Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

What Cuba means for Latin America. Catherine Addington considers how normalization with Cuba could improve U.S. relations and help advance U.S. goals in other parts of the hemisphere.

The human carnage of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Donatella Rovera reports on civilian casualties and Saudi war crimes in Yemen.

How the AP got the Iran inspections story wrong. Cheryl Rofer explains what the bad reporting in the AP story on the IAEA and Parchin missed.

Will there be peace in South Sudan? Stephanie Schwartz questions whether the recent deal designed to end the country’s civil war will work.

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Rubio’s China Speech

Rubio’s China speech was as bad as expected, and Rubio’s proposed China policy was a bit more confrontational than his previous statements have suggested. For example, he says this:

We will confront Chinese propaganda in Asia by highlighting U.S. resolve and the flimsiness of China’s territorial claims. And if China continues to use military force to advance its illegitimate claims, I will not hesitate to take action [bold mine-DL].

Rubio doesn’t specify what action he would take, but he is effectively inventing a new set of U.S. commitments to oppose China in its various territorial disputes with its neighbors. Since hawks typically understand “action” to mean aggressive and militarized measures, Rubio’s willingness to “act” without hesitation is especially reckless. The U.S. is not a party to any of these disputes, it has been our policy that our government doesn’t take positions one way or the other on them, and so it makes no sense that the U.S. should be taking “action” to challenge Chinese claims. Doing so not only risks creating an incident with China that could escalate into conflict, but it also risks encouraging our regional allies to be more provocative and intransigent in their own territorial claims in the belief that the U.S. will back them up. Rubio would put the U.S. and China on a collision course, and his pledge to “take action” against China here could lead to clashes over disputes in which the U.S. has no interest. This is a dangerous and irresponsible pledge, and it is one that we can hope Rubio will never be in a position to fulfill.

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Walker’s Meddlesome Foreign Policy

Scott Walker asks an odd question in his foreign policy speech at the Citadel today:

How can we deter our sophisticated adversaries in Eastern Europe and competitors in the South China Sea if we cannot defeat the barbarians of ISIS and roll back the theocrats in Tehran?

The answer is that the former have little or nothing to do with the latter. Demonstrating an ability to “defeat” ISIS or “roll back” Iranian influence doesn’t tell Russia and China anything about U.S. commitments in their respective regions. In fact, it is more likely that the U.S. will have fewer resources to devote to the former if it continues to be bogged down in protracted conflicts in the Near East. The U.S. would have greater difficulty effectively supporting its allies in Europe and Asia if it were preoccupied with “rolling back” Iranian influence.

Then again, applying the concept of “rollback” to Iran makes no sense. Iran’s position in the region has been growing weaker, not stronger, over the last four or five years, and its allies and proxies are under greater pressure from their local enemies than they used to be. Like other Iran hawk, Walker imagines that Iran is “on the march” and must be pushed back, but he unsurprisingly gets both the diagnosis and the remedy wrong.

Elsewhere in the speech, Walker says this:

Clearly, we can no longer afford to be passive spectators while the world descends into chaos.

First, “the world” isn’t descending into chaos. Most countries are enjoying peace and prosperity, and there are only a relative few serious conflicts around the world. It’s also obviously not true that the U.S. has been a “passive spectator.” In some cases, such as the war on Yemen, it would have been better if the U.S. had remained at least a spectator rather than an enabler and participant in the disaster unfolding there. The reality is that the U.S. has been anything but “passive” around the world in recent years, and in more than a few cases the impulse to meddle has helped wreck entire countries. In light of that, it’s absurd to think that the U.S. needs to become even more activist and intrusive in its dealings with the rest of the world, but that is exactly what Walker would do.

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The Unending War on ISIS

Dan de Luce notes that top military commanders expect that the war on ISIS could last decades:

But White House officials, and most members of Congress, are reluctant to speak publicly about how long the campaign may last, much to the frustration of military commanders. For members of both political parties, acknowledging that the war could drag on for another 10 to 20 years is politically risky, if not poisonous, and would require confronting difficult decisions about ordering troops into combat, budgets, and strategy.

When the administration first started its intervention against ISIS last year, officials talked about a war that would last at least three years, but that has proved to be overly optimistic. The war began as a “limited” and defensive action, but quickly morphed into an aggressive, open-ended, multi-year commitment that was never debated and was never put to a vote. The executive branch committed the U.S. to this policy on its own to show that it was “doing something” to combat ISIS, but it did so with no thought for the duration, cost, or difficulty of the war that it started. It has been able to get away with this because Congress is useless when it comes to overseeing the conduct of foreign wars, but it has still left the U.S. holding the bag for a costly conflict in Iraq and Syria with no discernible end. The U.S. is now stuck with a significant military mission that could conceivably last through the end of the next decade, and there has been no serious consideration of the risks or benefits in Congress or anywhere else. As has happened in the past, the U.S. has intervened first and failed to ask any of the relevant questions. This just drives home how unwise and unnecessary U.S. involvement has been from the start, and now that the U.S. is committed it will be extremely difficult to extricate U.S. forces from a war they should never have been fighting.

