Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Our unrealistic foreign policy. Christopher Preble asks why the public should be expected to pay for a global “leadership” role they don’t support.

Seven questions for Benjamin Schwarz. Jeremy Beer talks with TAC‘s new national editor about foreign policy, conservatism, consumer capitalism, and Churchill.

Behind Netanyahu’s win. Brent Sasley analyzes the political trends in Israel that gave Likud and its allies another victory.

The folly of outside intervention in Yemen. Adam Baron warns against more interference in Yemen’s conflicts.

Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Ishaan Tharoor comments on the Saudi military intervention against the Houthis.

The Republicans’ Israel problem. Jacob Heilbrunn comments on the recent panic over James Baker and his speech at the J Street conference.

Fearing the success of a nuclear deal. Paul Pillar identifies the serious flaws of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

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Bolton and the MEK

Re-reading part of John Bolton’s op-ed calling for war with Iran, I noticed something that I had overlooked the first time:

An attack need not destroy all of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but by breaking key links in the nuclear-fuel cycle, it could set back its program by three to five years. The United States could do a thorough job of destruction, but Israel alone can do what’s necessary. Such action should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran [bold mine-DL].

Peter Beinart objects to Bolton’s op-ed in part because Bolton, who was a leading advocate for the invasion of Iraq, pays no attention to the possible negative consequences of a war with Iran. That’s a fair point. Hawks frequently ignore or minimize the costs and risks of the military action they’re urging the government to take, they exaggerate the efficacy of hard power to “solve” problems, and they often fail to anticipate or plan for unintended consequences of the wars they support. These are all good reasons to view any hawkish argument for war very skeptically, especially when it comes from someone with such an appalling track record. There is another reason to view anything Bolton has to say about Iran in particular with great suspicion.

Bolton is hardly the only former official, retired officer, or ex-politician to do this, but for the last several years he has been a vocal cheerleader of the Mujahideen-e Khalq cult (and “former” terrorist group) and its political organization. He has been consistently misrepresenting a totalitarian cult as a “democratic” Iranian opposition group. When Bolton or someone else with this record talks about “vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition,” we can be fairly sure that he means that the U.S. should be backing the MEK in its quest for seizing power in Iran.

This confirms Bolton’s extremely poor judgment and underscores how truly crazy his overall argument for war with Iran is. It also reminds us how oblivious Iran hawks such as Bolton are to the political realities inside Iran. Once again we have a hawkish demand for U.S. support for an exile group that has absolutely no support in its own country in order to achieve regime change. Indeed, the group that Bolton has been helping to promote is widely loathed in Iran for good reason and has no credibility at all with the domestic political opposition. It is Bolton’s embrace of the MEK as much as anything else that ought to discredit his views on Iran policy.

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The U.S. Should Stop Enabling Reckless Clients

James Poulos proposes having a U.S. Israel relationship that is mostly the same as the one that already exists:

This ought to result in an attitude of care and forbearance toward Israel — aid and friendship mixed with quiet thankfulness that its burden is not our own. Unfortunately, in America, it’s easy to view others through the lens of our favorite abstract principles. In Israel, at any rate, the Israeli predicament is not an abstraction. That’s why Benjamin Netanyahu won re-election, and that’s why politicians like Netanyahu aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. For Bush as much as any responsible American leader, the task is to accept that — and to use skilled statecraft not to be drawn too deeply into the punishing pattern of European politics still playing out in the Middle East.

Poulos comments on Jeb Bush earlier in the column, but doesn’t mention that Bush has explicitly said that he thinks the appropriate standard for the relationship is that it should be so close that there will be “no light” between America and its client. I agree with Poulos that it would be better if the relationship were “not too close,” but Bush has already rejected this. If Poulos should fault anyone for “stumbling badly” on this question, it should be Bush and the other candidates that have made similar statements.

It’s never clear in Poulos’ argument why the U.S. ought to be providing Israel with this “care” and “aid.” Because it “is a nation-state created in Europe’s image”? That’s not a very compelling reason. The comparison with European allies is also misleading since they are, in fact, treaty allies, and they do contribute something to their alliance with the U.S. (The U.S. should want to discourage “cheap-riding” by its genuine allies, too, but that is a different question.) Poulos refers to an attitude of “care and forbearance,” which has been more or less the attitude of many “pro-Israel” Americans for a long time. In practice, however, the U.S. has shown “forbearance” by indulging Israeli governments in their worst policies and only occasionally, hesitantly challenging them on settlements. Especially over the last twenty years or so, it has shown “care” and “friendship” by reflexively supporting Israeli actions, and that has led successive Israeli governments to believe that the U.S. won’t seriously object to anything they do. The U.S. enables its client’s reckless behavior, and the client has since responded by demonstrating its contempt for U.S. policy goals. There shouldn’t be “forbearance” for any of that, and the sooner that there isn’t the relationship should be much healthier.

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Walker and Iran Hawks’ Phony Concern for Nonproliferation

Rejecting any achievable nuclear deal with Iran seems to be the latest litmus test for Republican presidential candidates. Scott Walker told Hugh Hewitt that he would repudiate a deal that the U.S. made that permitted Iran to retain some enrichment:

HH: Would you reject that deal if you took the Oval Office?

