Daniel Larison

The Worsening Humanitarian Catastrophe in Yemen

UN OCHA/Philippe Kropf, via Flickr

The humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen continues to worsen:

According to the UN, a shocking one in three children under five in Yemen is now severely malnourished [bold mine-DL].

And if getting food to those in need is not already hard enough, last week the Saudi coalition bombed the last bridge linking the port to the capital [bold mine-DL].

“Seven hundred thousand children need specialised support in terms of nutritional support. Of that 700,000 people, we’ve only got enough support for 70,000, so that’s 10 per cent,” the UN’s Jamie McGoldrick says with frustration.

“So, who knows what’s happened to the other 600,000 plus?”

It can be difficult to fathom the scale of the humanitarian disaster in Yemen. The country’s infrastructure has been devastated, its health system is in ruins, more than three million people have been displaced internally, and half the country’s population is on the verge of famine or close to being so. 14 million people are considered “food insecure.” In terms of the sheer number of people at risk from starvation and preventable diseases, Yemen is now pretty clearly the worst humanitarian crisis on earth, and it has reached this point in just the last seventeen months since the Saudi-led intervention began. The blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition is most responsible for making the crisis as bad as it is.

The victims of the coalition’s blockade often go unnoticed by the outside world, and there is scant awareness of the responsibility that the coalition and its Western backers have for creating this calamity. This report includes brief descriptions of two such children:

At Al Sabheen hospital in Sana’a, we meet the parents of 17-month-old Eissa, hovering over their son. He is severely malnourished and close to death.

Over in the next ward is Emtiaz. She is two but so acutely malnourished she weighs as much as some newborns. Her grandma says all they have had at home recently is tea and bread.

These children and hundreds of thousands more like them are in mortal peril largely because of the Saudi-led intervention backed by our government. We do not yet know the full extent of the horrible damage this war is doing to the civilian population of Yemen, but it is likely to be much worse and even more appalling than it seems right now.

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The U.S. Can’t Be the World’s ‘Umpire’

Michael Hogue

Christopher Preble explains why the U.S. can’t be an international “umpire”:

This essential condition of umpiring—disinterestedness—obviously doesn’t describe the United States’ conduct in world affairs.

The partiality and inconsistency that the U.S. displays in upholding the “rules-based international order” is obvious to anyone that has paid close attention to the news in recent years. When certain states break the “rules,” they face sanctions, opprobrium, and possibly even military attack from the U.S. and our allies, and when others–most often our client states–engage in similar or worse behavior they are shielded and aided by some of the same governments. Destabilizing behavior by one set of states is treated as a threat to “world order,” while the same or worse behavior is either ignored or praised as contributing to “stability.” A massacre in Egypt that might have prompted a U.S.-led war for regime change in another country doesn’t have any meaningful consequences for the government responsible for the killing. International aggression by multiple states against Yemen not only doesn’t lead to punitive measures against the states carrying out the attack and blockade, but the U.S. and other Western governments also aid and abet the war from the start.

When clients, usually misidentified as “allies,” commit outrageous crimes against their own people or neighboring countries, the U.S. tolerates and sometimes even facilitates and rewards that behavior. The U.S. will hold other major powers to the strict letter of the law, but will trample on it when it gets in the way. Of course, this isn’t new or unusual for a major power, but it reminds us that enforcement of the so-called “rules-based international order” is often arbitrary and selective and frequently permits flagrant violations of the “rules” so long as the government doing the violating is considered to be on “our” side.

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A ‘Russia-Iran Condominium’ That Doesn’t Exist

KPG Ivary/Shutterstock

Last week, Charles Krauthammer was wringing his hands about U.S. “powerlessness” and “withdrawal” in response to reports that Iran had allowed Russia to use one of their airbases to launch attacks in Syria:

The reordering of the Middle East is proceeding apace. Where for 40 years the U.S.-Egypt alliance anchored the region, a Russia-Iran condominium is now dictating events. That’s what you get after eight years of U.S. retrenchment and withdrawal.

To refer to a “Russia-Iran condominium” in the region is to distort and misrepresent the facts beyond recognition, and to say that it is “dictating events” credits them with far more control and influence than they have. Their combined efforts are scarcely “dictating events” in Syria, and they certainly aren’t doing so anywhere else. Calling it a condominium implies that they hold sway over the entire region and have divvied it up between them, but the reality is that the influence of both in the rest of the region remains sharply limited because of their support for the Syrian government. A more accurate assessment would say that they are both struggling to keep that government propped up at considerable cost.

Krauthammer repeats the usual falsehood that the U.S. is engaged in “retrenchment and withdrawal” in the region in order to pin blame for events on an imaginary U.S. foreign policy and to avoid acknowledging the numerous failures of constant warfare and meddling for more than a decade. Hard-liners in the U.S. routinely misrepresent what is happening abroad to make their preferred policies of even deeper interference in other countries seem more palatable, and it is important to understand how much of their “analysis” is simply made up or extremely misleading.

Take Russia’s use of Iranian airbases, for example. While it did briefly show a greater degree of cooperation between Russia and Iran in the war in Syria, it ended almost as soon as it began. Iran didn’t care for Russian boasting about the use of the base, and now won’t let them use it:

An Iranian official said Monday that Russia would no longer use the Islamic Republic’s air bases to strike targets in Syria — an apparent rebuke of Moscow for announcing the deployment in the press last week.

At a news conference in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said that Russia’s use of Iran’s Hamadan Air Base was “temporary, based on a Russian request,” and that it is “finished for now.” Russia “has no base in Iran,” Ghasemi added, according to an Associated Press translation of his remarks.

