Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Is Trump a realist? Leon Hadar considers the evidence and concludes that he isn’t.

End U.S. support for the war in Yemen. Emma Ashford calls on the Obama administration to halt its support for the Saudi-led coalition.

Inconsistent impatience on Cuba. Paul Pillar chides critics of normalization with Cuba for their haste to declare engagement a failure.

Sanders shouldn’t get a free pass on foreign policy. Daniel DePetris explains why it matters that Sanders is neglecting foreign policy in his campaign.

Moldova’s “pro-Western” facade. Natalia Otel Belan and Marc Schleifer explain why it is a mistake for Western governments to dismiss protests against the Moldovan government.

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Foreign Policy and the Democratic Debate

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The Democratic debate last night included some discussion of foreign policy, and the two candidates repeated their standard arguments against each other. As he often has before, Sanders keeps bringing up Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq war:

But experience is not the only point, judgment is. And once again, back in 2002, when we both looked at the same evidence about the wisdom of the war in Iraq, one of us voted the right way and one of us didn’t.

Sanders tends to use the original Iraq war debate as a crutch when answering any foreign policy question. That reflects the fact that their records on the Iraq war are what most clearly distinguish them, and it also reflects Sanders’ overall lack of interest in the subject. Foreign policy has generally received much less attention in the contest for the Democratic nomination. It isn’t a high priority for most Democratic voters, and both Clinton and Sanders have obliged by saying as little about these issues as they absolutely have to. In Clinton’s case, she has tried to downplay her record of hawkishness in recognition that she is out of step with most Democrats, while Sanders much prefers to focus on the domestic issues that have been his primary concern in Congress.

Clinton leaned heavily last night on the appeal to experience and the support she’s receiving from many former diplomats and national security officials. Clinton wants to present herself as the candidate with the necessary knowledge and preparation to conduct foreign policy, while Sanders is left pointing out how poor Clinton’s judgment has been in the past and how much better his own judgment has been. The foreign policy debate between them follows the larger split in the nomination contest: Clinton professes to be the candidate with the know-how to “get things done” while Sanders argues that he is the one who can be trusted not to compromise or betray Democrats’ values. Just as Obama did in 2007-08, Sanders acknowledges his relative lack of foreign policy experience, and tries to turn it around on Clinton in the same way. The trouble for Sanders is that the Iraq war is not nearly as salient for Democratic voters as it was when Bush was still in office, and it has been long enough since the original debate over the war that Clinton’s bad judgment in supporting the invasion doesn’t generate quite the same resistance to her candidacy.

The differences between the candidates on contemporary issues are frankly much smaller, and there isn’t as much of a sharp contrast on policy that Sanders can use to his advantage. While Clinton and Sanders used to disagree on the TPP and other similar trade deals, Clinton has muddied the waters by feigning opposition to the Pacific trade agreement. Both support the nuclear deal with Iran and normalization with Cuba, and both more or less support administration policy with respect to the war on ISIS. Clinton has argued for even more aggressive measures in Syria, but here the disagreement is over how to intervene in Syria and not whether the U.S. should be fighting there.

The biggest current disagreement between Clinton and Sanders is over eventually pursuing normal relations with Iran. This is to a very large extent a manufactured issue that Clinton has been trying to exploit because she thinks it works to her advantage by making her seem “tougher” and Sanders “weaker” on Iran. At best, they are debating a hypothetical, since neither of them favors normalization with Iran in the near future. One would think it would be unremarkable that Sanders thinks that the U.S. should eventually improve relations with Iran, but Clinton displayed her typical wariness of diplomatic engagement by seeing it as an opening for attack. As Sanders said again last night, he isn’t in favor of immediate or near-term normalization with Iran, but that “we should move forward as quickly as we can.” He then used normalization with Cuba as proof that longstanding enmity and disputes with another state don’t have to rule out restoring diplomatic ties.

Sanders has been faulted recently for not having an established team of foreign policy advisers, and his critics inside the Democratic Party see him as simply not knowing and/or caring enough about foreign policy to be a plausible nominee. These complaints have some merit, but they miss that Clinton remains significantly out of step with most people in her party on these issues and that Sanders is much closer to them. Her instinct to side with her party’s hawks in almost every debate is a serious flaw that has led her to take one bad position after another, and the fact that she seems incapable of learning from those previous mistakes is a major problem. Clinton can speak more fluently about foreign policy details, but it’s not at all obvious that she ever thinks through the consequences of the hawkish policies she reliably supports. Insofar as Sanders is inclined to be more cautious and less eager to entangle the U.S. in foreign conflicts, he is not only more representative of most Democrats’ views, but he is also less likely to make costly errors of commission. Clinton may be able to give a more fleshed-out debate answer, but we also know that she is more likely to get the U.S. involved in unnecessary wars than her rival.

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Gerson’s Revisionism on the Gang of Eight Bill

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Michael Gerson tries to put a positive spin on Rubio’s spectacular immigration failure:

Rubio’s loss on immigration reform spoke well of his ability to appeal broadly in the general election and govern effectively as president. Cruz’s success in forcing a partial shutdown demonstrated only a talent for self-serving controversy.

It’s more than a little odd to say that a total failure reflects an “ability to appeal broadly in the general election.” Rubio rejected the thing that supposedly makes him broadly appealing, and he abandoned the effort as soon as it became politically dangerous for him. As soon as he encountered significant difficulty, he gave up because he didn’t want to jeopardize his ambition for higher office. No matter what one thinks of the legislation, that doesn’t reflect well on Rubio at all. People on both sides on the immigration debate have understood this for years.

Rubio’s embrace of the Gang of Eight bill was certainly self-serving in that he believed it was his ticket to winning the approval of party elites and donors. Little did he know that he would be the favorite of many of them anyway. His subsequent abandonment of the bill was likewise self-serving in that he preferred to protect himself from the backlash against the bill that he had unwisely chosen to support. No one can honestly confuse this with a profile in political courage or something that inspires broad appeal among voters.

