Daniel Larison

The Danger of Unrealistic Goals for North Korea Diplomacy

The U.S. and Japan released a joint statement calling on North Korea to give up not only its nuclear weapons, but also to abandon all “weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.” TAC contributor Harry Kazianis responded to the statement earlier today:

As the inter-Korean summit approaches and the Trump-Kim meeting draws closer, the gap between the U.S. and North Korean positions does not appear to have narrowed at all. If anything, the demands from the U.S. and Japan have increased and become even more unrealistic than they already were. Instead of moderating demands and tempering expectations about what North Korea is willing to give up, the Trump administration and the Abe government are doing just the opposite. This may succeed in reassuring Japan that the U.S. isn’t going to make a deal that Tokyo can’t accept, but it practically guarantees that no agreement can be reached with North Korea.

If Trump goes to the summit thinking that North Korea is going to agree to any of this, he has been misled and will be setting himself up for failure. If the U.S. and its allies aren’t prepared to make an extraordinarily generous offer in return, it is likely that nothing good will come from the meeting between Trump and Kim. The danger is that the hard-liners around Trump will exploit a summit failure as an excuse to ratchet up tensions and push for military action and he will be more inclined to listen to them.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Senators offer up unprecedented war powers to the president. Kelley Vlahos reports on the awful implications of the Corker-Kaine AUMF.

Repeal, don’t replace, Trump’s war powers. John Glaser and Gene Healy call for repealing the 2001 AUMF instead of passing a worse replacement.

John Bolton: in search of Carthage. Michael Shindler compares Bolton’s warmongering to the fanaticism of Cato the Elder.

What Iran really wants. Paul Pillar explains what Iran is trying to do in the region and “how detached from reality the Iran debate has become.”

A new name for Swaziland. Max Bearak reports on the decision to rename the country eSwatini.

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Trump Should End the Illegal U.S. Military Presence in Syria

Max Boot predictably wants to keep U.S. forces in Syria on a mission that has no end:

There is no deus ex machina: Either America keeps its own troops in Syria or it risks a revival of the Islamic State and an expansion of Iranian power. Our allies won’t do our job for us.

Boot criticizes the ridiculous Bolton plan to replace U.S. forces in Syria with Egyptians, Saudis, and others, and it’s true that Bolton’s plan can’t and won’t work. It doesn’t follow that the U.S. should maintain its illegal military presence in Syria.

A continued U.S. military presence in Syria isn’t necessary for U.S. security or the security of our allies. Our military presence there has been and will continue to be illegal under both international and U.S. law. Congress has never voted to authorize the president to send American soldiers to fight in Syria against any enemy, and the president has no legal authority to send them there on his own. If something is both unnecessary and illegal, there is no good reason to keep doing it. It is also potentially risky. The longer our forces stay there, the more likely it is that they will clash with the forces of the Syrian government or their allies.

The mission that Boot wants them to have couldn’t possibly end as long as Iran and Syria remain allies. There is always some chance that ISIS revive or that some other jihadist group could spring up in its place, so committing to preventing that means that U.S. forces would have to remain in Syria indefinitely. Preventing an “expansion of Iranian power” in Syria would be another permanent assignment. Any territorial gains by the Syrian government would be treated as Iranian “expansion” by the same geniuses that supported the invasion of Iraq and did more to increase Iranian influence than anyone else. It would be a stupid waste of resources, money, and manpower to illegally occupy northeastern Syria in perpetuity mainly to spite the ally of the recognized government of that country. The president should reject Bolton’s plan and dismiss Boot’s advice, and instead he should bring U.S. forces out of Syria as soon as possible.

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The Bad Arguments for Trump’s Terrible Nominee for State

Mike Pompeo, CIA director (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

Marc Thiessen rushes to the defense of Mike Pompeo:

For the first time in the history of the republic, it appears increasingly likely that a majority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote against the president’s nominee for secretary of state. If this happens, it would be a black mark not on Mike Pompeo’s record, but on the reputation of this once-storied committee.

If a nominee is considered to be so toxic that a majority of the relevant committee can’t bring themselves to vote for him, doesn’t that suggest that the fault for the unprecedented repudiation rests with the nominee or with the president who nominated him? Trump is trying to replace a bad Secretary of State with a worse successor, and we’re supposed to believe that the committee members are disgracing themselves by refusing to act as a rubber stamp? This complaint doesn’t pass the laugh test, and yet this is what Pompeo’s defenders are reduced to arguing.

