Daniel Larison

Clinton’s Syria Folly and 2016

pennstatelive, Brookings Institution, Flickr

Last week, Hillary Clinton joined a number of Republican hawks in endorsing the insane option of establishing a “no-fly zone” in Syria. That has given her main competitor for the Democratic nomination an easy opening to appear more responsible:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Saturday that he opposes a unilateral American no-fly zone in Syria, offering a less hawkish stance on the war-torn region than Hillary Rodham Clinton, his chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, and a position more in line with President Obama.

It’s not surprising that Clinton has taken a foreign policy position that is horrible on the merits. The odd thing about Clinton’s decision to endorse yet another bad hawkish idea is that she is repeating the same political mistake that has tripped her up in the past. Clinton’s habit of siding with hawks in foreign policy debates is how she made the wrong call on the invasion of Iraq and wrongly backed intervention in Libya, and now she is doing so again on a high-profile issue in opposition to what most people in her party support. She is used to assuming that opting for the more aggressive option is the smart political move, but that hasn’t been true in the Democratic Party in over ten years.

Her Syria position gives her rivals for the nomination a more or less free pass to cast doubt on her foreign policy judgment, which has been consistently poor, and it allows her competitors to attack her for aligning herself with Republican hawks against the administration. She is exposing her political weakness on foreign policy and reminding her would-be supporters why she shouldn’t be trusted to make the right decisions as president. Her statement last week highlights one of the main reasons why Democratic voters should be wary of her candidacy, and it makes her foreign policy that much harder to distinguish from the hawks in the other party.

The question remains whether her rivals are willing and know how to use her stumbling against her. Sanders has had little to say about foreign policy over the last few months, and for an insurgent challenger he has been unusually reluctant to criticize Clinton on anything. Clinton is practically begging to be attacked by taking a position on Syria that is so completely at odds with what most Democrats want, but it will be up to her challengers to force her to defend her irresponsible and dangerous Syria position.

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The Hawkish Syria Panic Continues

Michael Rubin recites one of the dumbest talking points on Ukraine available:

In the process of these outrages, Moscow demonstrated that the Budapest Memorandum in which the United States, among others, gave Kiev security guarantees [bold mine-DL] wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

Russia ignored the commitment it made in the Budapest memorandum when it intervened in Ukraine, but the U.S. and Britain never really made security guarantees to Ukraine. Like Russia, they pledged not to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but they promised nothing in the event that another government did so. In the event that Ukraine suffered an attack in which nuclear weapons were used, the signatories committed to seek “immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine.” This provision is obviously irrelevant to the current conflict. The value and purpose of the memorandum was to provide Ukraine with assurances as part of a deal to get it to relinquish the nuclear arsenal it inherited, and that is exactly what it did. To complain now that the U.S. has somehow failed to keep its end of the bargain is to demonstrate either total ignorance of the contents of the agreement or to seek to mislead Americans into believing that the U.S. has obligations to Ukraine that it never actually took on.

The obsession with “credibility” rears its ugly head later on in Rubin’s post. He asks, “So what to do to restore credibility?” Leaving aside that there has been no real loss of credibility, Rubin gives an utterly predictable answer:

There really is no option other than the military: Russian planes bomb targets close to those forces aligned with the United States? Then U.S. forces should bomb Syrian targets close to the Assad regime.

This is pure stupidity. Why should the U.S. escalate a conflict on behalf of ramshackle proxies in a foreign civil war? So that we can say that we have “restored credibility” with the Russians? That assumes that there is something in Syria important enough to the U.S. to justify escalating our role in the conflict. There isn’t and never has been. It also assumes that the Russians will take U.S. attacks on Assad’s forces as a warning rather than as a provocation and then decide to leave at least some of Assad’s enemies alone. There’s no reason to believe that Moscow would respond to an attack on its clients in this way. Regardless, doing as Rubin suggests would put the U.S. at war with the Syrian government, which would put U.S. pilots in greater danger and would greatly increase the chances of a clash with Russian forces. It’s entirely unnecessary and potentially very dangerous.

That isn’t the only place where Rubin wants the U.S. to take provocative action:

At the same time, it’s essential to arm the Ukrainians with enough lethal goods to help them roll back Russian proxies and send Russian forces home in body bags.

Other than making hawks in the U.S. feel better, it has never been clear what this measure is supposed to achieve besides riling up Moscow and putting Ukraine in renewed danger of a larger, bloodier war. The cease-fire in Ukraine is largely holding at present, so sending arms to Ukraine in order to “send Russian forces home in body bags” would require encouraging a collapse of the cease-fire and a new offensive against the separatists. That sets up Ukraine for a fight that it can’t win, and ensures that many more Ukrainians will also be sent home in body bags. It’s a foolish and reckless policy that makes less sense now than ever.

