Daniel Larison

McCain’s Bizarre Politics of Solidarity

John McCain has a long history of engaging in grandstanding-as-policymaking. He does this in both domestic policy and foreign policy debates. On most issues, he does not so much have informed opinions as moralistic and ideological reactions that are shaped and channeled according to what will gain him the greatest attention. Like most other “centrists” praised for their independence and bold truth-telling, he has a knack for aligning himself with whatever happens to be the fashionable cause of the moment so long as it does not conflict with two basic imperatives: 1) question the national security state as rarely as possible; 2) criticize an administration’s foreign policy if it is insufficiently militaristic, but otherwise act as a reliable supporter of the executive. On Libya, McCain has been able to combine his eagerness to grandstand and moralize with his habit of backing military solutions to political crises. Thus he celebrated the Libyan rebels as his “heroes” and as Libyan patriots.

Jack Hunter points out that McCain’s flat denial of any connection between the rebels and Al Qaeda or jihadist militancy is simply not true, which makes him either ignorant (always possible) or shows that he is openly cheering on a force that includes people who were until very recently attempting to kill Americans. Arguably, many Arab and Afghan patriots become jihadists because of their patriotism, just as happened with some Chechens, but acknowledging this would require that McCain accept that jihadists are frequently driven by political grievances, that terrorism is provoked by occupation and invasion, and that the sort of activist, militaristic policies that McCain favors is a boon to filling the ranks of jihadists.

It is possible to see Libyan rebels, including the jihadists, as patriots, but this is an idea that runs contrary to so many of McCain’s other long-held ideological tenets that I doubt he could keep those ideas in his mind at the same time. In fact, McCain’s praise of the Libyan rebels as patriots is purely situational and dependent on the fact that they are currently the alternative to Gaddafi in a war that McCain has been pushing to have since February. Obviously, he would never dream of saying that same thing about, say, the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr or supporters of Hizbullah. Those people are fanatics and terrorists!

If Libyan rebels are patriots, what did that make the Iraqi insurgents? What does that make the Afghan Taliban? Of course, the latter are classified as the enemy, and the Libyan rebels have been endorsed by at least two Western governments as the legitimate Libyan government, and for all intents and purposes Washington has been treating them as Reagan treated the mujahideen. Thus people that McCain would otherwise be happy to see locked away indefinitely in Guantanamo or worse are now among his new congeries of heroes. McCain’s heroes are rather like his policy positions: he embraces those that are useful to his present need, and the substance of what they represent, like the substance of the policies he endorses, is quite beside the point.

Something else that McCain has a habit of doing is endorsing foreign national causes with enormous zeal. Back in the late 1990s, the best way to be an anti-Russian hawk was to embrace the Chechen cause, and so McCain became a vocal spokesmen on behalf of Chechen self-determination, despite the fact that the Chechen cause was becoming more and more closely aligned with jihadist fanatics and terrorist atrocities by the end of the decade. More recently, he has become a comically outspoken supporter of the cause of Georgia, and everyone who pays attention to such things remembers his crazed “we are all Georgians now” routine during the August 2008 war. The point of these exercises isn’t just to stake out dangerous and confrontational policy positions, though that is part of it, but also to grab media attention by jumping out in front and identifying with the popular cause of the moment.


“Very Welcome” Regional Chaos

The overthrow of Assad, the Assad government, the Assad Mafia, would be a very welcome thing in Syria. ~Brit Hume

It’s safe to say that Hume has no clue what the fall of Assad’s government would mean for Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, or Turkey. In fact, no one has any clear idea exactly what would happen, but most of the likely scenarios would be quite bad for all of the countries I just mentioned. Of course, we have seen what happens when a heterogeneous state ruled by a Baathist dictatorship experiences the collapse of its regime. Robert Kaplan sums up the possible consequences:

Were central authority in Syria to substantially weaken or even break down, the regional impact would be greater than in the case of Iraq. Iraq is bordered by the strong states of Turkey and Iran in the north and east, and is separated from Saudi Arabia in the south and Syria and Jordan to the west by immense tracts of desert. Yes, the Iraq war propelled millions of refugees to those two latter countries, but the impact of Syria becoming a Levantine Yugoslavia might be even greater [bold mine-DL]. That is because of the proximity of Syria’s major population zones to Lebanon and Jordan, both of which are unstable already.

