Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

A war of choice with North Korea is an immensely dumb idea. Harry Kazianis spells out the consequences of attacking North Korea and offers some ideas for what the U.S. should do instead.

War with North Korea appears more imminent than ever. Doug Bandow warns that war on the Korean Peninsula “appears to be a greater possibility today than at any recent time.”

Can America’s foreign policy be restrained? Curt Mills reports on the work of the John Quincy Adams Society and the Center for the Study of Statesmanship in trying to promote the cause of foreign policy restraint.

Trump and the rocket men. Jon Wolfsthal sounds the alarm about changes that Trump is likely to make during a new nuclear posture review.

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Haley’s Stunt and the War on Yemen

Nikki Haley is very concerned about the origin of a missile that didn’t kill anyone in Yemen:

Haley, holding a press conference at the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C., presented what she described as recovered pieces of a missile fired by Houthi militants from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, pointing out the missile bears “Iranian missile fingerprints.” Yemen is facing a devastating civil war that has been raging since 2015.

“It’s hard to find a conflict or a terrorist group in the Middle East that does not have Iran’s fingerprints all over it,” Haley said Thursday.

Supporters of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war on Yemen have been desperate to shift the blame for the disaster engulfing that country to anyone other than the coalition and its Western patrons. They have therefore exaggerated the negligible role of Iran in the conflict in order to distract attention from the far larger, much more destructive role that the U.S. and our clients have had over the last two and a half years. Insofar as Iranian support for the Houthis has increased during the course of the Saudi-led intervention, that is just proof of how unsuccessful the coalition’s war has been and how pointlessly destructive their blockade continues to be.

That is why our U.N. ambassador feels the need to put on a show to accuse Iran of providing missiles to the Houthis at the same time that she and the rest of our government pointedly ignore the routine bombing of civilian targets by coalition forces and the coalition blockade that is strangling Yemen’s civilian population to death. The evidence in this case is not as clear-cut as Haley claims, but that is almost beside the point. Haley cannot defend what the coalition has been doing to Yemen for over thirty months, and she can’t justify the collective punishment they are inflicting on the population in response to the firing of this missile, so she has to try to change the subject. Haley’s stunt is a lame bid to try to make people forget that our clients are committing crimes against humanity with our government’s assistance. It is pitiful diversion and a confirmation of just how indefensible and disgusting our policy in Yemen is.

Haley says that it is difficult “to find a conflict or a terrorist group in the Middle East that does not have Iran’s fingerprints all over it.” That is not really true, but Yemen is probably the worst example she could have used. It is the coalition’s war that has strengthened Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the local ISIS affiliate in Yemen, and it is coalition forces that have been fighting alongside members of AQAP during this conflict. It is the Saudi-led coalition backed by the U.S. and other Western states that escalated the conflict in Yemen and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. These are the governments whose fingerprints are “all over” the devastation and loss of life in Yemen. Whatever else Iran may be responsible for elsewhere in the region, it is not responsible for most of what has happened in Yemen, and Haley’s stunt doesn’t change that.

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Where Is the Debate Over Attacking North Korea?

Dan Drezner warns about the increasing chances of a war with North Korea:

The message I heard was clear. Trump officials working on North Korea have developed the odd consensus that Pyongyang will use its nuclear arsenal to attempt a forcible reunification with South Korea. And if that is the goal, then time is running out for military options that would stop that from happening. In other words, I heard the exact same things as Osnos and Schake. The Trump national security team seems convinced that North Korea cannot be deterred, and war is the inevitable outcome.

What is equally disturbing is the lack of public debate on this question. Say what you will about Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the Bush administration took seven months between talking about it and doing it. In that time, administration officials secured congressional authorization and tried to do the same at the United Nations Security Council. There was also a vigorous public debate on the question. With North Korea right now, there is a lot of chatter but no visible debate. Indeed, if the Trump team is leaning toward a preventive attack, a debate is the last thing officials want, for tactical reasons. It is impossible to have a public debate about a surprise military strike.

There has been a noticeable lack of debate over attacking North Korea, but administration officials have been anything but coy about the possibility that they might do this. McMaster has been claiming for months that North Korea can’t be deterred and has repeatedly suggested preventive war as an alternative. He just said so again earlier this month. Trump has publicly emphasized the administration’s view that the North Korean regime isn’t rational. During his belligerent U.N. speech, he said, “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission.” If the U.S. does attack North Korea, it won’t be coming as much of a surprise to anyone at this point.

These very obvious signals from top administration figures have been ignored as much as they have because most people covering Trump have stopped taking Trump’s bluster and threats seriously. Many people opposed to the Trump administration are still wrongly assuming that Trump’s many generals will rein him in and keep him from doing anything truly insane. The sheer insanity of attacking North Korea has also made it seem like something that not even someone as reckless as Trump would do.

McMaster’s consistent advocacy for such a reckless North Korea policy should put an end to all that wishful thinking. Trump isn’t being advised to avoid war with North Korea. He isn’t being reined in. Instead, his National Security Advisor is regularly endorsing the very hard-line view that deterrence can’t work. That makes war much more likely, and it is even harder to stop that war from happening when Congress and the public aren’t taking the danger seriously.

One problem is that Congress doesn’t care to do its job of checking the executive. The U.S. has been waging old wars and starting new ones without public or Congressional debate for so long now that it now seems a bit strange to expect that any administration would bother trying to make a public case for attacking another country. When it comes to matters of war, most members of Congress don’t insist on having their say and prefer letting the president do whatever he wants. The costlier a war is likely to be, the less eager members of Congress are to do their duty by debating and voting on it. A war with North Korea would be far costlier for the U.S. and its allies than anything Americans have seen since at least Vietnam. That makes it vital that we have a debate, and it also reminds us why so many of our representatives want to duck that debate.

