Daniel Larison

‘Brexit’ and the Myopic EU Leadership

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This part of a report on Cameron’s last EU summit meeting stood out to me:

[European Commission President] Juncker reiterated his view that Cameron lost the referendum because he and his party have spent years dismissing the EU as anti-democratic and “too technocratic.” He said Cameron shouldn’t be “taken by surprise if voters believe you.”

Cameron bears significant responsibility for losing a referendum he assumed he would win, but he didn’t lose because he was too critical of the EU in the past. One problem was that his valid criticisms in the past didn’t square with his alarmism about what would befall the U.K. outside the EU. Another was that his earlier criticisms made it hard for people to take him seriously as a defender of Britain’s membership in the EU. He wasn’t quite enough of a Euroskeptic to have credibility with the people inclined to vote Leave, but he was too much of one to be credible as a Europhile advocate.

What Juncker naturally misses is that the EU is anti-democratic and too technocratic (and that’s the way that many EU leaders like it). As far as many voters across Europe are concerned, those are some of the EU’s major flaws. They aren’t seen that way by the EU’s top officials, and that’s a major cause of this latest rift. Cameron didn’t err by acknowledging those flaws earlier. The real failure here was the EU’s unwillingness to make any concessions that might address these entirely valid criticisms. That put Cameron and his allies in an impossible position of defending institutions that refused to be reformed with the promise that they still could be. That left British voters virtually no choice but to reject continued membership. In the end, that isn’t only Cameron’s fault. The fault also lies with the short-sighted Eurocrats that have assumed they can get their own way regardless of what voters in any member state think. They created the conditions that made “Brexit” possible, and ultimately they have no one to blame but themselves.

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‘Brexit’ and a Lesson in Coalition Politics

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Anne Applebaum thinks she is scoring some points at the expense of Leave campaigners:

The leave campaign does not have a common vision and does not have a common plan because its members wouldn’t be able to agree on one.

This is not as interesting or surprising as Applebaum clearly thinks it is. It’s true that a temporary coalition organized to win a referendum doesn’t have a “common vision” beyond supporting an exit from the EU because many different kinds of people supported withdrawal. Labour voters from Wales presumably don’t agree with Boris Johnson about most things, but some of them did agree on this question for their own reasons. There were different groups with competing ideas for what a post-“Brexit” U.K. would look like and what it would do, and those ideas contradicted each other because people with different political views and priorities disagree with each other all the time. Agreeing on one issue, even a major one, doesn’t override or cancel out pre-existing political disagreements, and different factions are going to end up on the same side of a debate for all sorts of reasons.

One could make a similar “charge” against Remain campaigners and say that their coalition included separatists and unionists, conservatives and socialists, republicans and monarchists, and so on, but what would be the point? Broad national coalitions are, well, broad, and during referendums they are organized for the sole purpose of winning an election. In short, Applebaum is objecting that the Leave campaign did not unify disparate political factions around a common post-EU agenda in the space of a few months, and we’re supposed to think that this is discrediting. The problem with the “Brexit” coalition is supposed to be that it was too inclusive of opposing political views? This is all the more ridiculous when we remember that the point of the campaign was to argue for regaining increased control over decisions that affect the U.K. It was not a campaign that had to agree on any set agenda beforehand, and if it had done so it would have alienated some of the voters that propelled them to victory last week. No doubt some of the people that voted Leave will end up being disappointed with what a post-“Brexit” government does in the future (as most voters are always disappointed to some degree in the results of their votes), but that government will be accountable to them in a way that the EU was never going to be. That’s the part that Leave voters agreed about, and so naturally it is the part that receives as little mention in Applebaum’s column as possible.

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The Post’s ‘Antidote’ for a Democratic Election

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The Post editors have an idea for an “antidote” for British withdrawal from the EU:

In the meantime, the United States can best support Britain, and Europe, by becoming a more active and vocal leader of the NATO alliance, which will retain Britain as a member. If the European Union is weakening or even in danger of crumbling, to the delight of Vladi­mir Putin, Mr. Xi and other adversaries, then one antidote is a reinforced transatlantic military partnership that bridges the incipient gap between London and the continent.

Attentive readers will notice that this has nothing to do with supporting Britain. It does not help Britain in any tangible way if the U.S. becomes “a more active and vocal leader of the NATO alliance.” Insofar as this increased activism involves demanding additional commitments from the U.K. in the coming years, it will probably be a nuisance that most people in British politics would just as soon skip. It is just an excuse to agitate for the more activist U.S. policy in Europe that the Post‘s editors have wanted for years. They specifically reject doing anything that might actually be helpful to the U.K. during its transition, and instead look to use “Brexit” as an excuse for increasing the U.S. role in Europe.

It is telling that the Post thinks that there needs to be an “antidote” to a democratic decision by the citizens of a close ally. Having an antidote ready at hand implies that there is a poison that needs to be countered, which in this case happens to be a free vote to withdraw from an international political organization. Nothing could better sum up how thoroughly at odds with representative government the EU has become. It doesn’t surprise me that their answer to the referendum is to push for policies that will heighten tensions in Europe and add new commitments that the U.S. doesn’t need, but it is striking that they don’t even try to explain how this is in the interests of the U.S. or Britain.

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The Leave Win Doesn’t Presage a Trump Victory

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Peter Weber draws lessons for the 2016 election from the EU referendum:

The first lesson Brexit has for anti-Trump America is that there’s a potential majority out there that is angry, scared, and more than willing to jump into the abyss.

There are a few problems with comparing the result from Britain’s vote last week and Trump’s chances in our presidential election. For one thing, Trump is viewed even less favorably here than the EU is viewed in Britain. Only 44% in Britain viewed the EU favorably in a Pew survey earlier this year, and Trump’s average national favorability rating is 36%. The Republican candidate is more toxic to most Americans than the EU is to most Britons, and Remain just lost.

