Daniel Larison

Why Can’t the U.S. Abandon Failed Policies?

The Trump administration’s stubborn insistence on the goal of North Korean denuclearization ignores reality:

The Trump administration won’t admit it, but North Korea is now a nuclear weapons power, analysts say. Why would Kim Jong Un’s cash-strapped regime spend so much time and money on building these weapons only to give them up? And even if they were prepared to bargain them away eventually, why would they do so now, when Trump and his top aides are threatening military action?

“We’ve seen no indication in recent years that they are interested in denuclearization,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a North Korea expert at Yale Law School who was an Asia adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “So it’s difficult to rationalize how we are still so fixated on it.”

Since North Korea won’t be denuclearized, it doesn’t make sense to keep this as the goal of U.S. policy. The U.S. can’t achieve the goal, and by continuing to pursue it there is a serious risk of blundering into or provoking an avoidable war. If that is the case, why is our government so determined to pursue the impossible?

Our political culture has created a number of perverse incentives and bad habits that lock Washington into failed policies and perpetuate them long after they should have been abandoned. We have seen this many times over the years with sanctions and embargoes that don’t work but never end, we have seen it with desultory wars that no president is willing to stop waging, and now we see it with the failed effort to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Our political culture tends to reward those that spin failure and usually punishes those that expose policy failures for what they are. Whenever someone acknowledges that a policy has failed, he is typically accused of being a “defeatist,” charged with having sympathy with our adversaries, and faulted for not having enough “resolve.” There are also constituencies that have a vested interest in keeping failed policies going indefinitely, and the longer the failed policy has been in place the more influence the people that support it tend to have. Even if the policy is broadly unpopular, it can keep going for a very long time so long as a vocal and intense group of supporters fights to preserve it.

Our politicians’ inordinate obsession with “strength” and “leadership” makes it extremely difficult to admit that a policy pursued by multiple administrations has failed, because it shows that there are definite limits to American power that most of our political leaders and policymakers don’t want to acknowledge. This is particularly the case when the U.S. has attempted to compel a “rogue” regime to fall in line and been unable to force it to accept our government’s demands. No one wants to be seen as the one who accepted what our government previously declared to be “unacceptable,” because no one wants to be opened up to the seemingly inevitable charge of “appeasement” that partisan and ideological critics will make.

Failed punitive policies are often the hardest to dismantle for fear of appearing “soft” on the targeted regime. Instead of questioning whether punitive measures make sense and have the desired effect, it is much easier for our politicians and policymakers to pile on more sanctions and demands. Partisan critics of a president are more likely to blame him for failing to “stop” a foreign government from doing undesirable things than they are to fault him for pursuing an unrealistic goal. To make matters worse, the mind-numbing effects of foreign policy consensus on constructive debate and criticism are most powerful on the issues where debate and criticism are most desperately needed.

The best thing that critics of our failed North Korea policy can do is to keep emphasizing the impossibility of denuclearization and the extremely high costs of continuing down our current path. Instead of faulting the administration for “failing” to stop Kim from his latest provocations, Trump’s critics would do well to chide him for taking the U.S. down a dead-end road.

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We Must Reject Preventive War in Korea

Kori Schake observes how similar Trump administration statements about North Korea are to statements from Bush administration officials when they were arguing for the invasion of Iraq. She concludes:

One area in which the Trump administration differs from Bush in 2003 is that President Bush invested his political capital in making the administration’s case to the American public and internationally. Neither President Trump nor his Cabinet have done anywhere near the kind of spadework necessary to bring Americans along for a war that will require calling up reserve military forces, kill tens if not hundreds of thousands of South Koreans, reshape how the world views America, and consume all the political energy of the Trump presidency.

President Trump was derisive about the Bush administration’s mistakes in the Iraq war; it would be doubly tragic for him to repeat them. If the Trump administration isn’t re-examining their assumptions, they desperately need to be. They’re lurching arrogantly toward disaster.

