Daniel Larison

Gelb’s “Only Way” to Defeat ISIS Is a Terrible Idea

Leslie Gelb recycles a bad argument that he was making months ago:

Now is not the time for false virtue or moral absolutism. The working principle now has to be first threats first. And the first threat to American interests today is ISIS and its cohorts.

One doesn’t need to indulge in “moral absolutism” to be able to identify the serious flaws with what Gelb is proposing. Gelb wants the U.S. to team up with Syria and Iran to fight ISIS, but somehow thinks that the Syrian regime can be persuaded to behave less atrociously along the way. He says that “the first condition for cooperation must be [Assad's] agreement to respect humanitarian zones in rebel held areas linked to a mutual ceasefire,” but this is preposterous on its face. No one could trust the Syrian regime to honor such a commitment, and once the U.S. has linked itself to the regime it will be stuck with its new ally no matter what it does. On the one hand, Gelb is saying that we must make a deal with the “devils we know” and set aside our qualms about the atrocious behavior of these would-be allies that he wants us to have, but he also thinks that by seeking the aid of the “devils” that they will be somehow be encouraged to behave less devilishly. It’s abhorrent, and it’s also unworkable on its own terms.

Gelb didn’t make a persuasive argument months ago before the U.S. was bombing ISIS, and he fails to persuade once again. As I’ve pointed out before, it is far from certain that the U.S. would be able to “get the job done” if it struck such an awful bargain, so the U.S. would be agreeing to a horrendous alliance of convenience with no guarantee that the alliance would even be useful. Actively cooperating with the Syrian regime would not only be a shameful thing to do, but in all likelihood it would give ISIS and other jihadist groups endless fodder for propaganda and recruiting, it would significantly increase the jihadist threat to Americans overseas, and it would blow apart whatever semblance of international support the anti-ISIS campaign currently has.

He notes that the U.S. has collaborated with ugly, brutal regimes in the past when it seemed necessary to do so, but this just reminds us how unnecessary the current campaign is for U.S. security. Supposing that Gelb is right that his is the “only way” to defeat ISIS, the price would be unacceptably high, and it would be yet another reason to stop the campaign now. As it is, I doubt that Gelb’s way would be any better at “getting the job done” than the current policy, and it seems likely to make the U.S. far more enemies in the process than we already have.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The secret casualties of Iraq’s chemical weapons. C.J. Chivers reports on the exposure of Americans and Iraqis to chemical agents and the ensuing efforts by the U.S. government to cover up what happened.

Uncle Sucker to the rescue. Stephen Walt catalogues the many mistakes that the U.S. is repeating in its newest war.

Why India doesn’t involve itself in the Near East. Shashank Joshi reviews the reasons why India doesn’t intervene in or try to mediate the region’s conflicts.

The varnish of Vietnam. Gordon Adams laments America’s habit of waging unwinnable wars.

The foolish search for “moderates.” Nikolas Gvosdev comments on the futility of searching for “moderate” proxies in foreign wars.

The danger of fighting both sides in Syria. John Allen Gay lists some of the harmful consequences that intervening against the Syrian government could have.

The legacy of the Gulf War. Robert Farley considers some of the effects of the 1991 Desert Storm campaign.

Why the bombing campaign in Syria isn’t working well. Paul Pillar presents some of the reasons why the campaign against ISIS is having such limited effect.

A nuclear deal with Iran won’t change very much. Kevin Sullivan explains why even a successful negotiated agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue isn’t going to change the politics of the region.

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The Perils of Threat Inflation

Stephen Walt sees the U.S. repeating past mistakes in its war on ISIS. The first mistake he identifies is the tendency to exaggerate foreign threats:

Why is threat inflation a problem? When we exaggerate dangers in order to sell a military [action], we are more likely to do the wrong thing instead of taking the time to figure out if a) action is really necessary and b) what the best course of action might be.

It’s fair to say that U.S. officials wouldn’t have to exaggerate foreign threats so often if military action were clearly necessary. The U.S. is an extraordinarily secure country, so it requires an extraordinary amount of dishonesty and exaggeration to convince Americans that launching attacks overseas is necessary for our security. Government officials have to overstate threats from overseas in order to justify military action that they all know isn’t strictly necessary, and so they also overstate how many interests the U.S. has in the world and exaggerate how important those interests are. All of a sudden, the U.S. is defending supposedly “vital” interests in places that have no importance for American security whatever. The assumptions behind preventive war also give each administration greater leeway. These allow presidents to dismiss the lack of evidence of a direct threat right now because of a belief that a threat might materialize later on. The slightest possibility that there could be a threat at some point in the future is treated as if there definitely is one, and so the U.S. starts bombing another country. It doesn’t matter that the U.S. isn’t actually threatened by the government or whichever group is being targeted. All that matters is that the U.S. has responded to the overblown threat with “action.” Bombing the supposed future threat becomes self-justifying, and self-defense is expanded to mean whatever the government wants it to mean.