If the referendum tells us anything about our election, it is that the side weighed down by the unpopular candidate/cause is the one that will end up losing, but then we should have already known that. Even if he didn’t have other problems, Trump would have an uphill climb in the general election because most Americans simply dislike him. While there are some clear similarities between some Leave and Trump voters, it would be a mistake to see the success of the Leave campaign as a sign that Trump is capable of pulling off something similar.

Another reason to doubt that the EU referendum tells us much about how Trump will do is the different demographics of the two countries: the U.S. has a significantly lower percentage of white voters and a much larger percentage of nonwhite voters. If the U.S. looked like the U.K. demographically, it’s conceivable that Trump could win the election, but that hasn’t been the case for forty years or more. There may be more white voters than many people have assumed based on 2012 exit polling, but there don’t appear to be enough of them to make Trump president.

Polling for the EU referendum was not all that accurate, and Trump supporters can draw some encouragement from that, but that is not saying much. Leave was very competitive in the polling average during a large part of the campaign, and Trump’s deficit against Clinton just continues to grow. Leave started out pretty far behind, but gradually closed the gap. Since he clinched the nomination, Trump’s numbers have been going the other way. If you paid attention to the polls in the referendum campaign, a Leave win would not have surprised you at all. Based on the polling we’ve seen in late spring and early summer, it requires a dramatic recovery or an unparalleled polling failure to imagine a Trump victory.

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‘Brexit’ and Elite Failure

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Matt Taibbi comments on the elite backlash against the Leave win:

Were I British, I’d probably have voted to Remain. But it’s not hard to understand being pissed off at being subject to unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels. Nor is it hard to imagine the post-Brexit backlash confirming every suspicion you might have about the people who run the EU.

Imagine having pundits and professors suggest you should have your voting rights curtailed because you voted Leave. Now imagine these same people are calling voters like you “children,” and castigating you for being insufficiently appreciative of, say, the joys of submitting to a European Supreme Court that claims primacy over the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.

The overall message in every case is the same: Let us handle things.

What makes this contempt for voters even more notable is that it follows a decade and more of multiple, massive elite failures, all of which contributed to one degree or another in creating the profound popular distrust of political leaders and “experts” that made it much easier for many people to vote Leave. Technocratic rule may be tolerable if the technocrats are perceived to be good at their job and retain some political legitimacy in the eyes of the voters, but when they aren’t and don’t it is hard to take their complaints about ill-informed voters seriously. One observer put it this way:

The point here is not that popular judgments are necessarily better or more reliable (in some or all of these cases political leaders initially had popular support for their disastrous choices), but that the political and media classes in the West have had a very bad track record since at least the start of the century. More important, they have presided over one failure after another largely without being held to account. This referendum offered voters an opportunity to punish the political class that served them poorly, and they took it.

One of the odder responses to the Leave win is to cite it as proof that no one should ever hold a referendum on an important question. Trying to run a government by referendum would indeed be impractical and unwise, but to give the electorate one opportunity to have its say on a significant issue on which the majority’s views are not represented by any major party seems like the most grudging concession to the people. Britain is a country full of Euroskeptics, and yet there is only one thoroughly Euroskeptic party (i.e., UKIP) and it has exactly one MP in Parliament. Voters that don’t like the EU are badly underrepresented, and the referendum just showed us by how much. One of the reasons why so many Labour voters backed Leave was that their party leaders long ago ignored their views and concerns, especially on immigration, and voting Leave gave them a way to voice those concerns so that they might finally be heard and taken seriously. It is utterly predictable that their support for Leave should now be cited as another reason to ignore and dismiss them.

Maybe these questions shouldn’t be decided this way, but it’s not as if there was another option available. Given the structure of the EU and the nature of its institutions, there is no other way for British voters (or voters in any other EU country) to hold the EU to account for their decisions. The same democratic deficit that motivated many people in the U.K. to vote Leave is the very thing that critics of the referendum result want to increase, and in the process prove that the majority was right to think that their opponents held them in total contempt.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

How fear won in Britain. Freddy Gray reflects on the fear-mongering from both sides of the EU referendum.

The “Brexit” vote shows how hard it is to defend the EU. David Miller observes that even Remain supporters don’t have anything positive to say about it.

Nobody is really pro-EU. Tim Black looks at the EU and finds nothing appealing about it.

The referendum was a great thing for democracy. Brendan O’Neill comments on the significance of the EU referendum and what can be learned from it.

The toxic U.S.-Saudi relationship. Michael Brendan Dougherty rails against the relationship with the Saudis and U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen.

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Cameron’s Failure


Alex Massie reviews David Cameron’s tenure as prime minister:

No prime minister in living memory has suffered a defeat of such cataclysmic proportions; none has been so thoroughly humiliated by his own electorate. Cameron lost control of his party and then his country. The consequences of that carelessness will be felt, in Britain and internationally, for years to come. Future political historians will ponder a melancholy question: what was the point of David Cameron? And their judgment is likely to be severe.

Cameron promised a vote on EU membership to maintain party unity and stave off the challenge from UKIP, and so it is oddly fitting that in following through on that promise he succeeded in further fracturing his party and opening the door for UKIP to achieve its main goal. Just as he thought he could smother Scottish nationalism with the independence referendum two years ago, he believed he could squash Euroskepticism in the Tory ranks and put the issue to rest for good, and in both cases he miscalculated about as badly as one can.

