Daniel Larison

The Bushes Just Won’t Go Away

National Archives ID 6176922 Creator: White House; David Valdez--HUD
National Archives ID 6176922 Creator: White House; David Valdez--HUD

Jeb Bush announced that he will “actively explore” running for president:

The announcement by Mr. Bush does not say he has formed an exploratory committee, just that he will form a leadership PAC in January.

Members of the extended Bush family have been not very subtly dropping hints in public for months now that this was what he would do, so the announcement comes as no surprise. Bush’s decision is still a bit strange. The GOP is awash in plausible candidates, so there is no particular need to have ex-governors from a decade ago jumping into the contest. Yes, this is probably his last opportunity to run for president with any remotely realistic chance of becoming the nominee, but that window arguably already closed for him years ago. Depending on how strong residual anti-Bush sentiment is in the country, it may have closed as soon as his brother was re-elected. That isn’t his only problem. Bush hasn’t been a candidate in twelve years, and by the time the first votes are cast in the 2016 cycle he will have been out of office for nine years or so. It’s possible to imagine how a politician that long out of office might come back to win a party’s nomination, but it seems extremely unlikely. And unlike his brother in 2000, he won’t have the luxury of having the nomination practically handed to him by party leaders. He’ll have to compete for it against fresher, younger, more interesting political talent.

I assume that Rubio will now stay out of the race. That was my guess a few weeks ago, and it still makes sense. This report explains why:

The first casualty of a Bush announcement would be Rubio’s presidential ambitions, at least for 2016. Bush has been a mentor to Rubio, who would not want to disrupt their alliance and friendship. In addition, Bush is 61 and the upcoming presidential election is likely to be his best, if not his last, chance at winning the White House. Rubio, however, is only 43, and has two or three good presidential opportunities ahead of him. Finally, Bush, who was a popular Florida governor, is substantially stronger in the state than Rubio.

That’s probably just as well for Rubio, since Florida law barred him from running for both offices at the same time anyway.

As Dougherty pointed out yesterday, nothing conveys a message of staleness and intellectual bankruptcy like yet another Bush dynasty revival. Certainly there would be no better way to announce that the GOP remains in thrall to the Bush era than to choose another Bush as standard-bearer. The problem with this isn’t just that it would reward dynasticism, but that it would be rewarding an especially incompetent dynasty. That’s why I assume that there will be enough Republican voters that won’t go along with a Bush revival. For one thing, they don’t have to, and for another Bush isn’t likely to be the best or most compelling candidate in the 2016 field.

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Warren’s Missing Foreign Policy Revisited

Here is another bit of odd analysis about Elizabeth Warren:

“The establishment is gaining power on the Republican side, but on the Democratic side the establishment is losing power. What we’ve always heard from how Democrats perceive foreign policy, they’re a lot more like Elizabeth Warren than Hillary Clinton [bold mine-DL],” Brooks said.

This is almost entirely wrong. There may be a handful of challengers willing to take on the “establishment” candidate on the Democratic side, but none of them commands much support or many resources. On the Republican side, the situation is quite different. The Republican candidates identified as being aligned with the party “establishment” have less clout and are less likely to win the nomination than at any time in the last fifty years. Their clout is still considerable, but it is less than it has been even as recently as four years ago. It was possible in 2011 to speak confidently about the dreadful inevitability of Romney’s nomination, but that can’t be said this time around about any of the candidates. Meanwhile, the presumed Democratic “establishment” candidate is a prohibitive favorite, and her dreadful inevitability is only too easy to predict. The so-called “establishment” in the GOP is weaker than it has been in presidential politics in my lifetime. On the Democratic side, they experimented with nominating and electing an insurgent candidate instead of backing the “establishment” favorite the last time there was an open contest, and they aren’t likely to try that again for a while.

On foreign policy, it may be true that more Democrats disagree with Clinton than agree with her, but that doesn’t mean that they are more like Warren. Warren has no distinctive foreign policy views to speak of, and insofar as she has had anything to say on the subject she has not distinguished herself as an antiwar or progressive champion. That may be because her primary focus is on domestic issues, it may be because she has been in the Senate a relatively short time, or it may be because she doesn’t agree with many progressives on these issues. Whatever the reason, Warren’s foreign policy is mostly unknown. To the extent that anything about it is known, it is not significantly different from Clinton’s. Brooks makes the same mistake here that more than a few progressive activists have made in their enthusiasm for Warren, which is to assume that she holds a certain set of foreign policy views because she is perceived to be a progressive when there is no evidence that she holds those views.

