Daniel Larison

Obama’s Legacy: War Without End

Gene Healy comments on the dreary foreign policy legacy Obama leaves behind:

In a speech to US troops last month, he denounced the “false promise” that “we can eliminate terrorism by dropping more bombs,” and piously proclaimed that “democracies should not operate in a state of permanently authorized war.”

An audacious statement—given that it is Obama himself who’s made perpetual warfare the new normal, and the president the ultimate “decider” in matters of war and peace. Where George W. Bush secured congressional authorization for the two major wars he fought, Obama has launched two undeclared wars (in Libya and against ISIS), ordered 10 times as many drone strikes as his predecessor, and this summer bombed six different countries just over Labor Day weekend. And it is Obama who is largely responsible for warping the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force—passed three days after 9/11 to target Al Qaeda and the Taliban—into an enabling act for endless war, anywhere in the world.

Obama has been able to do this in part because he has had the luxury of facing virtually no organized opposition to any of his wars on any grounds. Media coverage of his interventions has tended to be favorable or neutral, and even when his policies have come under some criticism it has never been sustained for long enough to do him much political damage. He has faced scant opposition within his own party, and in most cases he has faced even less from his otherwise vehement political opponents. Even when he is challenged on waging unauthorized wars, very few oppose his interventions outright, and there aren’t even enough of the former in Congress to force a debate or vote on any current U.S. military engagements.

While presenting himself as the president responsible for ending America’s foreign wars, he has involved the U.S. in at least four new ones to one degree or another since the spring of 2011. However, his decisions to initiate, escalate, or join these wars have faced remarkably little scrutiny and even less resistance. Obama is responsible for his own policies, but he could not have done so much at such low political cost if both Congress and the press weren’t so content to accept presidential warmaking. Thanks to the constant berating of hawks that he is too “passive” and the bleating of foreign policy pundits that Obama is guilty of “inaction” abroad, the president has been able to get away with being one of the most interventionist foreign policy presidents in modern U.S. history while being viewed by many in both parties as very nearly the exact opposite.

Perhaps the most horrifying and least-known part of this legacy is the disgraceful U.S. support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen. U.S. refueling, arms, and intelligence have enabled the coalition to wreck Yemen’s infrastructure and devastate its economy while committing numerous documented war crimes through indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on civilian targets. The U.S. has backed this war at the same time that the coalition has blockaded and starved the civilian population of basic necessities, and millions of lives are at risk from starvation and preventable diseases as a result. U.S. involvement here is quite insidious because it is enabling enormous destruction while being much less visible than in other places. Throughout this shameful war, the U.S. has pretended that it is not a party to the conflict, and for the most part the Obama administration has been able to get away with this. Except for a small number of members from both houses, Congress has either been completely indifferent to the catastrophe our government has helped create or they have been openly supportive of the Saudis and their allies. Obama has occasionally come under criticism in major papers for his indefensible support for the war on Yemen, but because there is no danger that Congress might oppose him he has easily dismissed that criticism.

Obama’s legacy is continuing U.S. involvement in wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen, and he bequeaths to his successor the ability to start, escalate, and join wars at will without Congressional authorization.

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Needlessly Provoking a Major Power Isn’t Good for the U.S.

On Friday, Trump toyed around with the “one China” policy again:

Asked if he supported the One China policy on Taiwan, Mr. Trump said: “Everything is under negotiation including One China.”

Trump should know that something can be negotiated only when both parties are willing to talk about it. As far as Beijing is concerned, there is nothing to negotiate here, and there is nothing that the U.S. could offer them that would cause them to accept a change to the status quo. There are always some things that can’t be bargained for and some things that the other side will never accept (and some that they are prepared to fight for), and Trump either doesn’t understand this or he just wants to provoke China for the sake of provoking them. Poking China in the eye over this issue in particular continues to be remarkably ill-advised, and it is setting the stage for an acrimonious relationship between the U.S. and China in the coming year.

His remark does prompt a couple questions: why should the “one China” policy be revised, and how could it possibly benefit the U.S. to reopen a question that has been effectively settled for almost forty years? The current arrangement has helped maintain peace and stability in East Asia for decades, and attempting to change it potentially brings with significant costs that the U.S. isn’t prepared to pay and shouldn’t want to pay. There is already more than enough uncertainty about what Trump might do abroad, and the U.S. risks sparking an unnecessary crisis with China by deliberately creating more. Trump often says that the U.S. needs to be more unpredictable, but in our dealings with other major powers there is nothing less desirable than an approach to policy that leads the other government to miscalculate and overreact.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Obama’s reckless interventionism. Bonnie Kristian reviews the record of Obama’s many wars.