You might think that Cameron would have learned from the Scottish referendum that these things can backfire and empower the very people it is meant to weaken, but he did not. He seems to have taken an entirely different, wrong lesson from the unionist win in 2014. He seems to have concluded that the side he supported couldn’t lose, and so he may have thought there was no danger that he would if he called a referendum. Whatever else one wants to say about how he conducted himself in these campaigns, what stands out most in all of this is Cameron’s sheer arrogance and poor political judgment. He picked two fights that he was certain he couldn’t lose, nearly lost one, and then lost the other in such a way that makes it very likely that the other result will be reversed as well.

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Why Did Britain Vote to Leave?

JMiks / Shutterstock
JMiks / Shutterstock

The U.K. vote to exit the EU has shocked many observers in Britain and around the world so much because they thought it wouldn’t happen. These people couldn’t imagine Leave winning because the result seemed too horrible to them to consider as a real possibility. In the days leading up to the vote, the “smart money” in the financial markets was betting that Leave would lose, and so there was an assumption that this meant something about how the referendum would go. That eliminated any sense of urgency to get more people to turn out for the Remain side, which was going to be struggling in getting its less-motivated supporters to show up in any case. As it turned out, the “smart money” didn’t know more than anyone else and was caught off guard more than most, which is partly why the negative reaction in the markets has been as great as it has.

The widespread belief that undecided voters usually side with the status quo probably contributed to a certain amount of complacency among Remain voters. If many Remain voters didn’t feel the need to show up–and turnout in many Remain areas was much lower than the national average–there may have also been some Leave voters who thought they could get a “free” protest vote without changing anything. Some people that have become accustomed to voting one way or the other without seeing meaningful changes in their circumstances may have assumed that voting either way wouldn’t matter.

Immigration was the main issue that the Leave campaign used to its advantage, but what made that especially important for their voters was that it affected a number of other important things (health, education, housing, etc.) and it was an issue on which their political leaders resolutely refused to pay attention to their concerns. It was a symbol of everything that they disliked about their own government and its relationship with the EU, and it was an issue over which they knew they had no control as long as things stayed as they are. This was probably most true for disaffected Labour voters, who have already shown a willingness to abandon their party in previous elections because they think (correctly) that their leaders long since abandoned them. There were reports of a working-class rebellion brewing in the U.K., but many on the Remain side seem to have thought that they could continue ignoring these people.

Having had their concerns and interests dismissed for decades, these voters similarly dismissed the pleading of their leaders to vote to stay in. The lack of trust in these leaders was fatal for the Remain campaign, because its case depended so heavily on the leaders’ warnings, and they had already proven many times over that they couldn’t be trusted. The fact that these same leaders relied so heavily on scare tactics to make their case can’t have helped rebuild that lost trust. The more outrageous the fear-mongering became, the less credibility the Remain advocates ended up having with large swathes of the electorate. Decades of neglect and contempt that so many politicians showed these voters came back to bite the political class at the most critical moment.

The EU’s multiple failures over the last decade also contributed to driving an already Euroskeptic country out the door. The creation of the euro was a major blunder, and the destructive policies that EU leaders forced on other member states for the sake of the eurozone compounded the original error. The Lisbon treaty process confirmed that the EU would continue its centralizing tendencies without regard for what voters thought about that (and it also provided the mechanism that the U.K. will now use to leave the EU). Merkel’s response to the migration crisis was almost perfectly designed to generate anti-EU sentiment. British voters could see what the EU had done to other member states in these crises, and many reasonably concluded that at some point it could do similar things to them. Because the EU has no meaningful political accountability to correct these errors and was never going to have any, leaving seemed to be the best option.

I don’t know how many voters were impressed by Leave arguments that focused on self-government and democratic accountability, but these arguments cast leaving the EU as a positive and empowering action. That was probably very attractive to voters that feel that they have very little power or influence over the way their country is governed. The Leave camp presented withdrawing from the EU as an affirmation of democracy and an expression of national self-confidence. Compared to the dreary technocratic arguments coming from the other side, it is no wonder that more people found this to be the more appealing message.

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Some Implications of the Leave Win


Now that the U.K. has voted to leave the EU, no one knows exactly what comes next, but we can see some general outlines of what is likely to happen. The vote itself does not automatically trigger British exit from the EU, and it will be up to the government to carry out what the electorate has endorsed. Much will depend on how punitive or magnanimous EU governments choose to be in dealing with the U.K. They can come to a fairly quick and fair arrangement that allows the U.K. and EU to conduct business with as little interruption as possible, or they can choose to make an example of the U.K. to discourage others from following its example. The latter course would be short-sighted and would only drive more people into the anti-EU camp, but no one has ever accused European political leaders of being particularly wise.

Most pro-Leave Conservatives profess not to want a leadership challenge against Cameron, so he will probably stay on for the foreseeable future, but he will do so as a severely diminished leader. It’s hard to think of any modern political leaders that have gambled and lost on a major issue as Cameron has and remained in office for very long. Despite having all of the country’s major parties and much of the media behind him, he lost the most consequential British election of the last forty years. Instead of quashing his Euroskeptic detractors, Cameron presided over their greatest success to date. Unless Cameron wants to provoke a schism in his party and a leadership challenge, he has to respect the referendum result and begin negotiations with the EU on withdrawal.

The consequences for Labour’s leadership may be no less serious. The party’s current and former leaders were remarkably unsuccessful in rallying their voters to the Remain side, and the support of a large bloc of Labour voters for Leave reflects the extent to which the latter feel abandoned and betrayed by their party over at least the last two decades. That has been obvious in the defection of Labour voters to the SNP and UKIP in recent years, and it is even harder to miss now. The fact that Wales voted for Leave reconfirms that Labour’s leaders have lost touch with their traditional strongholds.

