Daniel Larison

The Third Presidential Debate

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The third presidential debate was arguably the most substantive of the general election, but that wasn’t a high bar to clear. It was also probably Trump’s best performance against Clinton, but it still wasn’t nearly good enough to close the gap between them. His refusal to say simply that he would accept the result of the election became the main takeaway from the debate and the banner headline in practically every newspaper. Trump was very likely to lose the election anyway at this point, but he seems determined to lose it in a way that will bring even more discredit on him and his supporters. He managed to overshadow everything else he said during the debate with that one answer, and anything else he said–for good or ill–will receive very little attention. Since Trump was already trailing Clinton going into the debate, the onus was on him to score a clear victory. He did not, and he missed his last major chance to make the election more competitive. That failure is his, and no one else did it to him.

Clinton was forced to dodge questions about donors to the Clinton Foundation and her support for a “no-fly zone” in Syria, but that was the result of tough questioning from the moderator. Her answers to these questions were woefully inadequate and evasive, but her opponent didn’t take advantage of them. Trump never really managed to get the better of Clinton the entire night, and he tended to ramble aimlessly in response to questions that might have worked to his advantage. On more than one occasion, he ended up railing against the nuclear deal with Iran in response to questions that had nothing to do with it. This not only kept him from giving a coherent answer to the questions he was asked, but it also showed how heavily he relied on discredited hawkish talking points when he ran into difficulty. At one point, Trump tried to attack Clinton over New START, which he laughably called “the start-up.” Even if there had been merit to Trump’s criticism, he made such a hash of it as to make his attack useless.

The result of all this was that Clinton was able to escape scrutiny of most of her record. She was never asked to defend her support for the Libyan war, nor did she really have to answer for anything else that she did as Secretary of State. Once again, her opponent didn’t know enough to know how to use her record against her. Despite her poor record on foreign policy, Clinton was able to get off almost completely scot-free.

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The Third Presidential Debate’s Neglect of Foreign Policy

As I feared, the final presidential debate paid almost no attention to foreign policy except as it related to Iraq and Syria. I’ll comment on the candidates’ answers in a later post, but first I wanted to say a few things about the almost total neglect of foreign policy in the general election to date. Foreign policy is without a doubt one of the principal responsibilities of the president, and it is an area where the president has the greatest leeway with the least resistance from the other branches of government. Congress’ abdication of responsibility in this area is well-known. That suggests that the presidential candidates’ views on foreign policy should be among the most important things to know about them, and it means that voters need to be informed about the candidates’ understanding of the relevant issues and how to address them. For the most part, that isn’t happening, and it’s a serious problem that ought to concern us all.

Perhaps more than in any election cycle since 2000, foreign policy has received remarkably little attention in the general election (and it didn’t receive much more during the primaries), and many pressing issues have been ignored entirely throughout the campaign. The war in Afghanistan and the war on Yemen are among the most obvious and damning omissions in my view, but one could find quite a few other other important things that the candidates have never been asked about. We have almost no idea how either candidate would approach approximately nine-tenths of the rest of the world, and the election is in less than three weeks. That is pathetic even by our usual poor political standards.

To some extent, the neglect of foreign policy is a reflection of voters’ lack of interest in it, but that can’t fully account for the consistent absence of questions about ongoing wars that the U.S. is involved in or actively supporting. Coverage of foreign policy in presidential candidate debates has often narrowly focused on the Near East and terrorism, but last night’s debate verged on being a parody of that. Based solely on last night’s debate, the average viewer would conclude that the U.S. was involved nowhere else in the world except in Syria and Iraq, and there would have been no indication that the U.S. is still fighting in Afghanistan after fifteen years or that it has been enabling the wreckage of Yemen for eighteen months. The candidates have never been asked what they would do about these wars, and they aren’t being asked about them because the U.S. role in these wars isn’t even being publicly acknowledged during our election process. The U.S. is perpetually at war, and some of those wars aren’t even up for debate during the process of choosing the next president. No matter what one thinks about the policies in question, that cannot possibly be healthy for our country or our system of government. It isn’t possible to hold candidates accountable for policies that they are never asked about and have never had to defend publicly, and a president can’t be kept in check when he or she is never challenged to justify policies that entangle the U.S. in foreign conflicts. If our system is failing so completely during an election year, it seems certain to be even worse once the campaign is over. The debates were the time to demand answers from the candidates on these and other pressing issues, but that opportunity has been thoroughly squandered.

