Daniel Larison

Puerto Rico’s Health Crisis

The Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort was sent to Puerto Rico to assist with relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Weeks later, almost all of its beds are empty and patients in dire need on the island are unable to reach the ship:

Sammy Rolon is living in a makeshift clinic set up at a school. He has cerebral palsy and epilepsy and is bedridden. He’s waiting for surgery that was scheduled before Hurricane Maria smashed into Puerto Rico. Now, he can’t even get the oxygen he needs.

There is help available for the 18-year-old — right offshore. A floating state-of-the-art hospital, the USNS Comfort, could provide critical care, his doctor says. But nobody knows how to get him there. And Sammy is not alone.

Clinics that are overwhelmed with patients and staff say they don’t even know how to begin sending cases to the ship. Doctors say there’s a rumor that patients have to be admitted to a central hospital before they can be transferred to the Comfort. Only 33 of the 250 beds on the Comfort — 13% — are being used, nearly two weeks after the ship arrived.

It does the people of Puerto Rico no good to have a hospital ship offshore if hundreds of people that could benefit from it can’t receive treatment on it. There are evidently some serious failures of communication and/or coordination between the military and federal and local authorities that need to be fixed right away. Anything that can alleviate the burden on the island’s strained health care system will obviously be an important improvement over the current situation.

However, that will only begin to address the island’s larger health crisis:

More than three weeks after Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, the situation remains bleak and dangerous for the infirm and the elderly. The island is running low on medicine. Many hospitals aren’t fully operational, and with the electrical grid practically wiped out, many are still running with backup generators.

Puerto Rico’s health care facilities clearly need more fuel and medicine than they are receiving, and those are shortfalls that the government and aid organizations should be able to make up. Even allowing for the difficulties in distribution, shortages of basic supplies should not be allowed to happen this many weeks after the storm.

An added danger is that accumulating trash, debris, and dead bodies on the streets are creating conditions for a major public health disaster:

Three weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, killing at least 44 people, Jose Vargas Vidot surveyed street after street lined with mounds of soaking garbage mixed with mud, trees and sometimes dead animals.

You couldn’t make a better breeding ground for rats, roaches and all sorts of nasty diseases, the public health volunteer said. And every day the fetid piles stay there, the risk of an epidemic grows.

“We’re already building the next disaster,” he said.

When we combine this with the contamination of water sources and the lack of potable water for hundreds of thousands of people that I discussed yesterday, we have the makings of a very serious crisis. Puerto Rico still needs a great deal more assistance, and it will need that assistance for a long time to come.

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End the Wrecking and Starving of Yemen

Asher Orkaby reviews the origins of the war on Yemen and describes the horrible humanitarian catastrophe that it has created. Here he notes that the Saudis’ justification for the intervention was made up to win international backing:

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab nations from the Gulf Cooperation Council launched a military campaign to push back the Houthis and restore the government. Saudi Arabia presented the intervention as a response to the threat of Iranian expansionism, arguing that the Houthis were effectively an Iranian proxy. This won it the support of other Arab countries and the United States. Yet Saudi rhetoric has grossly misrepresented Iran’s role in the conflict. Although some small arms and money have flowed from Iran to the Houthis, the amounts are not large, and there is no real Houthi-Iranian alliance [bold mine-DL].

It has been common in Western coverage of the war to frame it as a “proxy war” between the Saudis and Iran, and also to describe it primarily in sectarian terms, but both of these are inaccurate and have been promoted by the Saudis and their Western supporters to obscure the real reasons for the conflict. Hawkish supporters of the war on Yemen have been eager to echo Saudi claims about Iranian “expansionism” because it dovetails with their other alarmist claims about Iran’s role in the region, and it somehow makes the wrecking and starving of Yemen more acceptable to our political class if it is being done for anti-Iranian reasons. Regardless, the war is indefensible, and the U.S. should have no part in it. Because the U.S. has backed the war from the start, it is incumbent on our government and the public to bring it to an end and attempt to repair the damage that has been done to Yemen.

The famine and cholera crises that the Saudi-led campaign and blockade have caused are the worst in the world. Orkaby reminds us of the details:

The intervention, which began as a series of air strikes against Houthi military targets, has morphed into an attempt to destroy Yemen’s economic infrastructure in order to turn public opinion away from the Houthi movement and its anti-Saudi stance. Hospitals, factories, water mains, sewage facilities, bridges, and roads have all been demolished in bombing raids. The Saudi coalition, with help from the United States, has blockaded Yemen’s ports and rendered it dangerous for civilian aircraft to fly over the country, making it difficult for aid agencies or businesses to bring goods into Sanaa’s airport and for wounded Yemenis to go abroad for treatment [bold mine-DL].

Yemen’s economy, already weak, has collapsed under the pressure. For many Yemenis, buying food or medicine is now difficult or impossible. According to the UN, two-thirds of Yemen’s 28 million people face food shortages and do not have access to clean water. Seven million of them live in areas on the brink of famine, and nearly two million Yemeni children are acutely malnourished [bold mine-DL]. Without working public services, rubbish and sewage have piled up on the streets and leached into drinking wells. Since April, cholera, which spreads in contaminated water, has infected over 600,000 people, killing more than 2,000.

As Reuters reported earlier this month, the widespread malnutrition and famine are the result of the coalition blockade. The cholera epidemic has become even worse than it was when Orkaby was writing this, as there are now over 840,000 cases. The Red Cross estimates that there will over one million by the end of the year, and that is probably a conservative estimate. Millions of lives are threatened by starvation and preventable disease, these crises are being caused in large part because of the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed campaign and blockade, and the suffering of the civilian population could be significantly ameliorated if those were brought to an end.

