Daniel Larison

The Libertarian Ticket

Gage Skidmore

The Libertarian Party nominated former Govs. Gary Johnson and William Weld for their presidential ticket over the weekend:

Johnson, 63, won the nomination on the second ballot at the party’s convention in Orlando, Florida, defeating Austin Petersen, the founder of The Libertarian Republic magazine; and anti-computer virus company founder John McAfee. The delegates selected former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld to be his vice presidential running mate.

The Johnson-Weld ticket could end up being the most electorally successful Libertarian ticket on record, and it does provide disillusioned voters from both coalitions with a reasonable alternative to Trump and Clinton. The Libertarians have arguably just put forward the most credible and competent ticket for the general election so far, which underscores how pathetic the major party nominees are. Between their two candidates, the Libertarians may end up having the ticket with the most executive experience and the nominees most qualified for their respective offices.

While it seems likely that the Libertarians stand to benefit from the widespread unpopularity of both major party nominees (Dan McCarthy casts doubt on that here) and a (shrinking) anti-Trump faction on the right, it remains to be seen how much Johnson can improve on his 0.99% showing from 2012. One difficulty for Johnson in winning over anti-Trump voters is that many of them are against Trump because they believe his foreign policy will be insufficiently aggressive and reckless, and so they aren’t likely to support a ticket with a foreign policy that is less interventionist than Trump’s seems to be. The Libertarian ticket might also be attractive to some anti-Clinton voters on the left, but probably because of the former Republican background of both nominees it won’t have as much appeal. Disillusioned social conservatives probably have a more obvious choice in supporting the Constitution Party.

Johnson’s foreign policy has been generally sound over the last decade, but he has occasionally indulged some ill-considered ideas. His rhetoric on humanitarian intervention has sometimes been confused and at odds with other positions he has taken, which has led me and others to find him to be somewhat incoherent in talking about these issues. On the plus side, he was genuinely opposed to the Libyan war from the beginning. Johnson would seem to be much less inclined to meddle overseas than either Clinton or Trump, and unlike Trump he has a record of opposing wars from the start.

Update: I hadn’t realized that Johnson was firmly opposed to the nuclear deal with Iran. That is a lousy position for him to take, and it is wildly at odds with his previous statements.

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Trump Isn’t a Candidate of Restraint

Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom

Michael Brendan Dougherty sums up why Trump can’t be trusted to conduct foreign policy:

But there aren’t strong reasons to believe Trump is any better than Clinton when it comes to making peace. In fact, he may be much worse.

Trump supported all the dumb wars and interventions that he now claims to have been against. He supported President George W. Bush on invading Iraq. Though he says he was against it, Trump supported the intervention in Libya in the most anti-realist terms possible when he said, “We’ve got to go in and save these lives.” He is just all over the place, saying that we shouldn’t be involved in Syria, and then a few minutes later saying that the U.S. should create safe zones in Syria.

The simple explanation for these changes is that Donald Trump hasn’t ever thought hard about foreign policy; he simply has an instinct for where public opinion is at any moment on any given war and runs ahead of it.

I’ve said before that Trump tends to be all over the map on foreign policy. He can be all over the map because he is shameless, he doesn’t know much about it, he isn’t that interested in it, and he isn’t bound by anything resembling a coherent foreign policy vision. If you want a break from the Washington foreign policy consensus, it is possible to find statements from Trump that suggest that he agrees with you some of the time, and it is also very likely that he has said just the opposite in the same week, hour, or sentence. His die-hard opponents and supporters both want to believe the statements Trump makes that fit their view of him, and many would rather ignore or explain away the statements that don’t fit.

If he says he is for a “safe zone” in Syria, it is a safe bet that he doesn’t understand what that involves, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t support one once someone told him what it was. He objects to having an adversarial relationship with Russia, but has no interest in making any of the accommodations that having a cooperative relationship would require. In one breath, he’ll worry about nuclear proliferation, and in the next suggest that he is fine with more states acquiring nuclear weapons. When it matters, he has no problem with the latest unnecessary war, and only after it is too late does he discover that he is against them. Weirdly, he is a fan of making deals in the abstract, but hates every deal that every president has ever made.

The only consistent views I have found across all of Trump’s various positions is that he always thinks America is getting a raw deal regardless of the details and he always wants to plunder other countries when given the opportunity. Needless to say, this isn’t someone who is interested in restraint as a virtue or as a grand strategy, and no one should pretend otherwise.

