Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Allies against empire. Richard Drake recounts the careers and foreign policy views of Robert La Follette and Albert Jay Nock in the current issue of TAC.

The march of the imperial senators. Kelley Vlahos reports on the Iraq war revisionism of John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

Clinton and the disastrous Libyan war. Joel Gillin reviews Hillary Clinton’s role in involving the U.S. in Libya and her major mistakes during the intervention.

How will Iran use its unfrozen assets? Bijan Khaajepour discusses how Iran might use the assets it will be able to access following a nuclear deal.

A missed nonproliferation opportunity. Paul Pillar laments the NPT conference’s failure to address Israel’s nuclear arsenal in the context of discussing a Middle East nuclear-weapons free zone.

What is the purpose of the Saudi war on Yemen? Gabriele vom Bruck identifies other reasons besides paranoia about Iranian influence why the Saudis are attacking the Houthis.

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Corker and the Absurd AUMF Debate

Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Greg Sargent flags this quote from Bob Corker about a resolution specifically authorizing the war on ISIS:

Whether Congress passes an AUMF or does not pass an AUMF, it’s not going to affect an iota of activities on the ground.

Whether he meant to or not, Corker has succinctly summed up why the entire debate over a new AUMF has been so absurd. If Congress authorizes the war, the war will continue, and if it doesn’t vote on an authorization the war will continue. All indications are that if Congress voted explicitly against authorizing the war, the war would also continue. In that sense, Corker is absolutely right that it will have no effect. Corker is drawing attention to the reality that the U.S. will keep waging the war on the president’s orders no matter what Congress does regarding a new authorization resolution. Most hawks think this is just fine, which is why they feel no need to make an issue out of this, and they happen to be the ones in charge of both chambers.

Unless they are prepared to vote against the war and cut off funding for the war (and they aren’t), Congress has for all practical purposes been left with the choice between formally endorsing Obama’s war and letting it continue without comment. Corker is admitting that the president will not be bound in practice by any limitations contained in a new resolution, which is clearly true, and so he sees no point in going through the motions of crafting and passing one that the administration will ignore or distort beyond recognition whenever it wishes. Under the circumstances, it probably is better that there isn’t a specific authorization for this war, since that will deprive it of the veneer of legitimacy that will help to keep it going longer. As it is, the U.S. should be looking for a way to get out of the war instead of worrying about getting Congress to rubber stamp another unnecessary intervention.

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Public Opinion on Syria and the War on ISIS

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A new YouGov survey finds that most Americans continue to support air strikes on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but most do not favor sending American ground troops into combat against them:


The partisan gap on the second question is predictably large. Almost half (48%) of Republicans support sending grounds troops against ISIS, while just a quarter of Democrats support the same. Air strikes are popular across party lines despite the fact that they are obviously not sufficient to prevent ISIS from making additional gains. Despite what some hawks claim, the public is not clamoring for sending Americans into a new ground war. There continues to be substantial opposition to escalating U.S. involvement in the war.

Oddly, there is now more support for arming “moderate” rebels to fight against ISIS than there was last year. This is the first I have seen more support for this option than opposition to it. It is odd in that it comes at a time when the so-called “moderate” opposition in Syria has ceased to exist (if it ever existed at all):

The question is somewhat misleading. It pretends that there were ever “moderate groups” to be armed, and it creates the impression that “moderate groups” in Syria would be using these weapons to fight ISIS rather than regime forces. If respondents were asked, “Should the U.S. provide rebels with arms that will shortly end up in the hands of jihadist groups?” I suspect that the result would look very different.

There were two more interesting results that were not mentioned in the write-up. One was the response to a question about which side in the Syrian civil war the U.S. should take. 11% said the U.S. should back the government, and 14% favored anti-regime rebels. 43% wanted the U.S. to take neither side. There is vanishingly little public support for Syrian rebels overall, and this holds true regardless of party, region, income, or education. Very few Americans share the Syria hawks’ enthusiasm for that cause. Accordingly, a similar percentage believes that the U.S. should never have become involved in the Syrian conflict (44%) while just 24% agree that the U.S. should have become more deeply involved sooner.  The default Republican hawkish position among presidential candidates has the backing of less than a third of Republicans (32%).

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The Revisionism of Iraq War Dead-Enders

Kelley Vlahos reminds us that the U.S. would have faced an insurgency from Shi’ite militias if a residual force had remained in Iraq beyond 2011:

The war hawks argue that if Obama had renegotiated the SOFA (basically forced a longer occupation), the U.S. would have helped the Iraqis repel growing al-Qaeda elements before they morphed into the Islamic State. This completely ignores the fact that it was our friend Maliki’s suppressive and discriminatory treatment of the Sunnis that empowered the extremist elements. It also ignores the very real possibility that al-Sadr’s Shia army, which had been standing down per agreements, may have re-emerged to fight the Americans themselves, along with the Iranian-backed militias that are now fighting ISIS in places like Ramadi.

“Sadr said he would put his army back on the streets if we were to stay,” Hoh said. Furthermore, “even if we put troops back there, the Islamic State and the Sunni were going to fight against the Shia-dominated military anyway. So we would have our troops in the middle of a civil war.”