This episode was unusual, but as it turns out it was also ad hoc and temporary. Instead of illustrating a supposed Russian-Iranian “condominium,” it proved to be insignificant and fleeting.

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The War on Yemen and the Folly of Enabling Reckless Clients

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

Samuel Oakford reviews the effects of the Saudi-led war on Yemen and the U.S. role in enabling it:

In the span of four days earlier this month, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen bombed a Doctors Without Borders-supported hospital, killing 19 people; a school, where 10 children, some as young as 8, died; and a vital bridge over which United Nations food supplies traveled, punishing millions [bold mine-DL].

In a war that has seen reports of human rights violations committed by every side, these three attacks stand out. But the Obama administration says these strikes, like previous ones that killed thousands of civilians since last March, will have no effect on the American support that is crucial for Saudi Arabia’s air war.

One of the more striking details in the op-ed is that the administration specifically told the Saudis not to bomb the bridge that connected Hodeidah and Sanaa, but the Saudis did it anyway. They have since bombed other bridges on the same route. Destroying the bridge has made the already very severe humanitarian crisis even worse:

More than 14 million Yemenis suffer dangerous levels of food insecurity — a figure that dwarfs that of any other country in conflict, worsened by a Saudi-led and American-supported blockade. One in three children under the age of 5 reportedly suffers from acute malnutrition. An estimated 90 percent of food that the United Nation’s World Food Program transports to Sana traveled across the destroyed bridge [bold mine-DL].

The administration has claimed that its involvement in the conflict helps make the coalition bombing campaign more accurate and less likely to cause civilian casualties, but the truth appears to be that the Saudis and their allies bomb whatever they like with our help and disregard any contrary advice they are given. The U.S. has been unstinting in its support for the coalition campaign and blockade, and it seems that there is nothing the coalition can do to put that at risk.

This is one of the dangers of reflexively and uncritically backing irresponsible clients: it implicates the U.S. in whatever the clients do with our government’s assistance and forfeits any chance of reining the clients in when they commit excesses and crimes. The clients are also more likely to commit crimes when they assume they have carte blanche from Washington. When the purpose of the entire exercise is to “reassure” the clients for reassurance’s sake, the U.S. has already handcuffed itself to the coalition and made itself a prisoner of their war. It puts the patron in the bizarre position of trying to curry favor with its clients, and it allows the clients to take as much as they can get while always claiming to be unsatisfied and neglected. When indulging their destructive policy is the only discernible goal of U.S. support, it seems that there is nothing that the Saudis and their allies can do to jeopardize our government’s backing.

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A Close Call in Syria

Aquir / Shutterstock.com

A recent incident in Syria shows how easily U.S. involvement in the conflict could escalate:

The Pentagon warned the Syrian government Friday not to strike U.S. and coalition personnel in Syria, a day after the regime carried out airstrikes in an area near American special operations forces, prompting the U.S. to scramble jets to protect them.

The U.S. jets arrived just as the two Syrian government Su-24 bombers were departing, according to Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis, who said none of the U.S. forces on the ground were harmed.

The Syrian government bombers had been striking Kurdish positions near the city of Hasakah, where the U.S. has been backing Kurdish forces in the fight against Islamic State.

Fortunately, this episode didn’t lead to a clash with the Syrian government, but a future one very well might. When the U.S. backs proxies in a foreign civil war and puts U.S. forces on the ground with them, it opens the door to new and unexpected conflict with other armed groups in the country. By extending protection to U.S. proxies in Syria, the U.S. could find itself drawn into yet another conflict in Syria. Anti-regime groups would have a strong incentive to put the U.S. in that position. The more U.S. forces that are sent into the country, the greater the chances of an incident that could lead to a wider war, and Clinton is on record in favor of sending more special forces into Syria. This episode underscores the absurdity of the administration’s many statements that U.S. forces aren’t in combat in Syria, and it reminds us how quickly a supposedly “limited” intervention could spiral into something much worse.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Ending endless war. Andrew Bacevich makes some suggestions for how the U.S. could break the habits of perpetual war.

The U.S. is promoting war crimes in Yemen. Trevor Timm chastises the Obama administration for its role in enabling the Saudi war on Yemen.

Yemen talks at a standstill. Peter Salisbury sets out some proposals for reviving stalled diplomatic talks between the warring sides in Yemen.

America is complicit in the carnage in Yemen. The New York Times calls on the Obama administration to stop supplying weapons to the Saudis.

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In Response to Indiscriminate Saudi Bombing, MSF Evacuates Northern Yemen

UN OCHA / Philippe Kropf, via Flickr

Things are getting even worse for the civilian population of Yemen as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) announces that it is pulling its staff and medical personnel out of northern Yemen following the latest bombing of one of their hospitals there earlier this week:

Doctors Without Borders announced on Thursday that it’s withdrawing from northern Yemen due to what the international aid group called “indiscriminate bombings and unreliable reassurances” from the Saudi-led coalition that’s fighting Shiite rebels in the country.

The group, known by its French acronym MSF, said an attack on a hospital it supported in the area on Monday had killed 19 people and wounded 24 — a higher death toll after some of the wounded had died. Earlier, 11 were reported killed.

“The airstrike on Abs Hospital was the fourth and the deadliest attack on an MSF-supported medical facility during this war, while there have been numerous attacks on other health facilities all over Yemen,” the Geneva-based group said in a statement.

