Daniel Larison

‘Brexit’ Begins

Britain has officially started the process of negotiating its exit from the EU:

The U.K. on Wednesday formally began the process of exiting from the European Union, starting on an unprecedented path to reshape its relationship with its closest allies in some of the most complex negotiations the country has ever undertaken.

Nine months after Britain voted to leave the EU, Tim Barrow, Britain’s ambassador to the bloc, hand delivered a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk formally notifying the bloc that the U.K. will be the first country ever to leave. U.K. government officials say there is no going back from there.

We won’t fully know how Britain’s departure will affect the EU and the U.K. until the negotiations are concluded, but it seems likely that there will be some economic disruption in the short term and there will necessarily be renewed interest in the question of Scottish independence. Earlier this week, Scotland’s parliament voted in favor of a second independence referendum to be held within two years, and that authorizes Scotland’s First Minister to seek permission from the U.K. government to hold another vote. May doesn’t want to agree to that yet, but now that the process of leaving the EU has begun another vote on independence can only be postponed and not avoided all together.

As much as the EU referendum result surprised most observers, British membership in the EU was not likely to last as long as the EU was seeking “ever closer union,” which was something that most people in the U.K. (and in some other member states) don’t support. Given the increasingly divergent political preferences of people in Scotland and the rest of the U.K., it seems that the Union may not be around for much longer, either. It will be much harder for unionists to argue against independence after so many of them used the same arguments about identity and self-government during the Leave campaign. The success of Leave has not only given the nationalists another chance soon after the last referendum, but it has also shown that voters are willing to make a major and potentially costly change if they think it will give them more control over their own affairs.

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Bringing Montenegro into NATO Is a Mistake

The Senate voted to approve Montenegro’s entry into NATO:

The Senate voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to admit the small Balkan nation of Montenegro to the NATO military alliance, in what is seen as a crucial step in pushing back against Russian meddling in Eastern Europe.

The vote ended up being just as lopsided as expected, but that doesn’t make bringing Montenegro into the alliance any less ridiculous. Admitting Montenegro into NATO won’t do a thing to counter “Russian meddling” anywhere, but it does mean that the alliance has a new security dependent that adds nothing to the organization. It is foolish to extend a new security guarantee to a country that can’t possibly make us or the alliance more secure. In doing so, the Senate has failed in one of its most basic responsibilities. I applaud Sens. Paul and Lee for voting against an unnecessary and pointless expansion of NATO, and I know it will earn them nothing but grief from their colleagues. Adding Montenegro to the alliance was an easily avoidable mistake, and I very much hope that this will be the very last round of expansion.

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Trump Compounds Obama’s Terrible Error in Yemen

The Wall Street Journal reports on increased U.S. support for the war on Yemen:

The Trump administration has significantly increased military support for Sunni Arab states fighting al Qaeda and Iranian-backed militias in Yemen, said U.S. and Arab officials, drawing the U.S. deeper into the two-year civil war there.

American support now includes greater intelligence and logistical support for the militaries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, these officials said.

The Trump administration also is moving to resume the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia, which were frozen during the final months of the Obama administration due to concerns about the rising numbers of civilian fatalities in Yemen.

Giving the coalition even more support further encourages and rewards the worst behavior of the Saudis and their allies, and it shows that the administration’s Iran obsession is leading it to escalate the worst Obama-era policy for all the wrong reasons. The administration’s Iran hawks support a policy that will do enormous harm to the people of Yemen and involve us in an atrocious war, but it will not reduce Iranian influence in the region. It will only make the region less stable, fuel sectarian hatreds, and strengthen jihadists as they take advantage of the situation. Republican hawks berated Obama for his treatment of regional clients, and many have called for having “no daylight” between them and the U.S. This is what “no daylight” looks like in practice: indulging and enabling their most destructive behavior and making the U.S. complicit in their crimes.

The report is somewhat misleading about the coalition campaign, almost all of which is focused on fighting the Houthi/Saleh alliance and virtually none of which has been aimed at Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Houthis still receive only limited support from Iran, so to call them “Iranian-backed” suggests that there is far more Iranian involvement and influence than there is. Insofar as Trump administration officials accept the coalition line about “Iranian expansionism” in Yemen, they are letting themselves be played for fools. If they think that the coalition will suddenly take more of an interest in combating AQAP in the future, they are kidding themselves.

