Daniel Larison

The Horrifying Starvation of Yemen Continues

IRIN Photos/Flickr: The UN-administered camp at Mazrak, north-west Yemen, seen on 12 November 2009 is now stretched beyond capacity after a Saudi military offensive against the Huthis starting early November uprooted a fresh wave of IDP families.

The horrifying conditions in Yemen continue to get worse:

Seven million Yemenis are closer than ever to starvation, the UN humanitarian coordinator in the country warned Tuesday, almost two years since a conflict escalated between the government and rebels.

“Seven million Yemenis do not know where their next meal will come from and are ever closer to starvation” in a country of 27 million people, Jamie McGoldrick said.

“Over 17 million people are currently unable to adequately feed themselves and are frequently forced to skip meals — women and girls eat the least and last,” he said in a statement.

Yemen suffered from food insecurity before the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led intervention began in 2015, but that intervention, the ensuing damage to the country’s infrastructure and ports (most of it caused by coalition bombing), and the coalition’s cruel blockade have brought millions of people to the brink of famine. By enabling the coalition’s campaign, the U.S., Britain, and other supporting governments are partly responsible for creating the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, and they have had a hand in causing the famine that is now unfolding there.

The disaster that engulfs Yemen was entirely predictable at the start of the intervention, and month after month many people kept warning that this is what would happen as a result of this reckless military intervention. The war has received intermittent coverage, but has been largely ignored. Millions of people are close to perishing from hunger and preventable diseases in a crisis that need not have happened and might still be ameliorated if there were a coordinated international response. Unfortunately, the international response has been anemic at best, and there is scant attention paid to the crisis in the Western countries whose governments have been working to exacerbate the civilian population’s misery.

Our government has aided and abetted the Saudis and their allies not only in their indiscriminate bombing, but has also fully backed the blockade without any criticism. The coalition has repeatedly targeted port facilities and critical roads and bridges needed to bring in and distribute basic necessities. Through all of it, the U.S. has reliably armed and refueled coalition planes so that they can continue to wreck the country. The U.S.-backed Hadi government further compounded the disaster by relocating the central bank to Aden, which in turn made it all but impossible to secure financing for what few imports still make it into the country. Obama began the disgraceful policy of backing the Saudi-led war, and Trump has continued it and given every indication that U.S. support will only increase.

The horror of what has been deliberately done to Yemen over the last two years is matched only by the near-total international indifference to the plight of its people.

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McMaster and Permanent War

Andrew Bacevich describes McMaster’s challenge as Trump’s National Security Advisor:

Through an ironic twist of fate, McMaster now finds himself called upon to fill the role of blunt, candid truth-teller for his generation of military officers—and to do so while serving a commander-in-chief who gives little evidence of valuing those qualities. Yet circumstances demand more than mere straight talk. Only by transcending the role of “military strategist” will General McMaster succeed in doing what duty plainly requires: identifying a course that leads away from permanent war and imparts to what remains of U.S. grand strategy a semblance of coherence.

The good news is that McMaster seems well-suited to the first role. He has a record of speaking his mind and telling superiors things that they won’t want to hear. That is a good trait in any adviser, and there clearly needs to be someone at the highest levels of Trump’s administration willing to tell the president the truth rather than indulge his preferences. In that respect, the contrast with Flynn couldn’t be starker. Flynn was not only essentially a Trump loyalist and yes-man from the start, but he was actively misleading Trump with bad information and poor analysis shaped by a warped worldview. Even when Flynn imagined he was telling Trump hard truths, he was usually feeding him nonsense, and unfortunately it was nonsense Trump was only too willing to believe. McMaster has a reputation for at least sometimes breaking with established assumptions, but as far as I can tell he does not break with reality as Flynn routinely did.

As for the second role, I share Bacevich’s doubts that he could or would try to lead the U.S. away from permanent war, but since Trump will be the one ultimately making the decisions it may not matter. There is no evidence that Trump wants to put an end to any of our current wars, and quite a bit more evidence that he doesn’t. Even if he take seriously his throwaway lines about rejecting “nation-building,” that doesn’t tell us whether he thinks the U.S. should get out of the business of wrecking other nations. He ran explicitly on a platform of escalating at least one of the wars that the U.S. is currently fighting, and he never said that he wanted to end the others that the U.S. was fighting or supporting. McMaster can presumably tell Trump why his proposed “safe zones” in Syria would be dangerous and ill-advised, but will he recommend against sending more U.S. forces to fight ISIS or to Afghanistan? I hope so, but I have no reason yet to think that he will.