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A Very Belated Decision on Cluster Bombs and the Saudis

UN OCHA / Philippe Kropf, via Flickr

John Hudson reports that the Obama administration is finally blocking the transfer of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia:

Frustrated by a growing death toll, the White House has quietly placed a hold on the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia as the Sunni ally continues its bloody war on Shiite rebels in Yemen, U.S. officials tell Foreign Policy. It’s the first concrete step the United States has taken [bold mine-DL] to demonstrate its unease with the Saudi bombing campaign that human rights activists say has killed and injured hundreds of Yemeni civilians, many of them children.

The decision to halt the transfer of these inherently indiscriminate weapons to the Saudis is of course a welcome one, but it is still inadequate and very late. As Hudson notes, this is the first time that the U.S. has taken any action to slow the supply of weapons to the Saudis since the intervention in Yemen began fourteen months ago. This decision doesn’t affect the sale and delivery of other munitions that the Saudis will use on Yemen in the future, and it may not even apply to a new shipment of cluster bombs:

It remains unclear if the Obama administration’s hold will affect a tranche of cluster bombs poised for shipment to Saudi Arabia, or simply all future requests. The United States concluded a contract for the manufacture of 1,300 CBU-105 weapons to Saudi Arabia in 2013. The final shipment of such weapons can take years to complete, but U.S. officials have repeatedly refused to clarify if the order’s final tranche was delivered.

Because cluster munitions are inherently indiscriminate and pose a particularly grave threat to civilians, the U.S. shouldn’t be involved in their sale or use in the first place, but it certainly shouldn’t be providing other governments with these weapons when we know that they are using them in civilian areas. There have been credible reports of the Saudi use of cluster bombs in civilian areas for more than a year, so the administration’s action is inexcusably tardy.

The fact that it has taken the administration more than a year of indiscriminate coalition attacks on civilian areas to take even this first step shows how thoroughly the U.S. has been enabling the Saudi-led war on Yemen. For the most part, the U.S. is still enabling that war. We shouldn’t let this small bit of good news make us forget that the U.S. still provides weapons, fuel, and intelligence to assist the Saudis and their allies in wrecking Yemen, and Washington backs the coalition blockade that is starving Yemen to death. Blocking the transfer of cluster bombs to the Saudis is a good first step in changing this atrocious policy, but it is only a first step and has to be followed by many more.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Will women dodge the draft? Kelley Vlahos reports on the debate over expanding Selective Service.

The significance of Netanyahu’s Lieberman appointment. Michael Cohen comments on what Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment as Israeli Defense Minister means.

Somaliland’s search for place. James Jeffrey reports on the unrecognized country’s struggle to be acknowledged.

Realism restrained. Emma Ashford reviews the Advancing American Security conference.

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Rubio’s ‘True Character’

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Philip Klein discovers that Rubio is unreliable:

But to actually say that he would be “honored” by the chance to speak on Trump’s behalf at the GOP convention, and to downplay his previously stated problems with Trump as mere “policy differences,” is to prove the Rubio skeptics right.

That is, far from being an inspirational moral leader, Rubio has shown himself to be more of an opportunistic politician with his finger to the wind.

That appears to be true, but it raises the obvious question: what had Rubio done before now to make anyone expect him to do something different? As Klein notes, Rubio jumped on the Tea Party bandwagon when doing so helped him defeat Crist in the Senate primary, and then forgot about the supporters that had made his election possible. Once in the Senate, he backed the “Gang of Eight” bill when that seemed to be the way to advance his position within the party, and then ran away from it when the backlash against the bill came. He showed himself to be an overambitious opportunist all along, and he had already proved that he would cave under pressure, but his fans didn’t want to see it. Now he has gone from taking a self-serving anti-Trump position to accommodating himself to the nominee, and it has become impossible even for them to miss. Rubio’s “true character” was always on display for anyone that wanted to see it, and it is strange that it took this long for so many people to recognize what it was.

There was always something obviously absurd about Rubio’s attacks on Trump as a con artist. It wasn’t that he was wrong about Trump, but that he was one of the least credible people to accuse someone else of running a con on Republican voters. Rubio had just done that a few years earlier. One of the main reasons why Rubio had so little support throughout the primaries was that he had shown people on both sides of the immigration debate that he couldn’t be trusted. Opponents of the Senate immigration bill remembered that he was a leading figure on the other side, and supporters remembered how quickly he bailed on them when the going got tough. Depending on what year it was, Rubio’s position would change to suit his short-term political needs. Rubio’s critics understood that he was an opportunist because we paid attention to his record, and his fans missed it because they went out of their way to ignore that same record.

