Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

One woman’s lonely struggle against famine in Yemen. Nawal al-Maghafi reports on the terrible conditions in Yemen created by the war and coalition blockade.

The all-purpose authorization of military force. Daniel DePetris calls on Congress to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities in matters of war.

New rules for military intervention. Christopher Preble proposes five rules that should determine when the U.S. should intervene abroad.

Senators struggle with geography to support the Saudi war on Yemen. U.S. News reports on McCain and Corker’s poor grasp of the Arabian Peninsula’s geography.

Don’t imitate the Russians in Syria. Paul Pillar picks apart the latest argument for intervention in Syria.

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McCain and Corker Need a Geography Lesson

Supporters of the Saudi arms sale made many bad arguments yesterday before the vote, but this may have been the most laughable mistake:

Two longtime senators leaned on questionable geographic analysis Wednesday as part of their successful defense of a $1.15 billion proposed arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

The Strait of Hormuz would be threatened if Houthi rebels had taken over all of Yemen before Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention last year, they agreed before leading colleagues to shoot down a bid to block the arms sale.

But the shipping bottleneck actually separates Iran and an Omani peninsula hundreds of miles north of Yemen, where Shiite rebels and backers of a deposed and formerly U.S.-supported strongman are resisting a Saudi-led campaign that has killed many civilians.

McCain and Corker’s error would almost be funny if it didn’t reflect their poor understanding of the region and the conflict they want the U.S. to continue fueling. Corker is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, so one would think he would have better familiarity with the geography of a part of the world where he wants the U.S. to be so involved. McCain is famously treated as a foreign policy “expert” despite a long record of horrible judgments, so his screw-up is even more ridiculous. Their error is significant not only for betraying their ignorance about basic geography, but also for showing how desperate they are to make Iran a major player in the conflict when its role is actually limited and not very significant. When Corker answers McCain’s question, he says that “it puts more of that in Iranian hands,” and that is based on the lie that Iran has any control in any part of Yemen. This matters because McCain and other backers of the Saudi-led war are determined to portray the war as “self-defense” against expanding Iranian influence, but neither of those things is true. It’s hard to see why anyone should take McCain and Corker’s views on the conflict seriously when they can’t even be trusted to read a map correctly.

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Threat Inflation and Short Memories

Philip Stephens repeats a bit of silly conventional wisdom:

At a conference in New York organised by the US branch of the Ditchley Foundation I heard a distinguished American elder statesman remark that he has never known a period when the world had been simultaneously buffeted by so many upheavals and crises [bold mine-DL].

The idea that we are living through some uniquely unstable and chaotic period is a popular one nowadays, but it just shows what short memories and how little perspective many analysts and even “elder statesmen” have. Previous decades have had as many or more “upheavals and crises” as we have today, but they are now forgotten or only dimly remembered because they are now over or because the people making outlandish claims about the present never paid any attention to these crises back then. Fifteen years ago, central Africa was in the middle of a huge international war with forces from over a half dozen states and their proxies fighting in Congo, and millions of people perished in the greatest loss of life in a conflict since WWII. By any reasonable measure, that represented far more upheaval and violence than anything we see today, but probably because it was in sub-Saharan Africa it is all but forgotten. The ’90s had plenty of “upheavals and crises,” including the dissolution of the USSR, the Balkan wars, the Karabakh war, the Kargil war, the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Gulf War, and the Rwandan genocide, and those are just some of the most obvious ones. It is very doubtful that the world is experiencing more “upheavals and crises” than it has over the last several decades, so the “elder statesman” Stephens cites is either being forgetful or tendentious.

If the world is not demonstrably more unstable and chaotic than it has been in previous decades, why are there so many people claiming that it is? Like most kinds of alarmism, this one seems aimed at frightening people into accepting dubious policies. The general goal seems to be to get the U.S. and their allies to be as meddlesome overseas as possible. As we saw in Rasmussen’s op-ed yesterday, the people that are exaggerating the extent of global upheaval want the U.S. to be actively involved in “restoring order.” In practice, that means more interference in other countries’ affairs and deeper involvement in ongoing conflicts. Order isn’t likely to be restored in the process, but the point is to keep the U.S. as entangled as possible so that there’s never an opportunity to assess whether it makes sense for the U.S. to be as activist as it is. So when you hear someone assert that the world is suffering from an extraordinary number of “upheavals and crises,” remember that it isn’t true and the person making the claim is almost certainly trying to sell you on a more ambitious and aggressive foreign policy.