In the end, the U.S. will only move away from permanent war if Congress and the public consistently demand it, and as Prof. Bacevich pointed out last week Congress appears to have no interest in that. Until they do, there won’t be much pressure on this or any other president to halt our involvement in open-ended and unnecessary wars, and without that pressure the U.S. will keep fighting indefinitely.

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‘American Exceptionalism’ and Our Warped Foreign Policy ‘Idealists’

Michael Gerson complains about the “abandonment” of “American exceptionalism”:

During the Barack Obama years, the United States retreated from internationalism in practice. At first, this may have been a reaction against George W. Bush’s foreign policy. But Obama’s tendency became a habit, and the habit hardened into a conviction. He put consistent emphasis on the risks of action and the limits of American power.

One of the more tedious arguments from hawks over the last eight years is that the U.S. “retreated” under Obama. This was always false, and there was no real “retreat” from the world. Nonetheless, the lie became a habit and it has since hardened into conventional D.C. wisdom. Obama didn’t “retreat” from internationalism, but the purpose in promoting this falsehood was to identify internationalism with extremely meddlesome interventionism and to treat everything else as the rejection of internationalism. This nonsense made for a somewhat useful talking point so long as hawks didn’t get too specific about what they meant, but when forced to describe what Obama’s “retreat” was they had to acknowledge that they meant that he didn’t start or escalate enough wars to their satisfaction. According to them, Obama’s big failing is that he didn’t involve the U.S. enough in the killing of Syrians. To put it mildly, that is an odd understanding of what internationalism means.

The abuse of the concept of “American exceptionalism” has been similar. Once again, hawks insisted that Obama didn’t believe in it, misrepresented his words to shore up their garbage argument, and then repeated the lie for years until it became automatic. In the process, they ended up defining “American exceptionalism” so narrowly that no one except advocates for a very aggressive foreign policy could qualify as supporters. Gerson’s complaint that Obama emphasized risks and costs of direct military action in Syria reflects this. If a president doesn’t use American power to inflict death and destruction somewhere overseas, or if he even pays closer attention to what it will cost the U.S. to do so, Gerson thinks that amounts to an “abandonment” of what makes America unique. That’s profoundly warped, but unfortunately it is what passes for “idealism” in foreign policy commentary these days.

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Whose West?

Bret Stephens thinks Western societies lack the “civilizational self-belief” that others have:

Mr. Lavrov understands something that ought to be increasingly clear to American and European audiences: The West—as a geopolitical bloc, a cultural expression, a moral ideal—is in deep trouble. However weak Russia may be economically, and however cynical its people might be about their regime, Russians continue to drink from a deep well of civilizational self-belief. The same can be said about the Chinese, and perhaps even of the Islamic world too, troubled as it is.

The West? Not so much.

Stephens complains that nations all over the world wanted to join “the West” twenty-five years ago, but that today this is not happening. Two obvious responses come to mind. First, Western leaders have done a particularly poor job in the last twenty-five years with commensurate results, so there is less interest in imitating a “civilization” that doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. Second, if other nations are not as interested in Westernization as they once were (assuming they ever were), but are instead looking to their own histories and traditions for models, that is to be expected and doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about us.

This bit seemed especially odd:

Russia took itself off the Westernization track shortly after the turn of the century. Turkey followed a few years later. Thailand is on its way to becoming a version of what Myanmar had been up until a few years ago, while Malaysia is floating into China’s orbit. Ditto for the Philippines. Mexico may soon follow a similar trajectory if the Trump administration continues to pursue its bad-neighbor policy, and if a Chavista-like figure such as Andrés Manuel López Obrador comes to power in next year’s presidential election.

Here we can see clearly that Stephens’ problem here has nothing to do with lack of Western “self-belief,” and it has everything to do with changing internal politics of other countries and perceived drift of some states into the orbit of another major power. Russia “took itself off the Westernization track” to the extent that it did in no small part because many Russians found the experience of Westernization in the ’90s to be painful and humiliating, and not because we didn’t have enough “self-belief.” On the contrary, one might argue that for most of the last twenty-five years that many Westerners have been obnoxiously overconfident in the promotion of their political and economic systems and this has generated a reaction in the opposite direction in many places. Regardless, the political changes mentioned here are driven almost entirely by local factors that are beyond our control, and won’t be fixed by becoming more confident in the merits of our “civilization” (whatever that might mean in practice).

