Daniel Larison

The Enduring Shame of Two Years of U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

This weekend will be the second anniversary of the start of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, and it has been even more disastrous and harmful than opponents feared it would be:

The United Nations warned this month that Yemen represents “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.”

As it usually does, outside intervention in Yemen’s local conflict greatly intensified and prolonged the war. It has also caused enormous suffering for the civilian population through an indiscriminate bombing campaign and the systematic devastation of the country’s economy and infrastructure. The war and the coalition blockade have predictably produced a horrific humanitarian crisis that now threatens to claim the lives of millions of people if nothing is done to prevent famine. The failure of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led intervention was both likely and foreseeable from the start: the coalition was pursuing highly ambitious and unrealistic political goals, but lacked the means to achieve them. After two years of senseless carnage and destruction, the coalition has clearly failed in all of its stated goals, and the only thing it has accomplished is to ruin Yemen and starve its people.

Throughout this disgraceful campaign, the U.S. has been unstinting in its assistance as the Saudis and their allies destroy their poorer neighbor. No American interest has been served by this, and none could be, since the people being targeted by the coalition’s bombs and blockade have never done anything to us and posed no threat to us. The U.S. has enabled a shameful and atrocious war, and it has all been for nothing. Worse still, the U.S. did this despite having no obligation to aid any of the governments waging this war. This was not something that our government was bound by treaty to do, but something that the previous and current administrations have chosen to do because they could.

The Saudi-led war on Yemen has always been indefensible and unjust because it was always much more likely to cause greater evils than it prevented (it and has caused some truly great evils), and it was always unnecessary. It has also proved to be a disastrous miscalculation by the Saudis and their allies, who are frittering away their resources on a war they can’t win but are too embarrassed to quit. Far from countering a serious threat to Saudi security, the intervention has created one by triggering retaliatory strikes inside Saudi territory. The Saudis didn’t face an “existential threat” from Yemen, but plunged recklessly into a war without considering the pitfalls of intervention, and the U.S. stupidly helped them to do that. Uncritically backing our reckless clients leads to disaster for the clients and enduring shame for us, and millions of innocent civilians are paying the price so that our government can “reassure” a few despots and indulge their paranoia.

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Ukraine and the Cult of ‘Resolve’

Anders Fogh Rasmussen makes a dubious claim and offers an even worse recommendation:

Moscow has remained in the Donbas because the West has allowed it to. The U.S. can demonstrate Western resolve by ramping up sanctions on Moscow and increase the cost of Russian interference by supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine.

The first sentence greatly exaggerates the degree to which “the West” can control events in foreign conflicts, and it obscures that the measures that would be required to try to force Russia to halt its interference in Ukraine would be much more costly and dangerous than the ones Rasmussen suggests. It ignores the possibility that it might not be possible to force an end to their interference at anything like an acceptable cost. To say that Western governments have “allowed” Russia to continue its interference takes for granted that they have a way to disallow that interference, but that doesn’t spell out that even trying to do this would require far deeper direct involvement in the conflict at much greater risk to ourselves than anyone is seriously willing to contemplate.

Rasmussen treats a difficult political and military problem as if it were simply a matter of having enough “resolve,” and ignores the enormous risks that trying to compel another state to do as we would like. The proposed measures–more sanctions and arming Ukraine with so-called “defensive” weapons–cannot force a change in Russian behavior, but they can intensify the conflict and get more people killed. Western governments can “demonstrate resolve” all they like, but it isn’t going to resolve a conflict where Russia’s perceived interests will always be far greater than ours.

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Starving Yemen to Death

Yemen and Somalia are running out of time to be saved from famine:

The world has only three to four months to save millions of people in Yemen and Somalia from starvation, as war and drought wreck crops and block deliveries of food and medical care, the International Committee of the Red Cross said Wednesday.

There is urgent need for aid in both countries, as well as in Nigeria and South Sudan, but Yemen’s civilian population faces the most severe and widespread crisis. It is in Yemen where outside intervention and blockade have done the greatest harm. As a result, seven million people are on the verge of starving to death and another ten million people are not far behind. It can’t be emphasized enough that this is something that has been done to the people of Yemen on purpose by the Saudi-led coalition with the political and military support of the U.S. and Britain. All of these governments are not merely allowing millions of Yemenis to starve to death, but have worked to cause their starvation.

If Yemen’s war has generally been neglected by the rest of the world, its humanitarian crisis has been similarly ignored. Appeals to fund relief efforts have gone unfulfilled, and the sheer scale and severity of the crisis has been overlooked by most. Even now that the crisis is beginning to receive some attention, it is almost too late. By the time that famine is officially declared in Yemen, it will be too late for millions of people, many of whom will have already died. Unlike in some other conflicts where U.S. influence is limited or non-existent, our government has the leverage to make the coalition halt its campaign and lift its blockade of the country, but it has to be willing to use it. There is no hint that the new administration would even consider this course of action, but if they don’t they will go down along with the previous administration as enablers of one of the worst man-made famines in modern times.