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Americans Don’t Want a More Aggressive Foreign Policy

US Embassy Kabul/Flickr

Pew released a survey earlier this month on American attitudes on foreign policy and America’s role in the world. Notably, only 27% said that they thought the U.S. does too little in trying to solve world problems:

Shifting partisan opinions on U.S. efforts to solve global problems

There is still not much support for a more activist foreign policy, and a plurality (41%) continues to say that the U.S. does too much around the world. This figure is significantly lower than it was three years ago before the ISIS panic, but even during the summer of 2014 it didn’t drop below 39%. Those saying the U.S. does “too little” haven’t been more than a third of respondents in any of the surveys over the last three years.

There are a few other interesting details. Republicans and independents are both more likely than Democrats to say that the U.S. is doing too much abroad, while a plurality of Democrats is satisfied with the current level of involvement. No doubt the fact that the president is from their party makes more of them comfortable approving of how much the U.S. is doing right now. More Republicans and independents say that the U.S. does too much rather than too little, but a minority also think the U.S. should do more. Relatively few from either group wants to keep things as they are.

Trump supporters are by far the most likely to believe that the U.S. does too much, followed by Cruz and Sanders supporters:

Majority of Trump supporters say U.S. does ‘too much’ globally

Clinton supporters are most likely to say that the U.S. is doing the right amount abroad. That is amusing since it is practically guaranteed that the U.S. will become significantly more activist under Clinton. It is not so surprising that Kasich supporters are most likely to think that the U.S. doesn’t do enough, and that is much more consistent with Kasich’s own reckless foreign policy views.

Americans have no appetite for the more aggressive foreign policy we are all but certain to get from a Clinton administration. The prevailing view in Washington that the U.S. has not been activist enough around the world in recent years is absolutely not shared by most Americans, and demands to “do more” in response to various conflicts and crises speak for little more than a quarter of the public. While there have been some fluctuations in the level of support over the last few years, there continues to be a broad and persistent constituency for a less activist and meddlesome foreign policy, and that has been reflected in the primary results over the last few months.

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The American Conservative: Restraint and Peace

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The American Conservative has been an indispensable outlet for the ideas and arguments of dissident and traditional conservatives for more than thirteen years, and it continues to offer a vitally important and necessary alternative to movement conservatism and its tendency to subordinate conservative principles of wisdom, prudence, and restraint to the needs of partisan loyalty and ideological obsessions. Since its founding, the magazine and its website have been the principled voice of conservative opposition to the many follies of the Bush and Obama eras, and they have also been the reliable defender of local communities, constitutional government, a broad distribution of power and wealth, and the causes of liberty and peace. That defense is needed now as much as it has ever been.

Over the last twenty-one months, TAC has been a consistent critic of the ill-conceived military intervention in Iraq and Syria, and we have been leading opponents of calls to escalate that war in recent months. We have also been calling attention to U.S. support for the appalling Saudi-led war on Yemen since it began last March, and we are one of the only American publications to pay close attention to U.S. support for this conflict and the devastating effects of the war there. Thanks to the generous support of our readers, we hosted a successful conference promoting a foreign policy of realism and restraint last November, and this spring we held another well-received panel on the foreign policy implications of the 2016 election.

We continue to warn against the folly of wars of choice and the dangers of enabling reckless client states, but we have also been arguing for the importance of diplomatic engagement with Iran and Cuba. TAC is a valuable resource for all Americans that want to rediscover a foreign policy conservatism that is dedicated to securing the national interest without being wedded to perpetual war. We offer a thoughtful conservative answer to both the excesses of demagogues and the fanaticism of ideologues. We have been promoting the cause of reforming and improving the foreign policy debate in the Republican Party and in the country as a whole since our inception. Our arguments are more necessary than ever as the U.S. will be fighting the new war in Iraq and Syria for years to come.

As the next general election approaches, the need for a conservative message of peace and restraint is clear. Both parties continue to be dominated by their most hawkish factions, and there is today virtually no debate within either party over whether our government should continue to wage open-ended wars. This year’s election results so far show that there are large constituencies in both parties that are open to and interested in a much less meddlesome and interventionist foreign policy, but they continue to be grossly underrepresented in Washington and in our foreign policy debates. TAC offers a critically important voice for all Americans that want a foreign policy governed by respect for the Constitution, an understanding of the limits of American power, and the responsible and just use of that power abroad.

In order to keep doing this important work, The American Conservative needs the continued support of its readers, without whom we would be able to do nothing. All donations to the magazine are tax-deductible, and anything that you are able to give would be greatly appreciated. If you are able to donate something, please donate here.

If you would like to make a donation by check, you can make your check payable to American Ideas Institute (the foundation that publishes The American Conservative) and mail to: the American Ideas Institute, 910 17th Street, NW, #312, Washington, DC 20006-2626.