Is Mexico any more or less “Western” depending on which party its voters choose? If so, the definition is flawed, or it is such a superficial political definition that it doesn’t mean very much. Maybe Malaysia is “floating into China’s orbit,” or maybe it isn’t, but at what point was authoritarian Malaysia ever meaningfully part of “the West” in any case? As for the Philippines drawing closer to China, why isn’t that considered a normal development instead of a cause for alarm?

Except as a category for organizing different areas and periods of history, “civilization” is not a terribly useful unit of analysis. When those lines are drawn, they are almost always done after the fact and they are drawn somewhat arbitrarily. Few consider the inheritors of Byzantium to be traditionally part of “the West” despite the fact that they share the same legacy of Greece, Rome, and ancient Christianity, and they have almost always been defined as part of some other “civilization” opposed to “the West.” In modern times, “the West” has often been even more narrowly defined to exclude nations that objectively share the same intellectual and religious heritage for contemporary political reasons. Stephens’ column unintentionally confirms exactly that.

The appeal to studying Western Civ is fine, and I did just that in college, but anyone that has carefully studied that history will know that the definition and values of “the West” have not been constants across centuries, nor have the boundaries of “the West” remained the same. The point is that there isn’t and hasn’t been a single “West” and people that belong to it have quarreled among themselves over its definition throughout our history, and I assume they will continue to do so. Indeed, Stephens’ main problem is that many people in Western countries are no longer buying into the ideological definition of “the West” that he favors. Frankly, that doesn’t seem like a problem that needs to be solved.

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McMaster Named as National Security Advisor

Trump has chosen Gen. H.R. McMaster as his new National Security Advisor:

HR McMaster, an army lieutenant general whose unconventional career has earned him widespread respect in US defense circles, will be Donald Trump’s next national security adviser.

The choice of McMaster has received widespread praise, and it seems that much of it is deserved. Trump made what seems to have been the best choice out of the four candidates he was considering, and it is good news that he didn’t select Bolton. Whatever else one might say about him, McMaster seems an obvious improvement over the man he is replacing. Flynn had become very much the unhinged ideologue by the time he joined Trump’s camp, and as far as I can tell McMaster is nothing of the sort. Above all, he has a reputation for integrity and competence, and the administration is desperately in need of someone like that running the NSC. He’ll still have his work cut out for him, but there is no question that Trump will be getting better advice than he was when Flynn was there. Whether Trump takes that advice remains to be seen.

Having said all that, one disturbing detail in the Guardian report jumped out:

Previewing a possible future appointment, Trump also said during Monday’s announcement that his administration will be asking John Bolton, a hardline senior diplomat in the George W Bush administration, “to work with us in a somewhat different capacity [bold mine-DL]… He had a good number of ideas that I must tell you, I agree very much with.”

That suggests that Bolton will still be getting a job somewhere in the administration, and that reflects very badly on Trump’s judgment in spite of what seems to be a good choice in McMaster.

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The Cost of Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as Terrorists

Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization would have deleterious consequences in many Arab states:

Of all the initiatives of the Trump administration that have set the Arab world on edge, none has as much potential to disrupt the internal politics of American partners in the region as the proposal to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood, the pre-eminent Islamist movement with millions of followers.

“The impact would be great,” said Issandr El Amrani, an analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Morocco, where a Brotherhood-linked party won the last election in October. “It could destabilize countries where anti-Islamist forces would be encouraged to double down. It would increase polarization.”

Perhaps the most striking thing about the proposed designation is that it would be quite harmful while being completely useless. It is self-defeating in the extreme to treat peaceful Islamist parties in aligned states as criminals, and it would harm our relations with many states that have traditionally been among the most cooperative in the region. At the same time, it would be perceived as an endorsement of the repression of despotic clients, and that would make even more enemies for the U.S.

The costs to these countries in terms of greater instability would be significant, but there would be no security benefit derived from such a designation because the group doesn’t merit being listed as a terrorist organization. Like issuing a blanket ban on allowing in nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries, designating the Muslim Brotherhood does nothing to thwart terrorism and imposes unnecessary burdens on large numbers of people mainly to satisfy a clutch of fanatics here at home. Worse, wrongly designating nonviolent groups as part of a terrorist organization feeds into jihadist propaganda and potentially encourages political violence. The administration’s main “counter-terrorism” initiatives so far have nothing to do with countering terrorism and everything to do with indulging excessive fear of people that do not pose a threat to the U.S.

