Daniel Larison

Kasich’s Dangerous Irresponsibility on Syria

Steve Beshear/Flickr

John Kasich repeated his support for the terrible idea of a “no-fly zone” in Syria. His comments on it were almost as reckless as Rubio’s:

“You come into that no-fly zone, you will suffer the consequences,” Kasich said. When pressed about what he would do if Moscow invaded air space over a no-fly zone, he said “there will be severe consequences.”

I suppose this might sound “tough” until one realizes how deranged it is. Kasich wants us to think that he would approve of shooting down Russian jets that violate his “no-fly zone.” At best, this is empty bluster and will be seen as such. In that case, Kasich’s own foolish “red line” will be violated with impunity. At worst, Kasich means this and is willing to risk war with Russia over a “no-fly zone” in Syria that serves no American interest. If that’s how he would act as president, it proves that he can’t be trusted with the presidency.

By contrast, Rand Paul was one of the only presidential candidates with a sane statement on this issue. He said this in an interview yesterday:

That’s drawing a red line in the sky. Once you draw a red line, and people cross it, what happens? Now we’re talking about an incident that could lead to World War III. We went 70 years having open channels of communication with the Russians, trying to avoid having one side shoot down the opposite side’s plane. I think the people who call for a no-fly zone are naive. Right now, Russia’s actually being invited by two of the neighboring countries, by Iraq and Syria. We’re going to say we’re going to stop Russia from flying in the area when two of the countries being flown over have invited that country in? [bold mine-DL] This gets back to whether we want to diplomatically isolate ourselves, or whether we want to diplomatically engage.

On Syria, Paul is clearly distinguishing himself from the rest of the field and he is making the better policy argument. His point that the Syrian and Iraqi governments are agreeing to let Russian forces fly in their airspace and have sought or considered seeking Moscow’s support is an important one that usually gets lost in this debate. The U.S. has no authority to impose the “no-fly zone” that hawks want to establish, and it would be foolish in the extreme to think that Russia would recognize or respect a “no-fly zone” if one were created. For all the whining about how Russia has “humiliated” the U.S. in Syria before now, what the hawks propose would guarantee that the U.S. either engages extremely dangerous escalation or is forced into making a genuinely humiliating climbdown.

Virtually every other candidate on the Republican field besides Paul and Trump has approved of some version of the reckless approach that Kasich endorsed, and in doing so they have exposed themselves as unfit for the office they seek.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 3 comments

Why Enabling the War on Yemen Must Stop

Kajzrphotography / Shutterstock

The New York Times reports on the latest war crime committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen:

Airstrikes by a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia hit a house south of the capital on Wednesday, killing at least 23 people who were attending a wedding party, said witnesses and a local medical worker.

Hitting civilian targets has become an only too common occurrence over the last six months of the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Proponents of providing the coalition with precision munitions like to argue that such weapons will make Saudi targeting more accurate, but that misses the point. The problem in this conflict is that the Saudis and their allies repeatedly strike targets that have no possible military value and they appear to do so on purpose. This is just the latest example in a well-documented pattern of coalition airstrikes hitting civilian targets.

It is because of attacks like this one that Amnesty International has called on both the American and British government to halt weapons deliveries to the Saudis and their allies because of the use of these weapons in the commission of war crimes. Bryan Schatz summed upThe the findings of Amnesty’s report:

The Amnesty report is the result of field investigations of 13 air strikes that hit Saada, Yemen, between May and July. Fifty-nine of the 100 civilians who died in the strikes were children. “The USA and other states exporting weapons to any of the parties to the Yemen conflict have a responsibility to ensure that the arms transfers they authorize are not facilitating serious violations of international humanitarian law,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty’s senior crisis response adviser, who led the investigation.

If the U.S. and Britain have provided weapons used in the commission of war crimes, they are partly responsible for those crimes as well. For their own good and for the sake of the civilian population of Yemen, the U.S. and Britain should halt their weapons sales to the Saudis and other GCC states at war in Yemen. That won’t redress the many wrongs that have already been done, and it won’t excuse the U.S. and British support for the war to date, but it is the very least that can be done to limit the American and British role in this atrocious conflict.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 2 comments

Hawks Always Want to Escalate a Conflict Somewhere

U.S. Dept. of Defense/Flickr

Even Max Boot realizes that shooting down Russian jets over Syria is too reckless to be tried, so he goes looking for some other war that the U.S. can make worse:

Supplying arms to the Ukrainians will increase the pain of Putin’s Ukrainian offensive and divert his attention away from Syria.

It seems to have escaped the notice of hawks here in the U.S., but the cease-fire in Ukraine has largely been holding for many weeks, so their demand that the U.S. send arms to Ukraine is even more irresponsible than it was when they first started making it. Arming Ukraine was a lousy idea when the fighting was still going on, but now that there is a better chance to secure peace it is even worse.

