Daniel Larison

Rubio’s Ignorant Fear-mongering on the Nuclear Deal

Marco Rubio rushed to the president’s defense this morning by showing off how little he knows about everything:

It takes a truly oblivious person to accuse someone of hyperbole while comparing a non-proliferation agreement to the appeasement of Hitler, but then this is Rubio we’re talking about here. Rubio has to be so thoroughly ignorant of what “Munich” means that he can’t be taken seriously, or he is such a fanatical ideologue that his analysis can’t be trusted. Suffice it to say, an agreement that requires Iran to make significant concessions for decades on pain of punitive sanctions does not amount to anyone appeasing them. One will look in vain for the territories that Iran is allowed to absorb as a result of the deal. Iran has accepted restrictions on itself that it didn’t have to accept so that it could be freed of international sanctions. If anything, Iran is the party that has appeased the others that negotiated the agreement.

Hard-liners have labeled the negotiations with Iran as a new Munich or “worse than Munich” for years. This has just confirmed how little they know about history and how ideologically hostile they are to any kind of diplomatic engagement. Denouncing the JCPOA as the “21st century equivalent to Munich” is just about the crudest, most ignorant fear-mongering conceivable. It is a measure of how intellectually bankrupt the case against the deal really is that this is what its opponents keep using. It is also a reminder that Rubio’s foreign policy judgment is terrible.

I have often wondered how Rubio acquired the undeserved reputation for being some sort of foreign policy expert in the Senate. As far as I can tell, if a politician talks about a subject enough with enough enthusiasm and toes the right ideological lines, he doesn’t have to demonstrate knowledge of anything he’s talking about. Especially on foreign policy, a politician is granted “expert” status just by taking an interest in the issues that his colleagues tend to ignore. This is probably how Rubio’s fellow fanatic Tom Cotton earned the title of “leading Iran expert” in a recent news article despite having no particular expertise in the country and a record of distorting and misrepresenting the contents of the nuclear deal. I suggest that everyone stop treating fear-mongers and warmongers as “experts” just because they like to denounce certain foreign governments with strong language.

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Trump’s Abysmal Iran Speech

Trump speaks at Washington rally against the Iran deal back in September 2015. Credit: Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom

Trump’s Iran speech on Friday afternoon was every bit as bad as I expected. He refused to certify that the nuclear deal is in the national security interests of the United States, and that opens the door to the saboteur efforts that are already getting started with the destructive Corker-Cotton legislation. The goal of that legislation–making all existing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program permanent–represents an attempt to alter the terms of the agreement, which is itself a violation of that agreement. Put simply, the legislation Trump endorsed in the speech would mark a breach of U.S. obligations if it became law. He wants the deal gone one way or another. He may prefer that Congress be the one to hand him the knife, but he intends to do what he can to kill the deal even if they don’t.

In the event that the new legislation fails to get enough support, Trump made plain that he would renege on the deal outright:

Key House and Senate leaders are drafting legislation that would amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act to strengthen enforcement, prevent Iran from developing an inter – this is so totally important – an intercontinental ballistic missile, and make all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity permanent under US law. So important. I support these initiatives.

However, in the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated [bold mine-DL]. It is under continuous review, and our participation can be cancelled by me, as president, at any time.

In my preview of the speech, I said that the decision not to certify the deal would set in motion the process to break U.S. commitments and that sending the issue to Congress was just a way to give the administration cover for reneging on the deal. Assuming that Trump follows through on what he said on Friday, I was unfortunately right.

To justify his terrible decision, Trump cited “multiple violations” by Iran, but the things he referred to were very minor and quickly resolved because of the verification measures available to the IAEA under the deal. Opponents of the deal can’t credibly argue that Iran isn’t in compliance. Trump never mentioned the repeated verification of Iranian compliance by the IAEA that every other party to the agreement accepts, because that fact flatly contradicts the lie at the heart of his decision not to certify the deal. He referred to Iran’s “illicit nuclear program” at one point. That tells us that he and his administration either don’t understand that Iran is permitted to have such a program, or it means that they know better but want to mislead the public into thinking that Iran is engaged in “illicit” behavior when it is doing things it is actually allowed to do.