“There is simply no excuse for this,” Thiessen whines, but there is a perfectly good reason for it: Pompeo isn’t qualified to be Secretary of State and shouldn’t be confirmed solely because of that. Thiessen asserts that “no one questions that he is extraordinarily qualified for the job,” but in fact lots of people explicitly deny that he is. They question his judgment, question his record, and have no confidence that he knows how to conduct diplomacy. It’s simply not true that no one questions Pompeo’s readiness for this position. That is the main complaint against him.

Pompeo served in Congress for a few terms, and he ran the CIA (badly) for a year. In all that time, he showed no aptitude for or interest in diplomacy or the compromise that it requires. He has developed a reputation as a hard-liner, and in tandem with Bolton he would make Trump’s foreign policy even more dangerous than it already is. Pompeo was nominated first and foremost because he knew how to cultivate the president and successfully gained his confidence. That isn’t nothing, but it isn’t a reason to confirm him to be Secretary of State.

Pompeo may be confirmed by the narrowest majority of all time, or maybe he won’t be, but the people opposed to the nomination have nothing to be ashamed of and every reason to fight it until the end.

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Pompeo Isn’t Qualified and Shouldn’t Be Confirmed

Mike Pompeo and Rex Tillerson. (Gage Skidmore/Office of the President)

Kelly Jane Torrance thinks that this is not the time to vote down Pompeo’s nomination:

With a likely meeting between Trump and Kim just weeks away, America still doesn’t have an ambassador to South Korea. It doesn’t even have a nominee for ambassador to South Korea. The State Department and American diplomatic policy generally are in crucial need of immediate leadership. The president has the prerogative to choose his top diplomat, and senators haven’t put forward any real reasons not to consent to Trump’s choice. The upper chamber shouldn’t fiddle while hotspots across the world could soon burn.

Torrance is correct that the U.S. doesn’t have an ambassador to South Korea or even a nominee. The White House is to blame for that lapse after they withdrew Victor Cha’s nomination earlier this year. The State Department is in such a parlous state because of the bad choice the president made for Secretary of State last year. Deferring to Trump’s choice for running the State Department is what created or contributed to many of the problems that Torrance describes. It would be a serious mistake to use those problems as an excuse to confirm an unqualified hard-liner to be our chief diplomat.

It’s not true that senators “haven’t put forward any real reasons” to reject Pompeo. They have objected to his preference for resorting to force, his disdain for diplomacy, his hostility to the nuclear deal, his bias against Muslims, and his past record of supporting disastrous wars and torture. Those are just some of the reasons so many senators are opposed to Pompeo. Those sound like real reasons to me.

The debate over Pompeo isn’t over, but I have to acknowledge that he just secured one Democratic vote this week. North Dakota Sen. Heitkamp announced that she will vote to confirm him. She was probably the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent up for re-election this year, so if anyone was going to support Trump’s nominee it was probably going to be Heitkamp. Arizona Republican Jeff Flake has not yet announced his position, so it possible that he could still end up voting against the nomination. If Flake needs a reason to vote against Pompeo, he should remember that Pompeo was a vocal critic of normalization with Cuba that Flake strongly supported.

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Why Tillerson Failed

Ronan Farrow’s long article on Rex Tillerson and the chaos he created at the State Department is worth reading in full. I was struck most by this passage:

In April of last year, when the United States initiated strikes on Syria, the Administration skipped the conventional step of notifying its NATO allies. “When news broke, alarmed allies . . . were calling,” the operations officer told me. It was early on a Sunday afternoon, and Tillerson was in Washington and unoccupied. “We were told that the Secretary had a long weekend so he was going to go home and have dinner with his wife and call it a night.” No calls. “That floored me,” the operations officer recalled [bold mine-DL].

Reading the article strengthens the impression I had over the last year that Tillerson never wanted the job, didn’t like doing it, and went through the motions because he thought he had some sort of obligation to accept the role. Tillerson had been hoping to retire, but instead of doing what he really wanted to do he allowed himself to be dragged into a job he wasn’t prepared for, didn’t understand, and couldn’t be bothered to do well. Combined with his misguided determination to “redesign” a department he knew nothing about and the president’s constant undermining of him, the results were predictably terrible.

When Tillerson was first nominated, I thought it was a strange choice because he had no relevant experience. His supporters insisted that his time at Exxon was more than enough to make up for any lack of political or government experience. As it turned out, the real problem may have been that Tillerson accepted the position grudgingly and without realizing what it would involve, and because he really didn’t want to be there he wasn’t going to put in the time and effort to learn what he needed to know from the people that could have educated him. The article continues:

“At first, I thought, Uh-oh, this is growing pains; a private-sector guy, realizing how hard Washington is,” the source close to the White House continued. “And just, what I started to see, week after week, month after month, was someone who not only didn’t get it but there was just no self-reflection, only self-mutilation.”

