Daniel Larison

The Unjust and Unnecessary War on Yemen

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met yesterday with Obama on his first visit to the U.S. Today he sharply criticized the Saudi-led war on Yemen:

“The dangerous thing is we don’t know what the Saudis want to do after this,” Mr. Abadi said. “Is Iraq within their radar? That’s very, very dangerous. The idea that you intervene in another state unprovoked just for regional ambition is wrong. Saddam has done it before [bold mine-DL]. See what it has done to the country.”

I suppose Abadi’s opposition to the Saudis’ war is predictable because his government is relying on assistance from Iran against its own internal enemies and Iran has condemned the intervention, but he nonetheless makes some valid points about the Saudi intervention. The Saudis’ bombing of Yemen is an unprovoked attack on another country. Saudi Arabia is intervening in another country’s internal conflict, and has escalated that conflict into an international war. The Saudi war is inflicting terrible damage on the entire country, and it is putting the lives of millions of people at a much greater risk of dying from starvation and disease. Because they have the approval of Yemen’s deposed president, the Saudis can technically claim that they are assisting the recognized Yemeni government, but that government has very little support inside the country and has less support every day that the Saudis continue bombing. Whatever else it is, this is an unjust and unnecessary war.

If a state that weren’t aligned with the U.S. were doing this, we know that our government would ridicule the attacking government’s excuses for military action instead of echoing them, and they would be right to do so. If it weren’t one of our clients, the attacking government would almost certainly be sanctioned, denounced, and portrayed as a reckless aggressor threatening the stability of the entire region. Instead of any of that, the U.S. is enabling the reckless behavior of the client state, openly supporting the attack, and imposing sanctions on Yemenis that are being targeted by the Saudis. Abadi is quoted elsewhere in the article saying that the administration wants to stop the conflict “as soon as possible,” but the administration’s actions tell us that isn’t true.

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The American Conservative: Peace and Restraint

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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. That defense is needed now as much as it has ever been.

Over the last nine months, TAC has been a consistent critic of the ill-conceived military intervention in Iraq and Syria, and we have also been calling attention to U.S. support for the reckless Saudi-led war on Yemen. Last 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. We have also been arguing for the importance of diplomatic engagement with Iran and Cuba. 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. We have been promoting the cause of reforming and improving the foreign policy debate in the Republican Party and in the country as a whole since our inception. Our arguments are more necessary than ever as the U.S. will be fighting the new war in Iraq and Syria for years to come.

The magazine and our website also offer trenchant and insightful political and social commentary from all of our contributors and bloggers. 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, and Rod Dreher‘s reflections on literature, religion, and culture, including his ongoing study of the life and work of Dante Alighieri. Jonathan Coppage’s project on New Urbanism continues to promote conservative ideas for creating humane and sustainable cities. TAC has also recently brought you Bill Kauffman’s review of Jim Webb’s novels, Gene Callahan’s critique of Fukuyama’s latest book, and Benjamin Schwarz’s cover story on the harmful social effects of urban planning. Last but not least, TAC also maintains an archive of classic texts on politics, history, and literature in the Repository for the benefit of our readers.

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Report: Cuba to Be Removed from State Sponsors of Terrorism List

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The Associated Press reports that the Obama administration has decided to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism:

In a message to Congress, Obama said the government of Cuba “has not provided any support for international terrorism” over the last six months. He also told lawmakers that Cuba “has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.”

Removing Cuba from the list has been expected as part of the process of normalizing relations, and there were signs at the Summit of the Americas that this would likely happen soon. Christopher Preble explained last week why this is an appropriate and long overdue decision:

But the best reason for removing Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list may be because Cuba does not appear to be a state sponsor of terrorism. As a story in today’s Washington Post notes, “In many ways, the U.S. designation, first imposed in 1982, is a Cold War relic. Although the United States strongly objects to Cuba’s domestic policies, it has offered no evidence for decades that Cuba is actively involved in terrorism abroad.”

