Daniel Larison

Realism Doesn’t Need to Be ‘Reclaimed’

Photo credit: Tim Markatos

Ted Bromund, Michael Auslin, and Colin Dueck want to “reclaim American realism,” and spell out what they mean by that in a new article for American Affairs. The idea that realism needs to be “reclaimed” is the first sign that the foreign policy they have in mind has little in common with the one most realists want:

A new foreign policy can be built by recovering a traditional realist approach that held for much of the Cold War era and which was shared by both parties. Doing so will reclaim American realism from those on the right who have made it the handmaiden of neo-isolationism [bold mine-DL], while ensuring that it avoids the overreach that since 2003 has undermined support for America’s role abroad.

The authors’ framing of the problem suggests that they think there has been too much of a reaction against the foreign policy errors of the last sixteen years, but they are not quite willing to identify their preferred policies with the ones that led to those errors. Their reference to “Barack Obama’s retreats” is a giveaway that they are going to argue for a generally very aggressive set of policies–at least more aggressive than those of the Obama era–and then call it realism. I suspect most realists won’t buy it, but the bigger problem is that it abuses the name of realism and tries to use that name to smuggle something else into the debate. The result will be something that Republican hawks and hard-liners will have little to complain about precisely because it has so little to do with realism as understood by Posen, Walt, et al.

The would-be reclaimers aren’t very worried about needing to learn the lessons of the Iraq war. As far as they’re concerned, there has already been too much worrying about this:

Just as importantly, we recognize that we cannot live by postmortem. An obsessive focus on the past—above all, on the Iraq war—risks paralyzing us today.

The implication here is that taking the Iraq war as a cautionary tale about the dangers of overreach and unnecessary intervention runs the risk of preventing tomorrow’s unnecessary intervention, and so that must be avoided. Because they don’t want an “obsessive focus” on the past, the authors don’t address the problems of the overreach they say they want to avoid. Doing that would require revisiting and criticizing Bush-era policy errors.

The authors dismiss the charge of “free-riding” against allies:

But the problem is not that our allies are free riding on us, for when we cut our defenses, they do not increase theirs. It is that the history, culture, and politics of our allies now make them unwilling to accept that military strength is vital to diplomacy and deterrence alike.

Since the U.S. rarely reduces military spending and spends as much as the next seven countries combined, we don’t know that our allies wouldn’t increase theirs to pick up the slack if we made substantial reductions. As soon as there are even slight reductions in military spending, we hear overwrought warnings that the military is being gutted. The U.S. almost never decreases military spending by a large enough amount for long enough to see how our allies would react, and there are always hawks insisting that the military budget be even larger than it already is. The authors say that the U.S. “cannot sustain our alliances unless the American people believe that every member nation is making a fair contribution,” but then proceed to make excuses for why that contribution will never be forthcoming. Many realists have usually argued just the opposite: wealthy allies have the means to provide for more of their own defense, and the U.S. shouldn’t continually bail them out and help them avoid the political debates at home that they need to have.

They take the enviable geographical position of the U.S. as a reason to be entangled in alliances overseas:

Given our good fortune, and our strength, it is inevitable that we are the ones who are forward deployed, because we are the ones who have the geopolitical freedom to help.

But this is not inevitable. It is because we are remarkably secure on account of our location that we do not need to be “forward deployed” and that is why so many of our alliance commitments are unnecessary. Seventy-two years after the end of WWII, the U.S. continues to treat wealthy European and Asian allies as dependents that cannot fend for themselves, and many of them have been content to remain so as long as we keep assuming the costs and risks of protecting them. If these allies aren’t ready to assume more of that burden for themselves now, they never will be, and that arrangement is becoming increasingly untenable.

The authors also seem to have little interest in diplomatic engagement with rivals, which is a very odd trait for supposed realists:

Starry-eyed “resets” or “open hands” towards aggressive, repressive regimes only confuse those who wish to rally beneath a flag of freedom and liberalism. Trying to win over the whole world risks losing those already on our side.

Put another way, they think making efforts to improve relations with these states is a waste of time and shouldn’t be attempted at all. The goal of engagement isn’t to “win over the whole world,” but to secure cooperation on specific issues in the American interest. Even if such engagement delivers tangible results in terms of cooperation or the resolution of a longstanding dispute, the authors would rather that the U.S. keeps its distance for fear of “losing” states currently aligned with us. The odd thing about this is that engagement with Iran didn’t “confuse” our allies in Europe, and it didn’t cause any of them to move away from us. It pleased them, and some of them were directly involved in the negotiations that produced the nuclear deal. The only states put off by the nuclear deal were regional clients, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with a “flag of freedom and liberalism.”

The authors are arguing that we have to defend front-line states because they are threatened by rivals, but on no account should we try to reduce tensions with rivals through engagement. That seems like a recipe for needless confrontation that increases the danger to “those already on our side” and risks pulling us into a larger conflict. Once again, this is not the realism you are looking for.

The authors then take refuge behind the hoariest of hawkish cliches:

It is our weakness, not our strength, that is provocative, because American weakness makes our allies fearful and encourages our competitors to take chances.

There are never any examples provided to prove the “weakness is provocative” thesis. It may occasionally be true, but it is more likely that adversaries find our aggressive actions to be far more provocative, and these are the actions that prompt more aggressive behavior from them in turn. The belief that “weakness is provocative” takes for granted that adversaries perceive weakness from us if our government doesn’t respond forcefully in every dispute. That ignores our adversaries’ own understanding of their interests, and explains their behavior primarily in terms of taking advantage of our supposed weakness. Meanwhile, our allies and clients tend to become more reckless and irresponsible when they think they have U.S. backing. Believing that “weakness is provocative” is frequently misleading, and it means that policymakers that accept it as true will err on the side of being too aggressive.

