Daniel Larison

Cameron’s Increasingly Ridiculous Argument Against ‘Brexit’

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Last week, David Cameron warned that “Brexit” might lead to war in Europe. This was a ridiculous claim and widely panned as such, but that hasn’t stopped Cameron from resorting to increasingly stupid fear-mongering to sway the public to the side of Remain:

David Cameron has said the leader of Islamic State would be happy if the UK voted for Brexit.

So, according to the Prime Minister, would Vladimir Putin.

Both of these claims are very questionable, but the appropriate response to both ought to be: “So what?” Suppose that Cameron is right about this. Why should that make someone want Britain to stay in? There is almost nothing weaker or more pathetic than to insist on Britain’s membership in the EU because of what some foreign leader or terrorist prefers.

Besides the rank fear-mongering involved, the problem with Cameron’s claims is that they don’t make a lot of sense. If Britain leaves the EU, it makes absolutely no difference to jihadists in Raqqa or anywhere else. Jihadists gain nothing from “Brexit,” and it is difficult to see how Russia actually gains anything from it. It is revealing that Cameron keeps trying to make the case for Remain with warnings about the supposed foreign policy implications of “Brexit.” That suggests that he doesn’t have a lot of confidence that British voters can be persuaded that withdrawal from the EU is bad for Britain on the domestic front, and so he has to resort to making desperate claims that it is bad for the rest of the world. It also suggests that he thinks he is losing the argument on the merits and has to fall back on trying to frighten the public into siding with him. Maybe it will work, but the side that has to rely on alarmist rhetoric like this doesn’t have much else going for it.

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Truman and Clinton’s Foreign Policy

President Truman in the act of committing executive overreach, via Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan Chait considers Truman as a model for how Hillary Clinton might govern, and then says this:

It is impossible to predict how Clinton will handle foreign policy, but it is not fanciful to hope that her experience (unusually deep for a president) will enable her to imaginatively face the confounding challenge of radical Islam.

It’s true that we can’t know exactly what Clinton will end up doing abroad as president. However, we have a fairly good idea of how she approaches foreign policy issues and how she reacts to conflicts and crises overseas. Given Clinton’s longstanding record of hawkishness, the comparison with Truman isn’t a particularly reassuring or flattering one, but I fear it could be a very accurate one.

Thanks in large part to later friendly revisionist historians, Truman is now remembered as the president who oversaw the creation of many of the major institutions and policies for the Cold War. That isn’t how his foreign policy was viewed at the time. His final years in office were defined by the costly, desultory Korean War that contributed so much to his horrible public approval ratings. Chait manages to review Truman’s presidency without mentioning the war. He not only presided over an unsuccessful war that had to be ended by his successor, but he also dangerously expanded containment doctrine to apply to the entire globe instead of the defense of Europe as Kennan had originally envisioned it. That in turn would lead to the errors of later administrations in trying to check the advance of a supposedly monolithic global communism, which produced the disastrous and avoidable war in Vietnam among other failures. That’s not a great example to follow, but I can believe that Clinton–easily the most hawkish Democratic nominee since LBJ–would want to follow it.

Fortunately for us, Clinton will be coming into office at a time when the U.S. faces far fewer threats than it did when Truman was president. The U.S. presumably won’t be bogged down in any additional wars unless Clinton chooses to get the U.S. involved in one or more. Unfortunately, the U.S. is already waging and/or supporting several military interventions right now, and we have good reason to expect that she will respond to some new foreign conflict more aggressively than her predecessor and with a more militarized response than U.S. interests require. We can expect this because this is how she has tended to respond to foreign conflicts throughout her public career. She has shown herself more willing to take sides in foreign wars than Obama, and she has been more willing than he has been to commit U.S. forces to affect the outcome of other countries’ internal conflicts. If Obama were the “reluctant” interventionist he has been made out to be, that would still be bad news, but the record shows that Obama has launched two wars, escalated a third, supported the Saudi-led war on Yemen, and ordered drone strikes in many more countries. Now imagine a Clinton administration that is even less restrained than that, and you have some idea of how Clinton will conduct foreign policy.

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Saudi Lies and the War on Yemen

UN OCHA / Philippe Kropf, via Flickr

This exchange between an interviewer for NPR’s Morning Edition and a spokesman for Saudi Arabia makes for depressing reading:

ASIRI: Unfortunately, today, there is no team from Human Rights Watch on the ground.

KELLY: They went. They saw it.

ASIRI: No. No one can get in Yemen without the permission of the coalition. So we don’t have single permission from the United Nations on the ground.