Supposing that the administration were stupid enough to do as Boot recommends, it would only be able to divert Russian attention away from Syria if it led to a new Ukrainian offensive to inflict more “pain” on Moscow (i.e., kill more Russians and their proxies). That would in turn ensure that the conflict in Ukraine worsens to the much greater detriment of Ukraine. To the extent that arming Ukraine “succeeds” in doing this, it would mean that many more Ukrainians would be killed for the sake of distracting Russia from its latest misadventure. It’s not clear how anyone would benefit from this, and it would force Ukraine to endure additional losses for no good reason. It’s also possible that arming Ukraine wouldn’t have the desired effect, and might instead encourage Russia to become more combative and intransigent across the board. Except for perversely wishing to prolong and stoke a conflict that has been dying down, it is hard to see why anyone would now support such a measure.

The impulse to counter every Russian move with an opposing move is a common one among Western hawks, but especially in Ukraine and Syria it makes no sense. There is no particular reason why the U.S. needs to counter Russia’s intervention in Syria, and none of the proposed counter-moves serves American interests. In fact, the automatic reflex to seek to counter Russia allows Moscow to have more influence over our policies than it otherwise would. Mark Galeotti made this point very well recently when he said this:

The fundamental point is this: The more the West lets itself be shocked into responses by Putin, the more power it gives him, the more reason he has to continue to goad and needle.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 12 comments

Congress Starts to Pay Attention to the War on Yemen

gary718 / shutterstock

U.S. support for the war on Yemen is beginning to stir up a little resistance in Congress:

Democrats on a key Senate panel are holding up bomb sales for the Saudi air campaign in Yemen amid growing concerns over the rising death toll, Al-Monitor has learned.

This comes months later than it should have, but at least it is a start at trying to rein in the administration’s indefensible backing for the Saudi-led bombing campaign. A delay in selling the Saudis more weapons is welcome, but it would need to be more than a temporary slowdown if it is to have the effect of curtailing or ending the campaign all together. While it is good news that there is finally some Congressional scrutiny of the U.S. role in the war, there needs to be much more if the administration is going to be pressured into meaningfully changing its policy.

Unfortunately, it seems that a delay in the weapons sale is the best that can be expected. The report continued:

Sale opponents told Al-Monitor that they’d like to see lawmakers introduce a resolution of disapproval against the sale or at least circulate a Dear Colleague letter. While the sale is almost certain to go through eventually, they hope to use it as leverage to win concessions on kick-starting political negotiations with the Houthis and lifting the blockade.

If this could be used to get the Saudis and their allies to lift or just significantly relax the blockade, that would do the most good to relieve the country’s humanitarian crisis and stave off the impending famine. The trouble is that the civilian population is already suffering so severely because of the blockade that the time it will take to pressure Riyadh is time that civilians in Yemen can’t afford to waste. To make a delay in the weapons sale count for something, the Saudis would need to believe that the delay isn’t just being done for show or as a formality. The administration would need to be willing to use the leverage it has with Riyadh to extract some of these concessions, and the administration has so far seemed to be completely unwilling to do that.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 2 comments

Syria and Clinton’s Record of Terrible Foreign Policy Judgment


William Galston wrings his hands over Obama’s recent criticism of his Syria critics:

Mr. Obama knows that proposals to further embroil the U.S. in another Middle Eastern conflict are very unpopular—especially with the base of the Democratic Party. He cannot possibly believe that Mrs. Clinton would advocate a no-fly zone to improve her chances of winning the nomination. As he understands full well, she is saying what she believes, consistent with her past (spurned) advice to him, and with the perspective and knowledge of a veteran senior government official.

It is hard to believe that Clinton would think that endorsing the insanity of a “no-fly zone” in Syria improves her chances of winning the nomination. To the extent that Democratic voters are paying attention to this, it will almost certainly make things more difficult for her during the nomination contest. Even so, Galston misses the point here. Obama obviously thinks the position Clinton has endorsed is a bad one (and it is), but because she is the front-runner for his party’s nomination he probably thinks he has to minimize her support for an irresponsible policy and dismiss it as nothing more than a maneuver. In other words, he is cutting Clinton slack because he doesn’t want to damage her political prospects, which is what he would do if he treated her as the person with the horrible foreign policy judgment that she clearly is. Clinton’s position is much worse than Obama suggests. She isn’t “playing politics” in the sense that she is pandering to her party’s voters, but rather she is instinctively backing more aggressive measures as she has always done throughout her public career. It’s part of a pattern of making terrible decisions regarding military intervention that she has exhibited for the last two decades.

Clinton’s preference for a more hawkish approach to Syria is proof that as bad as Obama’s Syria policy has been it is easy to imagine how it could be worse and more costly for the U.S.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 8 comments

Obama, Syria Hawks, and Foreign Policy “Mumbo-Jumbo”

Bret Stephens probably thought he was landing a major blow with this criticism:

[Obama’s] preferred method for dealing with disagreement is denigration. If Republicans want a tougher line in Syria, they’re warmongers. If Hillary Clinton thinks a no-fly zone is a good idea, she’s playing politics [bold mine-DL]: “There is obviously a difference,” the president tut-tutted about his former secretary of state’s position, “between running for president and being president.”

