Daniel Larison

The Folly of Arming Ukraine

The administration still seems to be resisting pressure to send arms to Ukraine:

Joe Biden, the US vice-president, told an audience in Kiev on Friday that Washington would always support a democratic, reformist Ukraine but he did not offer the one thing his hosts most desired: a promise of heavy weapons to counter a Russian-backed insurgency.

There are a few reasons why the U.S. should continue to refrain from throwing more weapons at the conflict in Ukraine. Marc Champion explains two of them here:

Most important, they would make real the myth that Russia is responding to NATO aggression in Ukraine. Nothing is more likely to raise support in Russia for going to war in Ukraine — at the moment, it’s just 13 percent — than footage of U.S. weapons killing Russians on the border.

Second, there are few angels in this war. A Human Rights Watch report has convincingly tied Ukrainian forces to the use of cluster bombs in residential areas — a war crime according to most countries….Ukraine will try to crush the rebels, at great human cost, if it believes, however mistakenly, it has the means and the U.S. at its back.

Neither Ukraine nor the U.S. would benefit from this. By sending arms the U.S. would become Ukraine’s patron. That would not only feed into Russian propaganda and make the conflict more difficult to resolve, but it would create an expectation in the Ukrainian government of further U.S. support that almost certainly won’t and shouldn’t be forthcoming. That either sets up the Ukrainian government for making a disastrous miscalculation or it puts the U.S. in an unacceptable position of providing Ukraine with increased military assistance. Either way, the conflict becomes a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia that the U.S. shouldn’t be trying to fight. That in turn increases the risks of conflict elsewhere in the region, and makes a wider war slightly more likely. Russia has already demonstrated that it isn’t going to permit the rebels to be crushed. Arming the Ukrainian government encourages it to think that it can resolve the conflict by force, and that will only expose it to additional Russian incursions and potentially the loss of even more of its territory.

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The Terrible Idea of an Alliance with Iraq

It will come as no surprise that Michael O’Hanlon has come up with another terrible idea:

At this crucial juncture in the Middle East, the United States should propose to Baghdad the creation of a formal, treaty-based alliance. It could be modeled after America’s alliances in Europe and East Asia, and include a clause like that of Article V in the NATO and U.S.-Japan charters that commits the two countries to the defense of each other [bold mine-DL].

What O’Hanlon means is that the U.S. should be obligated to guarantee the security of yet another country that couldn’t possibly do anything to make America more secure. O’Hanlon wants the U.S. to have another useless “ally” that depends entirely on the U.S. for protection. The U.S. would be poorly-served by taking on a semi-authoritarian, sectarian would-be client as a permanent ally. This proposal would extend a security guarantee to a state that cannot even control its own territory, and would burden the U.S. with a new major security commitment that it doesn’t need. A formal alliance with Iraq wouldn’t make the U.S. or the region more secure, but would in all likelihood compel the U.S. to fight against the Iraqi government’s enemies in perpetuity. This would lock in the current bad policy of propping up the Iraqi government, and it would serve as a permanent distraction from the alliances in Europe and East Asia that actually matter.

A formal alliance with Iraq would add nothing to U.S. security or the security of other treaty allies, but would ensure that the U.S. will be entangled in Iraqi affairs for decades to come with no chance of extrication. According to O’Hanlon’s plan, it would also mean the more or less permanent presence of U.S. forces in the country. Once the U.S. extends formal security guarantees through mutual defense agreements, it doesn’t normally take them back later on. Taking Iraq on as an ally would be a serious blunder, and one that the U.S. wouldn’t be able to undo easily. It’s an extraordinarily bad and irresponsible idea, and one that we can only hope will be rejected out of hand.

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Webb Is Running for President

It appears that there will be a challenger for the Democratic nomination after all:

The first official 2016 presidential candidate is former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb.

Mr. Webb announced an exploratory committee late Wednesday night for what would be among the longest of longshot campaigns with a 14-minute video and a 2,100-word letter posted to his website, webb2016.com.

Most of the letter explains Webb’s reasons for running and provides a brief introduction to him, his career, and his family. There is one passage that hints at what some of the major themes of a Webb campaign could be:

We need to put our American house in order, to provide educational and working opportunities that meet the needs of the future, to rebuild our infrastructure and to reinforce our position as the economic engine and the greatest democracy on earth. We need to redefine and strengthen our national security obligations, while at the same time reducing ill-considered foreign ventures that have drained trillions from our economy and in some cases brought instability instead of deterrence.