SW: Absolutely, on Day One. I mean, to me, it is, the concept of a nuclear Iran is not only problematic for Iran, and certainly for Israel, but it opens the doors. I mean, the Saudis are next. You’re going to have plenty of others in the region. People forget that even amongst the Islamic world, there is no love lost between the Saudis and the Iranians. And so they’re going to want to have a nuclear weapon if the Iranians have a nuclear weapon.

It’s almost funny how hawks that are dead-set against a nonproliferation agreement pretend to care about nuclear proliferation in the rest of the region. If they were genuinely concerned about nuclear future proliferation by U.S. allies and clients, you would think they would be eager to reach an agreement with Iran that significantly limits Iran’s nuclear program. If one assumes that there would be a wave of proliferation as a result of an Iranian bomb (which has strangely failed to happen for fifty years since Israel acquired its nuclear weapons), imposing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program through a negotiated deal would seem to be imperative in order to stop that future proliferation.

Then again, I doubt that there are any hawks that really believe this will happen. If they did, they wouldn’t so cavalierly propose the idea of attacking Iran, as John Bolton does again today in The New York Times, since such an attack would push Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and, if the hawks are to be believed, that would then prompt Iran’s neighbors to do likewise. If one wanted to “open the doors” to future proliferation, tearing up an agreement made in good faith with Iran regarding its nuclear program is a good way to start. Walker and Rubio have both committed to doing this if they become president, which is another excellent reason why neither of them should be allowed to hold that office.

Once again, Iran hawks oppose the means that has the best chance of ensuring that Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons while many of them demand military action most likely to make the Iranian government want to have them. They feign concern about future proliferation while vowing to repudiate an agreement that has a good chance of preventing it. They claim to be interested in preventing a nuclear-armed Iran while doing everything in their power to make that outcome more likely.

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Boehner and the “Anti-War President”

Politico reports on some of the Speaker’s recent comments:

Speaker John Boehner called President Barack Obama an “anti-war president,” and said the world is “starving for American leadership.”

I briefly criticized this on Twitter earlier. As I thought more about it, it occurred to me that Boehner’s remarks include almost everything wrong with the way Republican hawks talk and think about foreign policy. We have the obsession with ill-defined “leadership” as some sort of cure-all. Boehner assures us that if America “leads,” “our allies in the region would be tickled to death and would be happy to join a coalition.” It doesn’t seem to occur to Boehner that our so-called “allies” are not doing very much to contribute to a coalition effort because the U.S. is already offering to do almost all of the work at our expense for them. Then there are the dishonest misrepresentations of past or current policy. Obama is anything but an “anti-war president.” His record of starting two unnecessary wars and escalating a third should make clear. That doesn’t include the strikes that Obama has ordered in many other countries. When Boehner calls Obama an “anti-war president,” he is obviously lying, but he is also making clear that under his definition of leadership the U.S. ought to be fighting even more wars more aggressively than it already is.

We can also recognize the presumption that action should always be preferred to “sitting on the sidelines.” Boehner probably can’t imagine that the U.S. has no interest in embroiling itself more deeply in the internal conflicts of other countries. “America has to lead,” and by this he means that the U.S. has to keep joining unnecessary foreign conflicts. Finally, there is the boilerplate complaint about a lack of strategy while refusing to offer anything that might resemble one. There is nothing cheaper, easier, or less meaningful than to say that there isn’t a strategy. It might or might not be true to say that the U.S. has no coherent strategy in the region, but as criticism it is utterly useless unless the critic explains what he thinks ought to be done. This is what passes for “serious” foreign policy discourse at the highest levels of government. No wonder our foreign policy record in recent decades has been so poor.

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The Warren Mirage

Damon Linker talks up a Warren-Webb alternative to Clinton. I found this section to be the least persuasive:

As for foreign policy — well, let’s just say that given her left-leaning preferences in every other area of policy, I don’t fully believe Warren’s wan statements in defense of the status quo. I think she’s probably given foreign affairs little thought, and she’s picking her battles. And anyway, in my dream she’d have Jim Webb around to try and convince her to revisit her conventionally hawkish positions.

That’s not very compelling. Linker admits earlier that Warren has “said very little to indicate that she diverges from the bipartisan Washington consensus in favor of endless warfare.” That’s true, and it’s probably because she doesn’t reject that consensus, or because changing U.S. foreign policy has never been one of her priorities. She may be a progressive hero on some domestic issues, but there is no reason to assume that she shares progressive criticisms of Clinton’s record across the board. Linker then rationalizes this by saying that she probably hasn’t thought about these things very much, as if that were a good defense when arguing for her to seek the presidency. It is almost guaranteed that a first-term senator who hasn’t given much thought to foreign policy would be politically cautious on these issues to a fault, and if that senator doesn’t have much of a background in these issues that would make her that much more likely to defer to “centrist” hawks in her party. To the extent that Warren is perceived to be a progressive on foreign policy, she would probably have to go out of her way to “reassure” Democratic hawks by copying many of their positions.

There’s no question that the Democrats need to have some challengers to run against Clinton, and ideally they would nominate someone less beholden to Wall Street and much less inclined to meddle overseas, but the focus on Warren is misplaced. It distracts much-needed attention from the would-be presidential candidates that Democrats actually have available. If Warren were somehow lured into doing what some of her fans claim to want, it would be a huge waste of her time and would make her a less effective advocate for her preferred causes in the Senate. One might almost think that all the “draft Warren” enthusiasm was a clever way to keep anti-Clinton Democrats preoccupied with a fantasy so that they neglect the real alternatives.

