Daniel Larison

Cruz’s Boundless Opportunism

Ted Cruz is reportedly going to endorse Trump after all:

Multiple sources close to Ted Cruz say the Texas senator is expected indicate his support for Donald Trump as soon as Friday.

It is unclear whether Cruz will say only that he is voting for the Republican nominee, as other lawmakers have done, or offer a more full-throated endorsement, but the idea of throwing any support to Trump is controversial within Cruzworld.

“If he announces he endorses, it destroys his political brand,” said someone who had worked for Cruz’s campaign.

As I said after he refused to endorse Trump, Cruz is nothing if not an opportunist. When Trump first started running in 2015, Cruz didn’t attack him and praised him on occasion, and then when Trump became his main rival Cruz became fiercely hostile. Once Trump secured the nomination, Cruz calculated that Trump was doomed in the fall and that the smarter bet to distance himself from the nominee. Now that the race has tightened and Trump still has an outside chance at winning, his calculation has changed once again, and he is ready to get on board the Trump bandwagon in one form or another. Of course, all politicians are self-promoters and opportunistic, but Cruz is an extreme case of a politician who jumps at each new chance for self-promotion without considering the efficacy or long-term consequences of what he does. He refused to endorse Trump because he bet that his stock would rise inside the GOP as a result. Instead, his favorability among Republicans cratered, and now he has to reverse course to repair some of the damage that has been done.

The trouble for him is that Cruz’s self-seeking maneuvers have mostly done his political career great harm, and because he has tried to sell himself as the “consistent conservative” his record of switching back and forth between pro- and anti-Trump positions is all the more damaging. His convention performance cost him the support of many Republicans that backed Trump in the primaries, and if he endorses Trump he will lose the support of many of the people that lauded him for his “courage” and “honor” two months ago. Each time Cruz has tried to seek his own short-term advantage, he has made the wrong choice, and at the end he left himself looking more ridiculous to all sides of the party.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

One woman’s lonely struggle against famine in Yemen. Nawal al-Maghafi reports on the terrible conditions in Yemen created by the war and coalition blockade.

The all-purpose authorization of military force. Daniel DePetris calls on Congress to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities in matters of war.

New rules for military intervention. Christopher Preble proposes five rules that should determine when the U.S. should intervene abroad.

Senators struggle with geography to support the Saudi war on Yemen. U.S. News reports on McCain and Corker’s poor grasp of the Arabian Peninsula’s geography.

Don’t imitate the Russians in Syria. Paul Pillar picks apart the latest argument for intervention in Syria.

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McCain and Corker Need a Geography Lesson

Supporters of the Saudi arms sale made many bad arguments yesterday before the vote, but this may have been the most laughable mistake:

Two longtime senators leaned on questionable geographic analysis Wednesday as part of their successful defense of a $1.15 billion proposed arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

The Strait of Hormuz would be threatened if Houthi rebels had taken over all of Yemen before Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention last year, they agreed before leading colleagues to shoot down a bid to block the arms sale.

But the shipping bottleneck actually separates Iran and an Omani peninsula hundreds of miles north of Yemen, where Shiite rebels and backers of a deposed and formerly U.S.-supported strongman are resisting a Saudi-led campaign that has killed many civilians.

McCain and Corker’s error would almost be funny if it didn’t reflect their poor understanding of the region and the conflict they want the U.S. to continue fueling. Corker is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, so one would think he would have better familiarity with the geography of a part of the world where he wants the U.S. to be so involved. McCain is famously treated as a foreign policy “expert” despite a long record of horrible judgments, so his screw-up is even more ridiculous. Their error is significant not only for betraying their ignorance about basic geography, but also for showing how desperate they are to make Iran a major player in the conflict when its role is actually limited and not very significant. When Corker answers McCain’s question, he says that “it puts more of that in Iranian hands,” and that is based on the lie that Iran has any control in any part of Yemen. This matters because McCain and other backers of the Saudi-led war are determined to portray the war as “self-defense” against expanding Iranian influence, but neither of those things is true. It’s hard to see why anyone should take McCain and Corker’s views on the conflict seriously when they can’t even be trusted to read a map correctly.

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Threat Inflation and Short Memories

Philip Stephens repeats a bit of silly conventional wisdom:

At a conference in New York organised by the US branch of the Ditchley Foundation I heard a distinguished American elder statesman remark that he has never known a period when the world had been simultaneously buffeted by so many upheavals and crises [bold mine-DL].

The idea that we are living through some uniquely unstable and chaotic period is a popular one nowadays, but it just shows what short memories and how little perspective many analysts and even “elder statesmen” have. Previous decades have had as many or more “upheavals and crises” as we have today, but they are now forgotten or only dimly remembered because they are now over or because the people making outlandish claims about the present never paid any attention to these crises back then. Fifteen years ago, central Africa was in the middle of a huge international war with forces from over a half dozen states and their proxies fighting in Congo, and millions of people perished in the greatest loss of life in a conflict since WWII. By any reasonable measure, that represented far more upheaval and violence than anything we see today, but probably because it was in sub-Saharan Africa it is all but forgotten. The ’90s had plenty of “upheavals and crises,” including the dissolution of the USSR, the Balkan wars, the Karabakh war, the Kargil war, the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Gulf War, and the Rwandan genocide, and those are just some of the most obvious ones. It is very doubtful that the world is experiencing more “upheavals and crises” than it has over the last several decades, so the “elder statesman” Stephens cites is either being forgetful or tendentious.