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Why Warren Shouldn’t Run

David Brooks speculates that Elizabeth Warren has a chance of becoming the next Democratic nominee for president:

The political class has been wondering if Warren, a United States senator from Massachusetts, will take on Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. This speculation is usually based on the premise that Warren couldn’t actually win, but that she could move the party in her direction. But, today, even for those of us who disagree with Warren fundamentally, it seems clear that she does have a significant and growing chance of being nominated.

Like Rod, I think that a Warren challenge to Clinton could have some beneficial effects. Considering Clinton’s many advantages as the default frontrunner, it is important than usual that Democrats have alternatives to Clinton available over the next year and a half. Because Clinton is widely perceived to be a favorite of Wall Street, she needs to be challenged by economic populist opponents. Warren is one of the better-known Democrats that could fill that role. However, she is far from being the only one able to fill it.

Having said that, it would probably be a better use of Warren’s time to concentrate on her role in the Senate. Warren hasn’t even finished her first term in office, and she is just now starting to have some real influence. That role may not be entirely incompatible with running a presidential campaign over the next year or so, but challenging Clinton will inevitably take her away from the job she was elected to do. It is there that she might stand a chance of achieving something. Running around Iowa and New Hampshire might provide the occasion for some interesting primary debates, but it isn’t going to have much of an effect. Perhaps Warren already realizes this, which is why she has so consistently denied having any interest in running for president. Whether she has realized it or not, Warren is likely to do her constituents and the causes that matter most to her more good by staying where she is, gaining experience and influence, and at the very least working to derail bad legislation. She shouldn’t be lured into running by the false hope that she has any chance of winning the nomination.

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A Very Belated Congressional Debate on the ISIS War

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

The Post chides Congress and the administration for their tardiness in producing an AUMF for the war against ISIS:

Mr. Kaine and the outgoing Foreign Relations chair, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), at least made a serious effort to forge a bill and get it passed. That’s more than can be said for the White House, which despite saying that it wanted congressional authorization declined to submit its own legislation [bold mine-DL].

The fact that the administration hasn’t provided its own resolution to Congress should remind us how little it values Congressional approval and Congress’ role in the decision to go to war. Voting to authorize the war at this point amounts to little more than rubber-stamping a policy that will continue regardless of how anyone votes. Obama and his officials falsely claim that they don’t need Congressional authorization for their war, and there are very few in Congress that would bother to dispute that claim. An administration that is prepared to distort or simply ignore the terms of previous AUMFs is not going to be bound by the restrictions in a new one, and the only other way for Congress to rein in the executive–cutting off funding–will never be tried for fear of being accused of undermining the military.

Maybe the administration would like Congress to vote for authorization to give the war some additional political cover, but it clearly isn’t that important to them. The administration is leaving Congress to its own devices on this because the White House doesn’t care whether it ever gets a new AUMF or not. The U.S. has been waging war illegally since August, and the administration seems quite content to continue doing so indefinitely. As ever, Congress is only too happy to oblige in letting the executive do whatever it wants. Both branches are doing their best “to dodge their legal and political duty,” and both will keep getting away with it until one of them holds the other accountable.

It would be better if Congress debated and voted on a resolution instead of shirking their responsibilities, but it’s important to understand that the entire process will be taking place as an after-thought. A ‘yes’ vote on a new AUMF will confirm that presidents can start and wage wars on their own authority and can then expect Congress to fall in line and endorse whatever they have decided to do. In the end, a debate on the war that has no chance of stopping the war will be an empty ritual that underscores how irrelevant Congress has become in matters of war and peace.

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Jeb Bush and Foreign Policy (II)

Michael Brendan Dougherty implores Jeb Bush not to run for president. Among other things, he finds Bush’s foreign policy views repugnant:

Although recent years have made me appreciate the creative realism of George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy, Jeb Bush seems to be taking after his moralizing and confrontational brother, rather than his more restrained, consensus-building father. A recent speech in Miami revealed that Bush accepts the “we’re-rubber, you’re-glue” moral calculus of the most hawkish voices. When America kills foreigners, the foreigners are to blame. But when Russia invades Ukraine, or Syria disintegrates into civil war, that’s America’s fault for not doing something. This is stupid and dangerous.