It was also unlikely that a corporate executive would adjust well to serving as a not-very-influential subordinate, especially when he answered to a president who seemed to delight in making his job more difficult. Tillerson also never seemed to figure out how to deal with Trump:

Tillerson’s Texas swagger, the source close to the White House said, irked Trump. “You just can’t be an arrogant alpha male all the time with Trump. You have to do what Mattis does, which is, ‘Mr. President, you’re the President, you’re smarter than me, you won, your instincts are always right, but let me just give you the other view, sir.’ Then you have this guy coming in,” the source said, referring to Tillerson, “going ‘Well, I guess because I worked for so many years in the oil business, I have something to say. You don’t know much about the region, so let me start with that.’ I mean, honestly, condescending.”

None of this excuses Tillerson’s ineptitude and poor judgment, but it does help explain why he failed so badly.

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Report: Haspel ‘Ran’ Program That Tortured Detainees

Gina Haspel (Central Intelligence Agency)

Spencer Ackerman reports that Trump’s nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, was more extensively involved in the use of torture on detainees than previously thought:

But in his 2014 book, John Rizzo, a longtime senior CIA lawyer, indicated that Haspel was responsible for the incommunicado detention and torture not of two men, but of dozens, potentially [bold mine-DL]. Former intelligence officials interviewed by The Daily Beast have portrayed Haspel’s experience similarly.

Haspel should never have been nominated for this position or the deputy director position she currently holds, and she certainly shouldn’t be confirmed as the next head of the CIA. The fact that she was responsible for torturing any detainees disqualifies her, and now it appears that she was responsible for even more of it than we thought. Rizzo states in his book that she had “run the interrogation program.” If that’s true, it assigns her a much larger role in torturing detainees. Rizzo’s claim was backed up by former CIA officials:

“To the best of my understanding, she ran the interrogation program,” the official said.

“Her becoming director absolutely terrifies me,” continued the former CIA official. “Once I heard her name, I immediately thought, ‘Oh, God.’”

The CIA denies the claim, but that is what we would expect them to say. The agency itself and current and former intelligence officials have been making such an extraordinary and obnoxious effort to advocate for Haspel’s nomination that it makes everything her supporters say in her defense hard to take seriously. Her cheerleaders have a strong incentive to see her confirmed:

“If Ms. Haspel is confirmed, it will send a terrible message to the world broadly, and to the officers of the CIA more superficially,” a former U.S. intelligence official said. “The CIA, and its former officers, are pushing so hard for Ms. Haspel to be director because if she’s confirmed, it essentially exonerates her, the CIA and all of these former senior CIA officials from their involvement in or their defense of the torture program.”

A vote for Haspel is effectively a vote to exonerate torturers and to reward one of the chief torturers with a high-ranking position.

Haspel’s involvement in the torture of detainees ought to be reason enough for the Senate to reject her nomination, but if that isn’t enough there is also the problem that having her in charge of the CIA could also jeopardize the ability of the CIA to cooperate with allied intelligence agencies. Amrit Singh and Jonathan Horowitz write:

These are reasons enough for senators to reject her nomination. But if they need another reason, they should consider the fact that key U.S. allies may be unwilling to cooperate with a CIA that has as its head a person who both oversaw torture and has so little respect for the rule of law.

Haspel’s confirmation hearing has been scheduled to take place in May. If senators have the slightest respect for the rule of law, they should reject her nomination.

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Friedman’s Fear-mongering About Iran

CSIS / cc

Tom Friedman repeats an oft-recited canard in a recent column:

The [IRGC] Quds Force now more or less controls — through proxies — four Arab capitals: Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Sana.

Indeed, Iran has become the biggest “occupying power” in the Arab world today.

This is wrong or misleading on pretty much every count, but it is probably most obnoxious with respect to Yemen because it echoes Saudi propaganda used to justify their atrocious war on that suffering country. The problem with these statements is that they completely ignore local actors and interests and mistakenly treat indigenous groups as mere puppets of Tehran.