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Trump’s Confused Approach to Burden-Sharing

Christopher Preble takes aim at the misguided priorities in Trump’s proposed budget:

But spending more money on the U.S. military is unlikely to induce greater burden sharing on the part of U.S. allies. After all, from Iraq and Afghanistan, to North Korea and the South China Sea, the U.S. military has been quite busy in recent years. Add in the four or five other countries regularly subjected to U.S. drone strikes and you begin to get a clearer picture of the scope of U.S. military activism. But Trump’s call for “a larger, more capable, and more lethal joint force,” suggests that he thinks our soldiers, sailors, airmen and U.S. Marines haven’t been doing nearly enough.

To some extent, that is a product of Trump’s outsourcing of almost all of his foreign policy to Republican hawks. Because he doesn’t know much about these issues and has even less experience working on them, Trump has been even more reliant on the hawks in his party than previous Republican presidents, and because of his own instincts he has been only too happy to throw more money at the Pentagon while starving State and other civilian departments of resources. Mocking diplomatic engagement, escalating current wars, and giving the military more money were three recurring themes in Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and regrettably these are the things that he has made a priority since taking office.

The contrast between Trump’s actual policies and his rhetoric about what allies “owe” is stark. Trump recently berated Germany over what it supposedly “owed” NATO, confirming that he doesn’t understand how the alliance works, but before that he had put forward a larger military budget that takes the pressure off allied governments to spend more for their own defense in any case. As long as the U.S. is prepared to continue increasing its already bloated military budget, allies have no incentive to increase theirs. Until the U.S. allows some slack for allies to take up, the allies will be more than happy to stick with the status quo. So Trump’s browbeating of allies isn’t going to accomplish anything, and he and his advisers will have no one else to blame for that but themselves.

There was a possibility that Trump might not be as indulgent of “free-riding” allies and clients as previous presidents, but once again this has proved to be an unfounded hope. Far from reducing support for those “free-riders,” the administration’s early actions and statements have been to signal an increase in backing for bad clients such as Saudi Arabia and a willingness to take on another free-riding ally by bringing Montenegro into NATO. Even when this promises to entangle the U.S. more deeply in foreign conflicts that harm our security, as we can see happening with the war on Yemen, this is what the administration is doing.

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Continued NATO Expansion Doesn’t Serve U.S. Interests

Tillerson has written to the Senate endorsing NATO membership for Montenegro:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has written to the leaders of the U.S. Senate urging the ratification of Montenegro as the newest member of the NATO alliance, saying it is “strongly in the interests of the United States.”

It’s not surprising that Tillerson strongly supports NATO expansion, and there was never any realistic chance that the Trump administration would oppose Montenegro’s accession. It is still worth reviewing why Tillerson is wrong when he says that it is in our interest to bring them in. Adding a new ally will mean taking on one more security dependent that can’t pull its own weight. If the administration has any desire for current allies to share more of the burden of their own defense, backing the addition of a new member that won’t add anything to the alliance sends exactly the wrong message. NATO is already too large and unwieldy, and it has several unreliable members, and bringing in a state whose people are sharply divided over the prospect of membership will only make it more so.

Continued NATO expansion doesn’t serve American interests, unless those interests are defined so broadly as to be meaningless. Unfortunately, that is how they would have to be defined in order to believe that having another member in NATO advances them.

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The Dangers of National ‘Purpose’

Screenshot: PBS Newshour

David Brooks identifies what he thinks is a great national crisis (via Rod Dreher):

We have a lot of crises in this country, but maybe the foundational one is the Telos Crisis, a crisis of purpose. Many people don’t know what this country is here for, and what we are here for.

I am skeptical that America has ever had a single purpose or reason for being, and I don’t know how everyone (or even most people) in any country as large or diverse as ours could have the same purpose. It is difficult to read Brooks’ complaint about the lack of a national telos without recalling his decades-long obsession with so-called “national greatness” and America’s mission in the world, his enthusiasm for big national projects, and his related horror at the prospect of being “just another nation” in the world. Our country doesn’t have to be here “for” something, and the lack of national “purpose” is not a crisis to be averted or ended.

I am quite sure that we don’t want the kind of politics that seeks to pursue a particular end through the government, which Michael Oakeshott derided as telocracy and contrasted with nomocracy:

[F]or the believer in nomocracy, how a government acts is a more important consideration than what it does; while for the believer in telocracy it does not matter how a government acts so long as what it does promotes the chosen ‘end’ in view.

Insisting on having a grand national purpose is what leads to destructive and abusive policies carried out in the name of realizing that end. It is not something that people in a free country need to have, nor is it something that we should want.

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Adding Montenegro to NATO Still Makes No Sense

Senate hawks aren’t happy with Rand Paul:

He’s also driving his Senate colleagues crazy by holding up the one thing the Senate could do to quickly rebuke Russian President Vladimir Putin: pass a popular treaty ratifying Montenegro’s membership in NATO.

