Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Dean of the realists. Tom Switzer reviews the career and thought of Owen Harries in the current issue of TAC.

Why did Turkey attack a Russian plane? Philip Giraldi considers the possibility that the downing of the Russian jet was planned.

Europe and the war on ISIS. Leon Hadar makes the case that leading European governments should assume responsibility for the war.

Have a plan to defeat ISIS? Show your work. Christopher Preble challenges the presidential candidates to explain how their proposals will achieve their stated goals.

5 inconvenient truths about the war on ISIS. Ted Galen Carpenter lists the things that many supporters of the war don’t want to acknowledge.

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Cotton’s Unhinged Syria Policy

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Tom Cotton’s views on Russia and Syria are predictably bizarre and dangerous:

Rather than being a constructive partner, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been engaged in a proxy war against the United States in Syria [bold mine-DL], despite Obama’s protestations to the contrary. And when an enemy wages war against the United States [bold mine-DL], it does not get to choose whether it is at war; its only choice is to win or lose. Right now, the United States is losing the proxy war in Syria—and a wider competition for regional influence—against Russia.

Cotton is a hard-line fanatic, as this passage makes very clear. He presents Russian support for the Syrian government against anti-regime forces as a “war against the United States.” This is not only false, but it erases vitally important distinctions between the ineffectual proxies that the U.S. has foolishly chosen to back and the U.S. itself. Treating attacks on proxies as a war against your country throws away any advantage that might come from using proxies in a conflict. It also presents our meddling in that conflict as if it were essential to our national security when it is anything but that.

Cotton is pushing for more aggressive measures (namely establishing a “no-fly zone” and “safe haven” and increased backing for anti-regime forces) in a foreign civil war by dishonestly framing it as a response to a war being waged upon the U.S. when nothing of the kind is happening. He refers to Russia as trying to “spark a proxy war against the United States in Syria” when the U.S. and its allies and clients have been the ones trying to overthrow a Russian client regime for the last several years. Increasing our hostility to that regime and doing more to seek its collapse as Cotton wishes to do have nothing to do with making the U.S. or our allies more secure, and they guarantee increased tensions with Moscow and possibly a direct conflict with Russian forces. In place of a proxy war, Cotton would risk a major war with a nuclear-armed state.

The reality is that the U.S. inserted itself into Syria’s civil war when it had nothing at stake, and has no need now to escalate its commitment on behalf of its proxies. The last thing that the U.S. should do is heed Cotton’s reckless advice for a more confrontational and aggressive policy towards Russia in Syria and eleswhere.

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The Downing of the Russian Jet and the Folly of Intervention

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Philip Giraldi considers the possibility that the Turkish downing of the Russian jet along the Turkish-Syrian border was planned:

Why a relatively minor incursion, if it indeed took place, would warrant a shoot down has to be questioned unless it was actually a Turkish plan to engage a Russian plane as soon as it could be plausibly claimed that there had been a violation of airspace.

Why would the Turks do that? Because Russia is supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, apparently with considerable success, and Turkey has been extremely persistent in their demands that he be removed.

Someone might object that the Turkish government would have to be extremely foolish to take such a risk, but then Turkey’s policy in the Syria for the last four years has been nothing if not foolish. Turkey has proven to be a mostly useless ally in the fight against ISIS, but it is now proving to be nothing but a liability on all matters relating to Syria.

The Russians are also thinking that Turkey may have planned to do this:

Turkey may have planned to shoot down a Russian warplane near its border amid questions over its support for Syrian rebels, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

“We have serious doubts that this was an unpremeditated act,” Lavrov told reporters in Moscow on Wednesday. “It looks very much like a planned provocation” and the question arises whether Turkey is defending areas of Syria to protect rebel infrastructure, he said.

The surviving Russian pilot claims that he received no warning before being attacked. While we should be skeptical of that claim, it contradicts a large part of the Turkish government’s story and suggests that the decision to shoot down the plane was unnecessary. Fortunately, it appears that neither government is ready to use this incident as a pretext for a larger conflict, but it shows how dangerous it can be for outside states to meddle in Syria’s civil war. This incident should be a sobering warning for everyone in the West that wants to impose a “no-fly zone” in Syria, and it should make us realize how unwise it is for outside patrons to be risking a major war for the sake of their proxies in Syria.

The downing of the Russian jet is the sort of thing that some of the more aggressive Syria hawks here in the U.S. have been demanding the U.S. do on behalf of its anti-regime proxies in Syria. The difference is that our hawks want to shoot down Russian jets inside Syria where there is not even a pretext to hide behind. We’re now seeing just how reckless that is in practice. The result has not been to dissuade Russia from attacking anti-regime groups or to stay away from certain parts of Syria, but rather has prompted it to become even more stubbornly committed to its bad decision to intervene:

Russia sent an advanced missile system to Syria on Wednesday to protect its jets operating there and pledged its air force would keep flying missions near Turkish air space, sounding a defiant note after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet.

Luckily, this incident won’t lead to a wider war, but that is not something that the U.S. or any of its allies should be willing to risk again. This ought to discredit even further the reckless Syria proposals coming from our presidential candidates, and it should make clear why agitating for a more aggressive policy in Syria aimed at attacking the Syrian government is so irresponsible.

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Trump and Republican Foreign Policy

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Contrary to the hopes of many party elites, the recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the Near East haven’t weakened Trump’s position in the nomination contest:

National Security ranks as the top issue for many Republican voters after this month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, Mali, Beirut and Egypt. But, to the dismay of the GOP establishment and more experienced candidates, the new foreign policy focus isn’t shuffling the standings in the party’s presidential primary.

