Daniel Larison

The American Conservative: Realism and Reform

The American Conservative has been an indispensable outlet for the ideas and arguments of dissident and traditional conservatives for the last twelve years, and it continues to offer a vitally important and necessary alternative to movement conservatism and its tendency to subordinate conservative principles of wisdom, prudence, and restraint to the needs of partisan loyalty and ideological obsessions. Since its founding, the magazine and its website have been the principled voice of conservative opposition to the many follies of the Bush and Obama eras and the reliable defender of local communities, constitutional government, a broad distribution of power and wealth, and the causes of liberty and peace.

Over the last year, TAC has been a consistent critic of reckless and ill-conceived military interventions in Syria and now again in Iraq and Syria. Earlier this summer, we co-hosted a successful conference promoting a foreign policy of restraint, and we continue to warn against the folly of wars of choice. TAC is a valuable resource for all Americans that want to rediscover a foreign policy conservatism that is dedicated to securing the national interest without being wedded to perpetual war. TAC has been promoting the cause of reforming and improving the foreign policy debate in the Republican Party and in the country as a whole since its inception, and our arguments are more necessary than ever as the U.S. has begun a war in Iraq and Syria that will continue for years to come.

In addition to this, the magazine and our website offer trenchant and insightful political and social commentary from all of our contributors and bloggers, and our writers regularly address many policy issues that other conservative outlets ignore or refuse to take seriously. Along with content from the magazine and our other regular online contributors, our website hosts Noah Millman‘s insights on politics, theater, and film, Rod Dreher‘s reflections on literature, religion, and culture, Micah Mattix’s outstanding literary blog Prufrock, and Jonathan Coppage’s project on New Urbanism that is promoting conservative ideas for creating humane and sustainable cities. In order to continue this important work, The American Conservative needs the continued support of its readers, without whom we would be able to do nothing. All donations to the magazine are tax-deductible, and anything that you are able to give would be greatly appreciated. If you are able to donate something, please donate here.

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Cruz, Israel, and In Defense of Christians

Gage Skidmore / cc

Gage Skidmore / cc

Jonathan Coppage reports on the embarrassing display that Sen. Ted Cruz put on at a summit organized to draw attention to the plight of persecuted Christians:

A humanitarian crisis. Christians, are being systematically exterminated,” Cruz then turned to the 1948 formation of Israel, a sensitive subject for many Palestinian Christians, and declared that ”today, Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state.”

It was at that point that some in the audience objected to Cruz turning a celebration of Christian unity into a lecture on a divisive subject that many in the crowd experienced as part of their everyday lives. Cruz returned accusations of hatred.

In Defense of Christians (IDC) put out an irenic and balanced statement in response to the incident. As one would expect, Sen. Cruz pretended that he had done nothing wrong, and went so far as to make the ridiculous claim that he had taken a stand against anti-Semitism. Cruz’s behavior was unnecessary, it was insulting to his hosts, it was needlessly provocative to the audience, and it was an embarrassment to his voters. Because he has proven time after time to be a shameless demagogue, none of that will bother him.

An important point that has been lost in many of the reactions to this incident is that Cruz was completely out of line to set some kind of ideological litmus test for the attendees that requires them to endorse the “pro-Israel” views that Cruz happens to hold. Cruz is free to hold those views, and many of his voters agree with him, but it is obnoxious to demand that others, including many Arab Christian clergy in attendance, subscribe to those views in order to obtain Cruz’s sympathy for their plight. Not only is “standing with Israel” irrelevant to the reason for the summit, but as this incident has proven it is a completely unnecessary distraction from the work of the organization that sponsored the event.

The issue should be important enough that it transcends other policy and political disagreements. The fact that Cruz could not recognize this, but instead chose to emphasize and dwell on those disagreements to the point of accusing members of the audience of being “consumed with hatred” reflects very poorly on him. Cruz chose to abuse his place at this gathering for cynical and self-promoting reasons, which unfortunately has become part of a recurring pattern for the junior senator from Texas. The good news is that his shameless behavior may have unintentionally helped to bring more attention to the suffering of Christians throughout the region.