In other words, Iraq war dead-enders were arguing and continue to argue for a policy that would have left a fairly small number of American soldiers in a country where they weren’t wanted and where they would be attacked regularly. If the hawks had had their way, American soldiers would have continued fighting and dying in an occupation of Iraq that made neither Iraq nor the U.S. more secure. But then the point is that the hawks couldn’t have had their way without the cooperation of the Iraqi government, which was never going to be forthcoming. As with many other hawkish criticisms, the entire dead-ender argument about U.S. withdrawal and the later rise of ISIS relies on a fallacy. If ISIS made gains in Iraq after U.S. withdrawal, the hawks assert that it must have been because of U.S. withdrawal, and furthermore they take for granted that these gains could not have happened in the absence of that withdrawal. Hawks often attribute near-magical powers to the military and military action, and this is another example of that.

The heart of Iraq war revisionism is the belief of war supporters that the U.S. occupation was good for Iraqi security because they take for granted a U.S. presence anywhere is beneficial, and therefore the occupation should have been continued in order to keep Iraq secure. This is bound up with their mythology that the war was a “liberation” rather than an unmitigated disaster for Iraqis, and it is tied to their delusion that the “war was won” in 2008. The reality is that the U.S. military presence was destabilizing and harmful from the beginning, and it could not have been otherwise because the U.S. was the invader. Continuing that presence would only have continued to serve as a magnet for jihadists and a target for other insurgents, and that would have meant that even more Iraqis would have been caught up in bombings and sectarian violence.

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Why the U.S. Should End Its War in Iraq and Syria

The Post demands that the U.S. must “do more” in an unnecessary war:

Rather than blame Iraqi troops, Mr. Obama should bolster them with more U.S. advisers, including forward air controllers, and more air support. He should insist that Mr. Abadi open a weapons pipeline to Sunni and Kurdish units. Perhaps most important, Mr. Obama should make his priority eliminating the Islamic State — as opposed to limiting U.S. engagement in Iraq.

Obama could do all these things, but there is every reason to assume that the Iraqi government’s forces cannot be “bolstered” enough to retake lost territory or even defend the territory it still controls. If the Iraqi army is failing to put up much resistance, it is doubtful that more U.S. support will make much of a difference. Last week, Steven Metz noted the similarities between this and another ill-fated effort to support an ineffective military in its war effort:

There are also similarities between the military situations in Vietnam and Iraq. In Vietnam, the United States found that even massive amounts of equipment, training, advice and air support could not fix a politicized, poorly led, unmotivated military. And today’s Iraqi military is significantly worse than South Vietnam’s ever was. It has proved consistently inept, except when operating directly with Iranian-backed Shiite militias. During the recent battle for the city of Ramadi, even the elite Golden Brigade, widely considered Iraq’s premier special forces unit, abandoned its positions.

Despite this, the Obama administration’s critics continue to assert that more American trainers and supplies will turn the tide and allow the Iraqi security forces to push IS back. U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, for instance, has called for 10,000 U.S. troops to train the Iraqi forces faster. Certainly it is true that militaries can become dramatically more effective even while fighting insurgents. That is what happened in El Salvador in the 1980s and, more recently, in Colombia. But in both cases, the impetus for improvement came from within those countries’ armed forces, not from American advisers or trainers. All signs are that in this respect, today’s Iraqi military is more like South Vietnam’s than El Salvador’s or Colombia’s. Americans cannot change that [bold mine-DL].

If the U.S. can’t change this, it doesn’t make sense to sink more resources into Iraq and increase its commitment to a war it should never have joined when there is little chance that this will lead to a different result. Should the administration agree to what the Post wants and Iraqi forces are still unable or unwilling to resist ISIS’ advances, there will inevitably be another round of demands that the U.S. “do more” yet again. Sooner or later, this will require the U.S. to escalate its involvement in the war or to admit that it cannot achieve its goals at an acceptable cost. The administration boxed itself in by insisting that “destroying” ISIS was the goal of the campaign, and now it is stuck with gradually increasing the U.S. role in a war that the U.S. could easily have avoided or backing down from its past public statements.

The failures of the war on ISIS to date should force us to have the debate over whether U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Syria makes sense and serves American interests. We skipped that debate nine months ago, and the absurd “debate” over a new AUMF for this war was never likely to remedy this oversight. Before plunging deeper into a conflict that the U.S. doesn’t need to fight, it is time to ask how doing so will make the U.S. more secure at an acceptable cost. If deeper involvement won’t do that, the U.S. should start making its way towards the exits and should not allow itself to be sucked back in.

Paul Pillar recently observed:

The fight against ISIS is, in multiple respects, not America’s fight. The United States is not the principal original target of the group, and certainly not in the way that it served as the “far enemy” that Al-Qaeda wanted to attack as part of its strategy for getting at the near enemy. The fight is not one the United States can win; winning ultimately will depend on local will of the sort that, as the U.S. secretary of defense observed in his recent awkward but truthful comment, was lacking in the recent combat at Ramadi.

If the U.S. can’t win the war without competent and effective local partners, and if those partners are clearly lacking in both respects, the U.S. absolutely shouldn’t be trying to do more on their behalf. Instead, the U.S. should be finding a way to disentangle itself from a conflict in which it should never have been involved.

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The Disastrous Libyan War

I agree with Joel Gillin that the Libyan war should be a huge liability for Hillary Clinton. Clinton was responsible to a large degree for the policy that the administration pursued in Libya. Clinton owns the policy in Libya more than anything else from Obama’s foreign policy record in the first term, and if there were any real accountability in our foreign policy debates her role in pushing for the intervention would be thoroughly discrediting. Of course, we know that isn’t going to happen. Gillin alludes to the reason why it won’t near the end:

Indeed, many establishment politicians are unable to offer sincere criticisms of her on Libya: The liberal interventionists of the Obama administration backed the war, as did Republican hawks.