If the world is not demonstrably more unstable and chaotic than it has been in previous decades, why are there so many people claiming that it is? Like most kinds of alarmism, this one seems aimed at frightening people into accepting dubious policies. The general goal seems to be to get the U.S. and their allies to be as meddlesome overseas as possible. As we saw in Rasmussen’s op-ed yesterday, the people that are exaggerating the extent of global upheaval want the U.S. to be actively involved in “restoring order.” In practice, that means more interference in other countries’ affairs and deeper involvement in ongoing conflicts. Order isn’t likely to be restored in the process, but the point is to keep the U.S. as entangled as possible so that there’s never an opportunity to assess whether it makes sense for the U.S. to be as activist as it is. So when you hear someone assert that the world is suffering from an extraordinary number of “upheavals and crises,” remember that it isn’t true and the person making the claim is almost certainly trying to sell you on a more ambitious and aggressive foreign policy.

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The Starvation of Yemen Continues

IRIN Photos/Flickr: Mazrak camp in the tough mountainous scrublands of Yemen's north-west border with Saudi Arabia is now home to more than 10,000 people displaced by the escalating war between the government and rebels from the Huthi clan.
IRIN Photos/Flickr: Mazrak camp in the tough mountainous scrublands of Yemen’s north-west border with Saudi Arabia is now home to more than 10,000 people displaced by the escalating war between the government and rebels from the Huthi clan.

Nawal al-Maghafi reports on the starvation of Yemen brought on by the war and coalition blockade:

Though Ashwaq Muharram was able to save a child’s life, more than million other children continue to starve across Yemen. Twenty out of 22 governorates are on the brink of famine. Unless something is done very soon to end their suffering, the country could lose an entire generation.

Yemen’s dependence on food imports was well-known before the war began, and when the intervention started many people that understood the situation warned that escalation of the conflict would produce the humanitarian disaster that has since unfolded. Blockading a country where many people already suffered from food insecurity was guaranteed to lead to the horrible conditions that prevail across much of Yemen today, but that is what the Saudi-led coalition has done for the last eighteen months with the approval of our government. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is arguably the worst in the world, and it was made that way over the last year and a half mostly by the deliberate actions of the Saudis and their allies.

The civilian population in Yemen is at risk from both the bombing campaign and the slower, less visible strangulation of the blockade:

Hudayda, controlled by Houthi rebels who took over most of the country in 2014, was until recently the entry point for 70% of Yemen’s food imports. Now, not only is it under blockade, it has been pummelled by airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition – the port itself smashed, an entire tourist resort on the beach completely destroyed.

The bombs and the blockade pose a double threat to Muharram’s patients. “If you don’t die from an airstrike, you’re going to die from being ill and from starvation,” she says. “And the hardest way to die is dying from starvation.”

U.S. client states are creating famine conditions in one of the world’s poorest countries, and they are doing so with the assistance and blessing of our government. The starvation of the population is by far the most destructive and cruel part of the Saudi-led war on Yemen, and it is unfortunately the part that receives comparatively little attention in what little coverage of the war we do get. This report is an important exception to that, and I recommend that you read all of it.

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The War on Yemen and ‘International Order’

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

One of the more absurd arguments in favor of the arms sale to the Saudis today was that it had something to do with upholding “international order”:

“Were this resolution disapproval ever to be adopted, it would further convince the world that the United States is retreating not only from its commitments, but also as the guarantor of the international order [bold mine-DL],” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor Wednesday.

It shouldn’t have to be said, but arming a despotic government to help it batter one of its neighbors has nothing to do with guaranteeing international order or keeping U.S. commitments abroad. As it happens, the continued arming of a government that is responsible for killing thousands of civilians and is guilty of numerous war crimes represents a breach of past commitments that the U.S. made just a few years ago. As of 2013, the U.S. is a signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which prohibits the transfer of weapons to other states if the government knows that those weapons are likely to be used in violations of international law. There is good reason to expect that weapons sold to the Saudis and their allies will be used in Yemen and will be used in a manner contrary to international law. Activists have charged that the U.S. and Britain are violating the ATT with their arms sales to the Saudis and their allies, and they have a solid point:

A group that campaigns for stricter arms sales controls said on Monday that Western powers were breaking international law by selling vast amounts of weapons to Saudi Arabia that are being used to hit civilians in Yemen.

The Control Arms Coalition said Britain, France and the United States were flouting the 2014 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which bans exports of conventional weapons that fuel human rights violations or war crimes.