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Obama’s Foreseeable Escalation

Ross Douthat comments on the ever-expanding war on ISIS:

And I wouldn’t blame war-skeptics who listened to the president outline a more open-ended campaign last night for feeling some vindication at how swiftly this war’s aims have expanded.

Well, I was one of those skeptics, but there’s no feeling of vindication. It is all so depressingly predictable and familiar, and I would have been thrilled to be proven wrong about this. Unfortunately, things have proceeded more or less as I expected they would when the bombing started a month ago:

These airstrikes are at best a stop-gap measure to slow the advance of ISIS’s forces, and to the extent that they are effective they will likely become an ongoing commitment that the U.S. won’t be able to end for the foreseeable future. Administration officials claim that there is no plan for a “sustained” campaign, but now that airstrikes have begun it will be only a matter of time before there are demands for escalation and deeper involvement, and sooner or later I expect that Obama would yield to those demands. Having made the initial commitment and having accepted that the U.S. has a significant military role in Iraq’s internal conflicts, the U.S. will be expected to continue its commitment for as long as ISIS exists, and that will leave the U.S. policing the Iraqi civil war for months and years to come.

Admittedly, I didn’t think that the war would be expanded to Syria so quickly, but that was bound to happen once Obama committed to the goal of “ultimately destroying” ISIS. What I don’t understand is why anyone ever believed that U.S. goals weren’t going to expand significantly after the bombing that began last month. Skeptics were right about this, but it was almost certain to happen, so why weren’t more people just as skeptical as we were? More to the point, why wasn’t the likelihood of an expanding, open-ended war enough reason to reject the original intervention as the mistake that it was?

Escalation was always very likely, because that has been the pattern in U.S. interventions over the last twenty-five years. Obama already demonstrated in Libya that the U.S. would go far beyond the original stated goals of an intervention, and he is now on record saying that his greatest regret about the Libyan war was that the U.S. didn’t follow it up with a post-war military presence. That should be something to bear in mind when you next hear Obama pledge that there won’t be any American ground forces in combat in this new war. That’s why we should have expected this from Obama, but what made escalation even more likely is that our current political culture and foreign policy debate don’t really permit the U.S. to limit itself to small, achievable goals when it uses force overseas. That is especially true once administration officials irresponsibly stoke public fear about a group being an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” Sooner or later, the mismatch between the administration’s alarmist rhetoric and the initial “limited” action was going to be fixed by adopting a more aggressive policy.

If an intervention succeeds in its initial goals, the U.S. typically doesn’t stop there. Instead, the U.S. is encouraged by its early success and adds new goals. Soon enough, the U.S. is pursuing maximalist ends without having considered how to reach them or whether they can even be reached. Then again, if an intervention fails early on or incurs higher-than-expected costs, there is still enormous resistance in Washington to cutting American losses and calling off the mission, because to do so would signal “weakness” and harm our “credibility.” This is why it is unwise to take military action unless it is strictly necessary, no matter how small or limited it may appear to be initially, because the pressures for escalation will be great and usually overwhelming.

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The “Broad” Coalition That Doesn’t Exist

One of the more questionable claims in Obama’s speech last night was the claim that the U.S. was acting with a “broad coalition of partners.” Obama failed to identify who these “partners” are, which makes it more difficult to judge how many there are or whether these “partners” will be of any use. If the Libyan war is any guide to how this will work, the U.S. and a handful of other governments will do the bulk of the fighting, and others will be included on the official list to give an impression of substantial international support that doesn’t exist. The reference to the “broad coalition” seemed to be a matter of paying lip service to the idea that this is a multilateral effort rather than being the U.S.-led war that it mostly is.

Since Obama spoke last night, we have learned that the U.K. won’t be engaging in airstrikes in Syria, and Turkey has reportedly refused to allow the U.S. to use its bases to conduct its airstrikes against ISIS targets in either country. So one of the few major European allies that can contribute significantly to the air campaign is strictly limiting its involvement to part of the territory under ISIS’ control, and the main U.S. ally that borders on both Syria and Iraq won’t be cooperating at all. The lack of Turkish cooperation will presumably make the air campaign more difficult and therefore make it last even longer. The more striking thing about this is that the U.S. is going back to war in the region and still cannot count on support from its sole NATO ally in the region. That draws attention to one of this war’s basic flaws: the U.S. is taking the regional threat from ISIS more seriously and doing more to oppose it than many of the regional states that have far more to lose. The U.S. has allowed itself to be pulled into a new, open-ended war for the sake of “partners” that are contributing little or nothing to the war.