The authors seem to reject pursuing regime change, but leave a caveat large enough to launch an invasion through:

Our method should not be imposed regime change, except in cases of vital national need…

The trouble is that advocates for regime change always insist that overthrowing this or that regime is vitally important for U.S. security. They are always wrong, but they always make this claim. The authors don’t offer specific examples of when they think regime change was/is necessary and when it wasn’t/isn’t, so we are left wondering what they think “vital national need” means. It shouldn’t be difficult for ostensible realists to say that they are opposed in principle to starting wars to overthrow foreign governments, but they don’t say that here.

Later on, they make clear that they think the U.S. should be willing to risk war to defend states, even non-allied ones, that are in conflict with the world’s two major authoritarian powers:

Second, the United States must support sovereign nations that are resisting attempted subjugation by outside pressure, if that pressure is exerted by a nation that has the strength to alter the global balance of power. This means that we must oppose actions such as Russia’s assaults in Ukraine and the Caucasus, and China’s expansionism in the South China Sea.

We cannot rule out the use of military force in cases such as this: if we do, other powers will simply escalate in any crisis until we quit.

Risking a major war over Ukraine or Georgia makes no sense for U.S. security, and no responsible president would do that. Risking war over territorial disputes in the South China Sea is similarly unwise. These are exactly the kinds of crises that could be avoided or contained through greater engagement, but the authors have already dismissed that as “starry-eyed” nonsense. Courting great power conflict in this way seems like the exact opposite of what a realist foreign policy would do.

They think imposing punitive sanctions is worth doing even when they don’t change the targeted government’s behavior:

It is therefore not right to criticize responses—such as the sanctions that the United States imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine—by arguing that they did not resolve the crisis, for the point of such responses is not to resolve the crisis: it is to open another front in the wider competition, and to do so in ways that impose long-term costs on our opponent.

In other words, punitive sanctions are often useless, but we should use them anyway. Even though imposing them almost certainly makes resolving the crisis harder and worsens relations with the targeted government, they should be imposed simply for the sake of imposing costs. I can’t think of many realists that would agree with this approach.

The authors make another curious claim:

The danger rests not so much in any particular crisis, but in the rise of the belief among the powerful that the world is there for taking.

The idea here is that the U.S. doesn’t have to have anything at stake in a particular crisis, but it has to oppose other great powers in each instance anyway. The problem with this is that it sets the U.S. up to fail in the competition with these powers in crises where our interests are few or non-existent and theirs are much greater. If we insist on trying to check them at every turn (and then inevitably backing down because we have nothing at stake in most cases), it makes it more dangerous and difficult to check them when it might really matter.

One frustrating aspect of the article is that it addresses so few contemporary issues. There are a few references to conflicts involving Russia and China, and a passing swipe at the nuclear with Iran, but for the most part it isn’t clear how the authors’ “reclaimed realism” would differ in practice from the preferred policies of hard-liners in Washington. But then I suppose that’s the point. “Reclaiming” realism means dubbing hard-line policies as realist and throwing most actual realist arguments out the window.

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The Saudi Visit and Trump’s Unprincipled Foreign Policy

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Administration officials always try to spin the president’s words and deeds to put them in a favorable light, but this is ridiculous:

No one believes this about this trip or the Trump administration’s foreign policy in general. Trump and his advisers have made closer relations with bad regional clients and combating terrorism their top priorities, and Trump made sure to say nothing at all about how the Saudis or other despotic clients treat their people or the people of neighboring countries. Trump supports the Saudi-led coalition’s atrocious war on Yemen even more eagerly than his predecessor did (and Obama practically gave them carte blanche), and any government that does that clearly isn’t concerned about defending human rights or alleviating humanitarian disasters. If we judge the U.S. by its actions under both Obama and Trump, we have to conclude that our government is much more interested in keeping despotic clients happy and “on side” than it is in opposing their indiscriminate killing of civilians and their creation of a man-made famine.

These are the wrong policies for the U.S. for all the reasons I have stated for over two years, but it is telling that they cannot be openly defended by members of the administration. So we are treated to the fantasy that the “entire trip is about human rights” when so far it has been a show of indifference to the suffering of innocent people, especially those in Yemen that are being killed and starved to death by the president’s recent hosts and their allies.

There are always practical limits to what the U.S. can do and how much influence our government has, and there are always trade-offs to be made in foreign policy, but what we see with the Trump administration’s dealings with the Saudis and other regional clients is something much less defensible. They make no attempt to rein in or challenge the clients’ abusive behavior at any point, and instead just pretend that the abuses aren’t even happening and then celebrate war criminals for their leadership and vision. To top it off, administration officials claim that the same war criminals they helping to arm to teeth are part of a coalition dedicated to protecting human rights. That’s certainly not a principled policy by any definition I recognize, and it doesn’t actually advance any U.S. interests, either.

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Yemen’s Preventable Cholera Epidemic

The outbreak of cholera reported last week is rapidly spreading in Yemen:

A major epidemic of cholera is feared in Yemen, according to charity Save the Children.

Almost 250 people have died of the disease this month alone, with hundreds of suspected cases being reported every day, it says.

The World Health Organization said the water-borne illness is spreading at an alarming rate in the war-torn country.