Update: Noah Feldman spells out the serious domestic consequences of designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization:

At the maximum, the material support statute could become a tool of anti-Muslim suppression by the government. That represents a tremendous threat to free speech and civil liberties in the U.S.

And it would be difficult to challenge in the courts. The designation itself is reviewable by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. But if it survives review, the Holder decision stands as a basis to prosecute speakers whose advocacy can be characterized as “coordinated” with the Brotherhood or its affiliates.

The civil liberties community has shown early success in responding to Trump administration initiatives. In this instance, it would be far better and safer to nip the threat in the bud. Civil libertarians should strongly object to the designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, before it becomes the battleground for the next big civil liberties fight in the U.S.

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Bolton Would Be a Horrible Choice for National Security Advisor

John Bolton’s name keeps turning up as a possibility for a Trump administration position. Now he is being interviewed as a possible replacement for Michael Flynn:

The potential replacements who visited Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida were Army strategist Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, acting national security adviser Keith Kellogg, and U.S. Military Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen.

McMaster would seem to be the best choice of these four, and Bolton is clearly the worst. The fact that Bolton is even being seriously considered for the job is worrisome, and if he were to get it the benefit from Flynn’s departure would disappear immediately. The Trump administration already suffers from a dangerous Iran obsession, and having Bolton as National Security Advisor would undoubtedly make it even more intense. In addition to being a vehement opponent of the nuclear deal and a frequent advocate for illegally attacking Iran, Bolton has been a proud booster of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), the deranged cult and “former” terrorist organization that seeks regime change in Iran. Like Flynn, he is a hard-liner across the board, and appointing him would mean endorsing some of the very worst that the GOP has to offer on foreign policy.

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Trump’s Foreign Policy Incoherence

Jon Finer faults Trump for his foreign policy incoherence:

What is different is that right now not only is there no discernible doctrine guiding President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, the United States currently has no real foreign policy at all. By that I mean not that the policies are objectionable, or that the Trump team is struggling with the learning curve each new administration faces at the outset, as it reviews its predecessors’ approach and settles on its own. Rather, I mean that we are experiencing an unprecedented degree of policy incoherence on virtually every major issue the country faces.

Zbigniew Brzezinski and Paul Wasserman make a similar complaint in an op-ed this morning, and urge Trump to provide “a bold statement of his vision, including his determination to provide America’s leadership in the effort to shape a more stable world.” I don’t deny that Trump’s foreign policy is unusually incoherent even for a novice, and I don’t fault these people for wishing that it were not so, but there is no reason to think that this is going to change in the years to come. For one thing, articulating a coherent foreign policy vision of the sort that Brzezinski and Wasserman want seems to hold no interest for Trump or his closest advisers. They are asking for something more than a bumper sticker-level of thought from an undisciplined president who doesn’t understand these issues very well, and they simply won’t ever get it.

For one thing, Trump claims to prize being unpredictable, and he bluffs his way out of tough questions by saying that he doesn’t want to let our adversaries know what the U.S. is going to do. He seems to think this is a clever use of ambiguity, but it is not. As we are seeing, it creates needless confusion and misunderstanding. That requires his VP and Cabinet officials to spend their time putting out fires that he started for no apparent reason. Mattis and Pence feel compelled to “reassure” allies that have been put off by Trump’s rhetoric, and Mattis tells the Iraqis that the U.S. is not, in fact, going to seize their oil despite Trump’s frequent references to doing just that. Trump’s dismissive remarks about a two-state solution prompt an affirmation of the same from his U.N. ambassador. Trump blundered into questioning support for the “one China” policy before conceding that he still supports it. All of this is made worse by administration dysfunction and the lack of coordination with Cabinet members. Any one of these episodes might be unimportant on its own, but together they form a pattern in which the president says whatever happens to come into his head and the administration is stuck either defending or walking back the random thing that he said. So we don’t need Trump to give a new foreign policy speech, since that would probably just muddy the waters even more.