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The Starvation of Yemen Continues

IRIN Photos/Flickr: Mazrak camp in the tough mountainous scrublands of Yemen's north-west border with Saudi Arabia is now home to more than 10,000 people displaced by the escalating war between the government and rebels from the Huthi clan.
IRIN Photos/Flickr: Mazrak camp in the tough mountainous scrublands of Yemen’s north-west border with Saudi Arabia is now home to more than 10,000 people displaced by the escalating war between the government and rebels from the Huthi clan.

Nawal al-Maghafi reports on the starvation of Yemen brought on by the war and coalition blockade:

Though Ashwaq Muharram was able to save a child’s life, more than million other children continue to starve across Yemen. Twenty out of 22 governorates are on the brink of famine. Unless something is done very soon to end their suffering, the country could lose an entire generation.

Yemen’s dependence on food imports was well-known before the war began, and when the intervention started many people that understood the situation warned that escalation of the conflict would produce the humanitarian disaster that has since unfolded. Blockading a country where many people already suffered from food insecurity was guaranteed to lead to the horrible conditions that prevail across much of Yemen today, but that is what the Saudi-led coalition has done for the last eighteen months with the approval of our government. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is arguably the worst in the world, and it was made that way over the last year and a half mostly by the deliberate actions of the Saudis and their allies.

The civilian population in Yemen is at risk from both the bombing campaign and the slower, less visible strangulation of the blockade:

Hudayda, controlled by Houthi rebels who took over most of the country in 2014, was until recently the entry point for 70% of Yemen’s food imports. Now, not only is it under blockade, it has been pummelled by airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition – the port itself smashed, an entire tourist resort on the beach completely destroyed.

The bombs and the blockade pose a double threat to Muharram’s patients. “If you don’t die from an airstrike, you’re going to die from being ill and from starvation,” she says. “And the hardest way to die is dying from starvation.”

U.S. client states are creating famine conditions in one of the world’s poorest countries, and they are doing so with the assistance and blessing of our government. The starvation of the population is by far the most destructive and cruel part of the Saudi-led war on Yemen, and it is unfortunately the part that receives comparatively little attention in what little coverage of the war we do get. This report is an important exception to that, and I recommend that you read all of it.

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The War on Yemen and ‘International Order’

Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr: air strike in Sana'a, May 2015
Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr: air strike in Sana’a, May 2015

One of the more absurd arguments in favor of the arms sale to the Saudis today was that it had something to do with upholding “international order”:

“Were this resolution disapproval ever to be adopted, it would further convince the world that the United States is retreating not only from its commitments, but also as the guarantor of the international order [bold mine-DL],” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor Wednesday.

It shouldn’t have to be said, but arming a despotic government to help it batter one of its neighbors has nothing to do with guaranteeing international order or keeping U.S. commitments abroad. As it happens, the continued arming of a government that is responsible for killing thousands of civilians and is guilty of numerous war crimes represents a breach of past commitments that the U.S. made just a few years ago. As of 2013, the U.S. is a signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which prohibits the transfer of weapons to other states if the government knows that those weapons are likely to be used in violations of international law. There is good reason to expect that weapons sold to the Saudis and their allies will be used in Yemen and will be used in a manner contrary to international law. Activists have charged that the U.S. and Britain are violating the ATT with their arms sales to the Saudis and their allies, and they have a solid point:

A group that campaigns for stricter arms sales controls said on Monday that Western powers were breaking international law by selling vast amounts of weapons to Saudi Arabia that are being used to hit civilians in Yemen.

The Control Arms Coalition said Britain, France and the United States were flouting the 2014 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which bans exports of conventional weapons that fuel human rights violations or war crimes.

If hawks in the Senate were actually concerned about honoring our commitments and protecting “international order,” they wouldn’t be signing off on weapons sales to a government that has been committing war crimes with weapons acquired from the U.S., but clearly these are just talking points used to distract from their unconditional support of a bad client as its wages an atrocious war.

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27 Senators Voted Against the Saudi Arms Sale

The Paul-Murphy resolution to disapprove the latest arms sale to Saudi Arabia was tabled in a 71-27 vote. The outcome is regrettable, but there was never much chance that there would be enough support to block the sale. The good news is that over a quarter of the Senate opposed the sale, and in the process registered their criticism of the administration’s policy of backing the Saudi-led war on Yemen. That is a much higher number than I expected, and it does show that there is a significant bloc in the Senate that questions the wisdom of U.S. policy in Yemen and views the U.S.-Saudi relationship skeptically. A year ago, there probably would not have so many votes against an arms deal with the Saudis. U.S. involvement in the war came under some extensive public scrutiny, and for the first time members of Congress were forced to go on the record on this question. The public debate itself reflects the extent to which Saudi influence in Washington has waned over the last decade:

“We haven’t seen this much anti-Saudi activity on the Hill in a quarter of a century,” said Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project and an expert on Saudi Arabia. “Criticism of Saudi Arabia has come out of the closet, and I don’t think it’s going to go back in.”