If hawks in the Senate were actually concerned about honoring our commitments and protecting “international order,” they wouldn’t be signing off on weapons sales to a government that has been committing war crimes with weapons acquired from the U.S., but clearly these are just talking points used to distract from their unconditional support of a bad client as its wages an atrocious war.

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27 Senators Voted Against the Saudi Arms Sale

The Paul-Murphy resolution to disapprove the latest arms sale to Saudi Arabia was tabled in a 71-27 vote. The outcome is regrettable, but there was never much chance that there would be enough support to block the sale. The good news is that over a quarter of the Senate opposed the sale, and in the process registered their criticism of the administration’s policy of backing the Saudi-led war on Yemen. That is a much higher number than I expected, and it does show that there is a significant bloc in the Senate that questions the wisdom of U.S. policy in Yemen and views the U.S.-Saudi relationship skeptically. A year ago, there probably would not have so many votes against an arms deal with the Saudis. U.S. involvement in the war came under some extensive public scrutiny, and for the first time members of Congress were forced to go on the record on this question. The public debate itself reflects the extent to which Saudi influence in Washington has waned over the last decade:

“We haven’t seen this much anti-Saudi activity on the Hill in a quarter of a century,” said Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project and an expert on Saudi Arabia. “Criticism of Saudi Arabia has come out of the closet, and I don’t think it’s going to go back in.”

This criticism is much-needed and long overdue, and this may mark the beginning of a broader souring on the relationship with Riyadh. The bad news for now is that the Saudis and their allies will correctly interpret the vote as a sign that it currently has the backing of most of the Senate, and will continue wreaking havoc in Yemen in the knowledge that they have lots of eager defenders in Washington.

Update: The full roll call of the Senate vote can be found here.

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McCain and Graham’s Despicable Defense of the War on Yemen

S.K.Vemmer/Department of State
S.K.Vemmer/Department of State

The speeches in the Senate on the Paul-Murphy resolution of disapproval of the latest arms sale to Saudi Arabia were instructive in showing how thoroughly dishonest some supporters of the arms deal are willing to be. The worst offenders were John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who ranted and raved about the dangers of blocking arms sales to the Saudis and mostly tried to make the debate about Iran’s role in the region. McCain incredibly described the Saudis as a “nation under attack” because of incursions into Saudi territory that were provoked by the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Graham portrayed the Saudis as victims of Yemeni “aggression,” which has everything completely and obviously backwards. It requires swallowing Saudi propaganda whole to argue that the Saudis and their allies have been acting in self-defense, and that is what McCain and Graham tried to do. Both repeatedly asserted that the Houthis are Iranian proxies when the best evidence suggests that Iran’s role in the conflict has always been negligible, and then justified their complete indifference to the consequences of the Saudi-led war by complaining about Iranian behavior elsewhere. Needless to say, the humanitarian crisis brought on by the Saudi-led bombing campaign and blockade never once came up in their remarks, but I’m sure if they ever do mention it they’ll blame it on Iran somehow.

It doesn’t surprise me that McCain and Graham are taking the Saudis’ side in this. They complained that the U.S. wasn’t doing enough to help the Saudis when the bombing campaign began, and McCain is on record several times offering sickening defenses of Saudi behavior. The lie that Iran is a major player in Yemen’s conflict allows McCain and others like him to distract attention from the governments most responsible for wrecking Yemen, and it gives them a way to shift blame and avoid addressing the reality that U.S. clients are committing war crimes with active U.S. backing. Then again, what would we expect from John “Thank God for the Saudis” McCain and his sidekick?

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Why the U.S. Can’t and Shouldn’t Try to ‘Police’ the World


Anders Fogh Rasmussen essentially wants the U.S. to govern the planet:

In this world of interconnections, it has become a cliché to talk about the “global village.“ But right now, the village is burning, and the neighbors are fighting in the light of the flames. Just as we need a policeman to restore order; we need a firefighter to put out the flames of conflict, and a kind of mayor, smart and sensible, to lead the rebuilding.

Only America can play all these roles, because of all world powers, America alone has the credibility to shape sustainable solutions to these challenges.

Rasmussen’s op-ed makes many familiar mistakes here. For one thing, the entire “village” isn’t burning, and the vast majority of the world is at peace. The need for both “policeman” and “firefighter” is exaggerated to make it seem as if the world will fall into chaos unless the U.S. acts as the author wants, but that isn’t the case. For another, it can’t possibly be the responsibility of any one government to do all of the things mentioned here. No government has the right or authority to do these things, and there is no single government with either the resources or the competence to police the world. Besides, there simply isn’t enough political support for such a role here in the U.S. Even if the U.S. could competently fill the role Rasmussen describes, it would be a mistake to do it.

The costs of such a role are not only exorbitant, but there is an inherent danger in justifying U.S. actions in these terms. Setting the U.S. up as the enforcer of order around the world effectively puts the U.S. above the rules that all states are supposed to follow, and it gives it an excuse to trample on the sovereignty of other states when the enforcer deems it appropriate. Even if our leaders had consistently good judgment, that would create many opportunities for abuse. Since we know our leaders often make poor choices about how and where to intervene, it opens the door to one disaster after another. We also know our government’s “enforcement” is arbitrary and selective, and when its allies and clients break the rules the U.S. is usually helping them or covering for them. Most of the world doesn’t need and presumably doesn’t want a “policeman” that can do what it likes, shield its clients from punishment, and never has to answer to them, and most Americans don’t want their government to act as one.

