Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Trump’s comment on Venezuela makes a bad situation worse. Michael Shifter calls Trump’s “military option” statement a “gratuitous gift” to Maduro.

Things don’t end well for madmen. Stephen Walt explains the pitfalls of running an unpredictable “madman” foreign policy.

The critical difference between preemption and preventive war. Christopher Preble notes the importance of this distinction and explains how it applies to China’s willingness to defend North Korea.

Detente in the Persian Gulf is in everyone’s interests. Paul Pillar explains why stoking regional rivalries is bad for all involved.

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The Pitfalls of Trump’s Predictable Bellicosity

Stephen Walt points out the pitfalls of the “madman” approach to foreign policy:

Moreover, unpredictable leaders also fail because they cannot attract or sustain reliable allied support. This problem isn’t surprising either; who would want to link their fates to an unpredictable, erratic, and hotheaded partner? It’s hardly surprising that most of the impulsive leaders discussed above ended up isolated and eventually became the targets of concerted and powerful opposition.

I agree with a lot of what Walt says, but I would frame the problem with Trump’s approach to foreign policy a little differently. His column reminded me of a recent article summarizing Trump’s recent threats and how they have backfired on him in different ways every time:

During his rise to power, President Trump proved he has a finely honed sense of what threats, intimidation and bluster can accomplish. In recent days, he has received reminders — including from South Korea, Iran and Venezuela — that geopolitics operates with a different set of rules than real estate or political campaigns.

As we have seen over the last seven months, many of the biggest quarrels between Trump and foreign leaders have been with leaders of allied or friendly states, and his tendency to make threats without any coordination or forethought has further strained relationships with many of these same states. At the same time, adversaries have reaped the benefits of Trump’s careless rhetoric. The effect of Trump’s bluster towards Iran at the Riyadh summit and afterwards has not been to make Iran more cooperative, but rather to sour relations and intensify their resistance to his demands while encouraging the Saudis in further blundering with its campaign against Qatar. Threats against Maduro and his allies haven’t made the government in Caracas more compliant with Washington’s preferences, but have managed to alarm almost every other government in the region about our intentions while giving the Venezuelan president a ready-made distraction. Likewise, Trump’s “fire and fury” talk regarding North Korea hasn’t elicited any improvement in North Korean behavior, but it has forced the new South Korean president to insist publicly that the U.S. will not act without his government’s consent.

On every front, Trump has either strengthened the position of the adversary he was trying to intimidate, or he has worried U.S. allies so much that our officials have had to spend more time reassuring them that the president doesn’t really mean what he says than they spent on addressing the relevant issues. That hasn’t happened because of Trump’s preference for unpredictability, but because he has been reliably bad at alliance management and consistently prone to issuing threats that scare our allies more than they worry our adversaries.

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The Consequences of Meddling

Venezuelan dictator Nicholas Maduro is an evil man, but President Trump has no business threatening him with military action (Marcos Salgado/Shutterstock)

Michael Shifter also found Trump’s Venezuela bluster to be quite harmful:

It now looks like the president has confused United States policy and given Mr. Maduro a gratuitous gift. Mr. Trump has thrown the opposition off balance, further alienated regional allies, and made his vice president clean up after him. Venezuelans will be the ones to suffer.

Most observers seem to agree that Trump’s statement was an unforced error that has already had serious consequences for Venezuelans and for U.S. diplomacy in the region and could have more in the weeks to come. It was also instructive in showing that seeking to intimidate another government by issuing threats normally boosts the other regime’s position at home and hurts that of the regime’s opponents. Even when threats from abroad are grossly inflated, they can be used to stifle dissent, crack down even harder on political opponents, and create a much-needed distraction for failing leaders. It makes an already difficult task for Maduro’s opponents even harder:

Amid the mounting tensions there has been no statement from the main opposition alliance or its leaders. Meanwhile, its website remains hacked for a second straight day with a photo of a finger-pointing Trump under the banner “I Want You to Kill Your Brothers and Sisters.”

Few things could be worse for the prospects of effective political protest and change than providing a regime’s leaders with the specter of U.S. intervention. We are seeing that unfold in Venezuela now, and we should remember that for the next political crisis when we start to hear demands that the U.S. “must act.”

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Venezuela and the Virtue of Not Taking Sides

In addition to giving Maduro a gift, Trump’s statement that there could be a “military option” in Venezuela has provided the Venezuelan leader with a new pretext to persecute his opponents:

President Nicolas Maduro asked the pro-government constitutional assembly Monday to investigate the opposition for allegedly supporting Donald Trump’s remarks on using military action to resolve Venezuela’s political crisis.