Does promoting American values make the world safer? Akhilesh Pillalamarri counters the conceit that “American values and security can be preserved only so long as the United States promotes democracy and liberalism throughout the world.”

Resisting the urge to “do something” overseas. Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky identify some of the causes of the impulse to “do something” in foreign policy.

Saudi cash can’t buy military clout. Bloomberg reports on the growing costs of the unsuccessful Saudi-led war effort in Yemen.

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Cruz and Graham’s Tantrum Against the U.N.

Mark Leon Goldberg explains why Cruz and Graham’s proposal to cut off funding for the U.N. in response to UNSCR 2334 is a terrible idea:

“If you cut off their money, that gets their attention,” Ted Cruz told Morning Joe. That’s certainly true. But if enacted, this legislation would undermine the ability of the United States to set the agenda at the United Nations in ways that advance American interests and values. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of cutting off one’s nose to spite the face.

Cruz and Graham’s proposed bill is a typical hawkish reaction to something they don’t like: it is cruelly punitive, it won’t produce the change they want, it will hurt people that have nothing to do with the issue they are protesting, and it will reduce U.S. influence in the world in a vain bid to show “strength.” Penalizing the U.N. as a whole over one vote that hard-liners don’t like would be a petty and destructive move that will only generate more resentment against the U.S., and it won’t do anything to reverse Israel’s international isolation on the issue of settlements. If this bill were passed and Trump signed it, it would amount to having the U.S. throw a tantrum that hurts us on behalf of the illegal behavior of a client state. This is yet another example of how “pro-Israel” hawks are no good for the U.S. or Israel.

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Another Pointless Provocation of China

Tillerson’s remarks yesterday about denying China access to its artificial islands in the South China Sea have stirred up a strong reaction in China:

Mr. Tillerson’s comments, with the possible implication that the United States might use its armed forces to deny the Chinese access to the islands, garnered reactions including confusion, disbelief and warlike threats from analysts in China.

These comments were the most dangerous position Tillerson has taken so far. We have to hope that this won’t become Trump’s policy, because it would put us on a very risky collision course with China over something that is frankly not worth fighting over. Meanwhile, making these statements isn’t helpful, and serves only to increase tensions with Beijing:

“This is the sort of off-the-cuff remark akin to a tweet that pours fuel on the fire and maybe makes things worse,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “Short of going to war with China, there is nothing the Americans can do.”

Suffice it to say, the U.S. shouldn’t be going to war over this, and I doubt China’s government believes that the U.S. would go to war over it. If that’s right, it is difficult to see what the U.S. would gain by making threats that it isn’t going to carry out. Possibly Tillerson was just engaging in more hawkish posturing to make his confirmation process easier, but that’s no excuse. Whatever Tillerson’s reason for making these comments might be, it risks worsening relations with China without gaining the U.S. anything.

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Tillerson’s Underwhelming Performance

Rex Tillerson meets with Vladimir Putin as CEO of ExxonMobil. Photo: archive.government.ru/

One of the main assumptions that almost everyone has made about Tillerson’s nomination to be Secretary of State is that he would be inclined to improve relations with Russia. Some of his answers from his confirmation hearing today call that assumption into question:

Mr. Tillerson also told the committee that if he had been serving in office when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, he would have recommended that the United States provide arms and intelligence support to the government of Ukraine, and said the Obama administration’s reaction was viewed in Moscow “as a weak response.”

Mr. Tillerson’s prescription came in the opening two hours of his confirmation hearing, where he went out of his way to portray himself as a hard-liner in confronting Russia [bold mine-DL] — an effort to defuse questions about his business relationships with Mr. Putin.

It could be that Tillerson was just telling committee members what they wanted to hear, or he may have been posturing as a hard-liner in an attempt to overcompensate for his past business dealings, but it seems more likely that Tillerson was never all that interested in better relations with Moscow. If so many hawkish Republicans have vouched for him, it makes more sense that he sees the world in much the same way they do. At one point, he said to Rubio, “Our interests are not different, senator, I share all the same values that you share.” He added, “There seems to be some misunderstanding that somehow I see the world through a different lens. I do not.”

That is what makes his support for arming Ukraine seem especially significant. Sending arms to Ukraine is a bad idea now, and it was just as bad back in 2014. If Tillerson thinks the U.S. should have done that then, that doesn’t reflect well on his judgment, and it bodes ill for future U.S. policy on Ukraine and Russia. Even if he was mostly pandering to hard-liners on the committee, that tells us that he isn’t going to push back very hard against hawks that want more confrontational policies. If Tillerson doesn’t “share all the same values” that hard-liners have, he also seems unlikely to oppose them when they demand that the U.S. take irresponsible and provocative actions.