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Obama’s Venezuela Blunder

Frida Ghitis sums up the administration’s blundering in Venezuela:

Venezuela is one country where U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama had struck the right tone—until a few weeks ago.

A diplomatic miscalculation by Washington has strengthened the repressive Venezuelan regime and derailed the Obama administration’s campaign to bolster ties with Latin American nations after December’s landmark reopening of relations with Cuba.

Venezuela is just the latest case in which U.S. sanctions have backfired and have contributed to the strengthening of the regime they were meant to hurt. Though they were ostensibly intended to punish leading members of the Venezuelan government for their abuses and corruption, the sanctions have provided an unwelcome boost to Maduro, who has milked the absurd declaration of his country as an “extraordinary threat” to the U.S. for all it is worth. Ghitis continues:

The Venezuelan legislature approved the “anti-imperialist” law, which gives Maduro the right to bypass the legislature and rule by decree until the end of 2015.

This development has not only strengthened Maduro’s position, it has altered conditions for Washington in the rest of Latin America.

U.S. action has therefore directly made life considerably more difficult for the opposition, which condemned the U.S. action for its interference in Venezuelan affairs. The U.S. has clumsily helped a flailing demagogue and his allies shore up support. This was entirely predictable, and sanctions skeptics warned against imposing them here for precisely these reasons. I wrote this in May of last year:

If the U.S. imposes sanctions on Maduro and his cronies, it will be because it has decided that it should actively encourage one side in a foreign political dispute. That will most likely backfire and hurt the opposition forces that supporters of sanctions think they are helping.

This was not hard to guess, because this is what keeps happening again and again when the U.S. sanctions other governments for its internal abuses. As we’re seeing now, even targeted sanctions that are aimed at a handful of officials can be used by the regime to its own advantage over its internal opponents. The sanctions were never likely to have the desired effect on the regime’s behavior, and they were always more likely to make conditions inside the country worse, and so they have. It is probably too late to repair the damage done by this short-sighted meddling, but it should be remembered as a cautionary tale the next time that hawks start demanding that the U.S. show our support for a foreign opposition by taking some punitive action against their leaders. Sanctions are typically worse than useless, and they tend to have nothing but harmful effects on the people of the targeted country.

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Cruz Is Going Nowhere Fast

Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock

Jonathan Bernstein pushes back on the idea that Cruz can win the nomination:

But Williamson is assuming Cruz can be nominated. Sure, nothing in politics is impossible. And it’s possible the process has changed substantially, and we just haven’t noticed it; maybe the Republican Party has changed significantly, and we missed it. Barring that, however, everything we know about presidential-nomination politics cuts against Cruz as a plausible candidate.

This is right, and I would just add a few more points. What we know about Republican nomination politics tells us that Cruz is an extreme long-shot candidate. Republicans almost never nominate an insurgent candidate, and they certainly don’t choose to nominate the one with the least experienced in elected office when they have a large number of alternatives available. Many people are comparing Cruz now to Obama in 2007, and there are some similarities, but Cruz is even more of a novice in elected office than Obama was when he announced his candidacy and he doesn’t really have any major issue that he can use to propel his candidacy. There is no significant constituency that Cruz will be able to mobilize on his behalf, and there is no issue that he will be able to “own” to the detriment of his rivals. He suffers from the flaws of being an over-eager junior senator, but he cannot credibly claim to have been prescient about a major national or international issue. Neither does he have any substantive record to run on. The proper question isn’t, “Can Cruz win?” but rather “What’s the point of a Cruz candidacy?”

Ross Douthat has suggested that he could attack his rivals on immigration, and that might allow him to score some points, but with the exception of Bush all of the other candidates are going to take positions on immigration that are almost indistinguishable from Cruz’s. He is positioning himself as an insurgent in a fight with a party leadership that agrees with him on almost all policies, and so there is no particular reason why primary voters should prefer him rather than one of the many other conservative candidates that will also be running.

Williamson makes a crack at the end of his article about Cruz’s Senate primary race against David Dewhurst. Cruz won that race before being elected to the Senate against even weaker opposition. This is supposed to be a clever rebuke to Cruz’s doubters, but it doesn’t prove what Williamson thinks it does. Yes, Cruz was the “anti-establishment” insurgent in the primary race in 2012, the state party backed his opponent, and Cruz still won. This overlooks that Cruz had to first force a run-off and then was able to have a head-to-head contest with Dewhurst. He had the luxury of appealing to a primary electorate that was very well-suited to him, and in the end he had just one opponent. None of this will be true over the next year in the contest for the presidential nomination. There is no run-off in this contest. Cruz will have to compete with perhaps as many as a dozen rivals (or perhaps more), almost all of whom will be more qualified than he is, and all of whom are more personally appealing. He won the Senate primary in large part because the Texas primary electorate welcomed his uncompromising approach, but he won’t get the same reception from voters in the presidential race.

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Jeb Bush and the Crowded 2016 Field

The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia / Flickr

Jonathan Bernstein notes the weakness of Jeb Bush’s candidacy so far:

If Bush (or anyone else) was decisively pulling ahead, some marginal candidates would be dropping out. For that matter, Florida Senator Marco Rubio would probably have decided not to run. No sign of that.

