Daniel Larison

Bush’s Syria Policy Is Still Foolish and Costly

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Dov Zakheim praises Jeb Bush’s ideas for Syria:

His prescriptions for defeating ISIS include a ramped-up air campaign, more American troops on the ground and aid to the Kurdish fighters who have proved most effective in combatting ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. All told, his prescription was for true American leadership—in front, not behind—which would act as a magnet for other allies to join the fight against ISIS in a serious way. Most notably, the Arab states who have the most to fear from ISIS would be far more likely to contribute their own forces to the fight if they saw that America truly had “skin in the game.”

Bush’s speech last week at The Citadel was notable for including almost exactly the same content as an earlier foreign policy speech he delivered back in August. Despite the fact that Russia intervened directly in Syria in between Bush’s two speeches, this has had absolutely no effect on Bush’s thinking or his recommendations. Like other Syria hawks, he remains wedded to the idea of toppling Assad even though there is less international support outside the region for doing this than at any point in the last four years.

The belief that Arab states that have largely abandoned–or never joined–the fight against ISIS will start contributing more once the U.S. commits ground forces seems entirely unfounded. Daniel DePetris noticed this problem in his review of the speech:

How Jeb Bush would convince NATO and Arab partners to contribute more resources, money, and manpower towards the fight against ISIL is left out of the equation.

Not only are many of these Arab states preoccupied with their disastrous war in Yemen, but their priority in Syria has always been overthrowing Assad. As they have in Yemen, these states are much more concerned with fighting Iran and its allies (real or imagined) than they are in combating jihadist groups, and in some cases the Gulf states have helped to promote those very jihadists. If the U.S. does more in the war on ISIS, it is a given that almost all of our allies and clients will take that as license to do nothing more or even to do less than they are doing now. Once the U.S. is roped into bearing the bulk of the costs of a larger war effort, the other states in the region will be only too happy to sit back and watch us. An increased U.S. military commitment isn’t going to act as a “magnet” drawing other states deeper into the fight, but on the contrary will announce to these states that the U.S. has once again been lured into fighting other nations’ wars.

Elsewhere Zakheim approvingly mentions that Bush said that the U.S. isn’t going to be the world’s policeman, but it is telling that the hawks that say this never seem to see a conflict that the U.S. shouldn’t join. Interventionists disavow the role of “world’s policeman” when they are arguing for more intervention in order to make their immediate proposal seem less alarming, but the truth is that they are arguing for more intervention in this case because they assume that policing the conflicts of the world is a major part of America’s role in the world. If being the “world’s leader” amounts to much the same thing as being the “world’s policeman” in practice, it makes no difference if a hawkish politician rejects one name in favor of another. In fact, saying that the U.S. is the “world’s leader” could mean that the U.S. is expected to police the world’s conflicts and do a lot more besides that. It’s small consolation that Bush didn’t advocate “America’s involvement in every conflict around the globe” when he pushes for significantly increasing U.S. involvement in one of the world’s worst conflicts. Even if Bush doesn’t want to police every conflict in the world, he absolutely wants the U.S. to bear a much larger share of the costs of policing Syria for the foreseeable future, and that is already bad enough.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

There is no Obama doctrine. Leon Hadar reviews Colin Dueck’s The Obama Doctrine for the current issue of TAC.

In the battle against ISIS, where are the Arab states? Bruce Riedel explains why the Arab states that nominally belong to the anti-ISIS coalition have removed themselves from the U.S.-led bombing campaign.

The limits of ISIS. Olivier Roy makes the case that the Paris attacks show that ISIS has stalled in its efforts to expand its control over territory.

Declaring war on terror is good rhetoric, but bad policy. Noah Feldman identifies several of the pitfalls of the French government’s decision to respond to the Paris attacks with a declaration of war.

Intervention produces instability, not stability. Andrew Bacevich challenges advocates of another military intervention to explain why it will be any more successful than our previous failed wars.

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Rubio’s Extremely Dangerous Plan for the War on ISIS

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Marco Rubio’s plan for the war on ISIS simply dismisses any consideration of costs and benefits:

When I am president, what I will do to defeat ISIL is very simple: whatever it takes.