If we had a debate over attacking North Korea, it would become clear very quickly that the case for war is extremely thin and shoddy. A preventive war can’t be a defensive war by definition, and it isn’t a response to an imminent threat, so there is no justification for it. Attacking North Korea would be just as wrong and strategically disastrous as invading Iraq was, but the devastation it would unleash would be far worse. Preventive war with North Korea would likely bring about the very nuclear catastrophe that it is supposedly trying to avert, and millions would die in a senseless conflict that could have been easily avoided. Launching a preventive war against North Korea would also be a massive violation of the U.N. Charter and international law, and by doing this the U.S. would be guilty of damaging the foundations of the so-called “rules-based order” in spectacular fashion. Supporters of attacking North Korea have no credible case for what they want to do, and so it is all the more alarming that so few people are challenging them in public.

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McMaster’s North Korea Myopia

Wikimedia Commons

Trump’s National Security Advisor dismissed any possibility of talking to North Korea without preconditions, and once again insisted on the administration’s impossible goal:

The national security adviser also said that because North Korea “is a regime that uses extortion on a routine basis as a part of their policy,” there is a singular goal the U.S. must pursue — denuclearization.

“Denuclearization is the only viable objective and if we all focus on that, we have a strong chance for success,” McMaster said.

The U.S. will not succeed in forcing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program whether “we all focus” on this goal or not. Our focus, or lack thereof, doesn’t change the reality that North Korea isn’t going to give up its nuclear weapons willingly. The U.S. doesn’t have a “strong chance for success” in this case, because it is chasing after something that can’t be had short of a bloody invasion and regime change. Since denuclearization is a fantasy, the continued pursuit of it invites disaster for the U.S., the Koreas, and the surrounding region.

McMaster’s single-minded focus on a goal that the U.S. can’t achieve means that he and Trump are ignoring the viable and preferable options besides this one. Trump already has poor judgment, but it really doesn’t help when his top adviser on national security matters suffers from myopia about one of the most important issues of the day. Trump and McMaster are taking the U.S. down a dead-end road that will put the administration in a position of having to climb down from their maximalist demands or resort to using force. Members of Congress and the public need to wake up to the dangerous path that the Trump administration is leading us on, and they need to object strongly to an unrealistic policy that is needlessly increasing the chances of a major war.

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The Iran Obsession Is Getting Worse

President Trump and Supreme Leader Ali Khomeini. CreativeCommons, Shutterstock.

The Trump administration’s Iran obsession threatens to drag the U.S. into new and unnecessary conflict in Syria:

U.S. officials are wrestling with where and how to repel what they describe as a significant Iranian military expansion across the region, a development of increasing concern in Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh.

“Our leadership has set as an objective not to allow Iran and its proxies to be able to establish a presence in Syria [bold mine-DL] that they can use to threaten our allies or us in the region,” one senior U.S. administration official said. “There are different ways to implement that, and we are still working through them.”

Syria is Iran’s main regional ally, and Iran and its proxies have firmly established their presence there over the last five years and more. It is the height of hubris to imagine that the U.S. is in a position “not to allow” something that has been happening at least since 2011. Even if it were within America’s power to keep Iran and its proxies out of Syria, it would come at an unacceptably high cost and it would be completely unnecessary for U.S. security. The “allies” that may be threatened by the presence of Iran and its proxies in Syria are more than capable of providing for their own defense. More to the point, they aren’t actually our allies and the U.S. is under no obligation to police Syria for their benefit.

I call the Trump administration’s fixation on and hostility towards Iran as an obsession because it is so clearly irrational and separated from any discernible U.S. security interest. If Iran and its proxies have an ongoing presence in Syria, that poses no threat to the U.S. American forces shouldn’t be put at risk to put a stop to it, and the sooner all American forces are withdrawn from Syria the better.

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North Korea and Trump’s Dysfunctional Foreign Policy

Tillerson suggested earlier this week that the U.S. would be willing to talk to North Korea without preconditions, but the White House immediately made clear that his words didn’t mean anything:

President Trump and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson are once again at odds over how to deal with nuclear-armed North Korea after Mr. Tillerson declared on Tuesday that the United States was ready to open talks with the North “without precondition.”

The secretary’s comments were remarkably conciliatory for an administration that has repeatedly threatened North Korea with military action, and ruled out any negotiations, if it did not curb its missile and nuclear programs. But a few hours later, the White House distanced itself from his overture.

In an unusual statement released to reporters on Tuesday evening, the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Mr. Trump’s position on North Korea had not changed — namely, that talks were pointless if the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, continued to menace his neighbors.

Tillerson has been publicly undermined so many times by the Trump White House that it is safe to assume that the Secretary of State never speaks for the president when he says anything remotely reasonable. Whenever Tillerson has expressed an openness to talking to North Korea’s government, Trump has been quick to contradict him. This has made it impossible to take conciliatory rhetoric from Tillerson seriously, and it has underscored just how deep Trump’s disdain for diplomacy truly is. That can only make North Korea’s government even more skeptical of the value of entering into talks with Washington.