The two most striking similarities between Bush-era rhetoric about Iraq and the current administration’s public claims about North Korea are the emphasis on the irrationality of their government and the insistence that deterrence cannot work. Both were nonsense when Bush and his allies said these things about Saddam Hussein and his government, and both are nonsense when applied to the North Korean regime. Just as the Iraqi government was contained and could be deterred, so, too, the North Korean government is contained and can be deterred. The North Korean government is primarily interested in self-preservation, and it is for this reason that they have acquired their own deterrent. The repeated denials of these obvious facts by top administration officials, including both the president and his National Security Advisor, are very alarming, and they are all the more so because it makes no sense to abandon deterrence in this case.

North Korea has been deterred for more than sixty years, and nothing has happened in the last few years that would make deterrence any less effective than it has been for all that time. To abandon deterrence for preventive war in Korea is to give up on a policy that has succeeded for over half a century in maintaining peace and security for one that is guaranteed to devastate the region. Attacking North Korea would very likely precipitate a nuclear exchange or at the very least cause the North Korean government to use its nuclear weapons on South Korea, Japan, and probably on the U.S. as well. Millions of people at a minimum would perish, and all of it would have been entirely unnecessary and avoidable.

The Bush administration presided over a costly disaster in Iraq by waging a preventive war that it didn’t have to start. It would be even worse for a later administration to repeat that error on a much larger scale against an adversary that can inflict enormous damage on the U.S. and our allies. The costs of a new war in Korea would be much higher than the unacceptable costs of the Iraq war, and starting such a war would make the U.S. an international pariah to a much greater extent than anything we have seen in at least the last forty years.

It is hard to believe that we are once again being presented with a push for illegal preventive war so soon after the Iraq debacle. Unfortunately, thanks to the irresponsible rhetoric of administration officials, the unrealistic goal of our North Korea policy, and the dangerously militaristic approach to the issue that the president has taken to date, the U.S. finds itself being led towards a major war that would be a catastrophe for all involved. It is imperative that Congress and the public strongly oppose any proposed attack on North Korea. Preventive war in Korea would be wrong and illegal, and it would have disastrous consequences. Americans must absolutely reject it.

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Tom Cotton, Perpetual Warmonger

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Michael Vadon / Wikimedia Commons

The Wall Street Journal interview with Sen. Tom Cotton was a useful reminder that he is every bit as fanatical on foreign policy as he seems to be:

When it comes to America’s present challenges—from Iran to North Korea, China to Russia, Syria to Ukraine—Mr. Cotton, a conservative Republican, is squarely on Team [Teddy] Roosevelt. “There is always a military option,” he says. “That is the case everywhere in the world.”

There might technically be a “military option” in every case, but only madmen would always prefer that option over the alternatives. One of the many problems with Cotton’s worldview is that he favors military action when none is needed and other responses would either be more effective or less costly or both. The only military intervention he can bring himself to criticize is the Libyan war, and then only because it gives him a chance to score points on Obama for not intervening more aggressively in Syria:

President Obama, Mr. Cotton argues, “probably did the wrong thing” in helping to oust Moammar Gadhafi while leaving Bashar Assad alone. If the U.S. had intervened in Syria and not Libya, “we might have had a happier end in both.”

Even when Cotton allows for the possibility that the Libyan war did more harm than good, he can’t seem to fathom that a more aggressive intervention in Syria would have been far more destructive and costly. He also doesn’t seem to understand that a deeper intervention in Syria would have been extremely unpopular with the very people he claims to be representing. He pretends to speak for “Jacksonian Americans” unhappy with “plainly unwise” interventions, but in the next breath complains that the U.S. wasn’t more deeply entangled in Syria in a civil war that most Americans have never wanted to be involved in at all. The Libyan war was destructive and “plainly unwise,” as my colleague Matt Purple reminded us earlier this week, but what Cotton is talking about would have been and still would be an open-ended war that risks conflict with Russia and Iran. Cotton would trade one disaster for a much larger one and consider it a shrewd bargain.