This is another devastating blow to the people living in northern Yemen. Not only have the Saudis and their allies grossly and repeatedly violated international law with their bombing of civilian targets for well over a year, but they have struck so many hospitals that they are now forcing a major aid group out of the area. That deprives injured and sick Yemenis of essential medical care that is made all the more necessary by the frequent indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas by the coalition, and it further cuts off this part of Yemen from an outside world that was already mostly ignoring its plight. The next time that the Saudis bomb a school or a residence or a factory or some other building filled with noncombatants in this part of the country, the wounded won’t be able to rely on MSF’s help. It needs to be stressed that this is not MSF’s fault. The blame lies squarely with Riyadh, its allies, and its Western patrons that have committed and enabled the crimes that prompted this decision. Doctors Without Borders were put in an impossible situation by the reckless and criminal behavior of the Saudi-led coalition, and have understandably refused to wait around for the next “accidental” bombing of one of their facilities.

Trevor Timm excoriates the administration for its role in making the Saudi-led bombing campaign possible:

The fact that the Obama administration has allowed the Saudis to continue committing war crimes should be a full-fledged scandal. Officials should be resigning over this and shouting from the rooftops. Instead, for months, we’ve heard almost nothing from the administration beyond a couple boilerplate, lukewarm expressions of “concern” as the death toll has mounted over a year and a half. Finally, after prodding from reporters last week, the US state department condemned the bombing of a Doctors Without Borders (AKA Médecins sans Frontières) hospital that killed at least 15 people. But then, the state department spokesman refused to say whether the US would stop supplying the Saudis with the weapons they are using.

Perhaps MSF’s decision will draw more attention to the catastrophe unfolding in Yemen, and perhaps that will prompt more criticism of the administration’s indefensible policy of support for this war. I hope that is the case, but in the meantime the people of Yemen, and especially northern Yemen, are in even greater danger than before.

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Attacking Syria Is Still a Terrible Idea

abdullatif anis/Flickr

Nick Kristof has written another column calling for direct U.S. intervention in Syria:

Agreed, we shouldn’t dispatch ground forces to Syria or invest a trillion dollars. But why not, as many suggest, fire missiles from outside Syria to crater military runways and ground the Syrian Air Force?

One reason not to do that is that it isn’t legal for the U.S. to attack another state that hasn’t done anything to us or our treaty allies. The U.S. has neither the authority nor the right to do what Kristof wants to do. That’s not even the most important reason not to do this, but it is a pretty significant objection that is never addressed by advocates of “action.” It seems fairly telling that things like this never occur to supporters of this or that intervention. They tend to think that the burden of proof is on the people that don’t want their government to attack other countries, when the burden of proof is always on those that propose military action.

The practical problem with cratering runways is that it is at best a stopgap “solution.” As Marc Lynch observed three years ago, “Cratering runways might work for a few hours, but then Bashar al-Assad will repair them.” When that proves to be inadequate, it is just a matter of time before there will be demands to “do more,” and whatever that “more” ends up being will inevitably cost more and run greater risks than the advocates of intervention foresee. Advocates for military action in Syria never attempt to address the question, “Then what?” because they haven’t thought that far ahead.

Of course, cratering runways isn’t all that Kristof thinks the U.S. should do. He proposed creating “safe zones” in his previous column, and that does require sending in ground forces to protect them. Who will supply those forces? It will almost certainly be the U.S. that supplies most or all of them, and it would necessarily be an open-ended commitment. The risks of doing this would be considerable, as the soldiers protecting these “safe zones” would immediately be targets of every jihadist group in the country, and depending on where these zones are created run the risk of clashing with the Syrian government and its allies.

Kristof later allows that “U.S. support for Saudi bombing in Yemen is counterproductive,” which might be the understatement of the year. Even so, he seems to miss that that outside intervention in Yemen had the effect of greatly exacerbating the conflict and inflicting far more death and destruction on the country. At the same time, AQAP has taken advantage of the conflict to become much stronger than it was before the intervention. The question that advocates for Syrian intervention have had to answer for years is this: why is their proposed military action not going to make things in Syria worse in much the same way that intervention made them worse in Yemen (and in many other countries)? They have never had a serious answer for that question and still don’t.

The weakness of Kristof’s case for intervention is reflected in his constant recourse to a peculiar sort of whataboutism, asking whether it was wrong for Clinton to intervene in Kosovo and whether Obama was wrong to start bombing ISIS in Iraq in 2014. I happen to think the answer in both cases is yes, but even if military action was right in those other places and times it doesn’t mean that it has ever made sense to attack the Syrian government. It’s still a terrible idea, and nothing Kristof has said in the last week has changed that.

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Yemen: The Worst Humanitarian Crisis in the World

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.

Scott Paul of Oxfam recently visited Yemen and testifies about what he saw there. You should read all of it, but I’ll quote the concluding paragraph here:

There are more people in need of humanitarian assistance in Yemen than anywhere else in the world, but thanks to the relatively small number of refugees fleeing the country and the difficulty of entry for journalists, most people – even policy experts and government officials – aren’t able to relate to the scale of suffering there [bold mine-DL]. As I left Sana’a, I couldn’t help but think that the international community’s approach to Yemen would be markedly different if world leaders were able to see what I saw. For a start, they would urgently help stabilize Yemen’s Central Bank, remove restrictions on the transport of hard foreign currency out of the country, and enact a new Security Council Resolution demanding peace. For its part specifically, the US government would withdraw its support for the parties fighting this cruel and unnecessary war.

This is something that I have tried to emphasize in as many of my posts on the war as possible: the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen is the worst one in the world today, and it is among the worst disasters of its kind in decades. Tens of millions are in serious need of food, and they have mostly been driven to this point by the coalition’s blockade. This is a massive crisis, and one that didn’t have to happen. It is all the more severe because it is not receiving the publicity that other crises have, and because the international response to it has been limited and woefully inadequate.

