Daniel Larison

U.S. Planes at Risk After Downing of Syrian Jet

U.S. forces shot down a Syrian jet yesterday, which prompted a threat from Russia:

Russian officials on Monday threatened that their country would treat U.S.-led coalition planes in some parts of Syria as targets after the U.S. military shot down a Syrian Air Force jet on Sunday.

Russia’s defense ministry said planes flying in Syria, west of the Euphrates River, would be considered targets.

U.S. support for rebels in Syria was always likely to lead to clashes with the Syrian government and its patrons sooner or later. That is why it was an irresponsible and dangerous policy from the beginning. U.S. officials have talked about defending proxies against attack from the regime for years, but in the last few months this foolish position has been put to the test. It is possible that Russia might not use its air defenses against coalition planes in Syria, but there is now reason to fear that they might. Russia is also once again suspending the “de-confliction” process that has reduced the chances of accidents and collisions between Russian and U.S. forces. The risks to U.S. and allied pilots have just increased substantially, and the tacit permission that our planes have been given to operate against ISIS has evidently just been withdrawn. Through a mixture of foolish continuation of meddling in Syria and mindless increases of U.S. support for Syrian rebels, the Trump administration has carelessly created the conditions for escalation into a larger conflict with the Syrian government and its patrons, including Russia.

No one in Washington will care, but it is worth remembering that the U.S. has no authority to be engaged in hostilities anywhere in Syria, and our government certainly has no authority to attack Syrian government forces operating inside their own country in support for anti-regime insurgents. Obama had no right to expand the war on ISIS into Syria, and Trump has no right to involve us in a war with the Syrian government. Our Syria policy is unwise and divorced from U.S. security interests, and it is also illegal.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The global order myth. Andrew Bacevich reminds us why laments for the “global order” are misguided.

Record opposition to Saudi arms sale–but not enough. Alex Emmons and Zaid Jilani report on the Senate’s failed resolution of disapproval on the latest Saudi arms sale.

The Tehran attack reveals inconsistencies in anti-ISIS fight. Frida Ghitis comments on both the Iranian and American responses to the attacks in Tehran.

Sanaa’s survivor: how Saleh is still calling the shots. Laura Kasinof explains how the former president of Yemen retains substantial influence.

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The Hollow ‘Rules-Based Order’

Andrew Bacevich offers a useful reminder that laments for a global “rules-based order” require ignoring much of the last seventy years of U.S. foreign policy:

Yet collectively, the actions and episodes enumerated above do not suggest a nation committed to liberalism, openness, or the rule of law. What they reveal instead is a pattern of behavior common to all great powers in just about any era: following the rules when it serves their interest to do so; disregarding the rules whenever they become an impediment. Some regimes are nastier than others, but all are law-abiding when the law works to their benefit and not one day longer.

Just earlier this year, we saw how unimportant the “rules” of the “rules-based order” were to both the U.S. government and the foreign policy establishment. When Trump ordered an attack on Syrian government forces, ostensibly in the name of enforcing an international norm, he did so with no legal authority of any kind. Congress had not authorized the president to commence hostilities against the Syrian government, there was no plausible individual or collective self-defense justification for the action, and the attack clearly breached the U.N. Charter? You could not ask for a more blatant attack on the “rules-based order” than that. The response from most foreign policy analysts and pundits was one of relief, if not jubilation, that the U.S. had “acted” and exercised “leadership.” The “rules-based order” that many of them claim to be so worried about was completely irrelevant when it came to assessing the merits of illegally attacking another sovereign state.

This wasn’t an unusual reaction, but was entirely consistent with attitudes about international “order” and U.S. intervention for well over twenty-five years: when the U.S. wants to bomb or invade another country, it has no implications for “world order” except as proof of the U.S. commitment to maintain said order. If the “rules-based order” really meant anything, the rules would be applied just as vigorously–perhaps more vigorously–to the most powerful state in the world as they are to the weakest, and of course that hasn’t happened and presumably never will.

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The War on Yemen and the Senate Vote on the Saudi Arms Sale

Alex Emmons and Zaid Jilani report on the Senate’s failed resolution of disapproval aimed at blocking a sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia:

On Tuesday, only five Democrats voted against the resolution — Virginia’s Mark Warner, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Florida’s Bill Nelson, and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly.

Some prominent Democrats who had voted against the September bill changed their tunes on Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin, D-Md., both came around to supporting the measure of disapproval against the arms sales.