Scotland was solidly for Remain by more than twenty points. It seems certain that the SNP will point to the gap between Scottish support for EU membership and English/Welsh support for leaving as proof that Scotland should go its own way. The concern that “Brexit” could lead to another Scottish independence referendum was valid, and the nationalists have a better chance to win the next vote. All of that will depend on how exactly withdrawal from the EU shapes British politics over the next few years, but it is a safe bet that there will be another referendum on independence within the next ten years.

Update: I was wrong about Cameron. He has announced his resignation, and will stay on for the next few months in a caretaker capacity.

2nd Update: Corbyn is facing a no-confidence motion.

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Leave Narrowly Leads in EU Referendum

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The EU referendum results so far tonight have been very encouraging for the Leave campaign:

The UK’s EU referendum is proving close but the Remain campaign appears to be failing to pick up enough support outside London to win.

At 0345 BST Leave were ahead by over 500,000 votes, with the English shires and Wales voting strongly for Brexit.

It’s still possible that Remain will end up pulling it out, but as of 11:00 p.m. Eastern supporters of withdrawing from the EU have done better than expected and their opponents have not turned out in the numbers that they need to secure a victory. The Remain side was buoyed early on tonight with reports of new polls that showed them winning by 4-8 points, but then as actual results started to come in Leave began scoring larger-than-expected wins and did better than most people expected in many other places. The anecdotal evidence indicating strong support for Leave in many constituencies appears to have been correct. The financial markets and bettors had too much confidence in predictions of a Remain victory, and have been panicking in response to evidence that they have misread the situation.

Turnout throughout the country was quite high (roughly 72%), which makes Leave’s apparent success all the more remarkable. The conventional wisdom was that Remain would benefit from a high-turnout election, but it seems that Leave has benefited from having many people that don’t normally vote show up at the polls. Turnout in reliably Remain parts of the country (e.g., Scotland) has been lower than anticipated, and that is in keeping with the assumption that Leave supporters are more motivated to vote. The final result will likely be quite close, and Leave has a decent chance of an outright win. If that happens, Cameron will be humiliated, but he may be able to hang on in office for a time because of the support he has received from so many of the pro-Leave Tories. Even if Remain holds on to win by a narrow margin, it seems certain that another referendum on this question will be held in just a few years’ time.

A Leave win would represent an extraordinary repudiation of Britain’s political class, and it would be an unprecedented expression of popular dissatisfaction with the EU. Both of these are healthy and long overdue. While they may have some negative short- and medium-consequences for Britain and the EU, a vote for withdrawal would nonetheless be a welcome outcome.

Update: The BBC projects that Leave will win.

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The Indefensible U.S.-Backed War on Yemen Continues

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Michael Brendan Dougherty sums up the damage caused by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war on Yemen:

Consider Saudi Arabia’s unjust war with Yemen, which has become a grotesque humanitarian disaster. American involvement in this war has hardly been acknowledged by our political class, and is barely even known to the public. Understandably, perhaps, people want to look away from what is happening: With the help and connivance of the British and American governments, Saudi Arabia has been deliberately starving the country of Yemen, a nation unusually dependent on food imports.

The UN reported this week that nearly 14 million people, half of Yemen’s population, are suffering a food “crisis” or “emergency.” The next classification after emergency is “famine.” The UN’s efforts at relieving the hunger of Yemen reach just 3.5 million Yemeni people, and even this project is desperately underfunded. Beyond the starvation conditions, Saudi-led airstrikes have knocked over humanitarian relief resources in Yemen, and just this week killed another eight innocents in a single strike.

The situation will soon be even worse than this. As I’ve mentioned before, the U.N.’s food program will shortly be out of money. A new report confirms that this week:

Khoury said in an interview on Wednesday that without more funding, ‘we don’t have enough money to feed even these people’.

The WFP would need about $US200 million ($A268 million) to keep its food distribution at current levels in the coming months, he said.

UN agencies requested $US1.8 billion in overall aid for Yemen in 2016, but only 20 per cent of that money has arrived, Khoury said.

Losing that aid will obviously make the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen even worse than it already is. It can’t be emphasized enough that the Saudi-led blockade is mostly responsible for depriving the population of basic necessities, and it has been doing so for the last fifteen months. The near-famine conditions in Yemen today are a man-made disaster, and the Saudis and their allies bear the largest share of responsibility for it. This is what the U.S. is supporting in order to “reassure” a clutch of despots of our commitment to them.

Dougherty asks the obvious questions:

Why is this mission valuable to the U.S.? Why are we participating, despite repeated warnings that it is a humanitarian disaster?

What kind of friendship requires something so transparently wicked?

I suspect that one of the reasons that U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen receives so little attention is that there are no good answers to any of these questions, and so people prefer to avoid the subject. The Saudi-led intervention has been indefensible, and almost no one even tries to defend it. But because very few politicians are willing to criticize the Saudis publicly, almost everyone shrugs and accepts what the U.S. has been helping them to do.

U.S. support for the war on Yemen is an especially disgusting example of the tendency to give reflexive backing to the actions of client states. That tendency regularly implicates the U.S. in the wrongdoing of these states, creates new enemies, and strengthens existing resentments against us. Backing the Saudi-led war is morally abhorrent and one of the worst foreign policy decisions of this century, and it is also one of the more needlessly stupid things that our government has done in my lifetime.

Support for the war on Yemen exemplifies many of the worst aspects of our foreign policy. It is remarkably cynical, completely divorced from any identifiable American interest, driven by a misguided desire to please reckless clients, and senselessly cruel to a nation of people that has never done anything to us. I would like to think that most Americans would be appalled by this if they fully understood what was happening and the U.S. role in it, but that would require a lot more than the very limited coverage that the war has received so far.

