Daniel Larison

Jindal’s Dangerous Rejection of Containment

Bobby Jindal’s candidacy may be pointless, but he made a statement in his announcement speech today that was very useful for understanding how many hawks think about foreign threats and the threats from jihadist groups in particular. He said:

Containment is a strategy for losers.

Jindal is badly wrong about this, but it’s worth noting because this has become something of a common refrain among the most vocal hawks in the 2016 race. Like advocates of “rollback” sixty years ago needed to portray anti-Soviet containment as weakness and appeasement, today’s hawks need to find a policy that is more aggressive against jihadists than whatever the current administration is doing so that they can attack Obama in the same way. In this case, Jindal insists that the U.S. must commit to “destroying” what he calls “radical Islam.” “It is time that we play to win again,” Jindal said, as if this were possible with the far-fetched goal he just established.

It’s odd to believe that it is within the power of our government or any collection of governments to “destroy” an ideology, but more to the point it is such an open-ended and overly ambitious goal that it commits the U.S. to perpetual war. Jindal’s goal is absurd and fantastical, and it is one that is bound to end in failure at great expense to the U.S. In fact, it is Jindal’s idea that the U.S. can “destroy radical Islam” that will put the U.S. on a path to suffering many unnecessary conflicts and many unnecessary losses. It’s not clear that something like a containment policy is the best response to the threats from various jihadist groups (and the comparison with Cold War-era containment can mislead us into thinking that the threat we face today is as great as it was then), but it is certainly preferable to the impossible mission that Jindal would set for us.

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Starving Yemen to Death

Richard Messenger/Flickr

Reuters reports on the continuing deterioration of conditions in Yemen:

“Yemen is also dependent on imports for 90 per cent of its food. What food and fuel does make it in is then not being distributed to where it is needed, because it is blocked by fighting on the ground,” Britain’s international development secretary, Justine Greening, said this week.

“Thousands of Yemenis have already lost their lives in this latest wave of violence – but millions more are at risk of starving by the end of the year.” [bold mine-DL]

It bears repeating that Yemen’s current humanitarian disaster would not be happening on such an extraordinary scale were it not for the Saudi-led campaign and blockade, and that campaign is made possible in part by U.S. support for the coalition in the form of refueling, weapons, and intelligence. The U.S. could and should withdraw that support at any time, and that might make the Saudis and their allies think again about whether to continue the war. If the blockade remains in place and conditions continue to deteriorate as they have since March, Yemen will be suffering from famine in just a few months’ time. That is just the most horrifying effect that the war is having on the country’s civilian population, but it is also one that could be prevented in whole or at least in part by the lifting of the blockade. Even if the Saudis didn’t halt their campaign all together, ending the blockade would prevent the starvation of millions of people. Unfortunately, there appears to be no pressure on Riyadh to do this, and based on the administration’s record thus far it doesn’t seem likely that there will be any.

The war on Yemen is beginning to get a little more notice in the Western press, but it continues to be one of the most ignored major stories in the world right now. It is not that surprising that a foreign conflict garners so little attention here in the U.S., but it is nonetheless striking that a war facilitated by the U.S. and waged by its clients continues to receive so little scrutiny or criticism. The total silence of so-called “humanitarian” interventionists and other “values”-driven hawks regarding this war continues, but that is probably the least surprising thing of all. It goes without saying that if another gang of authoritarian states not aligned with the U.S. were doing this to one of their neighbors, we would likely be hearing ringing condemnations from members of Congress on a daily basis. When the same thing is done by U.S. clients with Washington’s support, none of our otherwise meddlesome politicians has anything bad to say about it.

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What’s the Point of a Jindal Candidacy?

Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock.com

Harry Enten is puzzled by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s decision to run for president now instead of four years ago:

When you put it all together, it’s unclear why Jindal is running. He has little shot of winning, and other candidates are articulating his ideological views.

Enten has very thoroughly covered the reasons why Jindal’s bid makes no sense this year. Like Christie, Jindal is extremely unpopular in his own state. Oddly enough, this is the result of implementing an agenda shaped by his ambitions to be a presidential candidate. He’s hardly the only governor to have made poor and irresponsible fiscal decisions, but Jindal has done so out of the belief that it would propel him to higher office. As it turns out, it will propel him nowhere. Jindal also has the unusual profile of a former policy wonk who has chosen to adopt a pseudo-populist persona over the last several years. This puts him in the odd position of playing at being a demagogue when his main qualification was supposed to be his ability to understand and think through difficult policy problems.

