Daniel Larison

The “Obvious” Lessons of the Vietnam War

William McGurn wants Americans to feel bad about ending the unnecessary wars their government has waged on their behalf:

In the 40 Aprils that have come and gone since, Vietnam has become shorthand for a political orthodoxy built on the idea that American military intervention overseas creates more problems than it solves. This thinking feeds an entire industry pumping out tedious lectures about “The Lessons of Vietnam.”

Still, the most obvious lesson of Vietnam is the one hardly ever acknowledged: the terrible price paid—human as well as strategic—when America loses a war.

If this lesson of the Vietnam War is “hardly ever acknowledged,” it is probably not one of the “most obvious” ones available. This lesson is probably not acknowledged very often because it is untrue. In almost all cases, American military intervention in the last half century has created more problems than it solved. Vietnam is hardly the only example of that, but it is one of the most appalling and costly examples of it. The U.S. pretended that it was of vital importance to go to war to shore up a state that had no real strategic importance to the U.S. or to the broader goals of the Cold War, and for the sake of that fantasy tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese died. The costs that we should be worried about are those of the unnecessary wars that the U.S. fights when it could avoid them. Whether the war is “unwinnable” or not, the more important question is whether the U.S. has any business fighting there in the first place. In Vietnam, as in many other places since then, the answer is clearly that our government had no business going to war there. Even if U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s had in some sense “worked,” that would not have made it the right thing for the U.S. to do.

It is simply absurd to draw a line from U.S. withdrawal in Vietnam to developments that occurred many years later in other parts of the world. That doesn’t stop McGurn from trying. He writes:

[Bush] might have added the strategic consequences, which included more aggressive Soviet intervention in the Third World that included in the invasion of Afghanistan. Because what America left behind on that rooftop in Saigon was something we still haven’t fully recovered: the certainty among friend and foe alike that America keeps its commitments.

McGurn is bizarrely trying to revive domino theory alarmism decades after it was thoroughly discredited. The truly sad and appalling thing about the end of the U.S. role in Vietnam was that it had no meaningful consequences anywhere else in the world, but that role was continued for years out of fear of what “signal” withdrawal might send. For all of the obsession in Washington with maintaining U.S. “credibility” elsewhere, the end of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was something our allies thought long overdue. Withdrawal from Vietnam did not make the Soviets doubt U.S. commitment elsewhere. On the contrary, Moscow didn’t understand why the U.S. had persisted so long in a useless war in a strategically irrelevant part of the world.

Contra McGurn, no one actually argues that “America can just up and leave a war without any serious damage.” For one thing, the damage that the U.S. does during its intervention is often very serious. That is damage that interventionists ignore or whitewash as someone else’s fault. No one opposed to these wars pretends that this just disappears or fades away when U.S. forces withdraw. U.S. withdrawal is obviously not a panacea for any other country’s woes, but it does keep the U.S. from further contributing to that country’s problems. If there is a “lesson” from Vietnam, it is that we in the U.S. often convince ourselves that we can “help” in a foreign conflict, but we haven’t the foggiest how to “help.”

Neither does anyone seriously argue that there are not serious consequences for any country where the U.S. has intervened militarily for any length of time. On the contrary, it is usually the advocates of military intervention that dismiss the idea that U.S. military action could possibly do any lasting harm, and they are the ones that pay the least attention to the long-term effects of war on the country in question. The fact that there will be serious consequences for a country after U.S. withdrawal does not tell us that the U.S. ought to keep a military presence there indefinitely. Instead, it usually tells us that the U.S. had no business being there in the first place.

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Cotton and the Iran Hawks’ Loathing of Diplomacy (II)

Daniel DePetris criticizes the irrelevant amendments that Republican hawks, including Tom Cotton, would like to add to the Corker-Cardin Iran bill:

The issue is not Israel-bashing, human rights or terrorism, but stopping Iran’s nuclear program from being left unchecked without any international inspections or verification. Cotton’s amendments, if passed, would make that impossible.

Tom Cotton isn’t fooling anyone: either he doesn’t support diplomacy, or he doesn’t know what the concept of diplomacy means.

As we already know, Cotton doesn’t support diplomacy, and in fact has demonstrated his desire to derail negotiations. The Iran letter he authored was clear proof of that, his disingenuous excuses about it notwithstanding. The good news is that each maneuver by hard-liners aimed at undermining diplomacy this year has had the effect of reducing support for legislation that could sabotage the talks with Iran. Bringing Netanyahu to speak before Congress may have been intended to rally support behind new sanctions legislation, but this backfired and drove many otherwise hawkish members of Congress towards the administration’s position. Organizing the letter to Iran’s leaders was supposed to have a similar rallying effect, but that also alienated Democrats that might have otherwise sided with the hard-liners on this issue. The new gambit to saddle Corker’s “compromise” bill with poison-pill amendments is just the latest miscalculation. If Cotton and other Republican hawks try to push through these amendments with the hope of wrecking a nuclear deal, they will most likely succeed only in wrecking Corker’s bill.

Cotton and his colleagues plainly loathe diplomacy partly because of their aversion to compromise, but they also seem to be allergic to the compromises that are required in order to pass important legislation. Their “negotiating” style is to keep piling on new and increasingly unrealistic conditions so that no one except for them is able to support the bill or deal that they want. This may make them feel as if they have proved their ideological zeal, but in practice it makes them irrelevant to the process that they are so desperately trying to ruin.