The assumption that the attacks would drive voters toward more “experienced” candidates favored by party elites never made much sense. After all, virtually none of the candidates has any significant foreign policy experience, and in general the Republican primary electorate has been allergic to candidates that have substantial governing experience. There is no reason why an electorate hungry for “outsider” candidates would become more interested in conventional politicians because of a few terrorist attacks overseas. Insofar as Republican voters perceive the conventional politicians in the field to be part of a failed political class, high-profile events that further undermine their confidence in the political class can only benefit the candidates that are perceived to be most hostile to or separate from it.

The hope for Rubio, Bush, et al. has been that eventually voters would tire of the completely unprepared candidates that don’t know anything about policy, but as we have already seen for months Trump and Carson supporters don’t care that their candidates know little or nothing about policy. Now that the conversation has shifted to national security and foreign policy instead of immigration, that just gives the “outsider” candidates different subjects to use to their advantage. Trump’s blunt and heavy-handed nationalist rhetoric seems to appeal much more broadly among Republican voters than the dangerous proposals of the other hawkish candidates that want to get the U.S. mired ever more deeply in Syria’s civil war. More to the point, Trump’s lack of foreign policy experience doesn’t hurt him as much in a field in which most of his competitors have little or none of their own. When one of the supposedly most “experienced” candidates is a first-term senator with an exaggerated reputation for expertise, Trump’s unmistakable ignorance has been less of a liability than it likely would have been in decades past.

Meanwhile, Trump’s obnoxious and combative style probably serves him well when he’s trying to win over hawkish voters. The article quotes Tim Pawlenty making just this point:

“I don’t think these developments (terror attacks) hurt Trump in any way because his brashness will be equated with toughness. And for some voters that will be all they hear or all they want to know.”

It is fitting that party elites that have emphasized superficial shows of “toughness” and “resolve” as proof of foreign policy preparedness are now being beaten by a demagogic showman who outperforms their preferred candidates by routinely making such empty gestures to win votes. Having elevated ignorant and inexperienced candidates to be nominee in the recent past (e.g., Bush in 2000 and Romney in 2012), the GOP is ill-prepared to reject a candidate on account of his lack of knowledge or relevant experience. The same people that have treated gut instinct and ideological conformity as the only things that really matter in foreign policy are now deservedly stuck with a loudmouth nationalist who understands virtually nothing about the issues but worships “strength” above all else.

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McCain’s Panicked Alarmism

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Michael Brendan Dougherty doesn’t think much of hawkish criticisms of Obama on Syria, but that doesn’t mean he approves of our Syria policy:

Obama’s foreign policy in Syria has been stupid. But the Republican response to it has descended into gibbering insanity.

I thought “gibbering insanity” might be a bit harsh when I first read this, but then John McCain reminded me that this accurately describes a lot of hawkish Republican criticism of Obama’s entire foreign policy record. Responding to a Dave Weigel question about the 2008 election, McCain said this:

I had no idea that some seven years later that this world would be facing the most crises since World War II and the most crises since the end of World War II.

There is no sense in which this statement is true. The world is not going through “the most crises” in seventy years or anything close to it. Certainly none of our current crises poses the same risk to international peace and security that several Cold War-era crises did, and none of them could unless Graham and friends get their way and start shooting down Russian planes over Syria. At almost any time during the Cold War, there were many more conflicts, upheavals, and crises around the world than there are today, and yet somehow our political leaders were not constantly panicking about them as much as so many of our politicians are now. In spite of some serious conflicts in a few parts of the world, the world as a whole is relatively more peaceful than it has been over the last several generations. There are undoubtedly enduring problems in many parts of the world, but compared to almost any previous decade of the last century the world is overall in better shape than it has been in the lifetimes of anyone now alive. That should be something to be welcomed and to be kept in mind amid all the alarmism and agitation for more military intervention, but it doesn’t fit with the bogus “world is literally about to blow up” narrative that McCain and Graham want to promote.

Obviously McCain has several political and ideological axes to grind here and should never be taken seriously on foreign policy for many other reasons, but the danger is that many Americans wrongly think that the world is just as chaotic and crisis-ridden as McCain claims. One reason for this is that McCain and Graham can make outlandish statements about how horrible the state of the world is, and yet they are rarely called out for their shameless fear-mongering and self-serving rhetoric. Their claims are treated as reasonable by journalists, and as a result readers and viewers that are paying limited attention to these issues take these claims far more seriously than they should. Another is that only the worst and most destructive events overseas receive significant coverage here in the U.S., and media outlets have strong incentives to exaggerate and hype these events to hold the public’s attention, which makes the irresponsible and false claims from the McCains in the debate seem less ridiculous. Our foreign policy debate is also slanted heavily in favor of politicians and pundits that make outrageous-but-combative statements about foreign threats and the state of the world, so there are very few people in the debate making the case against threat inflation and alarmism. That creates a situation in which absolutely untrue statements like the one McCain made go largely unchallenged.

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Rubio the Inflexible Hawk

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As I was reading Evan Osnos’ long profile of Rubio and his “political dexterity,” I was struck by this section near the end:

Hillary Clinton favors an activist American foreign policy, and Rubio mentioned to me that he was rereading “The Last Lion,” by William Manchester. He said, “It’s this book about Churchill. It’s really long. Only because I’m just so fascinated by the leadership he provided.” He went on, “Churchill was a guy who was largely ignored through much of the thirties as a warmonger, and a guy that was crying wolf, and Chamberlain was this heroic figure that was going to achieve peace in our time by diplomacy. And I think, in many cases, we’re kind of at a similar moment, where many of us, including myself, are warning about dangers that are percolating around the world and what they could turn into [bold mine-DL]. Whether it’s Iran, Russia, China, North Korea, or radical Islam.”