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Thoughts on Tillerson’s Opening Statement

ExxonMobil CEO and Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson (Gong Tu/Shutterstock)

Rex Tillerson’s prepared remarks for the start of his confirmation hearing today contain a fair amount of boilerplate rhetoric, but they also include several worrisome statements. These lines stood out:

Quite simply, we are the only global superpower with the means and the moral compass capable of shaping the world for good. If we do not lead, we risk plunging the world deeper into confusion and danger.

This is a very conventional statement endorsing the idea that the U.S. “leadership” is “indispensable.” It may just be intended as a sop to some of the more hard-line members of the committee, but it is somewhat alarming to hear it coming from someone who is supposed to be a pragmatist. I bring this up because Tillerson repeatedly blames the “absence” of U.S. “leadership” for current problems around the world. That is not only bad analysis, but it suggests that Tillerson thinks the answer is a more activist and meddlesome foreign policy.

Tillerson continues:

In recent decades, we have cast American leadership into doubt. In some instances, we have withdrawn from the world.

Tillerson doesn’t specify which “instances” he has in mind here, but it is safe to say that he is wrong in thinking this. At what point in recent decades has the U.S. “withdrawn from the world”? The last fifteen years alone have seen frenetic, constant meddling all over the globe. The U.S. is more deeply entangled in the affairs of at least half a dozen countries than it was twenty years ago, and it is not significantly less involved in any part of the world than it was in the early ’90s. Unfortunately, there has been no withdrawal, and it isn’t a good sign that Tillerson thinks there has been any.

The section on Russia is reasonably balanced. Tillerson acknowledges and criticizes Russia’s interventions abroad, but expresses support for dialogue and pursuing common interests when possible. However, I found this part very strange:

But it was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent. We backtracked on commitments we made to allies. We sent weak or mixed signals with “red lines” that turned into green lights.

Once again, Tillerson doesn’t identify which “commitments” the U.S. didn’t keep, and that’s probably because no backtracking took place. The complaint about the “red line” episode is a standard hawkish talking point, but its inclusion in these remarks is a bad sign that Tillerson buys into bad assumptions based on discredited notions of “credibility.”

Another passage jumped out at me because of the use of some of the most annoying phrases that we usually hear from the likes of John McCain:

Our approach to human rights begins by acknowledging that American leadership requires moral clarity. We do not face an “either or” choice
on defending global human rights. Our values are our interests when it comes to human rights and humanitarian assistance.

Perhaps Tillerson said this to deflect criticism that he and Trump are going to go easy on authoritarian regimes, or perhaps it is just a way to satisfy some of the committee’s most ideological members, but it’s unfortunate in any case. In practice, “moral clarity” is code in Washington for using human rights to justify aggressive policies toward some states while ignoring and whitewashing the misconduct of our government and our allies and clients. The idea that “our values are our interests” is an old favorite of McCain’s, because it implies that U.S. interests are supposedly at stake wherever our “values” may be threatened, and that effectively means that U.S. interests around the world are almost unlimited. The phrase is normally used as a license to justify meddling in the internal affairs of other countries.

The section on Cuba is also discouraging, since it suggests that normalization with Cuba may be reversed. Overall, Tillerson’s opening remarks were focused almost entirely on potential threats to be countered and a fixation on the importance of U.S. “leadership” as the way to counter them. That may help gain him some support from hawkish Republicans on the committee, but as an indication of the sort of foreign policy we can expect from this administration it was not very encouraging.

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Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem Makes No Sense

Overlooking the Old City of Jersusalem Elena Dijour / Shutterstock.com

John Hudson reports on a letter from many House Republicans urging Trump to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. This section of the letter was remarkably clueless:

Moving the embassy will strengthen the unique alliance between Israel and the United States and send a clear message to the world that we support Israel in recognizing Jerusalem as its eternal capital.

This action is all the more urgent in light of the anti-Israel Resolution 2334, adopted by the United Nations Security Council on December 23, 2016. The resolution invites renewed diplomatic hostility and economic warfare against Israel, and we must act urgently to mitigate its consequences and to reaffirm our steadfast commitment to Israel.

If UNSCR 2334 is undesirable because it supposedly “invites renewed diplomatic hostility and economic warfare against Israel,” how much more irresponsible would it be to move the embassy to Jerusalem and set off an even more intense wave of diplomatic hostility and possibly cause a surge of violence directed against both Americans and Israelis? Moving the embassy would undoubtedly “send a clear message to the world,” and that message is that the U.S. is abandoning any pretense that it wants a peaceful settlement of the conflict there. The U.S. would pay a substantial price in its relations with many other states, and Israel’s relations with all of its neighbors would deteriorate and further contribute to the country’s international isolation. While hard-liners in both countries might not care about any of that, relocating the embassy would be a cause of much grief for both governments for years to come and would gain them nothing. It doesn’t make any sense, and it confirms that “pro-Israel” hawks are no good for the U.S. or Israel.