Obama’s Syria policy is undoubtedly a mess, but not for any of the reasons Stephens gives. These examples are reminders that his hawkish critics really don’t have anything credible to offer as an alternative. Republicans that threaten to shoot down Russian jets over Syria and want to bomb Syrian government forces are warmongers. They are openly agitating for policies that will take the U.S. to war against one or more foreign governments with potentially grave consequences for our country. Presenting them as irresponsible hard-liners is not an exaggeration or misrepresentation. It is a fact that they don’t like to have pointed out in public. Clinton may not be “playing politics” by supporting a “no-fly zone,” since that position puts her on the wrong side of most Democratic voters, but it’s perfectly true that presidential candidates can indulge in reckless posturing without serious consequences in a way that a sitting president can’t. In Clinton’s case, Obama was trying to soften the blow of dismissing her position as the folly that it is without explicitly ridiculing her. It’s not Obama’s fault if he correctly points out that his hawkish opponents make terrible arguments and endorse insane policies.

The truth is that the mostly hawkish objections to current Syria policy are “half-baked” and always have been. Their preferred policies are ill-conceived, short-sighted, and driven by a bizarre need to take sides in a foreign civil war in which the U.S. has nothing vital at stake. That was true in 2011, and it’s true now. Obama’s failing is not that he has dismissed these arguments out of hand or ridiculed the people making them, but that he has internalized far too many of the criticisms of his “inaction” on Syria and indulged in foolish half-measures in an unsuccessful attempt to placate hawks that will never be satisfied with anything he does. He has repeatedly caved to Syria hawks just enough to sink the U.S. into the mire of Syria’s civil war without any hope of achieving anything. The real shame of Obama’s Syria policy is not that he has mocked his hawkish detractors, but that he has made the mistake of listening to them at all.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 9 comments

Cameron and the Effects of the Libyan War

Fraser Nelson challenges David Cameron’s self-serving rhetoric on the Libyan war:

‘Were we right to stop a massacre? Yes, we absolutely were,’ said David Cameron on his Radio 4 Today programme interview. But the real question is different: were we right to depose Gaddafi, given the chaos (and bloodshed) that has followed in Libya?

The difference between these two questions reflects the gap between the two sides in debates over “humanitarian” intervention. The interventionist assumes that his stated good intentions are what matter most, while those on the other side judge the policy by its likely consequences and actual results. Cameron asserts that there was certain to be a massacre and that the intervention prevented it. This is a dubious assertion, but it can’t be disproven. Cameron is going to frame the war in this way because it avoids addressing the war’s destabilizing and harmful effects, many of which opponents of the war expected and cited as reasons not to intervene. Cameron naturally doesn’t want to be judged on the effects of the war he championed, but only wants people to remember that he meant well.

Those two questions are closely related. It was practically guaranteed and entirely foreseeable that the intervention in Libya would not remain limited to protecting an enclave in eastern Libya against Gaddafi’s forces.The impetus for intervening in the first place was always to take sides in the civil war against the government, and once the U.S. and its allies took that side they were always very likely to press on until “their side” prevailed. If one favored “doing something” militarily to oppose the Libyan government, one favored going to war with the Libyan government until it was defeated, and in that case the government’s defeat was going to be its overthrow. Though the Obama administration and other intervening governments pretended for the sake of appearances that regime change was not the goal of the mission, it was clear very early on that toppling the Libyan government was bound to be what the intervening governments would define as “success” once they had tied themselves to the rebels’ cause. After the fact, Libyan war supporters crowed that the intervention had “worked” because it had toppled the Libyan government, which they had previously claimed was exactly not what the intervention was designed to achieve.

The Libyan case is a good recent example of how military interventions that are sold as “limited” and defensive in nature at the beginning can easily morph into a much more ambitious and aggressive policy. Sometimes this escalation may be the intention of the intervening governments all along, and sometimes it will result from political pressure from hawks back home that make demands to “do more” or “finish the job.” Regardless, once a government has crossed the line and initiated hostilities it is almost impossible politically for them to pull back and halt an intervention, and a government that is inclined to start an unnecessary war is also unlikely to see the virtue in stopping it.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 3 comments

Rubio’s Disqualifying Recklessness on Syria

Judith E. Bell / Flickr

Rubio has also endorsed “a safe zone that includes a no-fly zone” in Syria (relevant part of video starts around 8:10). When asked about Russian forces in Syria, Rubio asserts that he doesn’t think the Russians would test a “no-fly zone” established by the U.S., and goes further by saying that if they did “that would be a problem” but would be “no different than any other adversary.” As he always does, he assumes that the other government in question will back down when threatened and challenged, because he is wedded to an ideology that prizes “resolve” and showing “strength” above all else.