This is a revealing quote that shows just how predictable and ideologically hawkish Rubio is. Of course Rubio is reading a biography of Churchill, and of course he’s “so fascinated” by his leadership. While he may not be explicitly identifying himself as the Churchill of our time, he is using the same tired, uninspired rhetoric that hawks have been using for decades by invoking the 1930s and comparing that time to current events. Santorum has done something similar in the past when he ran for re-election and again when he ran for president in the last cycle. This isn’t just a hackneyed line. It shows how badly Rubio is misjudging the current state of the world.

It bears repeating that the world today is nothing like it was in the 1930s in terms of international security, and the “dangers that are percolating around the world” are all much less severe and threatening. In every generation there are hawks that fancy that they are issuing prescient warnings about growing foreign threats, but they usually end up proving that they are just easily provoked alarmists. Given what we’ve heard from Rubio just in the last few days since the Paris attacks, that describes Rubio very well. Judging from his first national television ad, that is how he wants to be known.

The odd thing about this part of the profile is that Rubio’s foreign policy is one area where he hasn’t usually displayed the same opportunism that we see in the rest of the article. No one would ever mistake Rubio for a realist or non-interventionist, and he has never tried to make people think that he was one. On these issues, Rubio appears to be a hard-line true believer, and at least since he has been on the national stage he has never hinted at being anything else. When Osnos asks him “if his instinct for intervention was out of step with a generation that is exhausted by war and confrontation,” Rubio responds sharply with a rote recitation of the importance of U.S. “leadership”:

He responded instantly: “We’re not Luxembourg. We’re the United States of America—the highest-profile, most important, most influential country in the world.” He went on, “And we may ignore problems that exist far away, but those problems don’t ignore us. America, in the world today, is the only nation capable of convening collective action.”

Between his excessive confidence in the ability of the U.S. to handle foreign problems, his enthusiasm for U.S. “leadership” for a “new American century,” and his extremely dangerous and confrontational approach to every international crisis or conflict, Rubio is showing that when it comes to foreign policy he has none of the dexterity or flexibility that is often ascribed to him.

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Clinton’s Reckless and Flawed Syria Policy

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Scott McConnell points out that Clinton’s CFR speech last week contained some reckless statements and proposals:

In other words, not six days after ISIS slaughtered 130 people in Paris; a few more after it brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt and blew up a Hezbollah neighborhood in Beirut, Hillary Clinton is calling for tougher measures against… wait for it… ISIS’s enemies in the Mideast.

Specifically, Clinton reiterated her call for a “no-fly zone” in Syria and endorsed safe zones that she claimed could be protected by “opposition forces.” In other words, she would commit the U.S. to attacking Syrian air defenses, which means starting a war with the Syrian government and risking one with the Russians, and she would create “safe” zones that would likely become vulnerable targets for both regime forces and ISIS. These measures expose the U.S. to unacceptable risks and would involve the U.S. to be fighting two sides of a civil war at the same time.

Clinton’s plan suffers from many of the same flaws as Bush’s. Both of them talk about getting additional contributions and changes in behavior from allies and clients, but neither of them can explain how the U.S. will persuade any of them to cooperate. For instance, Clinton says that “we need to get Turkey to stop bombing Kurdish fighters in Syria who are battling ISIS, and become a full partner in our coalition efforts against ISIS.” Maybe we need that, but that doesn’t mean that Turkey is going to stop prioritizing its hostility to Kurdish groups. Clinton seems to think that because we “need” another government to change its behavior that its behavior can be made to change. The larger problem with Turkish involvement in the coalition is that Ankara has been obsessed with toppling Assad, which is one reason why they have been so dilatory and negligent when it comes to opposing ISIS.

She goes on to address the Gulf states’ lack of support for the war on ISIS:

At the moment, they’re focused in other areas because of their concerns in the region, especially the threat from Iran. That’s why the Saudis, for example, shifted attention from Syria to Yemen. So we have to work out a common approach.

Clinton doesn’t spell out what this means, but the fact that she talks about “the threat from Iran” in Yemen as if it were credible suggests that she doesn’t disagree with what the Saudis and their allies have been doing for the last eight months. She also offers no hint of what this “common approach” would yield. She does make clear that her administration would be even more fixated on “reassuring” our lousy clients in the region and would be even more inclined to share their paranoia about Iran than the U.S. already is:

Raising the confidence of our Arab partners and raising the costs to Iran for bad behavior will contribute to a more effective fight against ISIS.

That assumption seems entirely unfounded. For the last eight months in Yemen, the U.S. has sought to “raise the confidence” of these clients by supposedly “raising the costs” for Iran, and the result has been the effective abandonment of the war on ISIS by those clients while Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, ISIS, and Iran benefit in different ways. Indulging our bad clients in their anti-Iranian obsession isn’t going to make them more effective or useful in combating jihadists. We have seen very clearly for the last several years that they have little or no interest in doing the latter and want to devote their attention and resources to opposing Iran and its allies (real or imagined), and they will be only too happy to keep doing that. Like other Syria hawks, Clinton would indulge Turkey and the Gulf states in their preoccupation with Iran and Assad even though it comes at the expense of the war on ISIS.

