Daniel Larison

Clinton’s Bad Foreign Policy Record

Hillary Clinton is having fun at Iowa voters’ expense:

Hillary Clinton would like Iowa Democratic caucus-goers to consider her entire foreign policy record, not just her vote to go to war in Iraq, which she admits was a mistake.

I’m not sure why Clinton thinks that considering her entire record would eliminate voters’ doubts about her foreign policy judgment. She seems to think that it will work if she recites the phrase “smart power” often enough and skips over the details of the policies she supported. If Democratic voters actually did take her entire record into account, they would find that she is frequently inclined to commit the U.S. to unnecessary interventions and to take sides in foreign conflicts where the U.S. has little or nothing at stake. The Libyan war is the most obvious and telling example of this from her time as Secretary of State, but she was also an advocate of escalation in Afghanistan, she was an early supporter of sending arms to the Syrian opposition, and during her last presidential campaign she was generally more hawkish than Obama on all issues. Since he has taken the U.S. into at least two wars of choice and nearly started a third, we should expect something even worse from another Clinton administration. Clinton talks up the importance of the “slow, hard, boring work of diplomacy,” but during her own time at State she wasn’t involved in much of that. Contrary to what she’s saying now, she opted for the quick and easy option of backing military action for regime change with no plan for what would come next in Libya.

If we judge Clinton by her record at State, we find that the policies that she backed were some of the worst blunders that Obama made, and the intervention in Libya that she is most responsible for was an outright disaster. The Iraq war vote was just one in a series of poor decisions Clinton has made. She keeps ending up on the wrong side of these issues because she typically takes the more hawkish position in any given debate. That’s what her record shows, which is why I suspect that she doesn’t really want voters to pay attention to it.

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The Outrageous U.S. Role in the War on Yemen

Rolling Stone reports on Saudi war crimes in Saada province in northern Yemen. Here the report mentions how the U.S. role in the campaign is perceived by Yemenis:

Many of Saudi Arabia’s weapons and aircraft were purchased from the U.S. We have encountered remnants of both conventional and cluster bombs likely made in the U.S.A., including BU-97 cluster bomb submunitions, which were transferred to Saudi Arabia by the U.S. in the Nineties. The U.S. has also provided both in-flight refueling and targeting intelligence to bombing missions. As a result, there is a widespread perception among the Yemenis that the American government is equally responsible for the air war.

If the U.S. isn’t “equally” responsible for the war, it certainly deserves a substantial share of the blame. Yemenis have good reason to hold the U.S. responsible for the war that has devastated their country. The U.S. is particularly responsible for the campaign’s attacks on civilian areas because it is actively aiding the Saudis in their operations. U.S. officials are understandably embarrassed to talk about this. Micah Zenko flagged a remarkable recent statement from the State Department’s spokesman. When asked about reports of Saudi war crimes and the targeting of civilian areas, the spokesman did his best to dodge the question:

We remain in close touch with the Saudi Government regarding a wide range of issues. With respect to Yemen, I’d refer you to them for discussion of their operational details. That’s really for – that’s really for the Saudi Government to speak to. And we take all accounts and reports of civilian casualties seriously, and again, have been very clear about our desire to see a humanitarian pause.

When pressed on the current level of assistance that the U.S. is providing, the spokesman again ducked the question and referred the reporter to the Pentagon. The U.S. is facilitating a war that has killed and wounded thousands of civilians, but wants to make it seem as if it has no responsibility for the campaign’s effects. U.S. officials claim that our government favors an end to hostilities, but U.S. assistance with the campaign continues unabated. Despite professions of “concern” about the civilian casualties caused by the bombing campaign, clear evidence of repeated indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas hasn’t altered the U.S. position one bit. One of the most maddening things about U.S. involvement in this war is that it has absolutely nothing to do with U.S. security, and it has been done largely to try to placate a group of horrible authoritarian clients by indulging their paranoid fears.

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The Humanitarian Disaster in Yemen

Julian Harneis, Wikimedia Commons

The death toll from the bombing campaign in Yemen continues to rise:

Saudi-led coalition air strikes and clashes killed at least 176 fighters and civilians in Yemen on Monday, residents and media run by the Houthi movement said, the highest daily toll since the Arab air offensive began more than three months ago.

The United Nations has been pushing for a halt to air raids and intensified fighting that began on March 26. More than 3,000 people have been killed since then as the Arab coalition tries stop the Houthis spreading across the country from the north.

Another humanitarian “pause” would be welcome news, but like the last one it will have little effect on the country’s woes if the blockade remains in place and the bombing campaign resumes a few days later. These latest strikes have made it that much harder to get the belligerents to agree to a brief cease-fire, so it is unclear whether the “pause” will happen at all. The needs of Yemeni civilians have only grown more acute since the last “pause” in May, and there are now over a million people displaced inside Yemen, so a few days’ halt to the fighting will be insufficient to bring in and distribute the aid that the civilian population requires. Yemen needs an end to the blockade and a prolonged cease-fire if the humanitarian crisis is to be properly addressed.