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Syria and the Judgments of ‘History’

Aaron David Miller makes a questionable assertion:

But one thing seems stunningly clear: history will deal harshly with the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria.

We can’t know for certain how later generations will view Obama’s Syria policy or any of his other policies, but a lot will depend on who is writing the history of U.S. foreign policy in half a century or more. Later historians will presumably have access to the reams of commentary written by hawks who kept trying to cajole Obama into getting even more deeply involved than he did, but will they find those shoddy arguments to be persuasive? I doubt it. People will have the benefit of hindsight decades from now and will have a clearer view of the consequences of the war in Syria, but they will have greater distance and perspective. They will also know how Obama’s successor responded to the war and will have another policy as a point of comparison.

Many people in the future may look back at the Washington obsession with getting the U.S. bogged down in another foreign war with more than a little puzzlement. Future historians may be challenged to explain to their contemporaries why so many people were fixated on getting the U.S. mired in a foreign civil war when it posed no obvious threat to American interests. They may have trouble explaining why the U.S. went along with its reckless regional clients in trying to destabilize yet another country. There will probably be some very different interpretations of U.S. policy in the years and decades to come, and those will be shaped by the scholars’ assumptions about what the U.S. role in the world should be, and it will also be shaped by where they come from. If I had to guess, American historians are likelier to judge a less activist policy in Syria to be a reasonable or even laudable response, while historians from some other countries may take a dimmer view.

The interpretation of U.S. policy will probably also vary over time depending on what is happening in their world when these histories are written. If the U.S. is suffering from one of its periodic bouts of ideological crusading, Obama’s Syria policy may be viewed very negatively indeed. If the U.S. gets bogged down in some multi-sided civil war at some point in the future, Obama may get some credit for not getting the U.S. more deeply ensnared in Syria while being criticized for contributing to the mayhem by arming the opposition. If the U.S. no longer interferes in the internal affairs of other states (as improbable as that seems), Obama’s Syria policy may be judged harshly because it was too meddlesome and destructive. The idea that Obama’s Syria policy didn’t go far enough may not survive over the long term, if for no other reason than there will be very few people that will want to keep clinging to it decades from now. Right now, it is a fashionable position that hawks in both parties can take to distinguish themselves from the current president, but it will probably be cast aside during the next debate over intervention somewhere else in five or ten years. If the U.S. has a much less interventionist foreign policy fifty years from now, there probably won’t be many people lamenting Obama’s “failure” to send a lot of Americans to die in Syria.

The odd thing about Miller’s assertion is that he doesn’t think Obama’s Syria policy should be judged as harshly as he assumes it will be:

Obama will be judged harshly for failing to accept the costs of not acting more boldly in Syria. But given the bad options he faced, the context and complexities of the Syrian civil war and the risk-aversions of his predecessors in the face of other humanitarian catastrophes, it’s far from certain that another president confronting similar circumstances would have acted much differently.

If future historians take “the context and complexities” into account (as we hope they would), it seems more likely that they will come down with a more balanced assessment of the policy and could end up judging it much less harshly than Miller supposes.

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Obama’s Rhetorical Excess and U.S. Foreign Policy

Damon Linker comes to a curious conclusion about Obama’s foreign policy:

In foreign policy, Obama has had a very different problem. Far from being too straightforwardly aggressive, the president has combined extreme rhetorical restraint (that has often made him sound weak or passive when discussing national threats, including terrorism) with over-extension.

I won’t argue with the second part of that statement, but the first part seems wrong. I wish it were true that Obama practiced “extreme rhetorical restraint,” but I don’t think the record supports that. One of Obama’s most annoying habits as president is that he has gone out of his way to make statements about foreign crises and conflicts that he can’t or won’t back up with actions to match. Indeed, one reason Obama has presided over so many meddling and interventionist policies is that he has often trapped himself by engaging in rhetorical overkill when he could and should have said as little as possible.

Obama declared that Assad “must go” back when he thought that Assad was on the way out anyway, and that declaration seemed to imply a commitment to remove him from power when Obama wasn’t prepared to do that. However, because Obama had made that statement, he was stuck gradually yielding to demands that he “do more” in Syria. Later, he issued the so-called “red line” warning that trapped him into proposing military action that he must have known would be useless, and he managed to get out of following through on the warning only because the British and American publics rebelled against a new intervention. Since then, Obama has blithely taken credit for having the courage to escape the trap that he set for himself. When he then followed the Washington “playbook” to the letter a year later and launched the war on ISIS, he engaged in more rhetorical overkill when he said that the goal of the war would be to “destroy” ISIS. Once again, the gap between Obama’s stated goal and the means he was willing to employ was very wide. I noted the same thing in the administration’s response to the conflict in Ukraine:

If there is one thing that links all recent administration foreign policy errors, it is the tendency to seem to promise more than it is realistically going to deliver.