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Yemen and the War on ISIS

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Matt Purple wonders if the renewed focus on the war on ISIS will cause the U.S. to drop its support for the war on Yemen:

The United States is bankrolling this distraction by providing equipment and logistics to those attacking Yemen. That bloody little war was always a bad idea. Will we finally withdraw our support and nudge our Sunni allies back to the real fight?

It’s a good question, but we already know what the answer is: no, the U.S. won’t withdraw its support, and the clients that are waging the war on Yemen will continue to neglect the “real fight” because it isn’t the fight that matters to them. Contributions from the Gulf states to the campaign against ISIS were minimal from the start and were never going to be that great. Their support for the “broad coalition” was useful primarily in that it allowed the U.S. to point to regional support for the intervention in Iraq and Syria. No one seriously expected the Gulf states to do more than mount a token effort, because it was understood that this was all that would be offered. When you hear presidential candidates boast that they will use U.S. “leadership” to form a regional Sunni military force to wage a ground war in Syria, as Rubio has done recently, it is safe to laugh at them.

The relatively much greater commitment that the Saudis and their Gulf allies have made in Yemen reflects how much more they care about combating Iranian influence even when there is scarcely any Iranian influence to combat. The campaign in Yemen diverts their resources from what Washington considers the higher priority, but our clients have never seen the war on ISIS this way and it seems unlikely that they are going to start. The U.S. ought to stop supporting the Saudis and their allies in Yemen, but that would be the right and smart thing to do regardless of the effect it might have on any other issue. Unfortunately, we can be fairly sure that isn’t going to happen.

Even if the U.S. withdrew its support from the war on Yemen and prevailed on the coalition governments to halt their campaign and blockade, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that they would increase their support for the war on ISIS. This article helps explain why:

“The Gulf states are pursuing contradictory policies,” suggests Abdullah Saleh Baabood, an Omani academic. “On the one hand there is this official undertaking to fight Daesh but at the same time they are involved in a struggle against what they consider to be the Shia/Persian domination of the region. Yes, they want to be seen to be helping their allies but they are deeply concerned about domestic views. They don’t want to be seen to be fighting Sunnis [bold mine-DL]. It is a very difficult situation for them.”

The U.S. wants these client states in the anti-ISIS coalition because their countries are predominantly Sunni, and yet it is because of sectarian considerations that they would rather focus on attacking the allies and proxies (real and imagined) of Iran. The thing that supposedly makes these states valuable in opposing ISIS is what makes them ignore the fight against ISIS in favor of attacking Shi’ites and their allies across the region. The U.S. should end its involvement in the war on Yemen, and it should also seriously reevaluate what benefit the U.S. derives from having clients that consistently work at cross-purposes with our policies.

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Bush’s Syria Policy Is Still Foolish and Costly

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Dov Zakheim praises Jeb Bush’s ideas for Syria:

His prescriptions for defeating ISIS include a ramped-up air campaign, more American troops on the ground and aid to the Kurdish fighters who have proved most effective in combatting ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. All told, his prescription was for true American leadership—in front, not behind—which would act as a magnet for other allies to join the fight against ISIS in a serious way. Most notably, the Arab states who have the most to fear from ISIS would be far more likely to contribute their own forces to the fight if they saw that America truly had “skin in the game.”

Bush’s speech last week at The Citadel was notable for including almost exactly the same content as an earlier foreign policy speech he delivered back in August. Despite the fact that Russia intervened directly in Syria in between Bush’s two speeches, this has had absolutely no effect on Bush’s thinking or his recommendations. Like other Syria hawks, he remains wedded to the idea of toppling Assad even though there is less international support outside the region for doing this than at any point in the last four years.

The belief that Arab states that have largely abandoned–or never joined–the fight against ISIS will start contributing more once the U.S. commits ground forces seems entirely unfounded. Daniel DePetris noticed this problem in his review of the speech:

How Jeb Bush would convince NATO and Arab partners to contribute more resources, money, and manpower towards the fight against ISIL is left out of the equation.

Not only are many of these Arab states preoccupied with their disastrous war in Yemen, but their priority in Syria has always been overthrowing Assad. As they have in Yemen, these states are much more concerned with fighting Iran and its allies (real or imagined) than they are in combating jihadist groups, and in some cases the Gulf states have helped to promote those very jihadists. If the U.S. does more in the war on ISIS, it is a given that almost all of our allies and clients will take that as license to do nothing more or even to do less than they are doing now. Once the U.S. is roped into bearing the bulk of the costs of a larger war effort, the other states in the region will be only too happy to sit back and watch us. An increased U.S. military commitment isn’t going to act as a “magnet” drawing other states deeper into the fight, but on the contrary will announce to these states that the U.S. has once again been lured into fighting other nations’ wars.

Elsewhere Zakheim approvingly mentions that Bush said that the U.S. isn’t going to be the world’s policeman, but it is telling that the hawks that say this never seem to see a conflict that the U.S. shouldn’t join. Interventionists disavow the role of “world’s policeman” when they are arguing for more intervention in order to make their immediate proposal seem less alarming, but the truth is that they are arguing for more intervention in this case because they assume that policing the conflicts of the world is a major part of America’s role in the world. If being the “world’s leader” amounts to much the same thing as being the “world’s policeman” in practice, it makes no difference if a hawkish politician rejects one name in favor of another. In fact, saying that the U.S. is the “world’s leader” could mean that the U.S. is expected to police the world’s conflicts and do a lot more besides that. It’s small consolation that Bush didn’t advocate “America’s involvement in every conflict around the globe” when he pushes for significantly increasing U.S. involvement in one of the world’s worst conflicts. Even if Bush doesn’t want to police every conflict in the world, he absolutely wants the U.S. to bear a much larger share of the costs of policing Syria for the foreseeable future, and that is already bad enough.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

There is no Obama doctrine. Leon Hadar reviews Colin Dueck’s The Obama Doctrine for the current issue of TAC.