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The Iran Hawks’ All-or-Nothing Mentality

Iran hawk Marc Thiessen wants the Corker-Cardin bill to fail:

The Iran deal is a disaster. No, I’m not talking about the nuclear agreement President Obama is negotiating with Tehran (though that is a disaster, too), but rather the Iran deal that Obama cut with Congress.

Thiessen’s problem with the bill is that it does not include enough of the deal-killing provisions that Iran hawks want. He and the senators that agree with him want to “blow up” the Corker-Cardin bill. If that happens, it ought to help block further Congressional meddling on this issue. Obama will be able to say that he tried working with the Senate, but that the majority refused to cooperate. Supporters of diplomacy with Iran should be encouraged by the hard-liners’ tantrums in this case. The Corker-Cardin bill still gives Iran hawks more of what they want than what they would get without it. However, because it doesn’t give them everything they want, most of them seem eager to accept nothing. That is what they will get if they amend the bill as they desire and Obama then vetoes it, but this doesn’t seem to matter to them.

This all-or-nothing approach is very similar to the approach that the Iran hawks have taken with the nuclear negotiations. In that case, hard-liners have insisted on unrealistic demands that Iran would never accept (e.g., zero enrichment, dismantling the entire program, etc.), and they have considered anything short of Iran’s total capitulation to be appeasement. The hawks oppose any concessions, no matter how minimal, because these represent a compromise with Iran. If Iran hawks had had their way over the last two years, the talks would never have begun or would have broken down by now, and Iran’s nuclear program would be under none of the restrictions that it is. Any achievable deal necessarily falls short of their impossible standard, but then they’re not really interested in reaching a deal and never have been. If the Iranian nuclear program can’t be completely eliminated, Iran hawks would apparently rather that Iran have an unconstrained nuclear program that they can proceed to use for future fear-mongering.

If Senate Republicans choose to vote down the Corker-Cardin bill because they consider it to be too “weak,” they will be helping the negotiations with Iran in spite of themselves.

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The English Threat to the U.K.

Janan Ganesh sees English impatience with Scotland as a bigger threat to the U.K. than the SNP:

Unionists pretend otherwise but their cause is itself a kind of nationalism: its premise is that the British are a people. And while most unionists are temperate, some show a hectoring impatience with those on the English right who are not willing to submit their interests and ideology to the transcendent cause of the UK, forever. They say Mr Cameron puts the union in peril by seeking English votes for English laws in Parliament, and invoking the SNP as a wedge issue to save his electoral hide. But the prime minister did not confect a problem out of nothing. The problem exists. There are constitutional inequities in the union born of devolution. Many warned of these at the time. They were shouted down for their trouble.

And if the UK can be mortally wounded by a five-week campaign run by a hopelessly unpopular party, is it so robust anyway? What should trouble unionists most about Tory efforts to mobilise the English is that the effort required is so minimal. “Voters start ranting about the SNP unprompted,” testifies one startled Conservative. The grievances are inchoate — a hunch that people “up there” are taking liberties with “our” tax revenues. But they are more likely to harden than to go away. Unionism must take an interest in England before England loses interest in unionism.

One problem for the unionists is that they have been making two very different kinds of arguments in Scotland and England, and the one undermines the other. The unionists in the referendum campaign emphasized that independence would be too costly and would leave Scotland worse off than it was. Unionist critics of the ‘No’ campaign complained that it was an uninspired, bloodless case for the union, but it was good enough at the time to persuade most Scottish voters that independence was too big of a risk to take. Meanwhile, the unionist message to English voters is that they should be expected to subordinate their interests to the preservation of the union no matter what. They appeal to an emotional attachment to the union that does not appear to exist for a lot of people in England. The union was pitched to Scottish voters last year as being in their best interest, but it is presented to English voters as something that they must maintain as a matter of duty. No wonder so many English voters are unhappy with the prospect of possibly having the make-up of the next government decided by the election results in Scotland.

In their own way, many unionists have been making the same mistake with English voters that Labour politicians made in Scotland for years, which is to assume that their support will always be forthcoming and that nothing ever needs to be done to earn it. Labour took Scottish voters for granted for decades, and very soon there will be almost no Labour MPs from Scotland because they neglected the interests and concerns of these constituents for so long. If unionists keep taking English support for the union for granted, and if they keep presenting it as something that the English must support to their own disadvantage, it may not be that long before they find that most English voters will be happy to be rid of it.

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No End to the War on Yemen in Sight

U.S. Air Force/Flickr

The Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war on Yemen keeps going:

In addition to the bombings in Sana, the capital, which struck a military base and the presidential palace, the coalition carried out airstrikes in several other provinces, suggesting a broadening, rather than a scaling back, of the month-long Saudi air offensive against Houthi rebels [bold mine-DL].

The Saudis are no nearer their original goals than when they began, but it seems that they have trapped themselves into persisting with a campaign that no one expects to succeed for fear of having to admit that the intervention was a mistake all along. While there has been some criticism of the effects of the war, the U.S. and the Saudis’ other partners continue to back the campaign fully. There is insufficient pressure on the Saudi leadership to get them to halt the bombing. That will certainly remain the case as long as the U.S. lends its support to the attack. There is no guarantee that withdrawing U.S. support would change Saudi behavior, but there is even less chance that the bombing and the blockade will end when the Saudis can count on assistance from Washington.