The Trump administration has shown no sign of halting its support for the coalition or pressuring the Saudis to end their failed war. If it is left up to the executive, U.S. support for the war will never end, and that is why Congress must assert itself to end our involvement. That is why it is imperative that the House pass H. Con. Res. 81 next month. The vote is expected to be held on November 2, so there is still time to contact your representatives and urge them to support the resolution. The House will have the opportunity to repudiate the disgraceful support that the U.S. has been providing to the coalition, and I urge them to take it.

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The Wrecking of the State Department Hasn’t Stopped

The State Department (Wikimedia Commons)

Jason Zengerle’s long profile of Rex Tillerson recounts how Trump’s Secretary of State has presided over the wrecking of the State Department. I was struck by this passage describing the workload that has fallen on the head of the department’s office of policy planning:

With so many crucial assistant-secretary positions — including some responsible for Asia, the Middle East, and South America — still either vacant or filled with acting officials, Hook has had to pick up the slack. “He’s trying to do the job of 30 people [bold mine-DL],” a 25-year veteran Foreign Service officer says. “He’s just knee-walking.” Worse, the office of policy planning, which has traditionally functioned as the secretary of state’s in-house think tank, is now tasked with handling day-to-day operations at the expense of formulating long-term strategy [bold mine-DL].

Any organization that is hemorrhaging people and doesn’t fill countless vacancies is going to be dysfunctional and ineffective in whatever it tries to do. That is what has been happening in the State Department all year, and it doesn’t appear that things will change anytime soon. Career department officials can be forgiven for assuming that the purpose of gutting the department has been to make it so useless that it can be ignored. If Hook is stuck doing the jobs of 30 people, he can’t possibly be doing any of their jobs or his own well. That’s not a criticism of him, but a statement of the obvious. Even if the people still working the department are superhuman, there is only so much time and attention that they can devote to “picking up the slack” for all the positions that remain unfilled. In practice, that means that there won’t be enough people to do the basic work of maintaining relationships and representing the U.S. in international fora. It also means that important warning signs of potential problems and possible openings for diplomatic engagement are going to be missed because people at the department are too busy trying to keep their heads above water.

There was another anecdote about Hook that provides an example of how department officials are being demoralized:

I noted that on his conference table he had a book by Daniel W. Drezner, an international-politics professor at Tufts University who writes regularly for The Washington Post website and is a frequent critic of Trump and of Tillerson. In fact, just that morning, Drezner had published a column calling on Tillerson to resign. I jokingly told Hook that he might want to hide the book. Instead, R.C. Hammond, Tillerson’s communications director, who was sitting in on the interview, immediately seized it.

“This is the guy who has the thing at The Post?” Hammond asked Hook. “Where’s your trash can?” He made as if he was going to throw the book across Hook’s office. Hook raised his hand to block Hammond.

“No!” Hook said. “It’s a book on policy planning! This was written before Rex Tillerson was even considered.”

“Trash can,” Hammond reiterated [bold mine-DL]. Hook kept his hand up. The fifth of Bombay gin and the liter bottle of tonic water on his desk suddenly made more sense.

Note that the book had nothing to do with Tillerson or Trump, but was concerned with the subject that Hook is supposed to know about in order to do his job. Because it happened to be written by someone who later became a critic of Hammond’s boss, Hammond wanted Hook to throw it away and disregard what it said. If that is the environment that department officials have to work in, it is a small miracle that there is anyone left.

As I’ve said before, the wrecking of the State Department matters for a few reasons. It is driving out career diplomats with decades of experience and relevant regional and policy knowledge that this administration in particular desperately needs. It is discouraging talented people from wanting to work there, and so ensures that the damage to the institution won’t stop in four or eight years. Finally, it is seriously harming the main institution in our government that specializes in matters of diplomacy and development, and the weaker that institution becomes the more militarized our foreign policy will be to the overall detriment of the country and the world.

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The U.S. Needs to Disentangle Itself from Iraq

Ranj Alaaldin also wants the U.S. to make things in Iraq worse:

The Kurdish defeat in Kirkuk was also defeat for the United States — but Washington can recover and regain its foothold in Iraq. It needs to establish red lines in the region that Tehran is not allowed to cross, under the threat of U.S. intervention against its proxies and interests, and under the threat that it may provide Kurdish forces with the weapons and training to act as an effective counterweight to Iranian power.

There is no compelling reason for the U.S. to do any of these things. Whatever else might be said about it, the Iraqi government’s capture of Kirkuk was not a “defeat” for the U.S., and there is no need for Washington to “recover” anything. The U.S. shouldn’t want and doesn’t need to have a “foothold” in Iraq, and trying to maintain one will be very costly while offering little or nothing in the way of benefits. The U.S. certainly doesn’t need to plunge into a new conflict against Iran and its proxies, and it definitely shouldn’t use the Kurds as a pawn as part of an anti-Iranian campaign. Doing this would expose U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria to attack, and it doesn’t serve any discernible American security interest. Instead, the U.S. should be trying to extricate itself from Iraq as quickly as it can, and Washington should give up on the idea that it has the first clue how to succeed in that country. U.S. intervention since 2003 has done a great deal to create the current situation, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves that more intervention will produce better results.

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Puerto Rico’s Environmental Crisis

Hurricane Maria’s destruction of infrastructure included significant damage to many of the island’s sewage treatment plants, and the results are appalling:

Raw sewage is pouring into the rivers and reservoirs of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. People without running water bathe and wash their clothes in contaminated streams, and some islanders have been drinking water from condemned wells.

Nearly a month after the hurricane made landfall, Puerto Rico is only beginning to come to grips with a massive environmental emergency that has no clear end in sight.