Gerson cuts Rubio slack here because he assumes that the senator will return to his support for bad immigration legislation in the future. He expects that Rubio will once again pretend to be against something during an election campaign and then turn around and push for the very thing he promised to oppose, and Gerson has good reason to expect this. This is also why many Republicans can’t fully trust Rubio. Since he switched sides in the debate once before, it is reasonable to assume that he will do so again. Whichever side of that debate is most advantageous to Rubio’s own ambitions is the one he will take, and that should make people on both sides of the issue wary. Gerson’s right about one thing: Rubio’s handling of the immigration bill does tell us a lot about how he would lead. However, it doesn’t tell us anything good.

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The Continuing Woes of the “Establishment”

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Noah Berlatsky thinks I’m overly confident that the “establishment” candidates will continue squabbling among themselves after New Hampshire:

Larison’s hope for the establishment’s fall is based not on Trump or Cruz or any outsider, but on the dream that boring establishment candidates will suddenly transform into mavericks, acting against the interests of the Party.

I appreciate the response, and I’ll concede up front that I was overstating Kasich’s desire to stick around if he doesn’t do well on Tuesday. His campaign has always been a New Hampshire-centric one, and anything less than second place for him there probably would be a signal to throw in the towel. However, Kasich has said that his campaign will continue unless he gets “smoked” in New Hampshire, and that implies that he might very well stick around for a while if he has a good result. Bush still has the resources and the incredible sense of entitlement that led him to enter the race in the first place, and he seems more determined to continue than Kasich. Bush said earlier this week, “That message will resonate and I’m in it for the long-haul.” Christie probably will drop out after next week unless he has a completely unexpected revival in the next few days, but otherwise I don’t foresee the mass exodus that Rubio is counting on.

One problem with Berlatsky’s objection is the conceit that the other “establishment” candidates accept that withdrawing from the race to clear the way for Rubio is in the “interests of the party.” Both Bush and Christie have dismissed this idea as absurd or silly. Another is that it overlooks the intense personal resentment Rubio seems to have inspired among some of these candidates. Christie is the most vocal in his disdain for the junior senator from Florida, but it’s an open secret that Bush and his allies are also furious with Rubio. We shouldn’t discount the effect of personal animus and bitterness when thinking about what these candidates may do.

If his “establishment” rivals resent Rubio enough, they may not be thinking about “the interests of the party” or they may believe that they are serving the party’s best interests by opposing someone they don’t think is ready to be president. I have occasionally joked that the determination of Bush and his allies to bring Rubio down sometimes seems Captain Ahab-like, because it seems so destructive to Bush’s own reputation. Even if it’s not that intense, it doesn’t make sense to assume that Bush is simply going to give up so that Rubio has a better shot as a nomination that he and his allies thought was his. I think people that expect Bush to give up easily are also forgetting how petty and vindictive the Bush family can be toward their rivals when they want to be.

The larger point I was making in my post about the woes of the “establishment” is that it has already taken too long to consolidate the “establishment” vote. The four-way split in New Hampshire has done plenty of damage to the chances of any of the “establishment” candidates to win anywhere else. If that split disappeared next Wednesday, it wouldn’t be sufficient to salvage Rubio’s bad campaign strategy. There aren’t enough supporters of these candidates to stop Trump and Cruz before it really is too late in mid-March, and by then it won’t matter that Rubio is the last “establishment” man standing. In short, the people rooting for the “establishment” candidates have a serious problem even if Kasich and Bush give up next week.

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Rubio’s Accomplishments in the Senate

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Santorum’s stint as a Rubio surrogate got off to a shaky start this morning. When pressed to name Rubio’s top accomplishment in the Senate, he couldn’t come up with one:

The former Pennsylvania senator, who dropped his presidential bid Wednesday, told co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski he was supporting Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign because the Florida senator is someone “who can work together with people.” But Santorum struggled to name one accomplishment Rubio has had in the Senate.

It’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask about a presidential candidate, and Santorum’s protests that the question wasn’t fair just made things look worse than they were. Complaining that Rubio is part of a do-nothing Congress and therefore hasn’t done anything isn’t much of an excuse. That just reminds people that Rubio is both relatively inexperienced and belongs to the most disliked institution in the country.

Santorum couldn’t come up with anything because there aren’t any accomplishments to be named. This isn’t a case where a new surrogate hasn’t been sufficiently briefed on the minutiae of a candidate’s record. There’s simply nothing that Santorum could have cited as an example, because Rubio doesn’t have any significant legislative accomplishments since he entered the Senate five years ago. Even Obama managed to join up with Richard Lugar on a serious piece of nonproliferation legislation during his brief time in the Senate. Rubio can’t point to anything comparable. Neither can his rival Ted Cruz, whose even shorter Senate career has been defined entirely by obstructionist theatrics.

Cruz is running almost entirely as an ideological message candidate, and Rubio is relying heavily on his biography and family history, and they have to do this because they and their supporters can’t identify any successes they’ve had in their current positions. Maybe voters won’t care about this, but insofar as it reinforces Rubio’s reputation for inexperience and failing to do his job it certainly can’t help. It also has to bring to mind the major piece of immigration legislation Rubio tried to push through before abandoning it. If things had gone as planned, Rubio’s biggest accomplishment in the Senate would have been an immigration bill that most Republicans rejected.

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Santorum Endorses Rubio

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Rick Santorum formally “suspended” his campaign last night and endorsed Rubio, saying that he wanted “to find a candidate that really espoused the values” that he believed in:

“He’s a tremendously gifted young man,” he said of the Florida senator. “I just feel a lot of confidence that he is the new generation and someone that can bring this country together.”

The endorsement won’t help Rubio in next week’s New Hampshire primary, since Santorum has extremely high unfavorability numbers in the state and his support there was virtually non-existent. If anything, being linked with Santorum is more likely to cost Rubio support next week. It is nonetheless a notable and revealing choice for Santorum that merits a few comments. I summed it up this way on Twitter last night:

At least since his first presidential campaign, Santorum has been presenting himself as the voice of working-class voters and arguing that the GOP has neglected them too long. In connection with that, he adopted some of the most restrictionist positions on immigration in the 2012 and 2016 fields. He played at being a quasi-populist in opposition to Romney, and in the years following the 2012 election continued to argue against the mentality in the party that celebrated business owners and no one else. By endorsing Rubio, he made it plain that all of that takes a backseat to supporting an aggressive foreign policy.