Assuming that Webb is able to drum up some substantial support in the coming months, his entry into the race should be very good and healthy for the Democratic Party and the country. There had to be someone in the primaries ready and able to hold Clinton accountable for her poor judgments on policy, and there needed to be someone qualified to make her earn a nomination that has so far been treated as her dynastic inheritance. Even an unsuccessful challenge will force Clinton to face up to the mistakes on her record, and it will offer Democratic voters a serious alternative to the establishment favorite. For reasons that Kelley Vlahos made clear in her article today on Hillary Clinton, Webb’s announcement is especially welcome news for anyone interested in reforming and improving our foreign policy and national security policies. In particular, I look forward to hearing him criticize the Libyan war along these lines:

The logic that we used to go in was different than any situation that I can remember in terms of the use of force. There were no treaties at risk, there were no Americans at risk, there were no terrorist attacks coming out of Libya … in the name of what was called ‘humanitarian intervention’–this was the new concept that was enunciated–we established a new concept that the president can unilaterally decide what humanitarian conditions are, anywhere in the world.

Webb has the most credibility and the best qualifications on the Democratic side to oppose Clinton on these issues, and those are the issues on which she most needs to be challenged.

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Jeb Bush and Foreign Policy

World Affairs Council /  cc

Scott McConnell wonders what kind of foreign policy Jeb Bush will end up endorsing. Specifically, he is interested to find out which member of his family he will be most like on issues relating to Israel:

A President Jeb Bush would face a different set of questions about “the special relationship”. Would he respond like his father or like his brother?

Based on what we know of his views, I don’t think it’s a stretch to conclude that he frequently holds views very similar to those of his brother and his brother’s most vocal supporters. That goes for policies relating to Israel and for foreign policy more generally. To some extent, that is a reflection of the difference between his generation and that of his father. It is also a reflection of the changes that have taken place in the GOP in the twenty-two years since the elder Bush lost his re-election bid. The party has become much more uniformly “pro-Israel” than it was when Bush’s father was in office, and reflexive support for Israel has become an even more important litmus test for aspiring Republican candidates than it used to be. Jeb Bush has been nothing if not a conventional Republican on foreign policy insofar as he has had anything to say about it, so there is no reason to think that he would differ greatly from his brother on this.

There has been some speculation that he is closer to his father on foreign policy, but as far as I can tell there is not much evidence to back this up. It seems to me that the “Jeb Bush is secretly a realist” speculation is based on the perception of Bush as the smarter, more competent brother, and therefore as someone who wouldn’t be so easily won over by crackpot hard-line views, but I’m afraid that this is probably just wishful thinking. Deriding “neo-isolationism” is de rigueur for any hawkish Republican, so that doesn’t tell us very much by itself, but I submit that someone who speaks at Sheldon Adelson gatherings and wins plaudits from George W. Bush’s former press secretary is not going to identify himself with the Republican realist tradition, either. I wouldn’t assume that Bush and Rubio hold identical views on these issues, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he frequently agrees with the arguments that his protege has been making in the last four years. The country was already badly misled once by crediting a younger Bush with following in the foreign policy tradition of his father. If Jeb Bush does run for president and tries the same trick of seeming to endorse realist views, we should know better than to believe him.

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Global “Policing” Is a Recipe for Chaos

Bret Stephens confirms that his idea of global “policing” involves wrecking whole countries with no attempt to repair the damage:

One of the points I make in the book is this idea that we get from Colin Powell that there is a “Pottery Barn Rule” in foreign policy — you know, “You break it, you fix it…” That should not be a rule for the United States [bold mine-DL].

America does not have some kind of moral responsibility for fixing other societies.

It might be true that the U.S. doesn’t have a responsibility to fix other societies’ problems, but it does assume a responsibility for restoring order when it overthrows another government and plunges a country into anarchy. That’s the point of the “you break it, you buy it” rule. The rule doesn’t require the U.S. to intervene in order to repair damage caused by others, but it does imply that the damage that the U.S. causes is the responsibility of the U.S. It is telling that Stephens misunderstands the rule, and it is even more significant that he rejects the idea that the U.S. is responsible for what it does. Stephens’ notion of global “policing” amounts to a pretext for regime change with no concern for what takes the place of the deposed government. Needless to say, this has nothing to do with shoring up international order. If taken seriously, it would be a recipe for chaos wherever the U.S. intervened.