The idea that any of this would be “very welcome” for the nations that would suffer the effects of this upheaval is madness, and it is ridiculous to think that it would be “very welcome” for the U.S. As we found in Iraq, the slogan that “we pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East — and we achieved neither” sounds insufferably glib in the wake of the humanitarian disasters that result from the breakdown in real political stability. In fact, the people who use this slogan tend to go out of their way to destroy or undermine whatever stability existed in the region. Some of them will keep trying to do the same thing in Syria, and if they succeed the greatest losers will be the people of Syria and the surrounding countries.

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Imitating the Foreign Policy of Louis XVI

As Daniel Trombly explains very well, Max Boot’s post from last week on the Libyan rebels is wrong in a number of ways:

The point is that Libya is not America in 1775, and the Libyan Civil War is not the American War of Independence. The experience of the American rebels is a dangerous and misleading analogy that creates a falsely reassuring narrative of intervention in Libya, when the historical situations and interests at play are extremely different. We are not somehow betraying our predecessors by remaining skeptical of the Libyan rebels, nor does invoking them give us any insight into how to handle a largely humanitarian intervention in another country’s civil war.

When the Libyan civil war started, supporters of Western intervention frequently scoffed at the idea that it should be up to the Libyan rebels to prevail in their own fight. “What about French support for the American colonies?” they would ask. This was never a good objection, and it is actually a disastrous comparison for interventionists to make in support of their new war. If Americans want to make arguments for military intervention on behalf of a rebellion in another country, they should probably try to avoid one of the classic examples of how such interventions can ruin major powers. France intervened on our side, and in the process burdened itself with ruinous debt such that its entire political system later went through violent, destructive upheaval for a decade as a result. The U.S. isn’t going to go through such convulsions because of expenditures on the Libyan war, but it would be hard to come up with a more discouraging comparison as far as the intervening government is concerned than France’s intervention on our side.

It was hardly any consolation to the Bourbons later on that the United States had achieved its independence, and far from advancing French interests the alliance with the U.S. proved to be fleeting and of little strategic value to the French later on. As Americans, we can be grateful that the French government was filled with people more concerned with getting revenge on Britain than in tending to the dynastic interests of the Bourbons and the real national interests of France. As a matter of serving French interests, the Treaty of Alliance might well be one of the bigger mistakes the government of France has ever made. Fortunately for us, the Libyan war is not on the same scale. That’s about the only favorable thing I can think to say about it.

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Gary Johnson’s Presidential Campaign

Gary Johnson announced the start of his presidential campaign last week. I’m quite late commenting on the story on account of Holy Week and other obligations, but I do have a few things to say. If Ron Paul weren’t intending to run, I could easily see myself supporting Johnson against the rest of the GOP field, but as it seems more likely than not that Paul will be running I don’t quite see the point of Johnson’s campaign.

As I’ve said before, it will help promote libertarian and antiwar right causes to have two candidates in the race instead of just one, but having two candidates running at the same time will just as often reduce the impact of a candidate espousing these views as it will bring greater attention to them. Neither one will win as many delegates with both of them in the race as one would win on his own, and contrary to emerging conventional wisdom Paul has the greater ability to win support among Republican primary voters. Because I don’t expect Johnson to have a serious chance at the nomination, I would be somewhat willing to overlook his socially liberal and pro-immigration views so long as he made criticizing authoritarian and interventionist policies the focus of his candidacy. I don’t think I am very representative of antiwar conservatives on that point. It goes without saying that those other views that Johnson holds makes him significantly less competitive in a Republican primary field than Paul. While I might be willing to give Johnson a pass, large numbers of conservative Ron Paul supporters would never have given Johnson’s candidacy a second thought if he were the only one running. If Paul is also in the race, it’s safe to say that none of us would consider supporting him.

There remains the danger that dueling Paul and Johnson campaigns will bring out the fratricidal element among their respective supporters. Given the genuinely shabby way that many currently pro-Johnson libertarians treated Paul in 2008, I’m not sure that this will be easily avoided. As it happens, I agree with Justin Raimondo’s criticisms of some of Johnson’s foreign policy positions, and he is probably right that Johnson is running to be the candidate for libertarians who don’t want to be identified with Ron Paul. These include people who went out of their way to undermine Paul during the ’08 campaign. One thing that may make such a feud less likely is Johnson’s relationship with Paul. To his credit, Johnson was Paul’s supporter throughout the campaign, and when talk of Johnson’s candidacy started Paul still seemed to be very well-disposed towards Johnson. If both feel compelled to run, I would rather that their supporters spend their time and energy helping both of them against the rest of the field.