The only criticisms that other Libyan war supporters do make is that the U.S. didn’t get deeply involved enough in Libya. They can’t fault Clinton and Obama for pursuing regime change because they favored the same thing from the beginning, and they can’t challenge the justification for the intervention because they accepted it without question. Clinton’s partisan supporters won’t want to relitigate the Libyan war because it makes their “side” look incompetent on foreign policy, and Republican hawks will frame the failures of the Libyan war as a product of “leading from behind” rather than what it is really is: another disastrous result of reckless interventionism.

Gillin’s article was interesting to me because it recapitulated many of the criticisms of the Libyan war that I and other opponents made at the time, but there is strangely no reference to what the war’s critics said in 2011. Here’s a brief review of some of it. This is far from being exhaustive. We suspected that the justification for the intervention was exaggerated or simply false. We argued that the motivation for it was likely ideological.  We observed that support for the war was based in a misguided belief that the U.S. could get on the “right” side of the “Arab Spring” and that the U.S. would then enjoy a “new beginning” with people across the region. We noticed right away that the administration exceeded the authority provided by the U.N. resolution, and we understood that it was seeking regime change from the start despite Obama’s claims that this was not the goal. We pointed out that the war actually violated the requirements of the “doctrine” that it was supposed to be vindicating. We pointed out that interventionists were staking the reputation of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine on the outcome of the Libyan war, and helped to discredit the doctrine they were using to justify intervention. We noted that attempts by the African Union and others to mediate the conflict were brushed aside and ignored by the intervening governments.

Opponents of the Libyan war were right about almost everything from the start, but that is usually never acknowledged. That’s annoying, but that doesn’t matter. The larger problem is that it creates the impression that critics of the Libyan war have only recently discovered that there was something wrong with the decision to intervene there, when in fact we immediately saw through the weak and nonsensical arguments for the war when they were first being made.  The war’s supporters largely escape blame for being so horribly wrong about the intervention, and the war’s opponents are typically never credited with having warned against the disastrous blunder before it happened.

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Cruz’s Foreign Policy Opportunism

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Dana Milbank calls out Cruz for foreign policy hypocrisy:

“A critical reason for [Vladimir] Putin’s aggression has been President Obama’s weakness,” the Texas Republican said in a typical appearance, on ABC News last year. “You’d better believe that Putin sees that in Syria,” he added. “Obama draws a red line and ignores the red line.”

This takes quite a lot of chutzpah, even by Cruz standards. It’s true that Obama didn’t enforce his red line in Syria — in large part because Cruz rallied opposition to bombing Syria.

Milbank dubs Cruz a charlatan, and he’ll get no argument from me on that score. Cruz happened to end up on the right side of the Syria debate by opposing the strikes that Obama proposed, but as his later maneuvering shows this was just the result of needing to be on the opposite side of an issue from the president. Cruz gives us every reason to assume that he would be in favor of an intervention just because Obama was against it, and vice versa. During the summer of 2013, Cruz briefly staked out a highly aggressive position on Syria when it seemed that Obama was not inclined to intervene. He proposed an outlandish, extremely dangerous plan for seizing Syria’s chemical weapons by means of a ground invasion. He said this at the time:

We need to be developing a clear, practical plan to go in, locate the weapons, secure or destroy them, and then get out. The United States should be firmly in the lead to make sure the job is done right.

Since the Pentagon had estimated that doing this would have required up to 75,000 troops, this meant that Cruz was arguing for an option that not even most blinkered of knee-jerk interventionists was prepared to support. A couple months later when the Syria debate was in full swing, Cruz changed his tune and suddenly discovered that military intervention in Syria wasn’t such a good idea after all. No doubt he could read the polls as well as anyone and realized that the public was overwhelmingly against a war in Syria. Like any good demagogue, Cruz played to the crowd, but he did so with his usual bombast and overkill. I think the more important point to be made about the senator’s handling of these issues is that Cruz plays the demagogue no matter which position he happens to take at any given moment. If the U.S. is about to attack another country, he will describe it in the most alarmist way possible (acting as “Al Qaeda’s air force”), and if the U.S. chooses not to attack he will vilify the decision as inexcusable weakness. Cruz is unscrupulous about this as he is in many other things, which is just one of the many reasons why we can be glad that his presidential campaign is going nowhere.

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A Quarter-Century of Interventions

Philip Bump calculated how many years the U.S. has been at war over the last seventy years. It’s an interesting study, but it actually understates how often the U.S. has used force overseas. Some of this has to do with Bump’s rather arbitrary definition of what it means for the U.S. to be at war:

Using somewhat subjective definitions of “at war” — Korea counts but Kosovo doesn’t in our analysis, for example — we endeavored to figure out how much of each person’s life has been spent with America at war.

According to Bump’s chart, the U.S. has been at war for 43.2% of my lifetime (I was born in 1979). That is a large percentage, but it is too low. It counts the years between 1991 and 2001 as a time when the U.S wasn’t at war. As anyone familiar with U.S. foreign policy during that decade knows, that isn’t really true.