One recurring theme in Obama’s foreign policy decisions since at least early 2011 is that he leaves a huge gap between his speeches and the policies he is actually prepared to carry out. We have also seen this in his handling of client states. He has chided clients for being “free riders” and criticized some of their behavior, but nonetheless provides them with unprecedented levels of support and gives them extensive diplomatic cover for the very behavior he was criticizing. This has managed to annoy the clients without holding them accountable for the behavior that Obama has rightly criticized, and it has made sure that the U.S. remains deeply complicit in their wrongdoing even as our officials lightly scold them.

The one time that Obama wisely kept silence in response to a major foreign upheaval was during the Green movement protests in Iran all the way back in 2009, and at the time he was absurdly faulted by most Western observers for not having “spoken out.” I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that Obama and his advisers took those criticisms far too seriously and decided that they would be sure to “speak out” the next time an opportunity presented itself. Ever since, Obama has rarely missed a chance to make ill-advised and unnecessary comments that have either created false expectations or trapped the U.S. into taking irresponsible actions.

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The Atrocious War on Yemen and Our Reckless Gulf Clients

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

Last week, the Post warned the incoming Trump administration about continued backing for the war on Yemen:

The Trump team that will inherit this mess arrives with seemingly conflicting impulses. Defense-secretary nominee James N. Mattis, a former chief of U.S. Central Command, is a firm supporter of the U.S. military alliance with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors, which Mr. Trump has been criticizing since the 1980s . The instinct to reverse the previous administration’s policies, combined with a willful disregard for human rights, might prompt the new administration to renew full support for the Saudi bombing. If so, it will be buying itself a place in a quagmire.

The U.S.-backed war on Yemen has been going on for almost twenty-two months, and in that time all that the Saudi-led coalition has achieved is to turn a poor country into one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes on earth by blockading it, wrecking its infrastructure, and devastating its economy. The coalition’s stated goals are no closer to being reached than they were when the original “Decisive Storm” operation began in 2015. Millions are starving to death or dying from preventable diseases in large part because of the Saudi intervention that the U.S. has enabled all along, and conditions are only going to get worse unless something changes dramatically and soon.

My only objection to the Post‘s editorial is the editors’ mistake of referring to the relationship with the Saudis and the other Gulf states as an “alliance.” Calling them allies implies that the connection with them makes the U.S. more secure and it suggests that we have formal obligations to defend them. The latter certainly isn’t true, and it is increasingly difficult to see how the U.S. is more secure because of the support we provide to them. They take that support as a license to sow instability in other countries and embark on pointless wars that they can’t win and wouldn’t be able to fight without U.S. assistance. Indulging their reckless intervention in Yemen doesn’t serve any American interests, and it doesn’t seem to be doing the Saudis and their allies much good, either. Like other security dependents around the world, the Gulf clients are happy to receive our protection and our arms sales, but they do practically nothing to contribute to regional security. As we can see from their senseless war on Yemen, they actively work to make the region less secure than it was before. We don’t have a real alliance with them, and our interests and theirs are diverging much more often and more sharply than before, and U.S. relations with them ought to be changed accordingly.

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Attacking North Korea Would Be a Disaster

Daniel DePetris explains why attacking North Korea would be extremely dangerous:

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in December, Graham revealed that he will be introducing an authorization for the use of military force to provide the president with the statutory approval to preemptively stop Pyongyang from finishing the development of its ICBM.

Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell should simply ignore it. And if the GOP brings it up for a floor debate, Senate Democrats should do everything in their power to prevent such a resolution from passing. A preemptive strike on North Korea would be an unmitigated disaster—a military action that is much more likely to escalate into a full-blown regional confrontation with a million-man North Korean army than force Kim to tremble in his basement.

There’s no question that attacking a North Korean missile launch would be a terrible idea for many of the same reasons that other proposed attacks on North Korea would be insane. It would potentially expose South Korea and U.S. forces to retaliatory strikes, and even if it “worked” as intended it would only convince their government that they should keep working on their missile projects. In the unlikely event that an attack on North Korea didn’t immediately lead to a resumption of hostilities on the peninsula, it would only encourage their government to intensify all of the efforts that we want them to give up. It would be the perfect example of a short-sighted, counterproductive, and irresponsible use of force, so naturally the perennial warmonger Lindsey Graham was the one to propose it.