We hope that Human Rights Watch and the other NGOs come to the coalition and ask permission and we will send them down to investigate. We need to investigate those allegations [bold mine-DL]. You cannot…

KELLY: I think you and Human Rights Watch are going to agree to disagree. My question is whether the Saudi intervention has improved things. The country remains in chaos after more than a year of fighting. Are you any closer to your goals or bringing stability to the country?

In fact, Human Rights Watch is one of several organizations that documented likely war crimes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. It is true that the Saudis make it very difficult for outside groups and journalists to gain access to the country because they don’t want this to be known, and they deliberately stymied an independent investigation into war crimes in Yemen at the U.N. with U.S. and allied acquiescence. Nonetheless, HRW and others have investigated the effects of the coalition’s indiscriminate bombing campaign along with the crimes committed by all parties to the conflict. They have ample proof that the Saudi-led coalition has carried out numerous strikes on civilian areas in violation of international law. They have also said that the coalition may be guilty of crimes against humanity because of the pattern of targeting civilian areas. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, reacted to the coalition spokesman’s claims:

The Saudis have moved from brazenly denying that civilians were killed by their attacks to feigning concern for the victims, but it doesn’t change that they have been working overtime to avoid accountability for their crimes over the last year. Unfortunately, they were able to use this interview to do the same thing.

The other troubling thing about this interview is that the Saudi spokesman isn’t pressed on any of his statements, and he is asked the softest, least challenging questions imaginable under the circumstances. When he claims that his government views Yemenis as neighbors, an appropriate response might have been: “So why have you been starving your neighbors with a blockade for the last thirteen months?” Regrettably, the coalition’s blockade and its effects are never mentioned in the interview. The interviewer also asks whether the “Saudi intervention has improved things,” but that is the wrong question to ask. The spokesman should have been forced to defend the enormous harm that the intervention has plainly done and the yawning gap between the coalition’s stated goals and what it has done. The interviewer mentions that thousands of those killed since last March have been civilians, but neglects to inform the audience that most of these have been killed by coalition bombs.

The war on Yemen gets very little coverage, and I don’t expect one interview to be able to remedy that problem. I understand that there is only so much time that is going to be dedicated to covering this story, but that makes it all the more important that the spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition is presented with questions that will cut to the heart of the story as quickly as possible. The Saudi spokesman was able to get away with lying to NPR’s audience, and there was little or no attempt to call him on it.

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Sasse’s Trump Dilemma in Nebraska

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Anti-Trump Republicans can’t find a candidate, and it seems that one of the biggest boosters of a protest campaign doesn’t have much support at home:

On the home front, however, the Nebraska freshman found himself rebuked Saturday by party loyalists upset at his call for a third candidate to arise and give conservatives such as himself an alternative to Donald Trump in the fall election.

Delegates at the State Republican Convention overwhelmingly passed a resolution opposing Sasse’s call for a third candidate. They argued it would only help Democrats win the White House in November.

Sasse can’t have missed that most Republican primary voters in his state backed Trump last week, and that most of them say they feel excited or optimistic about the prospect of Trump’s winning in the fall. The senator is in the awkward position of being the most consistent and vocal opponent of Trump in Congress while most Republican voters in his state appear to be on Trump’s side. It’s no wonder that he hasn’t been drawing attention to that divide in the last few days. The more that he emphasizes his opposition to the nominee, the more likely he is to antagonize the voters he needs to keep satisfied at home. 63% of Nebraska Republican voters said they felt betrayed by Republican politicians, and Sasse is at risk of becoming one of the politicians they distrust.

The Nebraska exit poll showed something else consistent with what we’ve seen around the country: there simply aren’t very many determined anti-Trump Republican voters. 19% said they would vote for neither Clinton nor Trump, and 6% said they would vote for Clinton, so at best the “third candidate” option that Sasse supports might get a quarter of his own state’s Republican primary electorate behind it. That’s not a lot, but it it might be enough to throw one or two of Nebraska’s Congressional districts to Clinton in the general election. The only thing that a “third candidate” campaign would do in Nebraska is turn the state a little more purple, and unsurprisingly Nebraska Republicans aren’t interested in that.

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Anti-Trump Republicans Can’t Find a Candidate

Joeff Davis / Flickr

Some anti-Trump Republicans are still trying to find someone crazy bold enough to launch an independent presidential bid to thwart Trump. The Republican National Committee chairman isn’t pleased:

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus did not mince words as he urged party figures laying the groundwork for a third-party bid to suspend their operation.

“They can try to hijack another party and get on the ballot, but, look, it’s a suicide mission for our country because what it means is that you’re throwing down not just eight years of the White House but potentially 100 years on the Supreme Court and wrecking this country for many generations,” Priebus said on “Fox News Sunday.”