There were a few other sections that merit comment. The decision to sanction the IRGC under the Treasury’s counter-terrorism authority didn’t amount to adding them to the Foreign Terrorist Organization list (which would have been extremely dangerous), but it is nonetheless a provocative and dangerous act that will likely come back to bite the U.S.:

“This is reckless beyond the extreme,” said Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert at the Atlantic Council. “The reason being is that to designate the armed forces of another country as terrorists is to invite retaliation. Would the designation mean that US drone attacks on IRGC personnel are fair game? If so, expect to see Iranian proxies start killing US military personnel again in Iraq or in Afghanistan or Syria.”

Trump’s expression of “total solidarity with the Iranian people” rings hollow on several levels. His hostility to the nuclear deal puts him at odds with most Iranians, as does his determination to blame their government for everything that goes wrong in the region. His promise of increased sanctions shows his indifference to their well-being. Finally, his decision to bar almost all Iranians from traveling to the U.S. reveals that his contempt for them and their country goes beyond opposition to the current government.

The threat inflation in the speech was as heavy-handed as ever. At one point, Trump said that Iran’s government “spread death, destruction and chaos all around the globe.” Iran is certainly responsible for the destructive effects of its policies in Syria and Iraq, but since when have they been spreading chaos “all around the globe”? Trump also referred to Iranian “aggression” that was happening “all around the world.” These statements wildly overstate Iranian power, and I assume this is done on purpose to make them seem much more threatening than they really are. It is weird and unseemly that a superpower is so obsessed with combating the influence of a much weaker, medium-sized regional power, and so we are told tall tales about the supposed global reach and ambitions of a state that doesn’t even dominate its own neighborhood.

The litany of complaints at the beginning of the speech was remarkable for how dated most of the references were. Some of the claims, such as Iran’s supposed “assistance to Al Qaeda,” are discredited old talking points from more than a decade ago. Many of the other grievances date back thirty years or more. It was striking to hear the laundry list from Trump because it is already well-known and because it has so little bearing on the present. Imagine how ridiculous it would be if a president were giving a speech in the 1990s on China and was still dwelling on the Korean War or the Cultural Revolution as justifications for hostile policies in the present. Consider how absurd it would be to let grudges over events from decades ago shape our current relationship with Vietnam. The U.S. and Iran have gone back and forth with their respective lists of grievances for almost forty years, and dwelling on those injuries has done nothing but poison relations for that entire time to the detriment of both countries. Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about Trump’s abysmal Iran speech was how conventional and typical most of it was. The speech confirmed that the U.S. is going to stay stuck in the same rut of fruitless antagonism with Iran for many years to come.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The awful legacy of the burn pits. Kelley Vlahos reports on Delay, Deny, Hope You Die, a documentary on the devastating effect of exposure to burn pits on the health of many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and the government’s refusal to acknowledge the connection.

Saudi Arabia squeezes a starving population. Reuters reports on the Saudi-led coalition blockade’s effects on the civilian population in Yemen and its role in creating conditions for famine and cholera.

What’s really behind Tom Cotton’s opposition to the nuclear deal. Nicholas Miller dissects Tom Cotton’s CFR speech to explain that regime change is Cotton’s real goal.

The plotters against May think time is on their side. James Forsyth reports on the growing discontent among Tory backbenchers.

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The Costs of the Stupid, Unnecessary Travel Ban

The Trump administration’s baffling decision to include Chad as part of its new travel ban may have already had serious consequences:

President Donald Trump’s decision to place Chad on his revised travel ban shocked experts and former U.S. officials who warned it could have major consequences for the fight against terrorism in Africa.

And it appears Trump’s controversial decision may have already damaged alliances on the continent—which is threatened by a range of militants, including affiliates of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militant group.

Chad has pulled hundreds of troops from neighboring Niger, where they had been stationed to assist in a regional fight against Boko Haram, the Nigerian militant Islamist group, Reuters reported.

It is possible that there is another reason for Chad’s withdrawal, but it seems reasonable to assume that the decision was influenced by the administration’s arbitrary and insulting decision to bar the country’s citizens from traveling here. We should remember that the decision to add Chad to the travel ban was made over the objections of everyone in government with expertise in that part of the world, and no one familiar with the relationship with Chad thought there was any merit to doing this. The administration’s travel ban has never made sense as a policy, and it was never going to make the U.S. more secure. Now it appears that it may be making other parts of the world less secure by undermining security partnerships for no reason. Ideally, the travel ban would be discarded all together, but in the meantime Chad should be removed from the list immediately.