It is remarkable how many other Republicans have been willing to signal that they intend to run in the months following Bush’s decision to “explore” a presidential bid. Most observers expected that the 2016 field would be larger and more competitive than usual, but it is a bit surprising that Bush’s entry into the race seems to have had no effect on the calculations of the other candidates. Instead of clearing the field or discouraging challengers as his brother’s candidacy did sixteen years ago, Jeb Bush’s candidacy seems to have been underwhelming enough to give his many challengers no pause at all in preparing their own campaigns. Rubio’s candidacy still doesn’t make any sense for many reasons, but it is telling that Bush’s bid didn’t keep Rubio from preparing his own. I still assume Rubio’s campaign will go nowhere, but it is a reflection of how unimpressed Bush’s rivals are by his candidacy that Rubio would choose to pursue a presidential campaign instead of his own re-election bid.

Bernstein continues:

If party actors remain split or uncommitted and prefer to wait for tests of electoral strength, it’s easy to imagine Bush finishing fifth or lower in Iowa, failing to rally in New Hampshire, and then finding himself almost a non-factor in South Carolina. One thing’s for sure: Waiting for the Florida primary to come around isn’t going to be a successful nomination strategy.

That’s a possibility. It’s not entirely fair to liken Bush to Giuliani. Giuliani’s “wait until Florida” plan was transparently desperate and absurd. Bush has at least some qualifications to be president. Even so, Bush could have some similar difficulties in the early states. The early evidence suggests that his support is not nearly this weak in New Hampshire or South Carolina. Jeb Bush seems to be somewhere between being another Giuliani and another McCain. He may not be able to eke out a nomination win as McCain did, but he isn’t going to be thoroughly humiliated and forced to drop out early on. It’s certainly true, as E.J. Dionne observes, that the more conservative candidates there are in the race the better Bush’s chances are. There are going to be so many of these candidates running this year that the perceived weakness of Bush’s candidacy could help keep him afloat.

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No, Cruz Doesn’t Really Have a “Shot” at the Nomination


Sometimes contrarian arguments are just bad arguments:

But the fact remains that the pool of anti-establishment votes has been proven, at least once, to be bigger than the pool of establishment votes. And that fact alone should get us to at least question the conventional wisdom on GOP primaries.

The conventional wisdom already takes this into account. “Establishment” candidates don’t keep winning Republican nominations because there is a larger “pool” of “establishment” votes in the primaries. No one argues that this is the reason for their success. These candidates win as often as they do because their competition reliably splits the conservative vote so that no one challenger can get enough to support to defeat the “establishment” candidate often enough to take the nomination. In 2008 and 2012, there was an overabundance of conservative alternatives to the “establishment” candidate, and in this election it is likely that there will be even more. Splitting the conservative vote made the McCain and Romney wins possible, and that vote seems sure to be split between many more candidates this time around. Cruz’s entry into the race makes this problem worse.

It also helps the relative moderates’ cause that they are able to win some support from among “very conservative” and “somewhat” conservative voters. Most people that describe themselves as “very conservative” have no time for these candidates, but some are willing to vote for them, and that makes the insurgent candidates’ task that much more difficult. Meanwhile, the insurgent candidates are usually unable to get very many moderate votes. They are typically concerned to appeal only to the voters that are closest to them ideologically, and their emphasis on ideological consistency makes them a poor fit for voters that find this off-putting or boring. The insurgents organize their campaigns as if moderate Republican voters didn’t exist or don’t matter, but these voters make up a substantial percentage of the primary electorate. These candidates start off more or less writing off a third or more of the Republican primary voters.

Cruz is the least likely to be able to appeal to primary voters that don’t already agree with him, and so he is most likely to remain a factional or protest candidate in a field that will already be full of them. If he has a “shot” at the nomination, it is an extraordinarily long and difficult one that no one could realistically make. But then Cruz isn’t really interested in winning the nomination or the presidency, nor is he all that interested in advancing a particular cause other than that of his own aggrandizement.

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Israeli Spying and Our Embarrassing Congress

One of the more embarrassing reactions to the new Israeli spying story comes from Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine:

“I don’t look at Israel or any nation directly affected by the Iranian program wanting deeply to know what’s going on in the negotiations—I just don’t look at that as spying,” Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said. “Their deep existential interest in such a deal, that they would try to figure out anything that they could, that they would have an opinion on it… I don’t find any of that that controversial.”

It is clear that Kaine has no problem with Israeli spying or the use of information gleaned from that spying to try to sabotage negotiations, but it is truly pitiful that he can’t bring himself to call the activity by its proper name. Kaine’s weird statement that gives license to “any nation directly affected by the Iranian program” to spy on the negotiations presumably doesn’t extend to governments aligned with Iran, but presumably they would be affected by what happens in these talks as well. He says later on that he considers using the word “spying” in this context to be a “pejorative accusation,” which is something that a paid spin doctor or lawyer would say on behalf of an obviously guilty client. Kaine prefers to say that Israel was “getting information” about the talks. Indeed they were. They were acquiring it secretly through spying.

I agree that it hardly comes as a shock to hear that Israel was spying on the negotiations. No doubt their government believes that it has a strong interest in the final result of the talks, but that doesn’t make it any less an act of espionage. Nor does it excuse their attempt to use what they learned (or what they claimed to have learned) in an attempt to influence members of Congress in opposition to U.S. diplomatic efforts. The fact that leading members of Congress would shrug at this and make excuses for it is very embarrassing, but unfortunately it is what we have come to expect from our so-called representatives.