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The Civilian Victims of the War on Yemen

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Donatella Rovera reports on the civilian casualties of the war on Yemen:

The Houthis and their allies are the declared targets of the coalition’s 5-month-old air campaign. In reality, however, it is civilians like little Rahma and her family who all too often pay the price of this war. Hundreds have been killed in such strikes while asleep in their homes, when going about their daily activities, or in the very places where they had sought refuge from the conflict. The United States, meanwhile, has provided the weapons that have made many of these killings possible.

There is good reason to believe that the Saudi air campaign has been deliberately targeting civilians for months. When they illegally declared all of Saada a military target, they were practically admitting that this is what they were going to do, and they have since made good on that threat. While there has been some very good reporting and documentation of Saudi war crimes by journalists and human rights groups, these crimes have largely gone unnoticed here in the U.S. along with the rest of the war. This has made it much easier for the administration to avoid public scrutiny of its ongoing support for the intervention.

Rovera goes on to describe the Saudi use of cluster bombs, which the Saudis purchased from the U.S., and reminds us that they are such exceptionally indiscriminate weapons:

The poisonous legacy of these U.S.-made weapons will plague Yemen for years to come. In Inshur, a village near the northern city of Saada, I found a field full of U.S.-made BLU-97 cluster submunitions — small bombs the size of a soda can that are contained in cluster bombs. Many lie in the field, still unexploded and posing a high risk for unsuspecting local residents, farmers, and animal herders who may step on them or pick them up, unaware of the danger. In one of the city’s hospitals, I met a 13-year-old boy who stepped on one of the unexploded cluster bombs in Inshur, causing it to explode. It smashed several bones in his foot.

Cluster bombs were banned by an international convention in 2008. But in the 1990s, the United States sold the type of cluster bombs now littering the fields of Inshur to Saudi Arabia. Each of these cluster bombs contains up to 200 small bombs, which are dispersed by the bomb’s explosion over a large area. However, many of these smaller bombs often do not explode on impact, leaving a lethal legacy for years to come.

The war on Yemen will continue claiming innocent victims long after the hostilities end, and the U.S. will have provided the Saudis the weapons that will end up killing them.

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Thinking About War and Voting

photo: Dean Terry (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Alan Jacobs proposed an interesting thought experiment yesterday:

You (in this thought experiment) are a Christian and a strong supporter of religious liberty; you are also strongly opposed to unnecessary military adventures and foreign intervention more generally.

How do you vote? And on what grounds do you make that decision?

Noah Millman has already offered his response, and I thought I would add mine as well. In this experiment, the Christian voter has a choice between voting for a reflexively interventionist party and a party that is “disinclined to adventurism, not isolationist but not interventionist either.” If there were such an alternative, I would say that this voter ought to support the latter party, and it would be a fairly easy decision to make. The reasons for doing so are straightforward enough. Given a choice between a party that would commit the U.S. to near-constant war in various places around the world and one that wouldn’t, the voter’s commitment to protecting human life and dignity would easily outweigh other considerations and would oblige him to vote for the less warlike party. That is not only because he would be inclined not to waste the lives of his fellow Americans on unnecessary wars, but he would also recoil from the advocates of inflicting death and destruction on others created in the image of God. Since this Christian voter is presumably also convinced that he should be trying to be a peacemaker, it would not be a difficult choice to reject a party of militarists.

As we all understand, however, there is no such alternative available (and there definitely isn’t one in the upcoming presidential election), and the compromises one would have to make to support either major party should be unacceptable to the sort of voter Jacobs describes here.

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Whose War in Yemen?

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For much of the past year, the country of Yemen in southern Arabia has been convulsed by civil war and foreign military intervention. Especially since the capture of the capital city, Sana’a, last September by a Zaydi Shi’ite militia called Ansar Allah—more commonly known as the Houthis—Yemen has been in political turmoil. Since then a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led military intervention has intensified the country’s civil strife and brought about a humanitarian catastrophe affecting more than 20 million civilians. Though most Americans may not realize it, the U.S. is helping to wage war on yet another country in Middle East and supporting a policy that is inflicting enormous suffering on an entire people. The effects of this reckless intervention will likely include the further empowerment of jihadist groups in Yemen, amplified resentment of U.S. interference in the region’s affairs, chronic political instability, and a massive loss of life from famine and disease.

Yet despite the central role of U.S. clients including Saudi Arabia and Egypt in prosecuting this war, and the intelligence and logistics support provided by the U.S. and Britain, the conflict in Yemen has received only sporadic coverage in Western media. The ill-advised U.S. role has gone mostly unnoticed here at home, and there has been no real debate about our involvement. By contrast, Yemenis are only too aware of U.S. support for the campaign that has wrecked their country.