Cardin told The Intercept that many Democrats changed their vote because they didn’t see a commitment from Trump to end the conflict. “The main reason is we don’t see from President Trump,” he said, “a foreign policy that ends this conflict and the humanitarian crisis it’s causing.”

The good news from Tuesday’s vote is that there is now much broader opposition to selling weapons to the Saudis when there is every reason to expect that those weapons will be used in Yemen. Sens. Murphy, Paul, and Franken have done great work in persuading many more of their colleagues to oppose such sales, and if they can continue to bring more senators over to their side the Senate may well block one of these sales before long. A close vote on this issue makes it much more likely that there can be a real debate over U.S. support for the atrocious and unnecessary Saudi-led war.

There were a few honorable Republicans, including co-sponsor Rand Paul, who voted to disapprove the sale. The full roll call can be found here. Unfortunately, all but four Republican senators voted to support the latest sale and even now still have shown their backing for our disgraceful policy of enabling the destruction and starvation of Yemen. If there had been a unified Democratic front against the sale, enough Republicans broke ranks with the White House that the resolution of disapproval would have passed.

The bad news is that the resolution still failed. Resistance to shameful U.S. support for the war on Yemen started very late, and it is not growing as quickly as it needs to in order to provide Yemen with the help that its civilian population needs right now. Blocking arms sales to members of the Saudi-led coalition is an important start to helping Yemen, but when the country is in the grip of both famine and a rapidly spreading cholera epidemic there is much more that must be done quickly to address the severe humanitarian needs there.

There has not been a serious effort from Washington under the Obama and Trump administrations to seek an end to the conflict, and neither administration has done much of anything to pressure the Saudis and their allies to halt their campaign. Obama belatedly made a few half-hearted gestures at the end of his presidency, but they had no effect and they have been quickly undone by his successor. If there is to be any chance of changing that policy, the White House needs to start losing votes on these arms sales on a regular basis.

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The Tories Are in a Bind with May

Katy Balls comments on Theresa May’s continuing difficulties:

The Queen’s Speech – in which the government sets out its legislative programme – has been delayed indefinitely. Originally due to take place next week, it’s now on hold until the Conservatives manage to come to a satisfactory ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the DUP.

This is an un-precedented move – and not a good sign.

The inability to deliver on something so basic and important is evidence that May shouldn’t have tried to stay in place after the election result. Cobbling together a desperate deal with the DUP never looked good, and taking extra time to put it together looks worse. In the meantime, it opens her up to the same charges of “chaos” that she leveled against a possible Labour-led government, and gives everyone another reason to question her competence and authority.

In a separate post, she also points to a new YouGov survey that finds that May and Corbyn are now tied on the question of who should be prime minister:

The reason May should be able to find some solace in this is that it confirms the Tories’ worst fears: Labour could win power in a second election. The main reason May is currently in No 10 and not at the job centre is that Conservatives are fearful of another election. With momentum with Labour, many in the party think their party would fare even worse if there was to be an election in the Autumn. A Tory leadership challenge would make the prospect of a second poll much more likely.

Prior to the start of the campaign, May had a 39-point lead on the same question, and between her poor showing and Corbyn’s success with voters she has managed to reduce it to nothing. Since YouGov’s model is the one that was most accurate during the election, we should take their findings on this seriously. Perversely, her own weakness protects her from immediate removal by her party, which is a remarkable and embarrassing position for the supposedly “strong and stable” leader to be in. For the moment, May’s rivals aren’t openly coming after her yet, but it’s not clear how long that can last. This comment sums things up fairly well:

“Something very Weekend at Bernie’s about this pretence that the PM is still viable,” tweeted prominent British columnist Janan Ganesh on Sunday.

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On the Road

Starting tomorrow I’ll be traveling for most of the rest of this month, so posting will be less frequent and comment approval may take a bit longer than usual. Normal blogging will resume at the end of June.

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May’s Time Is Almost Up

Theresa May isn’t gone yet, but as Fraser Nelson explains it is just a matter of time until she is replaced:

So Theresa May will go – make no mistake about that. She will never be forgiven, by the country or her party, for this debacle. But the Tories also know that, given the damage that she has inflicted on their party, they’re in no fit state to fight another general election. And as soon as they’re ready, they’ll get rid of her. It’s a question of when, not if.

It is a testament to how badly May failed that she has left her party in such a bad state that it can’t risk ousting her right away for fear of losing the next election. Nelson writes:

She is not being defenestrated because her party doesn’t want a leadership election now, having demeaned itself enough in the eyes of the electorate. Another Boris v Gove debacle could mean another election and Jeremy Corbyn in No. 10; stopping this is now the number one Tory priority (more so than Brexit).