I’d just add that the same thing that Enten said of Jindal could be said (and has been said) about most of the candidates running this year. As it is in Jindal’s case, it’s unclear why many of them are running, most have no realistic shot at winning the nomination, and most aren’t adding anything to the debate except more noise. Almost all of them are running as generic, party-line candidates, so it’s not as if most of them are representing constituencies or ideas that would otherwise be ignored. Before it’s all over, we’ll have more than a dozen candidates endorsing mostly identical policies, and for most of them it will have been a huge waste of time and effort. In Jindal’s case, it will have been even worse, since he ran his state’s finances into the ground to get his chance to be a losing candidate.

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Why the Failed War on Yemen Continues

Asher Orkaby remarks on the failure of the Saudi-led war on Yemen:

Despite emerging evidence that the Saudi-coalition’s aerial campaign is not only ineffective but counterproductive to the promotion of a political settlement in Yemen, the bombings continue with no sign of concluding. The relentless pursuit of an aggressive military stance towards the Houthi movement is in part a reflection of Saudi Arabia’s struggle against the ghost of Iranian involvement in South Arabia. There is no Saudi exit strategy in which the bombing can stop, short of a complete Houthi political withdrawal. Otherwise, this war will demonstrate a weakness in Saudi policy towards Iran.

This is the other trap that a government creates for itself when it foolishly opts to go to war to “send a message” to its rival. If the war goes badly and is failing to achieve its objectives, the Saudi government can’t simply call of the reckless intervention for fear of appearing to have “lost” to Iran. Because it is using the campaign to demonstrate its “resolve” in dealing with its rival, it cannot back down from its calamitous and costly blunder without appearing to yield to the rival, and for that reason it will persist in a ruinous course of action in order to avoid appearing “weak.” Such are the bitter fruits of dimwitted preoccupations with “credibility” and “resolve.”

This is a ridiculous attitude, but unfortunately it is quite a common one. It is even more ridiculous in this case, since attacking Yemen did nothing to harm Iran and halting the campaign now would not represent an Iranian victory. The Saudis are now too invested in the lie they told about Iranian “expansionism” that they used to start their war, and so they cannot put an end to what everyone can see to be a failed military intervention. The Saudis are prisoners of their own propaganda and their obsession with Iran, and in the process they are destroying Yemen for no reason at all.

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Sen. Murphy’s Progressive Foreign Policy Quest

In recent months, Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy has been talking up the need to fashion a distinctive progressive foreign policy. He explained the need for this back in May, offered a broad outline of his views with two of his Democratic colleagues in a recent Foreign Affairs article, and talked more about this with Vox’s Zack Beauchamp this week. There are some interesting ideas in both articles, but especially in the Foreign Affairs article they were buried under an avalanche of cliches.

Despite the obvious desire on Murphy’s part to get out of the Democratic “defensive crouch” on foreign policy, he and his colleagues felt obliged to endorse false claims about the dangers the U.S. faces when they start by saying that the U.S. “faces unprecedented challenges abroad.” That’s untrue, and it concedes so much to the hawks in the debate from the beginning that it almost cancels out the rest of the argument. Even though Murphy has stated that the U.S. needs a “new humility to our foreign policy, with less emphasis on short- term influencers like military intervention and aid,” he has been a leading proponent of sending arms to Ukraine. Murphy and his colleagues emphasize the importance of multilateral support for military intervention, but this misses that there have been ill-conceived, disastrous wars with multilateral backing and in some cases even with U.N. approval (e.g., the Libyan war). It may be preferable to have multilateral support, but this skips over the more important question of whether these wars are necessary at all.

That brings us to the larger problem with the progressive foreign policy vision sketched out by Murphy and his colleagues. They say that “we believe that when military action is deemed necessary for reasons other than self-defense, it should serve as a shaping mechanism for local political solutions,” but the raises the question: why is military action ever “deemed necessary” when it is not for self-defense? The senators go on to say that “[m]ilitary interventions should focus on creating space for local political solutions to the underlying problems for unrest,” but it is often the case that these interventions are a substitute for trying to find a political solution to a conflict, or they may be an attempt to prevent a political solution that is disadvantageous to the intervening governments’ favored side. Instead of facilitating a political compromise between a regime and its opponents, foreign military intervention usually hardens the positions of both sides, intensifies the conflict, and makes a resolution to the conflict harder to achieve. We are seeing that happening in Yemen right now.

Murphy’s project is also heavily weighed down by the partisan need to defend Hillary Clinton, whose foreign policy record mostly isn’t compatible with what Murphy is promoting. That forces Murphy into offering contorted defenses of Clinton that undermine everything else he’s trying to do. Here is Murphy on Clinton and her vote for the Iraq war from the Vox interview:

Very clearly, Secretary Clinton understands the mistakes of the Iraq war. She admits that she made a mistake in voting for it, and is determined to use her presidency as a way to learn those lessons. She’s learned them in a very personal way, which arguably will make her more committed to this new vision of American foreign policy abroad than someone who hadn’t made those mistakes themselves.