If there’s one thing that links many of Cotton’s positions together, it is hostility to Iran. That would account for his insistence that the U.S. should have intervened against Assad, and it explains his obsessive focus on sabotaging the nuclear deal. He is also remarkably dismissive of the costs of attacking Iran:

“Any military action against Iran,” he says, “would look more like Operation Desert Fox from Iraq in December of 1998 or Operation El Dorado Canyon in Libya in 1986.” Those were limited bombing campaigns designed to punish misbehaving regimes. Mr. Cotton insists—controversially—that such an attack on Iran would not require a sustained military commitment: “It would be primarily a naval and air attack against its nuclear infrastructure.”

Cotton is a veteran of the Iraq war, so it is a bit strange that he seems so confident that the extent of a foreign war would be limited to what the U.S. intends to do while ignoring what the other side might do in response. As Harry Kazianis pointed out in a recent article, attacking Iran would not be as easy or cheap as the brief air campaigns that Cotton is talking about. A “naval and air attack against its nuclear infrastructure” could quickly escalate into a fight with more American casualties than we have seen in a long time. Unlike other adversaries that the U.S. has periodically bombed since the end of the Cold War, Iran has the capability to fight back and inflict serious losses. Every advocate of a war of choice always tells us that it will be brief, easy, and cheap, and events always prove them wrong.

What makes Cotton’s warmongering all the more worrisome is that the military action he favors taking is always unnecessary. There is no U.S. security interest or commitment that requires intervention in Syria or the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and there is no legal justification for U.S. military action against the Syrian and Iranian governments. Like other hard-liners, Cotton has a vastly exaggerated definition of American interests, blows foreign threats out of proportion, and has no problem with starting illegal wars. Cotton is offering “Jacksonian America” a future filled with an unending series of unnecessary wars whose costs will be far higher than he claims, and if they are wise all Americans will reject him and the fanatical foreign policy he is trying to sell them.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The ideologues who wrecked Libya. Matt Purple considers the consequences of the Libyan war six years after the “model” intervention ended.

Why is Trump undoing decades of U.S. policy on Jerusalem? Shibley Telhami decries Trump’s illogical decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Why the world doesn’t recognize Jerusalem. David Green briefly reviews the history of the city’s status.

Tillerson arrives in Europe like a “ghost ship.” Judah Grunstein comments on the cool reception that the Secretary of State received on his latest foreign trip.

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The Collective Punishment of Yemen Must Stop

The blockade starving Yemen of essential goods remains in force, and it is depriving millions of vital fuel supplies:

No fuel shipments have reached Yemen’s largest port for a month, a Reuters analysis of port and ship tracking data shows, as a Saudi Arabian-led blockade on the war-torn country tightens despite international calls for the siege to end.

Tankers laden with oil have turned away from Hodeida, the biggest entry point for cargo to the devastated north, without unloading. The United Nations’ body tasked with inspecting ships seeking to enter the area said on Wednesday it could not say when such ships would be allowed through.

The shortage means areas hardest hit by war, malnutrition and cholera lack functioning hospital generators, cooking fuel and water pumps. It also makes it harder to move food and medical aid around the country.

So long as the Saudi-led coalition keeps out commercial imports of food, medicine, and fuel, thousands upon thousands of Yemenis will die every month from starvation and disease that could have been prevented and/or treated. The famine that aid agencies have predicted has not been averted and cannot be averted by the trickle of humanitarian assistance that the coalition is allowing in. A full lifting of the blockade is the only sure way to prevent this catastrophe from consuming millions of innocent lives. The lack of fuel to run water pumps is especially dangerous because it means that millions of Yemeni civilians do not have clean drinking water, and that makes the spread of water-borne diseases more likely. Yemen has already enduring the worst and fastest-spreading cholera epidemic ever recorded, and the blockade is making the continued spread of the disease more likely while severely impeding efforts to combat the epidemic.