Trump’s incoherence on foreign policy was one of the few things we could be sure to expect from his administration. His positions have ranged from one extreme to the other. He has expressed support for forcible regime change in the past, and then as a candidate he expressed his supposed hostility to the very concept of regime change. He claims to want to “get along” with Russia, but he mocks the “reset” and criticizes New START in the same terms as a typical Russia hawk. On some issues, he can stake out opposing, irreconcilable positions in the course of the same interview or even the same paragraph. The only reliable constants have been Trump’s conviction that the U.S. is always and everywhere being ripped off in bad deals, an abiding hostility toward Muslims here and abroad, and an almost cartoonish enthusiasm for Israel. On everything else, he tends to follow the lead of his advisers, who are hard-liners on the issues they care most about. Insofar as his advisers have a more coherent view of the world than he does, it tends to be one that exaggerates foreign threats and commits the U.S. to more aggressive policies almost everywhere. In practice, that means that the administration is reliably belligerent but otherwise unreliable, which is a truly awful combination.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The new battle for Afghanistan. Kelley Vlahos reports on the war in Afghanistan and the new push for sending more U.S. soldiers there.

Why does Congress accept perpetual wars? Andrew Bacevich calls out Congress for abdicating its responsibilities on matters of war.

Iran on notice. Michael Horton warns against using the war on Yemen as a pretext for conflict with Iran.

Iran’s election will be a referendum on Rouhani and the nuclear deal. Rouzbeh Parsi looks ahead to Iran’s upcoming presidential election.

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Trump’s Choice to Replace Flynn Doesn’t Want the Job

Trump’s choice to replace Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor has reportedly turned down the job:

But Mr Harward is said to have turned Mr Trump down. “Harward is conflicted between the call of duty and the obvious dysfunctionality,” said one person with first hand knowledge of the discussions between Mr Trump and Mr Harward. The second person said Mr Trump had asked Mr Harward to return to the White House for another meeting to try to change his mind.

Former Vice Adm. Harward had been the favorite to be selected as Flynn’s replacement of the three most likely candidates, but it seems that the task of cleaning up Flynn’s mess and working with such an erratic president didn’t appeal to him. One of the reasons given in the FT report for Harward’s refusal was a concern that he would be stuck with Flynn appointees:

One of the people familiar with Mr Harward’s decision said he was concerned about whether the top advisers around Mr Trump would allow him to install his own staff on the NSC — particularly after suggestions that KT McFarland, Mr Flynn’s deputy, had been asked to remain.

I can scarcely blame Harward for not wanting the job, but by all accounts he would have been a marked improvement over Flynn and might have been able to get the NSC running in a more orderly fashion. He was seen as a likely ally for Secretary Mattis, and if he isn’t taking the job that makes Mattis’ influence more limited than it might have been. Maybe Harward will change his mind, but it seems more likely that Trump will have to look elsewhere for Flynn’s replacement.

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The Ongoing Disgrace of U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war on Yemen claims more civilian lives:

Eight women and a child have reportedly been killed in an overnight air raid on a funeral reception near Yemen’s rebel-held capital, Sanaa.

At least 10 more women were wounded, medical sources said.

A Houthi rebel spokesman said the strike was followed by a second which hit emergency responders in Arhab, 40km (25 miles) from Sanaa.

Once again the Saudi-led coalition has bombed a civilian target, and then conducted a despicable “double-tap” strike to attack the people coming to help the wounded. This is part of a consistent pattern of attacking targets that the coalition must know aren’t legitimate military targets. The funeral hall massacre last fall was the most egregious example of this behavior, but it has been a regular part of the bombing campaign ever since it began in March 2015. The U.S. continues to aid and abet the coalition as it carries out war crimes such as these, and based on what we’ve been hearing from the new administration that support is only going to increase. Our government is providing the weapons and fuel that allow coalition planes to blow up women and children at funerals, and it is doing this just so we can “reassure” a few despotic governments. U.S. support for the indefensible war on Yemen is an ongoing disgrace and an enduring blot on our country’s reputation.

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The U.S. Should Have Nothing to Do with an Arab Anti-Iran Coalition

The Trump administration is trying to create an Arab military coalition against Iran:

The new alliance would expand upon the existing Saudi-led coalition of Sunni countries fighting in Yemen, the officials said.

The new alliance’s first test would be in Yemen. The U.S. would step up military aid to the Yemen campaign [bold mine-DL] and secure the Red Sea, a vital global shipping route threatened by the war, according to two officials.