Specifically, he says that he will “build a multinational coalition of countries willing to send troops into Iraq and Syria to aid local forces on the ground” and he will “tell my commanders that the mission is the total destruction of ISIL and will send them the forces necessary to succeed.” Taken together with his “whatever it takes” slogan, we can conclude that Rubio favors escalation in the form of a ground war that will almost certainly include a large contingent of American soldiers. He doesn’t phrase it quite that way so as not to alarm people, but that is what his plan would mean in practice. It’s absurd to think that the public will tolerate another long and costly ground war, but that is exactly what they can expect to have if Rubio were to get his way.

The “multinational coalition of countries willing to send troops” to fight ISIS will inevitably be quite small, and the contributions the other coalition members make will also be quite small compared to the U.S. contribution. As we are already seeing, our regional allies and clients are doing little or nothing to support the war, and none of them is going to agree to send their soldiers to fight in Syria. Aside from France and maybe Britain, what European ally is actually going to contribute to such a coalition? That means that the U.S. will once again be left bearing the almost all of the burden and suffering most of the losses. And that burden will be considerable, since Rubio also wants to take on the Syrian government at the same time:

Cutting off oxygen to ISIL also requires defeating Assad in Syria.

This is crazy, but it has now become the default position of most Syria hawks. Defeating Assad will involve attacking and destroying some significant part of the remaining regime forces and it will very likely involve bringing down the government as a whole. Collapsing the regime will likely expose those areas under its control to anarchy, massacre, and the slaughter or forcible expulsion of religious minorities. This won’t “cut off oxygen” to ISIS and other jihadists, but will on the contrary create new chances for them to flourish. It is incredible that this needs to be said after the experiences in Iraq and Libya, but pursuing regime change in Syria is a boon to jihadists and all those that thrive on chaos and violence.

That isn’t the worst part of his plan. Now that Russia is committed to propping up the Syrian government, seeking to defeat Assad puts the U.S. on a direct collision course with Russia and could very easily lead to a clash between our forces and theirs. Even if U.S. forces don’t intend to, they could end up killing Russians on the ground, and that risks a shooting war with one of the most powerful states in the world. Rubio is going beyond his earlier reckless support for a “no-fly zone” and promising that he will risk triggering war with a major, nuclear-armed power by seeking to topple its client while its forces are still in Syria.

The idea that the U.S. should do “whatever it takes” suggests that there is no cost too high to achieve the stated goal of defeating ISIS, but that isn’t true. Furthermore, saying that he will do “whatever it takes” to win implies that he thinks that any tactic is permissible, and it traps him into persisting in the conflict no matter how much it costs. Based on the reckless, aggressive plan he has laid out, it could cost the U.S. a great deal. Even if the policy made sense, the attitude behind it is reckless maximalism, but as we can see the policy is also quite mad.

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The Indefensible War on Yemen Continues

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Bruce Riedel comments on how the war on Yemen has diverted Saudi and GCC resources and attention from the war on ISIS. He also notes that the war has strengthened jihadists and unwittingly aided Iran:

Even worse is that the major beneficiaries of the war so far are al-Qaeda and Iran. Al-Qaeda has seized control of large parts of southeastern Yemen since the war began. Its black flags fly in Aden, the temporary capital of the pro-Saudi government. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has grown stronger in the months since it attacked Paris in January, not weaker. That is a disturbing portent for those now promising to defeat IS.

Iran is fighting to the last Houthi, laughing at the Saudis and Emiratis as they spend resources in what Tehran hopes will be an endless quagmire. Iran gains in Iraq and Syria from the Sunni forces’ diversion to Yemen.

As I’ve said before, the Saudi-led intervention has been failing on the Saudis’ own terms. The coalition hasn’t been able to drive the Houthis out of the capital, nor does it seem likely to be able to do so anytime soon. The Saudis haven’t been able to reimpose Hadi as president, part of the country is ruled by AQAP, and the territory that the coalition nominally controls is vulnerable to attacks from them and the local ISIS affiliate. Instead of weakening Iranian influence in the region, they opted to attack a country where that influence was minimal, and so they are fighting a proxy war with Iran in a place where they can do the least harm to Iran. If one wanted to counter Iranian influence in the region, waging a protracted, atrocious war in Yemen would be the most useless thing that one could do, so of course this is what the Saudis and their allies have been doing for the last eight months with U.S. and British backing.