The tightened blockade has already driven up the number of Yemenis on the verge of famine from seven million to eight and a half million:

Over 17 million Yemenis (close to two-thirds of the population) is food insecure while a staggering 8.5 million people are on the brink of starvation.

In all, close to 21 million people across Yemen are in need of humanitarian or protection support.

Those numbers will keep rising as long as the coalition’s cruel collective punishment of the people of Yemen is permitted to continue.

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Trump’s ‘Recognition of Reality’

The main defense of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is that the president is merely acknowledging the obvious. As Trump said in his remarks yesterday, formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is “nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” That’s not really true, as advocates of this move have long understood. The issues at stake include Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem and the Palestinian aspiration to make East Jerusalem their capital. Giving formal recognition to one side’s claim while completely ignoring the other isn’t a “recognition” of reality, but rather a blatant effort to skew things even more in favor of the side whose claim is being endorsed.

There are many “realities” that the U.S. doesn’t formally recognize around the world. I suspect most of the enthusiasts of Trump’s decision on Jerusalem wouldn’t be interested in having him formally acknowledge the “reality” that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are no longer part of Georgia or that Crimea no longer belongs to Ukraine, and I am certain they would accuse him of the worst sort of appeasement if Trump gave official recognition to those “realities.” Those things aren’t likely to change, but it doesn’t follow from this that Washington must give them formal recognition. The U.S. doesn’t recognize these “realities” because our government doesn’t accept their legitimacy. When the U.S. confers recognition on Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it lends legitimacy to an illegal occupation and denies the rights of the other party to the conflict. That isn’t a “recognition of reality,” but part of an ongoing effort to change the political landscape to ensure that no Palestinian state ever comes into being. Contra Trump, that isn’t the “right thing to do,” but another example of a one-sided policy that is now even worse.

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Trump’s Ridiculous Announcement on Jerusalem

Trump announced U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital earlier today. His remarks did nothing to allay the suspicion that he and his advisers don’t know what they’re doing:

I’ve judged this course of action to be in the best interests of the United States of America and the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This is a long overdue step to advance the peace process. And to work towards a lasting agreement.

This is either profoundly cynical or hopelessly out of touch with reality. What Trump did today won’t advance “the peace process.” There may not be much of a process to be advanced in any case, but this definitely snuffs it out for the foreseeable future. There will be no “work towards a lasting agreement” when a major power unilaterally decides to break with its existing policy and severely disadvantages one of the parties in any future negotiations. If one wanted to destroy confidence and trust in the U.S., this is the sort of thing one would do.

Trump describes what he did as proof of his “fresh thinking,” but there is nothing more stale and tired than having our government fully taking the Israeli side in this conflict. He can insist all he likes that the decision “is not intended in any way to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement,” but the action proves that there is no such commitment. It will be interpreted as proof of our government’s bias and bad faith, and it is ridiculous to expect other nations to interpret it any other way.

The best that can be said about Trump’s remarks is that he has to be delusional if he thinks that today’s announcement is compatible with making progress in securing a negotiated settlement. Any goodwill the Trump administration might have enjoyed with the Palestinians has been squandered for no reason, and Trump has now made it politically impossible for any Palestinian leader to be seen cooperating with the U.S.

Worse still, U.S. officials somehow imagine that abandoning decades of U.S. policy and doing something that the entire world opposes will earn Trump international respect:

White House officials think Trump’s decision to follow through on his campaign promise — even if only partially — strengthens his credibility around the world as a someone who stands by his word, isn’t intimidated by threats, and doesn’t cave to international pressure.

Trump’s willingness to follow through on destructive campaign promises gains the U.S. nothing. Other leaders won’t respect a decision that they regard as deeply flawed and unnecessary, and they aren’t going to give Trump credit for doing something they consider folly. Trump’s decision will reinforce the impression that he is reckless and irresponsible, and it will show both allies and adversaries that he gives no thought to the possible negative consequences of his actions.