“I think this will be the most challenging environmental response after a hurricane that our country has ever seen,” said Judith Enck, who served as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency region that includes Puerto Rico under President Barack Obama.

Almost a third of the people on the island remain without access to potable water, and these are the sources that hundreds of thousands of people are being forced to use. In some rural areas, even previously reliable natural water sources have become contaminated by the bodies of animals killed by the storm. The contamination of all these water sources means that outbreaks of disease are likely to follow.

The immediate and long-term effects on public health could be severe, and the scale of the problem is huge:

With hundreds of thousands of people still without running water, and 20 of the island’s 51 sewage treatment plants out of service, there are growing concerns about contamination and disease.

“People in the U.S. can’t comprehend the scale and scope of what’s needed,” said Drew Koslow, an ecologist with the nonprofit Ridge to Reefs who recently spent a week in Puerto Rico working with a portable water treatment system.

Puerto Rico is facing a large-scale environmental crisis, and the government needs to make many more resources available as quickly as possible. Most of the island remains without power, so pumping stations have to run off of generators that require fuel. There should be an urgent effort to get all undamaged pumping stations up and running, and repairing damaged treatment plants should be a top priority as part of the government’s response. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands need clean drinking water and aren’t getting it. It is simply unacceptable that this many people in Puerto Rico still don’t have access to drinking water almost a month after the hurricane.

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The Absurdity of a ‘Better’ Nuclear Deal

The Bloomberg editors think the U.S. should try to make more demands of Iran:

To get real concessions from Iran over its nuclear program, however, Washington will need the cooperation of the European nations that helped broker the deal. That will be difficult, since they all opposed the U.S. decertification. At the same time, they acknowledge that the deal is not perfect.

A stronger agreement isn’t hard to envision.

Some version of this argument has become so common that I don’t think most Americans appreciate how arrogant it is to think that the U.S. should unilaterally revise the terms of a multilateral agreement. Imagine if the positions were reversed. Two years into the agreement, imagine that the Iranian government begins threatening to renege on its obligations and expand its nuclear program again unless the U.S. agreed to lift all of our government’s non-nuclear sanctions and make other concessions to them in our conduct of foreign policy in the region. Maybe they demand that we stop selling weapons to the Saudis and Israelis because it destabilizes the region, or maybe they insist that we remove all of our forces from Iraq and Syria for the same reason. Instead of waiting for 10 or 15 years for some of the restrictions on the nuclear program to expire, they insist that it should just be 2 or 3 years.

Would anyone here take those demands seriously and be willing to consider them “improvements” to the agreement, or would we all view these new demands as proof of the other side’s bad faith? Obviously, we would say the latter, and that would be correct. When people on our side make similarly far-fetched and unreasonable demands to revise the deal after it has been completed, there is a tendency for our media outlets to treat it as a legitimate and even desirable course of action. It isn’t, and it is important to keep this in mind going forward.

The editors say that “a stronger agreement isn’t hard to envision,” but envisioning it isn’t the issue. Freed from all realistic constraints and the agency of others, one can conjure up all sorts of agreements that would “solve” international problems. None of these new agreements would be realized because the other parties to existing agreements won’t accept them. One major flaw in all of the proposals for “improving” the nuclear deal is that none of the proponents of these changes can explain why Iran would ever accept any of them. Trying to “fix” the deal now amounts to calling for a do-over on what is probably a once-in-a-generation diplomatic breakthrough. It’s preposterous, and moreover it’s a dangerous distraction from the sabotage of the agreement that the supposed advocates of a “better” deal truly want.

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Haass’ Dangerous Proposal for Kurdistan

The president of the Council on Foreign Relations has an idea:

If the U.S. were to do that, it would make a dangerous situation much worse. By “helping Kurds” to resist “Iran-backed governments,” I assume Haass means at the very least providing them with arms and logistical support so that they wage war against the government in Baghdad. Leave aside for the moment how this ignores the political divisions among different Kurdish groups and oversimplifies Iran’s relationships with the Iraqi and Syrian governments, and just marvel at the knee-jerk stupidity of the proposal.

It isn’t clear how far Haass wants this “muscular” policy to go, but it would seem to commit the U.S. to back Kurdish insurgents against at least two governments (one of which we have armed and supported for over a decade) plus Iran and its proxies and probably Turkey as well. This would stoke a conflict that the U.S. should be trying to stop, it would expose U.S. forces to retaliation from some or all of these governments, and it would gain us nothing except an open-ended conflict that serves no discernible purpose except to create mayhem. On top of all that, it would probably improve Iran’s position in the region by giving its neighbors common cause to cooperate with them against a U.S.-backed insurgency.

I doubt that Haass’ proposal will be adopted, if only because I don’t think Secretary Mattis would be stupid enough to endorse it, but it is alarming that this is what passes for clever policy advice from one of the pillars of the foreign policy establishment in response to a new conflict. Less than 24 hours after the eruption of fighting between Kurdish forces and the Iraqi government, we are already hearing proposals from high-profile people to throw weapons at the problem for the sake of hurting Iran. It was the same reflexive “do somethingism” and hostility to Iran that inspired the last five years of disastrous meddling in Syria, and Haass would like to apply the same lousy ideas to Kurdistan as well. I don’t see how this “muscular” policy would be anything but a debacle for the U.S., and it would probably prove to be a nightmare for the Kurds.