On top of all that, an entire country has been devastated and its people have been starved of basic necessities to such an extent that millions of people are at risk of famine. None of the countries involved in battering and starving Yemen has been made more secure, Yemen has been wrecked, and all so that our panicked despotic clients could pretend that they were dealing a blow to Iranian “expansionism” that wasn’t even happening. This is the disgraceful and unnecessary war that the U.S. has supported from the beginning for the sake of “reassuring” those despots that they can count on us to indulge their most stupid and destructive behavior.

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Rubio, the Hard-liners’ Factional Candidate


Despite being a reflexive interventionist and reliable advocate for meddling almost everywhere in the world, Rubio hasn’t been quite aggressive enough for some hard-liners:

Rubio—now a member of the Senate’s top foreign affairs committees who was positioning himself as one of his party’s more hawkish members—cast a vote against the use of force in Syria [in 2013].

“I didn’t agree with that vote,” Abrams said. “It would have been better for the United States to make those strikes, and come back if need be and do more. I thought it was important to get the president to start acting again. I agreed it wasn’t enough, but you have to start somewhere.”

It’s strange that Rubio’s vote against attacking Syria in 2013 is presented here as a weakness, since it was both the politically smart thing to do at the time and it happened to be the right position (though Rubio took it for the wrong reasons). Rubio opposed the attack because it was supposedly going to be too small, and because his preferred form of meddling in Syria was to throw more weapons into the civil war. It is the one and only thing in Rubio’s foreign policy record as a senator that he can cite as proof that he isn’t completely mindless in his advocacy for U.S. military intervention, and that is something he has to have as a presidential candidate if he doesn’t want to be perceived as a younger Lindsey Graham.

As far as his ideological allies are concerned, though, his vote on Syria two years ago was a troubling deviation that bothers them, and they are the ones whose “disappointment” the reporters are interested in relaying. Rubio seems to have learned his “lesson” since the Syria debate in 2013, because he has made sure for more aggressive measures across the board on every issue since then. He backs the war on ISIS, wants to give the president a completely unlimited authorization for that war, vehemently rejects the nuclear deal, wants to send more weapons into Ukraine and Syria, thinks the U.S. should be doing more to help the Saudis in Yemen, and denounces normalization with Cuba. If neoconservatives and hard-liners had any reason to be disappointed with Rubio two years ago, he has gone out of his way to give them everything they could want since then. That has turned him into little more than their factional candidate, and it may help explain why he continues to receive roughly the same amount of support from voters that he had when his campaign began.

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Article 5 and the Illegal War on ISIS

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Christopher Preble questions the wisdom of invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty in response to the Paris attacks. Here he counters the claim that this would provide Obama a way to legalize the illegal war on ISIS without Congress:

Others have suggested that the attacks require a response, and that the North Atlantic Treaty explicitly empowers the President of the United States to circumvent Congress, and thus avoid a messy public debate. At the Washington Post online, Ilya Somin claimed that the Paris attacks gave “the Obama administration an opportunity to legalize its previously unconstitutional war against ISIS.” And that Article 5 “gives him the same authority to use force as he would have in the event of an attack on the United States itself.”

But NATO members who do invoke Article 5 are not obligated to carry out an armed response [bold mine-DL]. The precise form of support for an ally attacked is solely at the discretion of each member state, and, as noted by international legal scholar Julian Ku, “Article 9 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that “[t]his Treaty shall be ratified and its provisions carried out by the Parties in accordance with their respective constitutional processes.” (emphasis added).”

Invoking Article 5 isn’t going to solve the problem of the war’s illegality under U.S. law, and it wouldn’t compel the U.S. to do anything more than it is already doing in Iraq and Syria. The fact that both the U.S. and France have already been bombing ISIS in one or both countries for months (and in our case for well over a year) makes bringing NATO into the fight seem redundant. Most of the alliance’s members are unlikely to join the conflict or increase their contributions to the war, and so the purpose of invoking this part of the treaty would seem to be mostly to express political support for whatever the French government decides to do. The members of the alliance can do that if they wish, but it’s not clear why they must do it.

As Preble notes earlier in his article, Article 5 has been invoked only once (in response to the 9/11 attacks), and it has not been invoked in response to major terrorist attacks against other NATO members in the years that followed. Terrorist attacks on member states haven’t normally been treated as a reason to invoke Article 5, so the automatic assumption that this should be the response to these attacks doesn’t make a lot of sense. John Kasich was adamant in his speech yesterday that this is what ought to be done, but the fact that he couldn’t even get the name of the treaty right (he called it the “North American Treaty”) gives us reason to doubt that he has thought this position through as much as he should.