It is important to emphasize that this epidemic would normally be preventable, but it is happening because the country’s health care system has been devastated by more than two years of the Saudi-led war, the country’s infrastructure has been so badly damaged by the conflict, and the country is being starved of basic necessities by the coalition blockade. The starvation of the country’s civilian population by the same blockade has also weakened their resistance to disease on account of widespread malnutrition and made it so that many more people will die from preventable disease. Under half of Yemen’s hospitals and clinics are fully operational:

According to figures provided by the World Health Organization, fewer than 45 per cent of health facilities in Yemen were fully functioning.

Starvation and the cholera epidemic in Yemen are both man-made disasters, and none of these things had to happen. The U.S.-backed coalition bears a large share of responsibility for creating the conditions that are threatening the lives of millions from starvation and disease. There is still time to change those conditions, but it would require a sudden, dramatic change in U.S. and coalition policies that is unfortunately not likely to happen.

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Trump’s Embarrassing Saudi Visit

Ishaan Tharoor reviews Trump’s Riyadh speech:

But let’s be clear about what the speech really was: A sop, soaked in platitudes, to the Saudi agenda in the Middle East.

Trump’s embrace of the Saudis and their agenda is in keeping with his general enthusiasm for our most authoritarian clients and allies, and the speech was a statement of his administration’s Iran obsession and what passes for conventional wisdom in Washington regarding relations with our clients in the region. According to the latter view, Obama was insufficiently supportive of U.S. clients in the region and too open to accommodating Iran, and so Trump has made a point of proving how different he is from Obama by subordinating U.S. policy in the region to the preferences of Riyadh. Where Obama was shamefully supportive of the Saudis, as he was in Yemen, Trump insists on being even more so, and where Obama offered mildly critical (and empty) rhetoric about Saudi behavior Trump will offer nothing but praise. If the Saudis and their allies weren’t the authors of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and if our government wasn’t deepening its complicity in their war crimes in Yemen, the pathetic coddling of the Saudis might not be quite so obnoxious, but they are and it is.

The display the president put on in Riyadh is what happens when the U.S. makes keeping “no daylight” with its clients the top priority. Not only is there no criticism of the client’s behavior, no matter how deserved such criticism might be, but there is excessive fawning and stroking of the client’s ego that creates the false impression that we need them far more than they need us. This goes beyond being merely diplomatic and becomes groveling and begging for the client’s affection. No doubt this “reassures” our clients–that our leaders are easy to manipulate and only too willing to do whatever the clients want. No important U.S. interests are served by doing this. The only ones to benefit are the despots on the receiving end of U.S. backing, and even then they are being indulged in their worst and most ruinous habits.

The absurdity of this approach to the Saudi relationship (and of the entire visit) was summed up in a weird image from the opening of the so-called “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology”:

Trump went out of his way to identify himself and the U.S. very publicly with one of our most awful clients at a moment when they are responsible for causing enormous suffering in Yemen, and that is going to come back to haunt him and us sooner or later.

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The War on Yemen and the Great Saudi ‘Modernizer’

As Paul Pillar observed yesterday, Trump’s Riyadh speech amounted to “bowing to the Saudi regime.” The Wall Street Journal is predictably delighted, and encourages the administration to keep bowing:

In 31-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia also finally has a serious modernizer who wants to diversify the economy from oil, expand the public space of women and ease other cultural strictures. The U.S. has a stake in his success and in particular should help him prevail as soon as possible against the Houthis in Yemen.

Westerners frequently exaggerate the “modernizing” impulses of the next generation of leaders in a despotic government, and the individual leaders they celebrate almost always disappoint their enthusiasts. If the noxious relationship with the Saudis must continue, the U.S. would still be mistaken to link itself closely to the fortunes of Salman’s son. For one thing, he isn’t yet the next in line of succession, and the U.S. shouldn’t be taking sides in an internecine rivalry in Riyadh. For another, the prince’s main accomplishment to date has been to help mire his country in an unwinnable war that is draining Saudi resources every month. The U.S. can’t help the coalition “prevail” in Yemen. It can only make itself more complicit in the unfolding catastrophe that the coalition has created with our government’s support.

While MBS may make delusional claims about being able to win the war in a matter of days, the coalition’s two-year record of ineptitude, war crimes, and creating a massive humanitarian disaster show that this is nonsense. In the meantime, the “serious modernizer” has succeeded only in reducing a poor neighbor to the brink of famine and has helped create the conditions for a growing cholera epidemic. As Saudi defense minister, he has already failed in the biggest undertaking of his brief career, and it would be strange to expect him to prove more competent in succeeding in any of his other projects. Expecting him to modernize Saudi Arabia requires ignoring the enormous costs of waging an unnecessary war and his incompetent management of the same.

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Trump’s ‘Principled Realism’ Is Neither Principled Nor Realist

Trump’s Riyadh speech was as shamelessly pro-Saudi as could be. He began by praising King Salman and the “magnificent” Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and followed it with a speech that could very easily have been written by their own propaganda office. He boasted about the massive $110 billion arms deal that he and Salman signed, and promised that he would help the Saudis get a “good deal” from our weapons manufacturers. (Because at least some of the weapons that will be sold are likely to be used in committing war crimes in Yemen, the American Bar Association’s human rights section warned that the agreement may violate U.S. law.) Trump then touted a new center for “combating extremist ideology” that is being created in Riyadh, which he fawningly described as “this central part of the Islamic world.” The president then gushed over Salman’s “absolutely incredible and powerful leadership.” Salman’s own courtiers could hardly have been more sycophantic.