The war on Yemen has been all the more horrible because it is so completely unnecessary. According to one new report, the Saudi-led campaign may not only have intensified the conflict inside Yemen, but it also may have prevented a deal from being made that could have stopped the conflict all together. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the Saudi campaign derailed talks on a power-sharing agreement:

Yemen’s warring political factions were on the verge of a power-sharing deal when Saudi-led airstrikes began a month ago, derailing the negotiations, the United Nations envoy who mediated the talks said.

It’s possible that the envoy is overstating how close the different sides were to making a deal, but it is also possible that the Saudi campaign wrecked the best chance that Yemen had for reaching a political settlement. If that’s the case, the war on Yemen is even worse than anyone thought.

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The Continuing Cluelessness of Hard-liners

Iran hawks are so eager to derail negotiations with Iran that they are proposing amendments that would make it less likely that the Corker-Cardin bill could even pass the Senate:

A bill to give Congress a voice in the nuclear deal with Iran is now endangered by Republican amendments that would peel away bipartisan support for a measure begrudgingly accepted by the White House this month.

Amendments filed by lawmakers last week include one that would require Iran to recognize Israel and another that would give any final nuclear deal the status of a treaty, which would require ratification by two-thirds of the Senate. Another proposal would require the release of American citizens detained in Iran as part of an agreement.

If any of these amendments were adopted, the bill would be vetoed, so it’s not clear what the would-be saboteurs hope to accomplish at this point. Corker-Cardin is an unnecessary piece of legislation, and it would probably be good news for a final deal if the Senate couldn’t pass it. Support for Corker-Cardin is very likely to lose quite a few votes if it includes any of these amendments.

If they can tack on their amendments, the Iran hawks that desperately want to kill off any deal with Iran will be making it easier for Obama to veto the Corker-Cardin bill and ignore complaints from Congress about the final nuclear deal. Iran hawks can either support a bill that their ideological enforcers deem inadequate to sabotage the deal, or they can modify the bill enough to satisfy the enforcers while ensuring that the bill goes nowhere. The amendments that Iran hawks think will “strengthen” the bill will more likely end up sinking it. It is a measure of how clueless the hard-liners still are that most of them don’t understand any of this.

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Bush’s Clueless RJC Speech

DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby / Released

This summary of George W. Bush’s Republican Jewish Coalition remarks captures the former president’s incoherence and incompetence on foreign policy:

Former President George W. Bush said the United States must show that it can follow through on its promises [bold mine-DL], and argued against the lifting of sanctions against Iran [bold mine-DL] during rare remarks about foreign policy in a meeting with hundreds of Jewish donors here Saturday night.

So Bush believes that the U.S. needs to keep its promises, but he is also quite sure that it should violate the promises it has made in the last two years by reneging on promised sanctions relief. Like a typical hawk, Bush wants the U.S. to follow through on its pledges only when those involve threatening and killing people. Honoring promises made as part of a negotiated settlement doesn’t interest him. As Bush sees it, those promises should be cast aside. In the absence of that sanctions relief, Iran has no incentive to keep its end of the bargain. If Obama followed Bush’s preferred course of action, it would unsurprisingly result in the failure of the negotiations and then the collapse of international support for pressuring Iran.

Bush also had the gall to refer to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq a “strategic blunder.” Bush was responsible for committing the greatest strategic blunder of the last generation by ordering the original invasion. That alone should discredit anything he has to say. The idea that someone as short-sighted and reckless as Bush could fault anyone else for failing to consider long-term consequences would be funny if it weren’t so appalling. In contrast to his vice president, Bush has mostly avoided commenting on contemporary issues, and that has been both appropriate and wise. As long as Bush refrained from making comments, he couldn’t remind us of just how disastrous and costly U.S. foreign policy was throughout his presidency and how horrible his judgment on these matters was. Bush’s RJC remarks remind us of both.

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Foreign Policy Priorities and the Hawkish Desire to Be “Focused Everywhere”

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Ross Douthat faults Republican hawkish candidates for their refusal to set priorities in foreign policy:

The problem is that Republican hawks have too many wars where they seem intent on turning up the heat, too many Viennas that they want to take at once. There is no sign as yet that the president’s would-be successors have clear strategic priorities; instead, the tendency is to treat every conflict that comes into the headlines, whether it involves Libya or Iran, Syria or Ukraine, AfPak or the Islamic State, as a theater where there’s no substitute for American-led victory.

Some of this is just posturing, and if elected no G.O.P. president (well, except maybe Lindsey Graham) would actually escalate militarily on every front at once.

Douthat could be right about this, but it depends on what one means by escalation. Practically every Republican presidential candidate has gone out of his way to say that he would reject any deal with Iran. A few have speculated recently about attacking Iran. Beyond that, the Republican field is almost unanimously in favor of sending weapons to Ukraine, doing “more” against ISIS (including sending ground forces into combat), and trying to “roll back” Iranian influence. They don’t have any “clear strategic priorities” because they have no interest in setting any. That isn’t an oversight. It is a reflection of their belief that the U.S. must be “leading” everywhere in response to whatever the latest conflict happens to be. The obsession with always “leading” in every case makes it almost impossible to respond effectively anywhere, because U.S. attention and resources are spread too thin and the public quickly grows tired of being told that every problem around the world is ours to solve.