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Our Perpetual, Illegal War in Syria

Syria’s famine sparked its civil war (Piotr Krzeslak/Shutterstock)

The Pentagon confirmed that U.S. forces will be staying in Syria forever:

The US military plans to stay in Syria as long as necessary to ensure the Islamic State group does not return, a Pentagon official told AFP on Tuesday.

“We are going to maintain our commitment on the ground as long as we need to, to support our partners and prevent the return of terrorist groups,” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said.

If “supporting partners” and “preventing” terrorist groups from returning are the reasons for keeping U.S. forces in Syria, there will never be a time when those forces won’t be “needed.” There will always be some group that the U.S. can identify as a “partner” that we must not “abandon,” and there will always be the possibility that a terrorist group could enter Syria at some point in the future. Thanks to the Trump administration’s policy, the U.S. is going to be policing some part of Syria with no end in sight. It is mission creep of the mindless sort, and sooner or later it is going to cost the lives of Americans that should never have been there.

It would be one thing if “our commitment” in Syria had been made by Congress and was in any way related to U.S. security, but it wasn’t and it isn’t. U.S. forces have been operating illegally inside Syria for three years. Congress never authorized any of this, and there was certainly never any approval of an open-ended deployment in another country’s territory without their government’s permission. Every day that U.S. forces operate inside Syria without their government’s approval, the U.S. is flagrantly violating international law. Every day that U.S. forces stay in Syria is another day when they are in danger of clashing with the Syrian military and the forces of Syria’s patrons. Their presence needlessly exposes them to danger in a country where the U.S. has little at stake, and it runs the risk of sparking a larger conflict as long as they remain there.

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Trump’s Costly Jerusalem Blunder

Trump confirmed his intention to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital this week in a series of calls with regional leaders:

President Trump told Israeli and Arab leaders on Tuesday that he plans to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a symbolically fraught move that would upend decades of American policy and upset efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr. Trump is expected to announce his decision on Wednesday, two days after the expiration of a deadline for him to decide whether to keep the American Embassy in Tel Aviv.

If Trump goes through with this, it will be a terrible blunder that could have dire consequences for all concerned. I have listed some of those possible consequences in my recent posts on the subject, and I fear that the reactions to this decision could be much worse than most of us expect. Doing this would destroy any remaining illusions that the U.S. could be a responsible mediator in this conflict. The U.S. has never been an “honest broker” between the two sides, and this would do away with that pretense once and for all. This decision would impose significant diplomatic costs on the U.S. that will make it harder to advance American interests in many parts of the world, and American diplomats will be at higher risk of attack because of it.

Shibley Telhami considers the news of Trump’s upcoming decision, and wonders why he is doing it:

No one, not even President Donald Trump, is arguing that such a move would be helpful to American Middle East policy. This begs the question: Why is Trump doing this?

Trump certainly doesn’t need to solidify his pro-Israel credentials; three of his key Middle East advisers are known to be sympathetic with the Israeli right. More importantly, the American public, including his Republican core, already thinks his policy is pro-Israel.

I sympathize with Telhami’s exasperation, but I may have some suggestions for why Trump wants to do this. Trump is a “pro-Israel” hawk surrounded by pro-settler hard-liners, so his instinct is to indulge Israel at the expense of its neighbors. This decision would do that and more. Despite his talk about wanting to make a deal between Israelis and Palestinians, Trump has obvious contempt for successful diplomacy that requires compromise, so telling him that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would destroy the chances of a peace agreement doesn’t mean anything to him. He is a fan of taking unilateral action, and he thinks that he can pressure others into making concessions by breaking existing U.S. commitments. On foreign policy, Trump has often made a point of doing the opposite of whatever Obama did, and insofar as Obama was perceived as being too “tough” on Israel Trump wants to go as far in the other direction as he possibly can. In the end, it is probably the desire for praise and flattery that matters most to him. There is no benefit for the U.S. to be had in any of this, but Trump is doing it just so that hard-liners will congratulate him for being an extremely “pro-Israel” president.