Addressing a rally of government supporters, Maduro said Trump’s comments were prompted by the failure of the opposition’s campaign to oust him after months of destabilizing protests.

One could hardly ask for a clearer example of how taking sides in another country’s internal political upheaval can damage the cause it is supposed to help. The Venezuelan opposition doesn’t want Trump’s “help” when it comes in the form of threats of possible intervention in their country, and by making such a threat he has made their task harder and may have put them at greater risk than they already were. Trump’s threat made it a bit easier for the government to paint its opponents as agents of a foreign power and so makes it a little easier to discredit them in Venezuela.

It is hard not to compare this bungling with the way Trump’s predecessor handled post-election protests in Iran in 2009. The conventional wisdom in Washington at the time insisted that Obama needed to “speak out” forcefully in support of the Green movement protesters, and he was widely criticized here at home for “failing” to do so. Iran hawks faulted Obama for the rest of his presidency for “missing” the “opportunity” for regime change that they wrongly imagined was available at the time. These criticisms were weak eight years ago, and they still are, but it is notable that practically no one is making the same complaint today about Trump’s response to the crisis in Venezuela. Trump’s bluster has demonstrated how harmful and counterproductive U.S. meddling in another country’s political dispute can be, and that reminds us why the U.S. should refrain from taking sides.

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Trump’s Bluster Backfires Once Again

Trump’s reckless Venezuela bluster is having the predictable effect of distracting attention from the crisis in Venezuela and undermining the regional response to it:

President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela had become a pariah among fellow Latin American leaders as his beleaguered country staggered toward dictatorship. But a threat by President Trump to use the American military against Mr. Maduro’s government has united those leaders in a different direction: demanding that the United States keep out of the region’s affairs.

The right U.S. response to Venezuela’s crisis would have been to keep a low profile, support the efforts of regional governments to address the crisis, present a united front against Maduro, and do nothing to give Maduro a lifeline by turning it into a contest with Washington. Trump’s bluster had the opposite effect: it inserted the U.S. into the crisis in a way guaranteed to bolster Maduro domestically at the expense of his opponents at the same time that it distracted and alarmed other regional governments. The reaction to Trump’s rhetoric across the region has been swift and overwhelmingly negative:

Peru, which has taken some of the toughest stands in the region against Venezuela, issued a statement on Saturday condemning possible use of force, and Mexico said the crisis could not be resolved with soldiers. Brazil said renouncing violence was the “basis of democratic cohabitation.” And human rights groups in Venezuela rejected Mr. Trump’s threat.

No doubt Trump’s reference to a military option was another unplanned, ill-considered threat that he thought would show “toughness,” and like other threats he has made it is backfiring on the U.S. and its allies. The frequency with which Trump resorts of making these threats is not just a product of his poor discipline and bad judgment, but reflects his nationalist and militarist inclinations and his obsession with the appearance of strength. We can expect more of the same in response to future crises, and we should assume that the damage they do to U.S. interests will only increase with time.

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The Horrifying War on Yemen Continues

Aisha Jumaan condemns the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war on Yemen for starving millions of Yemenis:

Saudi Arabia must lift the blockade and allow the commercial flow of ships and airlines into Yemen unhindered. The United Nations and countries of the Western world, especially the U.S. and the U.K. that provide logistical and intelligence support in the Saudi war on Yemen, must demand a lifting of the blockade. If this cannot be done, no amount of aid in the world can save a nation of 27 million people from famine.

Most Americans would be horrified at the thought that American policy may be a direct cause of starvation for millions of innocent people.

I hope most Americans would be horrified by this. One of the ongoing difficulties in changing the U.S. policy of support for this war is that relatively few Americans seem to know that there is such a policy, and even fewer know what effects the war is having on the civilian population. Fewer still consider stopping this policy a priority, and so far there aren’t enough members of Congress among them to demand an end to support for the war.

One reason for this is the failure to give the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen the attention that it deserves, and another is the failure to show the connection between U.S. and coalition policies and the disaster unfolding on the ground. When the war on Yemen is covered in Western media, it is often presented simply as a regional proxy war and/or as a sectarian conflict. Both are misleading and inaccurate in important respects, and both minimize or ignore the role of the U.S. in enabling and backing one side of the war.