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The Illegal War Against ISIS

Saul Loeb/CNP/AdMedia/Newscom
Saul Loeb/CNP/AdMedia/Newscom

Obama’s ISIS speech last night was underwhelming, but then there was almost nothing in it that hadn’t been expected. He barely mentioned any legal justification for the campaign that he was announcing, saying only that “I have the authority” to do it. Perhaps Obama didn’t want to say more than this, because the administration is reportedly relying on the 2001 AUMF for this so-called authority, which no one else thinks applies to ISIS:

Obama’s using the law that authorized attacks against al Qaeda to justify his new fight in Syria and Iraq. One small problem: ISIS and al Qaeda are at each others’ throats. Legal experts were shocked to learn Wednesday that the Obama administration wants to rely on that 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against al Qaeda for the new ISIS war.

“On its face this is an implausible argument because the 2001 AUMF requires a nexus to al Qaeda or associated forces of al Qaeda fighting the United States,” said Robert Chesney, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. “Since ISIS broke up with al Qaeda it’s hard to make that argument.”

The 2001 AUMF clearly doesn’t apply here, so the president doesn’t have the authority that he pretends to have. This is similar to the administration’s claim back in 2011 that U.S. forces weren’t engaged in “hostilities” and therefore Congressional authorization of the ongoing war in Libya wasn’t required. Since they can’t pretend that U.S. forces aren’t fighting a war this time, they have looked around for a fig leaf and chosen one of the weakest legal arguments they could find. They have staked out another flimsy, absurd position, and because they got away with it three years ago they probably assume they can do the same thing again.

It is a little strange that Obama wouldn’t ask for a new authorization specifically for attacking ISIS, since Congress and the public would appear to be behind the war at the moment. It seems unlikely that there would be a repeat of the Syria debate in Congress. If pressed to vote on this war, both houses would likely vote yes in large numbers. However, we already know that many Democrats in Congress don’t want to have to vote on this ahead of the midterms, and there are just as many Republicans that are happy to let the president start a war that they don’t have to vote on. That way all of the members can avoid taking a hard and potentially unpopular vote, and they can collectively avoid any responsibility for the war. They will probably be grateful that they can avoid voting on this war, since it seems likely to be an open-ended conflict and its goal of “destroying ISIS” still seems just as unrealistic as it was before the speech.

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Threat Inflation and Foreign Policy Debate

Mollie Hemingway is dissatisfied with the state of foreign policy debate defined by two “extremes”:

Yes, the debate here is dominated by the “We must intervene across the globe and spread democracy” crowd and the “these global threats are always overrated” crowd.

It would be more accurate to say that our foreign policy debate is typically dominated by the former from both parties, and there are also a relative few operating at the edges of that debate that criticize U.S. policies and object to threat inflation. Hemingway doesn’t like either “extreme,” and wants there to be some alternative in between them. I’m not sure where Hemingway would put realists on this spectrum, and they would seem to be the most likely representatives of the view that she supports, but she doesn’t specifically mention them one way or the other. All of this is fine as far as it goes, but it’s also a rather odd complaint. Most policy debates are defined to a large degree by politicians and activists with diametrically opposing views, and those views tend to be strongly held and expressed. Most people are going to sympathize with one side of the debate more often than the other, which doesn’t require them to agree with everything its loudest and most active advocates say or write.

Hemingway has also chosen a curious example to illustrate her point. On the specific question of ISIS and the threat it poses to the U.S., one of the “extremes” that she rejects is substantially correct about the extent of the threat and the other is not. She quotes Nick Gillespie, who argues that Americans shouldn’t panic about ISIS and objects that the threat to America has been wildly exaggerated, but she doesn’t ever tell us why Gillespie is mistaken. He belongs to the “threats are overrated” crowd, and apparently that’s enough for his argument to be dismissed. The government has said once again that there is no evidence that ISIS has plans to attack the U.S. The group also lacks the ability to do so. So the threat from ISIS to the United States really has been greatly exaggerated over the last few weeks, and that has been fueling the public’s mistaken impression that the U.S. is at risk of being attacked by them. When hawks declare ISIS to be an “imminent” or “existential” threat, as some have done, they are wrong on the facts and they are irresponsibly exaggerating the dangers to the U.S., and they are doing so in order to frighten Americans into supporting policies whose costs and risks haven’t been seriously thought through or debated. This has nothing to do with being “naive about how bad the world is or how much of a threat some groups and countries pose.” It has to do with accurately judging foreign threats and devising appropriate responses to them.