The frequent and sometimes forced religious rhetoric that Trump employed in the speech may have been intended to impress his audience, but at best it probably came across as nothing more than lip service. These parts of the speech seemed phony, and the words rang false when Trump said them. While he invoked divine judgment as a punishment for those that failed to confront terrorism, he had nothing at all to say about the violence used by the Saudis and others against other countries and their own people. He denied that combating terrorism had anything to do with a fight between sects, but his administration’s policy is to indulge and arm governments that stoke sectarian hatred while they also collaborate with jihadists against their mutual enemies.

At one point, Trump referred to the region’s “humanitarian and security disaster,” but he wasn’t talking about the nightmare being created by his hosts in neighboring Yemen. On the contrary, he saluted the Saudis and their coalition for their “strong action” in Yemen and had nothing to say about the famine and outbreaks of disease that their intervention has done so much to cause. The huge weapons deal that he made with the Saudis will help them to continue battering and starving their neighbors, and he has the gall to congratulate them for their crimes and dress them up as having something to do with peace and stability. The speech hypocritically combined stern moralistic language with complete indifference to the evils being perpetrated by our regional clients with our help. Trump dubbed his approach “principled realism,” but one looks in vain for any consistent principle here other than “our despotic clients are always right.” That isn’t realism as I understand it, and it requires the routine violation of many other principles at the expense of U.S. interests.

Trump spent much of his time denouncing terrorism and its destructive effects, which was fine as far as it went, but it was difficult to take seriously his rhetoric about “no tolerance” for terrorism when he is going out of his way to celebrate a government that has promoted fanaticism. Pairing the Saudi-led war on Yemen with the fight against jihadists as Trump did was absurd, and it deliberately ignores that the former has actively undermined the latter for years.

The final part of the speech consisted of Trump’s expression of his well-known hostility towards Iran. Since Iran’s voters had just delivered a sharp rebuke to their own hard-liners, it was especially unfortunate that Trump insisted on casting Iran as the main villain in the region while letting our despotic clients off the hook entirely. In response to Iranians’ endorsement of more international engagement and gradual reform, Trump demanded that Iran be further isolated and vilified. Trump’s whitewashing of our clients’ destructive behavior and his insistence on blaming Iran for almost all of the region’s problems are not new or surprising, but it is dishonest and deeply cynical. Calling on “nations of conscience” to isolate Iran is risible if we are supposed to believe that the Saudis and their allies belong to such a group, and it dangerously stokes tensions with a government that a genuinely realist administration would be interested in engaging diplomatically.

Near the end of the speech, Trump asked rhetorically, “Will we be indifferent in the presence of evil?” Judging from his total silence on the evil being done to the people of Yemen by his Saudi hosts with our government’s help, Trump has answered his own question with a resounding yes.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Iran’s choice. Haleh Esfandiari previews Iran’s presidential election.

Four things to know about Iran’s election. Thomas Juneau explains what’s at stake in the Iranian election.

What future will Iran choose? Reza Marashi considers the possible outcomes.

Rouhani’s unlikely supporters. Sussan Tahmasebi explains why they support Rouhani’s re-election.

My strange trip through Iran’s heartland. Thomas Erdbrink reports on his pre-election journey.

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Trump and Mohammed bin Salman

Karen Elliott House’s paean to Trump’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia is something to behold. Here she gushes about the similarities between the president and Mohammed bin Salman (MBS):

The young prince and the president have much in common. Both are outsiders, brash, unorthodox and new to politics. Each faces strong opposition at home. Both seek to spur economic growth by reducing the role of government. And each is fighting orthodoxy: MBS, as the prince is known, wants to curb the role of religion and tradition, which inhibit modernization, while Mr. Trump battles leftist orthodoxy and political correctness. Both are smart marketers.

It’s not clear which person should be more insulted by this comparison. Trump and MBS are both remarkably incompetent in their respective roles, but MBS has done even less than Trump to earn his current position. Neither one has had any success in their attempts at “reform,” and both have presided over their own debacles. If the favorite son of the Saudi king is an “outsider,” the word doesn’t mean anything at all. The so-called “outsider” has been elevated to the heights of the Saudi government, and in return he has presided over a costly, indefensible, and failed war. The desperate effort to build up Salman’s incompetent son as a credible leader would be funny if it didn’t have such horrible consequences for millions of people in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

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Lieberman Shouldn’t Be FBI Director

Senate Democrats don’t like Lieberman for FBI Director:

President Donald Trump may be dramatically miscalculating how much support Sen. Joe Lieberman has among his former Democratic colleagues to become FBI director.

Some Senate Democrats hold a grudge against Lieberman for his rightward turn and opposition to some of President Barack Obama’s agenda late in his Senate career. Others say even though they respect Lieberman, the FBI director should not be a former politician. And all Democratic senators interviewed for this story said the former Connecticut senator lacks the kind of experience needed for the post.

Maybe Trump and his advisers thought that Lieberman would be more agreeable to members of the other party because he used to be a Democrat, but they evidently didn’t remember that Lieberman’s break with his party was a particularly bitter and contentious one. Lieberman abandoned his party after he lost his 2006 primary to Ned Lamont, and he lost that election mainly because of his zealous support for the Iraq war and his perceived closeness to Bush in connection with that. Lieberman still won the general election as an independent, but from then on he was one of the least-liked politicians among Democratic voters. He even backed McCain in the 2008 election, and basically did as much as he could to burn bridges with his former party during Obama’s first term.

Even if there weren’t all this bad blood between him and Democrats, he is a bad choice for the job for the reasons I laid out earlier. Quin Hillyer sums up many of these reasons in a post this evening:

First, at exactly a moment when the political atmosphere is toxic and when the prior director was widely criticized for appearing to tip the political scales in the midst of a national election, this is precisely not the time to hire for the very first time an FBI director whose background is largely elective/political. For all of Lieberman’s vaunted bipartisanship, he still built a career as a politician and has a habit of thinking like one. This is not good.