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‘Brexit’ and the Unappealing EU

Tim Black observes that even supporters for staying in the EU can’t muster any enthusiasm for it:

Just listen to someone make the case for Remain: they’ll admit the EU is flawed; they’ll say it could be more democratic; and they’ll even acknowledge that, despite some left-ish postures, it has screwed whole peoples over, strangling the life out of Greece, economically colonising Italy and Ireland, and causing chaos in Ukraine. It makes for a dispiriting sight. When Remainers make their furtive pitches, their hearts don’t swell; they sink, weighted down by caveats, bad faith and dead-eyed pragmatism.

As I’ve said before, a major reason why the Remain camp can’t make a positive case for the EU is that a distant, dysfunctional, transnational organization can’t inspire any loyalty or affection. That is why the case for staying has relied so heavily on appeals to economic interests and fear-mongering about the dangers of withdrawal. The EU today already is a disaster for tens of millions of people that live in it, and the simplest way to keep people from voting to flee it is to paint an even darker picture of what life would be like outside of it.

Fear of the unknown may end up winning the day, but if it does it will be the most grudging sort of victory for Europhiles. A narrow victory is all they’ll need to claim that the question is now “settled,” but Leave voters aren’t going to be satisfied with that. The referendum campaign has made the supposedly “unthinkable” option of withdrawal a plausible, debatable option, and if Leave doesn’t win today it may not be very long before there is another vote. If Leave wins (and my guess is that it will), it will be a fitting rejection of Remain’s attempt to terrify voters into submission.

Black continues:

There really is nothing appealing about the EU. As a pragmatic, political arrangement, which has done terrible damage to whole nations, it is steadfastly rebarbative. Its supporters cannot be attracted to it. They see its flaws, the way it treats people, its flight from accountability. So, no, they’re not attracted to the EU – they’re repelled towards it, repelled by the sight of ordinary people being able to determine their political future, by the spectre of the democratic will, in all its grubby uncontrollability and aspiration. It is fear of people, not love of the EU, that makes Remainers’ hearts beat that little bit faster.

The conventional wisdom is that most voters end up preferring the status quo option in votes like this, but I think this could be one of the exceptions. When so much of a deeply distrusted political class is on one side of the debate, and when the status quo option involves something as unappealing as the EU, it would be very tempting for most people to repudiate both by backing the other side. If the referendum is a contest over the country’s identity, Remain is at an even greater disadvantage. They are trying to defend a political arrangement that inspires no one, while the Leave side believes they are protecting their country’s traditions and self-government. Given that choice, it would make sense if voters reject the devil they know for the chance of something different.

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Rubio’s Running Again

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Because he said he wasn’t running for re-election, I included Rubio as one of the Senate hawks that would be out of office next year in my article for the current issue of TAC. I should have known better than to expect Rubio to stick to what he said. The Post reports that Rubio will run for a second term:

Sen. Marco Rubio will announce Wednesday he will seek re-election to the Senate, reversing a pledge he made a year ago to either assume the presidency or return to private life in Florida, instantly transforming an already competitive race and improving the chances that Republicans can maintain the Senate majority.

Rubio does have obvious and significant advantages over his competitors in the primary in terms of name recognition and fundraising, so he should be able to secure renomination. However, the fact Rubio is getting back into a race that he repeatedly said he wouldn’t enter may create an opening for his remaining opponents. One of them, Carlos Beruff, is looking to paint Rubio as an untrustworthy establishment figure. Rubio has alienated enough Republicans over the last five years that he could have a bit of a fight on his hands in the primary.

The senator has a few serious weaknesses. Rubio didn’t do much for his constituents during his first term, and one of the few things he tried to do–the Gang of Eight bill–blew up in his face. He justified his extensive Senate absenteeism by deriding the importance of being in the Senate, and now he is going to come back and insist that he really wants to go back there. His reputation for opportunism and inconstancy has started catching up with him, and he will have a hard time defending his record of neglecting his job while trying (and failing) to use it as a springboard to higher office.

Rubio probably does give the Republicans a better chance of holding the seat, but it isn’t certain that they will. He polls better against Rep. Patrick Murphy than other Republican candidates because he is better-known, but his support remains below 50%. His best recent approval rating in Florida is an underwhelming 45% (the worst is 30%), and it’s entirely possible Rubio will end up losing the race. The 2016 electorate will be larger and less hospitable to Rubio than the 2010 electorate was, and even in that very good year for Republicans Rubio won a three-way race with just under 49% of the vote. He won’t have the advantage of a Crist independent candidacy splitting the Democratic vote, and this time he will be running with the baggage from his first term and his failed presidential campaign.

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Will the EU Learn Anything from a ‘Brexit’ Vote?

Efired / Shutterstock
Efired / Shutterstock

Noah Millman makes a good case that “Brexit” could be good for the EU by forcing its leaders to make their institutions more accountable, but he may be a bit too optimistic in his conclusion:

Similarly, if the EU’s leaders take Great Britain’s departure to heart [bold mine-DL], they will work to redress Europe’s democratic deficit, and make its institutions more responsive to Europe’s electorate. If that happens, Britain may discover that joining again makes sense further down the road.

I agree that British withdrawal could shock EU leaders enough that they do this, but that depends on their learning the right lesson from it. They would need to admit that the democratic deficit in the EU is a flaw that needs to be repaired instead of an essential feature to be preserved at all costs. Everything we have seen from the EU’s responses to crises over the last decade suggests that when they are put under pressure they redouble their commitment to the project of building centralized European institutions and concentrating more power in them. If some member states have to be impoverished in exchange for keeping the project going, that is what they will do. Like adherents of any ideological project that has gone awry, the EU’s supporters seem to believe that there is nothing wrong with the project that can’t be fixed by more of the same. Insofar as they believe that the EU cannot fail, but can only be failed, they will probably conclude that “more Europe” is the answer.