This criticism is much-needed and long overdue, and this may mark the beginning of a broader souring on the relationship with Riyadh. The bad news for now is that the Saudis and their allies will correctly interpret the vote as a sign that it currently has the backing of most of the Senate, and will continue wreaking havoc in Yemen in the knowledge that they have lots of eager defenders in Washington.

Update: The full roll call of the Senate vote can be found here.

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McCain and Graham’s Despicable Defense of the War on Yemen

S.K.Vemmer/Department of State
S.K.Vemmer/Department of State

The speeches in the Senate on the Paul-Murphy resolution of disapproval of the latest arms sale to Saudi Arabia were instructive in showing how thoroughly dishonest some supporters of the arms deal are willing to be. The worst offenders were John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who ranted and raved about the dangers of blocking arms sales to the Saudis and mostly tried to make the debate about Iran’s role in the region. McCain incredibly described the Saudis as a “nation under attack” because of incursions into Saudi territory that were provoked by the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Graham portrayed the Saudis as victims of Yemeni “aggression,” which has everything completely and obviously backwards. It requires swallowing Saudi propaganda whole to argue that the Saudis and their allies have been acting in self-defense, and that is what McCain and Graham tried to do. Both repeatedly asserted that the Houthis are Iranian proxies when the best evidence suggests that Iran’s role in the conflict has always been negligible, and then justified their complete indifference to the consequences of the Saudi-led war by complaining about Iranian behavior elsewhere. Needless to say, the humanitarian crisis brought on by the Saudi-led bombing campaign and blockade never once came up in their remarks, but I’m sure if they ever do mention it they’ll blame it on Iran somehow.

It doesn’t surprise me that McCain and Graham are taking the Saudis’ side in this. They complained that the U.S. wasn’t doing enough to help the Saudis when the bombing campaign began, and McCain is on record several times offering sickening defenses of Saudi behavior. The lie that Iran is a major player in Yemen’s conflict allows McCain and others like him to distract attention from the governments most responsible for wrecking Yemen, and it gives them a way to shift blame and avoid addressing the reality that U.S. clients are committing war crimes with active U.S. backing. Then again, what would we expect from John “Thank God for the Saudis” McCain and his sidekick?

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Why the U.S. Can’t and Shouldn’t Try to ‘Police’ the World


Anders Fogh Rasmussen essentially wants the U.S. to govern the planet:

In this world of interconnections, it has become a cliché to talk about the “global village.“ But right now, the village is burning, and the neighbors are fighting in the light of the flames. Just as we need a policeman to restore order; we need a firefighter to put out the flames of conflict, and a kind of mayor, smart and sensible, to lead the rebuilding.

Only America can play all these roles, because of all world powers, America alone has the credibility to shape sustainable solutions to these challenges.

Rasmussen’s op-ed makes many familiar mistakes here. For one thing, the entire “village” isn’t burning, and the vast majority of the world is at peace. The need for both “policeman” and “firefighter” is exaggerated to make it seem as if the world will fall into chaos unless the U.S. acts as the author wants, but that isn’t the case. For another, it can’t possibly be the responsibility of any one government to do all of the things mentioned here. No government has the right or authority to do these things, and there is no single government with either the resources or the competence to police the world. Besides, there simply isn’t enough political support for such a role here in the U.S. Even if the U.S. could competently fill the role Rasmussen describes, it would be a mistake to do it.

The costs of such a role are not only exorbitant, but there is an inherent danger in justifying U.S. actions in these terms. Setting the U.S. up as the enforcer of order around the world effectively puts the U.S. above the rules that all states are supposed to follow, and it gives it an excuse to trample on the sovereignty of other states when the enforcer deems it appropriate. Even if our leaders had consistently good judgment, that would create many opportunities for abuse. Since we know our leaders often make poor choices about how and where to intervene, it opens the door to one disaster after another. We also know our government’s “enforcement” is arbitrary and selective, and when its allies and clients break the rules the U.S. is usually helping them or covering for them. Most of the world doesn’t need and presumably doesn’t want a “policeman” that can do what it likes, shield its clients from punishment, and never has to answer to them, and most Americans don’t want their government to act as one.