Support for the war on Yemen was arguably Obama’s greatest foreign policy blunder, and now Trump is starting off his presidency by compounding Obama’s terrible error with even more support for the Saudi-led coalition.

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The Indefensible War on Yemen

Micah Zenko has been covering the war on Yemen and the U.S. role in it since the beginning. He marks the second anniversary of the start of the war by reviewing its costs and commenting on its futility:

Other than dropping weapons with an unconscionable lack of discrimination and proportionality, it appears there are no clear goals and objectives to this day.

On a personal note, in the nearly 20 years of having had the privilege of working and interacting with U.S. national security officials and staffers, I have never followed an issue that virtually nobody can justify or defend [bold mine-DL]. Military officers who have watched or played a role in the Saudi-led bombing campaign are especially sickened by the brutality and strategic pointlessness of the airstrikes.

The war on Yemen and our government’s support for it have been indefensible from the start, and on the few occasions when U.S. officials have been pressed to explain why the U.S. is involved they have had to resort to echoing Saudi propaganda or simply making things up to deflect attention from what is being done to Yemen and its people. The reason virtually no one can justify or defend the policy is that there is no good reason for what our government is doing there, nor is there any good reason for what the coalition is doing. The standard explanation for our role is that Obama wanted to “reassure” the clients in the Gulf of Washington’s backing, but that has always been an unconvincing and frankly pathetic excuse for enabling war crimes and helping to create the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

The frustrating reality is that both the Obama and Trump administrations have been able to back the war without ever having to face much serious scrutiny from Congress or most of the media, and so they have not had to defend a policy that has shamefully encountered relatively little criticism and minimal resistance. Even when the U.S. role in fueling and arming the coalition’s planes has been acknowledged in reports, it is often mentioned only in passing and then minimized as much as possible. It is very difficult to organize opposition to a policy that most people in the country may not even know is happening. I suppose it is good that our officers are sickened by what the U.S. has been helping the Saudis and their allies do, but most of our politicians and policymakers don’t appear to be bothered in the least. On the contrary, the administration is considering how to deepen our involvement and make things even worse.

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Mattis’ Dangerous Request to Increase Support for the War on Yemen

Mattis is one of the people in the Trump administration proposing increased U.S. support for the war on Yemen:

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has asked the White House to lift Obama-era restrictions on U.S. military support for Persian Gulf states engaged in a protracted civil war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, according to senior Trump administration officials.

In a memo this month to national security adviser H.R. ­McMaster, Mattis said that “limited support” for Yemen operations being conducted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — including a planned Emirati offensive to retake a key Red Sea port — would help combat a “common threat.”

Mattis is wrong about this, and his request should be rejected. The restrictions that the Obama administration put in place shortly before leaving office were a belated, half-hearted gesture ostensibly aimed at protesting indiscriminate coalition attacks on civilian targets. It was far too little, much too late, but it was better than nothing. Lifting those restrictions would tell the coalition that the new administration has no problem with the way they have been conducting their campaign, and it will encourage them to be even more reckless and irresponsible than they have been.

Giving the coalition even more support at this point would further implicate the U.S. in their war crimes, and backing an offensive on Hodeidah would make a horrifying humanitarian disaster in the country even worse. Millions are on the brink of famine in large part because of the Saudi-led intervention and blockade. More attacks on the port will push many of them over the brink. Increasing U.S. support would just deepen our complicity in wrecking and starving Yemen, and there can be no justification for doing that.

On top of that, the justification that Mattis gives is a bad one. It is important to emphasize that the coalition’s enemies in Yemen don’t pose a threat to the U.S., and the little support they receive from Iran has never warranted our involvement in this war. Mattis’ “common threat” rhetoric is based in a dangerous misunderstanding of the conflict. If Trump agrees to Mattis’ request, it will lead the administration to escalate U.S. involvement in a war in which we should have no part. The people of Yemen are already paying a terrible, steep price as a result of a war that our government has enabled for two years, and doing more to back the Saudis and their allies will achieve nothing except to inflict even more harm on the civilian population.