As I said yesterday, the drive for “ever closer union” doesn’t much popular support anywhere in Europe, but I should have added that a lack of popular support has never stopped EU leaders from doing whatever they liked regardless of the political or economic costs. EU leaders will almost certainly greet a “Brexit” vote with dismay, anger, and increased contempt for voters, and my guess is that they will conclude that the problem lies with the voters and not with their institutions. That will be the wrong response, and it would presumably make more people in more member states start considering the merits of leaving, but it would be entirely consistent with the poor decision-making that has brought the EU to this point.

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Endangered Hawks

Senators Ron Johnson, John McCain, and Kelly Ayotte (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)
Senators Ron Johnson, John McCain, and Kelly Ayotte (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

The 2016 presidential election has been a dispiriting one for Americans interested in a having a more restrained and responsible foreign policy. The Republican field was overflowing with hawkish candidates, and Hillary Clinton arguably has the most aggressive foreign policy of any Democratic nominee since Lyndon Johnson. The Republican nominee, Donald Trump, offers the public a jumbled, incoherent mix of nationalist bluster, support for torture, yet an apparent wariness of new wars, combined with a shaky grasp of international affairs. A Clinton win will ensure at least another four years of the failed conventional Washington consensus, and no one really knows what a Trump administration would do overseas. That’s the bad news.

The good news this year is that the election may bring a few important changes to the make-up of the Senate that could have a salutary effect on the quality and direction of our foreign-policy debates. Several high-profile hawkish members of the Senate face difficult re-election fights this fall or are not seeking re-election. Their possible replacements promise to be a significant improvement, at least when it comes to opposing new wars and supporting diplomatic engagement with rivals and troublesome states.

In Illinois and Wisconsin, incumbents Mark Kirk and Ron Johnson are generally considered the two most vulnerable senators running for re-election this year. Both are first-term senators elected in the Republican wave six years ago, and both have been consistently trailing behind their respective challengers, Rep. Tammy Duckworth and former Sen. Russ Feingold. Kirk and Johnson have been struggling with abysmal approval ratings below 40 percent, and they look likely to be defeated in November. The outcomes of these two elections could represent the biggest shift on foreign policy that we see this year, and in each case it would mean replacing aggressive hard-liners with committed critics of the Iraq War and the foreign policy it represents.

Kirk has been a vocal Iran hawk, and over the last few years he repeatedly compared the negotiations over the nuclear deal with Iran to the 1938 Munich conference. Once the deal was done, he denounced it as being even worse than Munich, going so far as to say that “Neville Chamberlain got a lot of more out of Hitler than [Under Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman got out of Iran.” Kirk’s hawkishness hasn’t been limited to Iran, however. As a member of the House, he voted for the 2002 Iraq War authorization and backed the war to the hilt in all later votes. In 2013, he supported attacking Syria, and he backed the intervention in Libya in 2011.

The contrast with his opponent could hardly be greater. Tammy Duckworth is a veteran of the war Kirk voted to authorize. She was a helicopter pilot who lost both her legs after being shot down in Iraq. After she returned home, she became a vocal opponent of the war, and she came close to winning her first House race in 2006 by running on a primarily antiwar platform. Elected to her current House seat in 2012, she has since backed the nuclear deal with Iran, voted against arming Syrian rebels, and opposed the Obama administration’s proposed bombing of Syria in 2013.

Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson has also been a reliably hawkish member of the Senate for the last six years. Even though he had not yet taken his seat in late 2010, he joined other newly elected senators to mount a protest to delay—and effectively prevent—ratification of the new arms-reduction treaty with Russia. Like Kirk, he has been a vehement critic of the nuclear deal with Tehran, wrongly saying in a 2015 NPR interview that “we basically capitulated and gave Iran everything they wanted.” On Syria, Johnson voted in committee against authorizing intervention in 2013 but said that he did so because the vote was being “rushed.” He also said that he believed that the president had the authority to attack Syria without additional congressional authorization. Johnson has also voiced support for a ground invasion against ISIS and sponsored a resolution calling for sending weapons to Ukraine.

His opponent, Russ Feingold, was one of the more consistent Senate critics of U.S. foreign-policy adventurism and the overreaching security state before Johnson defeated him in 2010. Feingold was an opponent of the Iraq War from the start, pushed for withdrawal early on, and opposed the 2007 “surge.” He also sharply criticized the Bush administration over warrantless wiretapping, and he was the lone senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act in 2001. Today Feingold supports the nuclear deal with Iran and opposes Johnson’s idea of an American-led ground war against ISIS. During his last tenure in the Senate, Feingold established himself as one of the leading Democratic critics of Bush-era foreign policy, and if elected he seems very likely to be an outspoken voice in future foreign-policy debates.

The New Hampshire Senate race might also see the defeat of one of the chamber’s more hawkish members. Sen. Kelly Ayotte has become a reliable ally of John McCain and Lindsey Graham since her election in 2010. Like other members of her party in the Senate, Ayotte is a firm opponent of the nuclear deal, and like McCain and Graham she backed the Libyan war, supported arming Syrian rebels, and chastised Obama for not doing even more in Syria. On practically every issue, Ayotte has aligned herself with the most aggressive members of the Senate, and that doesn’t seem to have helped her at home. As of early June, she was tied in the polls with Gov. Maggie Hassan, and her approval rating in early 2016 was an underwhelming 42 percent. The New Hampshire race is considered a toss-up, but in a presidential year Ayotte will have a hard time winning in a purple state.