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Obstacles to Foreign Policy Restraint

Juan Camilo Bernal / Shutterstock.com

Emma Ashford reviews the recent Advancing American Security conference, and adds this:

Despite these attempts at engagement, realist and restraint-oriented perspectives, whether from inside or outside the Beltway, remain a relative rarity in Washington, where broadly interventionist ideas tend to dominate among both Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, last week also saw the release of a report by the Center for a New American Security, co-authored by former officials from both the Obama and Bush administrations, which argued for the extension and expansion of American power and presence around the globe. With the report’s 10 signatories dominated by liberal internationalist and neoconservative voices, it is no surprise that it calls for various expansive policies, including a no-fly zone in Syria, a focus on undermining Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, providing arms to Ukraine, and a call to “significantly increase U.S. national security and defense spending.”

Continuing bipartisan support for overseas meddling in the name of global “leadership” remains a major obstacle to a more restrained U.S. foreign policy, and so it is worth thinking a bit more about why that support persists in spite of numerous costly failures since the end of the Cold War.

One reason why restraint hasn’t gained more adherents in Washington is that it is always easier to accept the prevailing consensus than it is to dissent from it. Poor and distorted information about the state of the world probably also has something to do with it. Foreign conflicts in which the U.S. has little or nothing at stake seize media attention, and that prompts calls for “action” and reinforces the false impression that much of the world is in chaos. The reality that the world is overall more peaceful and secure than it has been in over a century receives virtually no coverage because there is nothing dramatic or attention-grabbing about the absence of conflict. Some of the relatively few pockets of instability around the world garner that much more attention because there are so few of them, and it is taken for granted out of habit that the U.S. has both the right and obligation to police these areas. The extent of U.S. power and the lack of any major threat to America itself makes our policymakers overconfident and reckless, and it causes them to look for new conflicts to join rather than find ways to steer clear of them.

One might think that the extraordinary security of the U.S. would make our foreign policy less activist and meddlesome because it is no way necessary to keep Americans secure, but it is because we are so secure that our government can “get away with” being heedless and irresponsible in its conduct of foreign policy. The U.S. can interfere in numerous countries, take sides in civil wars that have nothing to do with us, and even embark on disastrous wars of our own without really putting the U.S. in grave jeopardy, and that allows every administration regardless of party to intervene more freely and unnecessarily than a less secure government could. Bad policies are often cast aside only when their costs become intolerable for a large number of people at home, but the costs of U.S. foreign policy are usually borne by a relative few in the U.S. and are otherwise borne by the peoples of other countries.

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Report: Ryan to Endorse Trump

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Paul Ryan will reportedly give in fully to Trump:

Senior level Trump campaign sources confirmed to ABC News Wednesday that House Speaker Paul Ryan will be endorsing presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

As I noted last week, Ryan has a record of falling in line behind his party leadership. The same instinct not to rock the boat during the Bush years that made him a reliable vote for the previous administration’s costly and reckless agenda is the one that appears to be leading him to get behind Trump. It’s not a surprising choice for Ryan, but it will be amusing to see his fans in conservative media treat it as one. I have never understood Republican enthusiasm for Ryan, but it’s probably a phenomenon I won’t have to try to understand for much longer. Many of his admirers have presented him as some fiscal conservative hero that was completely at odds with his voting record for most of his career in the House, but a Trump endorsement will give them reason to remember that record in detail. Ryan has received such glowing coverage in conservative media for the last five years, but now I assume that this sort of coverage is going to diminish for the foreseeable future.

Ryan’s predicament all along is that he can’t openly oppose Trump without undermining his political future, but he has had to appear reluctant to support Trump or risk being written off by the same media boosters that have supported him until now. Once he finally endorses, he’s bound to lose most of the latter. It is doubtful that he will win much goodwill from rank-and-file Republicans later on.

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Why Hillary Clinton Is So Disliked

David Brooks wonders why Hillary Clinton is so unpopular:

There are two paradoxes to her unpopularity. First, she was popular not long ago. As secretary of state she had a 66 percent approval rating. Even as recently as March 2015 her approval rating was at 50 and her disapproval rating was at 39.

It’s only since she launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to impress the American people that she has made herself so strongly disliked.

This isn’t a paradox at all, since this is what was bound to happen once she became a candidate again. For whatever reason, current and former Secretaries of State usually enjoy high favorability ratings. It seems that these people are viewed as being above politics, or at least they are not judged as harshly when they are serving in a Cabinet position. When Clinton moved back into electoral politics and started pursuing her own ambitions, she started to be judged more severely by Republicans and Democrats alike. Everyone has been reminded of the things that they don’t like about her over the last year and a half.