This situation is not unique to Cuba. The terror sponsor list has become a catch-all for countries we don’t like very much, including for other reasons – human rights abuses, weapons proliferation, and general roguish behavior. Countries should be scorned, and perhaps even sanctioned, for such activities, but casting them as terrorist sponsors when they clearly are not renders the entire enterprise farcical.

Starting to resume relations with Cuba put an end to a anachronistic policy that ought to have been changed decades earlier, and in connection with the effort to normalize relations with Cuba the U.S. is finally getting rid of this old, inaccurate designation. Hard-line dead-enders that have rejected the restoration of ties with Cuba will no doubt cry foul over this, but this just shows that their views of Cuba policy remain mired in the previous century.

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A New and Unusually Stupid Hawkish Litmus Test

Dave Weigel reports on the creation of a new and incredibly stupid foreign policy litmus test in the Republican nomination contest:

In his Monday night interview with Sean Hannity, Florida Senator Marco Rubio became the first Republican presidential candidate to demand a concession from Iran that’s as politically resonant at home as it is untenable in Tehran.

“There should have been a clear recognition on their part that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state,” Rubio said, of Iran’s concessions in negotiations.

This is the sort of demand that hard-liners tend to make because they are absolutely opposed to reaching any deal with another government. The demand is so obviously irrelevant to the negotiations and so likely to be rejected by the other side that only those that want diplomacy to fail would think to include it. Any politician that endorses this demand is declaring to the entire world that he is a fanatic (or a panderer to fanatics) and has no business conducting the foreign policy of the United States.

Netanyahu’s recent statement that Iran should be made to recognize Israel’s “right to exist” as part of any deal came under harsh criticism from a former head of the Mossad because it was such an absurdly excessive demand. The version that Rubio supports is even more ridiculous. It would be requiring a kind of recognition of Israel that goes beyond what Israel’s neighbors have done when they signed treaties with Israel. Officially defining Israel as a “Jewish state” in law is one of the controversial things Netanyahu tried to do last year that contributed to the break-up of his last coalition. In other words, Iran hawks want Iran to recognize Israel in a way that Israel does not officially use.

The new demand is irrelevant because it has nothing to do with the nuclear issue, but more to the point Israel isn’t a party to the negotiations. Insisting that Iran recognize a state that isn’t involved in the negotiations is nonsensical. This is especially true when everyone understands in advance that it is a demand that no Iranian negotiator could accept. Any candidate that agrees with making this demand thereby proves himself too incompetent or reckless in matters of diplomacy to be taken seriously as a presidential contender.

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Rubio Pledges to Undo Normalization with Cuba

Rubio confirmed yesterday that he would undo normalization of relations with Cuba if he were elected president:

Absolutely, and I think the reason why is because I’m interested in, my interest in Cuba is freedom and democracy.

Rubio’s opposition to engagement with Cuba is well-known, so this isn’t really news. What stood out was the justification that he offered for his determination to undo Obama’s opening to Cuba: “my interest in Cuba is freedom and democracy.” Half a century of punitive measures and no formal diplomatic relations has done nothing for Cuban freedom or democracy. It’s not as if the opening to Cuba is sacrificing any gains that have been made over the last fifty years. So it’s just silly to assert that dead-ender support for a failed Cuba policy has something to do with a commitment to the freedom of Cubans. It’s also absurd to reject normalization and defend the embargo in the name of promoting Cuban democracy when Cubans overwhelmingly favor normalization and an end of the embargo. According to the survey, most Cubans don’t expect normalization to produce political changes, and the results show that they very much want a different political system, but this doesn’t stop them from welcoming closer ties because of the benefits that they can offer.

At worst, there will be no political changes in Cuba, which will be just as “successful” as the old Cuba policy was in this regard. But it is more likely that it would allow for an increasing number of exchanges and contacts to be made between many more Americans and Cubans, and over time that would improve economic conditions on the island. That wouldn’t necessarily lead to major political changes anytime soon, but it should make Cubans somewhat more prosperous in the near term and could produce more meaningful changes in their government over the long term.