Americans still seem to be largely unaware of the role their government has had in wrecking and starving Yemen for over two years, but Yemenis are keenly aware that they are attacked with U.S.-made weapons dropped from planes sold by the U.S. to our client regimes and refueled by our military. They know how destructive the blockade has been to their country, but even reasonably well-informed Americans could manage to read quite a few reports about the war and never see any mention of it. One of the worst humanitarian crises of the current century is unfolding in Yemen, and it is entirely man-made and caused in large part by U.S.-backed governments with Washington’s blessing. We should be horrified by the terrible toll this is taking on the people of Yemen, and we should also be alarmed that our government can be complicit in such a horror while facing so little opposition at home.

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North Korea and McMaster’s Deterrence Dishonesty

Wikimedia Commons

H.R. McMaster said something yesterday on This Week that is every bit as dangerous as Trump’s incendiary rhetoric last week. The more striking thing is how dishonest it is:

STEPHANOPOULOS: But your predecessor Susan Rice wrote this week that the U.S. could tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea the same way we tolerated nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union far more during the Cold War. Is she right?

MCMASTER: No, she’s not right. And I think the reason she’s not right is that the classical deterrence theory, how does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea? [bold mine-DL] A regime that engages in unspeakable brutality against its own people? A regime that poses a continuous threat to the its neighbors in the region and now may pose a threat, direct threat, to the United States with weapons of mass destruction? A regime that imprisons and murders anyone who seems to oppose that regime, including members of his own family, using sarin nerve gase (sic) — gas in a public airport?

As McMaster must know, none of the things he mentions here has anything to do with whether the North Korean government can be effectively deterred from using its nuclear arsenal. He is trying to claim that the North Korean leadership is not primarily concerned with self-preservation, but nothing he cites here bears that out. Other nuclear-armed regimes have similarly engaged in “unspeakable brutality” against their own people and posed direct threats to the U.S., but they have refrained from using nuclear weapons against the U.S. and its allies because they believed that they would invite their own destruction if they did so. North Korea’s government acquired nuclear weapons in order to secure its own survival, so it should be relatively easy to deter them from using those weapons. Aside from the worrisome echoes of the Bush administration’s pre-invasion rhetoric about the Iraqi government, the alarming thing about this statement is that Trump’s National Security Advisor either doesn’t understand how deterrence works or is flatly lying to the public about the nature of the threat in order to lay the groundwork for launching an illegal and disastrous attack.

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Yemen’s Cholera Epidemic Continues to Spread

Yemen’s cholera epidemic has now infected half a million people:

The number of suspected cases of cholera resulting from an epidemic in war-torn Yemen has reached 500,000, the World Health Organization (WHO) says.

At least 1,975 people have died since the waterborne disease began to spread rapidly at the end of April.

The cholera epidemic in Yemen was already the worst on record three weeks ago when there were more than 360,000 infected, and the epidemic has spread to almost half again as many people since then. In just four months, Yemen has suffered from a larger cholera epidemic than Haiti did earlier this decade during an entire year. Like Yemen’s other overlapping humanitarian disasters, the cholera epidemic is man-made and was entirely preventable. The coalition war has devastated the country’s infrastructure and health care system, the blockade is depriving the country of basic food and medicine needed to stave off both starvation and preventable disease, and the “legitimate government” caused a collapse in public services in rebel-controlled areas with the decision to relocate the central bank. I’ll quote something here that I wrote at the start of this year:

The Hadi government and its coalition and Western backers have inflicted all of this on the civilian population of Yemen for more than twenty-one months in the service of an atrocious war effort that has failed in all of its stated objectives.

Unfortunately, U.S. and coalition policies have not changed at all in the seven months since I wrote that, and conditions in Yemen have significantly worsened in the meantime.

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Trump’s Reckless Venezuela Bluster

Rod Dreher flagged Trump’s bizarre hint that military intervention in Venezuela might be an option. That would be a colossal error, and regional governments have already made it clear that they flatly oppose it:

Standing at Pence’s side in Cartagena after the two met, Santos said he had repeatedly told Pence in no uncertain terms that the U.S. must not even consider military action in response to Venezuela’s crisis.

The two countries are important allies, Santos said. “But since friends have to tell each other the truth, I have told Vice President Pence that the possibility of a military intervention shouldn’t even be considered, neither in Colombia nor in Latin America,” Santos said through a translator. “America is a continent of peace. It is the land of peace. Let us preserve it as such.”