Reading Douthat’s column, I was reminded of something Tom Cotton said in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg from a couple weeks ago:

I think there’s something to that, if he wants to try and create a balance of power between Sunni and Shiites and simply exit the Middle East, or at least continue an ill-advised pivot to East Asia. I say ill-advised not because East Asia is not an important part of the world, but because the global superpower can’t pivot. You have to be focused everywhere [bold mine-DL].

It is not possible to be “focused everywhere.” By definition, to focus on certain parts of the world requires that the U.S. pay less attention and devote fewer resources to the rest. If one region is in focus, the others are not going to be. Recognizing that U.S. resources and power are finite, it is necessary to choose how they will be employed. Hard-liners like Cotton don’t believe that this choice has to be made. To imagine that the U.S. could be “focused everywhere” is to admit that one has no clue how to conduct foreign policy. Hard-liners such as Cotton may be deeply enamored of America’s role as “the global superpower,” but they can’t grasp that some interests are more important and take higher priority. They don’t understand the need to make trade-offs, and they can’t tell which interests are truly vital and which are not. All of this comes from the hawkish obsession with “American exceptionalism” and “leadership.” That blinds them to the limits of American power and the reality that the U.S. does not need to take an active, much less leading, role in response to every crisis that shows up in the headlines.

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Lindsey Graham and the “Wrong Side of History”

S.K.Vemmer/Department of State

George Will talks to Lindsey Graham about his silly presidential bid:

He wants 2016 to be “a referendum on my style of conservatism.” Voters might, however, wonder if it is the no-country-left-unbombed style. Suppose, he is asked, you could rewind history to 2003. Knowing what we know now — the absence of WMDs , the difficulty of occupation, the impossibility of nation-building and democracy-planting — would you again favor invading Iraq? “Yes,” he says, because “the Saddam Hussein model” of governance is “unsustainable” and “on the wrong side of history.”

It’s not news that Graham is an Iraq war dead-ender, but his statement to Will makes even less sense than usual. If the “Hussein model” was unsustainable and on the “wrong side of history,” what purpose would be served by invading and overthrowing his regime? If that kind of government is unsustainable, it would have eventually come to an end without having the U.S. spend trillions of dollars, lose thousands of lives, and wreck an entire country in the process. The usual dead-ender argument is that in the absence of the war Hussein would have stayed in power and continued to be a “threat.” That’s not very persuasive, either, but it is at least consistent with support for regime change. Graham seems more inclined to favor regime change simply because the U.S. can do it and because there are regimes out there to be toppled. If that is what the GOP presents to voters in 2016, the party will be rejected by most Americans.

There aren’t any “sides” to history, and even if there were only supremely arrogant people would imagine that they could tell which is the “right” one. It is worth noting that the ideologues that are so convinced that they are on the “right side” are typically the ones that end up defeated and discredited in large part because of their ideological excesses. That’s not because of some inexorable tide of History that sweeps them away, but because they keep making catastrophic blunders driven by the belief that they are entitled and obliged to remake the world according to their design. Graham is one of these people, and if he had his way the U.S. would pursue regime change in one country after another regardless of the chaos and disorder that this would create.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Not being defined by genocide. Meline Toumani argues against letting remembrance of the genocide dominate the definition of being Armenian.

Turks begin to address the Armenian genocide. Der Spiegel reports on descendants of genocide survivors rediscovering their heritage and the slowly changing attitudes inside Turkey about the genocide.

Nationalism and the Armenian genocide. Joel Gillin focuses on the role of the Committee of Union and Progress’s nationalist ideology in the genocide.

Rubio’s horribly overrated reputation for foreign policy expertise. Michael Brendan Dougherty highlights some of Rubio’s more egregious errors.

Yemen is “going down the drain.” Lara Jakes reports on the deepening humanitarian crisis.

Iran isn’t to blame for war in Yemen. Mohsen Milani explains Iran’s limited role in the conflict.

Get out of Yemen fast. Fred Kaplan calls on Obama to end the U.S. enabling role in the Saudi-led war.

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The Politics of the Libyan War

Walter Russell Mead responds to Miliband’s Libya criticism:

Expect echoes of such convenient recriminations to reach the United States as well; Hillary Clinton owns the Libya campaign, as her Republican opponents will be sure to crow.

In the meantime, how much of a boost will these accusations give Milliband, who consistently polls behind his own party in popularity?

If the polling from Britain on the Libyan war is any indication, the answer to Mead’s question is “none at all.” Slightly more British voters think the 2011 intervention in Libya was the wrong thing to do than believe it was right. The war is viewed much less favorably in Britain than it was in late 2011. Miliband is faulting Cameron for not being enough of an interventionist in Libya, and that isn’t going to appeal to very many voters. The position that Miliband is defending–that Britain should have done more after the regime fell to stabilize and rebuild Libya–is supported by just 30%.