The presidential campaign has made voters remember her coziness with Wall Street and her foreign policy hawkishness, neither of which endears her to the left. She is still in the midst of a nomination fight against a generally well-liked opponent who has been hitting her on this record, and many of his supporters have come to view her unfavorably over the course of the campaign. Many of them will likely come around to voting for her, but for the moment they view her negatively. Almost all conservatives dislike her out of a combination of ideology and habit. Bear in mind that she has been a figure of consistent loathing on the right for almost a quarter century, and she has been a fixture in Washington for almost all of that time. There is an entire generation of Republicans that have been told since they were kids that she is horrible, and she has not done much to disabuse them of that idea. For a lot of the rest, she is an embodiment of the political class at its worst: calculating and cynical.

Brooks supposes that Clinton is not liked because she is perceived to be consumed by her public career. That may be part of it, but I suspect the bigger problem for her as a political figure is that she has been on the national stage so long that most of us are just sick of seeing and hearing her. Familiarity breeds contempt, and Americans are very familiar with Clinton. As Brooks points out, she has been in “public service” for decades, but then most Americans nowadays don’t consider that to be admirable or praiseworthy. When they consider what Clinton has achieved during that time, they are probably even less impressed.

Once the Democratic nomination fight ends and their party unifies, her favorability numbers are likely to improve as Sanders supporters begin to appreciate the things they do like about her, but those numbers aren’t going to improve that much. Clinton is simply too well-known to us, and our opinions of her are too well-formed to be changed now.

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A Trump-Corker Ticket?

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Sen. Bob Corker met with Donald Trump yesterday:

Sen. Bob Corker, who is rumored to be on Donald Trump’s short list for vice president, said Monday that he had “a good meeting about foreign policy and domestic issues” with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

Corker, who said he’d never met with Trump before, downplayed the VP speculation, adding he had no reason to believe he was being considered for the #2 slot.

Corker had previously given Trump’s foreign policy speech a qualified positive review, and Trump has expressed interest in finding a running mate that understands the workings of Congress, so adding Corker to the ticket would seem to make some sense. It would still be a somewhat curious choice for Trump to make. Immigration isn’t the only issue that matters to Trump supporters, but they wouldn’t be pleased to have a supporter of the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill on the ticket. If the first rule in selecting a running mate is supposed to be to do no harm it is hard to see how Corker would be a good choice. Corker is usually seen as a moderate in the party, and Trump needs to shore up support with ideological movement conservatives, so it doesn’t really help him in unifying the Republicans head of the convention. The idea of putting Corker on the ticket is receiving some support from other Senate Republicans, but it’s not clear who else would be reassured or encouraged by the choice.

On foreign policy, Corker has a mostly bad record. He was one of a handful of Republicans to vote for New START ratification in 2010, but other than that I am hard-pressed to come up with an example of something Corker has gotten right. Hard-liners see him as the facilitator of the nuclear deal, but the reality is that the Corker-Cardin bill was an unnecessary bit of Congressional meddling that could have sabotaged the agreement. It failed to derail the deal only because most Democrats stayed on Obama’s side. Corker wanted the deal stopped, and said so many times. He has also affirmed his support for the appalling backing the U.S. has given the Saudis and their allies in Yemen. A Corker aide said that the senator believed that the Saudi-led intervention would “end the conflict, facilitate humanitarian relief, and restore the legitimate government of Yemen,” which would be laughable if it weren’t so obnoxious. Corker says he liked parts of Trump’s speech because he thought he heard “a degree of realism stepping back into U.S. foreign policy,” but since he took over at Foreign Relations Corker’s own realism has been notably absent.

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Kristol and the Anti-Trump Protest Campaign

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Bill Kristol unwittingly confirms that there will be no anti-Trump protest candidate:

It’s unclear whether a credible independent candidate will choose to step forward. But there are many more such candidates than are dreamt of by conventional commentators and operatives. Recent attempts to write obituaries for the Never Trump/Never Clinton effort are wildly premature [bold mine-DL]. Something new and different can be difficult to imagine for the old and tired. And our political class and pundit elites are nothing if not old and tired.

Kristol’s pronouncements on all sorts of things are useful for identifying the things that won’t or can’t happen. If he believes there is still a chance for something to occur, that chance never existed or has since vanished, and if he is certain that something will not take place it is a safe bet that it will. His involvement in trying to recruit a protest candidate this year was probably the earliest, best indication that the effort was doomed to fail. Kristol is the quintessential pundit elite, and he has the incredibly shoddy record to prove it.