I would add that it wouldn’t even be a “preemptive” attack. It wouldn’t be an attempt to forestall a North Korean attack on us, but would be and would be perceived as an aggressive act. It would contribute significantly to a souring of relations with China, and it would make Beijing much less interested in cooperating with our government in pressuring North Korea. Any benefit gained by setting back North Korea’s missile program for a short time would be heavily outweighed by the costs.

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Where Is the Opposition to Our Illegal and Unnecessary Wars?

Michael Brendan Dougherty wonders if more Democrats will start caring about our illegal and unnecessary wars once Trump takes office:

In less than two weeks, Trump will assume the office of the presidency. He will inherit from Obama a U.S. military engaged in conflicts across the Islamic world. Will Democrats who either cheered or ignored these patriotic exercises of American power suddenly find it in themselves to oppose these wars as racist, imperialist actions of an arrogant unilateral superpower gone rogue?

There will be stronger political incentives for Democrats to challenge Trump in matters of war than there were during Obama’s presidency, but there may be less dramatic change than Dougherty suggests. Apart from a few honorable exceptions in Congress and a few in the media, no one in Washington cares or even pretends to care about what the U.S. has been helping the Saudis do to Yemen, and that total indifference and/or pro-Saudi whitewashing will almost certainly continue in the coming year. Most Democrats aren’t going to want to call attention to the atrocious war that Obama enabled for almost two years, and most Republicans never even feigned concern when Obama was doing this and will do their best to ignore it once Trump is president. As Dougherty notes, there have been some critics of Obama’s shameful Yemen policy from the left, and I assume they will continue to condemn our disgraceful support for the pummeling and starving of Yemen, but most of our representatives and most of the public just ignore all of it.

What about our other wars? The war on ISIS is unauthorized, open-ended, and has produced limited results, but it remains broadly popular and has the backing of most people in both parties. Perhaps there will be a Tim Kaine-led push to get a proper debate and authorization vote, but Congress has had over two years to do this and hasn’t done anything so far. The war in Afghanistan has been all but forgotten by members of both parties, and there is no reason to expect a change there. Unless Trump commits the U.S. to a large-scale ground war or proposes to start a new war against yet another government, he probably won’t encounter much opposition in waging the wars he has inherited. That is Obama’s legacy: normalizing perpetual war while pretending to end wars, and launching wars without authorization so that there is no debate or serious scrutiny of the president’s wars.

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Mattis and Iran

This Post report on Gen. Mattis’ tenure as commander of Centcom makes for interesting reading, and it confirms earlier reports that he was extremely preoccupied with Iran:

His preparations for a possible conflict also rattled some U.S. diplomats whom Mattis invited to Central Command’s regional headquarters in Qatar in 2011 for briefings on how Iran might strike back at U.S. allies and facilities. Some of the diplomats had the impression that Mattis was describing a “World War III” scenario, one ambassador said.

Mattis’ record at Centcom would be less of a concern if he weren’t joining an administration that is already overflowing with vocal Iran hawks. The trouble is that other members of the administration, including the president’s top adviser, are similarly obsessed with Iran, and we can see from Trump’s remarks on Yemen over the past year that this obsession has distorted how he views conflicts in the region. We might hope that Mattis’ “Iran, Iran, Iran” focus was simply a product of his being at Centcom and doesn’t mean anything more than that, but there is reason to think that the preoccupation is a much older one dating back several decades.

Given Trump’s interest in intensifying the war on ISIS, the main concern is Mattis’ claim that Iran and ISIS are somehow in league with one another or at least that the two are not enemies when they plainly are. That would be worrying enough by itself, but it becomes more alarming when we remember that Michael Flynn has a habit of imagining Iranian connections to groups and events where no connections exist. If both Trump’s National Security Advisor and his Secretary of Defense are inclined to see an Iranian hand in events where there is none, that potentially makes conflict with Iran more likely and that conflict might happen because of faulty assumptions.

The Post article’s title said that Mattis would now serve as a “voice of caution” once he was confirmed as Secretary of Defense, but it didn’t include anything that would support that statement. I would like to believe that, but it’s not clear why we should assume it is true based on what we know so far. I hope we hear more from Mattis during his confirmation hearings about his view of Iran and its role in the region, since that will give us a better idea of what we can expect from him in the coming years.

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The Folly of Having ‘No Daylight’ with Clients

Michael Crowley reports on the close relations between Trump and Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer:

That cozy relationship reflects more than Dermer’s longtime admiration for Trump — it also illustrates what Dermer has predicted will be a policy of “no daylight” between the U.S. and Israel under Trump [bold mine-DL]. Gone will be Obama’s pressure on Israel to halt its settlement-building in Palestinian areas. Gone will be talk of a diplomatic thaw between Washington and Tehran. Trump has even threatened to tear up America’s commitment to the July 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, which Netanyahu strongly opposed.