Conservative voters are most likely to think that the Libyan intervention was the right thing to do (39%) and Labour voters are much less likely to hold the same view (29%). It is extremely unlikely that Miliband is going to be winning any Conservative voters over with this line, and it is more likely that Miliband’s reminder of his own enthusiasm for “humanitarian” intervention could give disaffected Labour voters another reason to look elsewhere. If there are Labour voters considering voting for UKIP or the SNP, this gives them no compelling reason to stick with their party. That’s why it’s such an odd argument for him to make.

As for the Libyan war’s impact on American presidential politics, Mead is engaging in some wishful thinking. If there were some real accountability in electoral politics, the Libyan war and its aftermath would be a huge liability for Clinton. It would utterly discredit her “smart power” rhetoric, and it would confirm that her judgment on questions of war and peace is terrible. Her foreign policy experience, one of her supposed advantages, would be exposed as worthless. If politicians were actually judged on the quality of their record, Libya would be a major problem for Clinton.

In practice, however, we know that the Libyan war wasn’t a liability for Obama, and he was the president who ordered the intervention. Obama owned the war and its aftermath even more than Clinton, and it had no measurable effect on the election. One reason for this was that his opponent couldn’t credibly criticize him on the intervention because he, like Miliband, was all for it when it happened. Romney’s campaign tried to make an argument similar to Miliband’s that there ought to have been a stabilization force, but that was a non-starter for obvious reasons. If there is an opening to attack Clinton over Libya in the next election, it could be exploited only by candidates that opposed the intervention from the beginning and warned about its destabilizing effects, and even then I’m not sure it would do any good.

Another reason that the Libyan war has not had any discernible impact on our domestic politics is that there were no American casualties, which means that for most Americans it’s as if the intervention never even happened. Unfortunately, if the U.S. wages or supports a war whose losses are suffered only by people in the other country, the evil effects of that war go largely unnoticed and the politicians that backed the war suffer no political backlash. That is how interventionists frequently get away with backing ruinous, unnecessary wars without ever having to pay a political price for their terrible record. It would be outstanding if Clinton were held accountable for her role in helping to wreck Libya, but I wouldn’t expect that to happen. Miliband’s hapless attack on Cameron on this issue helps to remind us why.

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The U.S. Isn’t “Assisting” Iran’s Rise

Charles Krauthammer repeats a goofy but increasingly popular argument:

This is the new Middle East. Its strategic reality is clear to everyone: Iran rising, assisted, astonishingly, by the United States.

Unsurprisingly, Krauthammer is wrong on both counts. The few governments in the region aligned with Iran or relying on Iranian support have been significantly weakened in the last few years, and they have lost control of large sections of their countries to insurgencies. Almost all regional governments are opposed to Iran’s allies and proxies, and the slightest suspicion that the Houthis were Iranian proxies has prompted the appalling Saudi-led, U.S.-backed attack on Yemen. That is not a description of a state that is on the rise. Yet opponents of negotiations with Iran want to keep promoting this false story that Iran is “on the march” because they think this story would make a deal that restricts Iran’s nuclear program appear less desirable. In fact, if Iran were making great gains throughout the region, that would make the case for reaching a final nuclear deal that much more compelling, but the reality is that this isn’t happening. Since it isn’t happening, the U.S. can’t be helping to bring it about. There is no evidence that this administration has any intention of reaching such an arrangement with Iran.

Not only is the U.S. not assisting a “rising” Iran, but it is so eager to “reassure” its regional clients that it isn’t reaching an understanding with Iran that it is disgracefully aiding the Saudi-led coalition in battering Yemen. The Saudis are attacking Yemen at least partly out of excessive, baseless fear of increased Iranian influence, and the U.S. publicly sympathizes with their paranoia. Contrary to Saudi claims, Iran’s role in Yemen is trivial, but that hasn’t stopped the U.S. from indulging its clients in their massive and unwise overreaction to an imaginary Iranian takeover. If this is what “assisting” Iran looks like, I wouldn’t want to see what hostility involves.

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Miliband’s Odd Libya Attack

The British general election is less than two weeks away, and the Labour leader Ed Miliband has chosen to go on the offensive over Libya of all things:

But since the action, the failure of post conflict planning has become obvious. David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya’s political culture and institutions could be left to evolve and transform on their own.

Cameron was responsible for involving Britain in the Libyan war, which was an intervention that might not have happened if he and French President Sarkozy had not agitated for it, so it’s fair to hold him to account for that dreadful decision. What makes Miliband’s criticism hard to take very seriously at this point is that he strongly backed the intervention at the time, and supporters of the intervention emphasized that there would be no “post-conflict planning” nor any effort by the U.S. and its allies to stabilize the country after the regime was toppled. They considered this one of the main selling points of their war in Libya. What was supposed to have made the Libyan war better than previous intervention was that it would not have to involve the deployment of ground forces for any long-term mission in yet another foreign country, and so there was never any intention to make a serious effort to follow up the war for regime change with much of anything. Libya would be nothing like Iraq, except for the unnecessary war and regime change and the interventionists’ reckless indifference to the consequences of both.