He takes for granted that Russia wouldn’t test a “no-fly zone” because Moscow doesn’t want armed conflict with the U.S., but by the same reasoning the Kremlin would assume that the U.S. would never actually shoot down Russian planes because our government doesn’t want a war with Russia. Assuming that the other side isn’t stupid enough to risk escalation is a huge gamble, and it’s an assumption that no remotely responsible leader would make. That’s especially true when there is nothing in Syria that is important enough to the U.S. to take that risk.

In short, Rubio is prepared to risk a war with Russia for the sake of his more aggressive Syria policy, and to make matters worse he doesn’t acknowledge the enormous danger that he would be courting by doing this. Russia is obviously not the same as “any other adversary,” and putting the U.S. on a collision course with Russia over Syria is one of the most irresponsible things that a presidential candidate could promise to do. Rubio is hardly the only presidential candidate to support a policy like this in Syria, but I suspect he is the one most ideologically committed to following through with such an irresponsible and reckless policy.

P.S. A little later, Harwood presses Rubio by asking, “Don’t you think the prospect of potential military, hot military conflict with Russia would scare the American people?” Rubio’s answer is delusional: “Sure, but the consequences of not doing anything would scare them even more.” That exchange sums up everything wrong with Rubio’s worldview and reminds us why he should never be allowed the chance to become president.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 24 comments

Yemen and the Destructive Habit of Taking Sides

Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr: air strike in Sana'a, May 2015

Paul Pillar concludes an excellent post on the U.S. role in the war on Yemen with this observation:

Mistaken policies such as the U.S. posture toward Yemen will continue as long as U.S. policy is made in a domestic political climate in which prevailing sentiment automatically labels some foreign states as “allies” and others as practitioners of “nefarious” behavior, and insists that the United States always align itself with the former and always oppose anything having to do with the latter.

The most common excuse for U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign and blockade of Yemen is that Washington needed to “reassure” Riyadh that they could count on U.S. backing in the future in spite of the nuclear agreement reached with Iran. As I’ve said before, this is a thoroughly unsatisfying explanation that tries to ignore the many substantive objections to U.S. involvement in this war by invoking the importance of “alliance management.” Never mind that the U.S. is under no obligation to the Saudis or any of the other client states attacking Yemen. Properly speaking, none of them is a genuine treaty ally, and the U.S. owes them nothing if they choose to wage a reckless war against one of their neighbors. However, they are conventionally labeled as allies and they have presented their war as a struggle against Iranian influence, which makes many people in Washington think that the U.S. has to rally behind our so-called “allies.” It doesn’t seem to matter whether the interests of these so-called “allies” diverge with ours or not, and indeed U.S. interests are never even part of the discussion when it comes to enabling our reckless clients.

The default U.S. response from the start has been to take the Saudis’ side when the only justifiable and appropriate response in the case of Yemen is American neutrality. There is no question that lending U.S. backing to the war–and to subsequent diplomatic efforts to cover up the crimes committed in that war–has made the campaign easier and less costly for the Saudis and their allies than it would have otherwise been. It is possible that the Saudis and their allies might not be able to keep the campaign going in the absence of U.S. backing. Even if they can, the U.S. has no business participating in such an unnecessary and atrocious war. U.S. involvement isn’t merely the wrong response based on flawed assumptions, but it is also directly contributing to the ruin of another country and their people that have done nothing to the U.S. There is nothing admirable in taking sides in a war in which the U.S. has nothing at stake. As we are seeing in Yemen, it just means that the U.S. is assisting ugly client regimes as they lay waste to an impoverished country and starve its inhabitants.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 2 comments

A Syria “No-Fly Zone” Is Madness, So Naturally It Has Bipartisan Support

The insane idea of establishing a “no-fly zone” in Syria is gaining more supporters in Congress:

A growing number of Democrats are joining GOP voices in calling for a no-fly zone or a safe zone [bold mine-DL] in Syria where civilians and opposition fighters can go without fear of attack — a step the Obama administration does not back.

There seems to be some confusion about what it is that these members of Congress want. Do they want a “no-fly zone” that prohibits Syrian and Russian aircraft from flying, or are they calling for a more ambitious policy of securing an area against all forms of attack? I suspect that some of the supporters aren’t quite sure what they mean when they call for one or the other, and they may think that the two are interchangeable. “No-fly zone” is a term that hawks sometimes use to refer to sustained air campaigns against a government’s ground forces, and sometimes they use it just to refer to a proper “no-fly zone.” A safe zone implies that there would be “coalition” forces that could protect a given area against regime attacks on the ground as well, and that would entail a more significant, complicated, and lasting military commitment from the U.S. and any other governments participating in this operation. Regardless of which one these members of Congress are endorsing, they are backing a risky policy that has only become more so because of Russian involvement.

It is remarkable that the Syria “no-fly zone” idea is gaining more support at the same time that it has become obvious that it is completely unworkable as long as Russian forces are operating over Syria:

“The Russian forces now in place make it very, very obvious that any kind of no-fly zone on the Libyan model imposed by the US and allies is now impossible, unless the coalition is actually willing to shoot down Russian aircraft [bold mine-DL],” says Justin Bronk, research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute.