An armed U.S. intervention in Venezuela would be the worst possible response to the country’s serious crisis, and it would be another completely unnecessary and unjustified intervention that serves no American interests, so it is not surprising that this administration is bringing it up publicly. Even talking about U.S. intervention is a gift to Maduro and his allies, who desperately need the distraction that it readily provides.

Trump’s latest reckless talk is another example of the administration’s ongoing dysfunction. A week before Trump made his reckless threat, his National Security Advisor was explicitly saying the opposite:

The threat of military intervention would also seem to contradict the advice of Trump’s top national security adviser. Citing the resentment stirred in Latin America by the long U.S. history of military interventions in the region, General H.R. McMaster said recently that he didn’t want to give Maduro any ammunition to blame the “Yankees” for the “tragedy” that has befallen the oil-rich nation.

Once again, foreign governments will struggle to know what the real U.S. position on this question is when they have the president sayings things that are completely at odds with what his officials are saying. Once again, Trump makes what everyone hopes to be empty threats, and the rest of the administration is left to handle the fallout from the latest blunder. Meanwhile allied and cooperative governments rush to distance themselves from what they are guessing could be the U.S. position, and that needlessly undermines efforts to present a unified regional front to the ongoing crisis in Venezuela.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

No time for Kurdish independence. Adile Shamoo details the obstacles to an independent Kurdistan.

Congress, Afghanistan is your Vietnam. Andrew Bacevich chides Congress for its failure to stop the failed war in Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia is trying to remake the Middle East in its image. Michael Horton reviews the history of destructive Saudi influence and reckless Saudi adventurism.

The game is over and North Korea has won. Jeffrey Lewis explains why “the window for denuclearizing North Korea, by diplomacy or by force, has closed.”

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Trump Continues His Dangerous North Korea Rhetoric

The efforts of Trump’s Cabinet officials to do damage control after his “fire and fury” rhetoric were wasted:

“Frankly, the people who were questioning that statement — was it too tough? Maybe it wasn’t tough enough,” Trump said. “They’ve been doing this to our country for a long time, for many years, and it’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries. So, if anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.”

Since Trump is preoccupied with the appearance of strength and “toughness,” it is not surprising that this is how he judges his own statements. It doesn’t register with him that many people were “questioning” his previous threat because it was wildly irresponsible and reckless, but only because it was “too tough.” So he made another threat that “things will happen to them like they never thought possible.” Of course, the more that Trump makes public threats, the more he boxes himself in and blocks himself off from being able to accept a diplomatic compromise. Given Trump’s disdain for diplomacy, that may be on purpose, or it may simply be another example of his ineptitude, but with each new episode of posturing he makes a negotiated solution less likely.

Perhaps the most dangerous part of Trump’s latest statement is his assumption that “it’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries,” as if North Korea has been running roughshod over all of us until now. He doesn’t see that he has taken a dangerous situation and made it even more so, but imagines that he is “sticking up” for everyone against a bully by issuing alarming threats that do nothing but worry most Americans and our allies.

Update: Trump compounded his errors earlier this morning:

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North Korea and the Nuclear Deal

Jeffrey Lewis states something obvious that many people in the U.S. don’t want to admit:

There are really two assessments in the Post’s report. One, dated July 28, is that the intelligence community — not just the Defense Intelligence Agency, contrary to what you may have heard — “assesses North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles.” The other assessment, published earlier in July, stated that North Korea had 60 nuclear weapons — higher than the estimates usually given in the press. Put them together, though, and its pretty clear that the window for denuclearizing North Korea, by diplomacy or by force, has closed [bold mine-DL].

These judgments are front-page news, but only because we’ve been living in collective denial.

In response to the recent U.N. Security Council vote, North Korea’s government stated that it would not negotiate over its nuclear or missile programs. The assumption that seems to be behind Trump administration policy is that they can be cajoled into doing this, and furthermore that they can be pressured into making concessions on these issues before talks begin. The administration is laboring under the delusion that it is still possible to persuade North Korea to give up on things that its government considers essential to its security. If anything, the heightened tensions and increased pressure in recent months have just confirmed their leadership in the belief that they need their nuclear weapons and missiles more than ever. Needless to say, talking about raining down “fire and fury” on them isn’t going to make them more likely to compromise on this point.