Of course, it is misleading from the start to think of a major military power as either a police force or a fire brigade. Both of these are typically services under the control of a local government in one’s own community. The U.S. role Rasmussen describes is necessarily very different from that. It isn’t local or accountable to the people being “policed,” and its “policing” is inevitably an intrusion from outside into their affairs. As for being a “mayor,” mayors are normally elected, but most nations around the world haven’t elected and wouldn’t elect the U.S. as “mayor” of the world. Most of the world doesn’t accept the U.S. as its “policeman,” and in quite a few places that role is vehemently denied.

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Paul and Murphy’s Laudable Opposition to the War on Yemen

Ivan Plis reports on what Rand Paul and Chris Murphy had to say about the Saudis and the war on Yemen at the Center for the National Interest yesterday:

Paul derived the other part of his argument from the Constitution itself. “The initiation of war was specifically taken away from the presidency and given to Congress” by the framers, he said. And more than just a transaction between allies, in Paul’s reading the United States’ behavior in Yemen, refueling planes, sharing intelligence and assisting with targeting, constitutes complicity in acts of war. “We are actively part of a war in Yemen, and I think almost no American knows that we’re involved.”

Fortunately, more Americans are gradually being made aware of this involvement through the efforts of Murphy and Paul in the Senate and Rep. Ted Lieu and others in the House, but it remains the case that the war and U.S. support for it have been mostly ignored for almost a year and a half. That has allowed the Obama administration to enable the Saudis and their allies to wreck Yemen with little scrutiny and even less criticism, and it has allowed the coalition to commit serious crimes against Yemeni civilians with impunity. Between the Saudis’ own indiscriminate bombing and continued U.S. arms sales, the war has become harder for Washington to keep out of sight, and with luck that should mean that it will become harder for the administration to persist in its horrible policy of support for an indefensible war. Sens. Paul and Murphy deserve praise for continuing to shine light on the administration’s policy and for doing what they can to oppose it.

I have mentioned it before, but it bears repeating that the U.S. is facilitating the devastation of a country whose people have done nothing to us and who posed no threat to us or their neighbors. Thanks to our government’s support for the war, we are making enemies of tens of millions of people for no reason except to appease the paranoid fears of Gulf despots. The U.S. has been deeply complicit in an intervention that is largely responsible for the creation of near-famine conditions in one of the world’s poorest countries, and in the process has only made the region less stable and secure than it was before the intervention began. U.S. policy in Yemen is both profoundly shameful and extremely stupid, and it is one of the most destructive things the U.S. has done in a region where it has already done a lot of damage.

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Rules for Military Intervention

Christopher Preble offers five criteria for determining whether the U.S. should intervene militarily overseas. This strikes me as the most important of the five:

Thus, the fifth and final rule concerning military intervention is force should be used only as a last resort, after we have exhausted other means for resolving a foreign policy challenge that threatens vital U.S. national security interests.

This would seem to be the most straightforward rule and the easiest to follow, but in practice many advocates for preventive wars and wars of choice ignore it while pretending to respect it. Hillary Clinton recently claimed that she believes in using force only as a last resort, but from her record we know that to be false. Bombing Libya in March 2011 was not the last means available to the U.S. and its allies to address the civil war and the danger it posed to civilian lives, nor was invading Iraq in 2003 the last remaining option in resolving outstanding questions about Iraq’s alleged weapons programs. It is obvious that it is not possible for preventive wars to be waged as a last resort, and their supporters believe that using force is appropriate at a much earlier stage. If we take the last resort standard seriously, it means that preventive war can never be an option because it is inherently too hasty and unjust.

I agree with all of Preble’s rules, but I would add another one to the list: the use of force must not be likely to produce worse evils than the ones that already exist. This is a very difficult bar to clear, but it has to be cleared if a military intervention isn’t going to make the other country (or countries) involved worse off than they were. One of the recurring problems in our debates over military intervention is that negative consequences of intervention for the affected country and its neighbors are often treated as an afterthought, or the potential negative consequences are dismissed by asserting that “it can’t be any worse than it is now.” The latter response was used frequently during the Iraq war debate to deny the possibility that Iraq could be worse off after regime change. We have heard much the same thing in other debates since then, and that is usually because interventionists either can’t imagine that U.S. military action can make a situation worse.

As Preble says, there should be “a built-in presumption against the use of force,” and the burden of proof in any debate over military action has to be squarely on the advocates of intervention. After all, interventionists are the ones insisting that the U.S. maim and kill people in some other part of the world, and that should never be treated as the default response to events overseas.