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The Immorality of Hawkish Moralizing

Max Boot is frustrated that the U.S. isn’t setting Ukraine up for more destruction:

Refusing to help the Ukrainians with military aid is not only stupid strategically. It is immoral. The Ukrainians will bear the risks of fighting the Russians to defend their country. It will be Ukrainians, not Americans, in harm’s way. The least we can do is to give them the tools to fight for their freedom.

It’s no surprise that this is where Boot’s “analysis” ends: throw weapons at the problem because that’s supposedly the moral thing to do. There is no consideration of what could happen to Ukraine if the U.S. did as he wanted, nor is there any thought given to the possibility that “helping” Ukraine in this way is the fastest way to ensure a larger, more destructive war that would be fought entirely in Ukraine. I’ll quote Lieven again:

For even if the West were to provide Kiev with enough military aid to give a real chance of crushing the rebels, this would also create a real chance of a full-scale Russian invasion. Such an invasion could only be stopped by the introduction of a Western army — something which is simply not a possibility. A Russian invasion would be a disaster for both Ukraine and Russia — and a disastrous humiliation for NATO and the West.

Simon Shuster pointed out how the introduction of Western-supplied weapons could be used by Moscow to gin up support for a larger war:

If Ukraine’s forces were equipped with Western arms, it might in fact be easier for Putin to justify a broader offensive against them. His narrative at home would no longer be about the “fascist” Ukrainian military and the beleaguered freedom fighters dying for their right to speak the Russian language. It would be about Western weapons slaughtering the ethnic Russians of eastern Ukraine.

Encouraging Ukraine to keep fighting a war it can’t win isn’t smart for the U.S., and it certainly isn’t moral. There are few policies less morally defensible than setting up another nation to suffer an even worse defeat so that we can say that we “did something” in a foreign conflict. As Shuster wrote, arming Ukraine “may do some good in assuaging the West’s wounded pride, but it would hardly help Ukraine find a way out of this war.”

At each stage in the Ukraine crisis and for many years before that, Russia hawks in the West have urged the U.S. and its allies to goad and provoke Russia on the assumption that Russia won’t respond. Then each time that Russia responds more aggressively than they thought possible, the same people insist on more goading and provoking in order to “stop” Russia from what it is doing, which of course just leads to another harsh Russian response. It doesn’t occur to them that Russia will most likely keep matching any action that the U.S. takes by taking even more aggressive measures of its own. The country that stands to lose the most from continuing this back-and-forth is Ukraine.

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Perpetual War for Perpetual War

Michael Auslin wants the U.S. to police the world for generations to come:

That, in turn, requires the United States to accept some kind of permanent war footing to prevent attacks on American soil and against American targets abroad. Moreover, Washington will regularly find itself involved in some manner in areas where there appears to be no direct threat to U.S. interests [bold mine-DL], since in a globalized world Americans cannot isolate themselves from terrorist threats unless they wish to curtail their investment, trading and traveling abroad. Like ancient Rome, America in the 21st century will have to man the frontiers for generations [bold mine-DL], accepting the draining costs of doing so (costs, it must be noted, that are physical and psychic for our service members, not just fiscal for taxpayers).

This is an appalling vision of America’s future role in the world, but it has the virtue of being refreshingly direct and honest about what Auslin means by “global order.” It means constant conflict for the U.S. for decades to come with no end in sight, and it means that the U.S. will be engaged in wars that truly have nothing to do with U.S. security. Even in a “globalized world,” there are some threats that aren’t directed at the U.S. and won’t affect our security, but Auslin wants us to make those our business as well. Instead of not going abroad in search of monsters to destroy, Auslin proposes that the U.S. be perpetually on patrol looking for even the slightest hint of disorder.