That seems to describe Jeb Bush’s foreign policy views fairly well. Everything Bush has said publicly on the subject confirms that he agrees with his party’s hard-liners on most issues, and he has never said anything that would suggest the opposite. As a domestic policy “centrist,” Bush’s ability to break with the party significantly on foreign policy is greatly reduced. Like many relative moderates, Bush overcompensates for his “centrism” on domestic policy by endorsing failed and confrontational policies abroad. For their part, quite a few movement conservatives are willing to forgive all kinds of heterodox views on many other issues so long as the “moderate” candidate fully embraces hawkish interventionism. That probably won’t be enough to win the nomination, but it will make the quality of the debate during the nomination contest that much worse.

To challenge the party on its prevailing foreign policy views would represent a repudiation of his brother’s record, and as far as anyone can tell he doesn’t think his brother did a bad job as president. I don’t think that is just public family loyalty at work. That may be even more disturbing than the awful foreign policy views, because it means that Bush doesn’t think that the GOP needs to make any substantive changes to separate itself from the Bush era. Then again, Bush said in that same Miami speech that he thinks the embargo of Cuba should continue and should made even more restrictive, so he clearly isn’t bothered by obvious failure.

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Why the U.S. Should Extricate Itself from Syria

Max Boot made a revealing comment in his complaint about Congress’ reluctance to provide more funding to “moderate” rebels in Syria:

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more that the U.S. refuses to fund the Free Syrian Army, the weaker it will get–and the more its weakness will be used as an excuse not to support it [bold mine-DL].

One of the more significant flaws in the argument for arming the “moderate” opposition is that supporters of this measure have always taken for granted that the U.S. simply has to throw money and weapons at anti-regime forces on the off chance that they will become effective. There is no real reason to expect that this will happen, and helping to stoke another country’s civil war is an appalling way to put this theory to the test. There has never been any serious attempt to demonstrate why backing these rebels is a good use of U.S. resources, nor has there been much of an effort to explain why Americans should want their government to contribute to the continued bloodletting in Syria. In the absence of any remotely persuasive case for backing “moderate” rebel groups, U.S. support has been very limited and slow in coming, but the extraordinary thing is that the U.S. has provided any support in the first place.

There are many reasons not to back these rebel groups, not least of which is the likelihood that U.S.-provided arms will end up in the wrong hands. That has already happened and will very likely keep happening in the future. There are no good reasons to provide this support, and this may just now be starting to dawn on a few more members of Congress. It is reasonable to withhold support for a proxy that has no chance of winning. That is especially true when no one can honestly envision success for “moderate” rebel groups even with U.S. backing. The U.S. is not obliged to provide backing to anti-regime rebels anywhere in the world, and there is usually no American interest in doing so. The burden of proof is on the advocates of providing this aid to prove that this is a desirable and wise thing to do, and this they have failed to show for more than three years. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. should cast its lot with the regime, which would also be a profound error, and it certainly doesn’t mean rushing to “make up” for lost time by throwing even more weapons and money down the drain. It suggests that the U.S. should not have entangled itself in the Syrian conflict to begin with, and should now be looking for ways to extricate itself from that conflict as quickly as it can.

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“Abandoning” Rebels That the U.S. Should Never Have Supported

Dona_Bozzi / Shutterstock.com

Additional funding for Syrian rebels was one of the spending items Congress didn’t approve in the last few days:

As Congress struggles to pass a bill to fund the government for the rest of the year, one curious and significant item was left on the cutting room floor: a request from the Barack Obama administration for $300 million to expand the secret CIA program to arm the “moderate” Syrian rebels.

The request, which administration officials had been lobbying for in recent weeks, was held up by the House Intelligence Committee, which has serious doubts about the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups that for years have been receiving arms secretly from the U.S. and its allies, two administration officials told me.

The committee members are quite right to have doubts about Washington’s proxies in Syria. It is more than a little strange that it has taken this long for members of Congress to realize that the groups that the U.S. has chosen to support aren’t reliable or effective, but I suppose it is better to acknowledge this now instead of waiting until later. That didn’t stop them from endorsing administration plans to arm and train these groups a few months ago, and it has done nothing to change the bizarre consensus view that the U.S. simply must find some faction in Syria’s civil war to support, but it’s a start. While this report has occasioned the usual complaints from hard-liners, the problem here isn’t that the U.S. is “abandoning” proxies that it was never that seriously committed to backing in the first place.