There is something especially absurd in describing the protest presidential campaign he wants to have as being “new and different” when the point of the protest effort has been to affirm a stale, discredited party agenda that at least half of Republicans have rejected to one degree or another. It isn’t difficult to imagine what this would look like, because we have seen it on display many times before, and most Republican primary voters wanted something else this year. Nothing could be more “old and tired” than trying to create a splinter faction devoted to unreconstructed Bushism, and that is one reason why there is so little support for it.

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Saudi Distortions and the War on Yemen

UN OCHA / Philippe Kropf, via Flickr

Thomas Juneau explained last week that Yemen’s Houthis are not Iranian puppets:

Saudi Arabia claims that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy, leading it to frame the war as an effort to counter Iran’s influence. The Saudis are not the only ones to label the Houthis puppets of Iran. Politicians and media in the West, in particular, also frequently describe them as Iranian proxies.

Yet as I argue in a recent article in the May 2016 issue of International Affairs, the Chatham House journal, Tehran’s support for the Houthis is limited, and its influence in Yemen is marginal. It is simply inaccurate to claim that the Houthis are Iranian proxies [bold mine-DL].

Instead, the war in Yemen is driven by local grievances and competition for power among Yemeni actors.

I have pointed out Iran’s negligible role in Yemen several times before, but it bears repeating because so many of the reports on the Saudi-led intervention have accepted the Saudis’ self-serving, dishonest framing of the conflict. The Saudis’ intervention has received very little scrutiny or criticism in the West, and one reason for that it is that it been presented to Western audiences as a “response” to supposed Iranian “expansionism.” The reality is that any influence Iran has gained in the country has come about as a result of the Saudi intervention:

The irony, of course, is that one of Saudi Arabia’s stated objectives for intervening in Yemen in March 2015 was to roll back a mostly fictitious Iranian influence. The intervention, however, is having the opposite effect: The Houthis are a small non-state actor attacked by a regional power with deep pockets and advanced weaponry. It is then only rational for the Houthis to seek assistance, albeit only small amounts, from the only external power willing and able to support them — Iran.

The false claim that Iran is “on the march” in the region has been a standard talking point for opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran, because they were desperate to change the subject and to make Iran seem much more powerful than it is. That claim has also become an excuse for endorsing whatever reckless action our regional clients happen to take and spinning it as a “reaction” to Iranian behavior. It has helped the Saudis to present their aggressive and unnecessary military intervention in Yemen as a “defensive” measure, and it has obscured the fact that they and their allies are the ones doing the most to destabilize the region. The U.S. and Britain would presumably have gone along with supporting the war on Yemen anyway, but the specter of growing Iranian influence has helped to mute criticism of the war and U.S.-British backing of it.

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There Is No Hillary Clinton ‘Doctrine’

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Jeffrey Stacey is looking forward to how Clinton will conduct foreign policy, which he assumes would have magically remedied almost all current problems overseas:

But had the Clinton Doctrine been in place over the last four years, odds are that the United States could have kept Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council happy, deterred Putin from intervening in Syria, removed the Assad regime from power, and gotten the UN to shepherd a governance transition after his removal. Libya would have been a more stable (albeit struggling) country as well. In Asia, Washington would have seen Beijing’s hard-liners have less influence in Chinese affairs. And in Europe, Clinton could have made U.S. allies provide a greater share of their own security burden. Plus, a Clinton administration would have also been able to negotiate a successful nuclear deal with Iran.

Stacey is right that Clinton would have been and will be more aggressive than Obama has been, but that’s about all that one can say for this panegyric masquerading as analysis. As far as the author is concerned, there is no situation that a more forceful and militarized response wouldn’t have made better. In practice, what he keeps calling the Clinton “doctrine” is just unfocused meddling in every conflict that comes along. That is a fair summary of Clinton’s foreign policy record, but it doesn’t have much to recommend it.

He says that she would have directly intervened in Syria early on, which might be true, but there is no attempt to explain why this would have been a desirable thing for the U.S. to do. He also assumes that Clinton would have removed Assad from power, which would have very likely made Syria even more chaotic and unstable than it is, but says nothing about the cost of doing that. It’s likely that toppling the Syrian government would have delivered the rest of Syria into the hands of jihadist groups with the resulting expulsions and massacres of religious minorities that would have presumably followed. The Clinton “doctrine” might very well produce such an outcome, but this is one reason why she shouldn’t be trusted with the presidency. The idea that Libya would have been more stable if Clinton had been in charge is a blatant attempt to wish away the serious consequences of one of Clinton’s biggest errors in government.