Marco Rubio’s decision not to seek re-election in Florida means that one of the most active and aggressive hawks now in the Senate won’t be there in the future. No matter who replaces him, Florida will be represented by a less ideological and confrontational senator on these issues. There have been some attempts by high-ranking Republicans, and even by Donald Trump, to encourage Rubio to change his mind about the Senate race after he suspended his presidential campaign, but he has insisted that he isn’t going to jump into the race now that his friend Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera is running. Assuming that Rubio follows through on that, he will be out of the Senate come January.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, faces a difficult race for re-election and may not even be able to secure re-nomination. He faces a fairly strong primary challenge from former state senator Kelli Ward, who has criticized McCain for his reflexive interventionism, among other things. McCain has been leading his Democratic opponent, Ann Kirkpatrick, by just a couple of points in several polls, and he has been consistently receiving less than 50 percent support in every poll so far. McCain has withstood primary challenges before, but his support among Republicans has rarely been weaker than it is this year. Arizona is usually a safe Republican seat, but McCain may have finally worn out his welcome now that he is running for his sixth term in office. There is a small but real possibility that the loudest and most consistently wrong hawkish senator of all might be out of office in 2017, and it seems fair to assume that almost any replacement would be an improvement over McCain in matters of war and peace.

These Senate hawks may not be at risk of losing solely or even primarily because of their foreign-policy views, but those views are indeed a liability that the party still has yet to recognize. This reflects the extent to which the Republican Party elite remains out of touch with what most Americans—including many Republicans—want from their government. A May 2016 Pew survey found that a 44 percent plurality of Republicans thinks the U.S. does too much overseas, and Trump and Cruz supporters were even more likely to hold that view. Large numbers of Republican primary voters have been open to moving away from bankrupt Bush-era foreign policy, but they are in great need of better candidates. Despite the apparent preference of a large bloc of Republican voters for a less activist and meddlesome foreign policy, the party continues to recruit and promote candidates who want just the opposite.

The GOP’s foreign-policy agenda hasn’t been popular with most Americans outside the party for years, and it is no longer appealing to roughly half of Republicans nationally. At some point, the party will have to abandon the ruinous approach to world affairs that has cost the country so much over the last decade because most of its own voters will grow tired of it. Until then, hawkish foreign policy will continue to be an anchor dragging down Republican candidates across the country.

thisarticleappears julaug16If these incumbent senators lose all or most of their races, advocates for more aggressive U.S. policies will lose several of their most reliable allies in Congress, and supporters of a more restrained foreign policy may gain at least a couple friends of their own. If all of them lose, it is likely that Republicans will forfeit control of the Senate. That will be another significant political defeat for aggressive, confrontational foreign policy in a national election. Unfortunately, like other repudiations in 2006 and 2008, the GOP may be determined not to learn anything from it.

The election of a few much less hawkish senators won’t produce dramatic or immediate changes in our foreign policy, where presidential power remains largely unchecked, but it will add numbers to the small but growing group of critics of aggressive and reckless interventionism. That group already includes senators such as Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, who have been working together this year to try to impose tougher conditions on the provision of weapons to Saudi Arabia, in response to the Saudi-led war on Yemen. Meanwhile, the departure of such vocal hawks as Kirk and Rubio (and possibly McCain) will mean that there are fewer members constantly agitating for joining new conflicts and against fresh diplomatic initiatives. As some of these hawks have shown over the years, a few senators committed to driving our foreign-policy debates in a certain direction can have an outsized effect on how these issues are perceived.

The 2016 election isn’t likely to give us a more restrained and responsible president, but it does promise to leave us with a Senate that is somewhat less receptive to hawkish arguments than the current one. That may not be enough to halt the next unnecessary war, but it should make it more difficult for the next president to start one. The U.S. is still a long way from having the restrained foreign policy that it should have, but if these hawkish senators go down in the fall, the country will be that much closer to having it.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor for The American Conservative.

Clinton’s VP Choices


Clinton is narrowing down her choices for running mate:

Those on the shortlist include Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a favorite of progressives who has emerged as a blistering critic of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump; Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a well-liked lawmaker from an important general election battleground state; and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro of Texas, a rising star in the Democratic Party.

Kaine would seem to be the best choice of these three. In addition to having worked much more on foreign policy and war powers than Warren, Kaine was a governor from a purple state. Kaine has the relevant experience and preparation to be president that the other two simply don’t have, but choosing him would not be the attention-grabbing or “exciting” one that selecting one of the others would be. Having Kaine on the ticket would show seriousness about governing, and having someone prepared to take over in an emergency would be the responsible thing to do. Because Kaine has been leading the effort to get a vote on authorizing the war on ISIS and has been an advocate of restoring Congress’ role in matters of war, it is possible that Kaine could help check some of Clinton’s hawkish tendencies. I wouldn’t expect too much on this score, but it is something to bear in mind.

Taking Warren out of the Senate would be a mistake for Democrats, since that is where she is likely to have the greatest impact on the party’s agenda. Picking Warren would be seen as a concession to Sanders supporters, but the effect of it would be to make her a defender of whatever Clinton chose to do. Progressives would probably rather have her in the Senate acting as a critic of Clinton’s policies than as the person assigned the task of selling those policies to the left. Regardless, Warren doesn’t have much in the way of foreign policy or executive experience, and there is no obvious electoral advantage in naming a senator from a deep blue state. If Warren is not prepared to be president, Castro is even less prepared than she is, and choosing him would be a fairly odd choice in a year when the Democratic ticket isn’t going to have much trouble winning over Hispanic voters.

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Calling for Military Action Isn’t ‘Speaking Truth to Power’

U.S. Navy / Flickr

Richard Haass puts an unbelievably positive spin on the State Department dissenters’ call to attack the Syrian government:

But what these 51 signatories have done is spoken truth to power [bold mine-DL]. And even if what they have to say is rejected now, it might be welcomed by the next occupant of the White House — especially if it were to be Hillary Clinton, who, as secretary of state, showed considerable willingness to use military force in pursuit of US foreign policy aims.