Apart from his general hostility to diplomatic engagement, Rubio’s main objection to normalization is that it won’t fix everything that’s wrong with Cuba in a short period of time. This is similar to the unrealistic goals that hawks have for diplomacy with Iran. It isn’t enough for them for engagement to produce some tangible benefits. As far as these hawks are concerned, engagement has to deliver everything on their wish list at no cost to the U.S. or else it isn’t worth attempting. It’s an unreasonable position, and it’s one that most Americans fortunately don’t share.

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Rubio’s Predictable Announcement Speech

Marco Rubio formally announced his candidacy for president yesterday in Miami. He emphasized that he would provide up-to-date and relevant ideas for contemporary problems:

Why is this happening in a country that for over two centuries has been defined by equality of opportunity? It’s because while our people and our economy are pushing the boundaries of the 21st century, too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the 20th century.

It is more than a little strange that Rubio would rail against politicians whose ideas are “stuck in the 20th century” when many of his own policy ideas, especially regarding international affairs, are so outdated and trapped in another era. Rubio is a leading defender of the embargo of Cuba, hostility towards Iran, and antagonism towards Russia. His foreign policy is very much rooted in 20th century preoccupations, and on those issues he remains stubbornly wedded to an approach to foreign policy that hasn’t been relevant in a generation. While he wants to present himself as a candidate offering “21st century” solutions, his own slogan “a New American Century” is itself a throwback to the late 1990s and the neoconservative Project for a New American Century. That’s not some accident of phrasing. It is a statement of ideological conviction, which is reflected in Rubio’s confrontational and hard-line foreign policy agenda.

Rubio’s “new American century” is one filled with unnecessary conflicts and clashes with other countries. He derides “this administration’s dangerous concessions to Iran and its hostility to Israel,” which reflects his loathing for diplomacy and his preference for coercive and aggressive policies. He wants the U.S. to no longer be “passive in the face of Chinese and Russian aggression,” which implies that he thinks the U.S. should be risking conflicts with two of the world’s other major powers. He wants to end “the near total disregard for the erosion of democracy and human rights around the world, especially Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.” In practice, that means that he thinks the U.S. should be pursuing policies that interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, and he is most concerned to interfere in countries in Latin America whose governments he dislikes. Rubio’s desire for a “new American century” is just as ideological and dangerous as the phrase suggests. It ought to make his candidacy even less appealing than it already is.

He remarked that his “candidacy might seem improbable to some watching from abroad,” but he both gives other countries too little credit and presumes too much about his own chances. Candidates from humbler backgrounds than his have risen to the highest offices in other countries, but he is compelled to ignore this because he needs to promote the fiction that such opportunities are greater here than anywhere else. One could cite the current president of Brazil or the prime minister of India as examples of people that rose to the top of their political systems from even poorer backgrounds. Like so many other things Rubio has to say about American exceptionalism, his belief that people from humble origins can’t rise to high office in other countries is based on a profound misunderstanding of other countries’ political systems and undue confidence in social mobility in our own country.

Rubio is worried about the possibility that the U.S. “will have just become another country,” but he doesn’t allow himself to consider that this may have already happened and that it isn’t necessarily such a terrible thing. The exceptionalist fetish compels Rubio to believe that America isn’t just “another country,” and yet that would not be such an awful fate. Only those that think the next century must be an American one are alarmed by the thought that the U.S. will not be responsible for “leading” the world for the next eighty-five years. Most Americans won’t see this as a problem, and they may even welcome it with some measure of relief. That is just one reason why Rubio’s pitch is likely to fall flat with voters. He is promising to usher in a future that many of us simply don’t want.

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Rubio’s Candidacy Still Makes No Sense

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Jonathan Bernstein gets a bit carried away:

Why won’t Tea Partyers and other conservatives destroy his candidacy based on his former position on immigration? For the answer, go back to Mitt Romney’s experience in 2012, when many thought he had no chance of getting the Republican nomination because of his approval of a Massachusetts health-care law that was compared to Obamacare.