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Domestic Politics and Diplomacy with Iran

Dan Drezner concludes that domestic political resistance to an Iranian nuclear deal will likely be too strong to overcome:

It’s also not obvious to me, by the way, that either President Obama or President Hassan Rouhani will be able to make the hard sell on a compromise to their respective legislatures. It’s not like Obama’s national security street-cred is riding terribly high at the moment, and Rouhani has his own hardliners to massage.

So the political scientist in me thinks that a nuclear deal would be good for the United States in the short and long runs. But that same political scientist in me is also increasingly skeptical about arguments that leadership will somehow be able to override hardliners in both countries to get to that deal.

The more immediate problem on the U.S. side is not whether such a deal can be “sold” to the Senate, since there will be no need for the Senate to vote on the deal itself (no matter what McCain et al. want), but whether there are domestic political changes in the meantime that make it more difficult to reach an agreement in the first place. The midterm elections will take place at the start of next month, and the current deadline to reach an agreement comes almost three weeks later. Depending on runoffs and victories by independent candidates, we may not know on November 5 which party will end up controlling the Senate. Even so, it is more likely than not that Republicans will have enough seats to control the chamber in the new year. That will shortly put them in a position to block sanctions relief, and it could lead to a renewed push for imposing additional sanctions. That wouldn’t matter so much if Senate Republicans were inclined to judge a nuclear deal on the merits, but most of them are ideologically opposed to making any deal with Iran on this issue. Even those that claim to want diplomacy to succeed insist on conditions, including zero enrichment, that are obvious deal-breakers for the Iranian side.

Since the Senate GOP is opposed to a final agreement with Iran that doesn’t include their impossible conditions, the prospect of their takeover could adversely affect the final stage of the negotiations this year. If the Iranians see that Republicans are poised to win control, they might be more likely to stall or walk away from the talks all together. In the worst case, there might be no deal because the Iranian side assumes that the U.S. won’t be willing to fulfill the rest of its side of the bargain, or there could be a deal reached that is then blown up a few months later as it becomes clear that there will be no action on sanctions relief from Congress.

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Recognizing Palestine and the Two-State Solution Mirage

Philip Stephens follows up on the non-binding Commons vote to recognize Palestine as a state:

The Israeli argument, echoed as it was by a handful of supportive MPs, is that the process of recognising Palestine as a state, which began in the UN general assembly two years ago, is a brake on peace. Statehood is a prize to be “earned”. To concede it now would be to reduce the pressure for Palestinians to make tough compromises.

There was never great logic in this. As several MPs pointed out, the formulation offers Israel an extraordinary veto over the choices of other sovereign states. Even if this once made tactical sense, the proposition has been robbed of reason by Mr Netanyahu: Palestinians cannot be denied statehood because of Israel’s intransigence.

The argument against recognition might have made sense twenty years ago, but over the last two decades it has become increasingly obvious that international recognition of Palestine cannot put a “brake” on a peace process that isn’t going anywhere. It would be one thing if recognizing Palestine genuinely risked derailing a possible peace deal, but that argument now rings hollow. For much of this time, Western governments and their publics could kid themselves that a two-state solution was still possible and might even be realized in the near future, but it has been shown to be a mirage in the last few years. In the wake of the collapse of the latest attempt to revive that process, the most recent Gaza war, and the persistent expansion of settlements, it has become clear that the current Israeli government has no interest in such an outcome.

Even if it did want to reach an agreement, its actions over the last few years have made it impossible for an increasing number of people in the West to believe that it does. No doubt the Israeli government would like to have things both ways by sabotaging the process through continued settlement expansion without having to pay a political price with other countries. As the Commons vote indicates, that is starting to backfire in countries that are otherwise sympathetic to Israel, and that will likely keep happening. Israel can maintain the pretense for the rest of the world that it wants to reach a lasting accommodation with the Palestinians, or it can keep expanding settlements, but it has reached a point where it can no longer do both.

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The Perils of “Indispensable Nation” Rhetoric

Kori Schake notes the gap between Obama’s rhetoric about the war against ISIS and the means he is willing to use:

But the case President Obama makes for war against the Islamic State is apocalyptic — the United States is absolutely invested in defeating ISIL, he claims. Obama believes we will win through very limited means, not that we have very limited interest in the outcome, which was Eisenhower’s view.