Sen. Paul should be commended for forcing the Senate to consider the merits (or lack thereof) of further NATO expansion, and he deserves credit for taking this stand when it would be very easy to avoid a fight over something that the rest of his colleagues are sure to support. The case for bringing Montenegro into NATO is weak even by the usual standards of these arguments, and the U.S. shouldn’t be extending security guarantees to states that don’t need them. The debate over this is frequently framed in terms of antagonizing Russia, but that isn’t a good reason to add a new member to the alliance, and the reasons not to add Montenegro have nothing to do with Russia.

Montenegro doesn’t need the protection the alliance provides, and its contribution to the alliance will be minuscule. It makes no sense to add a new member to the alliance when most of the people there are opposed or indifferent to joining, especially when that new member won’t add anything significant to the alliance. Adding Montenegro won’t make any of the current allies more secure, and it will reward a corrupt government with authoritarian tendencies with integration into a major Western institution. Paul’s Senate colleagues shouldn’t be wondering why he doesn’t want to expand the alliance. They should be asking themselves why they support such a bad candidate for NATO membership.

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Unnecessary Wars and Unreliable ‘Allies’

John Allen Gay sees the recent deployment of U.S. forces to act as a buffer between Turks and Kurds as an expression of the U.S. pursuit of primacy:

Yet one could make the case that the Manbij situation, despite being condemned by many here inside the Beltway, is a logical extension, or at least a microcosm, of the bipartisan Beltway consensus on U.S. grand strategy. This grand strategy, known as primacy, suggests that the United States should take an active, leadership role in every strategically important region of the world, and that this is good for both the United States and for nations of good will in those regions.

If one accepts that the U.S. has a global “leadership” role like this, one will usually conclude that the U.S. has to police or “shape” foreign conflicts that have little or nothing to do with American security. Even when there is no discernible American interest at stake, the U.S. involves itself for the sake of exercising this supposedly necessary “leadership,” but as we can see in the case of Syria this will mean putting Americans at risk to prevent ostensible “allies” from killing each other. That calls attention to some other bad habits in our foreign policy: we extend the title of ally to a large number of groups and states, some of whom are mutually antagonistic, and then we think that it is the job of our foreign policy to satisfy all of them at the same time. That inevitably produces a confused policy that ends up satisfying no one and leaving all sides convinced that Washington is unreliable. The deployment in Syria also reminds us of the incoherence of the supposed anti-ISIS “coalition” itself. Most members of the so-called “coalition” do not consider fighting ISIS their top priority, and most have signed on to the anti-ISIS effort in the hopes of acquiring U.S. support for whatever their real goal happens to be.

As ever, the U.S. needs to be more discriminating in the fights it chooses to join and the “allies” it accepts in the process.

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Tillerson’s Perception Problem

ExxonMobil CEO and Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson (Gong Tu/Shutterstock)

David Sanger makes an important point about Secretary Tillerson’s aversion to the media:

But in the modern era, everyone from Dean Acheson to John Kerry has found that superpower diplomacy abhors a news vacuum.

When America’s top diplomats create one, adversaries and allies usually fill it with their own narrative of events, their own proposals, their own accounts of encounters with Washington.

As Tillerson should have learned over the last few days, he can try to manage perceptions and expectations through the media, or he will find himself and his efforts portrayed in a very unflattering light. Two months into Trump’s presidency, Tillerson is perceived to be in charge of a department that is adrift and demoralized, and he is seen as disconnected from his own department and frequently out of the loop on major decisions. Maybe those perceptions are exaggerated, maybe they’re not, but they have started to take hold to make people think that Tillerson doesn’t really know what he’s doing and isn’t seeking guidance from the career officials who would be able to help him learn. All of this confirms that concerns about his lack of foreign policy and government experience were not misplaced. If he doesn’t try correcting this perception of him on a regular basis, he will find that he isn’t going to be taken seriously in foreign capitals, Congress, or even in his own department, and that will set him up for failure. Fixing his perception problem will require speaking to the media, answering their questions, and presenting administration policies to the public. If he doesn’t start doing that, he will quickly become as irrelevant as he already appears to be.

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Saudi-Led Coalition Slaughters Refugees at Sea

The Saudi-led coalition attacking Yemen has committed another atrocity, this time targeting a boatload of Somali refugees:

Somalia’s government on Saturday blamed the Saudi-led coalition for Friday’s attack on a boat that killed at least 42 Somali refugees off the coast of war-torn Yemen, calling the assault by a military vessel and a helicopter gunship “horrific.”

The slaughter of dozens of refugees is unfortunately just the most recent egregious example of the coalition’s blatant disregard for civilian lives. It is one of the many indefensible attacks on civilian targets that the coalition has carried out over the past two years. As they have done after many other attacks on civilians, the coalition has pretended that they weren’t involved and aren’t responsible, but no one else could possibly be responsible for this. There will be more massacres like this as long as the Saudi-led coalition is permitted to act with impunity and faces no consequences for its flagrant, repeated violations of international law. The U.S. and Britain should cut off all military assistance to the coalition, and every day that our government continues to support the war on Yemen is another day that we are responsible for enabling the senseless killing and starving of civilians.

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