The fact that there has been such a surge of support for this crazy option in just the last few days suggests that the supporters of a “no-fly zone” in Syria haven’t thought their proposal through or considered the potential risks involved. Many of them would probably be horrified by the suggestion that they are endorsing a policy that could require shooting down Russian jets over Syria, and yet that is exactly what they are doing. We are seeing members of Congress and presidential candidates reacting instinctively to a Russian move by calling for military options that are neither feasible nor desirable for the U.S. The reflexive, unthinking nature of the reaction is one more reason why these calls for a “no-fly zone” in Syria should be flatly rejected.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , , , . 17 comments

Clinton’s Syria Folly and 2016

pennstatelive, Brookings Institution, Flickr

Last week, Hillary Clinton joined a number of Republican hawks in endorsing the insane option of establishing a “no-fly zone” in Syria. That has given her main competitor for the Democratic nomination an easy opening to appear more responsible:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Saturday that he opposes a unilateral American no-fly zone in Syria, offering a less hawkish stance on the war-torn region than Hillary Rodham Clinton, his chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, and a position more in line with President Obama.

It’s not surprising that Clinton has taken a foreign policy position that is horrible on the merits. The odd thing about Clinton’s decision to endorse yet another bad hawkish idea is that she is repeating the same political mistake that has tripped her up in the past. Clinton’s habit of siding with hawks in foreign policy debates is how she made the wrong call on the invasion of Iraq and wrongly backed intervention in Libya, and now she is doing so again on a high-profile issue in opposition to what most people in her party support. She is used to assuming that opting for the more aggressive option is the smart political move, but that hasn’t been true in the Democratic Party in over ten years.

Her Syria position gives her rivals for the nomination a more or less free pass to cast doubt on her foreign policy judgment, which has been consistently poor, and it allows her competitors to attack her for aligning herself with Republican hawks against the administration. She is exposing her political weakness on foreign policy and reminding her would-be supporters why she shouldn’t be trusted to make the right decisions as president. Her statement last week highlights one of the main reasons why Democratic voters should be wary of her candidacy, and it makes her foreign policy that much harder to distinguish from the hawks in the other party.

The question remains whether her rivals are willing and know how to use her stumbling against her. Sanders has had little to say about foreign policy over the last few months, and for an insurgent challenger he has been unusually reluctant to criticize Clinton on anything. Clinton is practically begging to be attacked by taking a position on Syria that is so completely at odds with what most Democrats want, but it will be up to her challengers to force her to defend her irresponsible and dangerous Syria position.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 2 comments

The Hawkish Syria Panic Continues

Michael Rubin recites one of the dumbest talking points on Ukraine available:

In the process of these outrages, Moscow demonstrated that the Budapest Memorandum in which the United States, among others, gave Kiev security guarantees [bold mine-DL] wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

Russia ignored the commitment it made in the Budapest memorandum when it intervened in Ukraine, but the U.S. and Britain never really made security guarantees to Ukraine. Like Russia, they pledged not to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but they promised nothing in the event that another government did so. In the event that Ukraine suffered an attack in which nuclear weapons were used, the signatories committed to seek “immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine.” This provision is obviously irrelevant to the current conflict. The value and purpose of the memorandum was to provide Ukraine with assurances as part of a deal to get it to relinquish the nuclear arsenal it inherited, and that is exactly what it did. To complain now that the U.S. has somehow failed to keep its end of the bargain is to demonstrate either total ignorance of the contents of the agreement or to seek to mislead Americans into believing that the U.S. has obligations to Ukraine that it never actually took on.

The obsession with “credibility” rears its ugly head later on in Rubin’s post. He asks, “So what to do to restore credibility?” Leaving aside that there has been no real loss of credibility, Rubin gives an utterly predictable answer:

There really is no option other than the military: Russian planes bomb targets close to those forces aligned with the United States? Then U.S. forces should bomb Syrian targets close to the Assad regime.

This is pure stupidity. Why should the U.S. escalate a conflict on behalf of ramshackle proxies in a foreign civil war? So that we can say that we have “restored credibility” with the Russians? That assumes that there is something in Syria important enough to the U.S. to justify escalating our role in the conflict. There isn’t and never has been. It also assumes that the Russians will take U.S. attacks on Assad’s forces as a warning rather than as a provocation and then decide to leave at least some of Assad’s enemies alone. There’s no reason to believe that Moscow would respond to an attack on its clients in this way. Regardless, doing as Rubin suggests would put the U.S. at war with the Syrian government, which would put U.S. pilots in greater danger and would greatly increase the chances of a clash with Russian forces. It’s entirely unnecessary and potentially very dangerous.

That isn’t the only place where Rubin wants the U.S. to take provocative action:

At the same time, it’s essential to arm the Ukrainians with enough lethal goods to help them roll back Russian proxies and send Russian forces home in body bags.