Unfortunately, the prospect of resolving the conflict through diplomatic channels seems more remote than ever. The warring parties appear to have no interest in compromising, and there seems to be no pressure from Washington on its clients to get them to call off the attack. At the end of a Wall Street Journal report on the Obama administration’s plans for addressing regional conflicts following a nuclear deal with Iran, Yemen’s war is included as an afterthought. The report states that “White House officials are also considering ways to work with Tehran toward a diplomatic resolution,” but says nothing about ending or curtailing U.S. aid for the war.

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Rubio vs. Cuba

Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock

Unsurprisingly, Marco Rubio is not very popular in Cuba:

“If Marco Rubio becomes president, we’re done for,” said Héctor Montiel, 66, offering a vigorous thumbs-down as he sat on the Havana street where Mr. Rubio’s father grew up. “He’s against Cuba in every possible way. Hillary Clinton understands much more the case of Cuba. Rubio and these Republicans, they are still stuck in 1959.”

Rubio dismisses these criticisms as proof that he must be “on to something” in his dead-ender opposition to normalizing relations, but it is really a sign that his preferred policies are wildly at odds with what most Cubans want to see change in the U.S.-Cuba relationship. Consider the statement quoted above. Rubio’s Cuba policy isn’t perceived as being “stuck in 1959″ because his position has been misrepresented or distorted. One would only need to listen to or read one of Rubio’s statements on the subject to see how outdated and hard-line his views on Cuba are. If many Cubans have a bad opinion of Rubio, it seems reasonable to assume that this is because they understand his position very well and reject it.

This might not matter very much if it weren’t for the hard-liners’ conceit that they are opposing normalization and supporting the embargo for the sake of the Cuban people. It’s an odd and ultimately ridiculous position, but it is one that hawks frequently take when trying to justify their support for coercive and antagonistic policies. We see something similar from Iran hawks that want to pretend that they are somehow doing the Iranian people a favor by pushing for even stricter sanctions. Hawks presume to speak on behalf of the people they are helping to impoverish, and when presented with evidence that most of the population hates their policies they dismiss it as proof of “indoctrination.” This is consistent with the hawkish habit of boasting about their concern for the people in another country while supporting policies designed to hurt them.

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Why Is the War on Yemen Being Ignored?

Julian Harneis, Wikimedia Commons

David Wearing succinctly describes the war on Yemen:

It is a case of the wealthiest Arab states joining forces to bomb and starve the poorest, with the assistance of two of the world’s richest and most powerful countries.

One of those two is the U.S., and the other is Britain. Just as the Obama administration has backed the Saudi attack from the start, Cameron’s government pledged support “in every practical way short of engaging in combat” once the campaign had begun. Remember that this is the same government that has supposedly presided over British “retreat” from the world. Far from “retreating,” Cameron’s government has lined up behind yet another unnecessary and despicable war that has nothing to do with British security.

Wearing notes that the war and Britain’s role in supporting it have gone largely unnoticed in Britain. Sophia Dingli has noticed the same thing:

These awful figures can only convey a glimpse of the suffering endured by Yemenis on a daily basis. The point of bringing them all together, as argued above, is to highlight the relative silence that has greeted this war as compared to other, similar conflicts.

I don’t know exactly why the war on Yemen has been mostly ignored in the West, but my guess is that it doesn’t attract the same criticism or attention as similar conflicts elsewhere because there are no Western forces directly involved in the fighting. The U.S. and Britain are facilitating the Saudis’ campaign, and they are undeniably implicated in the damage it has done, but they are just far enough removed from it that their involvement is mostly allowed to escape scrutiny. That is the difference between a Western-backed intervention and a Western intervention: the latter tends to provoke strong reactions on both sides of the debate, and the former seems to produce shrugs or no reaction at all. The U.S. and Britain are arming and fueling the Saudis’ campaign, but that usually receives minimal attention and sometimes goes unmentioned all together. Because the Saudis and most of the other governments in their coalition are U.S. clients, there may also be greater reluctance to cover a war that can only embarrass the client governments and their patron. Insofar as Western media outlets have bought into the Saudis’ dishonest framing of the war as a struggle against Iranian “expansionism,” there may be more sympathy in the West for the ostensible goal of the war and therefore less inclination to condemn it. Whatever the reason for it, the lack of attention is making it much easier for the U.S. and Britain to continue their disgraceful support for an indefensible war.

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Rubio and the War on Yemen

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

A.J. Delgado lists the many places where Marco Rubio wants the U.S. to intervene for the current issue of TAC:

But wait, there’s more! Fifth is Yemen, where he’s also advocated intervention. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Rubio suggested that U.S. support for a fight against Shi’ite rebels there should not only include “U.S. logistical and air support” but “I think ultimately you could embed Special Operations Forces.”

Rubio’s support for a larger role U.S. role in the war on Yemen is in some respects the most revealing and damning position he has taken during his four years in the Senate. U.S. backing for this war is probably the most indefensible thing that the current administration has ever done, so naturally Rubio thinks it is a good idea. The biggest problem Rubio has with Obama’s policy is that he has not offered the Saudis enough assistance as they batter and starve an entire country. Rubio backs the unnecessary and atrocious Saudi-led war on Yemen, and his only objection is that the U.S. is not more deeply involved in it. Just as he did during the Libyan war, Rubio sees nothing wrong in helping to wreck another country and destabilize the surrounding region. The only difference if he were president is that more Americans would be put at risk in the process.