The main reason for the Saudi intervention was fear that the Houthis would control too much of Yemen, which Riyadh perceived as a threat to its influence. Based in northwest Yemen’s Saada province, the Houthis have periodically opposed the Yemeni government during the last three decades, and in the past 10 years this has led to armed insurrection. Yemen’s internal conflicts have long been driven by local grievances and disputes over the distribution of power within the country, and the latest struggle is no different. The Houthis previously fought a war with the national government headed by then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh between 2004 and 2010. Saleh had been president of North Yemen and then of united Yemen for more than 30 years when he stepped down in 2012, in the wake of popular protests against his continued rule. Though Saleh is himself a Zaydi Shi’ite, that did not stop him from attacking the Houthis and ordering the death of the insurgent movement’s founder, Hussein al-Houthi. 

Once Saleh was deposed, the Houthis opposed his former vice president and successor, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had taken over following an “election” in which he was the sole candidate. Following the Houthis’ seizure of the capital, Hadi was under increasing pressure to resign, which he did in January of this year. Hadi then fled to Aden and rescinded his resignation. Faced with further Houthi advances, he and his government fled to Saudi Arabia.

It was Hadi’s effective overthrow and flight from the country that prompted Saudi Arabia and a coalition of other predominantly Sunni Muslim states to blockade Yemen and begin bombing its major cities in an attempt to put Hadi back in power. And in one of the many odd twists to the war, Saleh and his allies have since banded together with the Houthis in shared hostility to Hadi, and as a result a large part of Yemen’s armed forces have sided against their nominal president.

The fighting in Yemen is frequently portrayed as a sectarian proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but as the facts show this is overly simplistic and quite misleading. The Saudis and their allies have sought to frame the conflict in these terms to win international backing for their campaign. Contrary to the story being told by the Saudi government, however, the role of Iran in sponsoring and arming the Houthis has been negligible, and viewing the militia as an Iranian proxy over which Tehran has control is simply wrong. In fact, Iran’s government advised the Houthis not to take Yemen’s capital. While Houthis are Shi’ites, they and most Iranians belong to separate and opposing sects, and while they echo some Iranian slogans against America and Israel, they have been focused on internal Yemeni matters. The Houthis have no love for the U.S., but neither are they our enemies. Because of their hostility to Saudi Wahhabism and other forms of extreme Sunni Islam, the Houthis are fiercely opposed to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and until this year that made them America’s de facto allies against local jihadists.

Yemen is the poorest Arab country, and even before the current war its population relied on humanitarian aid. Inadequate water and food insecurity were already serious problems, and the country was heavily dependent on imported foodstuffs. That has made the Saudi-led air and sea blockade that much more devastating. Thanks to the blockade, aid organizations have enormous difficulty getting supplies into the country, and normal commercial imports are at a fraction of what they were before March. The aid organization Oxfam estimated in July that six million Yemenis were on the verge of starvation, and altogether 13 million—half of the country’s population—were in dire need of food. Earlier in the summer the UN classified Yemen’s humanitarian disaster as a Level 3 crisis—the highest level, which puts Yemen in a category whose only other current members are Iraq, Syria, and South Sudan. thisarticleappears copy

The Saudi attack on Yemen has been remarkably destructive. As bad as Yemen’s conflict and internal problems already were, the decision by outside governments to intervene militarily and impose a blockade has made conditions there much, much worse. The bombing campaign has inflicted significant damage to the country’s infrastructure, has caused nearly 2,000 civilian casualties, and has internally displaced a million people. The blockade has brought the country’s health services to the brink of collapse. Fuel shortages have meant that Yemenis lack the resources to keep their generators and pumps running. That, in turn, has deprived them of access to clean water, which has contributed to unusually large outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever. When they do not come under attack, hospitals frequently lack both the power and the necessary medicines to provide treatment for the injured and sick. Brief humanitarian “pauses” in the fighting have been too short to do much good.

The Saudis’ war on Yemen has been plagued by many of the worst mistakes characteristic of foreign military interventions. It is as if the government in Riyadh watched the blunders the U.S. committed over the last 15 years and chose to emulate them. The campaign was launched impulsively, with very ambitious goals but without sufficient means to achieve them. The Saudis justified the war by grossly exaggerating a foreign threat and conjured up an imaginary Iranian role in the conflict. They underestimated their enemy in country and did not anticipate the costs and difficulties of their intervention. King Salman and his ministers planned only for a best-case scenario and had no fallback plan when their original one failed. They aligned themselves with an exiled leader with little domestic support and tied themselves to local forces whose goals are at odds with their own.

All of the pitfalls of the intervention were obvious at the start and were pointed out at the time. All of those warnings were ignored, and the U.S. keeps increasing its involvement in the conflict despite the fact that it could have easily refused to offer any backing to the Saudi campaign. The U.S. government didn’t know what the Saudis hoped to accomplish, and some American officers clearly saw the danger of supporting an attack on a group that was hostile to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. No one with any understanding of local conditions in Yemen thought the intervention would succeed.