If we include all U.S. military interventions, we find that the U.S. has bombed and/or invaded at least one other country at least once every year for the past twenty-one years straight. There has been an almost uninterrupted string of foreign interventions dating back to the invasion of Panama in 1989. The U.S. bombed Iraq on a regular basis between 1991 and 2003 in the name of patrolling the “no-fly” zones. There were also sporadic missile strikes during the Clinton years in Iraq and the strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998. The U.S. embarked on an ill-fated “nation-building” exercise in Somalia that ultimately claimed eighteen American lives, invaded Haiti to reimpose a deposed president, and bombed Serbs in the Bosnian and Kosovo interventions. The Gulf War is counted as “time spent in war” in this analysis, and for some reason Kosovo is not despite the fact that the U.S. was engaged in hostilities against Yugoslavia for a longer period in 1999 than it was in Iraq in 1991.

Some of these interventions may not fully qualify as wars (though Kosovo should by any reasonable definition), but they were all instances where the U.S. used force or the threat of force to try to dictate political outcomes in other countries. I happen to think almost all these interventions were wrong and not in the American interest, but it doesn’t matter whether one approves or disapproves of them. It is important to remember that they took place and that the U.S. was not at peace for the entire decade between the Gulf War and 9/11. By my reckoning, the U.S. has taken some kind of military action at least once a year for approximately two-thirds of my lifetime. The last fourteen years have been the period that included the most costly and intense U.S. interventions abroad, but the dozen years before that were also marked by the frequent use of force. The U.S. has been using force for various reasons on a regular basis over the last twenty-six years, and it has done so frequently in many places around the world. The generations that came of age after the end of the Cold War have spent the vast majority of their lives watching their government bombing or invading various parts of the globe. We have to some extent come to expect the near-constant interventionism, but we have also grown increasingly sick of it because we have been seeing it for so much of our lives.

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Jindal’s Mindless “Moral Clarity”

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Bobby Jindal likes to say that Republicans shouldn’t be the “stupid party,” but his response to Rand Paul’s remarks on ISIS suggests that he doesn’t believe it:

American weakness, not American strength, emboldens our enemies. Senator Paul’s illogical argument clouds a situation that should provide pure moral clarity.

Paul easily has the better of the argument here, and he could have gone further in tracing the origins of ISIS to the invasion of Iraq and the chaos created by regime change. Jeb Bush’s fantasies aside, the group that we now know as ISIS or the Islamic State sprang from the Iraq war. The flourishing of jihadist groups such as ISIS is one of that war’s most baleful consequences, and it would not have happened if there had been no invasion. Furthermore, ISIS did benefit from the weapons that the U.S. provided to the Iraqi army, since the army melted away and left those weapons to be seized by the terrorist group. It has also acquired some of the weapons that the U.S. has provided to “moderate” rebel groups in Syria, which is just what critics of proposals to “arm the rebels” warned might happen. Jihadists that declared support for ISIS have made gains in Libya thanks in part to the 2011 U.S.-led intervention supported by most Republican hawks. Jindal has nothing to say about any of these claims because he can’t refute them, and so he is reduced to flinging insults and rehearsing tired propaganda lines. Jindal thinks he has proved that Paul has shown himself unfit for the presidency, but he has just reminded us once again why Jindal’s judgment on foreign policy shouldn’t be trusted.

The weakness of Jindal’s position is reflected in his robotic recitation of ideological slogans. Interventionist policies routinely have negative and destructive consequences, and asserting the virtue of “American strength” doesn’t change that. If Jindal were interested in moral reflection here, he would grapple with the dangerous effects caused by unnecessary wars and the grave costs that those wars have for both the U.S. and the other countries affected by them. Hawks believe these wars to be expressions of “moral clarity,” but this just reminds us that “moral clarity” is often code for justifying whatever aggressive policies the U.S. happens to pursue while refusing to take responsibility for the consequences of those policies.

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The Worsening War on Yemen


The war on Yemen continues to get worse:

Saudi-led air strikes killed at least 80 people near Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia and in the capital Sanaa on Wednesday, residents said, the deadliest day of bombing in over two months of war in Yemen.

Despite nine weeks of bombing, the Saudis are no closer to achieving any of their stated goals than they were when they began their campaign. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Saudi-led air campaign targeting Shiite Muslim rebels in Yemen is entering its third month with little substantive military progress to show for relentless bombardment that has killed at least 1,800 people, ravaged an already impoverished country’s infrastructure and triggered a far-reaching humanitarian disaster.

The war’s ostensible objectives were never likely to be achieved. Restoring Hadi was never going to happen once he was seen as a cheerleader for the campaign that is destroying his country. That has not stopped the Saudis from persisting in their senseless and indefensible campaign. The death toll continues to climb from continued Saudi attacks, and as the article goes on to explain it may be much higher than the current official estimates:

Because so many areas are cut off by fighting, an accurate death toll has been difficult to compile. However, residents believe the figure is far higher than the more than 1,800 estimated by international organizations [bold mine-DL]. At least 135 of those fatalities were children, the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, said this week.

As harmful as the bombings have been, the effects of the blockade on the entire country will be worse over the longer term. The Red Cross has warned of the danger to the civilian population from the shortages created by the Saudi-led blockade:

Only 5-10 percent of usual imports has entered Yemen over the past two months of the conflict, which has killed more than 2,000 people, he said. Food prices have soared.

“If there is no fuel there will be no water very soon, and if this is the case we have thousands of people, if not millions, at risk because there is no access to water,” Schweizer said.