Like many hawks and neoconservatives, Rubio likes to emphasize the importance of “values” in his foreign policy arguments. His position on the war on Yemen is valuable in showing us how meaningless that rhetoric is. He likes to say that “moral clarity” is one of the “pillars” of his “doctrine,” but he has nothing critical to say when an abusive authoritarian U.S. client attacks a neighboring country and imposes a blockade that has been starving the civilian population of basic necessities and which is now creating famine conditions. That is what the proponents of “moral clarity” support in practice.

It’s worth adding here that Rubio’s Yemen position is different from that of most other members of Congress only in that he is eager to express his approval of the Saudis’ disastrous intervention while the rest are content to say nothing. Unlike most of his colleagues, Rubio is genuinely obsessed with foreign policy issues and has extraordinarily hawkish views about most of them, so there is no question that we would have an even more overactive foreign policy if he were somehow to be elected. Today he wants more U.S. involvement in Yemen, but tomorrow there will be another conflict that he will also think the U.S. “must” join in the name of “leadership,” and none of will have anything to do with the security of the United States. That’s the promise of Rubio’s “new American century.”

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Corker and Congress’ Clumsy Meddling on Iran

Bob Corker is annoyed that the administration is responding to the incentives created by his own unnecessary piece of legislation on Iran:

The U.S. shouldn’t rush to finish a nuclear deal with Iran simply to meet a deadline that would allow a shorter congressional review period, said Senator Bob Corker, chairman of a committee that will be pivotal in deciding an agreement’s fate in Congress.

Corker’s complaint drives home how useless and tiresome Congressional meddling in the Iran negotiations has been. Corker agreed to a thirty-day review period if the text of an agreement was presented to Congress by July 9. That was part of the compromise crafted to ensure that Congress would have a role in the process. Congress didn’t need to involve itself at this stage, but it did it anyway. The deadlines were set with the goal of curtailing the negotiations, but now that this could lead to the production of a final agreement that they were never going to support the Iran hawks don’t want the negotiations to conclude.

Iran hawks believed at the time that the prospect of a longer review period for a deal reached after July 9 would put greater pressure on Iran’s negotiators to make more concessions. Now that it has become clear that their meddling backfired and has put more pressure on the P5+1 to wrap things up quickly, the same people don’t want the negotiators to “rush” into anything. Iran hawks in Congress have contributed nothing of value to the negotiations, but they have interfered enough to strengthen the hand of Iran’s negotiators in the final stages of the talks.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

How not to write about Iran. Ishaan Tharoor offers a guide in how not to talk about Iran.

The conclusion of the nuclear talks. Paul Pillar comments on the closing stages of the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

The three countries that still don’t have normal relations with the U.S. Matt Schiavenza explains why the U.S. has no ties with Bhutan.

The town where the sun doesn’t rise. Kari Leibowitz describes her research into the winter experience of the people of Tromso, Norway.

The war on Yemen is Saudi Arabia’s real embarrassment. Frederick Deknatel reviews some of the revelations in the leaked Saudi cables, but draws attention to the much bigger embarrassment in the failed intervention against its neighbor.

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Cruz’s Risible Cuba Demagoguery

Many Republican candidates were unhappy with the announcement that the U.S. and Cuba will be opening embassies as part of the normalization process, but Ted Cruz wins the prize for the most absurd reaction:

Following the announcement by President Obama that the United States will open an embassy in Cuba, thereby taking a final step to forming normal relations with the Castro regime, Texas Senator Ted Cruz slammed the decision as a “slap in the face of Israel.”

Opening an embassy in Havana has nothing to do with Israel one way or the other, so it’s curious that Cruz wants to link it to the question of where the U.S. embassy in Israel should be located. I suppose Cruz wants to use the “pro-Israel” rhetoric to deflect attention from the fact that he opposes the restoration of ties with Cuba, which is broadly popular across in the U.S. regardless of party affiliation, but if so it’s not a very smart objection. The U.S. doesn’t (yet) acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and so it shouldn’t relocate its embassy to the city before the outstanding issues regarding the city’s status have been resolved.

Cruz’s real objection here is to normalization of relations with Cuba, which would necessarily involve opening an embassy as part of having full diplomatic relations. He doesn’t want the normalization to proceed, but there aren’t actually any good arguments why it shouldn’t. His pretense that he “stands” with the people of Cuba by opposing normalization is risible. Almost all Cubans welcome better relations between the U.S. and Cuba. A broad majority of Americans supports the same thing. Cruz is rejecting what Cubans and Americans say they want. The reference to Israel is a ridiculous attempt to distract from the main issue, which is that Cruz is opposed to something that the vast majority in both countries favors.