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Rubio’s Awful “Rollback” Plan for Iran


Marco Rubio thinks that negotiations with Iran have “enabled” it to expand its influence in the region:

It is no coincidence that Iran has achieved a series of stunning successes in recent years as the nuclear talks under the Joint Plan of Action have unfolded. For example, in many respects Iraq is now a client state of Iran.

Readers can be forgiven for wondering if Rubio knows the meaning of the word coincidence. What he is describing here most certainly is a coincidence. One might question how much “success” Iran is really having when its allies and proxies are all under siege or are caught in protracted conflicts, but the negotiations with Iran have not helped to bring about this “success.” Diplomacy with Iran on one issue should not be faulted because it cannot change all aspects of Iranian behavior in the region. Reaching an agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program is hardly enabling or empowering the regime, but rather imposes additional restrictions and scrutiny on their government inside its own country. Rubio’s objections that a deal would lend Iran’s government legitimacy is the same as saying that he doesn’t want there ever to be a deal with the current Iranian leadership. That means that he rejects any diplomatic solution that could possibly be achieved, and the results can only be heightened tensions and possibly armed conflict. As Rubio makes plain in the rest of his argument, that is outcome he wants.

For that matter, Iranian influence on the Iraqi government long predates these negotiations and began growing the moment that the U.S. toppled the old Baathist regime. If Iraq is an Iranian client state “in many respects,” that came about in large part because of the policies of the previous administration. The hawks that are most exercised about growing Iranian influence have reliably supported those policies that seem designed to increase it. When they make recommendations about how to counter Iranian influence, it is important to remember that their previous ideas have aided in making Iran more influential than it was before. Likewise, the same hawks that counsel nothing but pressure, sanctions, and confrontation as the way to “stop” Iran’s nuclear program have already been discredited. The U.S. pursued the course they wanted for most of a decade, which resulted in an Iranian nuclear program far more advanced and sophisticated than what had been there at the start. The policies that hawks support don’t yield the results they expect and promise, but very reliably yield the opposite. Iran hawks have been consistently wrong on what would contain or expand Iranian influence and on what would limit or advance Iran’s nuclear program, and as Rubio makes clear they are still wrong on both.

Rubio insists that the U.S. should “replace détente with rollback.” The policy that he recommends would commit the U.S. to a very costly, prolonged mission to try to “reverse” supposed Iranian gains. It’s not clear how the U.S. would do this in Lebanon or Syria without further destabilizing both countries and dragging the U.S. deeper into Syria’s civil war. Rubio later complains about indulging fantasies, but keeps talking about supporting “moderate military and political leaders in Syria” as if such people existed. Likewise, it isn’t clear how the U.S. would pull Iraq out of Iran’s orbit now when it was unable to do so at the height of the occupation of Iraq. Even if such a thing could be done, it wouldn’t be at anything resembling an acceptable cost. Among other costs, a concerted effort to oppose Iran across the region would make the Iranian government less inclined to adhere to the terms of any nuclear deal, since it would assume that this increased hostility was aimed at their eventual overthrow. That would be very useful politically for hard-liners inside Iran, who could then make the case for pursuing nuclear weapons. That is always the problem with “rollback” policies. While they may seem appealing to some people on the surface, the costs of such a policy are always too high even for most of the advocates of “rollback.”

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Jeb Bush and the Continuing Baker Panic

White House photo
White House photo

Last week I noted that Jeb Bush was being called on to repudiate former Secretary of State James Baker on account of the latter’s appearance at J Street’s annual conference. Bush sort of complied with the demand today:

Jeb Bush distanced himself Tuesday from James Baker, who is advising him on foreign policy, after the former secretary of state directed criticism at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Of course, no one seriously thought that Bush shared the views that Baker expressed in his speech, so it’s absurd that Bush even felt the need to restate the obvious that is he a conventional “pro-Israel” hawk. What’s more ridiculous is that neoconservatives still aren’t satisfied because his criticism of Baker and J Street are not intense and zealous enough. Jennifer Rubin faults him for his lack of passion:

We see other candidates take a much more forceful and direct stance against the president’s anti-Israel antics and vowing not to be bound by a bad Iran deal that Congress has not approved. Bush’s statements remain generic, and his demeanor does not convey passion.

It must be exhausting to try enforcing ideological litmus tests when all of the likely candidates are in basic agreement with one another. There are no real policy differences regarding Israel among the likely 2016 candidates for enforcers to criticize, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to find a way to make the candidates jump through additional hoops. Instead of being satisfied that all of the candidates hold virtually identical views, the enforcers have to look for differences between them by worrying about how intensely and passionately they toe the party line. Is the candidate visibly moved when he recites his talking points? If not, he may not be entirely reliable and should be kept under watch. Does he have or has he ever had conversations with anyone that might be suspected of realism or a balanced view of the conflict with the Palestinians? If so, he should flee from that person at once or be found guilty of the taint of realism.

Robert Golan-Vilella has been following the story and marvels at how bizarre it is:


This is just the latest in a long line of attempts to banish realists from Republican foreign policy debate. That undoubtedly makes the debate inside the GOP much less thoughtful and harms the quality of policymaking in Republican administrations, but it is successful in discouraging politicians and policymakers from deviating from the lines set down by the party’s ideological enforcers.