Interventionists understood that there would be no support for the war if it seemed that Libya would become another prolonged, open-ended mission, so they made a point of insisting that no such mission would be necessary. As long as they could promise that the war would be relatively cheap and short, they could have their war, and then when the regime had fallen there was no appetite anywhere in the West for continued involvement in the country. So it is a bit rich for a vocal supporter of the intervention that helped to create the disorder and violence in Libya to find fault now with a lack of “post-conflict planning.” Like Libyan war supporters here in the U.S. or Democratic supporters of the Iraq invasion, Miliband can’t fault the government for the real blunder of pursuing regime change in Libya because he endorsed the government’s goals. Because he can’t reject the intervention in Libya without discrediting himself, he is reduced to complaining after the fact about the consequences of a war he backed all the way.

The odd thing about Miliband’s decision to attack Cameron on Libya is that it draws attention to the worst part of Miliband’s own foreign policy record. Attacking Cameron reminds voters that Miliband gladly fell in line behind the worst foreign policy decision Cameron made in the last five years, which underscores how useless he was as leader of the opposition in that case. Supporting intervention in Libya was Miliband at his most Blair-like in the worst possible way.

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Debunking Rubio’s Exaggerated Reputation on Foreign Policy

Michael Brendan Dougherty doesn’t think much of Marco Rubio’s reputation as a foreign policy expert:

Rubio has a reputation for foreign policy expertise because he chooses to talk about foreign policy often, promises large budgets to the Pentagon, and mostly pronounces the words correctly. Rubio’s foreign policy consists of babyish moralizing, a cultivated ignorance of history, and a deliberate blindness to consequences.

Dougherty probably could have gone on at much greater length listing examples of Rubio’s poor judgment on foreign policy, but he was constrained by a word limit. I have made many of the same points over the last few years, so of course I agree with Dougherty’s harsh but accurate appraisal of Rubio’s record. That appraisal raises the question: if Rubio is as overrated on foreign policy as Dougherty says (and he is), what else does he have to offer as a presidential candidate except perhaps an appealing story about his family? In other words, if Rubio’s foreign policy reputation is a sham, what possible reason would anyone have to support him for president?

Foreign policy is supposed to be Rubio’s calling card, as it is supposed to be Lindsey Graham’s, but this has more to do with the politician’s undeserved high opinion of his own understanding of these issues than it does with a record of competence or good judgment. There are naturally hard-liners that agree with Rubio’s positions, and so they flatter him for his alleged expertise. That doesn’t mean very much, since these hard-liners are happy as long as a politician mouths the correct phrases and passes their ideological tests. Rubio isn’t just a predictable hard-liner on everything from Cuba to Iran to Russia, but his arguments frequently don’t even pass the laugh test. In the end, I suspect that not even most hard-liners would want to have him as their candidate.

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Bumper Sticker Foreign Policy and the 2016 Election

Philip Stephens comments on the Republican presidential candidates and foreign policy:

An old friend in Washington, a foreign policy veteran of the Reagan administration, calls this a “bumper sticker” view of the world. He is right.

The chatter in an already crowded Republican field is that 2016 will be a “foreign policy election”.

The potential political advantage of having a “bumper sticker” view of the world is that it can be fairly easy to communicate a simplistic approach to foreign policy during an election. The very things that make the bumper sticker foreign policy so atrocious when it comes to making policy decisions are what can make it appealing through electioneering slogans. The trouble for a candidate with this sort of foreign policy is that the bumper sticker slogans that he thinks the public wants to hear may turn out to be off-putting and annoying. The Republican field generally thinks that the public will be receptive to a message that emphasizes confrontation with other states, hostility to diplomatic engagement, and increased military spending wrapped up in rhetoric about “American exceptionalism” and “leadership,” but this just shows how out of touch with most of the country they still are. The Republican candidates want 2016 to be a foreign policy election because they mistakenly imagine that this gives them an advantage, but there is not much reason to think that an election defined by foreign policy issues benefits their party.

The 2016 field’s relative inexperience is one reason for this. All of the declared and likely Republican presidential candidates have almost no foreign policy experience between them to speak of. That might not be a major problem if most of these candidates demonstrated real competence and expertise on these issues otherwise, but there isn’t a lot of evidence of that, either. Marco Rubio is often described as having a stronger grasp on these issues than his competitors, but as Michael Brendan Dougherty pointed out yesterday his reputation for expertise is greatly exaggerated. Hawks are inclined to believe that Rubio has a foreign policy advantage as a candidate for the same reason that most Republican candidates think their party will have an advantage in the general election: they mistakenly believe that voters are craving a more aggressive and interventionist foreign policy than the one we have now. That still isn’t true of the electorate as a whole, and it probably won’t be true of a large number of Republican voters as well.

A candidate with little or no foreign policy experience is likely to opt for a “bumper sticker” view of the world. That keeps the candidate from making too many egregious errors and keeps him away from talking about these issues in great detail, and it gives him some ready-made soundbites that voters can identify with his campaign. That can succeed in an election when these issues are a very low priority for the electorate, but it is harder for an unprepared presidential candidate to be taken seriously when voters are paying much closer attention to what the candidate says on foreign policy. The less important foreign policy is to an election, the easier it is for inexperienced candidates to persuade voters that they can be trusted with the presidency. The assumption that 2016 will be a foreign policy election is based on the belief that conflicts and disorder elsewhere in the world will loom large in the thinking of voters next year. If that’s right, it isn’t good news for the Republican field.