One of the more common hawkish refrains about North Korea is that “diplomacy has been tried and it failed,” but this ignores that North Korea acquired nuclear weapons in response to some of the same pressure tactics that hawks wanted to use in lieu of the nuclear deal with Iran. There was a diplomatic agreement in place that had succeeded in limiting North Korea’s nuclear program, but the Bush administration wasn’t satisfied with it. They blew up the agreement, and North Korea withdrew from the NPT and tested its first nuclear weapon soon thereafter. North Korea is a cautionary tale about what happens when hard-liners in Washington prefer to scrap an imperfect but working nonproliferation agreement in favor of pursuing the fantasy of forcing the other side’s total capitulation. It is why we should appreciate the successful nuclear deal with Iran, and it is why much-derided diplomatic engagement with North Korea is the best way to reduce tensions and manage the new reality bequeathed to us by short-sighted hard-liners over a decade ago.

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North Korea and the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy Dysfunction

Tillerson’s attempts to reassure Americans following Trump’s incendiary rhetoric on North Korea do not seem very reassuring:

“I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” Mr. Tillerson said as his plane stopped to refuel in Guam, the very island that North Korea threatened to target. He added, “Nothing I have seen and nothing I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

It is understandable that Tillerson wants to back away from the alarming rhetoric that the president used earlier this week, but this points to the key problem with the rhetoric and reminds us of the slapdash, dysfunctional way that this administration conducts its foreign policy. If Americans should “have no concerns about this particular rhetoric,” neither should North Korea, and so Trump’s threat was meaningless bluster that should never have been uttered in public. The U.S. shouldn’t make threats that it isn’t prepared to carry out, but threatening to attack North Korea is a deranged thing to do in any case, so there is no excuse for what Trump did. The trouble here isn’t just that Trump made an irresponsible and dangerous threat that he would have to be out of his mind to follow through on, but he still doesn’t grasp why he shouldn’t have done it:

For his part, Mr. Trump seemed pleased with the uproar caused by his remarks, and was in good spirits on Wednesday.

Unfortunately, Tillerson’s reassurances con’t carry as much weight when we know that the president didn’t coordinate this statement with anyone else, and none of his national security officials expected him to say anything like this. We have seen how Tillerson and Trump repeatedly contradict one another on various issues, so it is never clear when we should take Tillerson’s statements as a reliable guide to what U.S. policy is at any given moment.

When foreign governments already doubt Tillerson speaks for the president, it hardly helps when he has to minimize or dismiss the content of what the president says because the president’s statements are so irresponsible and inflammatory. Tillerson reinterpreted Trump’s obvious threat of attack to mean that “the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime on the U.S. unquestionable ability to defend itself . . . and its allies,” but in order to believe that you have to ignore everything Trump said, and that is what Tillerson is asking us to do.

This is part of a worrisome pattern with how U.S. foreign policy is run now: administration officials aren’t kept in the loop, the president doesn’t consult with them ahead of time, and he throws rhetorical bombs that then force them to clean up the mess that he creates. Maybe it will be a random insult directed at an ally, maybe it will be a reckless threat against an adversary, or maybe it will be an unnecessary intervention in a foreign crisis. None of these is desirable, but the bigger problem is that Trump is making it all up on his own off the cuff without any advance warning to the rest of the government or preparation for the likely consequences. That would be bad enough if Trump actually knew something about any of the things he is talking about, but his impulsiveness is matched only by his remarkable lack of understanding of the foreign policy issues in question.

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The U.S. Is Deeply Complicit in the Wrecking of Yemen

Jonah Shepp does a fine job summarizing the destruction caused by the war on Yemen and U.S. complicity in that destruction:

Both of these crises are entirely man-made. The famine in Yemen is not a consequence of drought or crop failure — indeed, in recent decades Yemen has shifted most of its agricultural land to growing the stimulant drug qat and other cash crops, and imports almost 90 percent of its food. Rather, the famine is the intentional result of a two-year blockade imposed on the country by Saudi Arabia, with the help of its allies, including the U.S., in a deliberate effort to starve the rebel-held areas into submission. The ruthless siege tactics of the Saudi-led coalition are also directly to blame for the cholera outbreak. Saudi Arabia has targeted civilian areas with its bombs, destroying vital infrastructure like hospitals and water systems [bold mine-DL]. Dr. Homer Venters, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights, says we are witnessing the “weaponization of disease” in Yemen, as well as in Syria.

I recommend reading the entire article. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with virtually everything he mentions, but it is very well done. It is always good when the war and humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen get more coverage, but unfortunately Shepp’s article is notable for being one of the very few pieces of commentary on the war in recent months. It also stands out for being one of the very few pieces that holds the Saudi-led coalition and their Western backers responsible for causing most of the damage to the country.