Rubin’s recommendations are a useful reminder that there is virtually no conflict that hawks don’t want the U.S. to join, and once joined there is no conflict that they don’t want to escalate. Because no U.S. interests are at stake in these conflicts, they are forced to rely on bogus appeals to “credibility,” and those appeals fall apart under the most minimal scrutiny. As ever, hawks propose more aggressive measures not because they will produce a more desirable outcome for the U.S. or its would-be clients (they usually don’t), but because it satisfies their need to “take action” regardless of what the consequences may be.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Russia: superpower or proxy? Kevin Sullivan comments on Russia’s expanded military role in Syria.

Is Russia’s Syria intervention a “blessing in disguise” for the U.S.? Michael Cohen considers how the U.S. might benefit from Russia’s deeper involvement in the conflict.

South Sudan, forgotten but still in turmoil. Matt Purple describes the current state of the country’s civil war.

How Catalan survived. Irene Boada explains how the regional language has persisted despite having been actively opposed by the Spanish government for decades.

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Syria and the Bizarre Need to Take Sides

Fareed Zakaria offers a useful reminder why U.S. policy in Syria is so muddled:

But if you consider the major groups vying for control of Damascus, the United States is against almost all of them.

The fact that the U.S. can’t support any of them should make it clear that the U.S. has no business being involved in the conflict at all. The hunt for the elusive “moderate” opposition has been driven by the weird desire to find some faction in the civil war that the U.S. can support without openly endorsing jihadists. While interventionists imagined that the U.S. automatically had “allies” in Syria that it needed to aid, the reality was that there was never any side in the war that the U.S. could justifiably support that had any chance of prevailing over the other forces. Instead of taking the lack of obvious allies as a warning to stay out entirely, the U.S. keeps trying to find a way to take sides.

The desire to take sides stemmed at first from hostility to Iran: if Iran backed Assad, the U.S. had to find enemies of Assad to support. It didn’t matter that the U.S. would gain nothing from regime change in Syria, or that pursuing it might impose more costs than it was worth. Hawks just wanted to inflict a loss on Iran. Now fighting ISIS has taken priority, but not so much that it overrules the old hostility to Iran, which is why so many hawks now propose fighting both Assad and ISIS at the same time. The U.S. has scarcely any more effective allies on the ground now than before, but instead of rethinking the entire project the U.S. keeps stumbling ahead with a war in Syria that it doesn’t need to be fighting. All of this comes ultimately from our political leaders’ inability to recognize that there are many conflicts that the U.S. should avoid all together.

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Helping the Saudis to Cover Up Their Abuses

Samuel Oakford has further details on the U.S. role in blocking an investigation into war crimes in Yemen:

A Dutch-led effort to create a human rights mission for Yemen was abandoned Wednesday amid intense Saudi opposition at the UN, but human rights experts are laying blame in part at the feet of the United States, which failed to vigorously back the Netherlands — and may have worked behind the scenes to head off the independent investigation.

According to Oakford’s report, the U.S. paid lip service to supporting the Dutch resolution, but then “simply let it die.” It’s not exactly shocking that our government wasn’t willing to back up an effort to investigate war crimes in a conflict in which its clients have been committing multiple violations of international law for months with U.S. help. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand the lengths to which the U.S. is prepared to go to back up the indefensible Saudi-led campaign. The U.S. has once again shamefully aided the Saudis and their allies yet again in their reckless intervention. In this case, the administration is aiding them in covering up the coalition’s excesses and abuses.

This part of the article sums things up pretty well:

“The resolution tabled by the Arab group represents a shameful capitulation to Saudi Arabia and has denied Yemeni victims their first real opportunity for justice,” said Balkees Jarrah, senior council at Human Rights Watch. “By failing to establish a UN inquiry, the Human Rights Council has squandered an opportunity to deter ongoing abuses in Yemen.”

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The Insanity of a “No-Fly Zone” in Syria

Hillary Clinton has endorsed a deranged idea for Syria:

In an apparent break with the Obama White House, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for the creation of a no-fly zone inside Syria Thursday, the day after Russian warplanes started bombing rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Wall Street Journal and some Republican candidates and members of Congress have called for the same thing, so the hawkish panic over Syria is now a bipartisan affair. A “no-fly zone” in Syria has always been a bad idea because it commits the U.S. directly to the fighting in Syria’s civil war. Now that Russian planes are in the air and carrying out strikes against anti-regime targets in that country, it is an insane idea. If the U.S. was unwilling to go to war with the Syrian government on its own by attacking its air defenses (a necessary part of establishing any “no-fly zone”), it makes even less sense to try to impose this now that Russia is involved. The U.S. would have to be willing to shoot down Russian jets to enforce this, and there is no telling how far the conflict would go from there. The great danger of Russia’s intervention in Syria is that it could lead to a clash with U.S. forces, and establishing a “no-fly zone” would make that clash much more likely to happen. Indeed, it practically guarantees that a clash would occur. Hawks are proposing that the U.S. risk the possibility of armed conflict with the Russians over Syria for no reason, and Clinton has just thrown in her lot with them. This is just the latest example of Clinton’s poor foreign policy judgment and reflexive hawkish instincts.