Though the endorsement doesn’t matter that much in itself, it is representative of Santorum’s priorities and the distorting effect that super-hawkish foreign policy has on the GOP as a whole. Faced with a choice between candidates that have at least some credibility with conservatives on immigration and those that have none, Santorum chose one of the latter. When choosing between candidate that already gets a lot of their support from working-class voters and one that is the clear favorite of the donor class, Santorum chose the latter. It isn’t an accident that Santorum also happened to back the most hawkish candidate still running, since the former senator has repeatedly shown that it is hard-line foreign policy that matters more to him than anything else.

It’s true that Rubio and Santorum are both socially conservative, but Rubio is not the only credible social conservative left in the race. But the thing they have in common that distinguishes Rubio from his main competition is that he is by far the most vocal and aggressive hawk left. If Santorum and Graham had never run, that would have been true from the start. I’m sure Santorum can’t abide Trump for all sorts of reasons, but his main complaint against Cruz is on foreign policy. Ever since Cruz used “neocon” in a pejorative way last year, Santorum has been attacking Cruz and saying that his use of that word proves that he isn’t a “Reagan national security conservative.” In light of that, it was practically guaranteed that he would end up siding with Rubio. Santorum is confident that Rubio is just as ideological and dangerous on foreign policy as he is, and he has every reason to be.

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Realists and the Trump Trap

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Dan Drezner is puzzled why Stephen Walt and I think realists have many strong reasons not to support Trump:

If realists truly want to make a difference in American foreign policy, however, these objections are small beer. A realist would not necessarily care about the Middle East all that much. There are no great powers in the region, after all. From a realpolitik perspective, the United States should be happy if Russia expends blood and treasure to support proxies and preserve stability there. Which, by the way, is the position of one Donald J. Trump.

In keeping with Drezner’s Star Wars reference, my first thought when reading this is:

I don’t think most realists would see hitching themselves to Trump’s campaign as a way to “make a difference” in U.S. foreign policy debates. In fact, I’m pretty sure they* would conclude that this would be a good way for their ideas to be (further) marginalized and for them to be tarred by association with Trump. Walt describes a Trump presidency as a “leap in the dark,” which is a fair description of it, and Drezner keeps asking why realists don’t want to go take a flying leap. Perhaps because that would be the sort of short-sighted and ill-considered course of action that realists are warning other people against all the time?

Leaving aside some of Trump’s wackier and ill-informed statements about the nuclear deal, Yemen, etc., what would give realists any confidence that Trump would be a good bet with respect to managing great power relations? That touches on Walt’s point about competence, but it goes beyond that. While it’s good that Trump isn’t interested in fighting Russia over Syria (and it is a damning indictment of the other candidates that he is virtually alone in this), I don’t get the impression that he would be all that interested in reducing or managing tensions with great powers as a general rule. One of the running themes in Trump’s speeches is the desire to “beat” other countries, specifically China, so my guess is that a Trump presidency** would see a dramatic worsening of U.S.-Chinese relations and the raising of tensions in East Asia. How would he manage relations with the EU, India, Brazil, Australia, etc.? What is his position on the war in Afghanistan? Does he subscribe to the “no daylight” approach to managing allies and clients? Does he favor further NATO expansion? We have no idea, and Trump doesn’t seem inclined to give us many clues.

We have only the barest outlines of what Trumps wants to do, and much of what we do know is not reassuring. The only reason that this idea of Trump-as-realist is even being entertained at all is that every other presidential candidate is arguably even more irresponsible and reckless on foreign policy than Trump is. Maybe one could make the argument that Trump is the least awful candidate for realists, but that’s not saying a lot.

Realists also have the benefit of seeing what happens to vaguely realist-sounding candidates when they get into office. George W. Bush ran in 2000 espousing a “humble” foreign policy, eschewed nation-building, and talked up the need to improve relations with other great powers. In short, he said many things that realists could agree with, or at least avoided saying a lot of things they couldn’t accept, but he was also famously ignorant and incurious about the rest of the world. When there was a crisis, all of Bush’s supposed humility regarding the use of U.S. power disappeared instantly, and he and his advisers embarked on some of the costliest, most reckless policies in modern American history. Bush did all this while being surrounded by veterans of his father’s administration, who not only failed to restrain his worst instincts but also actively encouraged him to make bad decisions. In the event of a crisis, does anyone trust that someone with Trump’s temperament and fixation with “strength” wouldn’t do much the same or worse? If not, why would it be a good idea for people that care about the smart conduct of foreign policy to support him?

It occurred to me yesterday that Trump is the embodiment of everything that George Kennan disliked about mass democratic politics, so it probably shouldn’t come as a shock that a lot of the people that respect Kennan’s judgment aren’t fans of Trump.

* I don’t consider myself a realist, but I’m often counted as one and I’m sympathetic to many of their arguments.

** This isn’t likely to happen, but for the sake of argument let’s imagine that it does.

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Paul Drops Out

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Rand Paul has announced he’s dropping out of the presidential race:

Republican Sen. Rand Paul dropped his 2016 campaign for president Wednesday, eclipsed by other candidates who kept his base of support from growing into a viable force in the crowded 2016 field.

I’m a little surprised that he decided to do this before New Hampshire, but it makes sense for him to turn his attention to the Senate race in Kentucky. It matters more now for the causes he cares about that he be re-elected to the Senate, and continuing as an also-ran in the presidential race wouldn’t accomplish anything. It’s unfortunate that his presidential campaign didn’t have more success. In a cycle that included both Trump and Cruz, there was too much competition for Republican voters disgusted by their party leadership, and their demagogic style seems to have been better-suited to the mood of these voters. Paul made some good contributions in the presidential debates, and he was practically the only one challenging the party’s dangerous hawkish consensus, but that was evidently not what most Republicans were looking for in this election.

If Paul’s supporters are going to go to any other candidates, they would most likely prefer Cruz. That ought to help Cruz in his bid to hang on to second place there, which would confirm that the real contest going into the rest of February will be between Trump and Cruz. Perhaps some of Paul’s supporters will vote tactically for some of the non-Rubio “establishment” candidates to try to push them ahead of Rubio.