In the latest example of Trump administration foreign policy dysfunction, the White House undercut Tillerson because they supposedly didn’t want to create confusion about U.S. policy:

White House officials were alarmed by Mr. Tillerson’s conciliatory tone, according to several people, because they feared that it would sow confusion among allies after Mr. Trump rallied them behind a policy of “maximum pressure.”

It is the president’s habit of gainsaying his own Secretary of State at almost every turn that sows confusion and makes it impossible for Tillerson to do his job. Floating the possibility that the U.S. is willing to talk to North Korea wouldn’t confuse anyone. When Tillerson hinted that the U.S. was open to doing this, his remarks were greeted with relief because it suggested that the administration might not be as inflexible and confrontational as it has been all year long. There is no longer any pretense that there is some sort of “good cop, bad cop” routine at work here, since the administration is quick to telegraph to the rest of the world that the would-be “good cop” should be ignored entirely.

The bigger problem with the administration’s North Korea policy is that the U.S. and North Korea continue to talk past one another:

For her part, Choe signaled that North Korea had its own red line. Speaking to a group of former U.S. officials in separate meeting in Oslo, Choe said that her government would not enter into talks with the United States if Washington sought to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons [bold mine-DL], according to a source familiar with those talks.

Administration officials imagine that the purpose of talks with North Korea is to get them to give up the very thing that they will never talk about with us. No talks can possibly succeed when one side is seeking the elimination of the other side’s sine qua non, and it is very troubling that no one in the administration understands this.

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Tillerson’s Reckless Rejection of Deterrence

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a meeting for the Global Coalition on the Defeat of ISIS at the State Department in Washington, D.C., March 22, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

Rex Tillerson added to the list of irresponsible administration statements on North Korea yesterday:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ruled out pursuing a traditional Cold War-style containment and deterrence strategy against a nuclear-armed North Korea, citing concerns that Pyongyang will transform its arsenal into a commercial business and sell nuclear weapons to other actors.

The Trump administration seems desperate to find excuses for rejecting containment and deterrence as the appropriate responses to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. If there is reason to worry that North Korea might try selling nuclear weapons to others, that suggests that the U.S. shouldn’t be trying to strangle the regime economically. The more sanctions that the U.S. and others impose on North Korea, the more attractive we make it for them to get into the business of proliferation. It seems unlikely that any regime would part with costly, hard-won weapons such as these, and the burden of proof is on the people rejecting deterrence to show otherwise.

Tillerson got some premature credit yesterday for saying that the U.S. was willing to talk without preconditions. The White House quickly shot this down anyway, but Tillerson’s other remarks show that the opening is less meaningful than it appears. As long as denuclearization remains the administration’s goal in North Korea, the policy remains as unrealistic as ever. Explicitly ruling out containment and deterrence as Tillerson just did implies that the only things that the administration will accept are negotiated surrender or preventive war. Since North Korea can be expected to reject the former, that leaves us with the frightening prospect of an unnecessary war with an unacceptably high cost.

The Secretary of State’s reasoning on this matter is not persuasive. He said:

The difference is that with the past behavior of North Korea, it is clear to us that they would not just use the possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. This would become a commercial activity for them.

But this is not clear at all. Engaging in the proliferation of conventional weapons and missile technology is not the same as selling off nukes. The administration is assuming that North Korea would treat its nuclear weapons like any another commodity and deliver them to the highest bidder. That is a huge leap for which there is no evidence, and it is on the basis that unfounded assumption that the administration is rejecting the one proven way of defending against an adversary with nuclear weapons.

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The Saudis’ Cruel Collective Punishment of Yemen Has Not Ended

The starvation blockade imposed on Yemen by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition remains in place:

There are no signs that a blockade of Yemen’s ports by a Saudi-led military coalition has eased to allow aid to reach communities increasingly at risk of starvation, the head of the US government’s aid agency said on Tuesday.

Thanks to this blockade, more than eight million people are one step away from famine, and over twenty million are in need of humanitarian assistance. At least nine cities cannot pump fresh water and have run out of clean water because of the fuel shortage brought on by the tightened blockade. Millions of people living in those cities are at heightened risk of contracting water-borne diseases. Yemen’s civilian population needs the delivery of humanitarian aid, but more than that they need the full resumption of commercial imports to stave off massive loss of life from starvation and disease. The plight of Yemen’s people has been made worse by the systematic, deliberate coalition campaign to attack the country’s sources of food production. Iona Craig reports:

Research on the pattern of bombing, carried out by emeritus professor Martha Mundy at the London School of Economics, concluded that in the first 17 months of the Saudi-led bombing campaign there was “strong evidence that coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution” in areas controlled by the Houthis and allied forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh was killed by Houthi forces in Sana’a last week, days after declaring he had switched allegiances.

Data on coalition airstrikes collected by the Yemen Data Project have recorded 356 air raids targeting farms, 174 targeting market places and 61 air raids targeting food storage sites from March 2015 to the end of September 2017.

Between the ongoing blockade and their targeting of food production and storage, we can see that the Saudi-led coalition has been deliberately trying to starve Yemen into surrender.

The Trump administration has recently paid some brief and halfhearted lip service in calling for an end to the blockade, but it has not backed up this talk with any attempt to pressure the Saudis and their allies to stop their cruel and illegal collective punishment of Yemen’s people. No matter what they may have said recently, the Trump administration continues to enable and support the Saudi-led war and blockade in practice and remains complicit in the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Yemen.