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The Perpetually Overrated Rubio

Jonathan Chait wonders why the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee is pulling its resources out of the Florida race:

Yes, Rubio was steamrolled in the primaries. But not every candidate who loses is a bad politician. If Rubio holds his Senate seat by a few points or less, and then wins his party’s nomination in four years, Democrats will be kicking themselves they didn’t pull out every stop to end his political career, in the short term, when they had the chance.

It’s still possible that Rubio could end up losing the re-election bid he had said he wouldn’t pursue, but even if he wins Chait is worrying about a scenario that is extremely unlikely to happen. Rubio may very well run for president again in the next cycle. His multiple statements that he doesn’t intend to do that don’t mean very much, and they mean even less when we remember that he pledged not to seek re-election because of his last presidential campaign. But another Rubio campaign would likely be hampered by many of the same problems that dogged him this year: his reputation for opportunism, his flip-flopping on the Gang of Eight bill that gave him that reputation, his lack of relevant experience, and his lack of any accomplishments in the Senate.

Supposing that Rubio does win re-election, he would end up in an evenly-divided or Democratic-controlled Senate where he would have few opportunities to put his name on any legislation that has a chance of being signed into law. If he did manage to get his name on a major bill signed by Clinton, that would tar him in the eyes of many Republicans, and if he doesn’t he would continue to be a senator who gets nothing done for his constituents. Trump voters would have no reason to get behind a future Rubio bid since he represents much of what they dislike about the party, and many anti-Trump Republicans would presumably hold his late support for Trump against him. All politicians are opportunists, but Rubio is a little too obvious and abrupt in his maneuvering, and that means that lots of people on both sides of the party don’t trust him. Obviously, many things can happen between now and then that could change some of this, but I very much doubt that the GOP is going to change so much in the next few years that enough primary voters are going to get behind Rubio next time around.

All of this should go without saying, but for some reason Rubio is judged by a very different standard. Any other candidate who was trounced in his own state’s primary and won only a handful of other contests in a race against two of the least likable people in his party would not be taken seriously as a major contender for the nomination in the future. He would be appropriately written off. If Rubio loses next month, maybe he finally will be.

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Foreign Policy and the Third Presidential Debate

Foreign policy has received relatively little attention so far in the debates, but we might hear a bit more about a wider range of these issues tonight. One of the announced topics for the final 2016 presidential debate is “foreign hot spots,” which suggests that the candidates will be pressed for their views on various conflicts and flashpoints around the globe. It is almost a given that one question will be on the recently announced Mosul offensive against ISIS, and I assume there will be more of the same leading Syria questions that we heard last time. Ideally, we should also hear questions about at least two of the following: the ongoing war in Afghanistan, heightened tensions between India and Pakistan following the attack in Uri, the war on Yemen and the U.S. role in it, the supposed firing of missiles at U.S. ships in the Red Sea related to that role, the Russian deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, and the public rift between the U.S. and the Philippines under its new president. All of these involve U.S. policies and relationships in one way or another, and we have not heard much of anything from either candidate about any of them. I doubt that any of these additional topics will come up tonight, but Wallace may surprise me.