Preble suggests that Congress now has another opportunity to do its job by debating and voting on a resolution that would authorize the ongoing war, but that seems less likely than ever to happen. The war on ISIS will continue, and it will continue to be illegal, and almost all members of Congress will continue to avoid and deny their constitutional responsibilities.

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Carson and the GOP’s Foreign Policy Ignorance Problem

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Some of Ben Carson’s foreign policy advisers admit their candidate doesn’t understand the subject very well:

Faced with increasing scrutiny about whether Mr. Carson — who leads in some Republican presidential polls — was capable of leading American foreign policy, two of his top advisers said in interviews with The New York Times that he had struggled to master the intricacies of the Middle East and national security and that intense tutoring was having little effect.

Carson’s lack of preparation on foreign policy is hardly news, but this story is interesting for what it can teach us about some common conceits about inexperienced presidential candidates. One of these conceits is that a candidate’s knowledge is less important than his “instincts.” Carson’s “instincts” receive praise from the same advisers that are dismissing his grasp of the issues, and instincts are often treated as all that really matters. The fact that his advisers recognize that he doesn’t know very much about these issues but still support him for president shows how strong this misguided idea can be. As long a candidate has the “right” instincts, his lack of experience and knowledge isn’t held against him by other members of his party. Yet we know that a president with supposedly “good” instincts can make terrible decisions because he is poorly informed or if his understanding of an issue is distorted by questionable ideological assumptions. No matter how good his instincts may be, a president that doesn’t understand a particular conflict or has an exaggerated view of the U.S. role in the world will get into serious trouble.

The fact that Carson is proving to be difficult to “tutor” on foreign policy isn’t surprising, since it isn’t possible for any candidate to start off with little or no knowledge of these issues and then be able to make up the difference at the same time that he is campaigning. If a candidate is seriously ill-prepared at the start of a campaign on foreign policy, no amount of tutoring between now and the start of voting is going to fix that. Carson may be an extreme example of this, but what we’re hearing about him is not really all that different from what we saw with Walker earlier in the year. Candidates that have paid scant attention to foreign policy beforehand don’t suddenly acquire the interest or inclination for it during their busy schedules after they start to run for higher office, and their advisers are given a very difficult task of making them minimally ready to answer the most basic questions.

As we can see from Carson’s positions on Syria, Russia, and other matters, his lack of experience and knowledge don’t make him less likely to endorse aggressive and confrontational measures. Instead, they guarantee that he will accept the prevailing views within the party as a way of taking the path of least resistance, and in the GOP that means endorsing hawkish policies regardless of their merit. This shatters another conceit, which is that “outsider” candidates that do not have many years of experience in Washington are less likely to accept the Washington consensus view. Because inexperienced candidates have so little prior knowledge of these issues, they are more likely to buy into conventional assumptions about U.S. foreign policy and our role in the world because they don’t have the knowledge to challenge the status quo.

The bigger problem that Carson’s struggles point to is that almost all of the Republican candidates are woefully unprepared and lacking in foreign policy experience, and the few that have some experience don’t have very much. Carson’s lack of preparation on foreign policy is the most obvious in the field, but most of his competitors have the same weakness. That is what happens when a party simultaneously equates hard-line rhetoric with “expertise” and dismisses foreign policy experience as unnecessary for its presidential candidates.

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Kasich’s Odd Idea for a New Propaganda Agency

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John Kasich delivered a foreign policy speech yesterday at the National Press Club, and he’s also proposed creating a new agency tasked with promoting “Judeo-Christian Western values.” This is how Kasich describes the purpose of the agency:

“U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting have lost their focus on the case for Western values and ideals and effectively countering our opponents’ propaganda and disinformation,” Kasich said. “I will consolidate them into a new agency that has a clear mandate to promote the core, Judeo-Christian Western values that we and our friends and allies share: the values of human rights, the values of democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of association.”