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Netanyahu’s Dishonesty and Delusion on the Nuclear Deal

This exchange in Netanyahu’s interview on Face the Nation yesterday captures both the delusion and dishonesty of opponents of the nuclear deal:

JOHN DICKERSON: The allies to the agreement believe that changing it in fact breaks it.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: No. In fact if you don’t change it, you break it [bold mine-DL]. That’s what the president told them. That if they don’t change it, if they don’t fix it, if they don’t prevent Iran from automatically getting in a decade to a nuclear arsenal [bold mine-DL], then he’ll change it.

He’ll cancel the deal. So I think that once they realize that this is the American position, they should join forces with the United States and with the president and work to change this [bold mine-DL].

Our European allies are well-aware of what the U.S. position under Trump is on this issue, but they have no desire to “join forces” with our government to undermine an agreement that they know is working as planned. It is delusional to think that the U.S. can change the allies’ position by taking unilateral steps that the allies oppose, and there is nothing to support the idea that they will collaborate in wrecking the deal in order to prevent U.S. withdrawal. In fact, our allies have made clear that they will stick by the agreement regardless of what the U.S. does.

The dishonesty of deal opponents is on display when Netanyahu when he says that Iran is going to “automatically” obtain a nuclear arsenal within a decade. The latter is practically impossible because of the restrictions imposed on their program. Indeed, the first of those restrictions just start to be lifted after ten years, others last much longer than that, and some never expire at all. Netanyahu would have us believe that Iran will have a nuclear arsenal before any of the deal’s restrictions expire. That’s a lie, and it’s remarkably sloppy one at that. (Regrettably, his interviewer never really challenged any of these specious assertions.) The prime minister also claims that leaving the deal as it is will “break” it, but this is as false as can be. Leaving an agreement intact can’t cause a break. Making arbitrary changes after the deal has been settled will. Like many other hawks, Netanyahu simultaneously wants to trash an important agreement without owning the consequences that would follow.

At another point in the interview, he worries that Iran will adhere faithfully to the agreement: “I’ve always said that the greatest danger of this deal is not that Iran will violate it but that Iran will keep it.” Attentive readers will recall that this is not what Netanyahu has “always” said about the deal, but emphasized that Iran couldn’t be trusted to honor its obligations. Now that Iran is doing what he said they would never do, suddenly Iranian compliance is a problem that needs “fixing” by making new demands that they will never accept. Obviously no deal could ever satisfy Netanyahu, and that is why he has consistently been a die-hard, implacable opponent of negotiations from the start. His goal has never been to achieve a “better” non-proliferation agreement. It has been to use the nuclear issue as a cudgel with which he can beat Iran and as a bogey that he can use to scare Western audiences and his own people.

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Fighting Erupts in Kirkuk

Fighting has broken out between Iraqi government forces and Shia militias on one side and Kurdish militia on the other in Kirkuk:

Iraqi forces clashed with fighters from the Kurdish semiautonomous region in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk early Monday, Iraqi and Kurdish officials said, in a standoff over Kurdish independence that threatens to unravel a multinational coalition battling Islamic State.

There are initial reports of many casualties from this first round of fighting. The Iraqi government assault is being described by Kurdish officials as a “major, multi-pronged” attack, and the Iraqi government claims to have seized “vast areas” in and around the city, but Kurdish officials dispute that. The U.S. has been urging all parties to avoid escalation, but it seems that no one there is paying much attention to what Washington wants at this point.

Now that the fighting has started, it may prove difficult to stop anytime soon. The best thing the U.S. can do is to continue appealing to Baghdad for restraint and warn them that they are jeopardizing relations with Washington if they continue to carry out a military campaign in Kurdistan. Publicly, U.S. officials should emphasize the need for de-escalation, and if at all possible the president should not be allowed to pop off with random threats and insults against anyone involved. The U.S. has limited influence and may not be able to keep the situation from spiraling out of control, but it can try to use what influence it has to pull the different sides back from the brink. Ideally, we would have an administration interested in and capable of conducting sensitive diplomacy with a fully-staffed State Department to cope with this crisis, but since we don’t have any of that we can at least hope that the administration won’t make an already bad situation worse.

Update: There are now reports that Kurdish forces are falling back, and civilians are fleeing the city in large numbers.

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McMaster’s Spin Discredits Him

Wikimedia Commons

Administration officials tried to spin Trump’s dangerous decertification decision over the weekend. McMaster offered what may have been the most ridiculous argument:

One of the real problems with this deal is we can’t really say with confidence that they are complying [bold mine-DL] and we know from their behavior, their behavior broadly in the region, and their behavior within the agreement where they have walked up to the line, they have crossed the line several times in terms of the restrictions, that this is not a trustworthy regime. So, much more comprehensive monitoring is in order.

The IAEA’s inspections in Iran are the most thorough and extensive in the world today, and the agency verifies that Iran is complying with the agreement. The very few minor occasions when there has been a problem, the IAEA has caught it, and the problem was fixed. The verification regime that the deal puts in place ensures that if Iran ever does exceed the limits set by the agreement the IAEA will know about it right away. One could scarcely ask for “more comprehensive monitoring” than this, so to insist that this is needed betrays a lack of understanding of what the deal does, shows the administration’s determination to misrepresent the JCPOA to the public, or some combination of the two.

McMaster’s claim that we can’t “say with confidence” that Iran is in compliance shows that there is no agreement that could conceivably be reached with Iran that would satisfy its critics. If the IAEA’s judgment on eight different occasions doesn’t give McMaster confidence that Iran is really complying, nothing will. If this deal isn’t good enough because Iran “is not a trustworthy regime,” there is no deal that would be. McMaster has taken the old “trust but verify” slogan and turned it inside out, so that verification isn’t possible because a regime isn’t trustworthy. He might as well just declare that evidence is completely irrelevant to the making of administration policy, because that is what his statements yesterday mean.