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Congress Shouldn’t Pass a New AUMF for the War on ISIS

The New York Times ran an editorial yesterday calling on Congress to debate and approve a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) in the war on ISIS:

But as the American military is doing its job, Congress is refusing to do its duty. Nearly three years into the war against ISIS, lawmakers have ducked their constitutional responsibility for making war by not passing legislation authorizing the anti-ISIS fight. This is not merely a bureaucratic issue. While the president has the power to order troops into battle, the founders were adamant about ensuring that only Congress could commit the nation to protracted overseas military actions.

It is true that Congress has been ducking its responsibility in matters of war for years, but the bigger fault in this case lies with the former and current presidents that have been waging a war for two and a half years without authorization. It is their overreach that is more obnoxious than Congress’ pathetic acquiescence. Calling on Congress to endorse the war years after it started makes the legislative branch little more than a rubber stamp for a policy that has never been seriously debated in Washington. That would effectively pardon and reward two presidents for waging an illegal war.

No president has the authority to do what the Obama administration did and the Trump administration is now doing in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and that is the real constitutional problem here. The danger isn’t the absence of Congress’ ritual approval of a foreign war long after it began, but the president’s essentially unchecked ability to initiate wars whenever and wherever he wants. Endorsing the war over thirty months after its start isn’t going to keep this or any future president from starting new illegal wars, and it will simply give legal cover to the current open-ended, unnecessary war that the U.S. is fighting in at least three countries.

A new resolution might theoretically set limits on the duration, scope, and conduct of the war, but that isn’t going to limit what the executive actually does. Obama claimed that the 2001 AUMF gave him authority to launch this war when it clearly didn’t, and Trump can and will claim authority to do things he isn’t authorized to do if a new resolution is passed. Unless there is some consequence when a president abuses existing authorizations, the limits written into these resolutions don’t matter and won’t have any effect. If that’s the case, going through the motions of debating and voting on a new resolution seems like an exercise in futility.

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Trump’s Misunderstanding of NATO and Our ‘Cheap-Riding’ Allies

Trump reportedly tried to bill Germany for what it supposedly “owes” NATO during his meeting with Chancellor Merkel:

Donald Trump handed the German chancellor Angela Merkel a bill — thought to be for more than £300bn — for money her country “owed” Nato for defending it when they met last weekend, German government sources have revealed.

We already knew that Trump didn’t understand how the alliance works when he said that Germany “owed” NATO money, but if the report is true it also shows how thoroughly inept Trump is in his dealings with allied leaders. Most NATO members don’t meet the defense spending target, but they won’t be goaded into doing so by being told that they owe some huge amount that the administration pulls out of the air. When they are presented with a bill like this, allies will view it as an insult and will probably be less willing to cooperate than they were before.

U.S. allies don’t spend more on their own defense because they don’t think they have to, and as long as the U.S. keeps its military spending at such high levels they will have no incentive to increase theirs. If Trump wants European allies to provide for more of their own defense, he needs to make significant reductions to our military budget. Of course, he is proposing to do just the opposite, so he can count on our allies to continue their “cheap-riding” ways.

Update: The German government denies the story about being given a bill.

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Is the GOP Capable of Governing?

Paul Ryan, unluckiest man in Washington (Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com)

Reading about the fallout from last week’s health care bill failure, I was struck by this statement from the Speaker of the House:

We were a 10-year opposition party [bold mine-DL], where being against things was easy to do,” Mr. Ryan said at a sheepish news conference shortly after the bill was pulled, adding with uncharacteristic candor that Republicans were not yet prepared to be a “governing party.”

That’s a remarkable statement from the top House leader of a party that has been in the majority in that chamber continuously for the last six years and has controlled the House for all but four years during a period of more than two decades. The “10-year opposition party” was in charge of at least one chamber of Congress for more than half that time, and controlled both chambers for at least part of that period. Ryan’s statement is a candid admission of incompetence, but more than that it is a window into the mindset of the party’s leadership about their role during the past eight years.

Despite having a House majority starting in 2011, the GOP didn’t consider itself and didn’t act as if they were responsible for governing. That pose could be maintained only so long as the other party controlled the White House. To the extent that they were ever capable of governing in the past, they let that ability atrophy to the point where they no longer know how to do it. Assuming that he has some idea how to fix this, Ryan won’t have much time to do it before midterm campaigning begins. If the GOP doesn’t learn how to be a governing party very soon, voters will relieve them of that burden in a year and a half.