Many people did mistakenly dismiss Romney’s candidacy for this reason, and I said they were wrong at the time. One reason why the Massachusetts health care legislation didn’t drag Romney down was that he made it clear that he wanted to repeal the ACA. When it came to the relevant federal legislation, Romney lined up with the rest of the party, and Romney’s record wasn’t held against him by most conservative opponents of the ACA. Rubio is in a very different position, since he not only supported the Senate immigration bill, but was initially one of its leading advocates on the Republican side. Put simply, Rubio clearly sided with Obama in a prominent national debate, and Romney didn’t. Doing that hurt Rubio with conservatives at least as much as the content of the bill, and perhaps more so.

It is worth remembering Romney’s example as evidence that presumptive front-runners can and do get away with dissatisfying “very conservative” primary voters. It doesn’t tell us very much about what long-shot, first-time candidates can get away with in a very crowded field. Rubio isn’t in Romney’s 2011-2012 position. If we want to compare him to earlier Republican candidates, he is more like McCain in 2000 or Romney in 2008. Both of them had a record of positions that put them at odds with movement conservatives, and both of them were running for president for the first time. McCain took pride in this and ran against Bush from the “left,” and Romney underwent one of his periodic transmogrifications in order to pretend that he now agreed with movement conservatives on almost everything. Most conservative voters didn’t trust either of them, and neither of them won the nomination that year. Rubio’s clash with conservatives on immigration is very recent, and if anything it has been made worse by the fact that he has tried to imitate both McCain and Romney in a short span of time.

When he was absurdly being touted as a “savior” of the party, he played at being like McCain and backed the Senate immigration bill, which angered many conservatives in the process and caused some of his previous supporters to feel that he had let them down. Alarmed by the backlash, he then ran away from the bill and started going out of his way to placate his conservative critics in a most Romney-like fashion. This has mostly earned him a loss of respect from both sides of the debate. As far as his conservative critics are concerned, he showed his true colors in supporting the bill, and in the eyes of “reform” supporters he caved immediately when he encountered the slightest resistance. In the end, the one big legislative effort Rubio was involved in produced no results, and he suffered political whiplash in the process.

The entire episode left Rubio looking foolish, which is never desirable. It also discredited the main argument for a Rubio presidential candidacy, which is that he is supposedly a “transformational” candidate capable of expanding the Republican coalition. There is no evidence that Rubio can do this, and the argument was based almost entirely on Rubio’s support for immigration “reform” and on his ethnic background. Once he was burned on immigration and retreated from his earlier position, any chance he had of playing the role his boosters imagined for him disappeared. The bigger problem is that a Rubio candidacy ceased to have any rationale at that point (not that it had much of one before then), but he is still proceeding as if he is still perceived as the party’s “savior.”

Because he is now running for the first time, he does not yet have the reservoir of past support that he can draw on as McCain did in 2008 and Romney did in 2012. He is running against a number of candidates that are at least as conservative as he is, and Bush is taking up the role of the relative moderate in the race, and that leaves him without an opening. He will probably poach a few Bush supporters along the way, but there is not enough room for another candidate with a profile almost identical to Bush’s. Maybe things would different if Bush weren’t in the race and Rubio had something other than hard-line foreign policy views to run on, but under the circumstances Rubio’s decision to run makes no sense. Indeed, a Rubio candidacy stopped making sense once his immigration gambit blew up in his face.

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Ignoring the Costs of the War on Yemen

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Yemeni President Hadi’s op-ed in The New York Times yesterday is a remarkable piece of propaganda:

The Houthi attacks are unjust acts of aggression against the Yemeni people and the constitutional legitimacy of my government, as well as an assault on Yemen’s sovereignty and security [bold mine-DL].

Much of what Hadi says in the op-ed is false or misleading, but most of his claims probably sound just reasonable enough that they might seem persuasive to readers that don’t know what has been happening for the last two weeks. Despite the fact that the Saudis and their allies are the ones that have been attacking Yemen and violating its sovereignty by bombing and shelling the country, Hadi presents his Yemeni enemies as if they were foreign aggressors that need to be repelled. While he lives in exile in Riyadh and serves as little more than a Saudi prop at this point, he accuses his opponents of being the agents of a foreign government. The Yemenis that are being bombed are portrayed as “agents of chaos,” while the governments that are bombing them are “coming to the aid of Yemen.” The dishonesty of Hadi’s argument is fairly obvious to anyone paying close attention to the story, but for many people in the West these misrepresentations will sound plausible.