As the L.A. Times report notes, the lack of access to clean water endangers the civilian population in another way:

The British aid agency Oxfam said Tuesday that at least 16 million Yemenis — nearly two-thirds of the population — now lack access to clean water and sanitation, setting the stage for a potentially catastrophic outbreak of disease [bold mine-DL].

There is real danger of massive loss of life in Yemen, and if it happens it will have been caused almost entirely by the Saudi-led intervention. The U.S. continues to back this disgraceful war and is partly responsible for its effects. Obama has made serious mistakes in foreign policy before, but supporting the Saudis’ intervention in Yemen has been the most shameful and most easily avoidable error that he has made.

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Hawks and Bad Historical Analogies

Michael Cohen is right to warn against false historical analogies, but this claim is much harder to support:

It’s a problem that exists across the political spectrum—both for hawks, who view any willingness to utilize diplomacy or deal with nefarious regimes as another Munich and any reluctance to use military force as a concession to tyrants; and for doves, for whom every military intervention is Iraq War II and every alleged government cover-up is the Pentagon Papers redux.

Perhaps Cohen doesn’t want his argument to seem overly one-sided, but there is simply no comparison between the two sides here. When it comes to abusing history and citing misleading and false analogies as a substitute for policy argument, hawks are almost always the offenders, and they are very frequent offenders. Hawks also tend to cite the same few analogies over and over regardless of circumstances, so that every crisis is likened to Munich and every attempt at diplomatic engagement is dubbed appeasement. When hawks make these comparisons, they usually aren’t even attempting to apply a lesson from the past, but are simply dredging up the same examples for the purpose of vilifying their opponents and frightening the public into supporting more aggressive policies.

For their part, doves typically don’t do this. Some opponents of the “limited” strikes on Syria in 2013 were skeptical of the government’s claims about a chemical weapons attack, because they remembered that a previous administration had misled the public and grossly exaggerated a foreign threat to justify military action just a decade earlier. Insofar as the memory of the Iraq war informed opposition to attacking Syria, it was because the previous experience had some relevance. The concern in 2013 was not that attacking Syria would be “Iraq War II,” but that it would drag the U.S. deeper into Syria’s civil war and that attacks on the government would benefit jihadist groups. It would have been a bad intervention, but for reasons specific to that conflict. Most opponents of that intervention didn’t dispute that the attack had happened, but they did object to the proposed response of starting an illegal war. Opposition to intervention in Syria was mostly focused on the flaws and risks of that particular proposed intervention. Opponents of the Libyan war similarly focused their objections on the decision to take sides in a foreign civil war where the U.S. had nothing at stake, and others objected to the president’s decision to start a war without Congressional approval. There were some references to the Iraq war during these debates, but more of them came from the interventionist side as they kept repeating that the war they wanted to start wouldn’t like Iraq. Of course, the Libyan intervention didn’t need to be as disastrous as the Iraq war to be a disaster in its own right, which is what it proved to be.

We absolutely should be wary of arguments that rely heavily on historical analogies, especially when they are used to avoid debating the details of the issue at hand. But there’s no question that advocates of hawkish and aggressive policies are almost always the ones that make these arguments. Doves may have blind spots of their own, but this usually isn’t one of them.

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Four More Pointless Campaigns Are About to Begin

Four more Republican presidential candidates are preparing to make their formal announcements in the next week:

The field won’t likely reach capacity until July. Potential candidates standing at the edge of the pool will have to decide whether to actually jump in by the end of that month, as the first Republican debate takes place Aug. 6.

The four candidates announcing their campaigns over the next two weeks are at risk of not qualifying for the first GOP debate, sponsored by Fox News.

None of these four candidates has a realistic chance at becoming the nominee. None of them really has much of a chance of seriously competing in most states. Of the four, Pataki is the most quixotic and bizarre of the bunch, since he has been out of office for a decade and a half, he has no constituency in the party, his record is not particularly noteworthy, and he would face enormous resistance from conservatives on a range of issues if he gained the slightest amount of traction. He would be the Republicans’ answer to Lincoln Chafee, except that Chafee is a more credible candidate for the Democratic nomination than Pataki is for the Republican one. Graham similarly has no chance, but that isn’t why he’s running. He wants to use a presidential campaign to promote his bankrupt foreign policy views. As I’ve mentioned before, these are already well-represented by other declared candidates, which makes the reason for Graham’s campaign even harder to understand. Graham could end up being a spoiler in South Carolina, where he will probably receive some “favorite son” backing, but other than that his impact on the race should be minimal.

Santorum and Perry would seem to be the more serious of the four, but they are just as unlikely to be competitive as the others. Perry flopped so spectacularly in 2011 that there is almost certainly no way for him to regain the support he briefly had four years ago, and there were always good reasons to expect that Perry was overrated even before his disastrous debate performances. Considering his past record, Perry might be the only to benefit from being cut out of the primary debates. A 2016 Santorum has never made sense, and it is a mark of how stubbornly persistent Santorum is that he is pressing ahead with a campaign that even he must know will amount to very little. Technically, Santorum is the 2012 “runner-up” and under very different circumstances he might be considered a real contender for the nomination, but his 2012 success was by and large a fluke and a product of Romney’s unpopularity. Take Romney away, and there is virtually no support for Santorum left.

The effect of these minor candidacies will be to bleed off support from the others at the margins, and that will probably come mostly at Bush and Rubio’s expense. Other than that, they aren’t going to amount to very much.