It seems that the Trump administration is not just preparing to increase its support for the indefensible war on Yemen, but wants to create a formal organization so that regional clients can do the same sort of thing elsewhere in the name of “countering” Iran. If Yemen is the model for what this coalition is going to be doing, it will be a menace to its neighbors and will likely produce more instability.

The chief problem with the idea of this coalition is that it relies on exaggerating the threat from Iran to make it seem necessary. There is no need for a coalition to counter Iran in this way, because Iran is not as powerful as they are often made out to be. A mutual defense pact among these Arab states would at best be superfluous, and at worst the coalition would enhance its members’ ability to interfere in their neighbors’ affairs when it suits them. It is likely that this coalition would become a vehicle for launching attacks on neighbors in the name of “opposing” Iranian influence where it is already negligible (as in Yemen) or non-existent. The U.S. should never have supported the Saudi-led war on Yemen, and it shouldn’t have anything to do with this proposed coalition.

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An Unfortunate Shift in U.S. Policy on Israel and Palestine

The Trump administration won’t bother with seeking a two-state solution:

The White House said Tuesday that finding a solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians doesn’t have to include an agreement to establish two separate states, marking a dramatic break from decades of U.S. policy.

On the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House to meet President Donald Trump, a senior administration official said the Israelis and Palestinians have to agree on what form peace between their countries will take—and that didn’t necessarily include two states.

In practice, the Israeli government has been working to eliminate the possibility of a two-state solution for many years, so the main short-term effect of this shift is to encourage them to continue what they are already doing. “Pro-Israel” hawks can then dispense with the fiction that they were ever interested in a diplomatic settlement, and pressure on Israel to halt settlement-building will disappear all together. Insofar as that closes off the possibility of resolving the conflict through negotiations, it is likely to produce more unilateral efforts to obtain recognition of Palestine and possibly more violence.

The administration official quoted in the story claims that the U.S. will be happy with whatever arrangement the parties agree on as long as it leads to peace, but this is pure sophistry. Both parties claimed to support a two-state solution because it seemed the most achievable compromise available that both could accept, and the alternatives were unacceptable to one or both of them. If the U.S. now shrugs and says that it doesn’t matter if there are two states at the end of the process, it is an admission that there will be absolutely no effort to secure an independent Palestinian state and the status quo will continue indefinitely. This strips away the thin pretense that the U.S. even wants a Palestinian state, and makes the U.S. position even more lopsidedly in favor of Israel than it was before. That is consistent with what we have come to expect from Trump on these issues, but over the longer term it is bad both for Israelis and Palestinians and it is bound to be bad for the U.S. to continue to be identified as an enabler of the occupation.

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Flynn Resigns

Michael Flynn. Photo: Department of Defense

Michael Flynn has resigned:

Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, resigned on Monday night after it was revealed that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other top White House officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, according to a person close to the Trump administration.

Flynn’s departure is very good news for the country, and it could be good for the Trump administration if he is replaced by someone less fanatical and much more competent. It was obvious for a long time that Flynn’s worldview was warped and a terrible influence on the president, and he never seemed ready for the position he was given. The dysfunction of Trump’s National Security Council may not have been entirely his fault, but it was his responsibility and he was clearly not getting the job done.

His early resignation marks the quickest exit of a top presidential adviser that I am aware of, and very few will be sorry to see him go. The danger is that Trump will choose someone else just as unprepared or possibly even less qualified to do the job, but the exit of one of the most hard-line Iran hawks from the administration is practically the only good thing that has happened related to foreign policy since Trump was sworn in. The Trump administration continues to have many top officials that share Flynn’s Iran obsession, but perhaps with his exit that obsession will grow a little bit weaker.

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Don’t Bring Montenegro into NATO

A Gallup survey of central and eastern European attitudes toward NATO contains some interesting findings. For instance, it found that only 21% of Montenegrin respondents associate NATO with protection of their country, while 29% perceive it as a threat and 35% associate it with neither protection nor threat. There is evidently little popular enthusiasm for NATO there, and there is still quite a lot of residual hostility that dates back to the 1999 NATO bombing campaign. Last week, the main opposition party called for a referendum on joining the alliance, and suggested March 24–the anniversary of the bombing campaign’s start–as the date. Expanding the alliance is a bad idea in any case, but if most people there don’t want to join it is even harder to justify.