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The Senate Votes This Week on Resolution Against Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia

usa saudi arabia yemen flags

The Senate may vote as early as tomorrow on a resolution blocking the latest arms sale to Saudi Arabia:

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote this week on a resolution to reject a pending arms sale from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia following reports of civilian casualties in Yemen at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in a telephone briefing Monday morning that the vote to is expected to come to the Senate floor as early as Tuesday. He raised deep concerns over Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen.

“I think this war in Yemen poses an immediate crisis within our relationship,” Murphy said. “I think we need to press pause on this arms sale in order to send a strong signal to the Saudis that the way they have conducted this war is unacceptable.”

Once again, Sens. Murphy and Paul deserve a lot of credit for taking up this issue, as do their co-sponsors Sens. Mike Lee and Al Franken. I hope the resolution is successful, but even if it isn’t the vote will draw more attention to the disastrous Saudi-led war and the Obama administration’s ongoing support for it. A vote on stopping the arms sale will force tacit backers of the Saudi-led war to go on record and face public scrutiny for their position that they have been able to avoid thus far.

The vote on the Senate resolution comes as Amnesty International says that the bomb that destroyed the MSF-supported Abs hospital in northern Yemen was a U.S.-made precision-guided bomb. Providing the Saudis with such weapons obviously doesn’t reduce civilian casualties when the coalition planes deliberately target civilian targets with them. The Washington Post also reports that the Saudis have been using white phosphorus in Yemen that was sold to them by the U.S.:

International humanitarian law does not ban the use of white phosphorus outright, but there is a strict requirement that it be used only in areas clearly separated from civilians. Even using it against enemy combatants has raised concerns, given that the munitions can cause particularly horrific injuries.

“The United States must not provide or sell white phosphorus munitions to Saudi Arabia or any other military that would use them in the Yemen conflict,” said Sunjeev Bery, Amnesty International’s advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa. “As a major arms seller to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. risks being complicit in Saudi Arabia’s likely war crimes in Yemen.”

Given the coalition’s careless and illegal use of other weapons that the U.S. and Britain have sold the Saudis and their allies, it seems more likely than not that the coalition is using white phosphorus with similar disregard for civilian lives. In light of these reports and the findings of the study I mentioned yesterday, halting arms sales to the Saudis is a necessary and long overdue response to the atrocious war on Yemen.

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A Costly Mistake in Syria

The U.S. bombed a Syrian army position and reportedly killed dozens of their soldiers over the weekend:

The U.S.-Russia deal to bring peace to Syria seemed near collapse late Saturday, as the two countries publicly accused each other of double-dealing and atrocities in the wake of an apparently mistaken U.S. airstrike that killed dozens of Syrian soldiers.

The U.S. Central Command acknowledged the strike, in eastern Syria’s Deir al-Zour province, saying it was “halted immediately” when U.S. forces were informed by Russia “that it was possible the personnel and vehicles targeted were part of the Syrian military.” Central Command said the intended target had been Islamic State forces in the area.

A U.S. Defense official said the strike “appears to be an intelligence failure.”

Assuming that this was done by mistake, it is a damaging and embarrassing error, and it shows the dangers inherent in running a bombing campaign in Syria in the midst of a multi-sided civil war. It is even more embarrassing because the strike hit Syrian forces that were fighting ISIS. Because the error effectively benefited ISIS, the strike has provided Syria and Russia with a ready-made story to use as part of their propaganda that ISIS is either backed or created by the U.S. Coming on the heels of the ceasefire agreement with Moscow, the timing of this incident couldn’t have been worse.

Max Boot is annoyed that the U.S. is sorry about this debacle:

This was the first time that the U.S. had ever bombed Bashar Assad’s forces, which have been responsible for crimes against humanity, causing the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Syria’s civil war. But instead of justifying the bombing on the grounds that it is necessary not just to protect civilians but also to end the civil war which has fueled the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS, the U.S. has de facto apologized for the bombing! And to Russia no less, which has been providing the air cover for Assad’s forces to take back ground from the rebels.

In a nutshell, Boot wants the U.S. to justify bombing soldiers that were fighting against ISIS. In other words, he wants the government to defend publicly a mistaken action that worked to the benefit of jihadists. That is the deranged position some Syria hawks end up taking because of their obsession with starting a war with the Syrian government. Fortunately, this was a mistake and the administration responded to the error as it should have. Had the administration acted as Boot wanted, Syria and Russia would have had to conclude that the strike was intentional, and that would have sharply raised tensions and absolutely doomed any chance of reaching a diplomatic settlement.

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Hadi’s Stupid and Destructive Decree

The exiled Hadi government wants to kick Yemen into the abyss:

In Yemen’s war of attrition, the Saudi-backed exiled government has now decided that the central bank is an easier target than the capital, shielded from its troops by 60 kilometers (40 miles) of daunting mountains teeming with fighters.

A decree this month to cut the bank off from the outside world is aimed at using economic pressure to vanquish the Houthi fighters of the Zaydi branch of Shi’ite Islam, who have ruled the capital and most of northern Yemen for nearly two years.

It means the Houthis may struggle to pay state employees, including teachers, doctors and the soldiers from an army that mostly fights on their side in the civil war.