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The GOP’s Debate Conundrum (II)

The requirements for the Republican primary debates are creating problems for some of the new and has-been candidates:

New rules that limit the number of contenders on stage during the first Republican presidential debates are likely to alter the campaign calculations for many of the GOP candidates, forcing them to try to build national name recognition months earlier than planned.

Some of the candidates likely to be excluded from the first debates are new and really are lacking in name recognition, and keeping them out of the debates does make it even less likely that they will have any impact on the race. This is to some degree arbitrary and “unfair,” but it’s also true that the first-time candidates that won’t make the cut add little or nothing to the debate that won’t already be there. Fiorina is a somewhat unconventional candidate, but her views are utterly conventional. Given the large number of hawkish candidates that are sure to be running, Graham’s presence is the race is at best redundant. The party doesn’t miss out on anything if they aren’t included. Moreover, there is no faction that will be shut out of the debates if they are not permitted to participate. There will be more than enough Clinton-bashing and hard-line foreign policy nonsense as it is. There has be a line drawn somewhere, and obviously hopeless ego-driven candidacies should be the first to go. The field might eventually swell to almost 20 declared candidates before it’s all over, and there’s simply no way to accommodate them all without turning the entire process into an even bigger circus than it already is.

There are also several also-ran candidates from previous cycles that are lagging in the polls because they simply have no support. Santorum is hardly unknown to Republican primary voters this time around. Nonetheless, he is the preferred candidate of almost no one. This drives home that his status as the “runner-up” in 2012 had almost nothing to do with his merits as a candidate. Santorum’s 2012 success reflected the extent to which many primary voters didn’t want Romney as their nominee, and because of that there is almost no residual support for Santorum from his previous campaign. Perry is likewise nationally very well-known, but he still gets almost no support. His problem is that he is most familiar to voters because of his bungled debate appearances in 2011. Perry had his chance four years ago and blew it, and there doesn’t appear to be much interest in giving him another one.

Kasich is in a slightly different position. 2016 would be the second time he has run for president, but it would be the first time that he has run as a conceivably plausible nominee. He has been a fixture in national Republican politics for twenty years, but he is also fairly obscure when compared to many of his contemporaries from the class of 1994. He probably has the best claim of any of the laggards to being included in the debate, but he has also been one of the least active of the would-be 2016 candidates. A Kasich candidacy is one of those that makes sense “on paper” but would most likely come to nothing in practice. The party probably would be worse off if Kasich weren’t included, but I’m not sure how much it would matter to the eventual outcome either way.

The GOP has this debate problem in part because it encourages activists and voters to believe that the party is overflowing with potential presidents. Republicans don’t have so many likely candidates this year because they have so many more people genuinely qualified to be president, but rather because they flatter most halfway famous politicians and movement favorites by pretending that any of them could and should be president. This creates a glut of candidates in an open election year that could have been avoided if unqualified and no-hope candidates were discouraged from running in the first place.

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Misrepresenting the War on Yemen

Noah Rothman makes a nonsensical claim:

Perhaps the most glaring example of the undue deference Washington yielded to irresponsible actors like Iran is how the United States turned a blind eye toward Tehran while it sparked a bloody regional proxy war in Yemen.

The U.S. couldn’t have “turned a blind eye toward Tehran” in this case, since Iranian involvement in Yemen is “trivial” by all informed accounts. Iran didn’t spark a “bloody regional proxy war.” This treats the Houthis as Iranian proxies, but they aren’t any such thing. It assumes that the conflict in Yemen was started by Iranian interference, but the causes of the conflict were local in origin. Misreading Yemen’s internal conflict as a proxy war instigated by Iran is about as wrong as one can go. It’s true that the Saudis and other governments in the region have chosen to misrepresent the conflict in this way, and they have chosen to exaggerate the extent of Iran’s support and its role in the conflict to justify their own appalling war on Yemen, but that just underscores how inaccurate and misleading this claim is.

Rothman cites a report from January on the administration’s “informal” contacts with the Houthis after they had taken Sanaa. As the article makes clear, the point of establishing these contacts was to retain Yemeni support for U.S. strikes on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). That was the extent of the “shift” that the article mentioned. At that time, the U.S. was focused on continuing to target AQAP, and to do that there needed to be some coordination with the Houthis, who were in control of the capital and likewise hostile to AQAP. The administration evidently decided in late March that it was more important to “reassure” the Saudis and the other Gulf states by backing the reckless Saudi-led war, and it has done this despite the fact that the war has benefited AQAP and allowed the group to gain ground and to acquire new weapons. Whatever limited significance the contacts with the Houthis had, they obviously didn’t last long and amounted to nothing. Far from “refusing to address Iranian provocations,” the administration endorsed the Saudis’ paranoid fantasy about growing Iranian influence and has been assisting the Saudis in their wrecking of Yemen ever since. Yemen is today being pummeled and starved because the U.S. and its regional clients are only too willing to combat an imaginary “expansion” of Iranian influence.

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A Nuclear Deal Isn’t Going to “Empower” Iran

Shutterstock.com / Vepar5

One of the latest talking points from Iran hawks against any deal with Iran is that sanctions relief will enable the regime to use its new revenues to increase support for its proxies and allies. Like other hawkish objections to a deal, this is mistaken:

But with the budget strained by last year’s heavy fall in oil prices, and public expectations of improved socio-economic conditions in the event of a deal, the authorities will face pressure to invest new funds at home.