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Power’s Warning: Don’t Think About Failed Interventions

U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Bob Sommer

Samantha Power is worried that you may have noticed the repeated failure of U.S. military interventions:

Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, warned the American public against a kind of intervention fatigue, emphasizing that U.S. leadership is needed now more than ever amid global threats from Ebola to the Islamic State.

“I think there is too much of, ‘Oh, look, this is what intervention has wrought’ … one has to be careful about overdrawing lessons,” [bold mine-DL] Power said Wednesday during the Defense One Summit.

In order to “overdraw” lessons, one would have to have at least tried to learn something from failed interventions in the recent past. There’s no evidence that this is something that Power has tried to do. It’s striking that she thinks there is too much of this reflection taking place when it is actually quite rare, if it happens at all. The fact that she thinks it is something that Americans need to be warned away from doing is revealing–and damning. She might as well be saying, “Don’t think too much about the terrible consequences of the reckless policy I supported, because that will make it harder for me to sell you on the next one.” Warning about “intervention fatigue” is just another version of railing against a non-existent “isolationism”: it conjures up something intended to frighten and distract the audience from the very real harm that interventionists’ bad policies have done.

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Lessons from the Libyan War

Noah Millman has written a typically very thoughtful response to yesterday’s post on the Libyan war. Here is one of the lessons he draws from the intervention:

But another lesson is that thinking in terms of narrative satisfaction can blind us to the reality of conditions that will actually determine the outcome. Just because it would be a lot more satisfying, emotionally, for the next “beat” to be for Qaddafi to fall, doesn’t mean that’s the beat we’re going to get. And if we “force” a re-write, we’re in a whole new story altogether.

Something else we saw in the Libyan war that crops up again and again in our policy debates is the tendency that many policymakers and politicians have to believe our own propaganda or the propaganda of “our” side in a foreign conflict without asking very many questions. In the Libyan case, this involved attributing to anti-regime forces the “values” that Americans wanted to believe that they had, and it meant investing the conflict in Libya with far greater global significance than it actually possessed. The notion that the fate of the “Arab Spring” hinged on whether or not the U.S. and its allies intervened in Libya was a highly speculative, unfounded assumption. Interventionists exaggerated the importance of the conflict to the wider region in order to make an intervention seem more worthwhile. The earlier assumption that the “Arab Spring” was something that the U.S. ought to be encouraging went unexamined, once again because our “values” dictated that Washington must do this.

Inside the administration, the idea that a Libyan intervention would allow the U.S. “to realign our interests and our values” was reportedly a significant factor in the decision to take military action. Thus one faulty assumption (that our “values” were at stake) led to another (we must “realign our values and our interests”) and that led to a terrible decision. The supposed popularity of outside intervention was touted as an opportunity for the U.S. to get on the good side of the nations in the region, but this was always very likely to be a terrible miscalculation. Sending “signals” to other audiences via military action is almost always misguided and futile: the message that you intend to convey isn’t necessarily the one that is received, and sometimes the action is interpreted in a way that you never anticipated. As it turned out, U.S. intervention in Libya was unpopular throughout the region because most people in these countries don’t trust the U.S. and resent our government’s interference no matter which side Washington chooses to take. The belief that the U.S. can ever earn goodwill by bombing another country and destroying its government is one that should have died in 2003, but unfortunately it is one that persists and continues to misinform our debates about Syria and Iran, and will probably have pernicious effects in more debates in the future.

One more lesson that the Libyan war should teach us is that the U.S. and its allies are far too quick to want to take sides in foreign disputes and conflicts, and they are then far too eager to throw their weight behind that side in order to make sure that “our” side wins. The impulse to “do something” is matched in intensity and evil effects only by the instinct to take sides. We should be able to recognize that in some conflicts the U.S. has no side to support and often has little or nothing at stake in the outcome of the struggle. That ought to put the U.S. in a position where it can serve as a neutral mediator to find a way to resolve the conflict without further bloodshed. Instead the U.S. too often chooses to pick a side and helps to intensify and escalate conflicts that might be limited and contained through mediation.

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Jefferson and the Uses of U.S. Power

Dan Drezner urges neoconservatives to pay more attention to Thomas Jefferson:

It’s often forgotten that as president, it was Thomas Jefferson who established the U.S. Military Academy. I was struck by a quotation of Jefferson’s that is mounted on the stairwell: “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power, the greater it will be.”