But it also means that millions of people in territory controlled by both sides will become poorer [bold mine-DL], and a country that imports 90 percent of its food may have no way to feed itself.

Hadi’s decision is typical of the stupid and cruel way that Yemen’s internationally recognized government has treated its country. Even if the maneuver does harm Hadi’s enemies as much as he hopes, it will do enormous damage to the civilian population in the process. Yemen’s civilian population has already been battered by seventeen months of bombing and starved by the Saudi-led blockade, and this would needlessly add to their suffering. If he and his Saudi backers wanted to annihilate whatever little political credibility Hadi had at home, they could scarcely have devised a better way to do it.

The report continues:

“We have seen senseless attempts to delegitimize the central bank governor,” a senior Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of criticizing an exiled government that foreign states still recognize.

“Why would a truly patriotic government do something like this?” the diplomat said.

The diplomat said the government should put the interests of Yemen’s citizens before its war aims: “This is even more valid given how poor Yemen is and the humanitarian situation.”

Yemen was already suffering from one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world before this decision, and if this has its desired effect the humanitarian catastrophe that already exists will get much worse. On top of all that, the decision is likely to backfire on the exiled government, which will receive and deserve the blame for the economic problems that follow. If the goal is to undermine the position of the Houthis and their allies, this move may have the opposite effect by making Hadi’s government and his Saudi backers even more hated than they already were. All in all, it is a stupid and destructive act that will inflict great harm on millions of people and will probably fail on its own terms.

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Study: More Than a Third of Saudi Coalition Attacks on Yemen Hit Civilian Targets

A recent study of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen puts the lie to Riyadh’s claim that it seeks to avoid civilian casualties:

More than one-third of all Saudi-led air raids on Yemen have hit civilian sites, such as school buildings, hospitals, markets, mosques and economic infrastructure, according to the most comprehensive survey of the conflict.

The findings, revealed by the Guardian on Friday, contrast with claims by the Saudi government, backed by its US and British allies, that Riyadh is seeking to minimise civilian casualties.

This finding isn’t surprising at all when we remember how many civilian targets have been hit over the last seventeen and a half months. The report suggests that the coalition is either so incompetent in its targeting or so grossly negligent in the targets it chooses as to make it culpable for war crimes. Of course, the Saudis gave the game away over a year ago when they illegally declared all of Saada to be a military target. That declaration telegraphed their intention to bomb whatever they liked in that part of Yemen, and it is no accident that some of the most indiscriminate and destructive bombing has taken place there. The report’s findings also undermine the lame justification that U.S. and British involvement helps make the Saudis and their allies more precise and accurate in their bombing. If the coalition hitting civilian targets more than a third of the time, that defense doesn’t hold up in the least. The U.S. and Britain are enabling the Saudi-led coalition’s war crimes in Yemen, and this report is just the latest evidence to support that conclusion.

It is possible that even more of the strikes in Yemen were on civilian targets, because the study wasn’t able to determine whether over 1,800 of the targets were either military or civilian:

The independent and non-partisan survey, based on open-source data, including research on the ground, records more than 8,600 air attacks between March 2015, when the Saudi-led campaign began, and the end of August this year. Of these, 3,577 were listed as having hit military sites and 3,158 struck non-military sites.

Where it could not be established whether a location attacked was civilian or military, the strikes were classified as unknown, of which there are 1,882 incidents.

Regardless, 36% of the attacks were on non-military targets. The coalition has illegally bombed Yemeni civilians over three thousand times, and the U.S. and Britain have aided them in this by providing weapons and refueling.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The myth of American retreat. William Ruger reviews Robert Lieber’s Retreat and Its Consequences for the current issue of TAC.

Ravaged by conflict, Yemen’s coast faces rising malnutrition. The AP reports on the near-famine conditions in Hodeidah province.

Britain must end its support for the barbaric Saudi bombing of Yemen. Peter Oborne reviews the damage of the war on Yemen and calls on the British government to halt its support for it.

The economy is the newest front in Yemen’s brutal war. Peter Salisbury and Rafat al-Akhali comment on the Hadi government’s threat to shut down the existing central bank and create a new one in Aden.

A flawed focus on American leadership. Ben Denison spells out why focusing only on the “failure” of American “leadership” in response to foreign events produces poor and misleading analysis.

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How the Obsession With American ‘Leadership’ Warps Foreign Policy Analysis

Ben Denison criticizes a familiar flaw in foreign policy commentary:

When a surprising event occurs that threatens U.S. interests, many are quick to blame Washington’s lack of leadership and deride the administration for failing to anticipate and prevent the crisis. Recent examples from the continuing conflict in Syria, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and even the attempted coup in Turkey, all illustrate how this is a regular impulse for the foreign policy punditry class. This impulse, while comforting to some, fails to consider the interests and agency of the other countries involved in the crisis. Instead of turning to detailed analysis and tracing the international context of a crisis, often we are bombarded with an abundance of concerns about a lack of American leadership.