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Why Do Some Americans Loathe Diplomacy So Much?

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Dominic Tierney wonders why the U.S. is the only one of the P5+1 countries where there is a serious controversy over negotiating with Iran:

Furious Republican opposition to a deal over Iran’s nuclear program may look like another example of political partisanship and personal animosity toward Barack Obama. But there’s also a much deeper reason for congressional pushback: the deeply ingrained aversion in American culture toward parleying with ‘evil’ opponents.

Negotiating with international adversaries is more controversial in the United States than in most advanced democracies. Whereas in other countries bargaining is often seen as the norm, Americans frequently view face-to-face talks as a prize that the opponent has to earn through good behavior.

There is something to this, but I’m not sure that this applies to most Americans or to American culture generally. There are some Americans for whom diplomacy is inherently suspect and undesirable, and who view all talks with authoritarian and hostile regimes as preludes to betrayal and “appeasement.” I don’t think most Americans share this loathing of diplomacy (broad majority support for the Iran talks would seem to show they don’t), but those that do are greatly overrepresented in our foreign policy debates and in our political class. If I had to identify the main reasons for this hostility to diplomacy, I would say that they are 1) the disparity in power between the U.S. and the other country in question; 2) the nostalgic attachment to WWII and the idea of “total victory”; 3) the phobia of appeasement or the fear of being seen as an appeaser by one’s domestic opponents; 4) an irrational belief that the other government will never abide by any agreement; 5) an instinctive dislike of compromise as such. Tierney identifies some of the same reasons later in his article.

Because the U.S. is normally in a much stronger position than the other country, American opponents of diplomacy see no reason to negotiate. A negotiation is bound to leave the other nation with something it wants, and that is considered too much. They believe that the U.S. should use its greater power to try to force the other side’s capitulation. Attachment to the idea of “total victory” makes anything short of the other side’s complete surrender seem unsatisfying and inadequate. The fact that pursuing such a goal is extraordinarily costly and dangerous doesn’t enter into these calculations. Politicians certainly want to avoid being labeled an appeaser, though this labeling has become so common and the motives behind so obvious that it doesn’t have the same power to intimidate that it once did.

The good news is that most Americans are not so ideologically committed to rejecting diplomacy. When it comes time to vote, most Americans are normally more inclined to whichever side of the argument is more interested in making the effort to resolve outstanding disputes through negotiation. I suspect most people in the country understand that it is a much less costly way to pursue U.S. goals and secure U.S. interests than the likely alternatives. Because the U.S. is typically in such a strong position relative to its interlocutors, there is not much to fear from reaching agreements with foes and rivals. Hostility to diplomacy is not really so deeply ingrained in our culture, and that makes the hawkish loathing of diplomacy that much more dangerous and inimical to U.S. interests.

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Britain and the Dishonest Charge of “Retreat” Revisited

Janan Ganesh criticizes the claim that Britain is retreating from the world:

All zones of public discourse have their excesses and irrationalities, but none like foreign policy. In our golden age of data, this is one area that remains resiliently unmeasurable. So anyone can say anything as long as they say it sonorously and use the word “strategy” a lot.

And so the idea has taken hold that Britain is withdrawing from the world. The charge is built on topical grievances against Prime Minister David Cameron: his euroscepticism, his implied cuts to the defence budget in the coming years, his absence from the Franco-German diplomatic front against Russia. These observations are each true, to a point, but they add up to a partial reading.

It would be one thing if Britain were dramatically reducing its engagement with the rest of the world, but it isn’t doing that. Ganesh goes on to explain that Britain has been quite active in its international relations under Cameron. Being active is not the same as being successful, but that is a different question. He notes that the critics’ problem with Cameron is not that he is engaging in “retreat” or withdrawal from the world, but that he isn’t being as activist as they want or he isn’t doing what they would like him to be doing. Compared to some of his most recent predecessors, especially Blair, Cameron may not be as preoccupied with foreign policy, but then Blair’s hyperactivity and constant meddling abroad is hardly an example one should aspire to match.

Ganesh continues:

Critics of Britain’s insularity tend to come in two forms: those who do not mean what they say, and those who do not know what they mean.

It is often the case that hawkish critics use the charge of “retreat” dishonestly. They know very well that no “retreat” has taken place, but they want an even more aggressive and activist policy than the current one. They prefer to make it seem as if they are the only ones offering a foreign policy of engagement with the rest of the world, since that allows their typically bad policy preferences avoid close scrutiny. The goal of these hawks is to make it seems as if their preferences are synonymous with being an internationalist, and that anything less than what they want represents withdrawal.

We’re also familiar with the second group of critics here in the U.S. These critics rely heavily on generalities and vapid calls for “leadership” and “action” and insist on the need to “do more”:

In the absence of precise answers to these questions, the criticism boils down to a hunch that Mr Cameron should put himself about a bit more, as if a prime minister is delinquent in his duties by not maximising his country’s visibility. We chuckle at armchair football coaches who yell at players on screen to run about more and get stuck in, but this mania for perpetual motion in foreign affairs is not much different.