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The Destructive Corker-Cotton Bill

As expected, Tom Cotton isn’t wasting time working on the next step to sabotage the nuclear deal. He and Bob Corker are co-sponsoring a bill that would effectively impose new demands on Iran regarding the nuclear issue that go far beyond what is contained in the JCPOA:

According to a summary provided by Corker’s office, the two Republican senators’ proposal is designed to “effectively” eliminate the deal’s sunset when it comes to U.S. sanctions.

The Corker-Cotton bill tries to rewrite the terms of the nuclear deal unilaterally. While it doesn’t reimpose nuclear sanctions right away, it is a blatant show of bad faith from our side. If it passed and became law, it would tell the Iranians that nuclear sanctions will be eventually reimposed on them even if they adhere to the terms of the deal that they agreed to. It would be an egregious violation by the U.S., and it would certainly be received as such. It shouldn’t come as a shock that Corker and Cotton are working together on this. Despite Corker’s reputation for being more “moderate,” he and Cotton are both vocal opponents of the deal and Iran hawks more generally.

The hawkish fixation on sunset clauses isn’t just a foolish misunderstanding of how these agreements usually work. As we can see with this legislation, it is something that hard-line opponents of the deal intend to use as an excuse to sabotage the agreement. Trump’s decision today not to certify the deal will be helping to clear the path for Congressional meddling like this, and we should expect more of the same in the months to come.

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A Senseless ‘New Strategy’ on Iran

Trump’s dangerous decertification decision on the nuclear deal will come in his speech later this afternoon. In the same speech, he will outline what the administration is calling a “new strategy” on Iran, but based on the “fact sheet” the White House has sent out there is no strategy to be found. The “fact sheet” contains a fair number of false and misleading claims (and a lot of typos), but it doesn’t describe anything resembling a strategy.

The Trump administration is announcing that it intends to be more hostile to Iran and its proxies, but it sets no well-defined goals for what this increased hostility is supposed to achieve. The document says that the administration “will seek to bring about a change in the Iranians regimes behavior [sic]” while “neutralizing the Government of Irans destabilizing influence [sic].” To what end? At what cost? How? Why? For how long? None of these basic questions is addressed, much less answered in a satisfactory way. There is no hint of trying to match means and ends. Instead, the document lists a lot of complaints about Iranian behavior, makes assertions that other governments share Washington’s concerns, and whines about Obama’s record. Everything in the so-called “strategy” outline suggests that the policy that the “fact sheet” describes is as poorly-crafted as the document itself. We’ll find out more in the speech later today, but the preview suggests that future Iran policy will be even more senseless and ill-considered than it already is.

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The Backlash Against the Kurdish Referendum Escalates

The backlash to the Kurdish referendum is escalating dangerously:

The Iraqi army launched an operation to retake Kurdish-held positions around the disputed oil city of Kirkuk on Friday amid a bitter row with the Kurds over a vote for independence last month.

A senior Kurdish official said thousands of heavily armed fighters had been deployed to resist the offensive “at any cost” and called for international intervention with the federal government in Baghdad to prevent the confrontation worsening.

The danger of holding the referendum was that it would be the trigger for a new round of armed conflict. Including Kirkuk in the referendum made that outcome more likely. Unfortunately, one of the worse scenarios that we feared might happen is beginning to unfold. There might still be a chance to persuade the Iraqi government and Kurdish leadership to stop this conflict before too much damage is done, but I fear that all sides are now so entrenched in their positions that none of them is willing to consider backing down. If fighting begins at Kirkuk, it could very well provoke a Kurdish declaration of independence. That would likely cause Turkish and Iranian intervention to one degree or another. Given the horrible state of U.S.-Turkish relations at the moment, Washington is in no position to rein Turkey in, and it’s doubtful that the U.S. would be able to do so even if the relationship with Ankara wasn’t in tatters right now.

The U.S. should offer mediation to help prevent the conflict from escalating into a larger conflagration, but it absolutely must not let itself get dragged in to the fighting on either side. There will probably be significant pressure on the administration to “do something” in response to the conflict, but that needs to be resisted as much as possible.