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The U.S. Continues to Enable Its Reckless Client’s War


Fred Kaplan also makes the case for ending U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen:

President Obama should try to convince the Saudis to reverse their course—and, if that doesn’t work, he needs to get out.

Kaplan is correct, but he already gives Obama a bit too much credit for trying to end the U.S. enabling role in this war. While the administration may have been trying to rein in the Saudis in the last week or so, it needlessly threw its support behind the intervention, echoed Saudi propaganda in public statements, and offered absurd justifications for an intervention whose goals it never really understood. We should be abandoning “our role as enabler as quickly as possible,” as Kaplan says, but then the U.S. should never have been in that role in the first place. It is Obama’s fault that the U.S. is involved at all in this war. If he belatedly manages to get the U.S. out of it, that will be the least he could do to start making up for the appalling decision to involve the U.S. in the conflict.

It doesn’t seem likely that the Saudis are going to be persuaded to give up on their intervention. Unfortunately, the announcement Tuesday that the bombing campaign was over didn’t mean what many people hoped it would. In those parts of Yemen where the bombing has relented for the moment, the effects of the war are still being felt and resented:

In Sana, which was overrun by the insurgents months ago, Houthis organized large street demonstrations Wednesday denouncing the Saudi-led bombing campaign, which has received logistical support from the United States. Many in the capital, even those who oppose the Houthis, are furious at both Riyadh and Washington.

A halt to the war should not just be a matter of words — Yemen is still under siege [bold mine-DL],” said Manal Aidroos, a dentist. “Our lives are completely turned upside down, so this pause means nothing.”

In central and southern parts of the country, Saudi bombing has continued over the last two days. Meanwhile, U.S. support for the campaign has not slackened, and it seems that it isn’t going to be reduced any time soon:

American assistance to the Saudi-led air campaign will continue, officials told us. That assistance has included intelligence, aerial refueling and logistical support.

There is no good reason for continued U.S. support for this war. At the very least, that support ought to have been halted the moment that the Saudis made their announcement earlier this week. Continuing to assist in the wrecking of Yemen is indefensible.

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Bolton’s Iran Fanaticism

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Rouala Khalaf talks to John Bolton about his crazy Iran proposals and his possible presidential campaign:

The one thing he’s right about is that Iran is different from Iraq — far more powerful and with a real, rather than imagined, nuclear programme. It is also more likely to retaliate to strikes on its nuclear facilities and, after that, to accelerate the quest for the bomb.

To prevent that, Mr Bolton says the US should work with Iran’s opposition to topple the Islamic regime. I mention that having travelled to Iran many times I’ve never met a credible opposition leader who wants to work with the US on overthrowing the regime [bold mine-DL]. “It’s not easy, it’s not like turning on a light switch,” he says. “The US should have been pursuing a regime change policy for decades.”

Khalaf is correct that there are no credible opposition leaders in Iran that want to aid the U.S. in overthrowing their government. The idea that there are any Iranians that would welcome a U.S.-backed effort to topple their government has always been fanciful at best. In Bolton’s case, it’s worse than that. When Bolton and many other hawkish former officials and politicians talk about working with “Iran’s opposition,” they are referring primarily to cooperation with the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK). This is the totalitarian cult and “former” terrorist group that they have been defending and boosting for many years, and they have gone out of their way to help the group in its effort to rehabilitate its reputation in the West. These boosters pretend that this cultish exile group is a major part of Iran’s opposition, but in reality it has no support in Iran, it is widely hated there, and real opposition leaders want nothing to do with them. It’s too bad that Bolton’s past MEK boosterism didn’t come up in this profile, because it would drive home just how fanatical and unmoored from reality Bolton’s ideas on Iran policy truly are.

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The Republican Nomination and the Politics of Immigration

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A recent YouGov survey asked what policy positions would make a candidate unacceptable to voters. This is what the survey found on Republicans and immigration:

73% of Republicans say that supporting a path to citizenship, as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush do and Scott Walker once did, makes a candidate unacceptable, though only 35% say that a candidate who supports a path to citizenship is totally unacceptable.

That’s not a surprising result. This has long been an unpopular position inside the GOP, and it has probably become more so in the years since McCain won the 2008 nomination. It’s true that McCain won in spite of his support for an immigration “reform” bill, but in 2007 the issue nearly destroyed his candidacy. Since then, we have seen that Republican primary voters have been even less forgiving of these views than they were in the 2008 cycle. While most Republican nominees have been pro-immigration going back decades, it appears that being identified as a supporter of anything that could be construed as amnesty has become a much larger liability than it used to be. That could explain why Walker has been lurching so dramatically towards a more restrictionist position over the past few months. We have seen that he is eager to pander to what his audience wants to hear, and it’s likely that he’s found that they don’t want to hear what Bush, Rubio, et al. have been saying on this issue.

These survey results stood out because just yesterday we were being told that this wouldn’t be a serious obstacle for Rubio’s candidacy. David Brooks assures us:

His weaknesses are not killers. Rubio’s past support for comprehensive immigration reform irks activists. But it’s not clear if it will hurt him with the voters who are more divided on reform.