The desire to delay another leadership contest is understandable, especially in light of what happened during the last one, but I doubt it can be put off for more than a couple months. May doesn’t really have the confidence of her party or the electorate, and everyone knows it, so my guess is that a rebellion will occur before the summer is out. It is possible that her desperate and ill-advised partnership with the DUP will blow up in her face just as her election gamble did. There is a report that she is seeking a formal coalition deal with the DUP, which is potentially even more destabilizing for Northern Ireland than a “confidence-and-supply” arrangement. If the Tories are responsible for wrecking the peace there on account of May’s political shenanigans, they may lose the next election regardless of when they oust May and they will deserve to.

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A Despicable Hawkish Response to the Tehran Attacks

I came across this despicable statement from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher earlier this evening:

“We have recently seen an attack on Iran, and the Iranian government – the mullahs, I believe that Sunni forces have attacked them,” noted Rohrabacher before suggesting that the attack could be a “ratcheting up” of U.S. commitments against Iran. He then asked the panel, “Isn’t it a good thing for us to have the United States finally backing up Sunnis who will attack Hezbollah and the Shiite threat to us, isn’t that a good thing? And if so, maybe…this is a Trump strategy of actually supporting one group against another.”

This is just one House member’s awful opinion, but it is another example of the same sort of warped thinking that produced the White House’s insulting response to the Tehran attacks. According to the Congressman’s appalling view, the murder of innocent Iranian civilians is considered a “good thing” because they happen to live under an authoritarian and Islamist regime. He describes the attacks as an attack on “the mullahs,” as if that would make them acceptable. That ignores that an enemy of the U.S. claimed responsibility for the attack and it pays no attention to the fact that the victims of the attacks were civilians going about their business. Based on what the Congressman said here, it seems that he thinks the U.S. should be in the business of sponsoring more attacks like this one. That is sick, and it is outrageous to suggest that the U.S. should sponsor terrorist attacks anywhere regardless of the type of government a particular country has. It is also a dangerously irresponsible thing for a member of Congress to say, since speculation of this kind from someone in his position could possibly be spun as “proof” that the U.S. somehow sanctioned or approves of the attacks on Tehran.

To his credit, the witness that Rohrabacher was questioning condemned the attacks in no uncertain terms and rejected the idea that there was anything desirable about supporting ISIS attacks on anyone. It is lamentable that such obvious truths have to be stated in order to answer such toxic rhetoric from Iran hawks.

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The Qatar Crisis and Trump’s Dangerous Embrace of the Saudis

Emma Ashford notes Trump’s obliviousness to the costs of siding with the Saudis and Emiratis in the Qatar crisis:

Indeed, despite these concerns – and despite the efforts of Tillerson, Mattis and others to mediate the dispute, and to walk back the President’s rash tweets – Trump himself appears determined to publicly take the Saudi side in this dispute and force unity within the GCC. In doing so, he risks raising regional tensions, and complicating the anti-ISIS campaign that was the cornerstone of his campaign.

Foreign policy often requires trade-offs. It is no doubt possible that long-term pressure from regional states may induce Qatar to scale back the scope of its foreign policy. But this will come at the cost of other U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region.

The underlying problem with Trump’s handling of the crisis is that he has mistaken the Saudi-led bloc opposed to Qatar for reliable partners in combating jihadism, and so he accepts that their punitive measures against Qatar are proof of their willingness to follow through on supposed commitments made in Riyadh last month. Because he has embraced these client states so fully, he doesn’t appreciate that he is being used to provide their vendetta with a U.S. stamp of approval. He seems to think that the Saudis and their allies are pursuing a U.S.-guided agenda when they are pursuing their own goals without regard to our interests. This is why he keeps thanking King Salman and the Saudi government, but his gratitude–like his support–is seriously misplaced.

The Saudis and their allies are actively undermining U.S. policies in the region, and the president congratulates them on their good work. They single out Qatar to settle scores with them over other issues, but dress up the score-settling as counter-terrorism and Trump believes it without question. The trouble isn’t just that he doesn’t grasp the trade-off being made, but that he actually thinks the U.S. is benefiting greatly from the Saudi-led bloc’s self-serving adventurism. Like many other hawks who conflate U.S. interests and those of bad regional clients, Trump can’t perceive the trade-off being made because he refuses to see the divergence of interests clearly on display.