The campaign has even alienated many Yemenis who oppose the Houthis. Because of Hadi’s support for the war, most of the country’s people have turned against him. “The possibility of the Shah returning from the grave to Iran [is] bigger than Hadi going back to Yemen,” Yemeni analyst Farea al-Muslimi tells the Guardian. Even if the Saudis could somehow find a way to put him back in power, his rule would likely be brief.

The political goals of the intervention seemed farfetched from the start and remain so. The country isn’t being stabilized by Saudi military action but instead has been thrown into the worst political and humanitarian crisis of its modern history. The Houthis aren’t losing ground but have been taking over new territory with the cooperation of local authorities. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula now governs a large portion of eastern Yemen, and it has been left largely untouched by the Saudi-led coalition.

Yemen is not the only loser here. Saudi Arabia’s security is worse than it was before the campaign started, and the more instability that it creates in Yemen the worse things will be for Saudi Arabia over the long term. A war launched to demonstrate the strength of the activist policy of the new Saudi king has shown the leadership in Riyadh to be reckless and incompetent. U.S. support for that policy, meanwhile, has shown the Obama administration to be sycophantic in its desire to “reassure” an abusive client government.

Congress has contributed to the problem. The only thing members of Congress have said about the U.S. role in Yemen is that it had been too little and too slow, and there has been no meaningful opposition to the U.S. role from either party. Members of both parties seem to buy into the propaganda line that the Saudis are combating Iranian “expansionism.”

The Saudis have been battering and strangling their poorer neighbor for months, with little to show for it. Almost everything that critics feared could happen has already happened. There was never any good reason for the intervention, and by backing the war the U.S. has done real harm to its own security interests. The administration has done this all so that our government can reassure a group of vicious authoritarian regimes that we will enable them in their most reckless and costly policies. In spite of that, the war has generated virtually none of the outrage or criticism here in the U.S. that has been common in response to other recent unwise wars.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor for The American Conservative. His blog is www.theamericanconservative.com/larison/.


Rubio and China

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Marco Rubio is set to deliver a foreign policy speech focused on China at the end of the week:

Rubio is likely to criticize China when he gives what his campaign calls a major foreign policy speech in South Carolina on Friday.

The Reuters report draws on relevant quotes from Rubio’s recent Foreign Affairs essay, which emphasized the importance of opposing China in East Asia. As I mentioned before, Rubio’s essay contained a number of odd and unfounded statements, and the section on China was no exception. Rubio wrote:

If the United States hopes to restore stability in East Asia, it has to speak with clarity and strength regarding the universal rights and values that America represents.

This statement is strange in a few ways. First, East Asia is already reasonably stable. There are tensions between China and some of its neighbors, and there are outstanding territorial disputes among them, but the region is far from being unstable. Stability there doesn’t need to be “restored.” At most, it needs to be preserved, and there isn’t much reason to think Rubio is actually interested in doing that. This is another instance of how Rubio abuses the meaning of the word stability to mean something very different.

Just as he talks about the importance of stability in the Near East while insisting on regime change in Syria and endorsing the Saudi attack on Yemen, Rubio would like to “restore stability” by doing more to confront and antagonize the major power in the region. The statement is odd in another way, since Rubio’s agenda of confronting China would require the U.S. to have a closer relationship with dictatorships in the region such as Vietnam. That would almost certainly preclude speaking “with clarity and strength” about rights and values as far as Vietnam is concerned. Rubio wants to pay lip service to “rights and values,” but he also favors an aggressive and combative foreign policy that inevitably requires the U.S. to make dubious bargains with local dictators.

Rubio also takes for granted that “the manner in which governments treat their own citizens is indicative of the manner in which they will treat other nations,” but this is frequently not true for democracies or for authoritarian states. Relatively liberal and democratic states in very recent history have attacked and wrecked other countries in unnecessary wars, and many abusive authoritarian states don’t launch aggressive wars or seek to overthrow other governments. The nature of a regime and its treatment of its own people don’t reliably tell us what kind of foreign policy that government will have. Rubio assumes that there is a close relationship between the two because that is what his particular kind of hawk likes to believe, but it usually isn’t true.

He refers to “China’s expansion in East Asia” that needs to be countered, but this is an exaggerated description of Chinese behavior. What “expansion” there is is very limited and it is tied up in the territorial disputes with its neighbors to which the U.S. isn’t and shouldn’t be a party. A more confrontational approach to China runs the risk of increased intransigence and belligerence from Beijing, and that potentially puts its neighbors more at risk than they would otherwise be. As he usually does, Rubio prefers a combative approach without weighing the costs or thinking through the consequences of the hard-line position that he favors. He assumes that more confrontation will force China to change its behavior in the way that Washington and other governments prefer, but this is placing a huge wager based on nothing more than an ideological attachment to “strength.” We can expect to hear more of these misguided and counterproductive ideas in his speech on Friday, when we will be reminded once again why he should not be president.