A “no daylight” approach to any other state is always a mistake for both parties. No two states can ever have perfectly aligned interests, and no state should want to align itself so closely with another at the expense of its own interests. If there is “no daylight” between two governments, that can only come about when they pretend to have no disagreements, which isn’t sustainable given the inevitable divergence of interests that always occurs, or when one of the two abandons its own positions and reflexively adopts the other’s. When a government makes a point of keeping “no daylight” between itself and another, it imposes constraints on both that bring no advantage to either one. That is no way to handle relations between a major power patron and one of its clients, or indeed between any two states.

There are times in any relationship between two states when their interests will inevitably diverge and occasionally even clash, and it makes no sense to deny or conceal those disagreements. In this case, it does the patron no favors if it has to contradict or reverse its own policies to keep the client temporarily happy, and in the long term the client will be harmed through the excessive indulgence of the patron. There should be limits in any healthy relationship, and there ought to be costs for crossing those limits. If there aren’t any costs, one state will grow resentful and increasingly dissatisfied with the arrangement and the other will become entitled and reasonably assume that it can get away with anything indefinitely. The more one-sided and imbalanced the relationship becomes, the more likely it is that it will become toxic and destructive for both parties, and it is hard to see how that serves the interests of either one. If Dermer is right that Trump will have a “no daylight” approach to the relationship with Israel (and everything Trump has said and done so far suggests that he is), that is clearly bad news for U.S. interests, and in the longer term it is likely to be bad for Israel as well.

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God Is With Us!

Christ is born, glorify him! Christ is from heaven, go to meet Him! Christ is on earth, be ye lifted up! Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing out with gladness, all ye people. For He is glorified. ~First Ode of the Christmas Canon

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, hath shined upon the world the light of knowledge; for thereby, they that worshiped the stars were taught by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high. O Lord, glory be to Thee. ~Festal Troparion

The Virgin today gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One. Angels and shepherds glorify Him, and wise men journey with a star. For a young Child is born for us, Who is the eternal God. ~Nativity Kontakion

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
Christos razhdaetsya! Slavite!
Christos gennatai! Doxasate!


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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Ceaseless war puts Yemen on the brink of famine. The AP reports on how Yemen is being starved to death by the Saudi-led coalition.

Life and death in Yemen’s hospitals. The Washington Post reports on the collapsing health care system and famine conditions in Yemen.

The noble American tradition of minding our own business. Bill Kauffman praises the tradition of so-called “isolationism” that opposes killing foreigners and meddling in their affairs.

On loving another country. Andrew Bacevich reminds us of Washington’s advice to avoid passionate attachments to other countries.

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The House Passes a Foolish Resolution Against UNSCR 2334

According to a recent Politico survey, a little more than a third of Americans support UNSCR 2334, over a third have no opinion, and just 28% oppose it:

More Americans support last month’s United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements than those who oppose it, while a plurality of respondents hold no viewpoint on the matter, according to new polling.

The survey’s findings are worth remembering when we contrast them with the 342-80 House vote condemning the Security Council resolution (7 members did not vote). To their credit, Reps. Amash, Jones, and Duncan voted no. One might think from the House vote that there is broad majority support in the country for the hard-line position contained in the resolution of disapproval, but it reflects the views of just 28% of the country. Hard-line views on many other foreign policy issues are always over-represented in Congress and especially among Republicans in Congress, but this is a particularly striking example of how unrepresentative the House can be.

The text of H.Res. 11 contains some remarkably false and misleading claims. The resolution states that passage of UNSCR 2334 “undermined the long-standing position of the United States to oppose and veto United Nations Security Council resolutions that seek to impose solutions to final status issues,” but it did no such thing. The U.S. has allowed other resolutions with similar language to be passed, and this language was never understood as an attempt to impose these solutions. In fact, the Security Council resolution was specifically aimed at condemning those things that threaten to make a negotiated settlement impossible, including the continued building of illegal settlements in the occupied territories. It is not the U.N. that is trying to impose something here. It is stating its opposition to the settlement-building that is steadily eliminating the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. It is not credible to claim to be in favor of “a durable and sustainable peace agreement” while effectively siding with the political forces that adamantly oppose reaching an agreement.

The House also claims that passage of the U.N. resolution “contributes to the politically motivated acts of boycott, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel,” but this is exactly what it does not do. There may be increased international pressure on illegal settlements outside of Israel, but that assumes that Israel and the settlements will be and should be treated differently. The more that “pro-Israel” hawks try to blur the line between Israel and the settlements, the worse it will be for Israel’s international standing. If members of the House don’t want Israel to face deeper international isolation, they should be discouraging the behavior that contributes to it rather than chiding the U.N. for restating the obvious that these settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace.