As Shepp goes on to explain, one reason that the U.S. can get away with enabling these disasters is that there continues to be remarkably little coverage of the war and its effects. Because of that, there is little awareness of the U.S. role and hardly any pressure on the government to change its policy. The Saudis and their allies have sought to make it very difficult for foreign journalists and human rights activists to enter the country, but even without their interference the level of outside interest in the conflict remains quite low despite the severity of the humanitarian crises that it has created.

Shepp says that the “U.S. cannot sidestep its own complicity in this carnage,” but that doesn’t stop our government from trying to do just that. One of the more infuriating tactics of U.S. officials from both the Obama and Trump administrations has been to pretend that the U.S. isn’t party to the conflict, doesn’t have much influence over the Saudi-led coalition, and supposedly favors a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Just the other day, PRI published a report that quoted the current U.S. ambassador as saying that “we don’t have leverage” with Riyadh. This is pathetic excuse-making at its worst. It dresses up the choice of not using the leverage Washington definitely has as if our government had none at all to use.

One recurring theme over the last two and a half years of U.S. support for the atrocious war on Yemen is that most of the U.S. officials can’t or won’t defend U.S. policy or the coalition war effort, and so they keep hiding behind a made-up version of events that they can present to audiences back home. Thus our current ambassador incredibly claims that “the conflict in Yemen is not a conflict between Saudis and Yemenis.” I’m sure that would come as news to the Yemenis that come under regular aerial attack from Saudi-led coalition planes and the millions of people being starved by the Saudi-led blockade. Minimizing even Saudi involvement in their own intervention is what our officials are reduced to doing, perhaps because the alternative of acknowledging their culpability and ours for destroying Yemen is too embarrassing for them.

The wrecking and starvation of Yemen are the result of more than two years of deliberate coalition policy with the full backing of our government. It is probably the only Obama-era policy that Trump has no intention of undoing. That reminds us that this policy is the product of reflexive, bipartisan support for bad client governments in that part of the world. Because Washington continues to indulge those clients, our government has made the U.S. partly responsible for creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis that threatens the lives of millions of innocents.

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Trump’s Dangerous ‘Fire and Fury’ Rhetoric

Trump made a very serious threat earlier today:

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the U.S.,” the president said. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state,” he continued, referring apparently to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Incendiary rhetoric is the last thing that the U.S. needs in its dealings with North Korea. Making a threat like this is irresponsible in several ways. It is intentionally provocative, and that will make it more difficult to reduce tensions. It is needlessly alarming to allies and gives them reason to fear that the U.S. might act recklessly at their expense. It seems to commit the U.S. to taking drastic actions in response to North Korean rhetoric, which puts the U.S. in the absurd position of either backing up the president’s mindless bluster or climbing down publicly. Despite repeatedly criticizing Obama’s “red line” in Syria, Trump has drawn a much bigger, more consequential line and dared North Korea to cross it. Knowing the North Korean leadership’s track record, it is almost certain that they will call what we have to hope is nothing more than Trump’s bluff.

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The Enormous Folly of Arming Ukraine

Casey Michel responds to Michael Brendan Dougherty’s case against arming Ukraine. This is the core of his argument, and it is remarkably unpersuasive:

Just like the current sanctions regime, which signals a Western unity in the face of Russian revanchism, the delivery of anti-tank weaponry to Kiev would signal America’s commitment to the post-Cold War European order and its international norms, which Moscow continues to threaten.

In other words, there is no compelling military reason to do this, and no U.S. security interests are advanced by it, but it sends a “signal.” That is not a good enough reason to provide weapons to one side in an ongoing conflict. As the Post reported last week, sending the Ukrainian government anti-tank missiles doesn’t make much sense:

But it remains unclear what, if anything, the delivery of an unknown number of Javelins could do to alter a battle that has mostly been relegated to artillery bombardment and nighttime skirmishes in no man’s land.

“This idea doesn’t flow from a policy or strategy” and may point to a political decision rather than military necessity, said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Ukrainian conflict and a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.