I would like to think that the main reason so few people pay attention to the suffering of Yemen is simply lack of information, but that can’t really excuse the behavior of major governments including our own. The Obama administration had no confidence that the Saudis and their allies’ intervention would succeed, but backed it anyway to satisfy them. Our government knows as well as anyone what the coalition is doing to the people of Yemen because they are helping them to do it. U.S. complicity in wrecking Yemen isn’t the result of a lack of knowledge about what the war is doing to the civilian population, but rather the indifference born of a desire to keep despotic client states happy.

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Yes, Clinton Is a Hawk, and It’s Silly to Deny It

Gage Skidmore

Matt Yglesias’ post on Clinton and foreign policy doesn’t make much sense:

But despite the fears of her left-wing critics, Clinton is no neocon. Nor is there really much evidence to back up a broad-brush notion that Clinton is especially “hawkish” in a generic sense. Clinton’s record overwhelmingly reflects continuity, for better or for worse, with longstanding aspects of American foreign policy [bold mine-DL].

Critics of the status quo will find plenty to dislike, but there’s no reason to believe her administration would represent any kind of dramatic departure in foreign policy — not just in the Middle East but around the world.

It’s not credible to say that there isn’t much evidence for Clinton’s hawkishness. In almost every case for the last twenty years, Clinton has reliably sided with those favoring more rather than less aggressive measures in response to foreign conflicts and crises. She did this during her husband’s administration (“I urged him to bomb” [Kosovo]), she did it as a senator with her Iraq war authorization vote, and she did it as Secretary of State (see Libya, Syria, etc.). Unlike many presidential nominees, Clinton has not shied away from her hawkish record as a candidate. During the primaries, she touted the Libyan war as “smart power at its best” and as I mentioned earlier this week she has made no secret of her support for “no-fly” and “safe” zones in Syria that would entail a significant increase in the U.S. military role in that country.

It is true that Clinton isn’t a neoconservative and sometimes disagrees with Republican hard-liners on certain foreign policy issues, but she assuredly is a liberal hawk and has favored every military intervention the U.S. has undertaken for the last twenty years (and some that it hasn’t yet done). That isn’t at odds with her support for the foreign policy status quo. It is a direct product of it. No one argues that she would represent a “dramatic departure” from the status quo. That’s the whole point of the criticism of her record: we know she won’t depart from the status quo, including Washington’s habit of forcibly intervening in the affairs of other countries and an irrepressible urge to “shape” events on the other side of the world. This is so obvious that I don’t quite understand why some liberal writers even bother trying to deny it. There are undoubtedly hard-liners in the U.S. that are even more hawkish than Clinton, but that doesn’t mean that Clinton isn’t a hawk. You have to pretend not to understand what the label means to argue that it doesn’t apply to her.

She has carried out policies of diplomatic engagement under Obama that as a presidential candidate she had mocked as naive and pointless, but it doesn’t follow that she would pursue similar policies as president. But I don’t think anyone believes that she would have pressed for a nuclear deal with Iran as Obama did, and had she won in 2008 I doubt very much that any engagement with Iran would have happened at all. Since foreign policy was largely concentrated in the White House during the first term, it’s also a stretch to credit Clinton for first-term policies that were usually conceived of and designed by others. Yglesias even tries to claim that she “has generally stood by Obama’s reluctance to provide lethal assistance to the Ukrainian military,” but last year she called for more military aid for Ukraine:

“I do think we should do more to help Ukraine defend its borders,” she said. “New equipment, new training for the Ukrainians. The United States plus NATO have been very reluctant to do that, and I understand it completely because it’s a very sticky, potentially dangerous, situation. But I think the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian civilians who’ve been fighting against the separatists have proven that they’re worthy of some greater support.”

I think this is a bad position, and presumably liberal hawks think it’s fine, but this is Clinton’s position and it is not the same as current administration policy.

We know that in every internal administration debate Clinton was on the side of those favoring more aggressive measures whenever there was a question about initiating or escalating a conflict or sending weapons to one of the sides in an ongoing war. Since leaving the State Department, Clinton has typically sided with those calling for the U.S. to “do more” militarily in different parts of the world, and as far as we know she hasn’t seen a proposed U.S. military action in the last two decades that she thought was unwise or unnecessary. Of course Clinton is a hawk, and it is silly to pretend otherwise.

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Stop U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

usa saudi arabia yemen flags

The New York Times calls on the Obama administration to stop arming the Saudis and their allies:

Mr. Obama has also supplied the coalition such indispensable assistance as intelligence, in-flight refueling of aircraft and help in identifying appropriate targets. Experts say the coalition would be grounded if Washington withheld its support. Instead, the State Department last week approved the potential sale of $1.15 billion more in tanks and other equipment to Saudi Arabia to replace items destroyed in the war. Congress has the power to block this sale; Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, says he is discussing that possibility with other lawmakers. But the chances are slim, in part because of the politics.

Given the civilian casualties, further American support for this war is indefensible. As Mr. Murphy told CNN on Tuesday: “There’s an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen.”

I agree with all this, but I would add that U.S. support for the war was always indefensible because the war was unnecessary and reckless. The Saudis and their allies were not defending themselves when they starting bombing Yemen, and no U.S. interests were being served by helping them attack their neighbor. The war on Yemen has been a wanton, unprovoked attack on one country by a group of others, and the U.S. has helped make it possible. The careless and criminal way that the bombing campaign has been conducted has made things even worse, but the U.S. would have been wrong to enable the Saudi-led campaign in any case.