The other part of Cruz’s statement that stands out is his fixation on this idea that opening an embassy is a “reward” to the Cuban government, as if we are doing it a favor by increasing U.S. influence in the island. Establishing normal relations isn’t a “reward” to the other government, but offers our government the chance to secure and advance U.S. interests in the other country. It is also possible that establishing normal relations with another state can help to improve understanding and communication between the two nations involved, but that is not the primary purpose of establishing those relations. For some reason, Cruz doesn’t want the U.S. to have that chance to secure its interests, but would prefer instead to hang on to a decades-old antagonism that has done nothing but harm to both countries.

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McConnell and the Iran Hawks’ Loathing of Diplomacy

Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

Mitch McConnell admits that he doesn’t want any nuclear deal with Iran that could be successfully negotiated:

Reaching the best deal acceptable to Iran, rather than actually furthering our goal of ending Iran’s nuclear program [bold mine-DL], is a flawed premise.

This sums up Iran hawks’ objections to the negotiations very well. McConnell and his colleagues aren’t interested in finding the best deal that Iran will accept, because the goal he’s seeking is one that has always been out of reach. The “ending” of Iran’s nuclear program has never been a possible result of these or any other negotiations. There is no deal that the P5+1 could make with Iran that would get it to agree to giving up on its program entirely, so there is no point in trying to “further” that goal. McConnell’s claim that this is “our goal” is disingenuous, but it confirms that there could never be any deal that would satisfy him and other Iran hawks.

The most likely deal that can be reached will restrict and monitor Iran’s nuclear program for more than a decade at least, and in the absence of a deal the program will be under no constraints. Iran hawks continue to agitate against the one thing that might limit the nuclear program that they have been obsessed with for over a decade, and they are so intent on pursuing an impossible goal that they would rather throw away the last two years’ substantial progress rather than accept necessary compromise.

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Getting Iran Wrong

Illustration: Winai Tepsuttinun / shutterstock

Ishaan Tharoor warns against the frequent and misleading stereotyping that shapes a lot of commentary on Iran, including the recent Stavridis article on Iranian “imperial ambitions” that I criticized earlier this week:

“Iran is an ancient civilization with a rich culture that definitely has roots in its old history,” Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi tells WorldViews. “But to stereotype modern Iran and Iranians based on what happened thousands of years ago is wrong.”

Mortazavi argues that you would never see such simplistic, overreaching appraisals of American allies: “Do we view today’s Europe through the affairs of the Vikings? No. Do we look at Saudi Arabia through the lens of its old Islamic Empire when it was taking over the world? No.”

One of several things that’s wrong with trying to understand Iran–or any other country–in this way is that it is bound to obscure many parts of contemporary reality from view and to distort whatever is still visible to such an extent that it is sure to be false. It is no coincidence that the people that tend to indulge in these sorts of arguments most often also happen to be very hawkish on Iran, since they have every incentive to try to use Iran’s ancient history and crude stereotypes about Iranians for the purpose of threat inflation and sowing distrust.

Hawks may be hoping to alarm Western audiences by invoking Iran’s different imperial pasts, but the funny thing is that they are unintentionally highlighting the many significant differences between Iran’s foreign policy over the last two centuries and that of the Achaemenids or Sasanians. When someone is reduced to talking about the imperial designs of Xerxes or Khusrau I, he is trying to distract from the reality that modern Iran has not been trying to conquer foreign lands in a long time.

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The Indefensible War on Yemen Continues


The U.N. is drawing more attention to the disastrous humanitarian crisis created by the Saudi-led war on Yemen:

Pressure is mounting on the Saudi-led military coalition that seeks to stanch a rebellion in Yemen, as aid officials prepare to add Yemen to the ranks of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises and human rights groups point to what may be war crimes.

United Nations officials are expected to declare Yemen a so-called Level 3 — or most severe — humanitarian crisis, as the de facto military blockade on commercial ships restricts the supply of food and fuel into the Arab world’s poorest country, diplomats said Tuesday.

As the article notes later on, the other countries that have received the Level 3 designation are Iraq, Syria, and South Sudan. The difference is that Yemen’s crisis has dramatically worsened in just the last three months, and most of the harm that has been done in this time could have been avoided if there had been no Saudi intervention. Fourteen weeks later, a country that already had serious humanitarian needs has been kicked into the abyss thanks to an unnecessary war that our government continues to support.

In addition to the extraordinary harm the Saudi-led coalition has been doing to the country through its blockade, Human Rights Watch has charged the coalition with possible war crimes in its indiscriminate attacks on Saada province:

Saudi-led coalition air strikes on a rebel stronghold in Yemen have destroyed houses, markets and a school, killing dozens of people in what could amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.

It was fairly clear when they started targeting the whole of Saada province that they were going to be committing war crimes, since they had outrageously declared the entire area to be a military target. This was a flagrant violation of international law, but it didn’t matter to the Saudis, and it seems not to have had any effect on U.S. support for the campaign.

The additional scrutiny of the Saudis’ indefensible war is very welcome, but I wonder if the “mounting” pressure the article describes will have any effect on the intervention. As the article goes on to relate, the U.S. doesn’t even want to admit that the blockade that is starving Yemen should be called a blockade:

The preferred term, as one United Nations Security Council diplomat put it, is a “controlled maritime area.”