Whenever someone wants to talk up Rubio’s chances or warns against underestimating him, he dismisses the idea that the senator’s record on immigration could be a major problem. But there have already been surveys from early states that show that two-fifths of Republicans considered Jeb Bush’s immigration views to be a deal-breaker. Why would it be any different for Rubio or any other candidate that has held similar views? Immigration is a bigger weakness for both Rubio and Bush than their boosters would like to admit, and the supporters of these candidates fail to see this because they don’t want to accept that their preferred immigration policy is deeply unpopular with most other Republicans.

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The War on Yemen Hasn’t Ended

The announced end of the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen wasn’t the end of the intervention. It was just the end of the beginning:

Saudi Arabia has resumed air strikes against Yemen less than 24 hours after announcing that it was halting its aerial bombing campaign after “achieving its military objectives.”

Shia Houthi rebels, defiant in the face of Riyadh’s announcement, on Wednesday made significant gains in the country’s central highlands by taking a brigade base in the city of Taiz. Their advance sparked a response from Saudi Arabia, which sent warplanes to try to stem the advance.

That is consistent with what the Saudis said they would be doing as part of this “new phase” of their intervention, since their officials had said that they would still be taking military action to “prevent the movement” of the Houthis. It was clear that the formal end of the bombing campaign wouldn’t mean the end of Saudi interference. Now we see that it doesn’t mean that there will be an end to the bombing, either. There may be fewer air strikes, but the Saudis and their allies seem intent on battering and blockading Yemen for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Yemen continues to suffer from the disastrous effects of this war:

Ominously, the spike in prices isn’t because of interrupted growing seasons or stagnant internal commerce, but because food simply can’t reach the country under current conditions. Yemen imports 90% of its food, according to Pritchard, while the conflict has effectively knocked out the ports in Aden and Hudaydah — according to MarineTraffic.com, the last ship arrival in Aden was back on April 10th. Food comes into Yemen from the outside, usually by sea. But ports are shut down, and internally instability makes it incredibly difficult to move even the available food from place the place.

“Very few planes have been allowed to land, and very few ships have been able to dock,” said Pritchard. “It means there is a massive shortage of essential commodities.”

As long as the Saudi-led blockade continues, it seems very unlikely that the desperately needed aid will be able to come into the country. The Saudis may now be killing fewer Yemenis from the air, but their blockade is slowly strangling the country and depriving the civilian population of basic necessities.

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Kasich and the Errors of “Cheap” Hawks


John Kasich may run for president, but based on his latest foreign policy remarks to Hugh Hewitt it would be better if he stayed in Ohio:

Hey, the other thing is, look, and maybe in a place like Libya, just like I was in the early days of Syria, we’ve got people we can support. It doesn’t mean we have to be there. But there’s clearly things that we can do. We don’t have to have troops in Ukraine, but we can clearly provide them the military equipment that they need to be able to defend themselves. They’re our allies, okay? [bold mine-DL] We believe the Ukrainians. Let me also tell you when it comes to, like I say, the early days of Syria and even now, Assad has to go. But that doesn’t mean we have to put boots on the ground. But I think it is important that we are engaged. And I’m sure that the same exists in Libya. I mean, we’ve got to find the forces, if we can, the clear forces that can help us to support the foreign policy that we think is going to be the best for stabilizing that region.

Kasich gets almost everything wrong in this statement. There are always groups that the U.S. “can” support in foreign civil wars, but there are very rarely any that the U.S. should be supporting. Besides, how does it stabilize the region to support anti-regime insurgents? On the one hand, Kasich wants to create the impression that he wants to maintain stability, but everything he recommends doing here is necessarily destabilizing. He still insists on toppling Assad when it is now obvious to everyone except ideologues that jihadists would benefit from regime change. His remarks on Ukraine may be the worst of all. Not only does he favor the dangerous option of sending arms to Ukraine, but he does so in the false belief that “they’re our allies.” Allies are exactly what they aren’t, which is why the U.S. has never been obliged to support them in an armed conflict. He says that “we’ve got to find the forces…that can help us to support the foreign policy,” but never explains why he thinks our foreign policy should have to rely on finding insurgents to arm in the middle of foreign civil wars. Kasich is at great pains to say that there shouldn’t be any Americans sent to these countries, but that doesn’t stop him from wanting to meddle and send in weapons wherever possible.

These are the sorts of positions that a “cheap” hawk will usually end up taking. The difference between the “cheap” hawk and his more expensive counterpart is simply the means they prefer to use to interfere in foreign conflicts. The “cheap” hawk may keep U.S. troops out of many of these conflicts, but he has the same bizarre impulse to take sides in conflicts where the U.S. has nothing at stake, he still wants to subvert and overthrow governments that don’t pose much of a threat to the U.S. or our allies, and he imagines that we have alliances with countries when no such alliance exists. Because he is prepared to entangle the U.S. in all these conflicts in some way, it is fairly easy to persuade him to increase U.S. involvement later on when the earlier measures don’t “work.” As long as he thinks that a war will be quick and easy, he’ll have no qualms about supporting it. That’s one reason why Kasich was on board with invading Iraq. “Cheap” hawks don’t seem to be very good at anticipating how a policy could become much costlier in lives and money than originally expected. They also don’t seem to have a problem with helping to wreck other countries, but they’re strongly opposed to doing anything to repair the damage done by their preferred policies.

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