It should be clear by now that the Saudis and their allies “do not care about killing innocent civilians,” which shouldn’t come as much of a shock to anyone considering that the coalition includes the likes of Sudan. The coalition made this clear when they illegally declared all of Saada a military target and they proved it again when they dropped cluster bombs in civilian areas. The quick succession of outrageous bombings of civilian targets in the last few days has been a sharp reminder of what the Saudis and their allies have been routinely doing during the last sixteen months. I hope it does finally spur more criticism of and opposition to U.S. support for the war, and perhaps these latest attacks have received enough attention that the administration won’t be able to avoid scrutiny for its terrible role in this intervention.

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Using Trump to Troll Realists

Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com

Dan Drezner has another suggestion for realists:

Realism has important and useful things to say about how to conduct American foreign policy. If the keepers of that paradigm want to be heard after this election cycle, they need to publicly distance themselves from Trump as soon as possible.

It’s not clear why this still needs to be done when numerous realists have explicitly denounced Trump in no uncertain terms or otherwise explained why his views should not be confused with theirs. I’m not a realist myself (though I’m often mistaken for one), but I have made much the same argument more than once. Realists and others sympathetic to their arguments have made this point again and again throughout the campaign, but somehow it still isn’t enough.

When people have rejected the claim that Trump is a realist in the past, Drezner has objected and chided realists that they should get on board the Trump bandwagon if they want to have more influence in foreign policy debates. “When will realists endorse Trump?” he asked back in February. Now he wonders when they will sign a letter denouncing him. Make up your mind.

When realists say that Trump isn’t one of them, Drezner has said they aren’t opposed to him for “realist reasons.” Now that Trump is on track for a general election debacle, Drezner is telling realists that they should get as far from Trump as they can (which they have been doing for months) if they want their ideas to avoid being discredited in the process. One might conclude from this that Drezner just wants to use Trump’s candidacy to troll realists any way he can, so that no matter which way they go he can find fault with their actions. Besides, realists aren’t rejecting Trump out of some calculation that it will get their arguments a more positive reception in the future (they know that won’t happen anyway). They’re doing it because they genuinely find Trump’s views appalling and contrary to their own.

If realism has “important and useful things” to say about how to conduct U.S. foreign policy (and I agree that it does), it will continue to do so regardless of how vocal realists are in their rejection of Trump. The point that needs to be stressed here, however, is that most realists have already publicly stated their opposition to him to one degree or another. They have made plain to anyone willing to listen that they don’t accept the superficial interpretation of Trump’s worldview that tries to conflate his preference for plundering foreign countries with a reputable foreign policy tradition committed to securing the national interest. They have no further need to distance themselves publicly from Trump because they already did so months ago. For that matter, they already were quite distant from him so long as their arguments weren’t caricatured or reduced to a crude and simplistic distortion of what they actually believe.

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Our Indefensible War in Yemen

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

Bruce Riedel reviews the situation in Yemen:

The losers in the war are of course the Yemeni people. More than half the twenty-five million people are malnourished. Many are dislocated. Children are at greatest risk. The war gets almost no mention in the American media, but it’s our war [bold mine-DL].

If anything, this understates the damage that has been done. The many displaced internally are well over two million people, and half of the people described as malnourished are on the brink of famine. Thousands and thousands of children are dying or will die from preventable diseases. The starvation of a huge part of the civilian population is largely due to the coalition blockade supported by the U.S., and the aid that does get into the country cannot be easily distributed because of fuel shortages and the devastation of the country’s infrastructure from the bombing campaign that our military facilitates. Just this past week, the coalition destroyed a vitally important bridge needed to bring food into the capital:

Sajjad Mohammad Sajid, Oxfam Yemen Country Director, said: “This road is the main supply route for Sanaa as it conveys 90% of World Food Program food coming from Hodeidah to the capital. Its destruction threatens to leave many more people unable to feed themselves, worsening an already catastrophic situation in the country.”

The Saudi-led, U.S.-backed intervention has created a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen that is at least as severe as any other crisis in the world. The situation in Yemen is arguably much worse than any other comparable humanitarian crisis because it is being so badly neglected and the international response to Yemen’s dire need has been so paltry. Relatively few people outside the region are aware of the crisis, even fewer understand how severe it is, and even fewer are motivated to provide aid, and the lack of attention to the war and its effects reinforces this indifference. Millions of people are at very real risk of starving to death so that the Saudis and their allies can indulge their delusions about combating Iranian influence, and the Saudi-led coalition is encouraged and enabled to do this with U.S. weapons, fuel, and intelligence provided by the Obama administration. On the rare occasions when administration officials are pressed to explain why the U.S. is doing this, they simply lie about the conflict and almost no one notices.

I suppose one could call our policy in Yemen “committing war crimes from behind”: the U.S. doesn’t directly commit any of the crimes, but it wouldn’t be possible for the Saudis and their allies to keep waging the war and committing their war crimes without our government’s assistance. Hardly anyone here at home notices our government’s role in all this because it is so rarely reported, it is scarcely criticized in major media outlets when it is mentioned, and it seems to hold no interest for most of our representatives in Congress. That’s how our government can facilitate a disaster that threatens the lives of millions of people without paying even the smallest political price.

U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen illustrates much of what’s worst in our foreign policy. We see the usual reflexive deference to bad clients and the uncritical backing of their worst behavior. We recognize the dishonest spin that the clients’ aggressive actions are being taken in “self-defense” to ward off a threat that doesn’t exist or has been grossly exaggerated. We know only too well the irrepressible urge to take sides and interfere in a foreign conflict that has little or nothing to do with us, and we encounter the all-too-familiar overconfidence in military options to “solve” ingrained political disputes that we don’t really understand. Finally, we confront the callous, total indifference to the suffering of a civilian population when the people endangered by war are on the “wrong” side of a fight.