The only reason to provide these weapons is if the U.S. wants to encourage Ukraine’s government to go on the offensive. Leonid Bershidsky explained this last week:

Two years after both sides have largely kept to existing demarcation lines (minor encroachments aside), it is militarily unnecessary to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons unless the U.S. wants to encourage it to try to reclaim the “people’s republics.” [bold mine-DL] That would be a mistake. Though Russia doesn’t have enough resources to take over and hold Ukraine while still staying on the lookout for other military threats, it has plenty of money, firepower and determination to defend the separatist statelets. Giving them up would mean the end of Putin’s aura of invincibility, leaving him vulnerable at home and overseas.

Charles Kupchan made a similar point about this yesterday:

But the result would likely be the opposite — an escalation in the conflict that would lead to further losses of Ukraine’s territory and compromise its political stability. Russia enjoys insurmountable military superiority over Ukraine. The United States should not encourage Ukraine to engage in an escalatory confrontation with Russia. Washington knows full well that Ukraine cannot prevail.

While supporters of arming Ukraine want to send a “signal” of commitment to European order by “raising the cost” for Russia (i.e., killing Russians), the effect would be to cause more instability and violence mostly at Ukraine’s expense. If this is what constitutes “help” for Ukraine, Ukraine is better off without it. On top of that, our major European allies are opposed to this option, because they fear the escalation of the conflict that would likely follow from it. It is more than a little ridiculous for the U.S. to take actions in defense of “European order” that most Europeans oppose. Far from demonstrating “Western unity,” sending arms to Ukraine would highlight sharp disagreements within the alliance about how to respond to the conflict. Indeed, what unity there is on Ukraine could be jeopardized if the U.S. went ahead over the objections of our allies. Kupchan comments on this as well:

Europeans are already on edge due to Congress’s recent sanctions legislation, which imposes measures not coordinated with the European Union and that have the potential to cause undue harm to European companies. If Washington decides to head off on its own and send lethal weapons to Ukraine, solidarity on Ukraine may well come to end.

There is also potential danger for the U.S. and its allies in doing this:

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

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

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

If the U.S. sends weapons with the intent of “raising the cost” for Russia in Ukraine (i.e., killing their soldiers and proxies), Russia could do the same thing to endanger U.S. forces in Syria, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. If the U.S. is going to risk that sort of reaction, there has to be a much more compelling reason than sending a “signal.” There isn’t one, and that’s why arming Ukraine would be an act of stupendous folly.

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Georgia Shouldn’t (and Won’t) Be a NATO Member

Will Ruger noticed that Pence repeated the pledge to bring Georgia into NATO during his visit there last week:

Pence stated, “President Trump and the United States stand firmly behind the 2008 NATO Bucharest statement which made it clear that Georgia will, someday, become a member.”

Since this week marks the ninth anniversary of the August 2008 war, it is worth remembering that the commitment made at the Bucharest summit earlier that year significantly added to the tensions between Russia and Georgia. If it had been up to George W. Bush, Georgia and Ukraine would have both received Membership Action Plans, but even the promise of future membership was dangerously provocative. Promising that Georgia would one day become a member of the alliance alarmed Moscow and gave false encouragement to the Georgian government.

Combined with other expressions of U.S. support for Georgia during the Bush years, this commitment by the alliance led then-President Saakashvili to believe that the U.S. and other Western powers would come to Georgia’s aid in the event of a conflict. He recklessly escalated the low-level conflict in South Ossetia and triggered a war with Russia by shelling Tskhinvali, where Russian troops were stationed in a supposed “peacekeeping” role. That attack provided Russia with the pretext to invade. The rhetorical support for Georgia proved to be meaningless, and the war drove home how big of a liability Georgia would be as an ally.

As a result of the war, Russia recognized the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, thus making their reintegration into Georgia much less likely than it was before the war. If Georgia’s NATO aspirations were fanciful before the 2008 war, they became preposterous after it. Reviving talk of Georgia’s future NATO membership today is irresponsible and dangerous. It is also cruel to keep giving Georgia more false encouragement that it will be able to join the alliance at some point. It isn’t going to happen, and it does no one any good to keep pretending otherwise.

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The Post Gives the Saudi Ambassador a Free Pass

This interview with Prince Khaled bin Salman, the new Saudi ambassador to the U.S., is a frustrating example of how little scrutiny and criticism the Saudis tend to face in Western media. The ambassador is naturally going to recite his government’s talking points, and no one expects anything else, so it is up to the interviewer to press him on the subjects where he dissembles or misleads the audience. On the whole, that never happens, and the Post‘s readership isn’t much more informed than they were at the beginning.