An anti-Trump protest campaign would indeed be futile and silly, but it still wouldn’t do as much harm as Priebus says. It would guarantee a Clinton victory, but it’s not as if a Trump-led GOP has much of a chance of prevailing anyway. If the stakes were as high as Priebus claims, almost every anti-Trump Republican would find a way to support the nominee, but they are never that high. Every four years, party officials and pundits insist that this is the “most important election” in a generation or more, and it is almost always a huge exaggeration. Whenever a partisan tells you that the fate of the country for generations hinges on the outcome of the current election, it is typically nothing more than a desperate attempt to boost turnout and manufacture enthusiasm for the party’s flawed nominee.

Even so, this is how a top Republican official is reacting to the mere suggestion of a protest campaign. We can just imagine how bitter and angry the recriminations against the spoiler candidate will be if die-hard anti-Trump people manage to find someone gullible enough to take the job. Those recriminations will only get worse if the candidate has even the slightest success in undermining the Republican ticket, and that is the main and arguably sole objective of this effort.

It is telling that none of the would-be recruits want to play the part cast for them by the protest campaign’s organizers. Robert Costa reported over the weekend that no one is interested in running a doomed campaign:

Again and again, though, these anti-Trump Republicans have heard the same tepid response: Thanks, but no thanks.

It’s not a surprise that no one wants to accept the offer. The idea doesn’t make any sense, and it almost certainly spells the end of the political career of any Republican who agrees to do it. The entire effort is being run by sore losers who tried to oppose Trump during the primaries and failed. Even though they failed with an electorate that is presumably more receptive to their arguments, they are determined to press their case with a larger electorate that has much less sympathy for their goals. That two of the biggest boosters of this effort are Mitt Romney and Bill Kristol–a losing candidate and perpetually wrong pundit–should make clear just how foolish and pointless it is. The fact that Romney keeps trying to talk other people into doing what he refuses to do confirms that even he knows it is a terrible idea that won’t work.

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Paul Ryan, Team Player

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McKay Coppins reports on Paul Ryan’s willingness to hew to the party line:

But those who expected Ryan’s ideological conviction to compel an audacious war against his own party’s presidential nominee misunderstood him. He has not gotten to where he is by making trouble. He is, at his core, a good soldier.

That’s a good description of Ryan, who has made a point of not making waves inside his party. He has ascended to the top of the House Republican leadership because he has never opposed party leaders on any major issue during his long tenure in Congress. One of the problems I have had with Ryan in the past is that he voted for every major piece of the Bush administration’s domestic agenda no matter how fiscally irresponsible it was. It was hard to take seriously his reinvention as a champion of reining in government spending after he backed one of the largest expansions of the welfare state in U.S. history. He never broke with party leaders on policy, and to this day he still hasn’t. The idea that Ryan was about to behave like a fire-breathing dissenter in the middle of a presidential election year never made much sense, and it makes even less sense when we remember that more Republicans like Trump right now than like him.

If Ryan has long demonstrated “a reflexive, eager-to-please acquiescence,” as Coppins puts it, it is always the people in positions of influence and power that he is eager to please. Ryan doesn’t play to the crowd. Maybe he knows how to, but he doesn’t see the point in doing so. He isn’t someone inclined to speak out against a party leader he dislikes, but instead prefers to ingratiate himself with him. His meeting with Trump last week should be understood in that light. That has clearly helped him rise through the ranks to his current position, but it is also what makes him more of a functionary and party man than anything else. He may want to use the party to advance a certain agenda, but he isn’t going to go against the party for the sake of that agenda, either. Doing that would go against ingrained habits cultivated over decades.

Contrary to Ryan’s self-image, he has never been a “bomb-thrower” when it mattered. Whenever he has a had a choice between siding with intra-party dissenters or the party leadership, he has always ended up on the side of the latter. Now this leadership includes Trump, and he once again seems to be finding a way to fall in line, or at least refuse to step out of line. For good or ill, Ryan is the consummate team player. That is how he became Speaker, and it’s also why his record has been marred by so many of the Republican Party’s failures and errors.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Cameron is in the fight of his life. Philip Johnston comments on the political dangers for David Cameron in leading the Remain camaign in the EU referendum.

Additional weirdness in opposition to the nuclear deal. Paul Pillar details some of the latest attacks on the nuclear deal with Iran.

U.S.-Russia tensions spill over into Victory Day celebrations in Moldova. Joshua Kucera reports on a dispute over the planned display of American weapons during a commemoration of the victory over Germany.