In the battle against ISIS, where are the Arab states? Bruce Riedel explains why the Arab states that nominally belong to the anti-ISIS coalition have removed themselves from the U.S.-led bombing campaign.

The limits of ISIS. Olivier Roy makes the case that the Paris attacks show that ISIS has stalled in its efforts to expand its control over territory.

Declaring war on terror is good rhetoric, but bad policy. Noah Feldman identifies several of the pitfalls of the French government’s decision to respond to the Paris attacks with a declaration of war.

Intervention produces instability, not stability. Andrew Bacevich challenges advocates of another military intervention to explain why it will be any more successful than our previous failed wars.

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Rubio’s Extremely Dangerous Plan for the War on ISIS

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Marco Rubio’s plan for the war on ISIS simply dismisses any consideration of costs and benefits:

When I am president, what I will do to defeat ISIL is very simple: whatever it takes.

Specifically, he says that he will “build a multinational coalition of countries willing to send troops into Iraq and Syria to aid local forces on the ground” and he will “tell my commanders that the mission is the total destruction of ISIL and will send them the forces necessary to succeed.” Taken together with his “whatever it takes” slogan, we can conclude that Rubio favors escalation in the form of a ground war that will almost certainly include a large contingent of American soldiers. He doesn’t phrase it quite that way so as not to alarm people, but that is what his plan would mean in practice. It’s absurd to think that the public will tolerate another long and costly ground war, but that is exactly what they can expect to have if Rubio were to get his way.

The “multinational coalition of countries willing to send troops” to fight ISIS will inevitably be quite small, and the contributions the other coalition members make will also be quite small compared to the U.S. contribution. As we are already seeing, our regional allies and clients are doing little or nothing to support the war, and none of them is going to agree to send their soldiers to fight in Syria. Aside from France and maybe Britain, what European ally is actually going to contribute to such a coalition? That means that the U.S. will once again be left bearing the almost all of the burden and suffering most of the losses. And that burden will be considerable, since Rubio also wants to take on the Syrian government at the same time:

Cutting off oxygen to ISIL also requires defeating Assad in Syria.

This is crazy, but it has now become the default position of most Syria hawks. Defeating Assad will involve attacking and destroying some significant part of the remaining regime forces and it will very likely involve bringing down the government as a whole. Collapsing the regime will likely expose those areas under its control to anarchy, massacre, and the slaughter or forcible expulsion of religious minorities. This won’t “cut off oxygen” to ISIS and other jihadists, but will on the contrary create new chances for them to flourish. It is incredible that this needs to be said after the experiences in Iraq and Libya, but pursuing regime change in Syria is a boon to jihadists and all those that thrive on chaos and violence.

That isn’t the worst part of his plan. Now that Russia is committed to propping up the Syrian government, seeking to defeat Assad puts the U.S. on a direct collision course with Russia and could very easily lead to a clash between our forces and theirs. Even if U.S. forces don’t intend to, they could end up killing Russians on the ground, and that risks a shooting war with one of the most powerful states in the world. Rubio is going beyond his earlier reckless support for a “no-fly zone” and promising that he will risk triggering war with a major, nuclear-armed power by seeking to topple its client while its forces are still in Syria.

The idea that the U.S. should do “whatever it takes” suggests that there is no cost too high to achieve the stated goal of defeating ISIS, but that isn’t true. Furthermore, saying that he will do “whatever it takes” to win implies that he thinks that any tactic is permissible, and it traps him into persisting in the conflict no matter how much it costs. Based on the reckless, aggressive plan he has laid out, it could cost the U.S. a great deal. Even if the policy made sense, the attitude behind it is reckless maximalism, but as we can see the policy is also quite mad.

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The Indefensible War on Yemen Continues

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Bruce Riedel comments on how the war on Yemen has diverted Saudi and GCC resources and attention from the war on ISIS. He also notes that the war has strengthened jihadists and unwittingly aided Iran:

Even worse is that the major beneficiaries of the war so far are al-Qaeda and Iran. Al-Qaeda has seized control of large parts of southeastern Yemen since the war began. Its black flags fly in Aden, the temporary capital of the pro-Saudi government. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has grown stronger in the months since it attacked Paris in January, not weaker. That is a disturbing portent for those now promising to defeat IS.

Iran is fighting to the last Houthi, laughing at the Saudis and Emiratis as they spend resources in what Tehran hopes will be an endless quagmire. Iran gains in Iraq and Syria from the Sunni forces’ diversion to Yemen.

As I’ve said before, the Saudi-led intervention has been failing on the Saudis’ own terms. The coalition hasn’t been able to drive the Houthis out of the capital, nor does it seem likely to be able to do so anytime soon. The Saudis haven’t been able to reimpose Hadi as president, part of the country is ruled by AQAP, and the territory that the coalition nominally controls is vulnerable to attacks from them and the local ISIS affiliate. Instead of weakening Iranian influence in the region, they opted to attack a country where that influence was minimal, and so they are fighting a proxy war with Iran in a place where they can do the least harm to Iran. If one wanted to counter Iranian influence in the region, waging a protracted, atrocious war in Yemen would be the most useless thing that one could do, so of course this is what the Saudis and their allies have been doing for the last eight months with U.S. and British backing.

