Daniel Larison

The Nuclear Deal and Congress’ Meddling

US Congress/Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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Why the GOP Keeps Flailing on Foreign Policy

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

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

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

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

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The Humanitarian Disaster in Yemen Continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama and the Illegal War on ISIS

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

The administration has at least done the minimum.

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

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

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Scowcroft, the GOP, and the Nuclear Deal

Brent Scowcroft writes in favor of the deal with Iran:

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

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

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

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

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

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

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

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

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

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

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Cotton’s Recipe for Unending Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kasich, the “Cheap Hawk” for Increased Military Spending

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

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

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

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

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

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Corker’s Case Against the Nuclear Deal Makes No Sense

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

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

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

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

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