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Tillerson’s Unrealism

Tillerson and Trump are frequently at odds with one another, but it seems they are united in holding completely unrealistic views of what U.S. policy can accomplish overseas:

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in remarks later on Tuesday, plans to say that he is optimistic about North Korea denuclearization talks and that there is no role for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s future [bold mine-DL], a U.S. official said.

The secretary is very optimistic that we can achieve denuclearization through negotiation [bold mine-DL]. We are in the middle of that path and that continues,” the official told reporters ahead of two planned speeches by Tillerson.

Tillerson’s job at this point seems to be reciting administration talking points that have no relationship to the real world. His confidence that “we can achieve denuclearization through negotiation” seems to be based in nothing but wishful thinking. North Korea has repeatedly said that their nuclear weapons program is not even up for discussion, so there is no question of having a negotiation aimed at getting them to give that up. There is absolutely a need for direct talks with North Korea and a de-escalation of tensions through diplomatic engagement, but those talks aren’t going to lead to denuclearization. It is time that the administration accepted this.

The insistence that there is no role for Assad in Syria’s future is, if anything, even less connected to political reality. The U.S. isn’t in a position to dictate who does or doesn’t have a role in Syria’s future. That isn’t really a criticism, but simply a statement of fact that U.S. influence there has been and remains negligible. Tillerson periodically says this about Assad, but it seems to be something that he feels he has to say because trying to get rid of Assad has been U.S. policy for so many years. Much like the fixation on denuclearization that won’t happen, the administration’s anti-Assad rhetoric is just echoing what the last administration said with no regard for changed circumstances. Both examples show that administration officials lack imagination and don’t know how to adapt to new realities.

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Pence’s Misguided Mideast Trip

Mike Pence will be visiting the Holy Land and Egypt later this month, but none of the local Christians will have anything to do with him:

Palestinian officials have pressured local church leaders not to welcome Pence, encouraging them to take the same stance as the Egyptian Coptic Christian church whose pope announced his refusal to meet with the U.S. vice president due to the Jerusalem decision.

It is not surprising that the leaders of the local Christian churches in Egypt and Palestine won’t meet with Pence in the wake of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The decision was just as much an affront to them, and so they understandably have no desire to be seen meeting with a representative of our government. The heads of the various churches in Jerusalem appealed to the president not to make that decision in the days leading up to it:

The patriarchs and heads of the main churches in Jerusalem on Wednesday delivered a last-minute plea to US President Donald Trump, urging him not to change US policy toward Jerusalem for fear this could cause “irreparable harm.”

Their appeal was predictably ignored. Dismissing the concerns and neglecting the interests of native Christians throughout the region has been one of the enduring flaws in U.S. policy in this part of the world for decades, and it is most noticeable in the one-sided approach to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The Trump administration panders to some of its supporters here at home at the expense of Christians in the Holy Land, and it barely registers anymore because it is what everyone has come to expect from the U.S. These snubs are just the first of many that the administration will experience as a result of Trump’s ill-considered, harmful recognition of Jerusalem, and they are among the first of the destructive effects that the recognition is having on America’s reputation throughout the region.

Pence’s visit as a whole is misguided, and coming on the heels of Trump’s announcement its timing could hardly be worse. The vice president is one of the most ardent “pro-Israel” hawks in his party, so sending him to this part of the world right now is akin to pouring salt on a fresh wound. His trip drives home how insincere the administration’s claims to advance the cause of peace are.

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Trump Is Still Determined to Renege on the Nuclear Deal

Trump speaks at Washington rally against the Iran deal back in September 2015. Credit: Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom

The U.S. is getting closer to fully reneging on the nuclear deal with Iran:

A Congressional deadline for taking action on Iran expires on Tuesday, handing the fate of a historic nuclear deal with Tehran back to Donald Trump and increasing doubts about its future.

The US president vowed in October to scrap the agreement unless Congress and US allies intervened to fix his concerns. In January, he faces deadlines to recertify the deal and waive sanctions or break the pact, with no signs of success in Congress in helping to finding a way through.

Trump isn’t going to choose to certify the nuclear deal after having already refused to do so once before, and since he refuses to certify the deal he isn’t going to waive sanctions. There is no “fix” that Congress can make that would satisfy Trump without violating the deal itself. The destructive Corker-Cotton legislation went nowhere once that became obvious. Unfortunately, there is no chance that Trump is suddenly going to decide to support an agreement that he has wanted to see wrecked for so long.

Once the U.S. goes back on its promises to provide sanctions relief, the U.S. will be openly breaching its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The other parties to the deal may try to keep it going for the foreseeable future, but reneging on our commitments will be a serious blow to the agreement and could very well cause it to collapse entirely. After Trump refused to certify the deal back in October, breaking the deal was always a very likely outcome. I said as much at the time:

While decertification will not mean an immediate U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, it will set into motion a process that’s very likely to lead to the same result, and send a clear signal of the administration’s determination to be rid of the deal in its current form.

Trump has made it clear many times that he intends to scrap the deal, and in a few weeks we have to assume that he is going to do just that. Once that happens, the chances of unnecessary war with Iran increase. It will be up to members of Congress and the public to stop the Trump administration from pursuing the confrontational policies that will make such a war more likely.

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Trump’s Foreign Policy Failings

Credit: Ninian Reid/Flickr

Trump has been in office for close to eleven months, and in that time we have seen some patterns emerge in how he and his administration conduct foreign policy. Most of these patterns haven’t been surprising, but they have been distinctive and harmful. We should expect these destructive patterns to keep cropping up in U.S. foreign policy in the next few years.