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Five Months of the War on Yemen

Nancy Youssef reports on how the war on Yemen is strengthening Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP):

Not only is Saudi Arabia failing to stop the group’s expansion, but some fear the kingdom is colluding with AQAP to fight the Houthis, Iranian-backed rebels whom Saudi Arabia considers a bigger threat. Indeed, there have been reports that AQAP and Saudi Arabia worked together in the initial efforts last month to push the Houthis out of Aden.

The Saudis have made their priorities in the region very clear over the last few years, and combating jihadist groups hasn’t been one of them. Riyadh’s obsession with countering Iranian influence, real or imagined, has consistently taken precedence in both Syria and Yemen, so it should come as no surprise that the Saudis are at best indifferent to the empowerment of jihadist groups in both places and at worst are actively promoting that outcome. U.S. clients in the region are pursuing goals that are at odds with U.S. interests, and especially the case of Yemen they are waging a war that is detrimental to U.S. and regional security. By itself, that wouldn’t be all that surprising, but the remarkable thing is that the U.S. has been pleased to help them from the beginning of the intervention in March. Five months later, despite ample evidence of Saudi war crimes and the horrific effects of their blockade on the civilian population, the U.S. continues to lend aid to its awful clients. Our government is helping to batter and starve an entire country simply to placate a band of despots.

It is often assumed that U.S. support for the cruel and unnecessary Saudi intervention in Yemen is a trade-off to get their support for the nuclear deal, but if that is the real reason for it the administration has made a bad exchange. While it might be preferable to have Saudi and GCC support for the deal, that support isn’t needed. It certainly doesn’t justify backing an appalling war that is empowering some of our worst enemies.

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Iran Hawks vs. the Iranian People (II)

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Ishaan Tharoor relays the messages in support of the nuclear deal from many Iranian dissidents and political activists:

Dozens of prominent Iranian activists, both living at home and overseas, have in recent days expressed their support for the successful passage of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, and urged lawmakers in Washington not to thwart the work of many months of concerted diplomacy.

This is consistent with surveys that have found broad support for the agreement from Iranians and specifically from Iranian dissidents. It is obvious that most Iranians would want to have sanctions relief, but it is also easy to understand why Iranians that want political and social reform would welcome an agreement that reduces tensions with other states and makes their country less of a pariah. They correctly see that the regime’s grip will be weaker than it has been once sanctions are lifted, and they also understand that their country is less likely to be attacked now that this deal has been reached.

Iran hawks would prefer to tear up the deal and subject Iranians to greater deprivation, and it is not surprising that most Iranians reject an alternative that would punish and impoverish them. Iran hawks will often profess sympathy for the Iranian people to advance their hard-line policies by claiming that the latter are aimed only against the regime, but again and again it is the people that bear the brunt of those policies while the regime has tightened its grip. The deal offers an opportunity to undo some of the damage that those hard-line policies have done to Iran, so it is natural that most Iranians welcome it.

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The Nuclear Deal and Congress’ Meddling

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Bob Corker is unhappy that the attempted sabotage of the nuclear deal isn’t going well:

With the tide flowing in President Obama’s favor on the Iran nuclear deal, the architect of legislation that gave Congress a say in its approval is none too happy about the possibility that the accord may never reach a final vote.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Tuesday that it would be a travesty if Democrats filibustered any resolution disapproving of the accord between Iran and six world powers.

It’s still possible that Republicans could have Democratic votes to end a filibuster, but the fact that Corker is preemptively whining about a filibuster suggests that they probably aren’t going to get them. Corker’s complaint is that supporters of the deal in the Senate are prepared to block a harmful resolution and keep it from coming to a vote. Since Obama is sure to veto the resolution anyway, this isn’t strictly necessary, but it would put an end to the farce of Congressional meddling on this issue sooner rather than later.

As we follow the political theater surrounding the vote on the nuclear deal in the next few weeks, we should remember that Iran hawks are still extremely unlikely to be able to reject the deal. Even if they could get enough votes in both chambers to send the resolution to Obama, they don’t have enough support for a veto override, so the exercise is fairly pointless. That just underscores how unnecessary the Corker-Cardin legislation was in the first place and how ultimately irrelevant Congress has made itself thanks to the majority’s hostility to any deal. Congress didn’t need to insert itself into this process, and every contribution it has made to it has been either useless or harmful. If we have learned anything from the spectacle of attempted Congressional interference on this issue over the last two years, it is that the legislative branch now has an almost completely baleful influence on the conduct of foreign policy. It shrugs at illegal wars while actively working to derail strong nonproliferation agreements. Congress abdicates its genuine responsibilities at the same time that it invents pernicious new ones. It would be fitting if its latest meddling were brought to an end by one of the Senate’s own procedural rules.

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Why the GOP Keeps Flailing on Foreign Policy

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Walker’s bad idea for relations with China has been widely panned, but Michael Mazza thinks it was great:

China, perhaps the greatest long-term foreign policy challenge facing the United States, has largely been absent from the presidential campaigns to date. The Walker statement may change that. The country needs and deserves a real debate on the future of U.S.-China relations and on how best to deal with China going forward.