Attacking Cameron for presiding over British “retreat” is all the more strange when one considers that the biggest single foreign undertaking of his government has been the war in Libya, which has proven to be so disastrous for Libya and the surrounding region. This was a war that had broad support across all major parties in Parliament, and it was one that Cameron urged the U.S. to join. It was also a colossal blunder. Cameron wasn’t chastened by this failure, and was only too willing to join in another unnecessary war in 2013. He could have added a foolish war in Syria to his list of achievements if he had not been blocked by the House of Commons. Given that record, one would think that Cameron would be actively discouraged from doing more than he absolutely has to on foreign policy rather than being called on to interfere in a lot of other places.

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Bad Client Behavior and U.S.-Israel Relations

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Dan Drezner comments on the frayed ties between the U.S. and Israel. He remarks on something from the new Israeli spying story:

Second, I have never seen a senior administration quote like that one directed against an ally. There is precedent for a souring of a bilateral relationship because of craven campaign rhetoric. The George W. Bush-Gerhard Schröder relationship was never the same after Schröder won reelection in 2002 on an anti-Iraq War platform. But to my knowledge the Bush administration never claimed that the effect would outlast their administration. Either a senior administration official has gone way off-script or there’s something else going on that hasn’t been made public yet.

Drezner may be reading a bit too much into this quote. When an Obama administration official says that “a lot of these people will not only be around for this administration but possibly the next one as well,” this means that the official expects there to be significant continuity in personnel between Obama and Clinton administrations. The official hedged this with “possibly” because it is not at all guaranteed that the next administration will be Democratic. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something else going on. The scars left by this latest episode of Israeli espionage could be significant. The main reason why they would have effects that continue into the next administration is if the next administration is staffed by many of the people that have had such an awful experience with the Netanyahu government while serving in the current one. It’s possible that Clinton wouldn’t keep on as many people from this administration as Obama’s officials expect, but it’s reasonable to think that there would be some significant overlap for a few years.

The comparison with Schröder and Germany doesn’t entirely work. Any modern German government would have been opposed to the invasion of another country. U.S.-German relations soured in that instance not just because Schröder used the war opportunistically to win re-election, but because the Bush administration believed that all European allies ought to be openly supportive of the invasion. But Schröder wasn’t reneging on any previous commitments, and he hadn’t recently made a desperate bid to interfere in American politics because of his opposition to administration policy. He was tapping into Germans’ postwar aversion to war and criticizing U.S. policy in tandem with France. France was the ally that the administration resented most because of the Iraq debate (remember Rice’s recommendation to “forgive Russia, ignore Germany, punish France”), but even then France was not punished very much. That’s because the relationships with those actual allies mattered enough that they weren’t going to be permanently damaged because of a major disagreement over one policy. It’s also because the behavior of the German and French governments during that debate was not nearly as shoddy as the Israeli government’s has been during this one. In other words, U.S.-Israeli relations are worse now than U.S.-German or U.S.-French relations were under Bush because the behavior of the other government has been much more antagonistic and obnoxious in this instance. Then again, anonymous administration officials have been griping about Netanyahu to the press for a long time and it has had no discernible effect on what the administration does. Maybe that is about to change, but until it happens I remain skeptical that the administration will follow through on its threats to make Israel pay a “price.”

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Israeli Spying and the Iran Talks

The Wall Street Journal reports that Israel spied on the negotiations with Iran, and then used that information to try to influence Congress to derail the deal:

The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.

“It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on the matter.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that Israel was spying on the talks, and it isn’t even all that surprising that their government used what it learned to attempt to sabotage a deal. The Israeli government has plainly been opposed to the negotiations with Iran all along, and it has sought to derail them from the beginning. Nonetheless, the use of the information they gathered to try to subvert U.S. diplomacy confirms that the goals of our governments have been diametrically opposed on this issue for years. It is yet another reminder that the U.S. and Israel aren’t allies, and on this issue in particular Israel has not behaved as an ally of the United States. This is all the more obnoxious when one considers that the U.S. has gone to extraordinary lengths to placate and reassure Israel on all matters relating to Iran for more than a decade at least. There is no client that has less reason to complain about U.S. treatment and less cause to doubt U.S. goodwill than Israel. Even so, this doesn’t stop their government from acting to undermine the efforts of our government to secure an agreement that would limit Iran’s nuclear program just as the Israeli government claims to want.

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Why the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act Should Be Defeated

Sen. Bob Corker. Photo U.S. Embassy, Moldova

Surprising no one, Michael Gerson supports sabotaging negotiations with Iran:

It is the common temptation of Republicans and Democrats to support a strong presidency when it is used to do things they like and to condemn it when it does things they don’t. There is, however, a group of committed institutionalists that has gathered around the bipartisan Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, now scheduled for a vote of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 14.

Support for this bill has nothing to do with any commitment to the institution of Congress or to its proper role in making policy. Let’s be clear about that from the start. It is aimed squarely at creating new obstacles to implementing any deal reached with Iran with the goal of preventing a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue. If the saboteurs cannot derail the deal before the end of this month as they had once hoped, they are determined to continue trying to kill it later on. It is worth noting here that the alternative to a “bad” deal is no deal at all, which means that Iran’s nuclear program will be under far fewer restrictions than if the “bad” deal were in effect. Gerson says that there are Republican senators that favor a “reasonable” deal with Iran on the nuclear issue, but in practice what these senators consider reasonable would never be accepted by Iran. That tells us that what they think is “reasonable” is obviously excessive and if taken seriously would prevent a deal from being reached.