The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge and take into account the agency and interests of other political actors around the world is one of the more serious flaws in the way many Americans think and talk about these issues. This not only fails to consider how other actors are likely to respond to a proposed U.S. action, but it credits the U.S. with far more control over other parts of the world and much more competence in handling any given issue than any government has ever possessed or ever will. Because the U.S. is the preeminent major power in the world, there is a tendency to treat any undesirable event as something that our government has “allowed” to happen through carelessness, misplaced priorities, or some other mistake. Many foreign policy pundits recoil from the idea that there are events beyond our government’s ability to “shape” or that there are actors that cannot be compelled to behave as we wish (provided we simply have enough “resolve”), because it means that there are many problems around the world that the U.S. cannot and shouldn’t attempt to fix.

When a protest movement takes to the streets in another country and is then brutally suppressed, many people, especially hawkish pundits, decry our government’s “failure” to “support” the movement, as if it were the lack of U.S. support and not internal political factors that produced the outcome. When the overthrow of a foreign government by a protest movement leads to an intervention by a neighboring major power, the U.S. is again faulted for “failing” to stop the intervention, as if it could have done so short of risking great power conflict. Even more absurdly, the same intervention is sometimes blamed on a U.S. decision not to attack a third country in another part of the world unrelated to the crisis in question. In order to claim all these things, one not only has to fail to take account of the interests and agency of other states, but one also has to believe that the rest of the world revolves around us and every action others take can ultimately be traced back to what our government does (or doesn’t do). That’s not just shoddy analysis, but a serious delusion about how people all around the world behave. At the same time, there is a remarkable eagerness on the part of many of the same people to overlook the consequences of things that the U.S. has actually done, so that many of our pundits ignore our own government’s agency when it suits them.

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Oborne on the War on Yemen

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

Peter Oborne calls for a halt to U.K. support for the war on Yemen. Here he reviews the record of what U.K. and U.S. support for the war has caused:

The Saudis’ closest allies in this horrible affair are Britain and the United States. We supported King Salman when he declared war in March last year. In the face of a mountain of evidence that crimes have been committed, Britain repeatedly insisted that the Saudis have not breached international humanitarian law. Britain has advisers in the heart of the Saudi command centre which sets targets for the bombers. We provide Saudi with crucial diplomatic cover, for instance blocking Dutch calls for a very badly needed independent inquiry into war crimes by all sides. Throughout the war we have supplied arms to the Saudis. This is almost certainly illegal. The Arms Trade Treaty, enthusiastically supported by Britain two years ago, insists that no arms should be sold when there is an ‘overriding risk’ that they will be used in breach of international humanitarian law. There is no question that the provision applies in the case of Yemen. Approximately 10,000 have been killed, many of those by Saudi bombing, most of them civilians, while millions have been made hopeless and even more now live on the edge of starvation.

Oborne suggests that British policy may be starting to change under Theresa May, and I certainly hope that’s true, but I would be surprised if that is the case. Because the Saudi-led war has largely been ignored in the West, there is almost no political price to be paid for continuing to back it, and so continuing with the horrible policy that Cameron started is the path of least resistance. I would be very pleased to be wrong about this, but after seeing the U.S. and British governments enable this disaster for seventeen months I would be shocked if either of them withdrew support now. Of course, this is absolutely what both governments ought to do, and they ought to have never been backed the Saudi intervention in the first place, but I don’t expect much from either one at this point.

As some readers may remember, Oborne recently traveled to Yemen and wrote a lengthy report on the conflict with Nawal al-Maghafi that I referred to before. If you didn’t read it the first time, I strongly recommend that you read the entire article now. Their conclusion is worth quoting again:

A calamity, aided and abetted in the West, is unfolding in Yemen, and it is time the world woke up to that fact.

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The 2016 Election and Obama’s Approval Rating

Robert Merry sees the election as a referendum on Obama’s second term:

In this view, we have been looking in the wrong places as we assess the campaign. Instead of focusing on Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, we should be looking at the presidential performance of Barack Obama—and not his overall tenure but specifically his second-term record.

Merry makes an interesting case that for why the incumbent party candidate is at a disadvantage this year, and I recommend reading the entire article to see why he thinks so. I agree that Obama and his record matter to the outcome of the election, but that leads me to think that Trump is the one at a disadvantage. Alan Abramowitz reviewed the evidence from postwar open presidential elections and found that the incumbent party candidate tends to win the popular vote when the president’s approval rating is over 50%:

The fate of the incumbent party’s candidate is strongly influenced by the popularity of the outgoing president. In fact, the incumbent president’s approval rating explains over half of the variance in the vote share of his party’s nominee. All three candidates seeking to succeed presidents with approval ratings below 50% were defeated, and the two seeking to succeed presidents with approval ratings below 40% were decisively defeated. In contrast, two of the three candidates seeking to succeed presidents with approval ratings above 50% won the popular vote, although one of those candidates, Al Gore in 2000, ended up losing the electoral vote.