Reneging on the agreement will make it more difficult for other governments to trust our government. Another consequence of this policy is that the public will have another good reason to disbelieve what they are being told by administration officials, because those officials are making a number of false and misleading claims to justify Trump’s decision. Trump’s officials aren’t just shredding U.S. credibility in the eyes of the world. They are setting fire to their own by making such preposterous, easily refuted claims about the nuclear deal.

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Rubio’s Ignorant Fear-mongering on the Nuclear Deal

Marco Rubio rushed to the president’s defense this morning by showing off how little he knows about everything:

It takes a truly oblivious person to accuse someone of hyperbole while comparing a non-proliferation agreement to the appeasement of Hitler, but then this is Rubio we’re talking about here. Rubio has to be so thoroughly ignorant of what “Munich” means that he can’t be taken seriously, or he is such a fanatical ideologue that his analysis can’t be trusted. Suffice it to say, an agreement that requires Iran to make significant concessions for decades on pain of punitive sanctions does not amount to anyone appeasing them. One will look in vain for the territories that Iran is allowed to absorb as a result of the deal. Iran has accepted restrictions on itself that it didn’t have to accept so that it could be freed of international sanctions. If anything, Iran is the party that has appeased the others that negotiated the agreement.

Hard-liners have labeled the negotiations with Iran as a new Munich or “worse than Munich” for years. This has just confirmed how little they know about history and how ideologically hostile they are to any kind of diplomatic engagement. Denouncing the JCPOA as the “21st century equivalent to Munich” is just about the crudest, most ignorant fear-mongering conceivable. It is a measure of how intellectually bankrupt the case against the deal really is that this is what its opponents keep using. It is also a reminder that Rubio’s foreign policy judgment is terrible.

I have often wondered how Rubio acquired the undeserved reputation for being some sort of foreign policy expert in the Senate. As far as I can tell, if a politician talks about a subject enough with enough enthusiasm and toes the right ideological lines, he doesn’t have to demonstrate knowledge of anything he’s talking about. Especially on foreign policy, a politician is granted “expert” status just by taking an interest in the issues that his colleagues tend to ignore. This is probably how Rubio’s fellow fanatic Tom Cotton earned the title of “leading Iran expert” in a recent news article despite having no particular expertise in the country and a record of distorting and misrepresenting the contents of the nuclear deal. I suggest that everyone stop treating fear-mongers and warmongers as “experts” just because they like to denounce certain foreign governments with strong language.

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Trump’s Abysmal Iran Speech

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

Trump’s Iran speech on Friday afternoon was every bit as bad as I expected. He refused to certify that the nuclear deal is in the national security interests of the United States, and that opens the door to the saboteur efforts that are already getting started with the destructive Corker-Cotton legislation. The goal of that legislation–making all existing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program permanent–represents an attempt to alter the terms of the agreement, which is itself a violation of that agreement. Put simply, the legislation Trump endorsed in the speech would mark a breach of U.S. obligations if it became law. He wants the deal gone one way or another. He may prefer that Congress be the one to hand him the knife, but he intends to do what he can to kill the deal even if they don’t.

In the event that the new legislation fails to get enough support, Trump made plain that he would renege on the deal outright:

Key House and Senate leaders are drafting legislation that would amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act to strengthen enforcement, prevent Iran from developing an inter – this is so totally important – an intercontinental ballistic missile, and make all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity permanent under US law. So important. I support these initiatives.

However, in the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated [bold mine-DL]. It is under continuous review, and our participation can be cancelled by me, as president, at any time.

In my preview of the speech, I said that the decision not to certify the deal would set in motion the process to break U.S. commitments and that sending the issue to Congress was just a way to give the administration cover for reneging on the deal. Assuming that Trump follows through on what he said on Friday, I was unfortunately right.

To justify his terrible decision, Trump cited “multiple violations” by Iran, but the things he referred to were very minor and quickly resolved because of the verification measures available to the IAEA under the deal. Opponents of the deal can’t credibly argue that Iran isn’t in compliance. Trump never mentioned the repeated verification of Iranian compliance by the IAEA that every other party to the agreement accepts, because that fact flatly contradicts the lie at the heart of his decision not to certify the deal. He referred to Iran’s “illicit nuclear program” at one point. That tells us that he and his administration either don’t understand that Iran is permitted to have such a program, or it means that they know better but want to mislead the public into thinking that Iran is engaged in “illicit” behavior when it is doing things it is actually allowed to do.

There were a few other sections that merit comment. The decision to sanction the IRGC under the Treasury’s counter-terrorism authority didn’t amount to adding them to the Foreign Terrorist Organization list (which would have been extremely dangerous), but it is nonetheless a provocative and dangerous act that will likely come back to bite the U.S.:

“This is reckless beyond the extreme,” said Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert at the Atlantic Council. “The reason being is that to designate the armed forces of another country as terrorists is to invite retaliation. Would the designation mean that US drone attacks on IRGC personnel are fair game? If so, expect to see Iranian proxies start killing US military personnel again in Iraq or in Afghanistan or Syria.”

Trump’s expression of “total solidarity with the Iranian people” rings hollow on several levels. His hostility to the nuclear deal puts him at odds with most Iranians, as does his determination to blame their government for everything that goes wrong in the region. His promise of increased sanctions shows his indifference to their well-being. Finally, his decision to bar almost all Iranians from traveling to the U.S. reveals that his contempt for them and their country goes beyond opposition to the current government.