I don’t really expect Murphy to denounce the prohibitive favorite for his party’s nomination, but he shouldn’t be covering for her bad foreign policy judgment. There is every reason to doubt that Clinton really understands the mistakes of the Iraq war. The Libyan war is proof that she hasn’t absorbed most of its most important lessons. Murphy doesn’t directly address her role in the Libyan war except to say that he disagreed with her about it, but that just highlights the contradiction between what Clinton thinks “smart power” means in practice and what Murphy wants it to mean. Saying that Clinton will be more committed to “this new vision” because of her past blunders would seem to be the definition of wishful thinking.

Murphy is on the right track in some of what he is saying on foreign policy, but there are still quite a few contradictions and flaws that need to be fixed before his progressive foreign policy can be a coherent alternative.

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The Folly of Using War to “Send a Message”

This line from Jeremy Bowen’s report on Yemen for the BBC stood out to me:

But for Saudi Arabia, sending a message to Iran is at least as important as trying to bend the Houthis to their will.

I don’t doubt that the Saudis want to “send a message” to Iran that they are hostile to Iranian influence, but it’s not clear how launching a reckless military intervention in a country where Iran had minimal influence was going to deliver the message they wanted sent. The war on Yemen hasn’t done any harm to Iran, whose influence there has been grossly exaggerated from the start, and the war has given Iran an occasion to denounce the Saudis for a policy in Yemen that has had genuinely appalling effects. If the Saudis wanted to “send a message” that their new leadership is foolish and eager to do stupid and costly things, they have succeeded. If the war was supposed to intimidate Iran’s government, I’m not sure how fighting a war that highlights Saudi incompetence and limitations accomplishes that.

Many governments make the mistake of thinking that they can “send a message” to their rivals by offering a show of “strength,” but the message that is received is almost always not the one that the government intended to send. In many cases, the “message” that the rival receives is far closer to the opposite of the “message” the government’s leadership wanted to convey. Instead of impressing them with a show of “strength,” the government demonstrates its poor judgment and short-sightedness. Instead of deterring the rival from hostile acts, the supposed show of “strength” ends up inviting more of them. Using war to “send a message” to a rival state is foolish, and it frequently comes back to haunt the government that tries it.

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Oren and the Absurd “No Daylight” Standard

Steven Cook rejects Michael Oren’s idea that there is a “no daylight” rule for the U.S.-Israel relationship:

Contrary to Oren, there never was a “no daylight” principle and demanding that there was one distorts the historical record and sets up the U.S.-Israel relationship for future trouble….By setting this impossible-to-meet standard, Oren’s book thus seems destined to do precisely the opposite of what he wants for U.S.-Israel ties.

Cook is right that Oren is engaged in myth-making, but my guess is that Oren’s goal in writing the book is to make public disagreement between the U.S. and Israel seem inappropriate and a “violation” of the relationship itself. Perhaps the hope is to create the illusion that it is something that has only happened under Obama, which allows hawkish Israelis and their supporters in the U.S. to dismiss the tensions in the relationship as being mostly Obama’s doing. That way, they can pretend that things can get back to “normal” under the next administration and can treat the Obama years as an “aberration.”

In other words, Oren’s argument distorts the historical record, but distorting the record is the point of the exercise because the record is not so flattering to past and present Israeli governments. If that’s right, the purpose of all this is not to improve the U.S.-Israel relationship, but rather aims to make the relationship even more dysfunctional and one-sided than it already is. As Cook says, the notion that there will ever be a “no daylight” arrangement between the U.S. and Israel is erroneous, but by insisting on this impossible standard Oren probably hopes to make it easier to portray any future disagreement as a deviation from the “principles” of the relationship. The point of all this is to make it more difficult for the U.S. to differ with Israel on major issues.

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Republicans and the Libyan War

Rick Perry recently gave a muddled answer to what he would have done in Libya if he had been president in 2011:

I would have had a coalition, a coalition that the U.S. was substantially more engaged with than what we had in this case. So what the outcome would have been — most likely, and again knowing what we know today, having the stability in Libya would have been better for that region than this chaos that we see today.

To be charitable, this is a lousy response. Perry is acknowledging that he would have attacked Libya, but would have made sure that the U.S. was “more engaged” than it was. That’s not very helpful. He doesn’t commit to anything specific, but he gestures at his preference for deeper U.S. involvement. This is actually the worst possible answer that a candidate could give. He endorses an unnecessary war, quibbles with the way that it was waged, and then says that the U.S. would have a larger commitment in Libya if he had been president.