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Trump’s Foreign Policy

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On Monday I gave some reasons why foreign policy realists might not be interested in supporting Donald Trump. Leon Hadar delves deeper into the question today and concludes that Trump isn’t a realist:

But then Trump’s bombastic rhetoric doesn’t reflect any coherent foreign policy agenda, and certainly not one that could be described as “realist.” He seems to be telling us what he won’t do as opposed to what he would do as commander-in-chief, and he never really explains his own definition of the U.S. national interest and what U.S. geostrategic goals should be. Should the United States reduce its military commitments in the Middle East and elsewhere? What role should the United States play now in East Asia? If he is opposed to the nuclear deal with Iran, does he believe that the United States should use its military power to prevent the ayatollahs from acquiring access to nuclear capabilities? And what is so “realist” about the idea of bombing ISIS if you cannot explain what would replace it? Bombing is a means to achieve a goal, and Trump has yet to clarify his strategic goals in Syria and Iraq.

Trump doesn’t provide any answers to these and other questions and is basically telling us that we should trust him to make the right choices. And we cannot direct those questions to his foreign policy advisors since he has none.

There have been a few attempts in recent weeks to try to shoehorn Trump into different foreign policy traditions, but these always give Trump’s views more coherence than they have. Thomas Wright tried to paint Trump as a latter-day Robert Taft, which seems both inaccurate and more than a little insulting to Taft. Wright also asserted:

Trump seeks nothing less than ending the U.S.-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments.

It would certainly be notable if Trump sought this, but Wright doesn’t have much evidence that this is so. Trump often complains about wealthy allies that aren’t obliged to do anything for the U.S., so he isn’t pleased with “cheap-riding” allies, but he never suggests that the U.S. should abrogate treaty commitments or refuse to defend allies. Trump doesn’t like arrangements from which the U.S. doesn’t derive tangible benefits, and so he complains when the U.S. is picking up the entire tab for defending allies, but nowhere in his statements can one find proof that he thinks the U.S. should actually have fewer commitments around the world. His statements do suggest that he thinks wealthy allies should do more to provide for their own defense, but saying that is a long way from believing that the U.S. should abandon most or all of its security commitments. Wright credits Trump with wanting a much more significant departure from postwar foreign policy than Trump appears to want. I’ve said before that Trump can’t be fairly described as an “isolationist”: the label is a meaningless slur, and there isn’t much evidence to support the idea that he favors a dramatically less activist and meddlesome foreign policy. If there’s one consistent theme in Trump’s thinking, it’s that he doesn’t want America to be on the losing end of a bargain, but that can cut any number of ways when it comes to making policy.

Take the nuclear deal, for example. Trump regularly attacks it as a terrible deal made by “stupid” people. I suppose we couldn’t expect him to endorse any deal that Obama made, but his arguments against the deal (like most arguments against the deal) make no sense. When Iran shipped out its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia, Trump complained that Russia was getting the uranium instead of us:

But what kind of a deal is that? Even that. They’re shipping it to Russia, right? Why aren’t they shipping it to us? Why aren’t we getting it? They’re shipping it to Russia. I don’t like that.

Trump takes an important nonproliferation success that the deal with Iran made possible and sees it purely in terms of what material benefit the U.S. gets out of it. (One might ask why the U.S. would want or need Iran’s low-enriched uranium, but that’s almost beside the point.) The fact that the deal is so far doing exactly what it is supposed to do–making it practically impossible for Iran to acquire or even pursue a nuclear weapon–doesn’t interest him. Likewise, he has often repeated the false charge that the deal “gives” Iran $150 billion. At most, once their debts are settled with various other countries, the final figure for sanctions relief is likely to be around $50 billion. The more important point is that this is Iran’s own money that had been frozen under the sanctions. Any deal that Iran agreed to on the nuclear issue was bound to provide relief from sanctions, so there was no way that Iran wouldn’t be permitted to access these funds as part of an agreement. Once again, Trump is hung up on the dollar amount of the sanctions relief while ignoring the benefits of the deal.

I suspect Hadar is correct when he concludes that Trump’s foreign policy would probably not be all that different in substance from that of his rivals:

President Trump may prove to be more pragmatic than a President Rubio in handling world affairs, but his definition of core U.S. national interests would not be much different.

Depending on your view of current U.S. foreign policy, that is either reassuring or very dissatisfying. For a lot of Trump’s supporters, I assume it will be the latter.

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How Cruz Won

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There are some interesting details to be found in the Iowa exit polls, though many of them aren’t all that surprising. The CBS exit poll showed that Cruz won thanks to his large advantage with self-described conservatives, especially the “very conservative” voters that make up the bulk of his support everywhere.

Among all conservatives (85% of the voters), 31% backed Cruz to 23% for Trump and 22% for Rubio. Among “very conservative” voters (40% of all voters), the gap was much wider: Cruz 44% Trump 21% Rubio 15%. Where Trump did best was among moderate and liberal voters that are helping him establish large leads elsewhere, but in Iowa they made up just 15% of voters. Among moderates, Trump won easily, but that couldn’t offset Cruz’s advantage with conservatives. 34% of moderates backed Trump, 28% backed Rubio, and just 9% backed Cruz. In many later states, there will be significantly more moderates and fewer “very conservative” voters, and that points to some of the limitations for Cruz going forward. In 2012, moderate and liberals made up 47% of the Republican primary electorate in New Hampshire and 32% in South Carolina, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see Trump’s lead in these states remain quite large.

Rubio showed that he could get some “very” and “somewhat” conservative voters and a good number of moderates as well. “Somewhat” conservative voters made up 45% of the voters, and Rubio led with this group 29% to Trump’s 24% and Cruz’s 19%. We have seen in the past that this tends to be Rubio’s best ideological group, and so it was again. He led among those that said economy/jobs was the most important issue for the country (30% to Trump’s 24%), but trailed Cruz among those that said terrorism and government spending. For those that considered immigration the most important issue, Trump dominated with 44% and Rubio did poorly with 10%, but these voters made up just 11% of the total. Voters that prized a candidate’s ability to win the general election (21% of all voters) went for Rubio in a big way (44%), and that more than anything seems to account for his late surge. Rubio clearly won the very late-deciders with 30% of the people that decided in the last few days. Trump and Cruz were tied among those that had decided before that at 30%.

Cruz didn’t score well on electability. Only 22% of voters that considered that the most important quality backed Cruz. Where Cruz won by a mile was among those that wanted a candidate to share their values (38%), and these voters account for 42% of the total. That was fueled in large part by the huge turnout of evangelicals (64%), of whom 34% backed Cruz. Cruz was unsurprisingly weakest of the top three with non-evangelicals (18%), but since they were just over a third of voters that didn’t trip him up as much it likely will in later states.