Other than making hawks in the U.S. feel better, it has never been clear what this measure is supposed to achieve besides riling up Moscow and putting Ukraine in renewed danger of a larger, bloodier war. The cease-fire in Ukraine is largely holding at present, so sending arms to Ukraine in order to “send Russian forces home in body bags” would require encouraging a collapse of the cease-fire and a new offensive against the separatists. That sets up Ukraine for a fight that it can’t win, and ensures that many more Ukrainians will also be sent home in body bags. It’s a foolish and reckless policy that makes less sense now than ever.

Rubin’s recommendations are a useful reminder that there is virtually no conflict that hawks don’t want the U.S. to join, and once joined there is no conflict that they don’t want to escalate. Because no U.S. interests are at stake in these conflicts, they are forced to rely on bogus appeals to “credibility,” and those appeals fall apart under the most minimal scrutiny. As ever, hawks propose more aggressive measures not because they will produce a more desirable outcome for the U.S. or its would-be clients (they usually don’t), but because it satisfies their need to “take action” regardless of what the consequences may be.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , . 7 comments

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Russia: superpower or proxy? Kevin Sullivan comments on Russia’s expanded military role in Syria.

Is Russia’s Syria intervention a “blessing in disguise” for the U.S.? Michael Cohen considers how the U.S. might benefit from Russia’s deeper involvement in the conflict.

South Sudan, forgotten but still in turmoil. Matt Purple describes the current state of the country’s civil war.

How Catalan survived. Irene Boada explains how the regional language has persisted despite having been actively opposed by the Spanish government for decades.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , , , , , . One comment

Syria and the Bizarre Need to Take Sides

Fareed Zakaria offers a useful reminder why U.S. policy in Syria is so muddled:

But if you consider the major groups vying for control of Damascus, the United States is against almost all of them.

The fact that the U.S. can’t support any of them should make it clear that the U.S. has no business being involved in the conflict at all. The hunt for the elusive “moderate” opposition has been driven by the weird desire to find some faction in the civil war that the U.S. can support without openly endorsing jihadists. While interventionists imagined that the U.S. automatically had “allies” in Syria that it needed to aid, the reality was that there was never any side in the war that the U.S. could justifiably support that had any chance of prevailing over the other forces. Instead of taking the lack of obvious allies as a warning to stay out entirely, the U.S. keeps trying to find a way to take sides.

The desire to take sides stemmed at first from hostility to Iran: if Iran backed Assad, the U.S. had to find enemies of Assad to support. It didn’t matter that the U.S. would gain nothing from regime change in Syria, or that pursuing it might impose more costs than it was worth. Hawks just wanted to inflict a loss on Iran. Now fighting ISIS has taken priority, but not so much that it overrules the old hostility to Iran, which is why so many hawks now propose fighting both Assad and ISIS at the same time. The U.S. has scarcely any more effective allies on the ground now than before, but instead of rethinking the entire project the U.S. keeps stumbling ahead with a war in Syria that it doesn’t need to be fighting. All of this comes ultimately from our political leaders’ inability to recognize that there are many conflicts that the U.S. should avoid all together.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 17 comments

Helping the Saudis to Cover Up Their Abuses

Samuel Oakford has further details on the U.S. role in blocking an investigation into war crimes in Yemen:

A Dutch-led effort to create a human rights mission for Yemen was abandoned Wednesday amid intense Saudi opposition at the UN, but human rights experts are laying blame in part at the feet of the United States, which failed to vigorously back the Netherlands — and may have worked behind the scenes to head off the independent investigation.

According to Oakford’s report, the U.S. paid lip service to supporting the Dutch resolution, but then “simply let it die.” It’s not exactly shocking that our government wasn’t willing to back up an effort to investigate war crimes in a conflict in which its clients have been committing multiple violations of international law for months with U.S. help. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand the lengths to which the U.S. is prepared to go to back up the indefensible Saudi-led campaign. The U.S. has once again shamefully aided the Saudis and their allies yet again in their reckless intervention. In this case, the administration is aiding them in covering up the coalition’s excesses and abuses.

This part of the article sums things up pretty well:

“The resolution tabled by the Arab group represents a shameful capitulation to Saudi Arabia and has denied Yemeni victims their first real opportunity for justice,” said Balkees Jarrah, senior council at Human Rights Watch. “By failing to establish a UN inquiry, the Human Rights Council has squandered an opportunity to deter ongoing abuses in Yemen.”