One of the reasons that Johnson has given underwhelming or disconcerting answers on some subjects is that he doesn’t seem to have given them as much thought as I would like. When Johnson made his statement about supporting military intervention to prevent a “clear genocide,” it was clear that he hadn’t squared this with his call to slash military spending drastically, nor had he thought about the virtual inevitability of “nation-building” that would follow such an intervention. If he doesn’t will the means, and refuses to accept the responsibilities that go along with intervention, my hope is that he doesn’t really favor such interventions. That said, pleading ignorance is not a very good excuse for an incoherent policy view. In fact, such ignorance ought to be disqualifying.

On Libya, Johnson’s reaction was mostly encouraging, but it wasn’t as forceful or as principled as it should have been. Johnson ends up in the right place, which is something, but in light of Johnson’s own comments about humanitarian intervention it isn’t nearly enough. Johnson has previously opened the door to launching a war of choice in which no American interest is at stake, and he has done so by making a misguided and absurd claim that this is “what we have always been about,” which isn’t significantly different from the insipid notion that the U.S. has to meddle in other nations’ internal affairs because “America is different.”


Drone Strikes in Pakistan

My new column on the U.S. and Pakistan for The Week is now online.


Arise, O God, Judge the Earth!



When Thou didst descend to death 0 Life Immortal, Thou didst slay hell with the splendor of Thy Divinity! And when from the depths Thou didst raise the dead, all the hosts of the heavens cried out: O Giver of Life! Christ our God! Glory to Thee!

The angel standing by the grave cried out to the women: Myrrh is proper for the dead, but Christ has shown himself a stranger to corruption.



He Who Hung the Earth Upon the Waters Is Hung Upon the Cross



Holy Thursday


When the glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of their feet before the supper, the impious Judas was darkened by the disease of avarice, and to the lawless judges he betrayed You, the Righteous Judge. Behold, this man because of avarice hanged himself. Flee from the insatiable desire which dared such things against the Master! O Lord Who deals righteously with all, glory to You!

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The Libyan War’s Badly Flawed Assumptions

Gaddafi has survived five weeks of punishing airstrikes, and his military has not yet betrayed him, as officials in Paris and London were hoping. In a notable display of candor, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe suggested this week that alliance leaders — including his boss, Sarkozy — may have underestimated Gaddafi’s staying power in deciding to go to war.

When the decision to take action was taken, there was a feeling that, in the wake of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, this would be relatively quick [bold mine-DL],” Danin recalled. “Instead, it is turning out to be a protracted civil war on the ground.” ~The Washington Post

What could the thinking have possibly been here? What happened in Tunisia and Egypt was that in both cases the military refused to attack protesters, and Ben Ali and Mubarak realized that they were not going to be able to hold onto power through the use of force. The states with relatively stronger institutions saw the heads of state depart fairly quickly, which should have been a warning that things would be very different in Libya, where there are no strong institutions. Gaddafi kept the Libyan military institutionally much weaker than in the other countries to prevent coups against him, and some of his armed forces were already showing themselves willing to use force against the opposition. These were all things that these governments could have reasonably been expected to know before they ordered military action. Clearly, they did not know them, or they did not give them enough attention.

It’s impressive that none of the allied governments was able to recall how long the Kosovo campaign lasted. What was supposed to be a few days of bombing turned into two and a half months, and ultimately it was diplomatic pressure to force Milosevic to give up that mattered as much as the bombing. Compared to Kosovo, the U.S., Britain, and France have effectively committed themselves to achieving a much more ambitious goal (Gaddafi’s removal from power) with less of a political consensus in support of that goal, more limited resources, and more restrictions on what they can do. As in 1999, they assumed that the targeted regime would capitulate almost immediately, and somehow never considered that the regime they were attacking might actually be able to consolidate its strength because it was being attacked. Over the short term, Milosevic was able to draw on the shared, genuine outrage of Serbs on account of the bombing*. It was only later on, long after the bombs had stopped falling, that his political opponents were able to organize effectively against him.

Like almost every other stupid interventionist project of the last twenty years, the Libyan war was founded on the assumption that attacking another country would drive the population to turn against the government instead of realizing that the completely normal, human reaction of the majority of every nation on the planet is to resent foreign attacks and usually to defer to the government in an emergency. This is what we would do, and it is as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning, but for some reason we have to go through the same exercise of overconfident miscalculation, puzzlement, and then the dawning realization that bad and unjust governments don’t automatically collapse simply because we wish they would. Perhaps next time, if there must be a next time, our government should come up with a plan that doesn’t rely so heavily on the willingness of regime loyalists to commit the equivalent of treason.