Second, the nature of the job itself is not that of a mere CEO type in the way that some of the lesser cabinet posts are. This is a job for a person not just broadly familiar with, but extremely well versed in, the tools of law-enforcement investigations, the technical interplay of various federal agencies, and the granular details of patient inquiry. Lieberman, despite his long government résumé, has not a single day of federal law-enforcement experience. If he were named director, he would be the first person ever to hold that post without prior Justice Department experience.

Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare listed reasons why Lieberman was a bad choice in a series of tweets earlier today. Here are a couple:

If Trump goes ahead with a Lieberman nomination, he will be choosing someone widely regarded as unqualified for the job, and Lieberman will encounter significant resistance during the confirmation process.

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Report: Joe Lieberman Is Trump’s Leading Choice for FBI Director

This report on the leading contender to be the next FBI Director should be a joke, but it isn’t:

Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic vice-presidential nominee, is the frontrunner to be named FBI director, according to several White House officials and advisers.

Senior administration officials have told others in the last 12 hours that Trump is expected to pick Lieberman to replace FBI director James Comey, who was abruptly fired by Trump last week.

It’s not clear what qualifies Lieberman to head any law enforcement agency, much less one as important as the FBI. Even if Lieberman had the qualifications to head a major federal law enforcement agency, his record is full of instances where he has favored expanding surveillance and trampling on civil liberties in the name of security. That record alone should make us wary of letting Trump install him in this position. But another important problem with a Lieberman nomination is that he is senior counsel at a law firm that Trump has routinely used in the past:

Having left the Senate in 2013, Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-Independent, is now senior counsel at the firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres and Friedman, which has offices in nine cities.

The firm has represented Trump in matters for years.

One of the firm’s partners has been called Trump’s “go-to guy,” and the firm is well-known for its connections to Trump:

“In the past, people knew Kasowitz Benson Torres and Friedman as a firm that was full of ‘superior legal minds,’” Staci Zaretsky of the legal news website Above The Law wrote in March, referencing a quote from a 2011 lawsuit against the firm. “These days, people know Kasowitz Benson Torres and Friedman as a firm with close ties to President Donald Trump, with two name partners deeply entrenched in his regime.” [bold mine-DL]

On the face of it, the fact that Trump is seriously considering installing someone from this firm as FBI Director looks shady. Lieberman is already a strange pick for the position, and his employment at a Trump-connected law firm would make his selection even more questionable. The fact that Trump reportedly prefers Lieberman over other, obviously more qualified candidates, including the current acting director, should make everyone view a Lieberman nomination with extreme skepticism.

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Report: U.S. Bombs Pro-Regime Forces in Syria

The U.S. reportedly bombed pro-regime forces in Syria earlier today:

A US defence official told the FT the US carried out a strike in southern Syria on Thursday.

“A coalition air unit struck a pro-regime convoy in the vicinity of Tanf,” said the official, who added that coalition forces have been operating at Tanf “training local vetted Syrian opposition forces to fight Isis.”

The report says that the local commander “assessed they posed a threat to coalition forces” and ordered the attack. If that’s the case, it might be an isolated incident, but it shows how easily the U.S. can be pulled into a new conflict because of its support for opposition groups inside Syria and the decision to expand the unauthorized war on ISIS into Syria. For the second time this year, U.S. forces have committed an act of war against the Syrian government and its allies inside their own country, and there has been no authorization from Congress or the U.N. for any of it. As long as the U.S. keeps backing anti-regime insurgents in Syria and is willing to attack pro-regime forces as part of that support, there will be a danger that an incident like this could lead to a larger conflict with the Syrian government and its patrons. Each time U.S. forces attack the Syrian government and their allies, it becomes more likely that someone on their side will retaliate against U.S. forces in Syria or Iraq, and before we know it we could be mired in fighting against several new enemies that we didn’t have before. This is one of many reasons why the U.S. should be looking for ways to disentangle itself from Syria’s war.

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Flynn’s Turkish Connection

National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn (WPRI /YouTube)

McClatchy offers up a damning report about Mike Flynn:

One of the Trump administration’s first decisions about the fight against the Islamic State was made by Michael Flynn weeks before he was fired – and it conformed to the wishes of Turkey, whose interests, unbeknownst to anyone in Washington, he’d been paid more than $500,000 to represent.

Flynn used his position as Trump’s top adviser on national security to affect U.S. policy in accordance with the preferences of the foreign government he was working for. It doesn’t matter that the government happened to be an ally–he was taking money as a lobbyist for another government while directly influencing U.S. foreign policy. This shows that Flynn was compromised from the very start of the transition, and it confirms that Trump was wrong to put him in such an important national security position.

The New York Times outdoes the McClatchy report:

Michael T. Flynn told President Trump’s transition team weeks before the inauguration that he was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign, according to two people familiar with the case.

Despite this warning, which came about a month after the Justice Department notified Mr. Flynn of the inquiry, Mr. Trump made Mr. Flynn his national security adviser. The job gave Mr. Flynn access to the president and nearly every secret held by American intelligence agencies.

The curious thing about the Flynn-Turkey connection is that it was a very badly-kept secret. Details of Flynn’s connection to a firm that worked on behalf of the Turkish government were known at least by mid-November, and there were hints that something fishy was going before that when he began singing Erdogan’s praises and demanding Gulen’s extradition.