Tonight will be Trump’s last chance to challenge Clinton on her lackluster foreign policy record. He has mostly failed to do this in the last two debates, and I don’t expect him to do any better this time. If he could spell out the dangerous implications of Clinton’s Syria policy, that could finally put her on the defensive and possibly put a dent in her support, but to do that he would have to know what he’s talking about. Meanwhile, Clinton has been allowed to skate through the entire campaign without facing much scrutiny on foreign policy at all, and there is almost no time left. For all the talk of how this was going to be a foreign policy election, the subject has mostly been ignored for the duration of the general election. Considering that the next president will take office while the U.S. is fighting and/or supporting at least three wars after fifteen years of being at war somewhere in the world, this is a major failure on the part of the candidates and the media. Americans are electing another wartime president, but the candidates have had to answer remarkably few questions about how and why they would continue America’s entanglements in foreign conflicts.

P.S. As usual, I will be covering the debate on Twitter (@DanielLarison). The debate begins at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

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The Rubio Mirage Won’t Go Away

Chris Cillizza watched Marco Rubio’s opening statement from his Senate election debate last night and said this:

The fundamental core appeal of Rubio — his story and the way he tells it — is much more where the Republican Party needs to head if it wants to be a majority party in the country going forward.

The part of Rubio’s “story” that Cillizza doesn’t address in his post is the section where Rubio claims all sorts of achievements on behalf of his constituents. Rubio said:

I’m proud of what we’ve done in my nine years as a state legislator, two of them as speaker, and in my six years in the United States Senate. Tonight, throughout this debate, you will hear about the numerous accomplishments, things that I’ve done, real things–not just letters that I’ve signed on to or bills that I’ve co-sponsored–but laws that we passed that have been good for America and good for the state of Florida.

This sounds fine, but the core problem with this part of the story is that it isn’t true. Rubio’s time in the Senate included one failed attempt on immigration legislation that he abandoned to the consternation of his one-time allies and the embarrassment of his original supporters. The rest of his record was practically empty, and then became more so as he skipped out on his job to run for president. Naming a single accomplishment as senator was a recurring problem for his surrogates during the primaries, because there was nothing any of them could cite. Rubio is a senator with no significant accomplishments to his name, and he shortchanged his voters by neglecting his job for almost a third of his term. He is trying to pretend otherwise in a re-election campaign that he said he wouldn’t run. Anyone that still thinks that Rubio could have been or still could be the answer to the GOP’s electoral problems in this or some future presidential race is just kidding himself.

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The World Doesn’t Need More U.S. Interventionism

Shadi Hamid thinks the world needs U.S. military interventions:

If the United States announced tomorrow morning that it would no longer use its military for anything but to defend the borders of the homeland, many would instinctively cheer, perhaps not quite realizing what this would mean in practice. But that is the conundrum the Left is now facing. A world without mass slaughter, of the sort of we are seeing every day in Syria, cannot ever come to be without American power.

It’s very likely that a “world without mass slaughter” won’t be realized at all, but it is very doubtful that it is possible only through American use of force. The real question is whether the frequent, violent interference in the affairs of other countries that Hamid is talking about yields better results than non-interference. The answer to that question depends on the circumstances of each case, but in almost every case from the last half-century the decision to interfere, to fuel conflict, and to take sides in the quarrels of others has needlessly inflicted more harm on the affected countries. This is true of U.S.-led interventions and of the wars waged by U.S. clients with our government’s approval and support. If we’re generous, the number of “successful” U.S. interventions can be counted on a few fingers, and they are severely outnumbered by the failures and disasters. Given that shaky record, there has to be a very compelling reason to make the attempt and it has to be one that is worth taking the risks involved.

Even when an intervention can be said to have “worked” according to some definition, there are always some innocents that pay a severe price because they found themselves on the “wrong” side of the fight or because their country suffered from the adverse effects of intervention in a neighboring land. By taking sides in foreign conflicts, the U.S. is choosing to participate in bringing death and destruction upon people who have usually done nothing to us or our allies to provoke such action. That choice is often made for reasons that have little or nothing to do with concern for the well-being of the people in the country in question, and it is almost always made rashly and before other alternatives have been exhausted. At best, the record of our interference shows that we tend to be cavalier and irresponsible in our use of force in other countries, and at worst we leave those places drastically worse off than they were before we “helped.” That is not what the world or the U.S. needs.