The WSJ typically describes this dangerous proposal as a way to demonstrate “revived American leadership,” but it would actually be a perfect example of how recklessly and irresponsibly the U.S. can behave overseas.

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McCain’s Disgraceful Answers on Yemen

Alan Freed / Shutterstock.com

Lee Fang cornered some senators at the Washington Ideas Forum and pressed them to comment on Saudi war crimes in Yemen. The exchange with McCain is damning for the senator:

“They may be bombing civilians, which is actually not true,” McCain said, when asked about civilian casualties in Yemen.

“Civilians aren’t dying?” I asked.

No, they’re not [bold mine-DL],” the senator replied. “Oh, I’m sure civilians die in war. Not nearly as many as the Houthis have executed,” McCain continued, referring to the Shiite militia waging an insurgency against the Sunni government in Yemen.

Asked about the recent reports of Saudi forces bombing a wedding party in Yemen, McCain said, “I’m sure in wars terrible things happen and the Houthis however are an extremist group backed by the Iranians who are slaughtering Yemenis.”

As Fang correctly notes, U.N. officials have just this week stated that the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes are responsible for a large majority of the civilian deaths in Yemen. They have also called attention to the ruinous effects of the coalition’s blockade, which is bringing the country to the brink of famine. McCain’s dismissive comments about the thousands of civilians killed and wounded by Saudi-led, U.S.-backed bombing are appalling in both their ignorance and their contempt for innocent life. McCain is either completely uninformed about what is happening in Yemen and repeating the official Saudi line, or he is knowingly reciting dishonest pro-Saudi talking points. Either way, McCain has outdone himself here in denying coalition war crimes in Yemen.

Both sides in Yemen are guilty of war crimes, but it is simply a fact that the Saudi-led coalition has done significantly more harm to the country and caused more civilian deaths and more destruction than their enemies. One of the reasons that the Saudi-led war and its U.S. backing receive no scrutiny here in the U.S. is that so many of our political leaders are indifferent to or supportive of the campaign. McCain distinguishes himself as one of the most shameless and disgraceful supporters of the war on Yemen. I have had a pretty low opinion of McCain for a long time, but today it just sank a little lower.

McCain is a perfect example of the double standard that so-called “humanitarian” interventionists apply when it comes to military intervention and protecting the lives of civilians. If a hostile or pariah government commits human rights abuses, McCain is the first to demand that the U.S. “do something,” and if it is the U.S. or a client that does the same thing McCain will be first to make excuses and to shift the blame.

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Tom Cotton and the Hawkish Syria Panic


Tom Cotton reminds us that his foreign policy judgment is consistently terrible. This is his response to Russian intervention in Syria:

“I think this is a near catastrophe for U.S. foreign policy in the region and really around the world,” the Arkansas Republican said, adding that it goes against a longtime bipartisan understanding that Russia should not be a powerbroker in the Middle East.

As I said last week, Russian intervention in Syria is a mistake on their part, and we are already seeing that their limited number of airstrikes is inflicting additional harm on the civilian population. Careless and inaccurate bombing in Syria isn’t going to do anything except to kill more Syrian civilians. However, one doesn’t need to endorse Russia’s deeper involvement in Syria’s civil war to understand that it isn’t a “near catastrophe” for U.S. foreign policy. I might not as far as saying that it is a “blessing in disguise,” but it is not something that should cause us to panic. As Cohen says in the linked article, the fact that hawks in Washington are panicking tells us little about the significance of Russian moves and everything about how “Washington fetishizes the mere exercise of power.”

Russia is taking on a larger role in a foreign conflict in a bid to shore up a weakened client. This is not a sign of Moscow’s strength or strategic genius, but rather of the weakness of its client’s position and by extension Russia’s relative weakness in the region. As hawks have also tried to do with Iran recently, they are trying to present a deteriorating position as proof of expanding influence, and they are doing it partly to try to build support for the more aggressive policies in Syria that they have wanted all along. You can almost hear them saying, “We cannot allow an intervention gap.” On this, as on everything else in the region and beyond, they are wrong.