The Libyan war was a disaster first and foremost for the people of Libya, but if Perry and other hawks like him had their way it would also have been an ongoing problem for the U.S. as well. In his characteristically bumbling way, Perry has pointed out once again the GOP’s inability to criticize the administration or Hillary Clinton on Libya. Almost all of the 2016 candidates were in favor of the intervention at the time, and none of these hawks can credibly attack either Obama or Clinton on this issue. Perry was one of many hawks that celebrated the fall of the old Libyan government, yet by his own admission he now doubts that it was in the U.S. interest to remove him from power. That suggests that his views on these matters are changeable and opportunistic. It also shows that he has no problem with any military intervention while it is happening. Like many other hawks, he discovers only in hindsight that an unnecessary war for regime change might have been in error.

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Perry and Hawkish Illusions of Control

Rick Perry recently offered a reminder that his foreign policy judgment isn’t very good:

Asked how he would have handled the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Perry sought to contrast that situation with the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. In the former, Perry says President Obama should have stood more solidly behind Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, while in the latter he says the president should have more forcefully stood on the side of the Iranian protesters.

Perry’s positions are predictable and typical of hawkish critics of the administration, but the most important thing to note here is that Perry thinks that the U.S. ought to have taken the most futile position possible in both cases under the circumstances. Standing behind Mubarak was a losing proposition for the U.S. in early 2011. Even Mubarak’s supposed allies in the Egyptian military were ready to cut him loose when he became a liability, so it would have been foolish to be more pro-Mubarak than they were. Stronger U.S. backing for him would not have mattered very much, and would have left the U.S. defending a dictator that virtually no one in his country was prepared to defend. Siding “more forcefully” with Iranian protesters wouldn’t have caused the regime to “fail,” as Perry imagines, not least since the Green movement was not seeking the overthrow of the Iranian regime, but would have tarred the protesters through association with U.S. backing. If Perry had his way, the U.S. would have rallied behind two losing causes, and it would achieved nothing except to demonstrate American obliviousness to the internal conditions in both Egypt and Iran.

Perry’s criticisms are unsurprisingly wrongheaded, but they also reflect the extent to which hawks like Perry pretend that U.S. action or inaction is the decisive factor in foreign political crises. If Obama had been more supportive of Mubarak and more supportive of the Green movement, it is almost certainly the case that things in both places would have been very similar to what they were. Hawks consistently overrate U.S. influence in other countries’ political developments, and they overestimate the ability of our government to influence events in other parts of the world according to Washington’s preferences. The last thing that the U.S. needs is to have a president with an exaggerated belief in the ability of the U.S. to “shape” the politics of other nations.

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Iran Hawks’ Enduring Hostility to Diplomacy

Paul Pillar swats down one of the dumber hawkish attacks on the negotiations with Iran:

Among the criticisms, as if this really should count as criticism, have been observations that the United States has not rigidly held to what may have been earlier positions and demands. This sort of flak is found, for example, in a recent letter to the president from Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker expresses dismay about how the negotiations have involved movement from the administration’s “original goals and statements,” and he voices “alarm” about reports of—you’d better sit down before reading this—“potential concessions” by the United States on some issues on which full agreement has yet to be reached.

The proper response to such statements is: yes, the United States has been making concessions, and the Iranians have been making even more—that’s called negotiating.

Iran hawks are bothered by the fact that the U.S. has been willing to be flexible and to move away from some of its earlier maximalist positions in order to reach an agreement. They claim that they would accept a deal that includes those maximalist demands, but by taking that position they are admitting they would never accept any achievable deal. If they had had their way, there would have been no progress in the talks, no interim agreement, and no chance of a comprehensive deal, because they would not want to give an inch to the Iranian side. They would refuse to budge even if it meant achieving the main goal of keeping Iran from being able to build a nuclear weapon, because they are instinctively hostile to diplomacy and the compromises it always requires.

Since Iran hawks are generally opposed to reaching any agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue that doesn’t involve total Iranian capitulation, it is to be expected that they would find fault with making the necessary minimal concessions to secure a deal. Their view of negotiation is that the U.S. should tell the Iranians how high to jump and the Iranians should then eagerly comply, and failure to comply fully should then be punished with additional sanctions. That is, they are offended by the very idea of negotiating with Iran in the first place, and they don’t accept that there are limits to what Iran’s government can and will concede. They cite any concessions from the P5+1 side as proof that the deal is “bad” when they have long ago declared their hostility to any agreement that might be reached. Even though the vast majority of concessions are necessarily on the Iranian side, Iran hawks have no problem misrepresenting any agreement as a “giveaway” to the side that is being forced to limit its nuclear program under pressure. The P5+1 might get the bulk of the concessions it is seeking and Iran might get just a few, but as far as Iran hawks are concerned any deal in which Iran gets anything represents our “surrender” to them. This is an absurd view of any diplomatic process, but it is the one that Iran hawks have had from the start.

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