One of the running themes in Trump’s foreign policy is his tendency to give client governments blank checks and free gifts. For all of Trump’s constant complaining about how the U.S. has been taken advantage of by other countries, he is remarkably eager to give certain governments whatever they want without condition or reciprocity. Trump’s Riyadh speech gave the Saudis and their allies a green light to act however they pleased. He backed their war on Yemen to the hilt, and started the process of reneging on the nuclear deal that they resent. He has repeatedly endorsed reckless Saudi behavior and encouraged more of it, and in exchange he has obtained precisely nothing for the U.S. By recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump gave away something that the U.S. had refused to provide for decades, and in return he got absolutely nothing.

As we have seen from his moves in blowing up the nuclear deal, recognizing Jerusalem and moving the U.S. embassy there, and withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump has consistently put his misguided campaign pledges ahead of existing U.S. commitments. He probably doesn’t understand the implications of what he’s doing, and he doesn’t care about the consequences of following through on these pledges. The fact that he is bucking an overwhelming international consensus in each case doesn’t concern him, and he probably considers that to be a reason to do the things he does. In each case, Trump has abruptly broken with previous U.S. commitments in such a way that the U.S. bears extra costs without getting anything for our trouble.

In the process of blowing off the international consensus on these issues, Trump shows treaty allies as much contempt as he can. When our European allies vociferously object to a proposed course of action, he either ignores them completely or thinks that he can force them into submitting to his preferences by doing the things they specifically warn him against doing. When our East Asian allies express their reservations about his bellicosity and destabilizing behavior over North Korea, he publicly ridicules them and then expects them to fall in line.

Running throughout all of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is the president’s evident disdain for diplomacy. If a successful agreement exists and is functioning as it should, Trump wants to undermine or reject it. If there is a chance at making progress in resolving an ongoing conflict, Trump prefers to escalate U.S. involvement in the war while giving diplomacy short shrift. While he will pay lip service to pursuing “peace” from time to time, he reliably takes actions guaranteed to stir up resentment and hostility. All of these failings bode very ill for U.S. foreign policy in the coming year, and what makes them even more troubling is the knowledge that none of them can be fixed while Trump is president.

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Why Can’t the U.S. Abandon Failed Policies?

The Trump administration’s stubborn insistence on the goal of North Korean denuclearization ignores reality:

The Trump administration won’t admit it, but North Korea is now a nuclear weapons power, analysts say. Why would Kim Jong Un’s cash-strapped regime spend so much time and money on building these weapons only to give them up? And even if they were prepared to bargain them away eventually, why would they do so now, when Trump and his top aides are threatening military action?

“We’ve seen no indication in recent years that they are interested in denuclearization,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a North Korea expert at Yale Law School who was an Asia adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “So it’s difficult to rationalize how we are still so fixated on it.”

Since North Korea won’t be denuclearized, it doesn’t make sense to keep this as the goal of U.S. policy. The U.S. can’t achieve the goal, and by continuing to pursue it there is a serious risk of blundering into or provoking an avoidable war. If that is the case, why is our government so determined to pursue the impossible?

Our political culture has created a number of perverse incentives and bad habits that lock Washington into failed policies and perpetuate them long after they should have been abandoned. We have seen this many times over the years with sanctions and embargoes that don’t work but never end, we have seen it with desultory wars that no president is willing to stop waging, and now we see it with the failed effort to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Our political culture tends to reward those that spin failure and usually punishes those that expose policy failures for what they are. Whenever someone acknowledges that a policy has failed, he is typically accused of being a “defeatist,” charged with having sympathy with our adversaries, and faulted for not having enough “resolve.” There are also constituencies that have a vested interest in keeping failed policies going indefinitely, and the longer the failed policy has been in place the more influence the people that support it tend to have. Even if the policy is broadly unpopular, it can keep going for a very long time so long as a vocal and intense group of supporters fights to preserve it.

Our politicians’ inordinate obsession with “strength” and “leadership” makes it extremely difficult to admit that a policy pursued by multiple administrations has failed, because it shows that there are definite limits to American power that most of our political leaders and policymakers don’t want to acknowledge. This is particularly the case when the U.S. has attempted to compel a “rogue” regime to fall in line and been unable to force it to accept our government’s demands. No one wants to be seen as the one who accepted what our government previously declared to be “unacceptable,” because no one wants to be opened up to the seemingly inevitable charge of “appeasement” that partisan and ideological critics will make.

Failed punitive policies are often the hardest to dismantle for fear of appearing “soft” on the targeted regime. Instead of questioning whether punitive measures make sense and have the desired effect, it is much easier for our politicians and policymakers to pile on more sanctions and demands. Partisan critics of a president are more likely to blame him for failing to “stop” a foreign government from doing undesirable things than they are to fault him for pursuing an unrealistic goal. To make matters worse, the mind-numbing effects of foreign policy consensus on constructive debate and criticism are most powerful on the issues where debate and criticism are most desperately needed.

The best thing that critics of our failed North Korea policy can do is to keep emphasizing the impossibility of denuclearization and the extremely high costs of continuing down our current path. Instead of faulting the administration for “failing” to stop Kim from his latest provocations, Trump’s critics would do well to chide him for taking the U.S. down a dead-end road.

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We Must Reject Preventive War in Korea

Kori Schake observes how similar Trump administration statements about North Korea are to statements from Bush administration officials when they were arguing for the invasion of Iraq. She concludes:

One area in which the Trump administration differs from Bush in 2003 is that President Bush invested his political capital in making the administration’s case to the American public and internationally. Neither President Trump nor his Cabinet have done anywhere near the kind of spadework necessary to bring Americans along for a war that will require calling up reserve military forces, kill tens if not hundreds of thousands of South Koreans, reshape how the world views America, and consume all the political energy of the Trump presidency.