Cruz did very well in a caucus state that was very well-suited to a candidate with his background and profile, but it isn’t likely to travel very well in places that don’t have a lot of evangelicals and “very conservative” voters. Very much like Huckabee in 2008, I suspect Cruz is going to have difficulty with non-evangelicals and non-Southerners, and that doesn’t bode well for his chances later in the primary season.

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The Woes of the GOP “Establishment”

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Matt Purple looks ahead to the rest of the February contests and concludes that Trump is still the favorite to win:

Trump leads in New Hampshire, the moderate state. He leads in South Carolina, the establishment state. He leads in Nevada, the libertarian state. His margins in those places are not narrow.

If someone told you that the national front-runner lost narrowly in Iowa, but had commanding leads in almost every state that votes over the next six weeks, you would assume that this was the candidate in the strongest position to win the nomination. That remains true this year, and the fact that the candidate is Trump doesn’t change that. As Sam Stein pointed out in his analysis of last night’s results, the “establishment” suffered a resounding repudiation:

Collectively, [Carson’s], Cruz’s and Trump’s totals suggest that a huge swath of Republican primary voters are committed to supporting either a Washington outsider or the most hated man who currently works there.

If you add in Paul’s 4.5%, over 65% of voters last night chose an “outsider” candidate or one that party leaders cannot stand. Rubio’s 23% was higher than expected, but as a measure of support for a candidate favored by party leaders it is the weakest showing for the top “establishment” candidate in Iowa in decades. In New Hampshire, support for the “outsiders” and insurgents still accounts for half of the electorate. In South Carolina, that figure shoots back up to 66%. These are not electorates that are going to be satisfied with what the “establishment” candidates have to offer. Even if Trump loses some ground in the coming weeks, “establishment” candidates aren’t likely to be the ones that benefit. Since a large part of Trump’s support comes from moderate Republicans, it probably doesn’t hurt him that much that he didn’t prevail in a heavily evangelical caucus state.

The “establishment” vote seems likely to remain divided for a while because Kasich and Bush are very likely hanging on until they get to the Ohio and Florida primaries in mid-March. Assuming that they will be pressured or will feel obligated to step aside credits party leaders with cunning and coordination that they have completely failed to show for the last year. It will be even harder to persuade Kasich to drop out if he finishes ahead of Rubio in New Hampshire, and that is likely still what happens next week. Even if that vote doesn’t remain divided, there isn’t enough of it across most of the South to make much of a difference. As Diehl pointed out in the article I referred to yesterday, the total “establishment” vote in the “SEC primary” states is swamped by support for the insurgent and “outsider” candidates. Here he uses Georgia as an example:

Georgia, a winners-take-most state with a 20 percent threshold, illustrates the formidable obstacles the establishment candidates face. A CBS News/YouGov poll conducted in mid-January shows the outsiders taking 76 percent of the vote while the four insiders combined take just 19 percent. Rubio leads the insiders with 13 percent, trailing Trump by 26 points. Only Trump, with 39 percent, and Cruz, with 29 percent, would qualify for delegates, splitting the state’s 76 delegates between them. So far, none of the establishment candidates are close to meeting Georgia’s 20 percent threshold.

Supposing that the “establishment” vote finally does unite behind a candidate by mid-March, Diehl points out that it will probably be too late:

On March 15, the primary schedule shifts to more moderate states that are friendlier to the insiders. But by then, almost half of the national convention delegates, and more than 90 percent of the delegates required to nominate, will have already been chosen.

The time for consolidating the “establishment” vote was weeks or months ago, not weeks or months from now. If it happens, it probably won’t stop Trump and Cruz from dominating Super Tuesday, and by then the “establishment” will have run out of time.

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The U.S. Should Halt Its Support for the War on Yemen

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

Emma Ashford once again urges the Obama administration to halt its support for the war on Yemen:

In his last few months in office, President Obama should take advantage of his executive power to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen, and direct America’s diplomats to aggressively pursue a diplomatic settlement. This war is humanitarian disaster and a strategic failure; ending our support for it should be a no-brainer.

Ashford is absolutely right. I couldn’t agree more that Obama should withdraw the support he’s provided to the Saudis and their allies. The intervention has had predictably disastrous results, and there is growing evidence that the Saudis and their allies are likely guilty of committing crimes against humanity in Yemen. The U.S. should have never had any part in this conflict, and it should stop its involvement immediately. Unfortunately, there is no sign that the administration is interested in doing this.

As Ashford pointed out at our conference last fall, U.S. support for the war on Yemen is one of Washington’s latest misguided attempts to “reassure” the Gulf clients that the U.S. is on their side. U.S. officials keep recommitting the U.S. to this path with their effusive praise of the clients that are inflicting death and devastation on their poorer neighbor. When Secretary Kerry boasts just last month that “we have made it clear that we stand with our friends in Saudi Arabia,” that doesn’t leave any ambiguity about what the U.S. position on this war will continue to be.

Sen. Murphy described this position a bit more in his important speech last week:

But in the wake of the Iran nuclear agreement, there are many in Congress who would have the United States double down in our support for the Saudi side of this fight in places like Yemen and Syria, simply because Saudi Arabia is our named friend, and Iran is our named enemy.

But as Murphy goes on to say, it is a serious mistake to “blindly back” the Saudis, especially when it means supporting their most destructive behavior. The problem is that Murphy is virtually alone in Congress in his willingness to say so publicly. Halting support for the Saudi-led war is a “no-brainer.” Regrettably, most members of Congress would rather have the U.S. back a failed intervention that is displacing millions and causing near-famine conditions for millions more than risk offending the Saudis and the other Gulf states fighting there. Because of a foolish desire to placate despotic clients, the U.S. has put itself in the absurd position of catering to their whims and subordinating our interests to theirs. That needs to stop, but I fear Obama has no intention of stopping it.

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The Limits of Rubiomania

Gage Skidmore / cc

Michael Brendan Dougherty identifies the main source of enthusiasm for Rubio among Republican elites and pundits:

The other reason that Rubio-mania will take off is less inspiring. Rallying around Rubio will just be too strong a temptation for the GOP’s elite and the most established organs of the conservative movement. Rubio’s candidacy is essentially based on the premise that nothing from the George W. Bush era has to change for the Republican Party.