The threat inflation in the speech was as heavy-handed as ever. At one point, Trump said that Iran’s government “spread death, destruction and chaos all around the globe.” Iran is certainly responsible for the destructive effects of its policies in Syria and Iraq, but since when have they been spreading chaos “all around the globe”? Trump also referred to Iranian “aggression” that was happening “all around the world.” These statements wildly overstate Iranian power, and I assume this is done on purpose to make them seem much more threatening than they really are. It is weird and unseemly that a superpower is so obsessed with combating the influence of a much weaker, medium-sized regional power, and so we are told tall tales about the supposed global reach and ambitions of a state that doesn’t even dominate its own neighborhood.

The litany of complaints at the beginning of the speech was remarkable for how dated most of the references were. Some of the claims, such as Iran’s supposed “assistance to Al Qaeda,” are discredited old talking points from more than a decade ago. Many of the other grievances date back thirty years or more. It was striking to hear the laundry list from Trump because it is already well-known and because it has so little bearing on the present. Imagine how ridiculous it would be if a president were giving a speech in the 1990s on China and was still dwelling on the Korean War or the Cultural Revolution as justifications for hostile policies in the present. Consider how absurd it would be to let grudges over events from decades ago shape our current relationship with Vietnam. The U.S. and Iran have gone back and forth with their respective lists of grievances for almost forty years, and dwelling on those injuries has done nothing but poison relations for that entire time to the detriment of both countries. Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about Trump’s abysmal Iran speech was how conventional and typical most of it was. The speech confirmed that the U.S. is going to stay stuck in the same rut of fruitless antagonism with Iran for many years to come.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The awful legacy of the burn pits. Kelley Vlahos reports on Delay, Deny, Hope You Die, a documentary on the devastating effect of exposure to burn pits on the health of many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and the government’s refusal to acknowledge the connection.

Saudi Arabia squeezes a starving population. Reuters reports on the Saudi-led coalition blockade’s effects on the civilian population in Yemen and its role in creating conditions for famine and cholera.

What’s really behind Tom Cotton’s opposition to the nuclear deal. Nicholas Miller dissects Tom Cotton’s CFR speech to explain that regime change is Cotton’s real goal.

The plotters against May think time is on their side. James Forsyth reports on the growing discontent among Tory backbenchers.

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The Costs of the Stupid, Unnecessary Travel Ban

The Trump administration’s baffling decision to include Chad as part of its new travel ban may have already had serious consequences:

President Donald Trump’s decision to place Chad on his revised travel ban shocked experts and former U.S. officials who warned it could have major consequences for the fight against terrorism in Africa.

And it appears Trump’s controversial decision may have already damaged alliances on the continent—which is threatened by a range of militants, including affiliates of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militant group.

Chad has pulled hundreds of troops from neighboring Niger, where they had been stationed to assist in a regional fight against Boko Haram, the Nigerian militant Islamist group, Reuters reported.

It is possible that there is another reason for Chad’s withdrawal, but it seems reasonable to assume that the decision was influenced by the administration’s arbitrary and insulting decision to bar the country’s citizens from traveling here. We should remember that the decision to add Chad to the travel ban was made over the objections of everyone in government with expertise in that part of the world, and no one familiar with the relationship with Chad thought there was any merit to doing this. The administration’s travel ban has never made sense as a policy, and it was never going to make the U.S. more secure. Now it appears that it may be making other parts of the world less secure by undermining security partnerships for no reason. Ideally, the travel ban would be discarded all together, but in the meantime Chad should be removed from the list immediately.

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The Destructive Corker-Cotton Bill

As expected, Tom Cotton isn’t wasting time working on the next step to sabotage the nuclear deal. He and Bob Corker are co-sponsoring a bill that would effectively impose new demands on Iran regarding the nuclear issue that go far beyond what is contained in the JCPOA:

According to a summary provided by Corker’s office, the two Republican senators’ proposal is designed to “effectively” eliminate the deal’s sunset when it comes to U.S. sanctions.

The Corker-Cotton bill tries to rewrite the terms of the nuclear deal unilaterally. While it doesn’t reimpose nuclear sanctions right away, it is a blatant show of bad faith from our side. If it passed and became law, it would tell the Iranians that nuclear sanctions will be eventually reimposed on them even if they adhere to the terms of the deal that they agreed to. It would be an egregious violation by the U.S., and it would certainly be received as such. It shouldn’t come as a shock that Corker and Cotton are working together on this. Despite Corker’s reputation for being more “moderate,” he and Cotton are both vocal opponents of the deal and Iran hawks more generally.

The hawkish fixation on sunset clauses isn’t just a foolish misunderstanding of how these agreements usually work. As we can see with this legislation, it is something that hard-line opponents of the deal intend to use as an excuse to sabotage the agreement. Trump’s decision today not to certify the deal will be helping to clear the path for Congressional meddling like this, and we should expect more of the same in the months to come.

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A Senseless ‘New Strategy’ on Iran

Trump’s dangerous decertification decision on the nuclear deal will come in his speech later this afternoon. In the same speech, he will outline what the administration is calling a “new strategy” on Iran, but based on the “fact sheet” the White House has sent out there is no strategy to be found. The “fact sheet” contains a fair number of false and misleading claims (and a lot of typos), but it doesn’t describe anything resembling a strategy.

The Trump administration is announcing that it intends to be more hostile to Iran and its proxies, but it sets no well-defined goals for what this increased hostility is supposed to achieve. The document says that the administration “will seek to bring about a change in the Iranians regimes behavior [sic]” while “neutralizing the Government of Irans destabilizing influence [sic].” To what end? At what cost? How? Why? For how long? None of these basic questions is addressed, much less answered in a satisfactory way. There is no hint of trying to match means and ends. Instead, the document lists a lot of complaints about Iranian behavior, makes assertions that other governments share Washington’s concerns, and whines about Obama’s record. Everything in the so-called “strategy” outline suggests that the policy that the “fact sheet” describes is as poorly-crafted as the document itself. We’ll find out more in the speech later today, but the preview suggests that future Iran policy will be even more senseless and ill-considered than it already is.