The danger for the U.S. and the wider region is that the small emirate is not going to roll over so easily, and that means that the crisis is going to fester and probably grow worse over time. Qatar’s foreign minister was adamant about this earlier in the week:

“No one has the right to intervene in our foreign policy,” Sheikh Mohammed said.

He also rejected “a military solution as an option” to resolving the crisis, and said Qatar could survive “forever” despite the measures taken against it.

“We are not ready to surrender, and will never be ready to surrender the independence of our foreign policy,” he told reporters later, adding: “No one will break us.”

Backing up Qatar’s determination to resist is the fast-tracked approval of Turkish military forces to be deployed to Qatar. Erdogan signed the legislation authorizing the deployment this week:

President Tayyip Erdogan called for the lifting of a blockade on Qatar on Friday after approving legislation on deploying Turkish troops there, as the Gulf state faces isolation imposed by fellow Arab states over its alleged support for terrorism.

Erdogan vowed to keep supporting Qatar after his rapid approval of the bill, pushed through parliament on Wednesday, and he rejected accusations that it supported terrorism.

Turkish support makes it less likely that Qatar will yield to the maximalist demands being made of them. Instead of discouraging the Saudi-led bloc from another ill-considered course of action, vocal U.S. backing is likely to encourage the Saudis and their allies to use more aggressive measures. Considering their disastrous miscalculation regarding intervention in Yemen two years ago, we should not trust that their leaders will have the good judgment to back down:

“Most worrying is that Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. may repeat the mistakes that were made when the Saudi leadership decided to launch a war in Yemen,” said Yezid Sayigh, a Beirut-based senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They had no clear political strategy, based their action on false assumptions, have incurred heavy financial costs and a growing human toll, and are probably now worse off in terms of their security.”

In his remarks this afternoon, Trump didn’t just voice support for the Saudi-led punitive policy, but claimed that these governments had approached him and received his approval beforehand:

Trump said the nations that imposed the blockade — including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — came to him in the wake of his conference in the region to discuss “confronting Qatar over its behavior.”

“So we had a decision to make: Do we take the easy road or do we finally take a hard but necessary action?” Trump said.

Elsewhere in Trump’s statement, he issued what could easily be interpreted as an ultimatum and not-so-veiled threat when he said, “They have to end that funding.” This rhetoric of what Qatar “has to” do implies that there may be even more severe consequences for them if they don’t comply. That is very likely to be interpreted as an endorsement of escalation against Qatar, which is exactly what the U.S. doesn’t need and should be working hard to prevent.

The central problem in all of this is that Trump believes the Saudi-led bloc is acting to advance our interests when they are really just pursuing their own rivalries at our expense, and by tying his foreign policy so closely to the Saudis he has blinded himself to the reality that he is being used by them for reasons that have nothing to do with fighting terrorism. Trump is putting the U.S. fully on one side of an internecine quarrel in which none of the governments involved deserves our support, and in the process he is putting our foreign policy in hock to reckless despotic clients.

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Tillerson Scrambles to Undo Trump’s Qatar Blunder

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

Secretary Tillerson made a statement earlier today calling on the Saudis and their allies to ease the blockade on Qatar. The emphasis on de-escalation and resolving the dispute was appropriate, but this should have been the administration’s unified position all along. Of course, the crisis might have been avoided or more easily resolved if the administration had not given the Saudis and their allies the impression that Washington would support them no matter what they did. It is not tenable to tell clients that they won’t face any lectures or pressure from Washington and then expect them to respond constructively to a public rebuke. Having given the Saudis et al. the greenest of green lights beforehand, the Trump administration now appears unprepared and out of their depth when they try to backtrack.

Because of Trump’s ill-informed and irresponsible intervention in the crisis earlier this week, the leaders of the governments imposing the blockade may assume that the president’s endorsement of their actions counts for more than Tillerson’s statement. The administration’s ongoing foreign policy dysfunction and Trump’s tendency to make arbitrary decisions that cut his top officials out of the loop make it difficult for the latter to be taken seriously as credible spokesmen for American positions. When there are wide public differences between what U.S. officials say the U.S. position is and what the president says it is, other governments can take advantage of the confusion created by that disagreement to ignore statements from Washington they don’t like. The lack of coordination between the president and his foreign policy team is a serious and continuing problem, and in a crisis like this it limits U.S. influence and makes our government’s protests ring hollow.

Update: Naturally, it didn’t take Trump long to undermine Tillerson’s attempt to de-escalate the crisis:

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