On top of all that, an entire country has been devastated and its people have been starved of basic necessities to such an extent that millions of people are at risk of famine. None of the countries involved in battering and starving Yemen has been made more secure, Yemen has been wrecked, and all so that our panicked despotic clients could pretend that they were dealing a blow to Iranian “expansionism” that wasn’t even happening. This is the disgraceful and unnecessary war that the U.S. has supported from the beginning for the sake of “reassuring” those despots that they can count on us to indulge their most stupid and destructive behavior.

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Rubio, the Hard-liners’ Factional Candidate


Despite being a reflexive interventionist and reliable advocate for meddling almost everywhere in the world, Rubio hasn’t been quite aggressive enough for some hard-liners:

Rubio—now a member of the Senate’s top foreign affairs committees who was positioning himself as one of his party’s more hawkish members—cast a vote against the use of force in Syria [in 2013].

“I didn’t agree with that vote,” Abrams said. “It would have been better for the United States to make those strikes, and come back if need be and do more. I thought it was important to get the president to start acting again. I agreed it wasn’t enough, but you have to start somewhere.”

It’s strange that Rubio’s vote against attacking Syria in 2013 is presented here as a weakness, since it was both the politically smart thing to do at the time and it happened to be the right position (though Rubio took it for the wrong reasons). Rubio opposed the attack because it was supposedly going to be too small, and because his preferred form of meddling in Syria was to throw more weapons into the civil war. It is the one and only thing in Rubio’s foreign policy record as a senator that he can cite as proof that he isn’t completely mindless in his advocacy for U.S. military intervention, and that is something he has to have as a presidential candidate if he doesn’t want to be perceived as a younger Lindsey Graham.

As far as his ideological allies are concerned, though, his vote on Syria two years ago was a troubling deviation that bothers them, and they are the ones whose “disappointment” the reporters are interested in relaying. Rubio seems to have learned his “lesson” since the Syria debate in 2013, because he has made sure for more aggressive measures across the board on every issue since then. He backs the war on ISIS, wants to give the president a completely unlimited authorization for that war, vehemently rejects the nuclear deal, wants to send more weapons into Ukraine and Syria, thinks the U.S. should be doing more to help the Saudis in Yemen, and denounces normalization with Cuba. If neoconservatives and hard-liners had any reason to be disappointed with Rubio two years ago, he has gone out of his way to give them everything they could want since then. That has turned him into little more than their factional candidate, and it may help explain why he continues to receive roughly the same amount of support from voters that he had when his campaign began.

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Article 5 and the Illegal War on ISIS

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Christopher Preble questions the wisdom of invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty in response to the Paris attacks. Here he counters the claim that this would provide Obama a way to legalize the illegal war on ISIS without Congress:

Others have suggested that the attacks require a response, and that the North Atlantic Treaty explicitly empowers the President of the United States to circumvent Congress, and thus avoid a messy public debate. At the Washington Post online, Ilya Somin claimed that the Paris attacks gave “the Obama administration an opportunity to legalize its previously unconstitutional war against ISIS.” And that Article 5 “gives him the same authority to use force as he would have in the event of an attack on the United States itself.”

But NATO members who do invoke Article 5 are not obligated to carry out an armed response [bold mine-DL]. The precise form of support for an ally attacked is solely at the discretion of each member state, and, as noted by international legal scholar Julian Ku, “Article 9 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that “[t]his Treaty shall be ratified and its provisions carried out by the Parties in accordance with their respective constitutional processes.” (emphasis added).”

Invoking Article 5 isn’t going to solve the problem of the war’s illegality under U.S. law, and it wouldn’t compel the U.S. to do anything more than it is already doing in Iraq and Syria. The fact that both the U.S. and France have already been bombing ISIS in one or both countries for months (and in our case for well over a year) makes bringing NATO into the fight seem redundant. Most of the alliance’s members are unlikely to join the conflict or increase their contributions to the war, and so the purpose of invoking this part of the treaty would seem to be mostly to express political support for whatever the French government decides to do. The members of the alliance can do that if they wish, but it’s not clear why they must do it.

As Preble notes earlier in his article, Article 5 has been invoked only once (in response to the 9/11 attacks), and it has not been invoked in response to major terrorist attacks against other NATO members in the years that followed. Terrorist attacks on member states haven’t normally been treated as a reason to invoke Article 5, so the automatic assumption that this should be the response to these attacks doesn’t make a lot of sense. John Kasich was adamant in his speech yesterday that this is what ought to be done, but the fact that he couldn’t even get the name of the treaty right (he called it the “North American Treaty”) gives us reason to doubt that he has thought this position through as much as he should.

Preble suggests that Congress now has another opportunity to do its job by debating and voting on a resolution that would authorize the ongoing war, but that seems less likely than ever to happen. The war on ISIS will continue, and it will continue to be illegal, and almost all members of Congress will continue to avoid and deny their constitutional responsibilities.

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Carson and the GOP’s Foreign Policy Ignorance Problem

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Some of Ben Carson’s foreign policy advisers admit their candidate doesn’t understand the subject very well:

Faced with increasing scrutiny about whether Mr. Carson — who leads in some Republican presidential polls — was capable of leading American foreign policy, two of his top advisers said in interviews with The New York Times that he had struggled to master the intricacies of the Middle East and national security and that intense tutoring was having little effect.