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A Clinton Win Means An Expanded War in Syria

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Kelley Vlahos reminds us why Clinton is likely to be very hawkish as president:

But every message coming from her surrogates in the media and in the Washington defense establishment has been that she will “lean in” harder in Syria, and whether you want to call it “added ground troops” or something else, everyone in her orbit is calling for expanded U.S. intervention—including personnel and firepower—in the region, even at the risk of confrontation with Russia.

We have good reason to believe this because Clinton and her supporters repeatedly keep saying that this is the kind of foreign policy her administration will have. Clinton has made no secret of her support for “no-fly” and safe zones in Syria, and she has chosen a running mate who shares her views on these issues. While Democrats overall might be divided on Syria policy, the Democratic ticket is not: both nominees favor a more aggressive, militarized U.S. role in the Syrian conflict. That is the policy a Clinton administration is very likely to start implementing next year if, as seems likely, she prevails in the fall. A vote for Clinton is almost certainly a vote for an expanded war in Syria, and the public needs to understand that this is what we will get by entrusting her with the presidency.

Clinton is one of the few candidates in the last century to campaign explicitly on a very hawkish platform while still being favored to win the general election. Even Lyndon Johnson, the last Democratic nominee with foreign policy instincts as aggressive as Clinton’s, knew he needed to portray his opponent as a dangerous warmonger while presenting himself as the responsible alternative. By contrast, Clinton has done almost nothing to allay concerns that she is too ready to resort to using force, because she sees no need to do so. She attacks Trump for being ignorant and irresponsible, but she can’t credibly paint him as more likely to get the U.S. into a war when that is precisely what she has done and is ready to do again. She is also so confident of victory in November that she doesn’t think she has to make any concession to her critics on the left. She is winning the support of many prominent Republicans because they have confidence in her desire to exercise American “leadership” by bombing other countries and otherwise meddling in their affairs, and their confidence is not misplaced.

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‘The Administration Must Stop Enabling This Madness’ in Yemen

UN OCHA/Philippe Kropf, via Flickr

There aren’t many members of Congress that criticize the Obama administration’s support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen, but Rep. Ted Lieu has been one of the few to do so consistently over the last year. He issued a statement in response to the report of the bombing of the school in Haydan over the weekend. Lieu is calling on the U.S. to halt its assistance to the coalition:

A Democratic lawmaker called on the Obama administration to cut off assistance to Saudi Arabia amid the country’s ongoing bombing campaign in Yemen, saying “the United States is aiding and abetting what appears to be war crimes.”

He went on to say that “[t]he Administration must stop enabling this madness now.” I commend Rep. Lieu for this and his past efforts to pressure the administration over its support for the war. The war has received virtually no attention in Congress, and U.S. policy has received even less criticism, so Lieu is doing a real service in continuing to object to our involvement in this disgrace.

Following the bombing of the school in Haydan, a nearby MSF-supported hospital was struck by another coalition airstrike:

A Saudi-led coalition air strike hit a hospital in Yemen’s northern Hajja province on Monday, residents and local officials said, killing at least seven people and wounding 13.

A Reuters witness at the scene of the attack in the Abs district said medics could not immediately evacuate the wounded because war planes continued to fly over the area and first responders feared more bombings.

This is the fourth MSF-supported hospital that the coalition has bombed in the last year, and it just one of the many medical facilities that coalition planes have attacked. Medical facilities are obviously protected under international law, and the Saudis and their allies have been disregarding these protections routinely. When they are forced to account for their repeated bombings of hospitals and other civilian targets, the coalition response has always been to blame the victims of the attacks, but more often they simply deny all responsibility for the results of their bombing campaign.

The campaign has other longer-lasting, more insidious consequences as well. The use of cluster munitions by the coalition is doubly dangerous to the civilian population. They are inherently indiscriminate weapons that are more likely to kill noncombatants, and they also leave behind unexploded bombs that maim and kill unwitting civilians, often children, who don’t recognize them as a threat. The AP recently reported on one such instance:

Screams rang out through the hilltop village outside Yemen’s capital after 10-year-old Youssef al-Salmi set off a bomb he had found in a field, perhaps thinking it was a toy.

He became the latest of several Yemeni civilians to be killed by unexploded ordnance from the country’s ongoing civil war, which pits Saudi and U.S.-backed government forces against Shiite Houthi rebels.

Leftover parts of cluster bombs are just one of the many poisonous legacies of this war, and they underscore why most states around the world have banned the use of these weapons. Because of these cluster bombs, the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed bombing campaign will keep claiming innocent victims years and even decades after the current fighting ends. This is what the Saudis and their allies are doing with U.S. assistance, and it’s one of many reasons why all U.S. support for the war ought to end immediately.

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More U.S. Weapons for the Saudis’ Atrocious War on Yemen

UN OCHA / Philippe Kropf, via Flickr

The Saudi-led war on Yemen claimed more civilian lives this weekend:

Ten children died and 28 were injured in what Yemeni locals and officials described as an airstrike on a school in northern Yemen by a U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition. The aid group Doctors Without Borders confirmed receiving casualties at its medical facility in the area.

The New York Times reported on the same attack:

Witnesses insisted that no Houthi military forces were present in either the principal’s house or the school.

“It’s a wanton aggression that can’t tell a civilian from a military target,” said Ismail Mufarih, a colleague of the principal, who helped rescue victims. “All were civilians. Their only sin was that they were Yemenis.