There are several other reasons why bringing Montenegro into the alliance makes no sense, but the apparent lack of popular support for the alliance makes it a poor candidate for membership. If almost a third of the people in Montenegro thinks of the alliance as a threat to their country, that will make it an exceptionally weak member that the alliance doesn’t need and shouldn’t want. The U.S. doesn’t need to take on any more security commitments than it already has, and it definitely doesn’t need to take on an ally when a large bloc of its citizens don’t want to join.

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A Ridiculous Maneuver at the U.N.

Richard Gowan comments on the bizarre U.S. rejection of Salam Fayyad to head the U.N. mission to Libya:

The U.S. maneuver is simultaneously tokenistic, destructive and liable to backfire.

The Bush and Obama administrations invested a great deal in Fayyad as one of the few Palestinian politicians they trusted. It is not clear how publicly belittling him serves Israel’s interests. Fayyad is a specialist in building up state institutions, skills that are sorely needed in Tripoli and Benghazi. In blocking him, the Trump administration implies that it is not all that serious about ending the Libyan conflict.

Haley made it plain enough that the U.S. was blocking Fayyad solely because he is Palestinian. The administration thinks that it is somehow defending Israel against U.N. “bias” by rejecting the very Palestinian leader that the U.S. has supported in the past. It goes without saying that they aren’t even thinking about the Libyan conflict or the effect this may have on U.N. efforts to address it, because obsessively “defending” Israel at the U.N. is the only part of the U.S. role there that they seem interested in. That would just be the usual stupid “pro-Israel” posturing that benefits no one, but it seems that this involved a hefty dose of diplomatic incompetence as well. The Secretary-General had reportedly been led to believe by our officials that the U.S. would support his appointment:

In the days leading up to Friday’s surprise decision by the Trump administration to block the appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to a top U.N. job, senior U.S. officials in Washington and New York assured U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and other diplomats that they would accept him for the job, according to diplomatic sources.

That made late Friday’s abrupt about face — with the Trump administration suddenly vetoing Fayyad’s appointment to lead the U.N. mission in Libya — all the more shocking for U.S. partners on the Security Council and some career U.S. diplomats, according to those diplomatic sources.

The episode is bound to sour relations between Haley and Secretary-General Guterres, which will only make Haley’s job harder than it needs to be. It takes the administration’s “pro-Israel” posturing to the point of self-parody, and does nothing but make the U.S. look both clumsy and incompetent in the eyes of other governments. None of this advances U.S. interests, and it certainly won’t do anything to reform the U.N.

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The Indefensible Indulgence of Despotic Clients

National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn (WPRI /YouTube)

The article on Trump’s dysfunctional National Security Council also contained this disturbing report:

Two people with direct access to the White House leadership said Mr. Flynn was surprised to learn that the State Department and Congress play a pivotal role in foreign arms sales and technology transfers [bold mine-DL]. So it was a rude discovery that Mr. Trump could not simply order the Pentagon to send more weapons to Saudi Arabia — which is clamoring to have an Obama administration ban on the sale of cluster bombs and precision-guided weapons lifted — or to deliver bigger weapons packages to the United Arab Emirates.

I don’t know how Flynn could have reached his current position without knowing basic facts about U.S. arms sales, but if he really didn’t know how the process worked that underscores how unready he is to do the job he has. The more disturbing part of this report is the new administration’s eagerness to shower the Gulf states in even more weapons than they are already receiving. There are few client states less deserving of more U.S. support than the Saudis and their Gulf allies, so of course they are the ones being given priority under Trump. The Obama administration imposed some belated, grudging limitations on arming the despotic client states destroying Yemen, but it seems that even these limits are too much for the new administration.

The U.S. was already deeply complicit in the wrecking of Yemen under Obama, and the Trump administration is looking for ways to be responsible for aiding and abetting even more coalition war crimes. A return to selling cluster bombs would be especially horrible, since these weapons are inherently indiscriminate and the coalition has dropped them in heavily populated areas before during the current bombing campaign. It is bad enough that the U.S. sells such weapons, but to sell them to a military that we know will use them in civilian areas is completely indefensible.

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The Increasingly Dangerous Iran Obsession

There was an alarming report buried in this story about Trump’s dysfunctional National Security Council:

Last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was exploring whether the Navy could intercept and board an Iranian ship to look for contraband weapons possibly headed to Houthi fighters in Yemen. The potential interdiction seemed in keeping with recent instructions from Mr. Trump, reinforced in meetings with Mr. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, to crack down on Iran’s support of terrorism.