What to expect from Obama’s Hiroshima visit. Yuki Tatsumi reports on how the Japanese government intends to handle the president’s visit.

“Foreign Agents” bill shot down in Kyrgyzstan. Catherine Putz reports on the Kyrgyz parliament’s rejection of the bill targeting foreign NGOs.

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Down the Rabbit Hole with Samuels

State Department photo

There is not much more that needs to be said about the original Samuels/Rhodes kerfuffle, but Samuels’ attempt to defend himself merits a few more comments. Samuels disputes that he is the vocal opponent of the nuclear deal he has been made out to be, and complains that his words have been misinterpreted. He writes:

Here’s what I said at the opening of the panel — which hasn’t been tweeted or written about by anyone yet, so far as I can tell, even though it’s the very first thing I say in the video:

“Unlike many of you, I’m a writer. I’m a journalist. I’m not involved in partisan politics. I’ve generally considered myself to be a liberal Democrat. These principles [of bipartisanship and consensus] historically are noncontroversial ones. They’ve been embraced by every American administration since World War II. To find them being undone in this very rapid way, given the potential consequences of unchecked nuclear proliferation — not just in the region but also in Asia — is and should be a terrifying thing for Americans to contemplate, whatever their feelings about this president or Republicans or Democrats. As someone who has reported in and around questions related to nuclear programs and gray market economies, I am startled by the lack of attention and clarity that is obvious in the way these stories are being reported.”

Samuels evidently missed that this quote was one of the ones cited here by Erik Wemple, who wondered why the White House was dealing with Samuels in light of his fairly obvious hostility to the nuclear deal. Later in the same panel, Samuels said this:

A president who came into office talking about a nuclear-free planet is going to be responsible for the greatest surge of nuclear proliferation that we’ve seen in a half a century or more.

That’s very bad analysis of what the consequences of the deal are likely to be, and it is exactly the sort of baseless claim that determined opponents of the deal made for years before, during, and after the negotiation of the JCPOA. It is what opponents of the deal have said so that they can claim to be defending the cause of nonproliferation while vehemently rejecting a major nonproliferation agreement. Instead of reckoning with the implications of his past statements, Samuels announces that he now supports the deal with reservations:

On balance, I suppose I do. It’s a complicated agreement and I’m not an expert (I’m a journalist), but after talking to people who are experts — including Leon Panetta, who told me that he supports the deal with reservations — I imagine it’s probably a good-enough idea that I should have some reservations about, too.. I will wait and watch and see what happens, just like everyone else.

I’m sorry, but this is a lame dodge. Earlier in the same piece, he says that “the prospect of dismantling nonproliferation safeguards and standards that have kept tens or hundreds of millions of people safe since Hiroshima and Nagasaki is terrifying,” but he doesn’t seem to grasp that this dismantling isn’t what the deal with Iran does. It doesn’t dismantle nonproliferation safeguards and standards. It secures and upholds them. That’s why so many arms control experts support the deal, and why the “zero-enrichment” position that Samuels is still endorsing makes no sense. There would have been no deal–and therefore effectively no restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program–if the U.S. and its allies had insisted on the standard Samuels wants. The cause of nonproliferation would have been set back considerably. If Samuels is terrified by a breakdown in the nonproliferation regime, he should be very pleased with the deal. One might think that he shouldn’t be writing a profile that falsely claims that the administration misled the public about its intention to negotiate such an agreement with Iran.

The main problem with Samuels’ defense is that he never addresses the major flaws in the profile. He accused the administration in no uncertain terms of “actively misleading” the public about negotiations with Iran, but it didn’t. It was well-known for years before that the administration was interested in pursuing such negotiations, and the administration acknowledged during the debate over the deal that it had been making contact before the formal talks began in 2013. It’s true that they didn’t announce secret back-channel talks to the world when they were going on, because they were secret back-channel talks, but that amounts to accusing them of not being incompetent. There was no attempt to mislead. Then Samuels uses that false claim to make an even more provocative, baseless charge:

By eliminating the fuss about Iran’s nuclear program, the administration hoped to eliminate a source of structural tension between the two countries, which would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. With one bold move, the administration would effectively begin the process of a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.

As Suzanne Maloney noted in her recent criticism, “the premise that Obama harbors a “secret plan” to jettison America’s deep security partnership with Israel and the Gulf states constitutes pure conjecture, not fact.” Once again, this is the same evidence-free argument that Iran hawks have been using for years.