As for supposedly being an “occupying power,” Iran is supporting the Iraqi and Syrian governments at their request. We may not like that support, but that is not what occupation looks like. The Saudis and the UAE and their allies are the ones occupying parts of Yemen, and Yemen’s “legitimate” government is run out of Riyadh because it has no backing at home. Iran doesn’t occupy any part of Yemen. Friedman’s statements may be good for fear-mongering and stoking hostility, but it is garbage analysis of the sort we have come to expect from him. Unfortunately, this gross exaggeration of Iranian “control” over other countries’ capitals is a commonly-held view that misinforms policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Iran’s influence in Yemen has modestly increased since the Saudi-led intervention started three years ago, and the relationship between Tehran and the Houthis is closer than it was, but that is a measure of how stupid and pointless the Saudi-led war has been. The Houthis were not Iranian proxies before the coalition intervention started, and they still are not. Iran does not control Sanaa through proxies or in any other way. That doesn’t fit the story that supporters of the Saudi-led war want to tell, but it happens to be true. In point of fact, the Iranian government advised the Houthis not to take the capital back in 2014, which was an odd thing for a supposedly “expansionist” government “on the march” to do. Maybe some hard-liners in Iran wished they had the sort of extensive influence and control ascribed to them, but it is just a wish.

This matters because Friedman is using his high-profile position to spread bad analysis and misinformation about conflicts that Americans already understand poorly or not at all. He already wrote an embarrassing love letter to the Saudi war criminal Mohammed bin Salman, and now he is echoing the Saudi government’s talking points about Iran and the war on Yemen. The war on Yemen is already so rarely covered and poorly understood in the U.S. that every piece of misinformation about the conflict there does much greater damage than usual. Anyone that makes the mistake of reading his columns would come away with a worse and more distorted understanding of this part of the world than he had before he started.

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Hard-liners Are Desperate to Save Pompeo’s Nomination

Then-Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-KS, speaking at a rally in 2013. He faces a senate grilling for his secretary of state nomination today.Mark Taylor/Creative Commons

The Wall Street Journal editors whine that opponents of Trump’s foreign policy are opposing Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State. They seem a bit nervous that his nomination could fail:

What a message that would send to America’s enemies as President Trump prepares for his North Korea summit, decides on the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, and confronts a hostile Russia. Democrats say they don’t trust Mr. Trump, but in denying him senior advisers they make it more likely he will govern by himself. Mark it down as one more example that hatred for Mr. Trump has caused many of his opponents to abandon rational judgment.

The Senate mistakenly deferred to the president on his last nominee for Secretary of State and confirmed Rex Tillerson. Tillerson’s inept performance over the last year shows that they should have refused to indulge the president’s bad choice. Now that the Senate a second chance to weigh on a nominee for State, it is understandable that critics of Trump’s mostly shoddy foreign policy record would be wary of making the same mistake again.

Pompeo has no more relevant experience to be Secretary of State than Tillerson did a year ago, and there is good reason to fear that his preference for aggressive policies and his disdain for diplomacy will encourage Trump in his worst instincts. No doubt the WSJ editors are hoping for just such an outcome, and so they want Pompeo to be confirmed. The bottom line is that Pompeo is not qualified to be Secretary of State, and someone with so much contempt for the practice of diplomacy shouldn’t be put in charge of U.S. diplomatic efforts. Lame attempts to guilt his critics into supporting him won’t change any of that.

Pompeo’s fate will likely be decided by a handful of “moderate” Democrats: Heitkamp of North Dakota, Donnelly of Indiana, Jones of Alabama, and Manchin of West Virginia. If one of them votes for Pompeo, Pompeo will eke out the narrowest, least impressive confirmation imaginable. If none of them breaks with the rest of the party, Pompeo loses. The White House knows this, and they have been trying to intimidate these Democrats into supporting the nominee:

The White House circled the wagons Wednesday around CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s nomination to become secretary of State, arguing vulnerable red-state Democrats will feel “consequences” in November if they vote against him.

As much as we might like to believe that voters care deeply about such things, I suspect that these Democrats would pay little or no electoral price for opposing Pompeo. For one thing, most voters don’t vote on foreign policy at all, and they are even less likely to punish a senator for voting the “wrong” way on a Cabinet nomination. It is members of the president’s party that should be more worried about their fortunes in a midterm election. Red-state Democrats have little incentive to help get a bad Trump nominee over the finish line when there is an outside chance that Republicans could lose control of both chambers this fall.

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Celebrating 15 Years of TAC

The American Conservative is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary. The magazine will be hosting a gala on May 3 to mark the occasion. Patrick Deneen, author of Why Liberalism Failed, will be our keynote speaker. We hope to build on the last fifteen years of promoting the causes of peace and restraint with the continued support of our readers, and we look to expand on our current efforts in both the magazine and website in the future.

If you are able to attend, you can purchase your tickets here. Silver Sponsors and above will be eligible to attend a VIP Q&A session with Prof. Deneen moderated by Rod Dreher and myself. We look forward to seeing you in May.

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