There should be a debate about U.S. China policy, and one would hope presidential candidates would have something useful to contribute to it, but useful is exactly what Walker’s statement wasn’t. Walker was trying to seize on yesterday’s market sell-off to engage in some predictable–and incoherent–posturing about the need to “get tough” with China, and the only practical recommendation he could make was that the U.S. should throw a fit to express its disapproval of past and current Chinese behavior. That doesn’t tell me that Walker has any ideas for how China policy might be improved, and it certainly doesn’t improve the quality of that debate. Instead, it tells us that Walker is desperate to be taken seriously on foreign policy and it reminds us why he shouldn’t be.

Mazza’s enthusiastic response to Walker’s bad idea helps explain why Republican candidates continue to flail so often on foreign policy. Any candidate might propose a dumb or unworkable idea, but in a competent and responsible party that candidate would be penalized for that. Instead of demanding better arguments and proposals from these candidates, the party’s hawkish think tanks typically reward and praise them for taking a witless-but-confrontational position. Calling on Obama to cancel the upcoming state visit is reflexive hawkishness at its silliest, but Walker can expect to be lauded by his party’s hawks for taking a “tough” stand. That ensures that the quality of our foreign policy debates will be much worse than it needs to be, and that in turn contributes to the poorer quality of our policies.

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The Humanitarian Disaster in Yemen Continues

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The war on Yemen keeps going, and the country’s humanitarian crisis continues to worsen. The WHO reports that almost half of the country’s medical facilities have been forced to shut down due to lack of resources and the ongoing conflict. More than 1.5 million people have been displaced by the war, and the death toll is now over 4,000. Over twenty million people remain in urgent need of humanitarian aid, and Save the Children estimates that twelve million of those are at serious risk of starvation. The Saudi-led blockade continues to starve the country’s civilian population of essential food, fuel, and medicine, and the U.S. continues to back its reckless client in its disastrous war.

Making matters worse, the Red Cross announced that it was suspending its operations in Aden after gunmen attacked their office there. The Saudi-led coalition has made some gains in southern Yemen in recent weeks now that it has been willing to deploy its own ground forces, but this has unsurprisingly paved the way for gains by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP):

Although forces loyal to Hadi’s exiled government in Saudi Arabia retook Aden from the Houthis last month, al Qaeda militants deployed in a western district of Aden on Saturday.

The report makes it sound as if there is some contradiction here, but there isn’t. The Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war on Yemen has been empowering AQAP for months, and these gains in Aden are just the most recent benefits that jihadists have received from Riyadh’s appalling campaign. Earlier in the summer, Saudi-backed forces were making common cause with AQAP, so the Saudis clearly don’t care that their unnecessary war is strengthening AQAP’s position in Yemen.

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Walker’s Bad Idea for U.S.-China Relations

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Scott Walker isn’t interested in improving U.S.-China relations:

Given China’s massive cyberattacks against America, its militarization of the South China Sea, continued state interference with its economy, and persistent persecution of Christians and human rights activists, President Obama needs to cancel the state visit. There’s serious work to be done rather than pomp and circumstance.

Walker’s suggestion is a bad one. I understand that he’s engaging in standard China-bashing rhetoric that is common to most presidential candidates, but unsurprisingly he fails to grasp that his preferred course of action is the empty, purely symbolic one that will do nothing to address any of the problems he mentions. If there is “serious work to be done,” it isn’t going to get done by publicly embarrassing China. Snubbing China in such a dramatic fashion as Walker wants wouldn’t make Beijing the least bit more interested in cooperating with the U.S. or in making concessions on contentious issues, and it would likely make relations noticeably worse in the near term. It would also demonstrate to everyone that our government puts empty gestures ahead of the practical work of sustaining one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world.

No one in the administration is going to take Walker’s idea seriously, but it does tell us something important about the complete contempt for diplomacy that so many hawks like Walker have. Canceling a state visit by the Chinese president would not advance any U.S. interests, nor would it help anyone in China or the region, but it would add a new irritant to a relationship that already has its fair share of strong disagreements and disputes. Walker’s recommendation for our China policy is a wholly harmful one, and one entirely in keeping with his view that the U.S. should engage with hostile and rival regimes with nothing but intimidation, insults, and threats.

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Obama and the Illegal War on ISIS

DVIDSHUB/Flickr

Garrett Epps gives the Obama administration far too much credit for proposing an authorization resolution for the war on ISIS:

The administration has at least done the minimum.

Obama is the one that launched the illegal war in question, so it’s simply false that he and his administration have “done the minimum” that is required of them. They have belatedly paid lip service to Congress’ role in matters of war because they didn’t expect anything to come of it and because they have acknowledged it will have no effect on the conduct of the war. If they were doing “the minimum,” they would have sought Congressional authorization immediately and they ought to have done so before the U.S. plunged into another ill-considered, open-ended military intervention. The “minimum” would have to include not waging a war illegally for twelve months.