It is usually a good sign that a government intends to persist with an indefensible policy when it can’t call things by their proper names. As long as the U.S. can pretend that the blockade strangling Yemen is something else, that makes it a little easier to ignore the effects that the blockade is having. If there is to be any chance of pressuring the Saudis to give up on their failed war, it will need to come from Washington and their other supporters. So far, there is no sign that this is likely to happen. The administration keeps blundering on with its mindless and disgraceful backing for the campaign.

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Christie’s Hawkish Errors

Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

Christie’s announcement speech contained some nonsensical statements on foreign policy that need a brief response. He said:

And in a world that is as dangerous. As dangerous as frightening as I’ve seen it in my lifetime [bold mine-DL], there is only one indispensable force for good in the world. And it is a strong, unequivocal, America, that will lead the world and not be afraid to tell our friends we’ll be with you no matter what [bold mine-DL]. And to tell our adversaries that there are limits to your conduct and America will enforce the limits to that conduct.

This is generic hawkish rhetoric, but it reflects some of the biggest mistakes that hawks make when thinking about foreign policy. First there is the threat inflation. Christie is 53 years old, so he was an adult before the end of the Cold War. The world has only become less dangerous since then, and in most parts of the world it is less dangerous than it has been in generations. So Christie confirms that he is just as bad at assessing foreign threats as his hawkish competitors for the nomination.

The second error is potentially worse, because it implies that Christie would give America’s “friends” a blank check of U.S. support. The U.S. should be prepared to support and defend genuine allies when they need it, but the U.S. does this because the interests of its allies align with its own. When that is not the case, or when an ally or client behaves in an atrocious fashion, the U.S. shouldn’t confuse its interests with theirs, and it shouldn’t enable behavior that is detrimental to U.S. security. The root of this error comes from thinking of allies and clients as “friends” that should be helped regardless of their behavior. That blinds many Americans to the divergent interests that allies and clients inevitably have, and it causes many Americans to conflate their preferences and ours. No international relationship can be one of unconditional support, and that cuts both ways. Just as the U.S. shouldn’t be expected to side with an allied or client government “no matter what,” Washington should not expect its allies and clients to fall in line behind every U.S. policy. That also means that the U.S. shouldn’t feel compelled to “reassure” its allies and clients at every turn when it pursues a policy that they oppose.

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Graham’s Iran Panic

Lindsey Graham reminds us why he and many other Iran hawks should be ignored:

Graham was unequivocal about the Iranian regime and the U.S.-led negotiations over its nuclear program. “I think these guys are religious Nazis with an end-of-days view of their religion and that they’re dangerous as hell,” he said. He attacked the Obama administration for “sitting down and talking to people who’re nuts as if they’re not nuts.” An Iranian nuclear weapon, he said, would be shared with a terrorist organization “at a minimum,” and might be used by Iran itself. “Do they want to kill a lot of us?” he asked. “I think they do.”

Almost everything about Graham’s “analysis” is wrong or very misleading. Many hawks routinely portray other regimes to be more fanatically ideological than they are to make them seem impossible to deter, and they also routinely assume that certain leaders of other regimes are so mad that they would invite their own annihilation. Every time hawks have made this claim, they have been proven wrong. It was once taken for granted by some hard-line anticommunists the Soviets were so committed to their cause that they would invite their own destruction, and then they believed the same thing about Mao’s China when the USSR had demonstrated that it did not desire to commit nuclear suicide. Then it turned out that the Chinese government wasn’t intent on destroying itself, either. It was fairly common in the 1990s and early 2000s to describe Hussein as a “madman” who could not be deterred, and this nonsense was an important part of the Bush administration’s shoddy case for attacking Iraq. Each time these hawks were certain that the other regime was “nuts,” and each time they were just engaged in baseless fear-mongering. All of the regimes that hard-liners have assumed to be so bent on destruction that they could not be deterred have, in fact, been far more concerned with self-preservation and survival.

Graham takes for granted that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be shared with a terrorist organization, but no nuclear-weapons state that has gone to the enormous expense and trouble of building such a weapon would just give one away to a third party that it can’t control. This is especially true since Iran would be blamed for an attack once the weapon was traced back to it. Never mind that a post-deal Iran won’t have a nuclear weapon that it can give away to anyone. Even if Iran acquired such a weapon, it wouldn’t be giving it away. The idea that terrorists would be provided with a nuclear weapon by a pariah regime is one of the more common fears that hawks encourage when talking about proliferation by “rogue” regimes, but it is also one of the most fantastical and least likely to happen. The fact that Graham thinks it is very likely should tell us all we need to know about his grasp of the relevant issues.

It is quite common among Iran hawks to endorse the “martyr-state myth” about Iran’s willingness to usher in its own destruction. That’s a crazy idea, and one for which there is no supporting evidence. It ought to discredit them and undermine their arguments against the nuclear deal, but that never seems to happen.