President Trump was derisive about the Bush administration’s mistakes in the Iraq war; it would be doubly tragic for him to repeat them. If the Trump administration isn’t re-examining their assumptions, they desperately need to be. They’re lurching arrogantly toward disaster.

The two most striking similarities between Bush-era rhetoric about Iraq and the current administration’s public claims about North Korea are the emphasis on the irrationality of their government and the insistence that deterrence cannot work. Both were nonsense when Bush and his allies said these things about Saddam Hussein and his government, and both are nonsense when applied to the North Korean regime. Just as the Iraqi government was contained and could be deterred, so, too, the North Korean government is contained and can be deterred. The North Korean government is primarily interested in self-preservation, and it is for this reason that they have acquired their own deterrent. The repeated denials of these obvious facts by top administration officials, including both the president and his National Security Advisor, are very alarming, and they are all the more so because it makes no sense to abandon deterrence in this case.

North Korea has been deterred for more than sixty years, and nothing has happened in the last few years that would make deterrence any less effective than it has been for all that time. To abandon deterrence for preventive war in Korea is to give up on a policy that has succeeded for over half a century in maintaining peace and security for one that is guaranteed to devastate the region. Attacking North Korea would very likely precipitate a nuclear exchange or at the very least cause the North Korean government to use its nuclear weapons on South Korea, Japan, and probably on the U.S. as well. Millions of people at a minimum would perish, and all of it would have been entirely unnecessary and avoidable.

The Bush administration presided over a costly disaster in Iraq by waging a preventive war that it didn’t have to start. It would be even worse for a later administration to repeat that error on a much larger scale against an adversary that can inflict enormous damage on the U.S. and our allies. The costs of a new war in Korea would be much higher than the unacceptable costs of the Iraq war, and starting such a war would make the U.S. an international pariah to a much greater extent than anything we have seen in at least the last forty years.

It is hard to believe that we are once again being presented with a push for illegal preventive war so soon after the Iraq debacle. Unfortunately, thanks to the irresponsible rhetoric of administration officials, the unrealistic goal of our North Korea policy, and the dangerously militaristic approach to the issue that the president has taken to date, the U.S. finds itself being led towards a major war that would be a catastrophe for all involved. It is imperative that Congress and the public strongly oppose any proposed attack on North Korea. Preventive war in Korea would be wrong and illegal, and it would have disastrous consequences. Americans must absolutely reject it.

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Tom Cotton, Perpetual Warmonger

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Michael Vadon / Wikimedia Commons

The Wall Street Journal interview with Sen. Tom Cotton was a useful reminder that he is every bit as fanatical on foreign policy as he seems to be:

When it comes to America’s present challenges—from Iran to North Korea, China to Russia, Syria to Ukraine—Mr. Cotton, a conservative Republican, is squarely on Team [Teddy] Roosevelt. “There is always a military option,” he says. “That is the case everywhere in the world.”

There might technically be a “military option” in every case, but only madmen would always prefer that option over the alternatives. One of the many problems with Cotton’s worldview is that he favors military action when none is needed and other responses would either be more effective or less costly or both. The only military intervention he can bring himself to criticize is the Libyan war, and then only because it gives him a chance to score points on Obama for not intervening more aggressively in Syria:

President Obama, Mr. Cotton argues, “probably did the wrong thing” in helping to oust Moammar Gadhafi while leaving Bashar Assad alone. If the U.S. had intervened in Syria and not Libya, “we might have had a happier end in both.”

Even when Cotton allows for the possibility that the Libyan war did more harm than good, he can’t seem to fathom that a more aggressive intervention in Syria would have been far more destructive and costly. He also doesn’t seem to understand that a deeper intervention in Syria would have been extremely unpopular with the very people he claims to be representing. He pretends to speak for “Jacksonian Americans” unhappy with “plainly unwise” interventions, but in the next breath complains that the U.S. wasn’t more deeply entangled in Syria in a civil war that most Americans have never wanted to be involved in at all. The Libyan war was destructive and “plainly unwise,” as my colleague Matt Purple reminded us earlier this week, but what Cotton is talking about would have been and still would be an open-ended war that risks conflict with Russia and Iran. Cotton would trade one disaster for a much larger one and consider it a shrewd bargain.

If there’s one thing that links many of Cotton’s positions together, it is hostility to Iran. That would account for his insistence that the U.S. should have intervened against Assad, and it explains his obsessive focus on sabotaging the nuclear deal. He is also remarkably dismissive of the costs of attacking Iran:

“Any military action against Iran,” he says, “would look more like Operation Desert Fox from Iraq in December of 1998 or Operation El Dorado Canyon in Libya in 1986.” Those were limited bombing campaigns designed to punish misbehaving regimes. Mr. Cotton insists—controversially—that such an attack on Iran would not require a sustained military commitment: “It would be primarily a naval and air attack against its nuclear infrastructure.”

Cotton is a veteran of the Iraq war, so it is a bit strange that he seems so confident that the extent of a foreign war would be limited to what the U.S. intends to do while ignoring what the other side might do in response. As Harry Kazianis pointed out in a recent article, attacking Iran would not be as easy or cheap as the brief air campaigns that Cotton is talking about. A “naval and air attack against its nuclear infrastructure” could quickly escalate into a fight with more American casualties than we have seen in a long time. Unlike other adversaries that the U.S. has periodically bombed since the end of the Cold War, Iran has the capability to fight back and inflict serious losses. Every advocate of a war of choice always tells us that it will be brief, easy, and cheap, and events always prove them wrong.