The school was located in the vicinity of Saada in northern Yemen. This is the Houthis’ stronghold, and it is also part of the region that the coalition illegally declared to be a military target last year. Indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets in Saada has been commonplace for well over a year since the coalition made that announcement last May. The coalition has indiscriminately bombed civilian areas in many parts of Yemen, but Saada is often where the worst damage has been done. Unfortunately, the bombings of schools and hospitals are not unusual occurrences in this war, but keep happening with alarming regularity. This is what the U.S. is helping the Saudis and their allies do in Yemen, and there are no signs that the war or U.S. support for it are likely to end anytime soon.

The latest installment of U.S. support for the Saudis comes in the form of a $1.15 billion sale of military equipment and weapons that was approved last week. The Senate’s only public critics of U.S. support for the war, Rand Paul and Chris Murphy, are trying to block the sale. John Hudson reports:

Citing concerns over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, Republican Senator Rand Paul says he’s looking for ways to stop a $1.15 billion weapons deal with Riyadh that would include the sale of 130 Abrams battle tanks, 20 armored vehicles, and other military equipment.

The State Department has offered this lame defense:

The State Department defended the proposed deal, saying it did not amount to an endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s activities in Yemen.

This is not remotely credible. The sale of tanks and armored vehicles is helping the Saudis to replace their losses in the war, and by providing them with more military hardware the U.S. is making it easier for the Saudis to wage a longer campaign. At the very least, it reflects Washington’s uncritical support for Riyadh as the Saudis pummels and starves their neighbor. Hudson quotes Scott Paul from Oxfam on this:

A sale of major arms to Saudi Arabia signals the opposite — that the U.S. is instead all-in on a senseless war that has created one of the world’s largest humanitarian emergencies.

The U.S. is endorsing the Saudi-led coalition’s activities in Yemen every day by helping to make them possible with refueling and weapons, and the latest arms sale just confirms this. The administration wants to get credit for “reassuring” the Saudis by showering them with weapons and diplomatic backing without being held responsible for what the Saudis and their allies do or what the U.S. is actively doing to support them. Even if Paul and Murphy’s efforts aren’t successful, they may at least draw attention to U.S. support for the indefensible Saudi-led war.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Brazil’s little platoons. Catherine Addington reviews on the history of Rio’s favelas.

Armenia in crisis. Michael Cecire describes recent political upheaval in Armenia and the ongoing tensions with Azerbaijan.

Diplomacy at its finest. Allen Weiner and Duncan Pickard explain the history of the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal and its role in settling outstanding disputes between the two states, including the recent $400 million payment to Iran.

Bridging the foreign policy elite-Main Street divide. Sean Kay and Patrick Cronin offer some proposals for closing the widening gap between the public and foreign policy elites in Washington.

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What Is Obama’s Worst Foreign Policy Mistake? It’s Not Syria

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

Nick Kristof repeats a standard complaint against Obama:

I admire Obama for expanding health care and averting a nuclear crisis with Iran, but allowing Syria’s civil war and suffering to drag on unchallenged has been his worst mistake, casting a shadow over his legacy.

Obama’s Syria policy has certainly been a muddled mess for years, but it has never made sense to me to fault him for “allowing” a foreign civil war to continue. To say that Obama “allowed” this assumes that the U.S. could have put an end to it at an acceptable cost, and I don’t see how anyone believes that to be the case. This takes for granted a degree of control over events on the other side of the world that no government–not even one as powerful as ours–can ever hope to have. Talk of “allowing” a foreign civil war to continue also presupposes that the U.S. has the right to interfere and force a settlement in another country’s internal conflict, but it has no such right. Further, it assumes that the U.S. knows how to bring an end to a multi-sided war in a fragmented country that it poorly understands, and I submit that our experience in the region over the last fifteen years proves that we do not.

I am often struck by how absurd it is that Obama is so often faulted on Syria for what he hasn’t done rather than what he has. We are repeatedly told that he erred because he didn’t illegally bomb Syria in 2013, or because he didn’t throw weapons at the problem earlier on. He receives much less criticism for arming opposition forces that are in league with jihadists (and then having those weapons seized by jihadists) or expanding the anti-ISIS bombing campaign into Syria on his own authority. That’s not because these other policies have been particularly effective or successful, but because they mean that the U.S. is “doing something” in Syria, and that is all that seems to matter for interventionist critics. “At least we’re not standing idly by,” they say. That’s right. Instead, we’re needlessly contributing to the mayhem.

Of course, the people most upset with Obama on Syria are those hawks that have wanted him to do much more, and so they blame him for the actions that other states and groups have taken when he has no control over what these other actors do. Meanwhile, when the Obama administration directly and actively participates in creating one of the gravest humanitarian crises of this century, as it has in Yemen, the same people that berate him over Syria have nothing to say about that. Obama’s sin of commission in Yemen is clearly more blameworthy than his “failure” in Syria, not least because the former is indefensible, and yet he usually gets a pass on the one while being excoriated for the other. The point here is not just that Obama has been let off the hook for a terrible decision to back the Saudi-led war on Yemen, but that our foreign policy pundits and professionals are much more willing to blame a president for the consequences of so-called “inaction” than they are willing to hold him accountable for the things that he actually does.

The example of Yemen’s exacerbated suffering should also make us wary of claims that the U.S. could have somehow forced an end to the civil war in Syria without causing even more harm. Outside intervention in Yemen obviously hasn’t hastened the end of conflict there, but instead propped up the weaker side while significantly escalating the war at enormous cost to the civilian population. The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led intervention made the existing conflict much worse and inflicted far more destruction on the country than would have otherwise happened. As terrible as Syria’s civil war has been, there is just as much reason to believe that direct intervention by the U.S. and its allies would have caused far more destruction and more loss of life to the detriment of the people of Syria.