Daryl Kimball recently explained why the substance of this bill is harmful:

The Corker bill would put on hold the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal for at least sixty-five days, and probably far more. This would delay key steps to constrain and reduce Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The bill would also block the president’s existing legislative authority to waive certain nuclear-related sanctions at the onset of an agreement, which by itself could wreck the deal.

More than this, Kimball makes clear that the bill would impose additional conditions that the administration couldn’t possibly meet:

In reality, the bill moves the goalposts by requiring the president to make certifications outside the scope or terms of what will likely be in the nuclear deal.

These additional conditions include: certifying that Iran is not providing support or financing for terrorism; that it has not delayed cooperation for “more than one week” with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); and has not engaged in centrifuge research that “may substantially enhance the enrichment capacity of Iran if deployed.” The bill says if he can’t make those certifications, Congress could reinstate all the sanctions previously waived or lifted under the agreement under expedited procedures.

These terms are anything but reasonable. The bill is clearly written to make it impossible for the U.S. to live up to its end of an agreement. No wonder Obama has threatened to veto the bill. No wonder that the Iran hawks that hate diplomacy with Iran support it. The Corker bill is not just an attempt by Congress to affirm the legislature’s role in the process. It is a deliberate attempt to introduce deal-breaking conditions after the main negotiations have concluded. It is a less blatant attempt at sabotage than the Cotton letter was, but its purpose is no different. Anyone that wishes the negotiation with Iran to succeed ought to oppose the bill’s passage and should tell their senators not to support it.

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Rand Paul’s Burned Bridges

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Michael Brendan Dougherty tries to persuade libertarians not to give up on Rand Paul:

Instead of saying “I’m done” and walking away forever, libertarians should take as much good policy as they can get. They should welcome limits on bad policies, even if these limits are incremental. And when they disagree, say so. Then grant yourself the liberty to support Rand Paul again later.

The trouble with this is that Dougherty is treating the drop in libertarian (and some conservative) support for Paul as if it is their responsibility to fix things by being more willing to take what little they can get. Normally, when a politician repeatedly does things that his most likely supporters oppose it is the politician that is expected to repair the breach that he has opened up. If he doesn’t, he can reasonably expect those supporters to withhold their backing. There would probably be more patience with attempts at coalition and bridge-building if Paul’s odder recent positions appeared to be something more than just caving to the hawks on one issue after another. It would also help if these positions made any sense on their own terms, but they frequently haven’t. The decision to sign the Iran letter has been the last straw for many of his past supporters for obvious reasons. One of these was that the letter was just the latest in a string of bad and sometimes inexplicable moves that Paul has made in a mostly vain effort to shield himself from hard-line attacks. He has generally gone into something of a “defensive crouch” on foreign policy, which more or less negates much of what drew antiwar libertarians and conservatives to him in the first place. There have always been pluses and minuses to Paul’s foreign policy, but in the last year the minuses have been piling up and they aren’t being offset.

So far, Paul has been held to a pretty low standard by antiwar libertarians and conservatives in the name of pragmatism. At this point, they (we) are expected to keep lowering the bar so that Paul may continue to clear it. Take his support for the war on ISIS, for example. It is better that he wants to restrict the scope and duration of the war on ISIS than if he did not, but he shouldn’t be supporting such an unnecessary war at all. That’s not an unreasonable thing for people on the antiwar right to expect from someone whose main claim on their support is his past opposition to unnecessary foreign wars. It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish him from the rest of his party on the issues that were supposed to set him apart, and so he is bound to receive less support as long as that is the case. Paul could try to fix this, but it may be too late to undo the damage. For the sake of trying to find common ground with people in the GOP that loathe him, he has burned bridges with many of the people that were once most likely to be on his side.

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Cruz’s Unimaginative Announcement Speech

Ted Cruz announced the start of his presidential campaign this morning at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He stressed the importance of Christian faith in his own family, he kept returning predictably to the theme of liberty, and urged the assembled students to “imagine” a series of mostly far-fetched scenarios that would somehow be made possible through Cruz’s candidacy. He started the speech very slowly, delivered the lines from memory as he walked around the stage, and gradually worked up to his normal litany of talking points. Listening to the speech felt like hearing a sermon combined with an infomercial.

The student audience responded with a fair amount of enthusiasm. The loudest applause came after Cruz said, “Imagine a president who stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel.” Along with a standard hawkish line about not letting Iran have a nuclear weapon, this was the only foreign policy reference in the speech that I can recall*. It is not surprising, but there was very little to distinguish this speech from anything Cruz has said before at activist meetings and political conferences. Considering how often he called on the audience to imagine this or that, there was nothing very imaginative in the content of the speech. One of his lines about “repealing every word of Common Core” was typically misleading, since there is no relevant law that could be repealed at the federal level.

Notably, the speech didn’t really contain an argument for why Cruz is qualified to be president. Despite going on at some length about his parents and his wife, Cruz had remarkably little to say about his own career, which is usually something that a presidential candidate emphasizes. The entire exercise was aimed at telling conservatives, especially religious conservatives, “I am one of you, so vote accordingly.” As an exercise in pure pandering and blatant identity politics, it seems to have been reasonably successful. If the goal was to persuade skeptical conservatives that he could be a plausible nominee, it didn’t work very well.

* Correction: Cruz also made a boilerplate reference to “defeating radical Islam.” My apologies for the oversight.

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