Reagan is a pretty good guide for how to mix soaring neoconservative rhetoric with less-than-soaring realpolitik foreign policy. His administration’s record provides little guidance on what to do, however, in the modern Middle East, unless Republicans are suddenly keen on giving Iran arms again.

The same could be said about any other part of the world. This is one of the points I was making in my article last year on the uses and abuses of Reagan in foreign policy arguments. Different Republican factions can and do find things in Reagan’s record and rhetoric that suit their purposes, but the preoccupation with finding appropriate Reagan precedents is itself part of one of the larger problems with Republican foreign policy today. GOP foreign policy on the whole has completely failed to recognize how the world has changed since the end of the Cold War, and so it has failed to adjust accordingly. To the extent that most Republicans have acknowledged any changes, they have sought to turn current threats into a new version of the Cold War, and some have gone so far as to claim that the world is now more dangerous for the U.S. than it was when the USSR still existed. Republican hawks mostly took the end of the Cold War as an invitation for even greater activism abroad rather than seizing on it as the opportunity to reduce U.S. commitments and burdens that it obviously was.

Despite the Republican insistence that Reagan “won” the Cold War, there has been an equally strong insistence on ignoring the implications that the collapse of the USSR has had on the contemporary relevance of Reagan-era foreign policy. This has the odd effect of diminishing the significance of the achievement for which Republicans give Reagan far too much credit. Arguing over who has the better claim to being a Reaganite on foreign policy and disputing over what being a Reaganite means aren’t just wastes of time. This also discourages Republicans from seriously rethinking their assumptions about what the U.S. role in the world should be, and allows the GOP to carry on as if nothing much has changed since Reagan left office twenty-five years ago.

Harmful Reagan nostalgia among Republicans isn’t limited to foreign policy, but it may be where it does some of its greatest harm. For the most part, the Republicans most invested in claiming the mantle of Reagan are among the successors of those most likely to have denounced Reagan while he was in office as a sell-out, appeaser, or something equally unpleasant. As a result, the caricatured Reagan that they invoke takes the worst, most aggressive aspects of his record–exorbitant military spending, rhetorical excess, arming foreign insurgencies–and treats them as confirmation of the wisdom of their latter-day support for similarly foolish and unnecessary policies. When confronted with objections that their proposals are dangerous, wasteful, and unnecessary, they then declare their fidelity to Reagan in order to halt the debate.

It shouldn’t make much difference to us today what we think “Reagan would do.” Not only is it speculation to guess at what he would do in most modern crises and conflicts, but it is entirely possible that he would favor doing the wrong things just as he sometimes did when he was president. Instead of climbing over one another to prostrate themselves before Reagan’s image, contemporary Republican politicians should attempt to identify the real threats that the U.S. faces today, devise an appropriate strategy for addressing them, and articulate their own foreign policy vision rather than poring over the actions of a Reagan presidency that ended a generation ago in a world extremely different from our own.

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On Stupid and Unjust Wars

Noah Millman agrees with Damon Linker that Israel’s current military operation in Gaza is a “stupid war”:

The only thing I would add is that Operation Protective Edge shouldn’t be called The Stupid War. Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Cloud were similarly campaigns that Israel backed itself into without a clear plan or objective, and which reached predictably equivocal and unsatisfying conclusions. The Second Lebanon War might be characterized similarly.

Millman is absolutely right about this. The only other thing I would add to what he and Linker have said is that it is hard to imagine how military action that leads “nowhere but more provocation, more retaliation, and more tragedy for all sides” can still be morally justified in any meaningful sense. One can understand the Israeli government’s decision to use force in all of the cases Millman mentions, but that is very different from agreeing that the decision to use force is a just or morally defensible one.

Even when the use of force might seem justified at the beginning, it ceases to be so when it cannot possibly achieve its aims without inflicting evils greater than those it was intended to stop. When a military operation has no discernible or achievable goals, it is doing nothing more than inflicting death and destruction for the sake of satisfying a desire for retribution and for the short-term political benefit of the current government. The things that make this military operation “stupid” are the same things that make it unjust and outrageous.

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