Some of the other assertions are even harder to take seriously. Clinton “could have made” allies take on a larger share of their own defense? How? Does she possess some mind control powers no one is yet aware of? Stacey claims that she would have also somehow caused hard-liners in China to have less influence at home. It’s not clear how that would have happened, since she is more likely to take a confrontational approach when dealing with China that would seem to play into the hands of hard-liners in Beijing. The bigger problems here are that all of this ascribes to Clinton a level of competence in executing foreign policy than is nowhere in evidence in her record, and Stacey assumes that the U.S. has the ability to compel and shape foreign behavior to a much greater degree than it actually does.

One of the more glaring contradictions in this paean to Clinton is the claim that she could have negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran and kept the Saudis and the GCC “happy.” It should be obvious by now that the Saudis and the GCC won’t be “happy” unless the U.S. does everything they want at our own expense, and part of that would have meant not pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran. Stacey wants us to believe that Clinton could have avoided making any trade-off between securing U.S. interests and keeping regional clients satisfied, but it is impossible to miss from the clients’ own reactions to the nuclear deal that they cannot be placated no matter how many weapons or how much support Washington throws at them. It also seems misguided to assume that Clinton would have pursued the nuclear deal as president, since she was consistently the most skeptical member of the administration when it came to engaging Iran diplomatically.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Clinton’s hawk-in-waiting. Philip Giraldi reviews the record of Victoria Nuland, a likely Clinton choice for Secretary of State.

Foreign policy and the failure of the marketplace of ideas. Trevor Thrall finds that U.S. media outlets have been misrepresenting the expanding U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen for years.

The false neoconservative claim of consensus. Paul Pillar objects to Eliot Cohen’s claim that neoconservatives have been part of a broad foreign policy consensus dating back to the ’50s.

LBJ, Vietnam, and the political costs of fighting a hopeless war. Michael Cohen details why Johnson persisted in a failed war.

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Sweden and Finland Won’t Pursue NATO Membership

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The Swedish government is ruling out making a bid to join NATO:

Sweden will not make a formal bid to join NATO for fear of escalating further the already tense situation that exists between the West and Russia over the annexation of Crimea and the continued crisis in Ukraine, the country’s defence minister said on 17 May.

That’s the right move for Sweden to make, and it does remove a potential cause of friction between Russia and NATO. Pursuing membership in the alliance would have caused the Swedish government nothing but headaches in exchange for a guarantee that it doesn’t need and wouldn’t receive for many years. Formal neutrality has worked very well for Sweden over the last century, and it would be strange for them to abandon that tradition after all this time. The Finnish government recently endorsed much the same position:

“My personal attitude toward NATO membership is negative,” noted [Finnish Prime Minister] Sipilä. “It is precisely the zone of unincorporated countries made up by Finland and Sweden which supports the stability of the Baltic Sea region.”

And so Finland will not be moving any closer to joining the alliance anytime soon, despite the report published in Finland on the possible effects of NATO membership, which, without outright suggesting it, considered membership likely.

One obstacle is public opinion, and Finns who would be supportive of possible Finnish membership remain very much the minority. And Sipilä, at least, intends to take public opinion into account.

Expanding the alliance into more of northern Europe doesn’t make sense for these countries, and their governments are smart to recognize that. The good news for the alliance in this is that this closes the door on one path to further expansion that the alliance doesn’t need and shouldn’t be seeking.

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Why Did Trump Initially Support the Libyan War?

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Appearing on Morning Joe, Trump repeated his claim that he wouldn’t have intervened in Libya. That is a completely different position from the one he took five years ago. Joe Scarborough later corrected the record:

Trump went from worrying that Gaddafi’s crackdown in 2011 could be “one of the worst” things in history and urging the U.S. to intervene to insisting that he was always against an intervention. There is no ambiguity about Trump’s original 2011 view. He said unequivocally, “It has to be stopped.” So when he claims to have been against the Libyan war all along, he is lying, and it is easy to prove that he’s lying. He likes to say that he has better foreign policy judgment than the people that supported the Libyan war, but he was one of those people when it mattered.

I assume that he took a pro-intervention position initially because he thought Obama wasn’t going to get the U.S. involved. The video those quotes are taken from was recorded in late February of that year, when it still seemed as if the administration would ignore demands to attack the Libyan government. Trump berated Obama for not taking military action, because that seemed the clear anti-Obama position to take at the time. It was only later after Obama did launch the war in Libya that Trump changed his tune, and more recently he has pretended to have been an opponent of the war from the beginning.

Obviously, people can change their minds on any given issue, and I welcome it when former supporters of unnecessary wars realize that they were wrong. The problem with Trump’s positions on Libya is that he never acknowledges his original error and pretends to have been a consistent opponent of the intervention when there is indisputable proof that he wasn’t. That’s not only dishonest, but it should give everyone another reason to doubt that he learned anything from his error when he can’t even admit that he made one.