Obama’s problem here is that he has committed the U.S. to maximalist goal that isn’t necessary for U.S. security. He can’t justify a larger commitment of U.S. forces, because the war isn’t being fought for self-defense or even for the defense of real U.S. allies. Nonetheless, he still feels compelled to engage in rhetorical overkill to make military action seem like the right response, and as a sop to the hawks he says that the U.S. intends to “destroy” the group when he probably knows that this isn’t possible at an acceptable cost. Obama may realize that the war isn’t necessary for U.S. security, and has acknowledged that there is no direct threat to the U.S. that needs to be countered. That is one reason why he hasn’t yet yielded to the pressure for further escalation. Unfortunately, he has trapped himself again with careless rhetoric that hawks are now using to demand a larger, more costly intervention, and he can’t get out of the trap without repudiating many of the things he has already said about this war.

One of the more telling comments Obama made about this came in the 60 Minutes interview late last month. He once again fell back on American exceptionalist claptrap to defend the decision to intervene: “That’s how we [Americans] roll.” Someone at the White House must have thought this was very clever, since it is the portion of the interview that they chose to highlight on the official website. Whether he has embraced this nonsense in order to counter the charges that he doesn’t believe in a certain type of American exceptionalism, or whether he has done this because he genuinely believes it, the effect is the same: the U.S. is drawn into fighting wars that it doesn’t need to fight to uphold the vain conceit that America is “indispensable.” The truth is that the U.S. has little at stake in the fight against ISIS, but Obama can’t admit that without rejecting the “indispensable nation” conceit that he has relied on to support many of his worst foreign policy decisions.

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Obama’s War Powers Precedents

Jack Goldsmith and Matthew Wexman make a persuasive case that Obama has set important precedents for the expansion of presidential war powers:

And it is Obama, not Bush, who has proven the master of unilateral war. Because of his lofty rhetoric about principle, because he sometimes appears to be a reluctant commander-in-chief, and perhaps because his claims of legal authority have been advanced and defended by lawyers who did not bring to office a reputation for hardline executive supremacy, the war powers precedents Obama has established have not been appreciated. Yet for those same reasons they will be especially credible, and thus especially tempting, to future administrations. These precedents will constitute a remarkable legacy of expanded presidential power to use military force.

The authors review the administration’s justifications for the Libyan war, the abortive strikes on Syria last year, and the new war against ISIS, and they show that Obama and his officials have embraced the idea that the president can wage war on his own authority. Obama sought Congressional authorization last year for the proposed attack on Syria, but only after he made clear that he didn’t believe that he needed their approval to start a war on his own. Sometimes this has involved pretending that a sustained air campaign does not rise to the level of “hostilities,” as administration lawyers did during the Libyan war in 2011, and sometimes it has involved lying about what the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs permit, but in practice Obama has gone farther than any recent president in waging wars without Congressional authorization. Obama is “reluctant” to use force until he isn’t, at which point he has proven himself to be less concerned with legality than any of his modern predecessors. What makes this even more obnoxious is that Obama and his officials claim to be more respectful of constitutional limits on presidential power than previous administrations, and they have gone so far as to accept the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution, but they then completely ignore all of these limits when it comes time to make policy.

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Chemical Weapons and Iraq

Peter Suderman summarizes the findings of a New York Times report on old chemical weapons stocks in Iraq:

These were not products of the active, ongoing chemical weapons program that the Bush administration claimed existed and had to be stopped when it first made the case for war in Iraq. All the weapons were all more than a decade old by the time they were discovered. Most were made in the 1980s, and every single one of them had been created before 1991.

The Times says flatly that “the discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale.” [bold mine-DL]

Not only was there no desire on the part of the government to publicize these findings, but the government made a point of keeping secret the existence of these weapons even when American soldiers had been exposed to them:

The American government withheld word about its discoveries even from troops it sent into harm’s way and from military doctors. The government’s secrecy, victims and participants said, prevented troops in some of the war’s most dangerous jobs from receiving proper medical care and official recognition of their wounds.

“I felt more like a guinea pig than a wounded soldier,” said a former Army sergeant who suffered mustard burns in 2007 and was denied hospital treatment and medical evacuation to the United States despite requests from his commander.

Congress, too, was only partly informed, while troops and officers were instructed to be silent or give deceptive accounts of what they had found.

The discoveries proved embarrassing to the government for a number of reasons. For one thing, they didn’t support the administration’s pre-war claims about Iraq’s WMD programs, but rather underscored just how wrong those claims had been:

Participants in the chemical weapons discoveries said the United States suppressed knowledge of finds for multiple reasons, including that the government bristled at further acknowledgment it had been wrong. “They needed something to say that after Sept. 11 Saddam used chemical rounds,” Mr. Lampier said. “And all of this was from the pre-1991 era.”