Pointing at the horrors of Syria is not a counter-argument to any of this. Syria is suffering as much as it is because almost every state in the region and quite a few from other parts of the world (including the U.S.) have opted to take sides, to funnel weapons and support to warring parties, and in some cases to intervene directly in the fighting. It takes a very unusual moralist to look at this and conclude that the big problem is that the U.S. hasn’t contributed sufficiently to the carnage and that Syrians would be better off if it did. The lesson we ought to take away from the last fifteen years is that military action takes longer, costs more, and does more unintended damage than all but the most pessimistic people thought possible at the outset. Don’t assume that a bad conflict can’t be made worse by more intervention, because almost any situation can be made worse, and in some cases it can be made much worse.

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The Imaginary Iranian ‘Empire’

Michael Rubin repeats a familiar lie:

Indeed, the Houthis represent perhaps the clearest example of Iranian imperialism.

Rubin refers to Iran as having “de facto control” over Yemen’s government, which is nonsense. Whatever limited support Iran has provided to the Houthis, that doesn’t give it control over the country or the Houthi-led government. Thomas Juneau studied this question and said this:

Yet as I argue in a recent article in the May 2016 issue of International Affairs, the Chatham House journal, Tehran’s support for the Houthis is limited, and its influence in Yemen is marginal. It is simply inaccurate to claim that the Houthis are Iranian proxies.

If the Houthis are the “clearest example of Iranian imperialism” when the Houthis aren’t even really their proxies, we should conclude that referring to Iran as an “imperial” power is a ridiculous exaggeration. The purpose of repeating this falsehood isn’t only to provide cover for the Saudi-led war on Yemen by pretending that there is an Iranian “presence” to be eliminated, but also to lend support to the false claim that Iran is “on the march” throughout the region. Both are wrong, and the latter depends heavily on the former. Because Yemen wasn’t about to fall into the hands of Iranian proxies, we can see that Saudi claims to that effect are nothing more than paranoid propaganda. Because Iran isn’t “on the march,” we can recognize that indulging the Saudis and their allies in their most destructive habits is an indefensible blunder.

Iran undoubtedly has significant influence in Iraq and Syria, but at present it is trying to shore up two governments that currently don’t control large sections of their own territory. Insofar as those governments are satellites in Iran’s orbit, they have become liabilities that drain Iranian resources. There is also no question that Iran has substantial influence in Lebanon through Hizbullah, but that has been true for decades and hardly counts as proof of an “empire.” The reality is that Iran’s regional influence is considerably weaker than it was just ten years ago in large part because of its role in backing Assad in the Syrian war. Every other government in the region is opposed to them and their goals to one degree or another. If that qualifies as an “empire,” it is a very rickety and declining one.

Of course, the point of warning about Iranian “imperialism” is not to give an accurate assessment of what’s happening, but to push a flimsy story about how Iran has supposedly made great gains at the expense of the U.S. and its clients in recent years. The truth is that the biggest gain in regional influence that Iran made happened because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent empowerment of parties aligned with Tehran, and it hasn’t made another gain that is remotely comparable to that one since then. Michael Hanna sums this up nicely:

When that was happening over a decade ago, Iran hawks denied that it was taking place, and now that Iranian influence is receding they are convinced that Iran has an “empire.” If you want to get a good idea of how relatively powerful Iran is at any given moment, take whatever Iran hawks say about it and assume that the opposite is true.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Saudi Arabia’s senseless pursuit of war in Yemen. The Financial Times calls for an end to U.S. support.

America’s moral duty in Yemen. The New York Times demands that the administration cancel support for the war in the wake of the funeral massacre last week.

Let’s hope Clinton is lying about Syria and Russia. Michael Brendan Dougherty spells out the implications of Clinton’s dangerous statements on Syria policy.

“I’m an anti-Putin Russian and Clinton makes me nervous.” Leonid Bershidsky is worried about Clinton’s ideological approach to Russia.