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Iran’s “Imperial Ambitions” Are Greatly Exaggerated

Illustration: Winai Tepsuttinun / shutterstock

James Stavridis’ argument that Iran is an imperial power relies heavily on very superficial analysis:

We don’t tend to think of today’s Iran as an imperial power, but the Iranians certainly do — indeed, it is woven into their national DNA and cultural outlook.

Whenever someone starts a foreign policy article about another country by talking about a certain trait being “woven into their national DNA,” it’s a safe bet that the author is making a very biased and tendentious argument. Debating Iran policy isn’t the only occasion when analysts indulge in such crude stereotyping and lazy essentialism, but it is more common in this debate than in many others. Stavridis points out that there have been powerful Persian empires that have dominated large parts of the Near East and then asserts that something similar is happening again today. The evidence for contemporary Iran’s “imperial ambitions” is very thin, especially when it comes to Tehran’s ability to realize such ambitions.

Stavridis leans heavily on the assumptions behind the “march of conquest” narrative popularized by Netanyahu:

Iran is deeply and successfully dominating politics in the capitals of four major states in the region from Beirut to Baghdad, Sanaa to Damascus.

It would be much more accurate to say that Iran has significant influence in three of these capitals, but it grossly exaggerates the degree of Iranian power and control to say that they are dominating the politics of these states. The claim about Yemen is extremely misleading, since it accepts at face value the notion that the Houthis are little more than an extension of Iranian power. Even when the government relies on Iranian support against its internal enemies, as it does in Syria and Iraq, that means that Iran is being forced to waste resources to prop up its allies and clients. To the extent that Iran has influence in Damascus and Baghdad, it is being bought at a high price. If we look carefully at Iran’s role in the region, we see that it has been limited to being little more than the patron of Shi’ites and Alawites, and that puts it at odds with most of the region’s governments. That may cause the Saudis and other Gulf states alarm for their own sectarian reasons, but it should tell us that Iran’s regional reach is very limited.

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The Mindless U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

He doesn’t put it quite this way, but Aaron David Miller points out the bad U.S. habit of being pulled into backing its reckless clients’ behavior:

But what’s more intriguing is how Washington tends to buy into policies that appear to serve its friends’ agendas while undermining America’s own.

Nowhere is that principle more clearly demonstrated than in U.S. support for the Saudi campaign to check the advances of the Houthis and their allies in Yemen. In the space of only two months the U.S. has managed to acquiesce in and support a Saudi-driven air campaign that has not worked, alienated more Yemeni actors than it’s converted and turned what had been a principally domestic matter into a regional proxy war. Indeed the Saudis are stuck in Yemen. But so is America.

Miller gets this part mostly right. U.S. assistance for the Saudi-led war on Yemen over the last three months is the product of a foolish desire to “reassure” and “support” client governments even when they are pursuing destructive and reckless policies that ultimately harm U.S. security. The fear in Washington that these useless clients might feel “abandoned” is strong enough to make the U.S. back them up no matter how short-sighted and damaging their actions may be. The interests of the U.S. and the Gulf client states are at odds in both Syria and Yemen, but instead of acknowledging that and acting accordingly the U.S. traps itself into backing dangerous policies that don’t serve any American interests. These clients’ policies are being made more often than not with total disregard for our interests. Clients such as these don’t deserve support or “reassurance,” and it’s embarrassing that Washington is eager to offer both.

How did the U.S. get into this fix? The Obama administration is most responsible for going along and assisting in a military campaign that it didn’t understand, but Congress has contributed to the problem by having said and done nothing about this. The only thing that any members of Congress had to say about the U.S. role in Yemen was that it had been too little and too slow, and there has been no meaningful criticism or opposition to the U.S. role or to the war in general from anyone in either party. Members of both parties buy into the propaganda line that the Saudis are combating Iranian “expansionism,” and as long as they perceive the attack on Yemen to be an “anti-Iranian” effort they have no problem with it or the horrible consequences that the attack has had. If the U.S. is “stuck” with the Saudis in Yemen, that is because our political leaders are embracing the same lie that the Saudis are telling themselves about resisting an Iranian “takeover” of the country. The U.S. could extricate itself very quickly if it simply refused to lend any support to the campaign, but the foolish desire to back our clients up regardless of their actions keeps prevailing.

Miller’s argument goes a bit awry here:

However wrongheaded it’s turning out to be, it’s fairly easy to see why the Saudis launched their campaign against the Houthis. Think about Yemen as within the sphere of a kind of Saudi Monroe Doctrine.

It may be easy to see why the Saudis have launched their campaign (paranoia about Iran, sectarian hostility to any and all Shi’ites, etc.), but “Saudi Monroe Doctrine” is not a very helpful way to think about it. Part of the problem is that Miller is recycling a common misunderstanding of what the Monroe Doctrine was. The key principles of the Monroe Doctrine were respect for the independence and sovereignty of our neighbors and non-interference in their affairs. These were principles we expected the governments of Europe not to violate without incurring our hostility. The meaning of the doctrine was ignored and then completely turned on its head in later decades, but that is what Monroe was proposing. Obviously, Yemen’s independence and sovereignty are annoyances to the Saudis rather than something they wish to respect. Instead of non-interference, Riyadh is very much interested in interfering to reinstall the former president and to exercise influence through him in Yemen. It would be more accurate that the Saudis are engaged in the sort of restoration of authoritarian rule that Monroe was warning Restoration-era European governments against attempting in Latin America.