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The Appalling Idea of Increasing U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

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

Dan de Luce reports that the Trump administration is considering increased support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen:

The Pentagon is looking to increase support for Saudi Arabia’s two-year-old war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, signaling a possible expansion of Washington’s controversial backing for a campaign that human rights groups say has killed hundreds of civilians and fueled a growing humanitarian crisis.

Two years ago, the Obama administration backed the Saudi-led intervention even though our officers didn’t know what the coalition hoped to accomplish and many U.S. officials rightly didn’t think it would succeed. Now that the coalition has spent the last two years wrecking and starving Yemen without achieving any of their stated goals, it is even more absurd and irresponsible for the U.S. to continue support for the war, much less increase it. If the original decision to back the Saudis and their allies was shameful, giving them even more support now would be simply appalling. It was bad enough to make the terrible mistake of making the U.S. complicit in an atrocious war that has destabilized the region, ruined Yemen, and strengthened Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but it would be deranged to commit the U.S. to an even larger role in enabling this disaster now that we know how much damage the intervention has already done.

The U.S. ought to be actively looking for ways to rein in the coalition, pressure them to lift their blockade, extricate the U.S. from the war, and try to repair some of the damage done by this horrific policy. I have no reason to think that the Trump administration will do any of that, but at the very least they should refrain from deepening U.S. involvement in a disgraceful and indefensible war.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Seeking accountability in Yemen. Fatima Bhojani reviews how the Saudis and their supporters have stymied international investigations into war crimes committed in Yemen.

Is McCain past his prime? Doug Bandow comments on the senator’s belligerence and poor foreign policy judgment following McCain’s Montenegro outburst.

Where Trump really diverges from Republican foreign policy orthodoxy. Nikolas Gvosdev points to Trump’s handling of trade agreements as the major substantive break with the GOP’s past.

Why American can’t win the war in Afghanistan. Daniel Davis responds to McCain and Graham’s call for sending more U.S. forces to Afghanistan.

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The Enduring Shame of Two Years of U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

This weekend will be the second anniversary of the start of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, and it has been even more disastrous and harmful than opponents feared it would be:

The United Nations warned this month that Yemen represents “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.”

As it usually does, outside intervention in Yemen’s local conflict greatly intensified and prolonged the war. It has also caused enormous suffering for the civilian population through an indiscriminate bombing campaign and the systematic devastation of the country’s economy and infrastructure. The war and the coalition blockade have predictably produced a horrific humanitarian crisis that now threatens to claim the lives of millions of people if nothing is done to prevent famine. The failure of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led intervention was both likely and foreseeable from the start: the coalition was pursuing highly ambitious and unrealistic political goals, but lacked the means to achieve them. After two years of senseless carnage and destruction, the coalition has clearly failed in all of its stated goals, and the only thing it has accomplished is to ruin Yemen and starve its people.

Throughout this disgraceful campaign, the U.S. has been unstinting in its assistance as the Saudis and their allies destroy their poorer neighbor. No American interest has been served by this, and none could be, since the people being targeted by the coalition’s bombs and blockade have never done anything to us and posed no threat to us. The U.S. has enabled a shameful and atrocious war, and it has all been for nothing. Worse still, the U.S. did this despite having no obligation to aid any of the governments waging this war. This was not something that our government was bound by treaty to do, but something that the previous and current administrations have chosen to do because they could.

The Saudi-led war on Yemen has always been indefensible and unjust because it was always much more likely to cause greater evils than it prevented (it and has caused some truly great evils), and it was always unnecessary. It has also proved to be a disastrous miscalculation by the Saudis and their allies, who are frittering away their resources on a war they can’t win but are too embarrassed to quit. Far from countering a serious threat to Saudi security, the intervention has created one by triggering retaliatory strikes inside Saudi territory. The Saudis didn’t face an “existential threat” from Yemen, but plunged recklessly into a war without considering the pitfalls of intervention, and the U.S. stupidly helped them to do that. Uncritically backing our reckless clients leads to disaster for the clients and enduring shame for us, and millions of innocent civilians are paying the price so that our government can “reassure” a few despots and indulge their paranoia.