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Trump’s Mishandling of the Puerto Rico Disaster

This morning the president made a bizarre series of statements about Puerto Rico:

President Trump served notice Thursday that he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Declaring the U.S. territory’s electrical grid and infrastructure to have been a “disaster before hurricanes,” Trump wrote Thursday that it will be up to Congress how much federal money to appropriate to the island for its recovery efforts and that recovery workers will not stay “forever.”

In a trio of tweets, Trump wrote” “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

Hurricane Maria made landfall three weeks ago, but Trump is already complaining that Puerto Rico is tying up resources. The government keeps U.S. forces in foreign countries on the other side of the world carrying out dubious missions for more than a decade at enormous expense, but less than a month of using some military resources to help Americans after a catastrophe is apparently a terrible burden. Some of the government’s agencies will be needed in Puerto Rico for a long time to come, and others will always be there because it is part of our country. One gets the impression from a lot of Trump’s complaints about Puerto Rico that he thinks he should get personal credit for the government’s fulfillment of basic obligations to its citizens.

It’s impossible to miss that Trump has signaled repeatedly through his statements and his (lack of) actions that Puerto Ricans shouldn’t be given the same treatment or respect as Americans on the mainland despite the extraordinary disaster that has befallen people on the island. The appropriate response in this situation would be for the president to pledge to support recovery efforts as long as necessary and to reassure citizens living in a disaster area that they won’t be forgotten. Instead, Trump makes it sound as if he can’t wash his hands of the problem soon enough.

The general who was brought in to improve the response to Hurricane Katrina reacted to Trump’s statements this morning:

The initial federal response has been slower and less effective than it should be. Because of the extent of the storm’s devastation, there is a greater need for federal help than there usually is in the wake of hurricanes. There is ample evidence that the island will need much more immediate and longer-term assistance as it recovers from the disaster. The president and his administration show no signs of understanding that. Puerto Rico needs a sustained, large-scale commitment from the federal government that will be measured in years rather than weeks. If the president already finds the limited and inadequate response by the administration to be so burdensome and says so publicly, that tells the people working under him and the people living on the island that repairing and rebuilding Puerto Rico isn’t going to be a priority. The result of that is the ongoing unacceptable neglect of millions of Americans that desperately need help.

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The Perils of Arming Ukraine

Rajan Menon and Will Ruger elaborate on why arming Ukraine would be an extremely foolish thing for the U.S. to do:

The proposition that Putin won’t be provoked by a U.S. decision to send lethal arms to Ukraine amounts to a hunch. It’s not supported by evidence, and Putin’s past behavior contradicts it. This is not a minor point: if he does ramp up the war and the Ukrainian army is forced into retreat, the United States will face three bad choices.

First, Washington could pour even more arms into Ukraine in hopes of concentrating Putin’s mind; but he can easily provide additional firepower to the Donbas insurgents. Second, it could deepen its military involvement by sending American military advisers, or even troops, to the frontline to bolster the Ukrainian army; but then Russia could call America’s bluff. Third, the United States could decide not to respond to Russia’s escalation given the geographical disadvantage and the limited strategic interests at stake. That would amount to backing down, abandoning Ukraine, and shredding the oft-repeated argument that American and European security hinges on the outcome of the Donbas war.

As hawks often do, advocates of arming Ukraine minimize the potential risks of their proposal while exaggerating the benefits that it will produce. On the one hand, they insist that they are “merely” calling for the U.S. to help Ukraine defend itself (they are actually calling for enabling Ukraine’s government to go on the offensive), but at the same time they believe that in doing so they will “raise the costs” for Russia to such an extent that it will significantly alter Russian behavior in and towards Ukraine. If the policy is as likely to change Moscow’s behavior as they say, it can’t be as low-risk as they claim, but if it doesn’t pose a serious risk it is probably going to have no positive effects at all. In the worst case, arming Ukraine sets them up for a disastrous defeat that the U.S. will have helped to enable.