What makes Cotton’s warmongering all the more worrisome is that the military action he favors taking is always unnecessary. There is no U.S. security interest or commitment that requires intervention in Syria or the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and there is no legal justification for U.S. military action against the Syrian and Iranian governments. Like other hard-liners, Cotton has a vastly exaggerated definition of American interests, blows foreign threats out of proportion, and has no problem with starting illegal wars. Cotton is offering “Jacksonian America” a future filled with an unending series of unnecessary wars whose costs will be far higher than he claims, and if they are wise all Americans will reject him and the fanatical foreign policy he is trying to sell them.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The ideologues who wrecked Libya. Matt Purple considers the consequences of the Libyan war six years after the “model” intervention ended.

Why is Trump undoing decades of U.S. policy on Jerusalem? Shibley Telhami decries Trump’s illogical decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Why the world doesn’t recognize Jerusalem. David Green briefly reviews the history of the city’s status.

Tillerson arrives in Europe like a “ghost ship.” Judah Grunstein comments on the cool reception that the Secretary of State received on his latest foreign trip.

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The Collective Punishment of Yemen Must Stop

The blockade starving Yemen of essential goods remains in force, and it is depriving millions of vital fuel supplies:

No fuel shipments have reached Yemen’s largest port for a month, a Reuters analysis of port and ship tracking data shows, as a Saudi Arabian-led blockade on the war-torn country tightens despite international calls for the siege to end.

Tankers laden with oil have turned away from Hodeida, the biggest entry point for cargo to the devastated north, without unloading. The United Nations’ body tasked with inspecting ships seeking to enter the area said on Wednesday it could not say when such ships would be allowed through.

The shortage means areas hardest hit by war, malnutrition and cholera lack functioning hospital generators, cooking fuel and water pumps. It also makes it harder to move food and medical aid around the country.

So long as the Saudi-led coalition keeps out commercial imports of food, medicine, and fuel, thousands upon thousands of Yemenis will die every month from starvation and disease that could have been prevented and/or treated. The famine that aid agencies have predicted has not been averted and cannot be averted by the trickle of humanitarian assistance that the coalition is allowing in. A full lifting of the blockade is the only sure way to prevent this catastrophe from consuming millions of innocent lives. The lack of fuel to run water pumps is especially dangerous because it means that millions of Yemeni civilians do not have clean drinking water, and that makes the spread of water-borne diseases more likely. Yemen has already enduring the worst and fastest-spreading cholera epidemic ever recorded, and the blockade is making the continued spread of the disease more likely while severely impeding efforts to combat the epidemic.

The tightened blockade has already driven up the number of Yemenis on the verge of famine from seven million to eight and a half million:

Over 17 million Yemenis (close to two-thirds of the population) is food insecure while a staggering 8.5 million people are on the brink of starvation.

In all, close to 21 million people across Yemen are in need of humanitarian or protection support.

Those numbers will keep rising as long as the coalition’s cruel collective punishment of the people of Yemen is permitted to continue.

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Trump’s ‘Recognition of Reality’

The main defense of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is that the president is merely acknowledging the obvious. As Trump said in his remarks yesterday, formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is “nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” That’s not really true, as advocates of this move have long understood. The issues at stake include Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem and the Palestinian aspiration to make East Jerusalem their capital. Giving formal recognition to one side’s claim while completely ignoring the other isn’t a “recognition” of reality, but rather a blatant effort to skew things even more in favor of the side whose claim is being endorsed.

There are many “realities” that the U.S. doesn’t formally recognize around the world. I suspect most of the enthusiasts of Trump’s decision on Jerusalem wouldn’t be interested in having him formally acknowledge the “reality” that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are no longer part of Georgia or that Crimea no longer belongs to Ukraine, and I am certain they would accuse him of the worst sort of appeasement if Trump gave official recognition to those “realities.” Those things aren’t likely to change, but it doesn’t follow from this that Washington must give them formal recognition. The U.S. doesn’t recognize these “realities” because our government doesn’t accept their legitimacy. When the U.S. confers recognition on Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it lends legitimacy to an illegal occupation and denies the rights of the other party to the conflict. That isn’t a “recognition of reality,” but part of an ongoing effort to change the political landscape to ensure that no Palestinian state ever comes into being. Contra Trump, that isn’t the “right thing to do,” but another example of a one-sided policy that is now even worse.

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Is Rapprochement with Russia Still Possible?

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump meet at the 2017 G-20 Hamburg Summit. Credit: Creative Commons/www.kremlin.ru.

U.S.-Russian relations are at one of their lowest points since the end of the Cold War—and there seems to be little appetite for improvement on the part of the Trump administration and Congress.

Egged on by anti-Russia hysteria in many parts of the American media, Congress has imposed new sanctions to penalize Moscow over its alleged meddling in the 2016 election. The sanctions legislation was written in such a way that the president cannot waive its requirements, which all but guarantees that they will remain the law—and an impediment to better relations—for a very long time to come.