“The idea that Iran is going to have its pockets full of cash that it can use for discretionary purposes, I think is exaggerated,” Charles Hollis, managing director for the Middle East at FTI Consulting, said.

The hawks’ claim that a deal will “empower” Iran is as overstated as their other warnings about growing Iranian influence. For the most part, this objection is just an attempt by Iran hawks to change the subject from the nuclear issue, where they have already lost the argument, to fear-mongering about Iran’s regional policies. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand that the Iran hawks are most likely as wrong about this as they have been on everything else involving Iran for the last decade.

But even if the Iran hawks were correct that a post-deal Iran would use most of its new resources to increase support for its proxies and allies, that would be a necessary and acceptable trade-off as part of an agreement to restrict and monitor Iran’s nuclear program. Furthermore, if Iranian influence really were expanding as much as they (wrongly) claim, that would make it that much more important to impose restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran hawks used to insist that limiting Iran’s nuclear program ought to be the main priority, and now that there is a realistic chance of doing so they have changed their priorities and insist that checking Iran’s regional influence is more important. When they aren’t setting impossible goals for U.S. diplomacy, Iran hawks want to switch to an entirely different debate to obscure the reality that they have already lost the debate over the negotiations.

The other major flaw in the hawks’ objection to sanctions relief is that international support for sanctions is very likely to decrease whether a deal is reached or not. Many states that have been cooperative in limiting their dealings with Iran until now will see little reason to continue applying pressure indefinitely, and they will have strong incentives to resume normal business. Whatever Iran’s government decides to do with the new revenues it gets from sanctions relief, it will soon enough be doing it with or without a nuclear deal. As far as the U.S. and its genuine allies are concerned, it would be much better to get an agreement that limits the nuclear program before international support for sanctions disappears.

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Israel and Nonproliferation

The U.S. once again provided cover for Israel’s nuclear arsenal at the recently-concluded Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference:

Israeli officials criticized the Obama administration last week when they thought the U.S. was about to support a United Nations conference on nuclear weapons in the Middle East—with or without Israel’s participation or consent.

But by Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Secretary of State John Kerry and praised the White House for instead blocking the proposed meeting, which might have pressured Israel to disclose its presumed nuclear-arms program.

This has become a familiar pattern with the Obama administration. It will make some noises about possibly taking a tougher line with Israel, it will have a few officials make anonymous threats in the press, and when it comes time to do something that might actually inconvenience or annoy the Israeli government the administration balks and backs Israel’s position. The fact that the administration typically backs down and yields to the preferences of a client government doesn’t win it any goodwill or cooperation from that government on other issues. It does tell the client government that it doesn’t have to worry about any consequences for its blatant and public efforts to derail a major U.S. diplomatic initiative. On the contrary, the U.S. is only too happy to try to buy off the client to keep it quiet.

Paul Pillar calls the failure of the NPT conference a “missed opportunity” for nonproliferation, and that’s obviously correct. It undermines the cause of nonproliferation when the U.S. allows its relationship with the region’s only nuclear-weapons state to take precedence over its own nonproliferation goals in the same region. Of course, this has been going on for decades, but it has become harder to ignore when the same state with a nuclear arsenal lectures the U.S. about its efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear program. No one expects Israel to admit publicly to possessing nuclear weapons, and no one seriously expects Israel to ever reduce or dismantle its arsenal, but at the very least the U.S. could stop covering up something that everyone already reasonably assumes to be true and it could stop subordinating its nonproliferation agenda to the preferences of one of the world’s leading flouters and non-members of the NPT.

The article quotes an Israeli official who approvingly said that the U.S. kept its commitment to Israel to oppose “a Middle East resolution that would single out Israel,” which just reminds us that Israel would be “singled out” in this context because it is the only state in the region that possesses nuclear weapons. As the sole state in the region that is not party to the NPT, Israel makes itself a target for criticism from all of its neighbors that belong to and adhere to the treaty.

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Report: Turkey and the U.S. Agree to Give Syrian Rebels Air Support

Reuters reports on a new Syria blunder by the U.S. and its allies:

The United States and Turkey have agreed “in principle” to give air support to some forces from Syria’s mainstream opposition, Turkey’s foreign minister said, in what if confirmed could mark an expansion of U.S. involvement in the conflict.

There had been hints that the U.S. might do this since last year, but nothing seemed to happen in the months that followed. If this report is correct, that appears to have changed. If this is right, the U.S. and Turkey have agreed to go to war against the Syrian government while the U.S. is still bombing ISIS. It would be difficult for U.S. policy in Syria to become more incoherent and dangerous than it already was, but the administration may have found a way to do it. It was always likely that U.S. backing for any part of the Syrian opposition would eventually lure the U.S. into taking military action against the Syrian regime, and now it appears that the U.S. is on track to do just that. That was what Syria hawks hoped for when they started agitating for the U.S. to “arm the rebels” years ago, and now they may finally be getting their deranged wish.

The report says that no decision has yet been taken, so it’s possible that the administration might pull back before making such a huge mistake. If the administration did this, it would not only put U.S. forces on two different sides of a foreign civil war at the same time, but it would increase the risk to U.S. pilots from Syrian air defenses. Up until now, there has been a tacit arrangement that has allowed the U.S. to attack targets inside Syria without any response from the Syrian government. Once the U.S. starts bombing Syrian government forces, that arrangement seems sure to end. Jihadist groups would likely be the main beneficiary of all this. In the process the U.S. could risk triggering a crisis with Iran in the event that Iranian personnel in Syria are killed by U.S. strikes.