The potential danger here, as Dan Drezner emphasized earlier today, is the possibility that Russian and U.S. forces could clash over Syria. That is obviously something that must be avoided, and it is the latest reminder of why it was never a good idea to expand U.S. intervention into Syria with its multi-sided civil war. This could be an opportunity to reassess the wisdom of waging an unnecessary and illegal war in Syria, but we all know that this opportunity will be squandered.

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The Rubio/Fiorina Mirage

Gage Skidmore/Flickr,  Marc Nozell/Flickr

Mona Charen makes a questionable assertion:

A Rubio/ Fiorina ticket (or Fiorina/Rubio) could win in 2016.

I doubt that these candidates will be on the 2016 ticket in either position when all is said and done, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that Republicans choose Rubio and he then chooses Fiorina as his running mate. That would leave the GOP with a ticket that has the least experience in national politics in almost seventy years. The two candidates would have remarkably little foreign policy experience between them, the presidential nominee would have no executive experience at all, and the vice presidential nominee would have some experience marred by a tenure widely regarded as unsuccessful. The ticket would be dogged by attacks on Fiorina’s corporate background and layoffs at H-P, and it would suffer from the fact that neither of them has a single legislative accomplishment or policy success. This is a ticket that would likely thrill movement conservative pundits, but they have an uncanny instinct for picking candidates that even Republican primary voters end up rejecting. By almost any measure, this would not be a successful presidential ticket for the GOP, and I suspect that Republican voters will realize that by the time it comes to vote.

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Why Backing Kurdish Independence Still Doesn’t Make Sense

Peter Weber means well here, but this is a bad idea:

If Obama wants to get ahead of ominous developments in Syria for once, he should consider throwing U.S. support behind an independent Kurdistan, one that is carved out from the decaying husks of Syria and Iraq.

The problems with backing an independent Kurdistan are well-known. The short version is that backing the creation of such a state would put the U.S. in the position of guaranteeing the independence of a new client against its neighbors, all of whom would be hostile to its existence to some degree. Because of Turkey’s fear of a reviving Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), U.S. support for independent Kurdistan would put the U.S. and Turkey on a collision course and might very well trigger Turkish military action against the new state. If that seems unlikely, remember that Turkey is already launching airstrikes on Kurdish targets in Iraq and “joined” the war on ISIS mostly because it was alarmed about Kurdish gains in Syria. Imagine how much more alarmed it would by the formal creation of a new Kurdish state. The Iraqi and Syrian governments aren’t likely to accept a new state “carved out” of their territory, and it is doubtful that Iran would be indifferent to something that undermines these governments. If the U.S. were seen as instrumental in the creation of an independent Kurdistan, that could also make it an attractive target for terrorists hostile to the U.S. Depending on the terms of the relationship with Washington, the U.S. might find itself obliged to defend the new state, and that would be yet another security commitment for the U.S. to fulfill.

In exchange for all that, creating an independent Kurdistan would probably not yield that many benefits, at least not for the U.S. or the war on ISIS. Weber presents it as providing the U.S. with “a base of operations in a country that has invited its help,” but once an independent Kurdistan is established the new state would probably be concerned with securing itself and would be less inclined to join itself to the U.S. war effort. The new Kurdistan would probably not be recognized by that many other states, since its creation will almost certainly have come over the objections of the governments in Baghdad and Damascus. All the states that are wary of encouraging their own separatist and nationalist movements would likely be against recognizing the new state, which would leave the new state as a sort of semi-pariah on the international stage. Once independence has been achieved, it is also possible that internal rivalries between different Kurdish factions would lead to a conflict over control of the new state, and that would leave the U.S. with the task of trying to resolve a new civil war. Carving out a new state creates a number of new problems for U.S. policy and doesn’t do much to solve existing ones. It would leave the U.S. with a long-term commitment to sustain the new state that it helped create for the hope for a short-term fix for a war the U.S. shouldn’t even be fighting. Even if doing this provided “a rare moment of positive feeling about its mideast policy” (which is not a good reason to do anything of this magnitude), that feeling would likely evaporate soon thereafter because of the many headaches that it would cause.

If all this sounds unduly pessimistic, I would point out that the skeptics of drastic action and sudden political change have been proven much more right than wrong over the last decade. In any case, it is necessary to consider the consequences of such a major political change as fully as possible. One of the reasons that the U.S. finds itself in its absurd position in its war with ISIS is that the policy was never thought through or debated at any length, and the U.S. plunged into an unnecessary war in two countries without considering what came next. Plunging ahead with another ill-considered policy in a panicked attempt to “get ahead of ominous developments” is the last thing that the U.S. should be doing now. It would better if it reconsidered the merits of its original decision to intervene and scaled back its goals to match what it is actually prepared to commit to this part of the world. Midwifing a new state in the midst of regional upheaval and conflict is far more than the U.S. is going to be prepared to do over the coming years, and it would better for all concerned not to start down that path.

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