This is the third recent argument I’ve read that absurdly argues that the conduct of U.S. foreign policy should imitate “broken windows” policing, and this never makes any sense. Here’s what Auslin means by it:

When the United States chooses to ignore China’s coercion of the Philippines over disputed shoals, it encourages further attempts to take over territory. U.S. and NATO inaction in the face of Russia’s intervention in Crimea led to the loss of that territory to Moscow, and emboldened Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. American dithering clearly encouraged Putin’s aggressive opportunism, and now the risks of getting involved are greater than before.

In the future, a response can be attempted by quickly providing crucial intelligence, training foreign militaries, supplying vital (and lethal) military equipment, offering immediate economic aid, and placing U.S. (or NATO) forces as peacekeepers in threatened territory. A global broken-windows policy seeks to lower the possibility of future conflict by accepting more risk upfront in order to alter adversaries’ calculations and perceptions of the security environment.

Put another way, this involves taking dangerous and unnecessary actions in territorial disputes involving Russia and China that risk triggering a major war. The risks of involvement aren’t any greater later on than they are at the beginning, but they are a bit more obvious. By “accepting more risk upfront,” Auslin means inserting the U.S. into disputes and conflicts involving other major powers in a way that is bound to alarm the other governments and potentially commit the U.S. to unnecessary wars with them. It also doesn’t occur to Auslin that by openly taking sides in such disputes could encourage the ally or client to behave recklessly. If the U.S. gets in the habit of misleading allies and clients into believing that they have some sort of blank check from Washington, that could also end up causing a war that could otherwise be avoided. It doesn’t matter to Auslin that American security isn’t at stake in any of these disputes, because he wants to redefine the purpose of U.S. foreign policy to be one of defending poorly-defined “frontiers” all over the world in perpetuity. That is a completely unacceptable and unsustainable role for the U.S. in the world. The U.S. needs to be finding ways to reduce its commitments around the world instead of embracing foolish schemes for perpetual war.

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War Between Israel and Iran Isn’t Inevitable

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrongly imagines that war between Israel and Iran is “almost inevitable”:

And here is a sad truth: An Israeli war with Iran has become almost inevitable, and the Obama administration has played a big role in us getting to that point.

Gobry makes a fair point that the Libyan war probably made reaching a final nuclear deal with Iran harder. This is one of the things that critics of the Libyan war said at the time, and Gobry has made this point before. Even so, the Libyan intervention did not prevent the negotiation of the interim deal from happening, and it didn’t stop negotiations from continuing after that. If the Libyan war gave Iran’s government another reason to doubt that the U.S. would honor its agreements, that hasn’t stopped negotiations from proceeding.

The argument gets weaker from there. Gobry cites the Ukraine crisis as another disincentive for Iran to accept a deal on the nuclear issue:

Even though there’s not much the West can or should do about Ukraine, the lesson of the Ukraine drama is that Ukraine should not have given up its nukes.

There are a few reasons why this is incorrect. First, Ukraine couldn’t have afforded to keep or maintain its own nuclear arsenal, so keeping these weapons was never a real option. Agreeing to get rid of their nuclear weapons was the only realistic course of action for Ukraine’s government at the time. Second, even if Ukraine had somehow managed to hang on to its nukes and properly maintained them this would not have guaranteed protection against Russian interference and incursions. As Robert Farley points out in an interesting article on the lessons of the Falklands War, possessing nuclear weapons is no guarantee against conventional aggression by a neighbor. He also cites the experience of Israel in 1973, and he could just as well have added the 1999 Kargil war between Pakistan and India. In all of those cases, the attacking states were defeated by conventional means, but the nuclear-weapons states were not protected from conventional attack by possessing nuclear weapons.

A nuclear-armed Ukraine would not have been less vulnerable to the sort of subversion and interference that Russia has engaged in over the last six months. It is not as if Ukraine would launch a nuclear first strike on Russia over its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, since such a course of action would represent insane overkill and would lead to overwhelming retaliation that would destroy the country. Indeed, if Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons it would probably have caused Russia to be quicker to interfere in Ukraine’s affairs because of the fear of such weapons in the hands of what Moscow considered to be a hostile government. The Ukrainian and Iranian cases are a poor match overall:

The size alone of the Ukraine arsenal circa 1990s makes it a poor analogue to nonproliferation efforts vis-à-vis pre-nuclear or tipping point states, e.g., Iran, even at breakout.