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Paul Ryan, Team Player

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I missed Ross Douthat’s column on Paul Ryan last week while moving. There are some fair points in it, but this seemed a bit off:

But more than most politicians Ryan has always laid claim to a mix of moral and substantive authority; more than most he has sold himself to the right’s intelligentsia and the centrist media as one of Washington’s men of principle. And both that authority and that brand are being laid waste in this campaign.

It’s true that Ryan has often presented himself this way, but it’s never been clear to me why others have accepted it. Ryan’s reputation for “moral and substantive authority” has always been overblown, and believing in it has required ignoring or explaining away a large part of his record in the House before 2011. He was a reliable vote for extremely fiscally irresponsible administration policies during the Bush years, so his “moral and substantive authority” on fiscal issues in particular was never that great. Ryan has claimed that he was “miserable” casting some of those votes, but it didn’t stop him from casting them. His turn as a post-crash debt scold marked a complete reversal from being a supporter of a new, entirely unfunded entitlement when that was what a Republican president wanted. Like many of his colleagues, Ryan has wanted credit for fiscal conservatism when his party didn’t control the White House, but was perfectly content to cast that aside under a Republican president. He is hardly alone in doing this, but that is what he’s done.

What the present campaign has done is to force many of Ryan’s fans to acknowledge that he isn’t the deeply principled wonk that they want him to be, but rather a more compromising Republican politician not so different from the rest. Ryan has backed many bad policies out of political calculation in the past, and now he is halfheartedly supporting a bad nominee out of a different calculation, but the willingness to go along with party leadership remains unchanged. No doubt his reliability as a party man is a major reason that he is in the Speaker’s office now, but there should never have been any illusions about how he got there. That is nothing to boast about, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Ryan’s record. If anyone was expecting “a steeliness in the face of challenges and threats and foes” from Ryan, I can only assume that he forgot the first decade of Ryan’s political career.

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Of Course Clinton Will Be Very Hawkish as President

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Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky think Clinton won’t be as hawkish as president as many expect her to be. Their argument isn’t persuasive, and this strikes me as its weakest part:

The most important reason that a President Hillary Clinton is unlikely to have a hawkish foreign policy is that she will no longer be a senator, or the secretary of state, or a presidential candidate. She will be president. And that means that her priorities will be very different.

Presidents with less hawkish records than Clinton have ended up launching new wars and intervening in foreign conflicts far more often than their campaign rhetoric would have suggested. Bush campaigned on conducting a “humble” foreign policy to distinguish himself from the frequent interventions of the Clinton administration, but as president presided over the most hubristic and reckless foreign policy in decades. Obama was never as dovish as some of his fans and detractors wanted to believe, but he was supposed to be the less hawkish candidate in the primaries and the general election. Despite that, Obama has been a war president for every day he has been in office, and that includes two wars that he initiated illegally on his own authority. As a senator, Obama argued against starting wars without Congressional approval, but as president has done the very thing that he previously denounced.

The pressures and powers that come with the presidency encourage and allow a candidate to become even more hawkish once in office, and Clinton won’t be immune to those effects. More to the point, she won’t want to be immune to them. It’s not at all clear why being president would make Clinton less hawkish than she has been in other positions. There is good reason to assume that being in the office and being subjected to the endless demands to “do something” about each new conflict that comes along will exacerbate her tendency to favor more aggressive measures.

Shapiro and Sokolsky gamely try to make the case for Clinton as a supporter of diplomatic engagement, but the evidence is not as strong as they suggest. Clinton carried out administration policy on Russia in the first term, but like most first-term policies this one was run out of the White House and she wasn’t particularly interested in pursuing better relations with Moscow. She presided over the start of negotiations with Iran, but by all accounts didn’t think they would succeed, and once she was out of office favored more coercive measures to impose additional pressure on Iran that likely would have derailed negotiations if new sanctions had been put in place. Most of the time, Clinton tends to be the one arguing against accommodation and negotiation and in favor of using coercion. When she was running against Obama 2008, she derided his interest in diplomatic engagement as proof of his naivete, and I suspect that contempt for making the effort to engage pariah and rival states remains. More often than not, her preferred approach involves threatening or using force. Shapiro and Sokolsky tout her enthusiasm for “smart power,” but neglect to mention that she thinks the Libyan war was “smart power at its best.”

There will also be unexpected events over the next four years, and a candidate who believes in the importance of American “leadership” as Clinton does isn’t going to know how to leave well enough alone. When a candidate assumes that the U.S. has both the right and responsibility to interfere all over the world (and Clinton obviously takes this for granted), we should assume that she will get the U.S. involved in crises and conflicts that have not yet begun because she thinks that’s what international “leadership” requires.

They also claim that Clinton will be constrained by public opinion to a much greater extent as president than she has been before, but that’s a questionable assumption. With the notable exception of the public backlash against the proposed bombing of Syria in 2013, recent presidents have not encountered strong opposition at the start of a new intervention. There is certainly no appetite for more interventions, but as we have seen over the last seven years there is also not much of an antiwar movement to speak of when a Democratic president is in power. I assume Clinton will launch Kosovo- or Libya-style air wars when the opportunities present themselves, and she will be quicker to take sides in foreign conflicts than her predecessor and will back the side she takes more aggressively. She probably won’t commit the U.S. to a major ground war, but then her judgment on foreign policy is reliably bad so there are no guarantees that she won’t. Based on her record, it is very difficult to imagine that she would resist demands for “action” when they inevitably come, and that is why her consistent support for each new military intervention is so worrisome.

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