That’s in line with what I said last month. Rubio’s candidacy represents the conceit that there is nothing so wrong with the GOP or its agenda that can’t be fixed with more wars and more immigration (and more Republican support of both). As I put it then:

If Rubio could win, it would mean that the discredited Bush-era agenda was still viable (among Republicans at least), and it would mean that the people that created and supported that agenda were still in full control of the party. The old rules that say that the party elites’ favored candidate gets the nomination would still be in force. For all the talk that Rubio is a “generational” candidate who would lead the GOP into the future, a large part of Rubio’s appeal to his (relatively few) supporters is that he promises to take the U.S. back to the Bush years: U.S. “leadership” and activism abroad and vaguely “compassionate” conservative activism at home.

However, the upheaval in the Republican primaries this year shows that most Republicans are absolutely not satisfied with keeping the party as it is. Rubio has obviously been the candidate that party leaders prefer to Trump and Cruz, and most Republicans have been very clear over the last year that they want nothing to do with the things their leaders prefer. The more that party leaders try to foist Rubio on a party that is sick of their leadership, the more he will be rejected. The fact remains that the people that haven’t been experiencing Rubiomania are most Republican voters, and most of them aren’t going to because he offers them nothing except a rehash of policies that they know have already failed them.

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Iowa Results

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Despite dropping in late polls, Cruz used his superior campaign organization to storm back and take the Iowa caucuses by a decent margin. If a Cruz win seems somewhat anticlimactic at this point, that’s only because he had been doing very well in the state for several weeks until his slump in late January. Trump’s equally unimpressive ground game left him with the second-place finish that he was poised to have a couple weeks ago, and that happened in spite of a huge increase in turnout that was supposed to help him. I don’t think a second-place finish for Trump significantly blunts his advantages elsewhere, and his leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina seem large enough that he is still well-positioned to win in both places. Cruz’s win in Iowa gives the Texan a boost heading into New Hampshire next week, and that means he is likely to shore up his position in third place there. The main story is that two candidates absolutely loathed by party leaders captured more than half the vote in Iowa, and they are on track to win at least two-fifths of the vote in New Hampshire. Cruz’s victory sets up the Trump-Cruz race that Republican elites don’t want, which is why there will inevitably be excessive attention paid to the second runner-up in the coming days.

As it turns out, there really was some movement towards Rubio in the closing days before the caucuses that the Des Moines Register poll evidently missed for some reason. Accustomed to the absurd pro-Rubio spin we have been hearing for the last six months, I discounted the possibility as soon as people started talking about it. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Rubio still finished in third place despite that surge. While he outperformed his numbers in the poll average by quite a bit, but he has not fixed the core problem of his campaign: he is still unlikely to win anywhere in the next six weeks. Now that Cruz’s fortunes have revived with a win, that is in some ways the worse outcome for Rubio tonight than if Trump had finished in first. That almost certainly means that Rubio will still be trailing both Kasich and Cruz in next week’s primary. None of the other “establishment” candidates appeared to be in any hurry to quit after tonight, and the field seems unlikely to shrink much before New Hampshire. For all the hubbub about Rubio’s expected third-place finish, it hasn’t helped him that much with the problems he had elsewhere.

I obviously missed my main prediction by calling the race for Trump, who fell well short of the result I thought he would get. I missed Rubio’s final percentage by a wide margin because I discounted the possibility of a late surge. My guess for Cruz’s percentage was pretty close at 28%, but I erred in thinking that wouldn’t be enough to win. On the Democratic side, I gave it to Clinton by a point, but as of 10:15 p.m. Central the race was still extremely close: 50.1% to 49.3% with 91% reporting. Even if he doesn’t catch her in the end, Sanders almost tied Clinton and given her a huge scare in Iowa. He will have come so close that he definitely can’t be counted out yet. Following an even worse-than-expected result, O’Malley announced he was suspending his campaign.

In contrast to 2012, there’s no question about who won last night. Unlike Romney’s “win,” it isn’t going to be overturned. That clearly makes Cruz the most competitive non-Trump candidate, but we can be sure that lots of donors and pundits will ignore that and continue to chase the Rubio will o’ the wisp for many more weeks.

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Should Realists Support Trump?

Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom

Dan Drezner picks up on some recent reports of Trump’s supposed foreign policy realism and does not engage in any trolling whatsoever:

If realists really want to have some skin in the American foreign policy game, they will not find a better vessel than Trump.

I don’t consider myself a realist (though I’m often described that way), but I can think of many reasons why realists wouldn’t want to get behind Trump. Judging his candidacy solely on foreign policy grounds, it’s not hard to see why realists would be skeptical of or even horrified by a candidate who denounces the nuclear deal with Iran, lies about its provisions, declares Iran an “existential threat” to Israel, spouts nonsense about Near Eastern regional conflicts, doesn’t seem to know very much about most foreign policy issues, and routinely talks about seizing oil fields as if this were a practical or desirable thing to do. Should realists get on board with a candidate like that because he says some of the right things about the national interest or democracy promotion in the vaguest way possible? I’ll let you be the judge.

Drezner mentions some of the people that Trump has consulted, and a couple of those names should be alarming to lots of people and not just realists:

Rogin reports that Trump has talked to a few foreign policy people (Harvard historian Daniel Pipes, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Danny Dayon [bold mine-DL], former Defense Intelligence Agency head Michael Flynn).

Pipes was considered a neoconservative until not that long ago (and back in 2005 he said he “happily” accepted the label), and his record is full of horrible foreign policy arguments. Here he was shilling for the MEK, here he was arguing for attacking Iran in 2013, and here he is making an uncharacteristic case for aligning the U.S. with the Assad regime. In short, Pipes routinely offers bad and truly dangerous advice on a range of issues. He also regularly exaggerates the threat from jihadist groups.

Danny Danon is a vocally pro-settler member of Likud, and ran against Netanyahu for the party leadership in part because he thought that Netanyahu wasn’t “tough” enough on the Palestinians and others. He flatly rejects a two-state solution, opposes peace talks, and openly calls for annexing most of the West Bank.