In addition to that, many of the weapons were produced in the West:

In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.

The real story here is that the government mistreated American soldiers that were exposed to chemical agents, neglected to secure some of the weapons it found, mishandled many of the weapons that it did destroy, and all the while did its best to keep the public from learning about this outrageous behavior. As Suderman put it, “it looks like the revelation of another colossal failure in what is already widely recognized as a colossal failure of a war.”

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Arming Rebels Doesn’t Work

A recent CIA study concluded that arming insurgents has rarely been successful in defeating foreign governments:

The still-classified review, one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.

That isn’t surprising, since this is one of the points that opponents of arming rebels in Syria have made repeatedly over the last three years. To the extent that arming anti-regime forces early on could have “worked” at all, it would have added to the war’s death toll, but probably would not have changed the course of the conflict. This report makes Obama’s decision and Congress’ recent vote to provide arms and training to the “moderate” opposition look even worse than they already did. The administration has known very well for some time that this policy would most likely be useless, but that hasn’t stopped Obama from going along with it to some extent anyway. This suggests that Obama has endorsed a policy that he knows doesn’t make sense and isn’t likely to succeed on its own terms. I suspect that he has done this so that he can throw his hawkish critics a bone in a vain effort to get them to be quiet for a little while. Of course, this doesn’t placate the hawkish critics, and it gives them an excuse to claim vindication that they don’t deserve. Meanwhile, it traps the administration into following through with a policy that no one–including Obama–expects to succeed.

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The Hunt for the Elusive “Moderates”

Nikolas Gvosdev likens the search for “moderates” in the Near East to looking for unicorns:

The elusive unicorns wandering the forests of America’s Middle East policy are the so-called moderates who will battle the extremists on behalf of the Western world. There is a touching faith among many parts of the U.S. foreign policy establishment in the existence of these moderates, who simply require sustained U.S. support in order to step forward out of the shadows of the stagnant status quo regimes and extremist movements that dominate the region.

That faith in the existence of these “moderates” serves a few purposes for those that want the U.S. to intervene frequently in the region. It makes intervention in one form or another seem more palatable. It offers the false promise that there is a third alternative to supporting either authoritarian regimes or Islamist groups. It conjures up an illusion of a friendly, “pro-Western” force that the U.S. is supposedly obliged to support. Finally, it gives interventionists an excuse to dress up their preferred policy with rhetoric about democracy and “values.” Most Americans have no desire to take sides in a foreign sectarian conflict, but if that fight can be recast as a battle between democrats and dictatorship it may become more attractive, or at least it will seem less repugnant. In order for this ploy to work, however, it is usually necessary to obscure and whitewash who the “moderates” are and what they believe, and interventionists have had plenty of practice with this over the years with the KLA, MEK, rebels in Libya, and now rebels in Syria. When it was necessary to pretend that Maliki was a secular nationalist and not the sectarian politician that he had always been, that is what Iraq war supporters did.

Because there are always some people that are relatively more moderate in their political or religious views when compared to some others, there is always some group or government that can be given this label without being completely dishonest, but the label is also inherently deceptive. When compared to ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, almost anyone would qualify as a relative moderate, but it doesn’t follow that the U.S. has a good reason to back them. In the American context, being “moderate” usually implies a preference for compromise, the rejection of most rigidly-held views, and an aversion to hard-line positions. When applied to people overseas it is supposed to convey some degree of sympathy for liberal and democratic values, and it is also supposed to indicate that they are “pro-Western” in their attitudes. That is what Americans are supposed to imagine when they hear that there is a “moderate” force that the U.S. can support. Those are the sort of people that interventionists want us to think the U.S. will be supporting, because they know that there won’t be much interest in providing support or directly taking sides in a foreign conflict once that illusion of “moderation” is stripped away.

As Gvosdev points out, however, the search for “moderates” that can serve as an effective proxy in the region’s conflicts is just a waste of time:

Simply put, there is no local group in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or anywhere else in the region that can be effective on the battlefield while also fulfilling Washington’s wish list.

The lesson to be drawn from this is not that the U.S. should be open to working with any group so long as it is effective on the battlefield, but that the U.S. shouldn’t be trying to find suitable proxies in these foreign civil wars in the first place. If we understood that there were no “moderates” worth supporting in these conflicts, we would realize much earlier that the U.S. had nothing at stake there and had no reason to take sides in so many foreign wars.

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