For instance, when the ambassador refers repeatedly to Iranian “expansionism” in the region, it would have been fair for the interviewer to ask for examples of said expansionism or to point out that it is his government that is waging a war against one of its neighbors in a transparent bid to install a puppet ruler. Khaled bin Salman criticizes Iran’s support for terrorism, but he doesn’t face any questions about the role that the Saudi-led war on Yemen has had in strengthening Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or the collaboration between AQAP forces and the coalition during the war.

The war on Yemen is addressed briefly, but it is discussed in a way that allows the ambassador to recite the Saudi propaganda version of the war without challenge. The ambassador asserts that the Houthis must “become part of Yemen, not part of Iran.” Instead of pushing back on this obvious bit of nonsense by observing that Iran’s role in the conflict has been negligible or that the Houthis aren’t actually Iranian proxies, the interviewer just moves on to the next question. The coalition blockade led by the Saudis and the enormous humanitarian catastrophe that the ambassador’s government has helped to create go entirely unmentioned. The words famine and cholera are nowhere to be found in the excerpts, and the indiscriminate bombing campaign likewise doesn’t rate a question.

That kid-gloves approach may have been a condition of being granted the interview, or maybe it wasn’t, but either way the ambassador wasn’t forced to answer for his government’s outrageous policies. The result is that the Saudi ambassador is given a prominent platform to spread misinformation without any real accountability, and that makes it that much easier for his government to get away with their appalling treatment of Yemen.

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The Exceptionally Weak Case for Kurdistan

Shlomo Ben-Ami urges the Trump administration to back Kurdish independence. His reasoning seems especially weak here:

As the experience in Yugoslavia showed, when ethnic or religious cleavages explode, the most effective path to peace may well be separation. And a Kurdish state has a real chance of thriving: an independent Kurdistan could manage to combine natural-resource wealth with a tradition of stable and pragmatic governance, thereby creating a sustainable democracy. This would amount to a win for pro-Western forces in the Middle East.

Applying “the experience in Yugoslavia” to other parts of the world is wrongheaded in a few ways. For one thing, the “experience in Yugoslavia” shows that the government that is losing control of territory will violently oppose secessionist movements. It may eventually lose, but not before hundreds of thousands of people have died and many more have been forced to flee. For another, ethnic and religious cleavages don’t simply “explode.” They are usually ignited on purpose by demagogues that want to exploit those cleavages to their advantage. Ben-Ami thinks the U.S. should help set off the explosion in this case. That is typical of Western advocates of partition-as-panacea, but it is irresponsible and dangerous.

Ben-Ami asserts that “Iraq is effectively an Iranian trusteeship, not a US ally.” That is an exaggeration, but if it were true that would make the case for an independent Kurdistan even weaker. If Iraq were little more than an “Iranian trusteeship,” do you suppose Iran would accept having a large part of its territory to be turned into a new state? No, they would back the Iraqi government in its efforts to retain that territory. Since Ben-Ami frames the creation of Kurdistan as an explicitly anti-Iranian maneuver, that suggests that Iranian hostility to the new state would be even more likely.

Backing the creation of a new state at the expense of another will inevitably produce more violence and upheaval, and when that conflict is defined primarily in ethnic or religious terms that violence will take the form of massacres and driving people from their homes. What Ben-Ami fails to mention is that the “path to peace” brought about through separation typically involves a great deal of bloodletting and forcible expulsion of populations. Even when this “works” as intended, it usually creates dysfunctional statelets that are held hostage by corrupt and abusive leaders.

The KRG is already notoriously corrupt and its leaders semi-authoritarian at best, so the idea that it would become a “sustainable democracy” is little more than wishful thinking. Regardless, U.S. policy in Iraq over the last fourteen years should prove that the U.S. has neither the competence nor the necessary political influence to secure an independent Kurdistan without causing a new destabilizing conflict. The U.S. shouldn’t be in the business of helping to carve up existing states, and in general partition is a terrible “solution” that should be attempted only as an absolute last resort.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Is expanding the U.S. military presence in Syria legal? Sharmine Narwani explains that the U.S. is violating international law by continuing to have a military presence inside Syria.

The UAE: a client and a headache. The Washington Post reports on the UAE’s regional ambitions and the strains these have placed on the relationship with the U.S.

The persistence of falsehoods about the nuclear deal. Paul Pillar counters the misleading and dishonest arguments against the nuclear deal with Iran.

Sanctions as feckless disapproval. Paul Pillar criticizes the new sanctions bill that targets Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

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