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Ukraine and the Cult of ‘Resolve’

Anders Fogh Rasmussen makes a dubious claim and offers an even worse recommendation:

Moscow has remained in the Donbas because the West has allowed it to. The U.S. can demonstrate Western resolve by ramping up sanctions on Moscow and increase the cost of Russian interference by supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine.

The first sentence greatly exaggerates the degree to which “the West” can control events in foreign conflicts, and it obscures that the measures that would be required to try to force Russia to halt its interference in Ukraine would be much more costly and dangerous than the ones Rasmussen suggests. It ignores the possibility that it might not be possible to force an end to their interference at anything like an acceptable cost. To say that Western governments have “allowed” Russia to continue its interference takes for granted that they have a way to disallow that interference, but that doesn’t spell out that even trying to do this would require far deeper direct involvement in the conflict at much greater risk to ourselves than anyone is seriously willing to contemplate.

Rasmussen treats a difficult political and military problem as if it were simply a matter of having enough “resolve,” and ignores the enormous risks that trying to compel another state to do as we would like. The proposed measures–more sanctions and arming Ukraine with so-called “defensive” weapons–cannot force a change in Russian behavior, but they can intensify the conflict and get more people killed. Western governments can “demonstrate resolve” all they like, but it isn’t going to resolve a conflict where Russia’s perceived interests will always be far greater than ours.

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Starving Yemen to Death

Yemen and Somalia are running out of time to be saved from famine:

The world has only three to four months to save millions of people in Yemen and Somalia from starvation, as war and drought wreck crops and block deliveries of food and medical care, the International Committee of the Red Cross said Wednesday.

There is urgent need for aid in both countries, as well as in Nigeria and South Sudan, but Yemen’s civilian population faces the most severe and widespread crisis. It is in Yemen where outside intervention and blockade have done the greatest harm. As a result, seven million people are on the verge of starving to death and another ten million people are not far behind. It can’t be emphasized enough that this is something that has been done to the people of Yemen on purpose by the Saudi-led coalition with the political and military support of the U.S. and Britain. All of these governments are not merely allowing millions of Yemenis to starve to death, but have worked to cause their starvation.

If Yemen’s war has generally been neglected by the rest of the world, its humanitarian crisis has been similarly ignored. Appeals to fund relief efforts have gone unfulfilled, and the sheer scale and severity of the crisis has been overlooked by most. Even now that the crisis is beginning to receive some attention, it is almost too late. By the time that famine is officially declared in Yemen, it will be too late for millions of people, many of whom will have already died. Unlike in some other conflicts where U.S. influence is limited or non-existent, our government has the leverage to make the coalition halt its campaign and lift its blockade of the country, but it has to be willing to use it. There is no hint that the new administration would even consider this course of action, but if they don’t they will go down along with the previous administration as enablers of one of the worst man-made famines in modern times.

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Trump’s Confused Approach to Burden-Sharing

Christopher Preble takes aim at the misguided priorities in Trump’s proposed budget:

But spending more money on the U.S. military is unlikely to induce greater burden sharing on the part of U.S. allies. After all, from Iraq and Afghanistan, to North Korea and the South China Sea, the U.S. military has been quite busy in recent years. Add in the four or five other countries regularly subjected to U.S. drone strikes and you begin to get a clearer picture of the scope of U.S. military activism. But Trump’s call for “a larger, more capable, and more lethal joint force,” suggests that he thinks our soldiers, sailors, airmen and U.S. Marines haven’t been doing nearly enough.

To some extent, that is a product of Trump’s outsourcing of almost all of his foreign policy to Republican hawks. Because he doesn’t know much about these issues and has even less experience working on them, Trump has been even more reliant on the hawks in his party than previous Republican presidents, and because of his own instincts he has been only too happy to throw more money at the Pentagon while starving State and other civilian departments of resources. Mocking diplomatic engagement, escalating current wars, and giving the military more money were three recurring themes in Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and regrettably these are the things that he has made a priority since taking office.

The contrast between Trump’s actual policies and his rhetoric about what allies “owe” is stark. Trump recently berated Germany over what it supposedly “owed” NATO, confirming that he doesn’t understand how the alliance works, but before that he had put forward a larger military budget that takes the pressure off allied governments to spend more for their own defense in any case. As long as the U.S. is prepared to continue increasing its already bloated military budget, allies have no incentive to increase theirs. Until the U.S. allows some slack for allies to take up, the allies will be more than happy to stick with the status quo. So Trump’s browbeating of allies isn’t going to accomplish anything, and he and his advisers will have no one else to blame for that but themselves.