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Increasing Support for the War on Yemen Is Obviously Insane

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

The Wall Street Journal publishes another shameless pro-Saudi editorial. This part stood out:

A Saudi air strike last week mistakenly killed civilians at a funeral in Yemen, and the White House is now leaking that Mr. Obama is rethinking U.S. support for the Yemen campaign. But the U.S. has made similar targeting errors in many conflicts, and Saudi bombing won’t get more precise if the U.S. bugs out. The U.S. ought to be helping the Saudis with enough support that they can win in Yemen.

Even by the WSJ‘s standards, this is an insane position to take. The funeral massacre last week was obviously not carried out by “mistake.” The coalition repeatedly hit the same target to maximize casualties, and it chose the target because many high-ranking political and military figures were in attendance. The coalition wanted to hit the target, and it did so several times in a row. They weren’t concerned about the hundreds of civilians killed and injured in the process, and it is absurd to claim that they were. When presented with an obvious atrocity committed by a U.S. client, the WSJ predictably ignores the evidence and insists on even more aggressive support for the offending government.

There is also no realistic prospect of a Saudi victory in Yemen. The coalition’s original goals were to drive the Houthis out of the capital and reinstate Hadi. Even if the coalition could somehow manage to do the former, it would come at an excruciating cost for the civilian population. The latter goal has always been hopeless. Hadi had scant domestic support when the war began, and now he has none. There is no chance that the coalition can “win,” and so it makes absolutely no sense for the U.S. to increase support for the war in the hopes that they do. Yemen has been wrecked and its people brought to the brink of famine because of the foolish belief that the Saudis could “win.” Intensifying support for the war will produce more attacks on civilian targets and more misery for the people of Yemen.

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Foolish Patronage, Bad Clients, and the War on Yemen

The New York Times ran a strange article today on the U.S. and Yemen:

A year and a half of bombing — along with the deaths of thousands of Yemeni civilians — has stoked anger in Yemen not only toward the Saudis, but also toward their perceived patrons in Washington [bold mine-DL].

Yemenis perceive Washington as the Saudi-led coalition’s patron because it obviously is their biggest and most important patron. The U.S. is not a “hidden hand” behind the Saudi-led war. It is a very visible hand that everyone knows is there. The coalition bombs Yemen with U.S.-made munitions dropped from planes acquired from the U.S. that the U.S. military also refuels, and our government provides diplomatic cover for their activities so that they aren’t investigated when they kill civilians and our officials then make excuses for the coalition when civilians are killed. It doesn’t matter whether the U.S. is “formally” part of the coalition. For all practical purposes, Washington’s support is essential to the coalition’s war effort. Assuming that the Houthis were responsible for the failed attacks on U.S. ships in the Red Sea, they were presumably taking shots at American ships because of the extensive support our government has provided to the bombing campaign against them. The fiction that the U.S. isn’t a party to the war isn’t sustainable when our government is daily making the war possible with its assistance. If the administration is interested in bringing the war to an end and wants to reduce risks to U.S. forces in the area, it should cease backing the intervention that has evidently created new enemies that the U.S. didn’t have eighteen months ago.

Many reports on U.S. support for the war emphasize how grudgingly it has been given and how “uneasy” the administration supposedly is about providing it, but the fact remains that U.S. assistance has been steady and forthcoming from March 2015 until now. The administration didn’t have to provide this support, and it could have refused to offer it without any danger to the nuclear deal. Obama and his officials chose to do this because they wanted to appease the Saudis and the other Gulf states despite the fact that they weren’t part of the nuclear negotiations and couldn’t have done anything to prevent the deal from being completed. To make matters worse, the attempt to “reassure” Riyadh isn’t going to work in any case. We already know from past experience that client governments will always claim that they are being abandoned in the hope of securing more weapons and aid, and as long as Washington is eager to keep these clients satisfied the U.S. will find itself supporting all manner of stupid and destructive policies in the region. The war on Yemen is one of those, and thanks to U.S. support for it these client states will expect future administrations to indulge their worst instincts as well.

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