Despite all this, Trump made Flynn his National Security Advisor knowing that he was suspected of working as an undeclared lobbyist for a foreign government, and then during the transition Flynn used his position to affect U.S. policy to suit the Turkish government’s preferences. This is a startling example of the Trump transition team’s vetting failure, and it underscores why Flynn’s removal from his position as National Security Advisor was a good thing for the country.

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The Saudis and Trump

Elizabeth Dickinson reports on how the Saudis are trying to win over Trump. I was struck by this section:

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a powerful 30-something technocrat who manages everything from the Defense Ministry to economic reform, has spearheaded an effort to fortify the relationship. The deputy crown prince visited Washington in March to have lunch with Trump, in a meeting Mohammed bin Salman’s advisors proclaimed as a “historical turning point” in bilateral ties.

Insiders say the young prince sees a kindred spirit in Jared Kushner, a fellow 30-something with an oversized portfolio [bold mine-DL]. Kushner sat in on Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Mohammed bin Salman in March, and Saudi watchers are keen to see if he joins the president’s delegation to the kingdom this week.

There is a certain similarity between the two men in that both have been entrusted by their countries’ respective heads of state with responsibilities for which they are not remotely qualified, and both have been given great influence solely because of their relationship to the man in charge. The U.S. is fortunate that we are not (yet) reduced to putting children of the president in charge of the Defense Department, but the Saudi king did just that with his favorite son. Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has been put in charge of many things since he was elevated to deputy crown prince, but the most significant of these has been the foolish decision to put him in charge of the Saudi defense ministry and the war on Yemen. Recently, he reminded everyone of how delusional the Saudi leadership is about that war and their ability to win it, but his reputation in Washington doesn’t seem to have been damaged by that.

If MBS is the public face of building closer U.S.-Saudi ties, he is also the poster boy for Saudi military incompetence and an atrocious war that the U.S. has shamefully backed to the hilt. His rise to prominence is a sign of much of what is wrong with the Kingdom, and that should be taken as a warning that the U.S. should be distancing itself from Riyadh rather than looking for ways to build a closer connection. If our leaders were wise, the prince’s attempt to “to spearhead the effort to regain Riyadh’s lost influence in Washington” would be rebuffed and the entire relationship would be reassessed.

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A ’25th Amendment Solution’ Is the Wrong Thing to Do

Jonathan Bernstein explains why a “25th Amendment solution” for Trump is the wrong thing to do:

The main reason not to use it is that the real chief complaint against Donald Trump is that he threatens U.S. democracy not (chiefly) by breaking laws, but by undermining the norms which are just as important to democratic governance as the laws and constitutional provisions. And therefore efforts to remove him should be especially careful to abide by those norms [bold mine-DL]. The 25th amendment is for use in Wilson-like cases where the president is really, truly incapacitated. While mental illness could qualify, the many armchair diagnoses we’ve seen of Trump simply do not clear the constitutional bar.

Invoking the 25th Amendment in this case wouldn’t just do violence to norms, but would make a mockery of the plain meaning of the language of the Constitution. Trump has demonstrated remarkable incompetence, but he is not so physically or mentally disabled that he can’t discharge the duties of his office. He may discharge those duties badly, but that is an entirely different question and one that the amendment was never intended to address. Going that route would also require more support in the House than an impeachment vote would, so it would be even less likely to “work” in removing Trump. It would be an illegitimate use of this part of the Constitution, and most members of Congress wouldn’t support it anyway.

If there is a need to remove a sitting president, impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate are the most appropriate means available. If Congress can’t or won’t use those means, the only other acceptable alternative is to persuade the president to resign of his own volition. Under present circumstances, the latter method might be the most likely to succeed. The temptation to abuse or skirt constitutional rules to remove a bad president is always present in any democratic country, but it is something to be resisted. If we start giving in to that temptation, we really will end up with a banana republic. The damage to our constitutional system will be far greater as a result than anything that one bad president can do in a single term.

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Trump’s Islam Speech Is a Mistake

One of the possible pitfalls of Trump’s upcoming foreign trip is the speech he intends to give in Saudi Arabia on Islam:

A speech was added in Saudi Arabia to provide an “inspiring yet direct” message to the Islamic world, according to national security adviser H.R. McMaster. That’s an echo of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, who addressed Muslims in Cairo in his first major speech on foreign soil.

A second address in Israel, which local newspapers reported would take place at the ancient archeological site of Masada, was moved indoors to a museum. Transporting Trump to the mountaintop overlooking the Dead Sea would have required the use of a cable car.

Both speeches were being drafted by Trump’s policy adviser Stephen Miller, who helped write Trump’s convention and inaugural addresses, with input from the large collection of advisers who are helping to plan the trip: son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, McMaster and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell.

Miller is a dubious choice for writing the first speech because of his views on Islam, but the speech itself seems ill-advised no matter who is writing it. A comparison with Obama’s Cairo speech is instructive. Obama delivered that speech very early in his presidency, just as Trump will be doing, and he managed to say just enough to raise expectations that would never be fulfilled. Everything Obama did from then on was judged against what people thought he had been promising in the speech, and invariably his policies fell short. If Trump wants to offer an “inspiring” message, his later policies are almost certain to prove disappointing. We have been told that the “speech is intended to unite the broader Muslim world against common enemies of all civilization,” but that is hard to credit when the U.S. under Trump is taking sides in wars that pit Muslims against Muslims.