Congress’ abdication in this case is egregious and inexcusable, but it is one that has been strongly encouraged by Obama ever since the war began last year. Obama didn’t and doesn’t think a new authorization is necessary, and so couldn’t care less whether Congress ever rubber stamps the new war. Congress ought to be trying to rein in the executive here, and they are an embarrassment for failing to do so, but the president deserves full blame for starting and continuing yet another illegal war. Obama doesn’t deserve and shouldn’t get any credit for asking for an authorization months after he started a war.

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Scowcroft, the GOP, and the Nuclear Deal

Brent Scowcroft writes in favor of the deal with Iran:

Let us be clear: There is no credible alternative were Congress to prevent U.S. participation in the nuclear deal. If we walk away, we walk away alone. The world’s leading powers worked together effectively because of U.S. leadership. To turn our back on this accomplishment would be an abdication of the United States’ unique role and responsibility, incurring justified dismay among our allies and friends. We would lose all leverage over Iran’s nuclear activities. The international sanctions regime would dissolve. And no member of Congress should be under the illusion that another U.S. invasion of the Middle East would be helpful.

Gen. Scowcroft makes a strong case for the nuclear deal, and a more sober and responsible Republican Party would listen carefully to what he has to say. Regrettably, we already know that on foreign policy generally and this issue in particular the current GOP is neither of those things. Comparisons between the debate over the Iraq war and the debate over the current deal with Iran can be overdone, but it is instructive to remember that Scowcroft was one of a relative few prominent Republicans to oppose the invasion of Iraq publicly. Now he is one of a very few former Republican officials to express support for the nuclear deal.

It’s not an accident that he was right about the Iraq war. Supporters of the invasion erred in failing to consider the costs and risks of an unnecessary war because of their shoddy assumptions about American power and how to use, and Scowcroft opposed the invasion in large part because he was willing and able to weigh those costs and judge them to be unacceptably high. Unlike the loudest advocates for the invasion, Scowcroft didn’t think preventive war in Iraq made sense as far as American security was concerned, and he was also warning about the many unintended and unforeseen consequences that wars have. Applying wisdom and prudence then, Scowcroft got one of the biggest foreign policy questions of the last generation right while almost everyone in and out of elected office in his party (and many in the other party) got it badly wrong. So when the same person advises support for the nuclear deal as the sound and responsible thing to do now, his recommendation should carry considerable weight. If there is to be any accountability in our foreign policy debates, it isn’t enough to reject discredited hard-liners. It is also necessary to heed the skeptics and realists that have proved to be discerning and farsighted.

So it is more than a little strange that Scowcroft is once again almost alone among prominent Republicans in taking a pro-deal position. His caution and warnings from 2002 were thoroughly vindicated, but instead of causing Republicans to pay more attention to his advice his opposition to the war effectively made him persona non grata in his own party. If any Republican candidates have sought his counsel on foreign policy, they aren’t advertising it to anyone, and most of them wouldn’t want to linked to him for fear of being labeled too much of a realist. One reason not to trust most Republican candidates on foreign policy is that they consciously go out of their way to ignore the best advice that former officials from their party have to offer. In a competent and responsible party, Scowcroft’s argument for the deal would provide ample cover for many members of Congress and presidential candidates to support it. Unfortunately, we already know that his endorsement of the deal will instead be cited as a reason why Republican candidates should shut their ears to his words.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Foreign policy by bumper sticker. Richard Burt and Dimitri Simes lament the prevalence of triumphalism and simplistic analysis in foreign policy debate.

Law in the time of endless war. Robert Golan-Vilella excoriates Obama for his pattern of waging illegal wars.

Corker and the nuclear agreement. Paul Pillar counters Sen. Corker’s weak case against the nuclear deal.

The backfiring of Israeli strategy on Iran. Paul Pillar remarks on the contrast between the Israel government’s hyping of the threat from Iran’s nuclear program and its vehement opposition to the nuclear deal.

The illegal war on ISIS. Gene Healy marks the first anniversary of the latest war that Obama launched without authorization.

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Cotton’s Recipe for Unending Conflict

The new issue of The National Interest includes a symposium on the “purpose of American power.” Tom Cotton didn’t answer the question in his contribution, but he did make a number of typically wrongheaded assertions in the process. This was probably the most dangerous one:

And in the Middle East, we must recognize that the objective of destroying the Islamic State is not helped by empowering Iran—the Shia face of the same radical jihadist coin [bold mine-DL]. Stability in the region will not be achieved by enhancing the influence of an actor that has worked for over thirty years to undermine global security.

Cotton’s “two sides of the same coin” claim is misguided for several reasons, but the biggest problem with it is that it treats extremely different sects, groups, and governments as if they were all adherents of a monolithic ideology. Like anticommunists during the Cold War that couldn’t recognize clear divisions between different communist states, hard-liners today go out of their way to ignore the differences and hostility among jihadist groups and to lump together sectarian rivals together as if they were not enemies. Like those same anticommunists, they are oblivious to the rivalries that could be exploited to America’s advantage. Because they view everything in such a distorted way, hard-liners still don’t grasp that our foreign policy doesn’t exist to wage ideological crusades.