Carson’s lack of preparation on foreign policy is hardly news, but this story is interesting for what it can teach us about some common conceits about inexperienced presidential candidates. One of these conceits is that a candidate’s knowledge is less important than his “instincts.” Carson’s “instincts” receive praise from the same advisers that are dismissing his grasp of the issues, and instincts are often treated as all that really matters. The fact that his advisers recognize that he doesn’t know very much about these issues but still support him for president shows how strong this misguided idea can be. As long a candidate has the “right” instincts, his lack of experience and knowledge isn’t held against him by other members of his party. Yet we know that a president with supposedly “good” instincts can make terrible decisions because he is poorly informed or if his understanding of an issue is distorted by questionable ideological assumptions. No matter how good his instincts may be, a president that doesn’t understand a particular conflict or has an exaggerated view of the U.S. role in the world will get into serious trouble.

The fact that Carson is proving to be difficult to “tutor” on foreign policy isn’t surprising, since it isn’t possible for any candidate to start off with little or no knowledge of these issues and then be able to make up the difference at the same time that he is campaigning. If a candidate is seriously ill-prepared at the start of a campaign on foreign policy, no amount of tutoring between now and the start of voting is going to fix that. Carson may be an extreme example of this, but what we’re hearing about him is not really all that different from what we saw with Walker earlier in the year. Candidates that have paid scant attention to foreign policy beforehand don’t suddenly acquire the interest or inclination for it during their busy schedules after they start to run for higher office, and their advisers are given a very difficult task of making them minimally ready to answer the most basic questions.

As we can see from Carson’s positions on Syria, Russia, and other matters, his lack of experience and knowledge don’t make him less likely to endorse aggressive and confrontational measures. Instead, they guarantee that he will accept the prevailing views within the party as a way of taking the path of least resistance, and in the GOP that means endorsing hawkish policies regardless of their merit. This shatters another conceit, which is that “outsider” candidates that do not have many years of experience in Washington are less likely to accept the Washington consensus view. Because inexperienced candidates have so little prior knowledge of these issues, they are more likely to buy into conventional assumptions about U.S. foreign policy and our role in the world because they don’t have the knowledge to challenge the status quo.

The bigger problem that Carson’s struggles point to is that almost all of the Republican candidates are woefully unprepared and lacking in foreign policy experience, and the few that have some experience don’t have very much. Carson’s lack of preparation on foreign policy is the most obvious in the field, but most of his competitors have the same weakness. That is what happens when a party simultaneously equates hard-line rhetoric with “expertise” and dismisses foreign policy experience as unnecessary for its presidential candidates.

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Kasich’s Odd Idea for a New Propaganda Agency

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John Kasich delivered a foreign policy speech yesterday at the National Press Club, and he’s also proposed creating a new agency tasked with promoting “Judeo-Christian Western values.” This is how Kasich describes the purpose of the agency:

“U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting have lost their focus on the case for Western values and ideals and effectively countering our opponents’ propaganda and disinformation,” Kasich said. “I will consolidate them into a new agency that has a clear mandate to promote the core, Judeo-Christian Western values that we and our friends and allies share: the values of human rights, the values of democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of association.”

I’m skeptical that the U.S. needs or would benefit from creating a new umbrella agency assigned to promoting political propaganda, which is what Kasich is suggesting. The last time that the U.S. made a concerted, high-profile effort at public diplomacy during the Bush years, it was an embarrassing shambles. Karen Hughes was famously sent to foreign countries in a hapless, tone-deaf effort to change perceptions of U.S. foreign policy, which reflected the previous administration’s inability to grasp that resentment against U.S. policies was not simply a product of poor communication on our part. The broader “freedom agenda” suffered from a similar inability to understand that being identified with our government and its policies undermined the cause of promoting liberalization and democratization abroad. Maybe Kasich’s attempt wouldn’t repeat those mistakes, but it seems that his idea has several flaws of its own.

The curious thing about Kasich’s proposal is that he is saying that the U.S. should tout liberal political values but insists on describing them as “Judeo-Christian” or as expressions of “our Jewish and Christian tradition.” While this presentation of these values may make sense to Kasich, it is likely to land with a thud with the target audiences that he wants to reach in Russia, China, and the Near East. More to the point, the more involved the U.S. government is in pushing these values, it probably becomes more difficult for foreign dissidents to advocate for them without being perceived by people in their own countries as agents of the U.S. or as antagonistic to the predominant cultural and religious traditions in their countries. If the U.S. does need to revive its efforts at public diplomacy, this seems like the wrong way to go about it and the wrong way to present it to the rest of the world.

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Jindal Calls It Quits

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Bobby Jindal’s pointless presidential campaign has come to a close:

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a onetime rising Republican star whose popularity has plummeted in his own state, abruptly dropped out of the presidential race on Tuesday, conceding that he was unable to find any traction.

Jindal’s campaign was one of many 2016 bids that never made any sense, and it made even less in light of his overwhelming unpopularity in his home state. He was held in high regard on the right for his wonkish background and for his electoral success, but by the time he got around to running for president he opted to cast the former aside in favor of trying to play the role of the outraged culture warrior and demagogue. That role never really suited him, and it was one that many other candidates were seeking to fill.

Having presided over a fiscal mess at home, Jindal tried during the campaign to make a virtue out of his deep unpopularity by railing against his competitors and touting his budget-cutting prowess, but this did nothing to boost his candidacy and reminded everyone why he was so disliked in Louisiana. More than most other candidates, Jindal attacked Trump directly in the harshest terms, but he won no supporters for his trouble. Jindal had put most of his efforts into campaigning in Iowa, so there may be a few Jindal supporters that other social conservative candidates will be able to win over, but on the whole Jindal’s departure from the race will have no discernible effect on the the rest of the contest. The end of his presidential campaign serves as a warning for what can happen to “rising stars” in the GOP that put their ambitions for national office ahead of their duties to their constituents.