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Trump’s Yemen Babble Revisited

Trump made some remarks on Yemen, Iran, and Saudi Arabia last year that make for depressing reading. First, he says this:

Trump began by saying, [relevant remarks begin around 5:00] “I will say this about Iran, they’re looking to go into Saudi Arabia. they want the oil. They want the money. They want a lot of other things having to do. They took over Yemen. You look at that border with Yemen, between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. That is one big border, and they’re looking to do a number in Yemen, and I think they want it to go. That’s phase one, to go into Saudi Arabia, and, frankly, the Saudis don’t survive without us. And the question is, at what point do we get involved, and how much will Saudi Arabia pay us to save them? Because that’s ultimately what’s going to happen. We made a true — we made a power power out of Iran. We made a power out of Iran with the deal.”

This is a thoroughly misinformed and foolish series of statements. Iran didn’t take over Yemen, and it isn’t trying to take it over. The Houthis don’t work for Iran, and they ignored Iran’s advice when they decided to seize Sanaa. The idea that “they took over Yemen” is the lie that the Saudis and their allies have been peddling for almost two years to justify their atrocious war. He said much the same thing about the war in other remarks later in the year. It’s embarrassing that the incoming president is so poorly informed about this, but I wouldn’t expect anything better from someone taking advice from the likes of Flynn. Practically nothing Trump said in that quote is accurate, and it shows how much the obsession with Iran distorts his view of the entire region.

Trump goes on to declare his willingness to defend the Saudis:

Trump was then asked if he would “take military action against Iran?” “Well, I would want to help Saudi Arabia. I would want to protect Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia is going to have to help us economically. They were making, before the oil went down, now they’re making half, but they were making a billion dollars a day.” He added that such action against Iran would depend “on what the deal is, I would have to do that. I would defend certain groups of people over there.”

Obviously nothing says “America First” like going to war to defend the Saudis and “certain groups of people over there.” Trump appears to have no problem with having Americans fighting other nations’ wars so long as the U.S. is compensated to his satisfaction.

Update: I mistakenly took these Trump remarks from a year ago to be a new statement from this year. I have corrected the post, and I apologize for the error.

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The Cult of U.S. ‘Leadership’

John Glaser explains why it is misguided to worry about the lack of a U.S. role in the latest round of Syria negotiations:

Much of the handwringing in Washington over Russia’s leadership in the negotiations centers on a fear that America might be demoted in its status as the indispensable nation if a geopolitical competitor like Russia successfully negotiates a resolution to one of the world’s worst conflicts while the U.S. sits it out. This concern is misplaced for at least two reasons. First, status and prestige are overrated assets in international politics. They can play an important role at certain times, but they pale in comparison to more material security and economic interests. Rooting against the success of peace talks just because we don’t want Russia to regain a modicum of the great power status it once had betrays a rather unbecoming lack of self-esteem that is wholly unfair to the millions of Syrians that would benefit from even a brief hiatus in daily violence and besiegement.

Secondly, one wonders what benefits the U.S. has derived from all its leadership (such as it is) in the greater Middle East.

One might also wonder how any other countries have benefited from that same “leadership” in this part of the world. Thanks in no small part to U.S. “leadership,” Iraq was turned into a charnel house, Libya and some of its neighbors were destabilized, and Yemen is being starved to death by the Saudis and their allies with our support. What would lead us to think that the U.S. has the first clue how to help resolve a conflict in the region when we have had such an important role in starting or escalating others? Over at least the last fifteen years, the U.S. has contributed significantly to making the places it is supposedly “helping” more violent and chaotic than they were before they enjoyed the benefits of our “leadership.” I don’t have any confidence that other outside powers will do any better, but after more than a decade of one costly failure after another how can anyone still imagine that relying on U.S. “leadership” is the right answer for them or for us?

The trouble is that many people in Washington aren’t interested in judging U.S. “leadership” by its results, but prefer to judge it by their intentions. Because they are ideologically committed to thinking that it is a good and necessary thing that is essential to maintaining international order, there is enormous resistance to acknowledging the evidence that it often undermines international law and harms the countries where it is most forcefully applied. The Washington consensus that Syria’s civil war has dragged on primarily because of a lack of sufficient U.S. “leadership” is a reflection of this. Obama is faulted for “allowing” that war to continue on the very questionable assumption that he could have easily halted it, but if that’s not true (and I don’t think it is) that means that more “leadership” wouldn’t have changed anything for the better and might very well have made matters worse. Of course, the first rule of believing in U.S. “leadership” is to believe that it never makes things worse, and so it becomes the ready-made answer to every new problem. Once you understand that this isn’t true, it is much easier to accept that there are sometimes international problems that the U.S. can’t solve and shouldn’t try to fix.

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