The trouble is that the false portrayal of the Houthis as “puppets of the Iranian government” is already a widespread one, and Hadi is counting on Western audiences to know just enough about the region to be alarmed by his warnings of “the next Hezbollah” without understanding how far-fetched the claim really is. It might be worth noting that if one wanted to create a new Hizbullah, the fastest way to do that would be to have foreign governments attack this group’s country, thus providing it with the perfect opportunity to present itself as defending the country against the invader. The campaign that Hadi and the U.S. support is making this outcome more likely rather than less.

What Hadi predictably fails to mention is the humanitarian disaster that this war is causing for the entire country. This is what “coming to the aid of Yemen” looks like in reality:

The strengthening Saudi Arabian-led air campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis now in control is systematically destroying much of the country’s infrastructure. Anything that had been left of basic services, including health care, is all but gone, the U.N. said.

Hadi has to ignore the fact that all of Yemen is suffering from lack of food, water, medicine, and fuel because of the cruel and unnecessary war that his allies are waging in his name. Whatever support he may have had before he fled the country has all but vanished, so it’s absurd to think that he will be able to return to the capital as president. He says that Yemen has been pulled back “from the edge” of an abyss by the Saudi-led war, but the reality is that this war threatens to push the entire country into the abyss. If it falls in, there should be no confusion about who was responsible.

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The Ongoing Disgrace of U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

Civilian casualties continue to increase in the Saudi-led war on Yemen:

U.S. officials worry mounting civilian casualties will undermine popular support in Yemen and in other Sunni Arab countries backing the campaign. At least 648 civilians have been killed since the intervention began [bold mine-DL], and Saudi-led strikes have hit hospitals, schools, a refugee camp and neighborhoods, according to U.N. officials. The Saudis have blamed the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and their Yemeni allies for civilian casualties and said they were doing their best to limit them.

This is all depressingly familiar. Here we have a U.S. client embarking on a bombing campaign that isn’t likely to achieve anything except to inflict suffering and death on the civilian population of the targeted country. The campaign is not necessary for the security of that client, and even its U.S. backers can’t see how the campaign will achieve anything. Not only is the war an unnecessary one, but it is very likely that the war will work to the political advantage of the group officially targeted by the client government. While the U.S. expresses generic concerns about the needless deaths of civilians caused by the bombing, it nonetheless provides the client with more or less whatever the client wants so that it can continue an intervention whose goals no one in Washington fully understands. Instead of calling on its client to account for its recklessness, the U.S. keeps expanding its support at the same time that it becomes impossible to miss that the client’s military action was a dreadful mistake from the beginning. In this way, the client has made many new enemies and made itself less secure than it was, and in the process the U.S. has identified itself as a supporter of a cruel and unjustified attack.

When a government attacks a neighboring country, no one should ever credit its protestations that it is trying to “limit” the number of civilians that it kills in the process. If this government were so concerned not to kill civilians in that country, it wouldn’t be bombing that country’s cities and stoking the country’s internal conflict while creating the conditions for a major humanitarian crisis. Once a government has launched an entirely unjustified attack on a neighbor, it doesn’t get to blame the people it’s trying to kill for the civilians that their forces are killing along the way. We should recognize the Saudis’ attempt at shifting the blame for their actions for what it is, and our government should withdraw any support it is providing for the current operation.

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Iran Hawks and the Logic of Arms Control

Steven Metz charges that opponents of the nuclear deal framework have forgotten the logic of arms control agreements:

What these critics fail to understand is that an agreement on Iran’s nuclear weapons program is not an endorsement of the Iranian regime or its policies. They also fail to understand that no nation will undertake arms control unless it feels that it can do so and remain secure. Instead, they treat Iran’s insecurity as illegitimate and unjustified, even as they stoke it with talk of regime change and armed intervention.