There was a possibility that Trump might not be as indulgent of “free-riding” allies and clients as previous presidents, but once again this has proved to be an unfounded hope. Far from reducing support for those “free-riders,” the administration’s early actions and statements have been to signal an increase in backing for bad clients such as Saudi Arabia and a willingness to take on another free-riding ally by bringing Montenegro into NATO. Even when this promises to entangle the U.S. more deeply in foreign conflicts that harm our security, as we can see happening with the war on Yemen, this is what the administration is doing.

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Continued NATO Expansion Doesn’t Serve U.S. Interests

Tillerson has written to the Senate endorsing NATO membership for Montenegro:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has written to the leaders of the U.S. Senate urging the ratification of Montenegro as the newest member of the NATO alliance, saying it is “strongly in the interests of the United States.”

It’s not surprising that Tillerson strongly supports NATO expansion, and there was never any realistic chance that the Trump administration would oppose Montenegro’s accession. It is still worth reviewing why Tillerson is wrong when he says that it is in our interest to bring them in. Adding a new ally will mean taking on one more security dependent that can’t pull its own weight. If the administration has any desire for current allies to share more of the burden of their own defense, backing the addition of a new member that won’t add anything to the alliance sends exactly the wrong message. NATO is already too large and unwieldy, and it has several unreliable members, and bringing in a state whose people are sharply divided over the prospect of membership will only make it more so.

Continued NATO expansion doesn’t serve American interests, unless those interests are defined so broadly as to be meaningless. Unfortunately, that is how they would have to be defined in order to believe that having another member in NATO advances them.

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The Dangers of National ‘Purpose’

Screenshot: PBS Newshour

David Brooks identifies what he thinks is a great national crisis (via Rod Dreher):

We have a lot of crises in this country, but maybe the foundational one is the Telos Crisis, a crisis of purpose. Many people don’t know what this country is here for, and what we are here for.

I am skeptical that America has ever had a single purpose or reason for being, and I don’t know how everyone (or even most people) in any country as large or diverse as ours could have the same purpose. It is difficult to read Brooks’ complaint about the lack of a national telos without recalling his decades-long obsession with so-called “national greatness” and America’s mission in the world, his enthusiasm for big national projects, and his related horror at the prospect of being “just another nation” in the world. Our country doesn’t have to be here “for” something, and the lack of national “purpose” is not a crisis to be averted or ended.

I am quite sure that we don’t want the kind of politics that seeks to pursue a particular end through the government, which Michael Oakeshott derided as telocracy and contrasted with nomocracy:

[F]or the believer in nomocracy, how a government acts is a more important consideration than what it does; while for the believer in telocracy it does not matter how a government acts so long as what it does promotes the chosen ‘end’ in view.

Insisting on having a grand national purpose is what leads to destructive and abusive policies carried out in the name of realizing that end. It is not something that people in a free country need to have, nor is it something that we should want.

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Adding Montenegro to NATO Still Makes No Sense

Senate hawks aren’t happy with Rand Paul:

He’s also driving his Senate colleagues crazy by holding up the one thing the Senate could do to quickly rebuke Russian President Vladimir Putin: pass a popular treaty ratifying Montenegro’s membership in NATO.

Sen. Paul should be commended for forcing the Senate to consider the merits (or lack thereof) of further NATO expansion, and he deserves credit for taking this stand when it would be very easy to avoid a fight over something that the rest of his colleagues are sure to support. The case for bringing Montenegro into NATO is weak even by the usual standards of these arguments, and the U.S. shouldn’t be extending security guarantees to states that don’t need them. The debate over this is frequently framed in terms of antagonizing Russia, but that isn’t a good reason to add a new member to the alliance, and the reasons not to add Montenegro have nothing to do with Russia.

Montenegro doesn’t need the protection the alliance provides, and its contribution to the alliance will be minuscule. It makes no sense to add a new member to the alliance when most of the people there are opposed or indifferent to joining, especially when that new member won’t add anything significant to the alliance. Adding Montenegro won’t make any of the current allies more secure, and it will reward a corrupt government with authoritarian tendencies with integration into a major Western institution. Paul’s Senate colleagues shouldn’t be wondering why he doesn’t want to expand the alliance. They should be asking themselves why they support such a bad candidate for NATO membership.