Obama had a much more receptive audience, because he was not perceived to be hostile to Muslims as such, but Trump is perceived that way because he usually is. Trump will have a harder task than Obama did, because he first has to assuage fears about his hostility but still has to take hard-line positions to satisfy his supporters at home. That would be a difficult balancing act for any politician to pull off, and I doubt that Trump is capable of doing it. Since Trump isn’t exactly known for his grasp of nuance, he is likely to indulge in excessive flattery of his hosts or commit multiple diplomatic errors (or both).

There is also something misguided in having American presidents come to predominantly Muslim countries to tell them about their own religion. This has been true when Bush and Obama wanted to hold forth on this subject, and it is still true. At best, anything our president says will come off as boilerplate or condescending, so that the speech is quickly forgotten and has no effect. At worst, he is going to insult the intended audience and provoke a backlash, and that will make things worse than they were before. The location for the speech is also unfortunate, since Riyadh is at the heart of one of the most obnoxious strains of Islam in the world, and giving this particular speech there could be interpreted as giving a boost to Wahhabism, which is the last thing that Trump or any other president should do while visiting Saudi Arabia.

The problem with Trump’s Islam speech is related to the administration’s view of what Trump is trying to do with his first trip abroad. According to AFP, the White House sees the trip as a way to promote unity among different religions:

US President Donald Trump will urge unity between the world’s major faiths on an ambitious first foreign trip that will take him to Saudi Arabia, the Vatican and Jerusalem, the White House said Tuesday.

While that may sound like a nice sentiment, this isn’t something that politicians can help bring about with the best will in the world. Very few people are going to take Trump’s appeal seriously in any case, because hardly anyone thinks that he takes religious faith seriously in the first place. It would be one thing to have the president argue for religious tolerance, or at least to argue against sectarianism and violence, but for a politician to “urge unity” among religions that have real, deep differences of belief is both misguided and sure to be rejected by all sides. No president is suited to such a role, and Trump is almost uniquely unsuited to it.

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An ‘Arab NATO’ Is a Lousy Idea

Trump will propose the creation of an “Arab NATO” during his visit to Saudi Arabia:

When President Trump arrives in Riyadh this week, he will lay out his vision for a new regional security architecture White House officials call an “Arab NATO,” to guide the fight against terrorism and push back against Iran. As a cornerstone of the plan, Trump will also announce one of the largest arms-sales deals in history.

Some version of this idea has been floating around for a while now, and it makes no more sense now than it did before. The war on Yemen is the prime example of collective military action by Gulf Arab states, and it has been a disaster for Yemen and a demonstration of how militarily inept many of the coalition’s members are. Insofar as an “Arab NATO” serves as nothing more than a vehicle for Saudi-led interference in the affairs of its neighbors, it would be a regional menace and would involve the U.S. directly or indirectly in more of the region’s wars.

Building a formal alliance to “push back against Iran” would guarantee ongoing regional instability for years to come, and it would fuel vicious sectarian hatreds between and within the countries of the region. If the members of this “Arab NATO” conduct the “fight against terrorism” as well as they have to date, jihadists will have little to worry about, since the policies of most would-be members have helped make jihadism flourish in several countries. The U.S. will be expected to support the misadventures of this alliance, and that will implicate our government in whatever other ill-advised interventions they start on their own. Worse, if the “Arab NATO” obliges the U.S. to defend members of this new alliance it will mean more foreign commitments and entanglements for the U.S. Finally, there is no threat comparable to that of the USSR or some other major power to merit a collective defense alliance of this kind, so it isn’t needed.

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Our Hard-liners Need Iran’s Hard-liners (II)

Reuel Marc Gerecht joins the pro-Raisi Iran hawk bandwagon ahead of Iran’s presidential election:

Washington would be far better off if a “hard-liner” won the presidential contest. It would make it more difficult for Congress and the Trump administration to deceive themselves about Iran’s intentions.

This is lousy analysis of what would be best for U.S. interests, which would not be served by having a more antagonistic and intransigent Iran. More than that, it is an admission that Iran hawks couldn’t care less what happens to the Iranian people, which should be obvious after they have urged sanctions and/or bombing Iran on a regular basis for a decade and a half. These hawks are eager for Iranians to have an even worse government than they already do. This isn’t the usual “better the devil we know” argument for the status quo over change. On the contrary, it is an explicit appeal for the victory of the worse candidate–a change for the worse–in the hope that it will cause Iran more misery and hardship. No one needs to have any illusions about the abusive and authoritarian Iranian regime to recognize this desire as a perverse and warped one. No one needs to have any illusions about the pace or scale of political change inside Iran to recognize that a Raisi victory would be a sudden move in the wrong direction.

Gerecht is essentially echoing the same bankrupt argument Abrams made a few days ago. Both Gerecht and Abrams concede that Rouhani is likely to win unless the election is rigged against him, so when they root for a Raisi victory they are effectively rooting for a stolen election. They crave an Iran that they can more easily vilify and isolate in order to keep tensions with their government as high as possible, and a Raisi win makes their jobs much easier.

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Sudan and the War on Yemen

One of the other invitees to the Saudi-sponsored summit that Trump will be attending is none other than Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir:

Saudi officials close to the king say Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been invited to an upcoming summit in the Saudi capital with President Donald Trump and world leaders from across the Muslim world.

Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands for war crime allegations linked to the conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region.

This news prompted Glenn Kessler to ask:

I agree that Bashir’s invitation to attend the summit is repugnant, but why would we expect the Trump administration to object to it? Sudan is a member of the Saudi-led coalition that is attacking Yemen and has been for years, so it was predictable that their president would be invited to the Saudis’ summit. Since the U.S. is an enabler and supporter of the coalition, our government is on the same side as the Sudanese government. These are the sorts of governments that have agreed to help the Saudis in their reckless campaign, and our government is deeply complicit in that campaign.