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The Backlash Against the Kurdish Referendum Escalates

The backlash to the Kurdish referendum is escalating dangerously:

The Iraqi army launched an operation to retake Kurdish-held positions around the disputed oil city of Kirkuk on Friday amid a bitter row with the Kurds over a vote for independence last month.

A senior Kurdish official said thousands of heavily armed fighters had been deployed to resist the offensive “at any cost” and called for international intervention with the federal government in Baghdad to prevent the confrontation worsening.

The danger of holding the referendum was that it would be the trigger for a new round of armed conflict. Including Kirkuk in the referendum made that outcome more likely. Unfortunately, one of the worse scenarios that we feared might happen is beginning to unfold. There might still be a chance to persuade the Iraqi government and Kurdish leadership to stop this conflict before too much damage is done, but I fear that all sides are now so entrenched in their positions that none of them is willing to consider backing down. If fighting begins at Kirkuk, it could very well provoke a Kurdish declaration of independence. That would likely cause Turkish and Iranian intervention to one degree or another. Given the horrible state of U.S.-Turkish relations at the moment, Washington is in no position to rein Turkey in, and it’s doubtful that the U.S. would be able to do so even if the relationship with Ankara wasn’t in tatters right now.

The U.S. should offer mediation to help prevent the conflict from escalating into a larger conflagration, but it absolutely must not let itself get dragged in to the fighting on either side. There will probably be significant pressure on the administration to “do something” in response to the conflict, but that needs to be resisted as much as possible.

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For War Hawks, Iran Deal Dump Is Music to the Ears

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

Donald Trump is expected to tell Congress as early as Friday that he will not to re-certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The Iran Nuclear Review Agreement Act, also known as Corker-Cardin, obliges the president to make this certification every 90 days. If he does not, Congress has a period of 60 days when it’s able to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions that had been lifted as part of the nuclear deal. Despite grudgingly agreeing to approve the deal twice earlier this year, the president made plain over the summer that he didn’t believe Iran was in compliance and would not certify again. 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.

This is folly.

While the administration claims it’s seeking to pressure Iran into making more concessions, the pursuit of an imaginary “better” deal is designed to create political cover for reneging on U.S. obligations later on. None of the other parties to the nuclear deal is willing to renegotiate it, and our European allies have been adamant that they will continue to respect the agreement even if the U.S. reneges. Issuing new demands and calling for renegotiation when none of our allies wants to reopen the matter will obviously fail, and will put unnecessary strain on relations with those governments.

There is no “better” deal to be had, in any case. The “flaws” in the current deal that the administration has criticized aren’t going to be “fixed” because there would have been no agreement without them. For example, the expiration of some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in 10 or 15 years is a normal part of any arms control agreement, and no government would accept severe restrictions in perpetuity. Demanding that sunset clauses be removed from the deal is demanding something that we already know Iran would never accept.

The decertification decision will kick the issue to Congress. Some Republican members, including Congressman Ed Royce and Senator Rand Paul, have expressed a preference to keep the deal in place so long as Iran remains in compliance. Hard-line opponents of the deal may not rush to reimpose sanctions right away, but it seems implausible that the same people who have fought tooth and nail against the agreement will miss their chance to blow it up. And if Congress does produce sanctions legislation in the next two months, it is fanciful to think Trump would veto a bill to keep an agreement he hates alive.

A leading proponent of decertification in the Senate, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, delivered a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations last week in which he laid out the views of the deal’s hardline opponents. Cotton was among the fiercest and loudest opponents of the agreement before it was made, and he has continued to look for ways to sabotage it. In his speech, Cotton made clear he isn’t really interested in getting a “better” deal with Tehran because he doesn’t think any deal with them has merit. He wants to create conditions that justify reneging on the agreement and then pursuing a more aggressive policy towards Iran, up to and including regime change. Nicholas Miller came to the same conclusion.

At first glance, the desire to undermine the agreement makes no sense. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified that Iran is complying with the deal’s terms in eight consecutive reports over the last two years. The agency’s inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities are among the most thorough and extensive in the world. The deal appears to be working just as its creators intended, making it practically impossible for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. Despite all that, Trump insists it is one of the worst agreements ever made. To understand why Iran hawks loathe the JCPOA so much, we have to remember that it deprived them of their main pretext for launching an attack on Iran, and as long as the deal remains intact it creates an obstacle to war and the pursuit of regime change.

The immediate costs of decertification for the U.S. will include the loss of the trust of our allies, increased tensions with Iran, and much greater skepticism from all other governments the next time America wants to negotiate a major international agreement. If decertification leads to the U.S. breaching our obligations under the nuclear deal, as seems likely, all these costs will increase, and so will the chances of war with Iran.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American SceneCulture11, and The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter.

Trump’s Mishandling of the Puerto Rico Disaster

This morning the president made a bizarre series of statements about Puerto Rico:

President Trump served notice Thursday that he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Declaring the U.S. territory’s electrical grid and infrastructure to have been a “disaster before hurricanes,” Trump wrote Thursday that it will be up to Congress how much federal money to appropriate to the island for its recovery efforts and that recovery workers will not stay “forever.”