Some of the only people that have been identified as advising Trump on foreign policy are dangerous and frequently wrong about major issues in the Near East. That is the sort of advice that the Trump campaign seems to value. Now why exactly would realists want to be part of that?

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Rejecting the Elite Consensus

Gage Skidmore / Phil Roeder

Noah Millman makes some excellent points in response to Ross Douthat’s latest column:

Both Trump and Sanders, in very different ways, are saying: you know, America’s leadership class has been very busy, but it hasn’t really been taking care of business. And they are telling the people to rebuke their leadership for that by throwing them out. They may be the wrong tribunes of that sentiment – Trump certainly is. But how is that impulse not exactly the right response to elite decadence?

Put bluntly: if the American people are sick of precisely the sorts of “do something” actions that Douthat highlights as signs of decadence, who, in this primary, are they supposed to vote for?

I think that’s right, and I’d say that the truly strange thing is that this reaction hasn’t come much sooner. Douthat starts his column by asking why this is happening now as opposed to a few years ago in the immediate aftermath of the crash and the recession. The failed leadership and the public’s frustrations with their failures were there all along. My guess is that it is happening now because this is the first truly open contest for the nomination in both parties since the 2008 crash, and because the overwhelming elite response to the financial crisis and recession has been to go back to business as usual. Many Republicans can see that their party leaders are committed to continuing or reviving policies that have done nothing for them, and many Democrats can see that their party is in thrall to a candidate closely tied to the financial and political classes that they distrust and loathe. This isn’t so much a reaction against “decadence” as it is a pointed rejection of the elite consensus on many major issues and of the kinds of leaders that maintain it. They’re not protesting over the fact that our society isn’t “advancing” as it once did. They’re objecting to being led in the same direction that they’ve been badly led for decades. As vague or unworkable as their proposals may be, Trump and Sanders are offering voters a chance to go in another direction, and a lot of them are eager to take it.

Republican elites are always trying to sell their party on getting the U.S. involved in foreign conflicts, so it is no surprise that the top two candidates at the moment are some of the only ones explicitly arguing that the U.S. shouldn’t take sides in Syria’s civil war. Republicans may be ready to support fighting wars that they perceive to have something to do with national security, but they have no appetite for sending Americans to police foreign wars for the sake of global “leadership.” It appears they are going to vote accordingly. There is bipartisan support for any and every trade agreement that comes along, and skepticism of those agreements is always dismissed and/or vilified, so it was only a matter of time before candidates espousing that same skepticism would reflect popular frustration on this issue. The most obvious disconnect on the Republican side is on immigration, where Republican elites are strongly in favor of pushing for a liberalization of immigration policy that the vast majority of the party’s supporters doesn’t want. Twice in the last decade party leaders have trying pushing through an immigration bill that their voters hated, and twice they have been stopped. Then those same leaders wonder why most Republicans are getting behind candidates arguing for a radically different position on immigration from theirs.

Just as some other major parties in the Western world have neglected and ignored their constituents’ interests and views for decades on the assumption that they had “nowhere to go” (see Labour in the U.K. for a prime example), our major parties have done to same to millions of their voters. The leaders of the major parties now face a reckoning for their neglect of and poorly-hidden contempt for their voters.

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The RNC Shoots Itself in the Foot (Again)

Graphic by Tim Markatos

Philip Diehl explains how the RNC’s own rule changes are coming back to haunt them in this election:

The last thing the Republican National Committee wanted was a drawn-out battle for the nomination. That’s why the RNC attempted to design the 2016 primary rules to favor an establishment candidate. Of course, the 2016 presidential race has been anything but favorable to establishment candidates: The dynamics of the race point squarely to an anti-establishment candidate securing the nomination. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz now have a near-insurmountable advantage in the race, one that will almost certainly leave the establishment candidates finished by early March.

The RNC has a great talent for fighting the last war. Each cycle they do their best to remedy whatever they perceived to be a major flaw with the last primary season, and they end up with an outcome they hate even more than the last one. In 2008, McCain won quickly against a divided field. He had the nomination effectively sewn up by Super Tuesday (February 5 that year), and Romney’s withdrawal from the race later that same week guaranteed that McCain would win. Because McCain was a nominee many Republicans didn’t want, the RNC set out to prevent the same quick success of a front-running candidate. To that end, they spread out the primaries and fought against “front-loading” the calendar in 2012, and they moved away from winner-take-all rules in some places. That gave them a drawn-out fight between Romney and his rivals that they concluded lasted far too long. Because they assumed that this hurt the eventual nominee and damaged the party with the endless series of primary debates, they went back to a system that was supposed to give a front-runner a better chance to wrap things up sooner. Unfortunately for them, this year party leaders loathe the top two candidates to differing degrees and would prefer that neither of them wins, but the RNC arranged things so that it will be very difficult for any of the other candidates to stop them both.

Some states have what Diehl calls “winner-takes-most” rules that set up a threshold for winning delegates. If a candidate reaches 15 or 20%, he gets his share, but if he falls short of that he gets nothing. The trouble for the “establishment” candidates is that none of them is consistently polling well enough to meet the threshold in most places. Diehl gives an example:

Georgia, a winners-take-most state with a 20 percent threshold, illustrates the formidable obstacles the establishment candidates face. A CBS News/YouGov poll conducted in mid-January shows the outsiders taking 76 percent of the vote while the four insiders combined take just 19 percent. Rubio leads the insiders with 13 percent, trailing Trump by 26 points. Only Trump, with 39 percent, and Cruz, with 29 percent, would qualify for delegates, splitting the state’s 76 delegates between them. So far, none of the establishment candidates are close to meeting Georgia’s 20 percent threshold.

The Georgia scenario will play out in six states holding primaries on March 1, otherwise known as the SEC Primary.

Of course, things could change between now and March 1, but the point is that Rubio or any other “establishment” candidate can’t afford to hang around for months finishing in third place again and again in the hopes of winning at some later date. If the GOP had a purely proportional system for awarding delegates that might not be such a terrible plan, but it doesn’t. As Diehl points out the Southern states that vote on March 1 account for 422 delegates apportioned by the same rules, and he observes that they “are conservative states in which establishment candidates will likely struggle to meet the thresholds. The Republican nomination contest is rigged to favor the strongest candidates, and until something changes dramatically that means the system is rigged to favor Trump and Cruz.