But the ship was in international waters in the Arabian Sea, according to two officials. Mr. Mattis ultimately decided to set the operation aside, at least for now. White House officials said that was because news of the impending operation leaked [bold mine-DL], a threat to security that has helped fuel the move for the insider threat program. But others doubt whether there was enough basis in international law, and wondered what would happen if, in the early days of an administration that has already seen one botched military action in Yemen, American forces were suddenly in a firefight with the Iranian Navy.

The U.S. obviously doesn’t and wouldn’t have any legal right to seize another navy’s ship in international waters, which would be an act of war. If another government attempted this against an American or allied ship, we would correctly view it as completely unjustified aggression. It is lucky that Trump didn’t stumble into a war with Iran in such a reckless way, but it seems that the plan to attack an Iranian vessel was “set aside” mainly because it happened to leak. If it hadn’t, the U.S. might have already fired the opening shots in a new war. In this case, Mattis doesn’t appear to be restraining Trump’s worst instincts at all, but instead seems willing to indulge them when it comes to hostility towards Iran. Picking a fight with Iran in the name of aiding the disgraceful Saudi-led war on Yemen would also be the height of stupidity, since Iranian support for the Saudis’ enemies has been negligible all along.

The U.S.-backed war on Yemen has been a disaster for that country. Now there is increasing danger that this Iran-obsessed administration is looking for ways to turn our shameful policy there into a pretext for direct conflict with Iran. It was already horrible that the U.S. was enabling and fueling the Saudi-led war, but it would be even worse if the U.S. started a war with Iran as a result of our entanglement there. The fact that top administration officials appear to be looking for a way to do that rather than doing what they can to avoid it speaks volumes about Trump’s foreign policy team.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Iran hawks take the White House. Philip Giraldi warns us about Michael Flynn’s Iran obsession.

What are U.S. forces doing in Yemen anyway? Andrew Bacevich uses the botched raid in Yemen to criticize the larger failure to devise strategy that links our frequent use of force overseas to some achievable political end.

Iran hawks are already wrecking Trump’s foreign policy. Michael Brendan Dougherty reviews the first few weeks of the Trump administration.

Welcome to the “reassurance” tour. Ted Galen Carpenter faults Secretary Mattis for “reassuring” our cheap-riding Asian allies instead of calling on them to contribute more to their own defense.

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Trump, New START, and U.S.-Russian Relations

Aquir / Shutterstock

Reuters reports that Trump didn’t know what New START was, but was sure it must be a bad deal:

In his first call as president with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump denounced a treaty that caps U.S. and Russian deployment of nuclear warheads as a bad deal for the United States, according to two U.S. officials and one former U.S. official with knowledge of the call.

When Putin raised the possibility of extending the 2010 treaty, known as New START, Trump paused to ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was [bold mine-DL], these sources said.

Trump then told Putin the treaty was one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration [bold mine-DL], saying that New START favored Russia. Trump also talked about his own popularity, the sources said.

The account rings true, and it fits in with Trump’s views on agreements made during the Obama years. If an agreement was reached with another government when Obama was president, Trump takes it for granted that it must be a bad deal that benefits the other side more. This is what he always thinks about deals not made by him, and it is typically paired with total ignorance of the substance of the agreement that he is criticizing. This is how he concludes that the nuclear deal is a “very bad deal” despite the fact that he appears to understand nothing about it and gets basic facts about it wrong. He doesn’t concern himself with the details because he already knows that the deal must be to our disadvantage, since he takes it as a given that the U.S. has been getting “ripped off” in everything. The result is that the supposed deal-maker is against any successful diplomatic agreement that has already been negotiated.

In the case of New START, it was conventional hawkish boilerplate back in 2009-2010 that Russia benefited more from the treaty, but this wasn’t true. It represented the continuation of a mutually beneficial arms reduction process, and it ensured that reductions by both sides would be verified by inspections. Romney made a point of denouncing the treaty ahead of his second presidential campaign, and he made his opposition to the treaty a major part of his anti-Russian/anti-Obama rhetoric as a candidate. If Trump is now echoing the shoddy arguments against New START, that suggests that he doesn’t understand that arms control is one of the major areas where U.S.-Russian cooperation is very important, and it also means that he is getting very bad advice from the same kinds of people that Romney was listening to back then. That’s bad news for improving relations with Russia.

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