Miller continues:

Washington is now directly associated, however unfairly, with a humanitarian disaster that has claimed at least 2,500 lives and added to the woes of an already failing state.

Yes, the U.S. is implicated in this, but there’s nothing remotely unfair about it. When a patron directly backs its clients in an attack on another country and endorses the blockade imposed by those clients, it becomes at least partly responsible for the effects of its clients’ actions. If anything, Miller is understating the damage done to Yemen by the war and blockade, which has deprived Yemenis of all basic necessities and has brought many parts of the country to the brink of famine. The U.S. continues to help make all this happen, and to make matters worse it has done it all for nothing.

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Jeb Bush and W.’s Second-Term Foreign Policy

Photo by John Pemble / Flickr

Scott McConnell looks for some sign that Jeb Bush might not be as horrible on foreign policy as he seems to be. He finds one in the latter half of George W. Bush’s second term:

But it is often overlooked that by the middle of his second term, George W. Bush had ceased pursuing a neoconservative foreign policy.

This is partly true from late 2006 on, but the change after the midterms can be exaggerated. While it might be an improvement over the horrible record of the first term, the substance of Bush’s record from the second term is also nothing for advocates of restraint to get excited about. Bush responded to the repudiation of his agenda and his party in the ’06 midterms by ignoring the public’s preferences on Iraq and choosing instead to escalate the war. One can find evidence that some neoconservatives were less than thrilled about some of the administration’s policies late in the second term, especially where Iran and North Korea were concerned, but they were the biggest cheerleaders of the “surge” and they remain the fiercest defenders of the myth that the “surge” was a great success.

Even if the last half of Bush’s second term was not as strongly defined by neoconservative ideological excesses, there were still many issues on which Bush continued to display arrogance and recklessness. It was the second-term Bush who delivered the insane, ideological Second Inaugural, and it was from late 2004/early 2005 that the disastrous so-called “freedom agenda” really got started. Bush’s enthusiasm for this project never really waned, and arguably only intensified as it produced one failure after another. This was the “freedom agenda” that helped Hamas get elected, unwittingly strengthened Hizbullah in Lebanon, empowered a sectarian government in Iraq (a mistake for which Iraq is still paying), and backed a semi-authoritarian ruler in Georgia and a new dictator in Kyrgyzstan in the name of “democracy promotion.” Rice may have prevailed on Bush to back a cease-fire in the Lebanon war, but she was also the one to defend the excesses of that war by declaring that they were the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” That statement reflected the mostly uncritical backing that the U.S. gave to Israel during that war.

During the last two years of the Bush presidency, the administration committed one of its most irresponsible acts by promoting NATO expansion that included Ukraine and Georgia. Fortunately for the U.S., some of our major European allies balked at this at the Bucharest summit, but U.S. support for NATO expansion and for Saakashvili in Georgia nonetheless helped contribute to the increasing tensions between Russia and Georgia that led to the August 2008 war. Even when W. was under more “realist” guidance, he still had terrible judgment. It’s not clear that Bush had learned very much from his earlier blunders by the end of his second term, and so I wouldn’t have any confidence in another Bush administration that was relying on the advice of such a failed president.

As for Jeb Bush, it is true that many neoconservatives are less enamored of him than they are of Rubio, but the same could be have been said of then-Gov. George W. Bush in his contest with John McCain. Like McCain, Rubio offers the neoconservatives the unvarnished, ideologically hard-line candidate they long to have, but as we learned only too well in the 2000s they didn’t need to have a McCain administration to get many of the policies they wanted. Unlike his older brother in the 2000 campaign, however, Jeb Bush isn’t even pretending to support foreign policy restraint of any kind.

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Iran Hawks Still Want to Sabotage a Nuclear Deal

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Politico reports on the latest Senate Republican maneuvers to attempt to wreck a nuclear deal with Iran. This detail stood out:

In a private conversation this spring, Corker told Secretary of State John Kerry he can define his legacy by walking away from a “bad deal.” [bold mine-DL]

If Obama and Kerry now backed out of the negotiations, that would definitely define their “legacy” on foreign policy, but not in the way Corker means. Walking away from the Iran talks now would define Kerry as a failure as Secretary of State, and it would be the most absurd and embarrassing capitulation to hard-liners that Obama has yet made. It’s difficult to take Corker’s warnings seriously when critics of the negotiations are intent on defining any deal that can actually be reached as a “bad deal.” Meanwhile, Corker’s own legislation has made it more likely that Obama will agree to terms that are even less satisfactory to hawkish critics. According to the Corker-Cardin legislation, Congress will have at least 30 days to review the deal if it is presented to them before the 10th of next month, but after that Congress will get 60 days to review it. Fred Kaplan explains:

Congress put this extension in the law to put pressure on Obama to get a deal that its critics might find more palatable, but in fact, it may have the opposite effect. To the extent Obama feels pressured at all, this bill might push him to take a fast deal—to wrap things up if not by Tuesday, then at least before July 10, so that the deal’s critics have only 30 days, not 60, to rally the votes against it. Certainly the Iranians realize this; as a result, they may put off their final concessions, thinking that Obama has a greater incentive to rush. In other words, in their power grab, the congressional critics have, if anything, removed some of the American negotiators’ leverage in the talks. If the critics truly fear that Obama might agree to a less-than-good deal, they have pushed him to do so.