The real problem with U.S. policy in Syria and with the war against ISIS in particular is that the U.S. has plunged into a conflict in Syria before it considered any of the consequences of intervention. It is understandable that administration officials are disappointed “following the rebels’ losses to Assad, IS and the al-Nusra Front,” but they should also be willing to acknowledge that the decision to expand the ISIS war into Syria and the related decision to attack non-ISIS jihadist groups have significantly harmed the rebel groups that the administration envisioned as its anti-ISIS forces in Syria. If the U.S. is now perceived as “abandoning” the “moderate” rebels, this is only coming after the U.S. took military action that directly undermined them and drove many of them into the arms of jihadist groups. The correct response to this development is not to redouble U.S. support to “moderate” rebel groups, but to recognize that the bombing of ISIS targets in Syria has mostly worked to strengthen the hand of ISIS and other jihadist groups and to abandon this misguided policy before it makes things any worse than it already has.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

In search of libertarian realism. Reason hosts a symposium on libertarianism and foreign policy, including contributions from Christopher Preble and Will Ruger.

Bhopal’s unending catastrophe. Der Spiegel reports on the continuing harm done by the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster.

The effects of the war on ISIS. Umar Farooq describes the rise in ISIS’ recruitment inside and outside of Syria that has resulted from the U.S. bombing campaign.

The problem with the torture report. Micah Zenko explains how the Senate’s report on torture falls short

Senate torture report timeline. Tessa Berenson reconstructs the timeline of events described in the Senate report on the use of torture in the CIA detention and interrogation program.

The Middle East greets the torture report with a collective shrug. The AP reports on the regional responses to the release of the Senate report.

What Americans think about torture. Paul Gronke, Darius Rejali, and Peter Miller review the polling evidence on American opinions on the use of torture.

The localist manifesto. Jonathan Coppage reviews Why Place Matters in the current issue of TAC.

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Congress Votes to Arm Ukraine

Sasha Maksymenko /  cc

While all eyes were on the “cromnibus” vote, the House and Senate quietly passed new related bills targeting Russia:

The legislation also authorises – but does not legally require – US President Barack Obama to provide lethal and non-lethal military aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, ammunition and “tactical troop-operated surveillance drones.”

The only good news to be found here is that the Senate reportedly removed the portion of the bill that would have granted Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia major non-NATO ally status. Approving arms for Ukraine is a serious mistake that isn’t going to do anything to help Ukraine, and it will almost certainly make it harder for Ukraine to reach a political settlement with Russia. Giving these countries major non-NATO ally status would have been an even greater blunder, so it is a small consolation that this was avoided for the time being.

As it is, the passage of this legislation was the wrong thing for Congress to do. If Obama doesn’t want to contribute to making things worse in Ukraine, he should veto it. Signing such a bill into law will just goad Russia into more aggressive behavior and will set up the Ukrainian government for another fall. There is no American interest that justifies this contribution to the conflict in Ukraine. It is an unfortunate marriage of the desire to be seen as “doing something” and the knee-jerk impulse to throw weapons at every problem.

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What About Pence?

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is flirting with the idea of a presidential run:

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has strong ideas about what the next Republican presidential nominee should be like.

A “solutions conservative” with a record of policy reform originating in the states. A candidate versed in foreign affairs who envisions a muscular role for the United States in the world. And someone who is “relentlessly optimistic” — and capable of attracting new voters to the Republican Party as Ronald Reagan did a generation ago.

Pence is plausible enough, but what would he offer that the others can’t? It’s true that he has a better voting record from his time in Congress than a lot of his former Congressional colleagues from the Bush years. Unlike many others in the party, he voted against some of the Bush administration’s expansions of government. He voted no on the Medicare Part D legislation that the Republican leadership forced through, and he later voted against the TARP bill. That does give him a certain credibility on fiscal responsibility that most of the other would-be 2016 candidates lack. His immigration position isn’t as bad as Rubio’s or Bush’s, but it would probably be something of a liability in a nomination contest. His foreign policy views are predictably lousy, but that is hardly unique to him.

Even before he was governor, Pence was talked up as a presidential candidate. George Will floated his name early on in the last election cycle, and listed many of the same reasons for why some conservatives were interested in a Pence campaign. Because he was still a House member back then, he was very long shot for the nomination. Now that he is serving his first term as governor, he would have a better chance of being taken seriously as a contender. However, he doesn’t have the national recognition of some of the other Republican Midwestern governors that he would probably be running against, and he doesn’t have anything recent that distinguishes him from the rest of the field. Pence would probably be acceptable to most Republican voters once they know something about him, but relative to a lot of the other 2016 candidates almost no one outside his home state knows anything about him. He would be an unexciting consensus candidate for Republicans, but there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for anyone in the GOP to choose him over the alternatives.

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