In a trio of tweets, Trump wrote” “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

Hurricane Maria made landfall three weeks ago, but Trump is already complaining that Puerto Rico is tying up resources. The government keeps U.S. forces in foreign countries on the other side of the world carrying out dubious missions for more than a decade at enormous expense, but less than a month of using some military resources to help Americans after a catastrophe is apparently a terrible burden. Some of the government’s agencies will be needed in Puerto Rico for a long time to come, and others will always be there because it is part of our country. One gets the impression from a lot of Trump’s complaints about Puerto Rico that he thinks he should get personal credit for the government’s fulfillment of basic obligations to its citizens.

It’s impossible to miss that Trump has signaled repeatedly through his statements and his (lack of) actions that Puerto Ricans shouldn’t be given the same treatment or respect as Americans on the mainland despite the extraordinary disaster that has befallen people on the island. The appropriate response in this situation would be for the president to pledge to support recovery efforts as long as necessary and to reassure citizens living in a disaster area that they won’t be forgotten. Instead, Trump makes it sound as if he can’t wash his hands of the problem soon enough.

The general who was brought in to improve the response to Hurricane Katrina reacted to Trump’s statements this morning:

The initial federal response has been slower and less effective than it should be. Because of the extent of the storm’s devastation, there is a greater need for federal help than there usually is in the wake of hurricanes. There is ample evidence that the island will need much more immediate and longer-term assistance as it recovers from the disaster. The president and his administration show no signs of understanding that. Puerto Rico needs a sustained, large-scale commitment from the federal government that will be measured in years rather than weeks. If the president already finds the limited and inadequate response by the administration to be so burdensome and says so publicly, that tells the people working under him and the people living on the island that repairing and rebuilding Puerto Rico isn’t going to be a priority. The result of that is the ongoing unacceptable neglect of millions of Americans that desperately need help.

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The Perils of Arming Ukraine

Rajan Menon and Will Ruger elaborate on why arming Ukraine would be an extremely foolish thing for the U.S. to do:

The proposition that Putin won’t be provoked by a U.S. decision to send lethal arms to Ukraine amounts to a hunch. It’s not supported by evidence, and Putin’s past behavior contradicts it. This is not a minor point: if he does ramp up the war and the Ukrainian army is forced into retreat, the United States will face three bad choices.

First, Washington could pour even more arms into Ukraine in hopes of concentrating Putin’s mind; but he can easily provide additional firepower to the Donbas insurgents. Second, it could deepen its military involvement by sending American military advisers, or even troops, to the frontline to bolster the Ukrainian army; but then Russia could call America’s bluff. Third, the United States could decide not to respond to Russia’s escalation given the geographical disadvantage and the limited strategic interests at stake. That would amount to backing down, abandoning Ukraine, and shredding the oft-repeated argument that American and European security hinges on the outcome of the Donbas war.

As hawks often do, advocates of arming Ukraine minimize the potential risks of their proposal while exaggerating the benefits that it will produce. On the one hand, they insist that they are “merely” calling for the U.S. to help Ukraine defend itself (they are actually calling for enabling Ukraine’s government to go on the offensive), but at the same time they believe that in doing so they will “raise the costs” for Russia to such an extent that it will significantly alter Russian behavior in and towards Ukraine. If the policy is as likely to change Moscow’s behavior as they say, it can’t be as low-risk as they claim, but if it doesn’t pose a serious risk it is probably going to have no positive effects at all. In the worst case, arming Ukraine sets them up for a disastrous defeat that the U.S. will have helped to enable.

The other flaw in the pro-arming case is that advocates of sending weapons to the Ukrainian government simply dismiss the negative consequences that are very likely to follow. They assume that the Russian government has a low tolerance for casualties, but they conveniently forget that it was Russian casualties in Tskhinvali that served as part of the rallying cry for the invasion of Georgia in the August 2008 war. The same people that called for pulling Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit in 2014 didn’t anticipate the Russian response to Yanukovych’s overthrow, but they still think that Moscow will be more inclined to back down now when faced with new provocations. Western hawkish analysts and pundits have consistently underestimated how far Moscow will go in this conflict, so why should their assurances be trusted now? We should have learned over the last decade that Moscow is much more likely to respond forcefully to provocative Western actions than most of us have assumed, and that means that the U.S. should approach this conflict with greater caution instead of increased recklessness.

Menon and Ruger make another important point that tends to get lost in the debate on this question:

The case for arming Ukraine also tends to be made in a vacuum, never mind that what the United States does in Ukraine could determine what Russia does elsewhere. Moscow could respond by putting more pressure on the Baltics, acting as a spoiler in North Korea or Iran, or even arming the Taliban (that would be an ironic turn: in the 1980s, the United States bled the Soviets by arming the Afghan mujahideen). If these outcomes seem impossible, consider the United States’ awful record in foreseeing the effects of its military moves [bold mine-DL].

The explicit purpose of sending arms to Ukraine is to give their government the means to kill more Russians and Russian proxies. This may be dressed up in euphemisms by advocates (e.g., “raising costs,” “making them pay a price”), but that is what they expressly hope to achieve with this policy. If our positions were reversed, our government would not respond to the deaths of our soldiers and proxies by yielding to the preferences of the government that provided the weapons that killed them. On the contrary, our government would intensify its support for whatever policy that government was trying to thwart. It would be foolish to assume that the Russian government would respond differently. We should assume that they would respond both directly in Ukraine by increasing their support for separatists and indirectly by aiding our enemies in other wars. This last part was the point that analyst Michael Kofman made in a report from August:

Russia’s response to scattering Javelins among Ukrainian ground forces should factor into the decision, Kofman said.

“The Russians have a very clear policy of reciprocity, as we saw in the recent diplomatic purge. They see this as a premise of the U.S. wanting to kill Russians,” Kofman said.

“The answer to this won’t come in Ukraine.”

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