I’m skeptical that the U.S. needs or would benefit from creating a new umbrella agency assigned to promoting political propaganda, which is what Kasich is suggesting. The last time that the U.S. made a concerted, high-profile effort at public diplomacy during the Bush years, it was an embarrassing shambles. Karen Hughes was famously sent to foreign countries in a hapless, tone-deaf effort to change perceptions of U.S. foreign policy, which reflected the previous administration’s inability to grasp that resentment against U.S. policies was not simply a product of poor communication on our part. The broader “freedom agenda” suffered from a similar inability to understand that being identified with our government and its policies undermined the cause of promoting liberalization and democratization abroad. Maybe Kasich’s attempt wouldn’t repeat those mistakes, but it seems that his idea has several flaws of its own.

The curious thing about Kasich’s proposal is that he is saying that the U.S. should tout liberal political values but insists on describing them as “Judeo-Christian” or as expressions of “our Jewish and Christian tradition.” While this presentation of these values may make sense to Kasich, it is likely to land with a thud with the target audiences that he wants to reach in Russia, China, and the Near East. More to the point, the more involved the U.S. government is in pushing these values, it probably becomes more difficult for foreign dissidents to advocate for them without being perceived by people in their own countries as agents of the U.S. or as antagonistic to the predominant cultural and religious traditions in their countries. If the U.S. does need to revive its efforts at public diplomacy, this seems like the wrong way to go about it and the wrong way to present it to the rest of the world.

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Jindal Calls It Quits

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Bobby Jindal’s pointless presidential campaign has come to a close:

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a onetime rising Republican star whose popularity has plummeted in his own state, abruptly dropped out of the presidential race on Tuesday, conceding that he was unable to find any traction.

Jindal’s campaign was one of many 2016 bids that never made any sense, and it made even less in light of his overwhelming unpopularity in his home state. He was held in high regard on the right for his wonkish background and for his electoral success, but by the time he got around to running for president he opted to cast the former aside in favor of trying to play the role of the outraged culture warrior and demagogue. That role never really suited him, and it was one that many other candidates were seeking to fill.

Having presided over a fiscal mess at home, Jindal tried during the campaign to make a virtue out of his deep unpopularity by railing against his competitors and touting his budget-cutting prowess, but this did nothing to boost his candidacy and reminded everyone why he was so disliked in Louisiana. More than most other candidates, Jindal attacked Trump directly in the harshest terms, but he won no supporters for his trouble. Jindal had put most of his efforts into campaigning in Iowa, so there may be a few Jindal supporters that other social conservative candidates will be able to win over, but on the whole Jindal’s departure from the race will have no discernible effect on the the rest of the contest. The end of his presidential campaign serves as a warning for what can happen to “rising stars” in the GOP that put their ambitions for national office ahead of their duties to their constituents.

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More U.S. Weapons for the Saudis’ War on Yemen

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Samuel Oakford reports on the latest sale of U.S. weapons to Saudi Arabia:

The US State Department has signed off on the sale of $1.29 billion worth of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, including tens of thousands of bombs that will restock a Saudi arms stockpile depleted by the country’s air campaign in Yemen, which has been linked to civilian deaths.

There had been a slight chance that delaying new weapons sales to the Saudis might be used to pressure the coalition to scale back its campaign and possibly to get them to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, but that obviously didn’t happen. Unfortunately, it was always unlikely that the administration would even make the effort. Instead of using what influence the U.S. has with Riyadh to rein in or end its unnecessary war, the Obama administration has chosen to offer unstinting support for the campaign by providing refueling, intelligence, and weapons. While the U.S. pretends not to be a party to the war, it has helped provide diplomatic cover for the coalition’s war crimes, and it refrains from saying anything about the many civilian casualties caused by indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas and in some cases the deliberate bombings of civilian targets. The rule seems to be that U.S. clients in the region are always to be coddled and “reassured,” and they must never be inconvenienced or criticized for their errors.

Amnesty International criticized the latest weapons sale:

This summer, researchers at Amnesty International reported that MK-82 bombs had been found at the site of attacks that killed civilians, including an unexploded ordnance left intact at a mosque in the village of Waht, were 11 worshippers died in May.

“The Saudi Arabia-led air coalition is engaging in indiscriminate bombing of civilian communities in Yemen, in violation of international law,” said Sunjeev Bery, Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty. “The Obama administration is now selling to Saudi Arabia even more of the MK-82 bombs that the Saudi-led coalition has already used to kill civilians in Yemen.”

The bombing campaign will continue to claim more civilian lives, and the U.S. will be partly responsible for that by having provided the arms, fuel, and political support to help keep the war going.

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