Obama’s approval rating has been averaging over 50% for many months, and it has been mostly climbing since the spring. That indicates that Clinton is the slight favorite to win. It’s possible that something could happen to sour the public on Obama in the final weeks of the election, and it’s certainly possible that Clinton could fritter away this advantage, but if the election turns on the public’s approval of how Obama has done his job we should expect the Democratic candidate to win the popular vote in November. There is a chance that Trump could win in the Electoral College in spite of this, but that is a very unlikely outcome.

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Who’s Afraid of Restraint?

Paul Miller is sounding the alarm about the perils of restraint:

Because this seems to be the prevailing wisdom of the moment, it is important to stress the opposite. American security and liberal order are mutually constitutive: liberal order is the outer perimeter of American security, and American power upholds liberal order. The existence of liberal order is an opportunity for the United States: continuing to invest in its upkeep is a cost-effective strategy for producing an outer ring of security for itself. Advocates of restraint are wrong to neglect this opportunity, and illustrate the weakness of an exclusively threat-centric and reactive grand strategy. Liberal order already exists over much of the globe. It would be a foolish waste to walk away from it.

Miller’s argument is not very persuasive. He never demonstrates that the survival of “liberal order” depends on continuing what he insists on calling simply internationalism, and at one point acknowledges that “liberal order” doesn’t depend solely on U.S. power. He misrepresents what advocates of restraint propose so that he can more easily dismiss them, and he barely engages with what restrainers have argued. Miller contrasts internationalism and restraint, as if restraint weren’t another kind of internationalism, and he lumps advocates of restraint with Trump despite the fact that he and they don’t hold the same views. It’s also not true that a preference for restraint is the “prevailing wisdom of the moment,” but I suppose this is the conceit that justifies the need for a defense of the status quo.

He says that the U.S. should retain its extensive network of allies and clients and overseas military deployments “to invest in culture of liberal order [sic] in the world’s key regions,” but it isn’t clear how this “investment” works or why that “culture” would deteriorate without it. When the U.S. arms the Saudis and its GCC allies so they can bomb Yemen, what does that have to do with “investing” in “liberal order”? When the U.S. and its regional clients arm insurgents in a foreign civil war, how does that sustain liberal norms? Since the “liberal order” exists and appears to have the support of the vast majority of states, why would that order weaken if the U.S. pursued a strategy of restraint? If this order is as beneficial to the U.S. as Miller says, it is presumably also quite beneficial to most other states as well and would continue to function without a hyperactive U.S. foreign policy. If that’s so, restraint won’t require giving up the benefits of “liberal order,” but it will allow the shedding of unnecessary burdens.

One of the complaints he makes against advocates of restraint is that they rely too much on the Iraq war as proof of the dangers of a strategy of primacy (or “leadership” as he prefers to call it). I will agree that it is not “the paradigmatic case of the United States’ role in the world,” but it is a perfect example of the sort of disastrous policies that come from exercising global “leadership” of the sort that Miller champions. It is also proof that the U.S. can do far more harm to international peace and security when it actively seeks to enforce “world order” than when it does not. The presumption that the U.S. has both the right and the obligation to act as an enforcer is a dangerous one, and it opens the door to trashing international law and norms in the name of upholding them. Exercising “leadership” in this way is not only very costly for the U.S., but it clearly makes the countries affected by it worse off than they were before and undermines those laws and norms in the process. Besides, it’s not as if Iraq is the only example of irresponsible and destabilizing interventionism by our government in the last twenty years, and in each case interventionists have justified their proposed action by claiming that the U.S. must intervene in order to show “leadership.”

Miller’s internationalist is inclined to see almost every crisis and conflict as a potential threat to “liberal order” that requires a U.S. response, while advocates of restraint are much less likely to see any U.S. interest at stake that needs to be defended. In practice, the former requires frequent if not constant warfare, while the latter keeps the U.S. out of almost all conflicts. That is one of the major practical differences between restraint and the status quo, but Miller never really addresses it. He also makes the extraordinary claim that “scholars and policymakers are in greater danger of underestimating threats to American security than overestimating them,” but that is so completely detached from the reality of our foreign policy debates that I find it hard to believe anyone seriously holds this view. Threat inflation has an overwhelming distorting effect on our foreign policy debates, and that should be obvious to everyone.

Miller claims that sustaining “liberal order” isn’t a completely open-ended invitation to overextension, and he says that “it is possible to fix limits,” but if there are limits set somewhere they are so expansive as to be meaningless. Once you have identified preserving “world order” with U.S. security, almost anything can be perceived as a current or potential future threat that the U.S. has to address. That not only means that the U.S. will find itself policing multiple parts of the globe at once, but it makes it much more likely that any given policy response will be poorly-designed and under-resourced because of the sheer number of problems that the U.S. is trying to solve at one time. The U.S. has limited resources and power, but if it takes for granted that it is our job to maintain “world order” it will assume responsibility for more crises and conflicts than it can competently handle. Pursuing such an ambitious foreign policy doesn’t make the U.S. or the world more secure, but just sets the U.S. up for one failure after another. Restraint saves the U.S. both the expense and the headaches that come from a more ambitious strategy, and it allows the U.S. to husband its resources to guard against the relatively few real threats to our security more effectively.

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