Every time that there has been a “deadline” for each stage of the negotiations, the U.S. has been the only one put under pressure by the “deadline.” Each time the negotiations have gone past the official “deadline,” and Iran has had more leverage as a result because U.S. negotiators have had to cope with interference from Congress throughout the process. Everything that hawks in Congress have done in the name of supposedly pressuring Obama to strike a better deal has worked to the benefit of the Iranians, and the unnecessary Corker-Cardin legislation is just the latest example of this. Iran hawks want to kill the deal entirely, but since they haven’t been able to do that their interference will probably just end up producing a relatively weaker deal than if they hadn’t tried to meddle in the process at all. Unsurprisingly, the people most alarmed about “empowering” Iran have been strengthening Iran’s hand in the negotiations for months.

The Politico article continues:

Still, a resolution of approval that barely registered 40 votes in the Senate would broadcast to critics across the globe that the American public disapproves of the deal — not the message the White House wants to send.

I’m sure that’s what hawkish opponents of the deal want the world to think, but it isn’t true. Every credible survey of American public opinion on the deal shows that the public is broadly supportive of the negotiations, and when they are presented with the outline of a likely deal there is likewise broad support for that. Congress is completely out of step and at odds with the public on this issue. The more important point is that there aren’t going to be enough votes to kill the deal, which means that our wildly unrepresentative “representatives” won’t be able to block a deal that the public supports.

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South Sudan and the Partition “Solution” for Foreign Conflicts

The New York Times laments South Sudan’s continuing descent. This line was a grim reminder of the U.S. role in creating the country:

What makes the South Sudan tragedy all the more astounding is that the country was initially hailed as a triumph of American foreign policy.

The creation of South Sudan as an independent country was “hailed as a triumph” mainly because very few people wanted to think through the implications of creating a new state that seemed bound to become a failed state and international ward in a short period of time. South Sudan’s independence is a testament to a deeply-ingrained belief in the West and elsewhere that a country’s serious problems can and should be addressed by partitioning the country and setting up a new state that has most of the same failings as the earlier one. This is worth bearing in mind the next time we hear the calls to divide Iraq, which is once again becoming a more popular option for a “solution” to the country’s current conflict.

More often than not, partition has been a response to an internal conflict that then turns it into an international one. The editorial is right that the U.S. does have some responsibility for the new country that it helped to create, and that obliges the U.S. to try to find a resolution to the current civil war. However, if the U.S. assumes responsibility for the fate of the new states it has worked to establish, that is one more reason why we should be extremely wary of resorting to the partition “solution” anywhere else.

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McCain and Wars of Aggression

John McCain writes this and shows his usual lack of self-awareness:

Among the core principles of that order is the conviction that might does not make right, that the strong should not be allowed to dominate the weak and that wars of aggression should be relegated to the bloody past [bold mine-DL].

One of the many reasons that it is hard to take anything McCain says on Ukraine seriously is that he has been a reliable advocate for launching aggressive wars against other states when he thinks it appropriate. He would deny that this is what they are, but he has repeatedly called for the U.S. to attack other countries and he has supported the U.S. each time that it has attacked. McCain was not just a supporter, but was also a leading booster of the wars in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya. Furthermore, he wanted the U.S. to attack Syria in 2013 and was angry when the attack didn’t happen. All of the interventions McCain has supported were aggressive wars. They were rationalized in various ways, but none of them had the slightest thing to do with the defense of the United States or our allies. In order for wars of aggression to be “relegated to the bloody past,” one thing we can do is to stop listening to McCain’s foreign policy recommendations.

McCain and other hawks like him have nothing but contempt for international law and other states’ sovereignty when they decide that U.S. intervention or a client state’s military action is desirable. But they can’t stop talking about the importance of the “core principles” of international order when some other government does the exact same thing that they would praise under other circumstances. They’re very concerned about preserving the “international system that has kept the peace for decades” except when they want to violate the rules of that system and violate the peace on some flimsy pretext. It goes without saying that McCain has no problem at all with what the Saudis and their allies are currently doing to Yemen.

Despite the fact that the Saudi-led war is just as unnecessary and unprovoked as Russian actions in Ukraine, McCain’s main complaint about it is that the U.S. was not quick enough to provide support to the Saudis. The point here isn’t just that McCain is highly selective in his outrage about illegal and aggressive wars, but that he is using this rhetoric to agitate for another misguided and dangerous idea–in this case sending arms to Ukraine–that would contribute to further escalation and would therefore cause more suffering and destruction in Ukraine. No matter the conflict, McCain can be counted on to take the position most likely to make things worse for the people caught up in it.

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