Samuels touches on why he mentioned two journalists by name, but doesn’t acknowledge that his misrepresentation of their work was an unfair slight on the quality and independence of their reporting. He certainly doesn’t try to make amends, and says this:

My own reading of both Rozen and Goldberg for years had suggested to me that this was a fair thing to say about their work. It seemed at least worth mentioning the names of some journalists in a 9,500-word article about a writer who tells stories to the public, using journalists as one of his instruments. If I didn’t name any of those journalists, readers might fairly conclude that Rhodes was in fact terrible at his job — or that journalists, especially those who live in Washington, belong to a special category of person who must never be criticized, even gently.

The kindest thing that can be said about this is that Samuels needs to work on his reading. It would be fair to criticize any journalist working on the nuclear deal or any other issue if the criticism were remotely accurate, but in this case it wasn’t even close to that.

Samuels says he stands by his story, and that means that he stands by what many observers have concluded to be fiction.

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U.S. Interventions and Media Coverage

U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Trevor Thrall looks at how major U.S. papers have covered the extent of our government’s recent military involvement in other countries, and finds that they have covered it less frequently as it has increased:

President Obama has spent eight years talking about withdrawing the United States from the Middle East but has in fact expanded the military footprint of the United States. He has done so without much real debate in the mainstream news about the wisdom of his actions. Tellingly, what debate has occurred has focused on erroneous claims that Obama has appeased our enemies by withdrawing too much.

Perversely, this coverage has made it easier for the administration to expand U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen over the last two years without facing significant criticism or opposition. The U.S. has escalated its war on ISIS several times since it began in the summer of 2014, but the war itself appears to receive less coverage now than when it first began. The U.S. is now establishing outposts in Libya as part of the same ever-expanding campaign, but there is less attention paid to the U.S. role in Libya now than at any point in the last five years. And of course the U.S. has been actively supporting the Saudi-led war on Yemen for the last year, and references to the U.S. military and Yemen have actually declined from where they were a year ago. That is no doubt partly a function of the general neglect of Yemen in U.S. media coverage, but it fits the larger pattern of portraying an expanding U.S. military role in the region as if it were a contracting one.

Thrall produced a chart that tracks the monthly mentions of the president, the U.S. military, and specific countries in the same story in three major national papers (the Post, the Times, and the Journal), and they have all been dropping over the last two years despite increased U.S. involvement in all four places in the same period:

Note that these numbers are stories per month, so in a given month this year U.S. military involvement in Syria might be mentioned once every ten days. The even smaller number for Yemen is the least surprising of the four, since U.S. involvement in the war often goes unmentioned even in otherwise detailed reports about the conflict. It is nonetheless striking that the U.S. can become more actively involved in conflicts in all of these places while our military’s role in each conflict gets less attention.

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The Worsening Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen

UN OCHA/Philippe Kropf, via Flickr

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen may be about to get even worse. The World Food Programme is about to run short of funds and won’t be able to provide aid to the country:

After thirteen months of fighting between Houthi rebels and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition that has left more than 6,400 dead, this would be a major blow to a population already deep in the throes of a humanitarian crisis.

At last count in October 2015, 14.4 million Yemenis out of a population of 26 million were considered “food insecure,” including 7.6 million “severely insecure”: they don’t know where their next meal will come from.

At the moment, Kashyap explained, WFP [World Food Programme] is only able to provide food or food vouchers to a fraction of those who need it – 3.59 million in March. If the funding runs out, “even they will be without food,” she said.

Losing this aid would be another serious blow to the civilian population of Yemen. It bears repeating that the country wouldn’t be in these straits were it not for the Saudi-led intervention and blockade. The blockade is what has cut the country off from its normal supply of food, and lifting the blockade would be the most effective way to combat the near-famine conditions that the coalition has created over the last thirteen months. While negotiations continue in Kuwait in an attempt to halt the fighting, the blockade that is starving tens of millions of people remains in place. As long as the blockade is in force, humanitarian aid alone won’t be able to meet the needs of the people of Yemen.

The outside world has largely ignored the war on Yemen and the humanitarian catastrophe it has caused, and so it isn’t surprising that donations to fund assistance for Yemen have been paltry compared to the enormous needs of the population:

The organization has funding shortfalls worldwide, and the donor response to Yemen’s crisis hasn’t been particularly quick. The UN has received only 16 percent of the $1.8 billion it says it needs to cover the country’s needs for 2016, including $710.4 million for WFP alone [bold mine-DL].

Yemen’s worsening humanitarian crisis has received scant attention despite the fact that it is one of the gravest crises in the world today. If they do nothing else, the very least that outside governments could do is to provide funds to alleviate some of the civilian population’s suffering. We also shouldn’t forget that the U.S. and U.K. governments continue to back the senseless Saudi-led war on Yemen, including this obscene and unnecessary blockade that is causing the people of Yemen to waste away.

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