The other flaw in the pro-arming case is that advocates of sending weapons to the Ukrainian government simply dismiss the negative consequences that are very likely to follow. They assume that the Russian government has a low tolerance for casualties, but they conveniently forget that it was Russian casualties in Tskhinvali that served as part of the rallying cry for the invasion of Georgia in the August 2008 war. The same people that called for pulling Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit in 2014 didn’t anticipate the Russian response to Yanukovych’s overthrow, but they still think that Moscow will be more inclined to back down now when faced with new provocations. Western hawkish analysts and pundits have consistently underestimated how far Moscow will go in this conflict, so why should their assurances be trusted now? We should have learned over the last decade that Moscow is much more likely to respond forcefully to provocative Western actions than most of us have assumed, and that means that the U.S. should approach this conflict with greater caution instead of increased recklessness.

Menon and Ruger make another important point that tends to get lost in the debate on this question:

The case for arming Ukraine also tends to be made in a vacuum, never mind that what the United States does in Ukraine could determine what Russia does elsewhere. Moscow could respond by putting more pressure on the Baltics, acting as a spoiler in North Korea or Iran, or even arming the Taliban (that would be an ironic turn: in the 1980s, the United States bled the Soviets by arming the Afghan mujahideen). If these outcomes seem impossible, consider the United States’ awful record in foreseeing the effects of its military moves [bold mine-DL].

The explicit purpose of sending arms to Ukraine is to give their government the means to kill more Russians and Russian proxies. This may be dressed up in euphemisms by advocates (e.g., “raising costs,” “making them pay a price”), but that is what they expressly hope to achieve with this policy. If our positions were reversed, our government would not respond to the deaths of our soldiers and proxies by yielding to the preferences of the government that provided the weapons that killed them. On the contrary, our government would intensify its support for whatever policy that government was trying to thwart. It would be foolish to assume that the Russian government would respond differently. We should assume that they would respond both directly in Ukraine by increasing their support for separatists and indirectly by aiding our enemies in other wars. This last part was the point that analyst Michael Kofman made in a report from August:

Russia’s response to scattering Javelins among Ukrainian ground forces should factor into the decision, Kofman said.

“The Russians have a very clear policy of reciprocity, as we saw in the recent diplomatic purge. They see this as a premise of the U.S. wanting to kill Russians,” Kofman said.

“The answer to this won’t come in Ukraine.”

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Designating the IRGC as Terrorists Is a Dangerous Mistake

Hooman Majd explains why Trump’s expected designation of Iran’s IRGC as a terrorist organization would be so dangerous:

Designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization, however, would have immediate and potentially disastrous effects that could reverberate across the Middle East. It is, after all, a branch of the armed forces of a U.N.-member nation and one that has shown little hesitancy to strike back at whoever threatens it or the Islamic Republic.

If Trump does label the IRGC a terrorist group, Iran’s government will see it as an extremely hostile act and may consider it a prelude to an attack on its forces. It is very risky to start labeling part of another state’s armed forces as terrorists, since it creates a pretext for starting an unnecessary war. If their forces are labeled as terrorists, they will then have every incentive to treat our forces in the same way. Since U.S. and Iranian forces are operating in Syria and Iraq at the same time and are sometimes in close proximity to one another, the administration would be foolish to stoke tensions with this designation.

The response from Iran so far has been extremely negative:

“We are hopeful that the United States does not make this strategic mistake,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.

“If they do, Iran’s reaction would be firm, decisive and crushing and the United States should bear all its consequences,” he told a news conference reported by IRNA.

Designating the IRGC would be a huge gift to hard-liners in Iran, who would cite it as proof of Washington’s hostile intentions against the country. It would also make it virtually impossible for U.S. and other firms to do business in Iran without exposing themselves to legal penalties. Majd continues:

It is difficult to certify that any particular business in Iran is not linked in some way, however minor, to the IRGC or an IRGC-controlled entity or even just to former IRGC officers. If the IRGC becomes a “foreign terrorist organization,” it will become illegal for any company doing business with it to do business in the United States. Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director, made this very point in these pages before he was appointed to his post by President Trump.

Like other ham-fisted sanctions measures, this one will cause most Iranians to side with their government and the crisis atmosphere it would likely create will make it that much harder for reformers to make any progress inside Iran. Meanwhile, ratcheting up tensions with Iran makes it that much more likely that an accident in the Gulf or a skirmish between U.S. forces and pro-regime forces in Syria or a clash with militias in Iraq could rapidly escalate into a much larger conflict. The U.S. shouldn’t be courting a new war in the region, especially when it has not yet concluded the current one. If Trump’s advisers have any sense, they will convince Trump not to go through with the designation.

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