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 5 comments

The Insanity of a “No-Fly Zone” in Syria

Hillary Clinton has endorsed a deranged idea for Syria:

In an apparent break with the Obama White House, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for the creation of a no-fly zone inside Syria Thursday, the day after Russian warplanes started bombing rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Wall Street Journal and some Republican candidates and members of Congress have called for the same thing, so the hawkish panic over Syria is now a bipartisan affair. A “no-fly zone” in Syria has always been a bad idea because it commits the U.S. directly to the fighting in Syria’s civil war. Now that Russian planes are in the air and carrying out strikes against anti-regime targets in that country, it is an insane idea. If the U.S. was unwilling to go to war with the Syrian government on its own by attacking its air defenses (a necessary part of establishing any “no-fly zone”), it makes even less sense to try to impose this now that Russia is involved. The U.S. would have to be willing to shoot down Russian jets to enforce this, and there is no telling how far the conflict would go from there. The great danger of Russia’s intervention in Syria is that it could lead to a clash with U.S. forces, and establishing a “no-fly zone” would make that clash much more likely to happen. Indeed, it practically guarantees that a clash would occur. Hawks are proposing that the U.S. risk the possibility of armed conflict with the Russians over Syria for no reason, and Clinton has just thrown in her lot with them. This is just the latest example of Clinton’s poor foreign policy judgment and reflexive hawkish instincts.

The WSJ typically describes this dangerous proposal as a way to demonstrate “revived American leadership,” but it would actually be a perfect example of how recklessly and irresponsibly the U.S. can behave overseas.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 12 comments

McCain’s Disgraceful Answers on Yemen

Alan Freed / Shutterstock.com

Lee Fang cornered some senators at the Washington Ideas Forum and pressed them to comment on Saudi war crimes in Yemen. The exchange with McCain is damning for the senator:

“They may be bombing civilians, which is actually not true,” McCain said, when asked about civilian casualties in Yemen.

“Civilians aren’t dying?” I asked.

No, they’re not [bold mine-DL],” the senator replied. “Oh, I’m sure civilians die in war. Not nearly as many as the Houthis have executed,” McCain continued, referring to the Shiite militia waging an insurgency against the Sunni government in Yemen.

Asked about the recent reports of Saudi forces bombing a wedding party in Yemen, McCain said, “I’m sure in wars terrible things happen and the Houthis however are an extremist group backed by the Iranians who are slaughtering Yemenis.”

As Fang correctly notes, U.N. officials have just this week stated that the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes are responsible for a large majority of the civilian deaths in Yemen. They have also called attention to the ruinous effects of the coalition’s blockade, which is bringing the country to the brink of famine. McCain’s dismissive comments about the thousands of civilians killed and wounded by Saudi-led, U.S.-backed bombing are appalling in both their ignorance and their contempt for innocent life. McCain is either completely uninformed about what is happening in Yemen and repeating the official Saudi line, or he is knowingly reciting dishonest pro-Saudi talking points. Either way, McCain has outdone himself here in denying coalition war crimes in Yemen.

Both sides in Yemen are guilty of war crimes, but it is simply a fact that the Saudi-led coalition has done significantly more harm to the country and caused more civilian deaths and more destruction than their enemies. One of the reasons that the Saudi-led war and its U.S. backing receive no scrutiny here in the U.S. is that so many of our political leaders are indifferent to or supportive of the campaign. McCain distinguishes himself as one of the most shameless and disgraceful supporters of the war on Yemen. I have had a pretty low opinion of McCain for a long time, but today it just sank a little lower.

McCain is a perfect example of the double standard that so-called “humanitarian” interventionists apply when it comes to military intervention and protecting the lives of civilians. If a hostile or pariah government commits human rights abuses, McCain is the first to demand that the U.S. “do something,” and if it is the U.S. or a client that does the same thing McCain will be first to make excuses and to shift the blame.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 5 comments

Tom Cotton and the Hawkish Syria Panic


Tom Cotton reminds us that his foreign policy judgment is consistently terrible. This is his response to Russian intervention in Syria:

“I think this is a near catastrophe for U.S. foreign policy in the region and really around the world,” the Arkansas Republican said, adding that it goes against a longtime bipartisan understanding that Russia should not be a powerbroker in the Middle East.

As I said last week, Russian intervention in Syria is a mistake on their part, and we are already seeing that their limited number of airstrikes is inflicting additional harm on the civilian population. Careless and inaccurate bombing in Syria isn’t going to do anything except to kill more Syrian civilians. However, one doesn’t need to endorse Russia’s deeper involvement in Syria’s civil war to understand that it isn’t a “near catastrophe” for U.S. foreign policy. I might not as far as saying that it is a “blessing in disguise,” but it is not something that should cause us to panic. As Cohen says in the linked article, the fact that hawks in Washington are panicking tells us little about the significance of Russian moves and everything about how “Washington fetishizes the mere exercise of power.”

Russia is taking on a larger role in a foreign conflict in a bid to shore up a weakened client. This is not a sign of Moscow’s strength or strategic genius, but rather of the weakness of its client’s position and by extension Russia’s relative weakness in the region. As hawks have also tried to do with Iran recently, they are trying to present a deteriorating position as proof of expanding influence, and they are doing it partly to try to build support for the more aggressive policies in Syria that they have wanted all along. You can almost hear them saying, “We cannot allow an intervention gap.” On this, as on everything else in the region and beyond, they are wrong.