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McCain’s Sickening Defense of the War on Yemen

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John McCain reminds us that his foreign policy views are truly vile:

Had it not been for Saudi Arabia, Yemen would have reached a catastrophic situation, US Senator John McCain has said, according to pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.

It isn’t news that McCain consistently takes the wrong side in every major foreign policy debate, but it is striking how committed he always is to the terrible positions that he takes. When the Saudi-led war on Yemen began thirteen months ago, McCain’s main complaint was that the U.S. wasn’t doing enough to help. A normal person might reconsider that position after a year of desultory warfare, indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, and the starving of an entire country, but not McCain. No matter how destructive a military intervention is, McCain will defend it as long as it is waged by the U.S. or one of our clients, and no matter how shameful and atrocious the war is McCain will conclude that everyone is better off because of it.

It takes a particularly deranged interventionist to believe that Yemen would have been worse off without the Saudi-led intervention, when outside intervention clearly exacerbated every problem Yemen had and added a few ones. It is undeniable that the coalition has done an enormous amount of harm and has only made existing conflicts in Yemen worse and harder to resolve. Yemen was already a poor country with many serious problems, and the Saudi-led intervention turned it into one of the most catastrophic humanitarian crises of this century. Yemen has reached a catastrophic situation in large part because of the Saudis and their allies with U.S. and British help. It is sickening that we have members of Congress willing to defend what the Saudis are doing, but unfortunately it isn’t surprising. As far as John “Thank God for the Saudis” McCain is concerned, it is par for the course.

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Clinton’s Hawkish Admirers

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Eliot Cohen reminds us at length that he can’t abide Trump, and then tries to make the case for Clinton:

On foreign policy, Hillary Clinton is far better: She believes in the old consensus and will take tough lines on China and, increasingly, Russia. She does not hesitate to make the case for human rights as a key part of our foreign policy. True, under pressure from her own left wing, she has backtracked on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a set of trade deals that supports American interests by creating a counterbalance to China and American values by protecting workers’ rights. But she might edge back toward supporting it, once in.

Think about how screwed-up one’s foreign policy priorities have to be to say this. Cohen believes it is “better” to have a president willing to confront and possibly clash with both nuclear-armed authoritarian powers, and he is holding out hope that Clinton is such a cynic that her newfound opposition to TPP is just for show. He’s right about Clinton being more aggressive in dealing with China and Russia, and I agree that her trade skepticism is pure pandering, but it takes a genuinely warped view of the world to believe that these are desirable traits.

As for human rights, it’s true that Clinton is happy to invoke them in certain instances to justify meddling in the affairs of some other countries (see Libya), and she also pays no attention to the violations committed by our allies and clients. According to her adviser, Jake Sullivan, Clinton is positioning herself to be even more accommodating to the Saudis than the current administration and wants the Saudis to know that “we are there for them.” Clinton promises to take most of what’s wrong with U.S. foreign policy and make it worse, and she is now winning over quite a few Republican hawks precisely because her foreign policy has been and will be reliably bad just like theirs.

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Famine Stalks Yemen

IRIN Photos/Flickr: Mazrak camp in the tough mountainous scrublands of Yemen's north-west border with Saudi Arabia is now home to more than 10,000 people displaced by the escalating war between the government and rebels from the Huthi clan.

The U.N. is warning that millions of Yemeni civilians are threatened by famine:

The director of U.N. humanitarian operations warned Tuesday that 7.6 million people in conflict-torn Yemen face severe food shortages and are ”one step” from famine.

John Ging, who just returned from Yemen, told a news conference that there has been ”a shocking fall off” in support from the donor community over the last few months for the millions of Yemenis who need food, clean water and basic health care.

The Saudi-led blockade is largely responsible for creating these horrible conditions, but things are made worse for Yemen’s civilian population thanks to the lackluster, tardy response from outside governments to requests for funding relief efforts. The Saudis’ coalition is starving the country to death, and for the most part the response from the rest of the world has been to shrug or offer woefully inadequate assistance. The war on Yemen has mostly been overlooked by the outside world, and that neglect is having dire consequences for millions of people cut off from the outside world by the Saudis and their allies.

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis has been classified by the U.N. as one of the worst in the world, and I don’t think it would be an exaggeration at this point to say that it is the very worst crisis anywhere. A famine should be an avoidable disaster nowadays, which should remind us that this crisis is almost entirely man-made. What makes this crisis especially obscene is that the near-famine conditions in Yemen are the result of the policy being pursued by the Saudis and their allies with U.S. and British support. “Reassuring” despots means supporting them as they starve millions of people as part of their appalling and unnecessary war.

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