This is unfortunately a very common argument among Iran hawks, who insist that the U.S. do more to combat ISIS and also insist that the U.S. should do more to combat the Syrian government and its Iranian ally. The one must be defeated, but the other can’t be empowered in the process, and that is a recipe for a very long and costly (and likely unsuccessful) conflict for the U.S. Michael Brendan Dougherty described their position earlier this week:

It’s just that [Rubio] — and, it turns out, Bush — believe that the United States can actually defeat Assad and Assad’s enemies simultaneously.

In fact, Rubio, Bush, and Graham believe that the only way to defeat one is to defeat the other. Hawkish policy advisers who like the sound of multiple victories at once go back and forth on conspiracy theories as to whether there is some explicit or implicit agreement between Assad’s Shiite regime and ISIS’s rabidly Sunni forces.

These hawks can’t stomach the idea of making a temporary alliance of convenience with ISIS’ most powerful regional enemies, but they also can’t imagine not intervening against ISIS, and so they have concocted the most hare-brained scheme of all: fight all sides at the same time. This is consistent with Cotton’s unwillingness to set priorities or accept trade-offs between them. Cotton once said that the U.S. has to be “focused everywhere,” and it’s clear that he favors the same aimless, unfocused interventionism here as well. Instead of defining the purpose of American power, Cotton displays a desire to fritter away America’s resources on unending conflict.

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Kasich, the “Cheap Hawk” for Increased Military Spending

Politico reports on John Kasich’s foreign policy and national security views and advisors:

At Monday night’s forum, Kasich positioned himself as a thrifty national security hawk.

“We have about 10 carriers now, my goal would be to get closer to 15 [bold mine-DL]. And you’ve got to have the ability to project power when you get there,” Kasich said, before immediately circling back to the budget.

In other words, Kasich is so frugal that he thinks the U.S. should embark on a huge surge in military spending to expand the Navy by roughly one-third. I don’t know how Kasich thinks he’s going to pay for this while keeping up the pretense that he is “frugal” and “thrifty” with public money, and I suspect he also has no idea. One problem I keep having with the “cheap hawk” act is that in the end fiscal responsibility always loses out to the impulse to meddle and intervene. It was possible to claim to be a “cheap hawk” in the ’90s when U.S. interventions were small, short, and relatively cheap, but when it came time to choose between being fiscally responsible and being hawkish in the 2000s Kasich predictably cared more about being the latter. His initial support for invading Iraq should also remind us that any skepticism he may have had about earlier military interventions evaporated as soon as his party was in power and proposed starting an unnecessary war.

Kasich isn’t proposing that the U.S. reduce its military presence anywhere, nor does he suggest that the U.S. should be less activist overseas than it is, and the expanded Navy he wants to build would likely create new opportunities and excuses for even more meddling. In spite of all this, he wants us to believe him when he says that he is going to rein in spending. As Kasich says elsewhere in the report, “it’s all about priorities,” and he has made clear that expanding the military takes priority over keeping spending under control.

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Corker’s Case Against the Nuclear Deal Makes No Sense

Bob Corker has produced an op-ed that ostensibly explains his reasons for opposing the nuclear deal with Iran, but almost all of it is focused on anything but the deal itself:

Perhaps a larger issue is beyond the scope of the deal itself. Absent a clearly articulated policy for the region, this deal will become the linchpin of the United States’ Middle East strategy. We will be relying on Iran to help achieve our goals in Iraq, Syria and perhaps elsewhere. This abrupt rebalancing could have the effect of driving others in the region to take greater risks, leading to greater instability.

Corker skips past the usual meaningless rhetoric about wanting a better deal. While he pays lip service to diplomacy at one point, it is evident that he isn’t interested in any deal that could be made with Iran. He makes it very plain that his main problem is with Iran’s foreign policy, and he is going to oppose the deal in order to express his opposition to Iran overall. Corker can certainly do that, and it has been fairly obvious for some time that Corker was on the side of the Iran hawks that wanted to block the deal, but there should be no illusion that he is doing this because of the deal’s flaws. Iran hawks have spent more than a decade lecturing on us on the imperative of preventing Iran from being able to acquire a nuclear weapon, and now that the best chance of doing that is at hand they have decided that they have other priorities.

Naturally Corker doesn’t address the consequences of rejecting the deal, nor does he identify any alternative that would do even a fraction of what the deal does to limit Iran’s nuclear program. Objecting to the confidentiality of the IAEA’s agreements with Iran, he would prefer that there be no inspections at all. Because he claims to be dissatisfied with the deal’s verification measures, he is prepared to forego all verification. Like every other opponent of the deal, Corker refuses to accept a major nonproliferation success because it isn’t perfect, and he is more concerned to promote confrontation with Iran throughout the region rather than seize an opportunity to reduce the likelihood of a conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

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