Thanks to the many questionable contacts between some members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials, the administration has been unable to pursue any constructive engagement with Moscow without triggering accusations of doing Russia’s bidding. The administration’s response to this predicament has usually been to echo the most conventional hawkish views on disputed issues and make no concerted effort to repair frayed ties with the Russian government.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently delivered a speech at the Wilson Center in which he described Russia primarily in terms of the threat that it posed to Europe. Even as he stated that the U.S. desires a “productive new relationship” with Moscow, he framed previous breakdowns in relations as being purely the result of Russian “aggression.” In Tillerson’s oversimplified telling, “both attempts by the prior administration to reset the Russia and U.S.-Europe relationships have been followed by Russia invading its neighbor.” But that is not quite how things unfolded.

The 2008 war to which Tillerson refers was a product of the Georgian government’s recklessness, its overconfidence in Western promises, and the profoundly misguided allied pledge at the Bucharest NATO summit that Ukraine and Georgia would one day become members of the alliance. Whatever “reset” George W. Bush attempted early in his first term had long since given way to repeatedly antagonizing Moscow by withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, launching the Iraq war, promoting missile defense in central Europe, NATO expansion in eastern Europe, and U.S. support for the so-called “color” revolutions in the former Soviet Union.

The Obama-era “reset” achieved some initial successes, but this soon stalled out and was replaced by resentment over the passage of the Magnitsky Act and the bait-and-switch intervention for regime change in Libya that Russia had been persuaded not to oppose. Confrontation over the civil war in Syria also contributed significantly to the souring of U.S.-Russian relations. By the time the political crisis in Ukraine erupted in 2014, the hopeful atmosphere created by the “reset” was long gone, and the U.S. and allied response to that crisis contributed to further deterioration. If our government officials fail to recognize the U.S. role in creating bad relations between Washington and Moscow, they are bound to keep repeating the mistakes that their predecessors made.

All of this raises a question: Is a normal, productive relationship with Russia possible for the U.S.? Despite the significant obstacles outlined above, the answer is still yes.

As bad as relations have become over the last few years, they are still nowhere near as toxic and dangerous as they were at various points during the Cold War. That should show us that the U.S. and Russia have far fewer reasons to be at odds than in the past, and that our disagreements are much more manageable. Present-day Russia also has fewer ambitious goals for its foreign policy than the USSR did and poses much less of a threat to the U.S. and our allies. Nothing compels the U.S. to compete with Russia in its own backyard, and no U.S. interests are threatened by Russia’s maintenance of its handful of clients. In short, the U.S. and Russia do not have to be rivals in most cases, and the U.S. has no need to counter Russia wherever it has influence.

It is important for European stability and international security more generally that the U.S. and Russia fashion a cooperative relationship that will allow both to secure mutual interests and manage their disagreements. When the two powers have been on reasonably good terms, tensions between Russia and its neighbors have also declined, which is in the interests of all concerned.

The benefits of an improved relationship aren’t limited only to Europe. A constructive relationship with Russia is very much needed to address many international problems, including but not limited to terrorism, securing nuclear materials, and resolving long-running conflicts. We have seen hints of what that cooperation can achieve in recent years with the Iran nuclear deal and the new arms reduction treaty with Russia, both of which required sustained diplomatic engagement. In order to repair ties with Russia, our government will need to make a similar effort over the long term, with Washington refraining from taking further provocative actions.

A good place for the Trump administration to start would be to reject the plan to send arms to Ukraine. Such a policy would be unwise in itself—and disastrous for any chance at improving America’s relationship with Russia.

Daniel Larison is senior editor at The American Conservative.

Trump’s Ridiculous Announcement on Jerusalem

Trump announced U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital earlier today. His remarks did nothing to allay the suspicion that he and his advisers don’t know what they’re doing:

I’ve judged this course of action to be in the best interests of the United States of America and the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This is a long overdue step to advance the peace process. And to work towards a lasting agreement.

This is either profoundly cynical or hopelessly out of touch with reality. What Trump did today won’t advance “the peace process.” There may not be much of a process to be advanced in any case, but this definitely snuffs it out for the foreseeable future. There will be no “work towards a lasting agreement” when a major power unilaterally decides to break with its existing policy and severely disadvantages one of the parties in any future negotiations. If one wanted to destroy confidence and trust in the U.S., this is the sort of thing one would do.

Trump describes what he did as proof of his “fresh thinking,” but there is nothing more stale and tired than having our government fully taking the Israeli side in this conflict. He can insist all he likes that the decision “is not intended in any way to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement,” but the action proves that there is no such commitment. It will be interpreted as proof of our government’s bias and bad faith, and it is ridiculous to expect other nations to interpret it any other way.

The best that can be said about Trump’s remarks is that he has to be delusional if he thinks that today’s announcement is compatible with making progress in securing a negotiated settlement. Any goodwill the Trump administration might have enjoyed with the Palestinians has been squandered for no reason, and Trump has now made it politically impossible for any Palestinian leader to be seen cooperating with the U.S.

Worse still, U.S. officials somehow imagine that abandoning decades of U.S. policy and doing something that the entire world opposes will earn Trump international respect:

White House officials think Trump’s decision to follow through on his campaign promise — even if only partially — strengthens his credibility around the world as a someone who stands by his word, isn’t intimidated by threats, and doesn’t cave to international pressure.

Trump’s willingness to follow through on destructive campaign promises gains the U.S. nothing. Other leaders won’t respect a decision that they regard as deeply flawed and unnecessary, and they aren’t going to give Trump credit for doing something they consider folly. Trump’s decision will reinforce the impression that he is reckless and irresponsible, and it will show both allies and adversaries that he gives no thought to the possible negative consequences of his actions.

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