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Unnecessary Wars and Unreliable ‘Allies’

John Allen Gay sees the recent deployment of U.S. forces to act as a buffer between Turks and Kurds as an expression of the U.S. pursuit of primacy:

Yet one could make the case that the Manbij situation, despite being condemned by many here inside the Beltway, is a logical extension, or at least a microcosm, of the bipartisan Beltway consensus on U.S. grand strategy. This grand strategy, known as primacy, suggests that the United States should take an active, leadership role in every strategically important region of the world, and that this is good for both the United States and for nations of good will in those regions.

If one accepts that the U.S. has a global “leadership” role like this, one will usually conclude that the U.S. has to police or “shape” foreign conflicts that have little or nothing to do with American security. Even when there is no discernible American interest at stake, the U.S. involves itself for the sake of exercising this supposedly necessary “leadership,” but as we can see in the case of Syria this will mean putting Americans at risk to prevent ostensible “allies” from killing each other. That calls attention to some other bad habits in our foreign policy: we extend the title of ally to a large number of groups and states, some of whom are mutually antagonistic, and then we think that it is the job of our foreign policy to satisfy all of them at the same time. That inevitably produces a confused policy that ends up satisfying no one and leaving all sides convinced that Washington is unreliable. The deployment in Syria also reminds us of the incoherence of the supposed anti-ISIS “coalition” itself. Most members of the so-called “coalition” do not consider fighting ISIS their top priority, and most have signed on to the anti-ISIS effort in the hopes of acquiring U.S. support for whatever their real goal happens to be.

As ever, the U.S. needs to be more discriminating in the fights it chooses to join and the “allies” it accepts in the process.

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Tillerson’s Perception Problem

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

David Sanger makes an important point about Secretary Tillerson’s aversion to the media:

But in the modern era, everyone from Dean Acheson to John Kerry has found that superpower diplomacy abhors a news vacuum.

When America’s top diplomats create one, adversaries and allies usually fill it with their own narrative of events, their own proposals, their own accounts of encounters with Washington.

As Tillerson should have learned over the last few days, he can try to manage perceptions and expectations through the media, or he will find himself and his efforts portrayed in a very unflattering light. Two months into Trump’s presidency, Tillerson is perceived to be in charge of a department that is adrift and demoralized, and he is seen as disconnected from his own department and frequently out of the loop on major decisions. Maybe those perceptions are exaggerated, maybe they’re not, but they have started to take hold to make people think that Tillerson doesn’t really know what he’s doing and isn’t seeking guidance from the career officials who would be able to help him learn. All of this confirms that concerns about his lack of foreign policy and government experience were not misplaced. If he doesn’t try correcting this perception of him on a regular basis, he will find that he isn’t going to be taken seriously in foreign capitals, Congress, or even in his own department, and that will set him up for failure. Fixing his perception problem will require speaking to the media, answering their questions, and presenting administration policies to the public. If he doesn’t start doing that, he will quickly become as irrelevant as he already appears to be.

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Saudi-Led Coalition Slaughters Refugees at Sea

The Saudi-led coalition attacking Yemen has committed another atrocity, this time targeting a boatload of Somali refugees:

Somalia’s government on Saturday blamed the Saudi-led coalition for Friday’s attack on a boat that killed at least 42 Somali refugees off the coast of war-torn Yemen, calling the assault by a military vessel and a helicopter gunship “horrific.”

The slaughter of dozens of refugees is unfortunately just the most recent egregious example of the coalition’s blatant disregard for civilian lives. It is one of the many indefensible attacks on civilian targets that the coalition has carried out over the past two years. As they have done after many other attacks on civilians, the coalition has pretended that they weren’t involved and aren’t responsible, but no one else could possibly be responsible for this. There will be more massacres like this as long as the Saudi-led coalition is permitted to act with impunity and faces no consequences for its flagrant, repeated violations of international law. The U.S. and Britain should cut off all military assistance to the coalition, and every day that our government continues to support the war on Yemen is another day that we are responsible for enabling the senseless killing and starving of civilians.

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