The potential danger here, as Dan Drezner emphasized earlier today, is the possibility that Russian and U.S. forces could clash over Syria. That is obviously something that must be avoided, and it is the latest reminder of why it was never a good idea to expand U.S. intervention into Syria with its multi-sided civil war. This could be an opportunity to reassess the wisdom of waging an unnecessary and illegal war in Syria, but we all know that this opportunity will be squandered.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , , . 15 comments

The Rubio/Fiorina Mirage

Gage Skidmore/Flickr,  Marc Nozell/Flickr

Mona Charen makes a questionable assertion:

A Rubio/ Fiorina ticket (or Fiorina/Rubio) could win in 2016.

I doubt that these candidates will be on the 2016 ticket in either position when all is said and done, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that Republicans choose Rubio and he then chooses Fiorina as his running mate. That would leave the GOP with a ticket that has the least experience in national politics in almost seventy years. The two candidates would have remarkably little foreign policy experience between them, the presidential nominee would have no executive experience at all, and the vice presidential nominee would have some experience marred by a tenure widely regarded as unsuccessful. The ticket would be dogged by attacks on Fiorina’s corporate background and layoffs at H-P, and it would suffer from the fact that neither of them has a single legislative accomplishment or policy success. This is a ticket that would likely thrill movement conservative pundits, but they have an uncanny instinct for picking candidates that even Republican primary voters end up rejecting. By almost any measure, this would not be a successful presidential ticket for the GOP, and I suspect that Republican voters will realize that by the time it comes to vote.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 17 comments

Why Backing Kurdish Independence Still Doesn’t Make Sense

Peter Weber means well here, but this is a bad idea:

If Obama wants to get ahead of ominous developments in Syria for once, he should consider throwing U.S. support behind an independent Kurdistan, one that is carved out from the decaying husks of Syria and Iraq.

The problems with backing an independent Kurdistan are well-known. The short version is that backing the creation of such a state would put the U.S. in the position of guaranteeing the independence of a new client against its neighbors, all of whom would be hostile to its existence to some degree. Because of Turkey’s fear of a reviving Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), U.S. support for independent Kurdistan would put the U.S. and Turkey on a collision course and might very well trigger Turkish military action against the new state. If that seems unlikely, remember that Turkey is already launching airstrikes on Kurdish targets in Iraq and “joined” the war on ISIS mostly because it was alarmed about Kurdish gains in Syria. Imagine how much more alarmed it would by the formal creation of a new Kurdish state. The Iraqi and Syrian governments aren’t likely to accept a new state “carved out” of their territory, and it is doubtful that Iran would be indifferent to something that undermines these governments. If the U.S. were seen as instrumental in the creation of an independent Kurdistan, that could also make it an attractive target for terrorists hostile to the U.S. Depending on the terms of the relationship with Washington, the U.S. might find itself obliged to defend the new state, and that would be yet another security commitment for the U.S. to fulfill.

In exchange for all that, creating an independent Kurdistan would probably not yield that many benefits, at least not for the U.S. or the war on ISIS. Weber presents it as providing the U.S. with “a base of operations in a country that has invited its help,” but once an independent Kurdistan is established the new state would probably be concerned with securing itself and would be less inclined to join itself to the U.S. war effort. The new Kurdistan would probably not be recognized by that many other states, since its creation will almost certainly have come over the objections of the governments in Baghdad and Damascus. All the states that are wary of encouraging their own separatist and nationalist movements would likely be against recognizing the new state, which would leave the new state as a sort of semi-pariah on the international stage. Once independence has been achieved, it is also possible that internal rivalries between different Kurdish factions would lead to a conflict over control of the new state, and that would leave the U.S. with the task of trying to resolve a new civil war. Carving out a new state creates a number of new problems for U.S. policy and doesn’t do much to solve existing ones. It would leave the U.S. with a long-term commitment to sustain the new state that it helped create for the hope for a short-term fix for a war the U.S. shouldn’t even be fighting. Even if doing this provided “a rare moment of positive feeling about its mideast policy” (which is not a good reason to do anything of this magnitude), that feeling would likely evaporate soon thereafter because of the many headaches that it would cause.

If all this sounds unduly pessimistic, I would point out that the skeptics of drastic action and sudden political change have been proven much more right than wrong over the last decade. In any case, it is necessary to consider the consequences of such a major political change as fully as possible. One of the reasons that the U.S. finds itself in its absurd position in its war with ISIS is that the policy was never thought through or debated at any length, and the U.S. plunged into an unnecessary war in two countries without considering what came next. Plunging ahead with another ill-considered policy in a panicked attempt to “get ahead of ominous developments” is the last thing that the U.S. should be doing now. It would better if it reconsidered the merits of its original decision to intervene and scaled back its goals to match what it is actually prepared to commit to this part of the world. Midwifing a new state in the midst of regional upheaval and conflict is far more than the U.S. is going to be prepared to do over the coming years, and it would better for all concerned not to start down that path.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , , , . 32 comments
← Older posts