Our government has no problem aiding and abetting coalition war crimes in Yemen, so why would it suddenly be put off by the invitation of another war criminal when he belongs to the same coalition? The summit’s hosts are partly responsible for creating horrific conditions in Yemen that will claim countless innocent lives if things continue as they are, but there is scarcely any criticism of Trump’s decision to make Riyadh his first foreign destination as president. If Trump (and much of Washington) can embrace the war criminals of Riyadh, why wouldn’t he associate with one from Khartoum?
The truly appalling thing in all of this is the continued support the U.S. is providing to the Saudis and their allies (including Sudan) as they cause massive loss of life.

It should go without saying that the U.S. shouldn’t be taking part in the Saudis’ sham of a summit, just as our government shouldn’t be involved in the atrocious war on Yemen. Trump faces little or no opposition for these things, and yet these are easily among the least defensible things he is doing as president.

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The War on Yemen and Trump’s Foreign Trip

Describing Trump’s agenda for his first foreign trip, his National Security Advisor recently said this:

“He [Trump] will encourage our Arab and Muslim partners to take bold, new steps to promote peace and to confront those, from ISIS to al-Qaida to Iran to the Assad regime, who perpetuate chaos and violence that has inflicted so much suffering throughout the Muslim world and beyond,” McMaster said.

McMaster’s description is hard to take seriously for a few reasons. First, the Saudis and their allies are busily perpetuating chaos and violence in Yemen, and some of them have been responsible for doing the same in Syria for years. These states have no problem perpetuating chaos and violence, and our government has not had much of a problem in aiding them as long as it can be dressed up as opposition to Iran. Far from confronting ISIS and Al Qaeda, these clients have escalated and stoked conflicts in Yemen and Syria that have allowed jihadist groups to become stronger, and at the same time they have neglected efforts to combat jihadists so that they could concentrate their resources on pummeling and starving Yemen. Everything the Trump administration has done so far has been to reward these governments for their recklessness and unreliability by promising to provide them with even more weapons and support than they were already receiving.

As I have said before, making Riyadh Trump’s first visit of his presidency is an unmistakable stamp of approval on the Saudi-led coalition’s destructive, illegal behavior in Yemen. The coalition bears significant responsibility for creating the world’s worst humanitarian disaster there and has committed numerous war crimes against the civilian population. Meanwhile, Trump is fully embracing the coalition’s members. If Trump’s visit drew more attention to Yemen’s plight, that would be a very thin silver lining, but it is more likely that the enormous suffering of Yemen’s people and the destruction wrought by the coalition with U.S. backing will continue to go mostly unnoticed.

Of all the countries Trump could have chosen for his first visit, he chose to visit the country whose government is largely responsible for causing a major man-made famine in one of the world’s poorest countries and has implicated the U.S. in numerous war crimes because of our government’s assistance with their war effort. While Trump will be schmoozing with despots in Riyadh, millions of Yemenis will continue to be starved as a result of deliberate policy choices supported by Washington. That ought to appear prominently in every report on Trump’s trip abroad, but it will very likely be left out of almost all of them.

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Trump’s Boastful Incompetence

Last week, I talked about the Trump administration’s habit of gratuitous self-sabotage, and the latest news has provided another remarkable example of that. As Rod Dreher has already observed, the reports of Trump’s extreme carelessness with highly classified material are further proof of the president’s extraordinary incompetence.

The White House’s “denials” address things that the reports have not claimed, and they fail to give any reason to doubt the substance of the news reports. Lawfare’s analysis of the story is worth reading in full, but this section explains why the information that was revealed may have been enough to jeopardize the source of the information anyway:

The information in question is of particular significance both because the Russians might be able to infer sources and methods, notwithstanding General McMaster’s careful statement that sources and methods were not “discussed,” and because it was shared with the United States by a foreign partner. Indeed, the Post story discusses the concern of U.S. officials that the Russians might inferentially “identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved, and one official is quoted as saying that “Russia could identify our sources or techniques” based on what was disclosed. If true, Trump did not just jeopardize our own intelligence sources, but those of another country.

The trouble isn’t just that Trump revealed sensitive information to representatives of another major power, but that he was sharing information that another government had provided to ours in confidence. This was information that was considered sensitive enough that it hadn’t been shared with other close allies, but that didn’t stop the president from blurting it out. At the very least, the relationship with the government in question will be severely strained as a result of this breach of confidence, and that could make them uncooperative in the future. The Times report emphasized this point:

The ally has repeatedly warned American officials that it would cut off access to such sensitive information if it were shared too widely, said the former official.

Assuming that cooperation with this government was useful to the U.S., there would need to be a compelling reason to risk that cooperation by sharing the information they provided, and no one–including the White House–is offering any explanation for why it was done. As far as we can tell from these reports, Trump was just showing off what “great intel” he has access to, and he predictably gave no thought to the implications of what sharing that “great intel” might be. Worse, this breach will make other governments that normally cooperate with ours think twice before sharing information for fear that Trump will spill it to someone he shouldn’t in another fit of boasting.

Update: Politico’s report on the story supports the impression that Trump blundered in a fit of mindless bragging:

One adviser who often speaks to the president said the conversation was likely freewheeling in the Oval Office, and he probably wanted to impress the officials.

“He doesn’t really know any boundaries. He doesn’t think in those terms,” this adviser said. “He doesn’t sometimes realize the implications of what he’s saying. I don’t think it was his intention in any way to share any classified information. He wouldn’t want to do that.”

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