Drezner goes on to say that he hopes neoconservatives “realize that there is more than one way to think about the use of force in world politics,” but I suspect he knows as well as anyone that they realize this and they don’t care. Neoconservatives assume that power is there to be used and used often, and at least for some of them it has to be used for grandiose and ambitious purposes, or else it isn’t worth having. They also mistakenly believe that power will atrophy when not exercised frequently, which is why they wrongly believe that constantly frittering away U.S. strength in one conflict after another is perfectly acceptable and even desirable. Neoconservatives and many other hawks and hard-liners along with them view these things as former Secretary Albright did when she reportedly asked Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” The idea that the U.S. ought to conserve its strength, husband its resources, and exercise restraint gets in the way of activism and meddling overseas, and so they’ll have none of that.

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The Illegal War Against ISIS and Congress’ Abdication

Michael Hogue
Michael Hogue

The New York Times demands that Congress act on a new AUMF for the war against ISIS before the new year:

While it is important for Congress to repeal the 2002 authorization for the Iraq War and terminate the 2001 authorization against Al Qaeda, the priority in the lame-duck session should be to pass a new and separate authorization for the war against ISIS.

If the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is unable to get such an authorization approved, Mr. Kaine and others should try to attach it as an amendment to other related legislation. It’s past time for Congress to exhibit some courage and take a stand.

There’s no question that members of Congress have been evading their responsibilities on the war against ISIS, but they have been allowed and even encouraged in this abdication by an administration that pretends that it doesn’t need a new authorization measure and has made no attempt to provide Congress with a draft resolution that it can consider. Despite Obama’s announcement that he wants Congress to pass a new AUMF, he and his officials have done nothing to move that process forward:

But senior officials at the Pentagon and on the Hill say they don’t know what the administration will propose for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), or when the White House will propose it — if at all.

This may reflect the administration’s view that the president doesn’t need a new resolution authorizing the use of force, or it may simply be evidence of carelessness and incompetence on the part of administration officials. Whatever the reason, Obama has not only been waging an illegal war for more than three months, but he is confirming how little he cares about Congress’ role on this issue by taking no steps to give the new war against ISIS a firm legal foundation. He is counting on Congress’ irresolution and dereliction of duty to let him continue waging his illegal war without a debate or a vote in Congress, and he has already made clear that he thinks he can wage this war even if Congress does nothing.

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Are Americans “Squeamish” About War?

Tyler Cowen makes a number of questionable claims in this article, but this is by far the strangest:

To make matters more difficult, the American public is often pretty squeamish about violence and conflict abroad. That’s overall a good thing, but it means a “get tough” foreign policy isn’t very easy to implement in a credible fashion [bold mine-DL]. (For instance the American public approved when President Obama neglected his “line in the sane” [sic] commitment regarding Syria and chemical weapons use.) For better or worse, the electorate stands in the way of what might otherwise be a strategically optimal foreign policy.

Cowen doesn’t ever spell out what he means by “strategically optimal foreign policy,” so it’s hard to know what bother him about American “squeamishness” in the Syrian case. Does he think that the U.S. should have bombed Syria last year? That is what this paragraph implies, but it’s not clear how this serves his stated goal of “having a good foreign policy.” In what way would it have been “optimal” for the U.S. to get into a new war with the Syrian government last year? Cowen is frustratingly vague about what he thinks a “good” foreign policy would look like beyond endorsing existing alliances. It’s not entirely clear whether he buys into discredited claims about the importance of maintaining “credibility,” and he doesn’t quite say whether he accepts the hawkish argument that American “credibility” was squandered in Syria to our detriment.

As for the idea that Americans are “squeamish” about violence overseas, I don’t know what he’s talking about. Americans recoiled from intervention in Syria last year because they didn’t see how military action would achieve anything, and they wanted the U.S. to steer clear of Syria’s civil war. It wasn’t because they were “squeamish” about the use of force, but because they didn’t approve of what they perceived to be a futile mission. No one can seriously look back at the modern history of American public opinion on war and conclude that Americans are put off by the idea of violence and conflict. That was what made the Syrian debate last year so extraordinary. Unlike virtually every other proposed intervention before or since, a large majority rejected military action. Unfortunately, as the popular response to the war against ISIS has made clear, that appears to have been the exception. Most Americans are usually only too ready to support military action when the president claims it to be necessary, so it is strange to think that the electorate is “getting in the way.” It was very welcome when a large majority did get in the way of a misguided plan to bomb Syria, but as we know very well that is not at all common.

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