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Judging Cuba Normalization by an Unfair Standard

Flickr Commons

The Washington Post absurdly declares that normalization with Cuba is “failing” because it hasn’t yet dramatically changed the country’s political system:

Yet there is scant evidence so far of a sea change in Cuba — perhaps because Mr. Obama continues to offer the Castro regime unilateral concessions requiring nothing in return.

It makes no sense to judge normalization with Cuba this way. Even if it were appropriate, it is far too soon to pass judgment on the effects of a policy that has been in place for less than a year. Opponents of normalization have been content to defend a policy of isolation that achieved nothing for the last five decades, but they are not prepared to wait even five years to see what comes from having normal relations with Cuba. The Post‘s editors also fail to grasp that the purpose of U.S. relations with another government is not to facilitate political change in the other country, but to secure the interests of our country and to promote cooperation in securing shared interests.

The chief argument for restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba is that it gives the U.S. more influence to advance its interests in relations with Havana. If a diplomatic opening helps to improve Cuba’s political system, that is a welcome side-effect, but it is a mistake to judge the merits of diplomatic engagement so quickly and to hold it to such an unrealistic standard. The U.S. shouldn’t need to have a reason to establish normal relations with one of its closest neighbors. This is something that should exist as a matter of course. It may be that having an improved relationship with Havana will eventually allow Washington to have some constructive influence on Cuban political change, or it may not, but either way having normal relations with Cuba is a good thing for both countries.

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Spinning Failure in Iowa

Randy Miramontez / Shutterstock.com

Jeet Heer anticipates the spinning that will follow tonight’s results:

It’s inevitable that some candidate in the crowded Republican field will under-perform tomorrow. How will his or her supporters spin the dismal news? History offers a guide. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani came in sixth in Iowa with 3 percent of the vote. You would think that such a terrible showing would be impossible to gild into a shining achievement. Yet John Podhoretz of Commentary wrote, “The result in Iowa could not have been better for Giuliani tactically.” David Frum, another Giuliani supporter, enthused, “Yet as the smoke clears, it’s going to become apparent that Rudy was the night’s big winner.”

This spinning for Giuliani was driven by the pundits’ desire that their preferred candidate would prevail in the end. Failure in Iowa could be dismissed because Giuliani was always a horrible fit with Iowa Republicans, and because the result fit in with his risible “wait until Florida” strategy. Heer quotes Giuliani in an old 2008 post saying this:

This is a strategy we selected–it is the only strategy that can work for us and it’s a good one…and given the nature of the race which is wide open, we think it is going to turn out to be a smart strategy.

As we know (and knew at the time), it was a ridiculous strategy, and it was never going to work in Giuliani’s favor. Despite that, Giuliani and his fans stayed on message that a poor result in Iowa was consistent with their plan, and so they pretended that failure was a rare species of victory. Ultimately, it didn’t do him any good, but it allowed his fans to keep kidding themselves that he might become the nominee.

My guess is that the Rubio campaign will underperform tonight. His campaign organization is not that good, his support is relatively soft, and he neglected to campaign in Iowa as much as many of his competitors. Like Giuliani, he has a campaign strategy that makes no sense and can’t work. Nonetheless, we already know that he has a ready supply of boosters eager to turn a mediocre showing into proof that his “moment” has finally arrived. Jason Zengerle remarked on this last night:

Virtually no one will celebrate or try to explain away poor results for the other “establishment” candidates. For one thing, they have already been written off, and for another it doesn’t help Rubio to minimize the bad results of his New Hampshire rivals. The story that a lot of pundits and journalists want to be able to tell after tonight is that Rubio has exceeded expectations. That is more than a little amusing since many of them have continually gone out of their way to raise those expectations beyond what the candidate could achieve, but this is the story that Rubio boosters have to tell to keep the illusion going that his campaign strategy won’t fail. It is the story many of them will try to tell regardless of how underwhelming the result may be. Bear that in mind when we hear that Rubio is the “real” winner tonight. There was probably never going to be a result that would make his boosters say otherwise. Rubio will be just as much the winner in Iowa tonight as he was the “real” front-runner months ago. That is to say, not at all.

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Trump Leads in Iowa

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The final Des Moines Register poll was released over the weekend, showing Trump slightly ahead of Cruz (28-23%) and Clinton barely ahead of Sanders (45-42%). Trump and Clinton have gained ground over the last month:

Ann Selzer, whose firm conducts the polls, told me before the poll was released that the late momentum usually matters as much as the top-line results. That appears to have gone in Clinton’s and Trump’s favor. Both added supporters in January while their main rivals, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz respectively, lost some.

As Cruz has been passed by Trump, he has looked for another way to shore up his position besides attacking the front-runner. In the closing days of the contest, Cruz has directed his attacks against Rubio instead. Though the Rubio campaign wanted to spin these attacks as proof of “Marcomentum,” the poll found no evidence that Rubio was enjoying a late surge:

Support for Rubio, who has emerged as the leading establishment candidate, remained flat as the caucuses near. In fact, over the four days of the survey, his support dropped the last two days.

The thinking behind Cruz’s targeting of Rubio was that many of Rubio’s supporters are not firmly committed to backing him and could switch to another candidate. Rubio’s support is the softest of the top three Republicans:

A whopping 71 percent of Trump’s supporters say they’re certain they’ll vote for him, compared to just 29 percent who may yet switch, the Iowa Poll found. Among Rubio’s supporters, 47 percent were committed while 53 percent said they may switch to another candidate.

Cruz is the most likely to benefit if the Floridian’s supporters switch to another candidate, as Cruz is the second-choice preference of most of them. Cruz is reputed to have the best organization in Iowa, so he is better-positioned to poach uncertain supporters of other candidates than any of his rivals. I assume Cruz will outperform the 23% he received in the last poll, while I suspect Rubio will not quite get his 15% in part because he’ll lose some supporters to Cruz during the caucuses. My guess is that Trump has enough of an edge to hold off Cruz, but the final result will be close enough that it shouldn’t do too much damage to Cruz’s prospects elsewhere.

Predictions: Trump 31% Cruz 28% Rubio 13% Carson 9% Paul 7%
Clinton 49% Sanders 48% O’Malley 3%

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