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The Evils of Unnecessary Wars

Richard Haass marks Memorial Day with an awful comment:

It is warped to commemorate America’s war dead by emphasizing the need to wage wars of choice. Why would anyone think that this is a suitable thought for today? One would like to think that the people most likely to support wars of choice would have some idea to judge whether the “likely benefits outweigh” the costs, but again and again the people that presume that the U.S. “must” intervene somewhere have an extraordinarily poor understanding of how great the costs of intervention will be. Iraq war supporters, including Haass, were very sure that invading Iraq and toppling the regime would yield enormous benefits at low cost. They were horribly wrong, and it was fairly obvious that they were very wrong at the time, but they were very sure of themselves and their estimates.

Not only do supporters of these unnecessary wars fail to anticipate the losses that the U.S. will suffer, because they always underestimate how difficult and dangerous a war will be, but they usually pay no attention at all to the losses that will be inflicted on the country harmed by the intervention. One of the most horrible things about this is that such wars could all easily be avoided if policymakers and their advisers were any good at grasping how ruinous they are. We know from Iraq and Libya that hawks from both parties are unable or unwilling to understand this. Another horrible thing about unnecessary wars is that fighting and lose one seems to have absolutely no long-term effect on the ability of U.S. policymakers to avoid fighting the next one. The U.S. will keep repeating the same blunders in decades to come as long as our debates are shaped by people that think that the U.S. should be fighting wars of choice.

A war of choice is one that the U.S. doesn’t need to fight in order to remain secure. It is a war that the U.S. could easily refuse to fight, but which the government opts to fight because of this or that dubious rationalization. Almost every war of choice that the U.S. has waged since 1945 has inflicted needless losses on both the U.S. and the countries affected by our wars. In every case, the country where the U.S. chooses to intervene suffers losses and destruction that didn’t have to happen. It is wrong and senselessly destructive to wage unnecessary wars, and using the military to fight those wars is an egregious abuse of those that have joined to defend their country.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The new lie about Iraq. Jon Basil Utley recalls how the Bush administration made its deceptive case for war.

Why soldiers lie. William Lind describes the problem of institutional lying in the U.S. military in the current issue of TAC.

The real Iraq war debate’s lessons. Michael Cohen explains why the invasion was a terrible idea based on what was known at the time.

Time to sober up about the Iraq war. A.J. Delgado refutes the arguments of Iraq war dead-enders.

Why the Iraq war happened. James Fallows explains that the “WMD claims were the result of the need to find a case for the war, rather than the other way around.”

Iran, Israel, and the North Korea analogy. Paul Pillar compares the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea and the current nuclear negotiations with Iran.

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Why Congress Shouldn’t Authorize the War on ISIS

The New York Times calls for passage of an authorization resolution for the war on ISIS:

As the war intensifies, it is more urgent than ever for Congress to approve a new Authorization for Use of Military Force that would provide adequate oversight and clearly articulate the long-term strategy for the fight against the Islamic State. The new mandate should replace the ones the administration is currently relying on and set clear limits that would preclude future administrations from using military force around the globe, anytime, anywhere, without consulting Congress.

The editorial makes a number of good points, but this would be the wrong response to the ever-expanding war on ISIS. Obama’s claim that he wouldn’t “allow” the U.S. to be dragged into a new war was preposterous, as the editors say, since he was the one dragging the U.S. into fighting it. They are also right that the legal justifications the administration has offered for the war have always been absurd. That doesn’t mean that Congress should approve of a war that threatens to pull the U.S. deeper into a conflict that it doesn’t need to fight. Congress won’t regain any influence or relevance by becoming a rubber stamp after the fact. Passing an authorization won’t fix the problem that the U.S. blundered into this war without any debate or consideration of the likely costs.

The gradual escalation of the war isn’t surprising. It was always very likely once the administration went on the offensive and declared that the goal of the campaign was to “destroy” ISIS. We know that “limited” interventions don’t stay limited, and we also know that this administration disregards the terms of authorizations when they get in his way. Any limits written into a new AUMF would be adhered to only so long as the president wanted to be bound by them. Obama has already shown that he will interpret authorizations as necessary to justify whatever he does, or he will simply proceed without any authorization to wage a war that he will pretend isn’t really a war.

Passing a new authorization to endorse an ill-conceived and unnecessary war nine months after it began isn’t going to “provide adequate oversight” or “clearly articulate the long-term strategy for the fight against the Islamic State.” Congress has no interest in providing the former and has no more of an idea what the latter is than the administration does. As I’ve said many times, it was a mistake for the U.S. to intervene in Iraq and Syria last year. Congressional authorization obviously can’t fix that mistake, but it would legitimize what has thus far been an unauthorized and illegal military action.

If there were any chance that this or any other president would be expected to respect the limits included in a new authorization, passing a very narrowly-worded resolution might be the least bad option available, but we already know that presidents can get away with interpreting these resolutions as broadly as they want. We know that Congress isn’t going to cut off funds for a war that the president starts, and most members of Congress are more hostile to placing limits on a war than the president is. Any authorization that this Congress produces will probably make things worse by giving a stamp of approval to an open-ended and unrestricted war. If the war remains unauthorized, it could be easier to end U.S. involvement. Once it receives Congress’ approval, it is much more likely to continue on for many more years.

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