* Humanitarian interventionists have had the uncanny ability to select countries to attack for their wars of choice that have deep, painful memories of being attacked by Nazi Germany and occupied and oppressed by Fascist Italy respectively. Of all the peoples in the world that might turn on their respective governments as a result of foreign attack, humanitarian interventionists have chosen two of the least likely, and then they profess surprise when the nations in question didn’t respond as they were expected to respond. It’s as if the interventionists think that it matters to the people being bombed that they aren’t being bombed in the name of conquest and empire-building. These nations don’t really know that when it’s happening, it certainly doesn’t feel like it at the time, and they aren’t likely to believe Western claims to the contrary.


Days, Not Weeks

Muammar Gaddafi has consolidated his position in central and western Libya enough to maintain an indefinite standoff with rebels trying to end his four-decade rule, U.S. and European officials say.

“Gaddafi’s people are feeling quite confident,” said a European security official who closely follows Libyan events.

A “de facto partition for a long time to come” is the likely outcome, the official said, because of Gaddafi’s improving position and the weakness of the ill-equipped and largely untrained opposition forces. ~Reuters

Suffice it to say, if our real Libya policy had any merit, this wouldn’t be happening. As current Libya policy is failing, support for fighting in Libya to topple Gaddafi receives a whopping 32% of the American public’s support. I should add that this is not 32% support for escalating the U.S. role in the war: just one in four of Americans supporting the goal of regime change want U.S. involvement to increase. The poll shows just how uninterested Americans are in increasing the U.S. role in Libya:

Even among people who favor ousting Gaddafi as a goal, a relatively small group, 24 percent, says the level of U.S. military involvement in Libya should be increased.

Support for an increased U.S. role is lower still, 9 percent, among those who favor the current mission, protecting civilians. In both groups, sizable majorities say U.S. involvement should be kept about the same as it is now.

In short, American public opinion narrowly supports the war so long as Americans aren’t currently doing any of the fighting and as long as we aren’t call on to do more than we already are. It doesn’t really matter to supporters that protecting civilians and toppling Gaddafi both appear to be beyond the reach of non-U.S. allied forces. That should tell us something about how shallow “support” for the Libyan war really is. Even the “supporters” aren’t willing to endorse doing what is necessary. Escalating U.S. involvement is political folly here at home (supported by just 10% of all respondents), and the administration has implicated the U.S. in a war that seems likely to drag on for quite some time if things remain as they are now.

Update: Max Hastings reports on the dismay among allied military officers that greeted the triumvirate’s op-ed last week:

To the bewilderment of military chiefs on both sides of the Atlantic, last week Barack Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy asserted that the only acceptable outcome is for President Gaddafi to quit. But how this is to be achieved without sending in Nato ground troops – a ghastly idea – the Lord alone knows.

‘We are living a lie by pretending that we have the means to win this militarily,’ said a senior Nato officer this week.

Hastings also mentions that Paddy Ashdown, former overlord of Bosnia (and now merely Lord Ashdown), is very keen on sending ground forces to Misurata. I take it as a given that whatever the Paddy Ashdowns of the world recommend, we should do the opposite. If we needed any more confirmation that putting soldiers into Libya is a very bad idea, we just received it.

Second Update: I don’t really understand what Marc Lynch is complaining about here. If anyone should be concerned with weak public support for the military intervention in Libya, it should be the people who have been calling for that intervention from the beginning. Weak public support for an intervention obviously didn’t matter to policymakers in the administration, who plunged the U.S. into the Libyan war without making a sustained public case for it. Weak public support potentially imposes limits on what the administration is willing to do now that the U.S. and our allies are involved. To the extent that the administration has deliberately limited its involvement in a war in a way that makes success less likely because of a fear of domestic political consequences, that is relevant to a discussion of the failings of the administration’s handling of Libya.

The U.S. should make decisions on policy based on the merits, and not whether a particular course of action polls well or polls badly. Had the administration done that a month ago and opted not to attack Libya, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Even so, it doesn’t say much for the Libyan war that public support for the intervention depends on the U.S. not doing those things that appear to be necessary to give the intervention a reasonable chance of success now that the administration has made the mistake of intervening. I should be pleased that public opinion is strongly against deeper U.S. involvement, since I certainly don’t want the U.S. to become more involved, but I understand that the lack of public support for anything other than the half-hearted, stalemate campaign is a recipe for prolonged Libyan suffering and indefinite U.S. and allied commitment.

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