Of course, it is misleading from the start to think of a major military power as either a police force or a fire brigade. Both of these are typically services under the control of a local government in one’s own community. The U.S. role Rasmussen describes is necessarily very different from that. It isn’t local or accountable to the people being “policed,” and its “policing” is inevitably an intrusion from outside into their affairs. As for being a “mayor,” mayors are normally elected, but most nations around the world haven’t elected and wouldn’t elect the U.S. as “mayor” of the world. Most of the world doesn’t accept the U.S. as its “policeman,” and in quite a few places that role is vehemently denied.

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Paul and Murphy’s Laudable Opposition to the War on Yemen

Ivan Plis reports on what Rand Paul and Chris Murphy had to say about the Saudis and the war on Yemen at the Center for the National Interest yesterday:

Paul derived the other part of his argument from the Constitution itself. “The initiation of war was specifically taken away from the presidency and given to Congress” by the framers, he said. And more than just a transaction between allies, in Paul’s reading the United States’ behavior in Yemen, refueling planes, sharing intelligence and assisting with targeting, constitutes complicity in acts of war. “We are actively part of a war in Yemen, and I think almost no American knows that we’re involved.”

Fortunately, more Americans are gradually being made aware of this involvement through the efforts of Murphy and Paul in the Senate and Rep. Ted Lieu and others in the House, but it remains the case that the war and U.S. support for it have been mostly ignored for almost a year and a half. That has allowed the Obama administration to enable the Saudis and their allies to wreck Yemen with little scrutiny and even less criticism, and it has allowed the coalition to commit serious crimes against Yemeni civilians with impunity. Between the Saudis’ own indiscriminate bombing and continued U.S. arms sales, the war has become harder for Washington to keep out of sight, and with luck that should mean that it will become harder for the administration to persist in its horrible policy of support for an indefensible war. Sens. Paul and Murphy deserve praise for continuing to shine light on the administration’s policy and for doing what they can to oppose it.

I have mentioned it before, but it bears repeating that the U.S. is facilitating the devastation of a country whose people have done nothing to us and who posed no threat to us or their neighbors. Thanks to our government’s support for the war, we are making enemies of tens of millions of people for no reason except to appease the paranoid fears of Gulf despots. The U.S. has been deeply complicit in an intervention that is largely responsible for the creation of near-famine conditions in one of the world’s poorest countries, and in the process has only made the region less stable and secure than it was before the intervention began. U.S. policy in Yemen is both profoundly shameful and extremely stupid, and it is one of the most destructive things the U.S. has done in a region where it has already done a lot of damage.

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Rules for Military Intervention

Christopher Preble offers five criteria for determining whether the U.S. should intervene militarily overseas. This strikes me as the most important of the five:

Thus, the fifth and final rule concerning military intervention is force should be used only as a last resort, after we have exhausted other means for resolving a foreign policy challenge that threatens vital U.S. national security interests.

This would seem to be the most straightforward rule and the easiest to follow, but in practice many advocates for preventive wars and wars of choice ignore it while pretending to respect it. Hillary Clinton recently claimed that she believes in using force only as a last resort, but from her record we know that to be false. Bombing Libya in March 2011 was not the last means available to the U.S. and its allies to address the civil war and the danger it posed to civilian lives, nor was invading Iraq in 2003 the last remaining option in resolving outstanding questions about Iraq’s alleged weapons programs. It is obvious that it is not possible for preventive wars to be waged as a last resort, and their supporters believe that using force is appropriate at a much earlier stage. If we take the last resort standard seriously, it means that preventive war can never be an option because it is inherently too hasty and unjust.

I agree with all of Preble’s rules, but I would add another one to the list: the use of force must not be likely to produce worse evils than the ones that already exist. This is a very difficult bar to clear, but it has to be cleared if a military intervention isn’t going to make the other country (or countries) involved worse off than they were. One of the recurring problems in our debates over military intervention is that negative consequences of intervention for the affected country and its neighbors are often treated as an afterthought, or the potential negative consequences are dismissed by asserting that “it can’t be any worse than it is now.” The latter response was used frequently during the Iraq war debate to deny the possibility that Iraq could be worse off after regime change. We have heard much the same thing in other debates since then, and that is usually because interventionists either can’t imagine that U.S. military action can make a situation worse.

As Preble says, there should be “a built-in presumption against the use of force,” and the burden of proof in any debate over military action has to be squarely on the advocates of intervention. After all, interventionists are the ones insisting that the U.S. maim and kill people in some other part of the world, and that should never be treated as the default response to events overseas.

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