It’s fair to say that the diplomats that signed this memo are challenging administration policy, but it is hardly speaking “truth to power” when one is endorsing a course of action that has the backing of most hawks in Washington. It can’t be “speaking truth to power” when one is urging the government to initiate hostilities against another state. Foreign policy establishment figures have been publicly chiding Obama to “do more” in Syria for years, and now some State Department diplomats are doing the same thing. It would be more accurate to say that they are repeating the conventional wisdom that other powerful and influential people also accept. If their recommendations are likely to be accepted by the next president, that suggests that their dissent from current policy will probably be rewarded in the future.

There is also something distasteful in saying that advocating military action in Syria has something to do with “speaking truth” to anyone. Nothing could be easier or more predictable for someone in our government than calling for U.S. airstrikes against another state, and there is nothing particularly courageous in agitating for the U.S. to inflict death and destruction in a foreign country. Maybe the memo’s signatories genuinely believe that doing this would create conditions to bring the war to a close, but they’re mistaken and it seems clear that they haven’t thought things through or accounted for what could go wrong.

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The EU’s Days of ‘Ever Closer Union’ May Be Over

Marques / Shutterstock

The Post reports on fears that “Brexit” could be contagious:

Even if nations defuse their own burgeoning Euro-skeptic movements, the days in which leaders convened in Brussels to hand ever more sovereignty to the E.U. may be over if Britain departs, diplomats say.

According to a survey of public opinion in several EU countries, those days may be over regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s vote. Pew found that there is broad support for returning more powers to national governments in many EU member states.

Disagreement on ‘ever closer’ union

The constituency for transferring more powers to Brussels is a minority, and with approval of the EU declining in most countries it seems unlikely to get larger in the near future. When the results are broken down by party, we see that supporters of almost every major party in Europe wants to keep things as they are or return more powers to the national level. There is no appetite anywhere in Europe for “ever closer union.” If the EU misinterprets a British Remain vote as an invitation to pursue further centralization, it is likely to encounter significant resistance in many countries. Pushing for the transfer of additional powers to Brussels could end up provoking the exodus of members that Europhiles fear “Brexit” might cause.

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How Threat Inflation Works

(Photo by U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Joshua Treadwell) (Released)

Bonnie Kristian makes a very good observation about Russia and threat inflation:

The massive momentum of the U.S. military may presently be on the side of the inflaters, but the facts are on the side of the skeptics.

This is normally how it works. As we know, threat inflation typically relies on misrepresenting the facts, or presenting them in the most alarming way possible. If another state is behaving in a way that our government doesn’t like, sometimes the mere fact that it is displeasing is treated as proof of a dire threat. It doesn’t matter if the threat is a relatively minor, manageable one–it has to be cast as a threat to regional stability and “world order.” It doesn’t even matter if the U.S. and its allies are actually threatened by the behavior in question, since the assumption that the U.S. is a guarantor of “world order” dangerously makes any and every threat to anyone our problem.

Threat inflaters naturally aren’t interested in accurately assessing another state’s capabilities and intentions, but always look for ways to take relatively normal, self-interested behavior and make it seem especially sinister and extraordinarily dangerous. If the other state’s behavior is in fact more aggressive than it has been in the past, this is tendentiously read as proof of grand imperialist designs that “require” a massive military build-up or containment strategy. Inflaters also like to treat other states’ actions as unprovoked and driven by the obsessions of foreign leaders, and never consider the role that U.S. and allied actions may have in triggering undesirable behavior. Inflaters invent threats where there aren’t any, exaggerate the ones that do, and help to create new ones by urging aggressive policies to “respond” to the dangers they blow out of proportion.

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Why the Remain Campaign’s Arguments Fall Flat

Hadrian / Shutterstock.com

John Browne exaggerates the consequences of British withdrawal from the EU:

Leaving the European Union would leave Great Britain diminished on the world stage. Where once we were a world leader in trade and global diplomacy, an exit vote would see the U.K. reduced to the level of a second- or third-tier nation [bold mine-DL].

Warning against the loss of Britain’s international status is one of the odder arguments from the Remain camp. If Leave wins and Britain withdraws, the U.K. would still be a permanent member of the Security Council, one of a handful of states with nuclear weapons, and one of the top five or six economies in the world. It is very unlikely that any of that will change. Regardless of how Britain votes on Thursday, it will remain a major power for the foreseeable future. No one could seriously call a state like that second- or third-tier, then there seems to be no claim too ridiculous for this referendum. Britain will have less clout with remaining EU members, and it will not be party to EU negotiations with other states, but it will also not be limited by the need for consensus within the EU when it makes its policies and it may be able to strike deals that are more in line with its particular interests. There is no question that there is a trade-off in British withdrawal, and in the end it may be a trade that the voters don’t want to make, but it is not nearly as one-sided as the Remain camp claims.

The argument is even stranger because Remain needs more than anything to win over disgruntled voters unhappy with the political class’ neglect of their interests at home. That isn’t going to happen by warning about the possible danger to the EU or the decline in British power, which are primarily the concerns of pro-EU elites. Neither of those things is likely to matter very much to people that think their government has ignored them and their complaints for decades. Even if the warnings are correct (and that’s questionable), the possibility that a “Brexit” vote might lead to the break-up of the EU isn’t going to worry voters that already view it with disdain.

The referendum polls have once again tightened, and Remain may end up prevailing after all, but the margin will be so close that it is unlikely that this campaign is the last we have heard about a British exit from the EU.

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