On top of all this, there is no evidence that the Iranian government interprets the Ukrainian case as a cautionary tale against making a deal on the nuclear issue. So it’s not at all obvious that Iran has been so discouraged by these examples that it won’t conclude a comprehensive deal.

That brings us to the question of whether Israel will attack Iran anyway. Gobry bases most of this part of his argument around the frankly preposterous idea that the Iranian government may be prepared to commit national suicide:

Well, sometimes, people really are that irrational and fanatical. We don’t know if Iran’s leaders fit that description, but the Iran doves — think European diplomats and Western columnists — who categorically assume Iran’s leaders cannot possibly be this crazy are forgetting history.

Some people may be so self-destructive, but the reality is that no state has ever been this irrational and fanatical. It is one thing to say that there have been aggressive governments that waged overly ambitious conventional wars that have resulted in their destruction, and it is an entirely different thing to say that a government would knowingly invite its own annihilation–and that of its entire nation–for the sake of destroying another country. No government–not even the much more nightmarish government of North Korea–is so irrational or fanatical. The Iranian regime desires one thing above all else, which is to stay in power, and it can’t very well do that by starting a nuclear war that would definitely result in its destruction. Gobry is basing his analysis on an ideological fantasy and ignoring the evidence of what nuclear-weapons states have actually done for the last seventy years.

Gobry goes on to insist that no responsible Israeli government could take the chance that this is wrong. I don’t think that’s true, but the more relevant question is whether Israel could achieve anything by attacking Iran. The answer to that seems fairly clear: unless Israel wants to guarantee that Iran definitely acquires nuclear weapons and sooner rather than later, it won’t launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel would be extremely foolish to attack Iran when such an attack would almost certainly result in the outcome that the attack is supposed to prevent. Since I don’t assume the Israeli government to be especially irrational, either, an Israeli attack on Iran is not inevitable, and I would go so far as to say that I don’t think it all that likely.

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Why Webb Won’t Run

Noah Millman considers the benefits of a Jim Webb presidential campaign:

And, I think it would be very helpful on foreign policy in particular for Democratic primary voters to recognize that Clinton is all the way on the bleeding right edge of her party. I’d love to see a debate where Hillary Clinton faces off against Jim Webb, and Bernie Sanders, and Brian Schweitzer, and Russ Feingold, and Joe Biden, a group of politicians with plenty of disagreements between them (including on foreign policy), all attacking her for advocating a foreign policy that is far too militarized, aggressive and expansively ambitious. I suspect that would make a more powerful point than Webb being a fiercely solitary dissenter in a field dominated by Hillary, and populated otherwise by candidates who aren’t eager to rock the boat.

Like Millman, I think Webb is an interesting and impressive figure, and I was very pleased when he knocked George Allen out of the Senate in 2006. During his one term in office, he did some important work on veterans’ issues, and he took a principled and correct stand against Obama’s illegal war in Libya. His response to Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address was the only one I can recall from the last decade that wasn’t immediately irrelevant. His decision to run for office as a Democrat in large part because of his disgust with the Iraq war and Bush administration incompetence was one of the more meaningful rebukes to the GOP back then, and if Republican leaders were smarter they would have learned something from it. It would be good for the country and the Democratic primary process if he ran against Clinton and put some obstacles in the way of her coronation, but I’m not sure that I see any incentives for Webb to do this.

The Democratic field that Millman imagines above would be interesting to watch, but the field will probably end up being a much smaller and duller one filled with the likes of Martin O’Malley. His only distinctive foreign policy view seems to be that we shouldn’t try to invade Canada again. Unfortunately, the fact that Webb is a former Republican and only returned to the Democrats in the last ten years would be held against him by candidates and voters alike, and other non-Clinton candidates would probably be more inclined to go after him to establish their positions as the most plausible anti-Clinton alternative rather than ganging up on Clinton along with him. Maybe he’ll run in spite of all this, but it seems extremely unlikely.

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