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

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Samuel Oakford reports on the latest sale of U.S. weapons to Saudi Arabia:

The US State Department has signed off on the sale of $1.29 billion worth of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, including tens of thousands of bombs that will restock a Saudi arms stockpile depleted by the country’s air campaign in Yemen, which has been linked to civilian deaths.

There had been a slight chance that delaying new weapons sales to the Saudis might be used to pressure the coalition to scale back its campaign and possibly to get them to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, but that obviously didn’t happen. Unfortunately, it was always unlikely that the administration would even make the effort. Instead of using what influence the U.S. has with Riyadh to rein in or end its unnecessary war, the Obama administration has chosen to offer unstinting support for the campaign by providing refueling, intelligence, and weapons. While the U.S. pretends not to be a party to the war, it has helped provide diplomatic cover for the coalition’s war crimes, and it refrains from saying anything about the many civilian casualties caused by indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas and in some cases the deliberate bombings of civilian targets. The rule seems to be that U.S. clients in the region are always to be coddled and “reassured,” and they must never be inconvenienced or criticized for their errors.

Amnesty International criticized the latest weapons sale:

This summer, researchers at Amnesty International reported that MK-82 bombs had been found at the site of attacks that killed civilians, including an unexploded ordnance left intact at a mosque in the village of Waht, were 11 worshippers died in May.

“The Saudi Arabia-led air coalition is engaging in indiscriminate bombing of civilian communities in Yemen, in violation of international law,” said Sunjeev Bery, Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty. “The Obama administration is now selling to Saudi Arabia even more of the MK-82 bombs that the Saudi-led coalition has already used to kill civilians in Yemen.”

The bombing campaign will continue to claim more civilian lives, and the U.S. will be partly responsible for that by having provided the arms, fuel, and political support to help keep the war going.

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Cruz, Obama, and American “Leadership”


At a G20 press conference yesterday, Barack Obama said this:

What I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of ‘American leadership’ or ‘America winning,’ or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work [bold mine-DL] to protect the American people and to protect people in the region who are getting killed, and protect our allies and people like France.

Here Obama was clearly mocking the constant refrain from hawkish critics that Obama needs to show more “leadership” in response to this or that crisis. He was also taking a shot at the hawks’ tendency to substitute their demands for “leadership” for specific ideas, which we saw on display in that Romney op-ed on Syria. It was impossible to miss the point that the president was ridiculing those that rely on slogans instead of practical policy recommendations. Ted Cruz pretended to miss the point:

I think in that one sentence, President Obama has summed up the entirety of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy. There is not a more stunning indictment of what has happened in the last seven years than his statement that he’s not interested in American leadership or America winning.

Cruz is deliberately ignoring the part of the statement that confirms that Obama is dismissing vacuous sloganeering, because he wants to twist what Obama said into something completely different. Much like the dishonest parsing of a statement that led to the lie that Obama “doesn’t believe” in American exceptionalism (when the full quote showed exactly the opposite), Cruz knows what Obama said and distorted it into something else entirely. As we know, Cruz is a demagogue, so it’s not news that he would rely on lies to make his point. I mention it here because it is representative of how hawkish critics have consistently misrepresented what Obama says and does to portray him and his foreign policy as almost the opposite of what they are. While they could attack Obama for his real policy errors, hawks have always opted to criticize a fantasy record full of “apology tours” and “appeasement” that never happened because they can’t admit that Obama’s failures overseas have typically come from pursuing some version of the policies that they support.

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Jeb Bush Shouldn’t Talk About Quagmires (or Foreign Policy)

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Jeb Bush should really stop trying to talk about foreign policy:

“What I would do is […] what I proposed at the Reagan Library two months ago — which is to defeat ISIS, and to defeat Assad, to bring stability [bold mine-DL] because it’s in our national security interests to do it,” Bush said Monday morning on Fox & Friends. “That requires a no-fly zone, safe zones [bold mine-DL]. It requires arming directly the Kurdish forces in Iraq. It means reengaging with the Sunni tribal leaders that were successful in fighting with us, side-by-side, with the surge.

“It means a strategy — we don’t have a strategy right now. This president is incrementally getting us into a quagmire [bold mine-DL], without having a strategy to defeat ISIS.”

Bush accuses Obama of getting the U.S. into quagmire in Syria in the same breath that he pledges to commit the U.S. to an open-ended mission “to bring stability” in Syria. Bush’s plan involves not only creating safe zones that will have to be defended by ground forces (most of which will inevitably be American), but also includes defeating ISIS and Assad and then remaining behind for some unknown period of time until the country has been stabilized. Bear in mind that toppling Assad will contribute greatly to even more instability for many years, so Bush is first proposing to destabilize Syria further before somehow figuring out how to “bring stability.” If Obama is very slowly taking the U.S. deeper into Syria’s civil war (and he has been), Bush wants to get us much deeper into the conflict now and keep us there for a very long time. Bush claims that he will have a strategy for achieving his extremely ambitious and costly goals, but so far all he is doing is telling us that he will commit the U.S. to war and occupation in Syria with no end in sight. If Obama risks getting the U.S. into a quagmire, Bush wants to guarantee that it will be stuck in one at great cost for many years.

Criticizing a president for leading the U.S. into a quagmire is a fairly safe criticism for most presidential candidates to make, but it isn’t credible coming from an advocate of an even more aggressive interventionist policy. It is even less credible coming from a hawk whose main complaint against Obama’s Syria policy is that it has been too passive. Coming from a member of the Bush family and an Iraq war dead-ender, it is laughable.

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