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The Saudi Blockade Keeps Killing Yemenis with Starvation and Disease

Dan de Luce and Robbie Gramer report on the latest effort in the Senate to pressure the Trump administration on Yemen:

One Republican lawmaker is waging a quiet battle to persuade the Donald Trump administration to pressure Saudi Arabia to end its stranglehold on aid to Yemen, which is facing a spiraling humanitarian crisis with millions of lives threatened by disease and hunger. A Saudi-imposed blockade on fuel and other supplies is the main cause of the man-made catastrophe, aid agencies say, as Riyadh pursues its war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, is holding up the confirmation of the State Department’s nominee for legal advisor, former George W. Bush official Jennifer Newstead, until the Trump administration takes steps to force its Saudi ally to ease the blockade and allow more humanitarian aid into Yemen.

Sen. Young has been doing important work in calling attention to the harmful effects of the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade and their resistance to replacing the damaged and destroyed cranes at the port of Hodeidah. As long as the coalition is impeding the delivery of humanitarian aid, the U.S. is legally required not to provide them with military assistance, but the administration ignores this. Aid shipments have started to trickle in over the last week or so, but even once humanitarian aid flows freely without any delays the needs of Yemen’s population won’t be met until the coalition permits the resumption of commercial imports. Yemen is a country that is heavily dependent on imports for food staples and for its fuel supply, so the full blockade has been compounding an already horrific humanitarian crisis created by the last two and a half years of partial blockade.

The U.N. Secretary-General has also called for a halt to all attacks and demanded that commercial imports be allowed back in:

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Sunday urged warring parties in Yemen to stop all ground and air assaults and called for a resumption of all commercial imports into the country because “millions of children, women and men risk mass hunger, disease and death.”

Oxfam’s Scott Paul gave an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations’ Zachary Laub last week, and he emphasized the importance of bringing in commercial shipments of fuel to stave off multiple disasters:

The most important commodity is fuel, followed by food and medicine. Many parts of Yemen have already run out of fuel or will run out of fuel in the coming days. It’s needed to pump and treat water, run hospitals, and refrigerate everything from food to medicine, not to mention to enable transport of people and of aid workers. Without fuel, the predicted famine, the likes of which many of us have never lived through, will still be on track.

There are already at least nine cities with more than two million inhabitants in north Yemen that have run out of fuel and cannot pump clean water. That puts them at greater risk of contracting water-borne diseases, and it makes it more likely that the country’s cholera epidemic might come roaring back:

A deteriorating economic situation and lack of safe drinking water, due to water sewage systems in many cities lacking fuel for the pumps, have compounded the humanitarian crisis, he said.

“This is a perfect mix to have a new explosion of a cholera epidemic at the beginning of the rainy season in March of next year,” Zagaria said in a telephone interview from Sanaa, amid four days of clashes in the capital city.

There are already over 960,000 cases of cholera, and the fuel shortage caused by the tightening of the coalition blockade threatens to keep driving that number higher. As if that weren’t awful enough, diphtheria has returned to Yemen after an absence of a quarter century and has already started claiming lives:

Diphtheria, a deadly infectious disease once thought to have been largely eradicated, has now joined cholera as a public-health scourge threatening war-torn Yemen, where a blockade by Saudi Arabia has impeded emergency aid.

Officials at the World Health Organization said Friday that at least 22 people in Yemen had died of diphtheria and nearly 200 had been sickened since it was detected three months ago.

The disease, which the medical charity Doctors Without Borders said had not been seen in Yemen for 25 years, has now spread to 13 of Yemen’s 22 governorates.

Like the cholera epidemic that preceded it, this is an outbreak of a preventable disease that would never have happened without the devastation and disruption caused by the war and blockade. The longer that the Saudis and their allies keep strangling the country and depriving it of basic necessities, the worse these conditions will get and many more innocent Yemenis will needlessly die.

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