For arms control to work, there must be a working agreement among Americans that however distasteful it is to cooperate with a regime like Iran’s, doing so is less dangerous than the risk of confrontation escalating into conflict.

The logic to which Metz refers is this: “the more hostile and dangerous an opponent, the more important arms control becomes.” Opponents of a deal have focused most of their attacks on the alleged inadequacy of the limitations it placed on Iran, but that line of attack hasn’t worked very well because it has forced the hawks to argue for their own inadequate means (more pressure through sanctions) to pursue an impossible goal (the nuclear program’s complete elimination). That in turn has forced many Iran hawks to try to change the subject to Iran’s regional behavior or some other aspect of the regime that the negotiations were never intended to address and couldn’t possibly solve. I have called this “hawkish whataboutism” because like other forms of whataboutism it is an attempt to avoid debating a particular policy or issue on the merits.

Metz makes many very good points, but these critics have not really “forgotten” the logic of arms control. It would be more accurate to say that they have never accepted that logic. Indeed, most of them have never seen an arms control or nonproliferation agreement that they haven’t wanted to derail or defeat. We saw that in the vehement hawkish opposition to New START a few years ago, and that was over the renewal of an earlier arms reduction treaty that one would have thought had become completely uncontroversial. These critics are ideologically opposed to making diplomatic compromises of any kind with regimes like the one in Iran. They are the political descendants or, in some cases, the very same people that accused Reagan of appeasement when he pursued arms control agreements with the Soviets. Past warnings about these agreements have been repeatedly discredited over time, but that doesn’t stop them from being recycled in the next debate.

First, the hawks fault any deal for being too weak regardless of its content. This includes familiar accusations of “caving” to the other side and getting nothing in return, warnings that the verification/inspections regime is not thorough enough (conveniently ignoring that they would be content to have no deal and therefore no verification measures at all), and the all-purpose claim that the other side will inevitably cheat anyway. If that doesn’t seem to be working, they try to delegitimize diplomatic engagement by citing other genuinely harmful or unwelcome things the regime does elsewhere. Having failed to persuade anyone that the agreement is lacking in itself, critics want to make it as politically difficult as possible for elected officials to support it by treating support as an endorsement of the other regime. Metz is absolutely right that negotiating a deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program shouldn’t be seen this way, but the critics hope to weigh down the agreement by doing just that. It’s true that it doesn’t make much sense for Iran hawks to oppose a deal that constrains Iran’s nuclear program, but then they have been judging the results of diplomacy against an unreasonable standard from the beginning. This guarantees that any deal that could plausibly be reached would fall short of the total Iranian capitulation that they have insisted on as the minimum for what constitutes a “good” deal. Tacking on additional conditions related to other issues just takes that insistence on capitulation to an extreme.

Metz writes at the beginning of his column one major reason for opposition to a nuclear deal is that “the American public and its elected representatives no longer understand the complex and often counterintuitive logic of arms control.” That may be true of many elected officials, but it is generally not true of the public. Insofar as the public pays attention to arms control and nonproliferation arguments, there is typically strong majority support for their goals and for the diplomacy needed to achieve them. There may not be any popular enthusiasm for these agreements, but most Americans have no strong objections to making them. Whether or not most Americans fully understand the logic Metz mentions, most don’t reject it.

Unfortunately, while support for these agreements may be broad, it is not especially intense, nor does it seem to be a high priority for most voters or donors. Opponents of these agreements are greatly overrepresented in Congress, and this is most obvious among Republicans. According to one of the most recent surveys on this question, as many Republicans nationally support a deal with Iran as oppose one. Even though less than one third of Republicans across the country are against a deal, all of the incentives inside the party keep driving its elected members to reject such agreements. Getting politicians to reject a deal is a very high priority for the activists and ideologues in the party that want the talks to fail, and for the most part it is not nearly as important to the deal’s supporters. That is why there is almost universal hostility to any deal among elected GOP officials and the party’s 2016 candidates, who are catering to the pundits and donors that will definitely hold support for a deal against them.

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