The ‘Cost-Effective’ Coup and Other Myths
Just as the U.S. sought to undermine or topple unfriendly regimes during the Cold War, it may look to such methods again in its increasingly heated rivalry with China. Caution will be necessary: History tells us that while covert intervention can sometimes be a cost-effective tool of competition, it is fraught with risks and profound moral trade-offs.
It is difficult to think of examples where sponsoring coups in other countries has ever really been “cost-effective,” unless one is comparing those coups to full-blown invasions and occupations. The up-front costs to the U.S. may seem low, but the U.S. usually ends up losing much more than it bargained for. The cost to the people in the affected country is quite high, and that ought to be part of any calculation. Brands’ own examples of what he counts as successes are telling for how horrible they were:
But is covert intervention a good idea? Some analysts argue that it rarely works and should be avoided, yet this is probably the wrong standard. Countries usually resort to covert action when other options have either failed or are deemed undesirable, so the likelihood of success is low to begin with. That built-in handicap notwithstanding, the U.S. did, in some cases, get serious strategic mileage out of its meddling.
In the late 1940s, covert support for democratic politicians in Italy played a modest but probably important role in shoring up that country against communist challenges at the polls. For the cost of a few hired mobs, the U.S. facilitated the toppling of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran in 1953, securing its strategic flank in the Persian Gulf for 25 years. CIA support helped the Indonesian military consolidate power after it toppled an increasingly anti-American Sukarno in 1965, thus avoiding the prospect of Southeast Asia’s most important country turning hostile.
Overthrowing Mossadegh ended up being one of the most short-sighted instances of U.S. interference of the entire Cold War. It may have bought the U.S. a semi-reliable client for a couple decades, but it came at the cost of alienating the Iranian people and fostering generations of hostility towards the U.S. For the sake of having an oppressive dictator on “our” side for a short time, the U.S. earned enmity that has lasted almost twice as long. The U.S. is still paying the price for that coup almost seventy years later as Washington’s obsession with Iran distorts our policies in the region. Continued interest in pursuing regime change in Iran shows that many in Washington have still learned nothing from the last time. Backing Suharto was not driven by any real necessity. It was driven by the same bankrupt domino theory that poisoned our foreign policy thinking throughout that period. It did make the U.S. complicit in a horrific campaign of mass murder:
It was an anti-Communist blood bath of at least half a million Indonesians. And American officials watched it happen without raising any public objections, at times even applauding the forces behind the killing, according to newly declassified State Department files that show diplomats meticulously documenting the purge in 1965-66.
Brands acknowledges these things later in the column, so what is the point of this exercise in entertaining such a terrible option as potentially “useful”? Useful to whom? To do what? His argument gets even shakier when he says this:
The U.S. didn’t do this gratuitously, or to protect American investments overseas.
Engineering the overthrow of a foreign government that poses absolutely no threat to the U.S. is the definition of gratuitous. Every Cold War-era coup that the U.S. sponsored was gratuitous. If U.S. officials claimed that they were compelled to take these actions, they were offering up strained rationalizations for what they already wanted to do.
Whatever apparent short-term gains the U.S. might think it is getting by acquiring a despotic client somewhere are usually quite limited and they are always fleeting. The U.S. is usually saddled with an increasingly unpopular ruler whose people come to resent the U.S. for our part in supporting that ruler. Like other kinds of regime change, covert regime change is never really necessary. Brands asserts that governments resort to these tactics when “other options have failed,” but this misses the point completely. Believing that the U.S. has the right to remove another country’s government is a profound error that has inspired many of our worst policies. Invoking rivalry with China is just another excuse to consider doing things that the U.S. should reject on principle. Brands writes:
A few years from now, Washington might find itself desperately seeking covert options to prevent some important country in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East or Southeast Asia from aligning with Beijing.
If we start hearing more arguments like this in a few years, we can be fairly sure that the importance of the country in question will be greatly exaggerated and the danger of “losing” it to China will be much smaller than the alarmists claim. A Cold War-like rivalry with China is undesirable for many other reasons, and the possibility of reviving the worst tactics of the Cold War to engage in that rivalry is one more reason to reject it.
Covert regime change is an intervention that the U.S. has chosen in the past out of excessive fear that a rival might gain a foothold in some far-off country, and in almost every case the alignment of that country didn’t matter to the larger rivalry anyway. Going down that road again means fueling more civil wars, abetting more authoritarianism and atrocities, and ultimately “losing” the country forever when the people have finally had enough of the repression and corruption that are typical of these client governments.
Brands strives mightily to make these covert operations seem more valuable than they were. He even goes so far as to say this:
Without covert action, America might not have won the Cold War.
It is impossible to know for sure how things would have turned out if the U.S. had not done these things, but this doesn’t make much sense. Toppling minor governments and stoking civil wars in far-flung countries had no appreciable effect on the USSR, and they are not why the Soviet Union collapsed. The tragedy of the Cold War is that the USSR was going to implode because of the failings of its own system, but U.S. policies were based on the false assumption that it was a juggernaut that had to be combated everywhere. The U.S. backed a lot of ugly armed groups over the decades in the belief that engaging in these proxy wars mattered greatly to the outcome of the rivalry with Moscow, but in the end they proved to be strategically irrelevant. Whatever form U.S.-China rivalry takes in the years to come, we should not repeat those mistakes.
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No One Should Be Missing Kissinger
Thomas Meaney debunks the myth of Henry Kissinger:
Since leaving office, too, Kissinger has rarely challenged consensus, let alone offered the kind of inconvenient assessments that characterized the later career of George Kennan, who warned President Clinton against NATO expansion after the Soviet Union’s collapse. It is instructive to measure Kissinger’s instincts against those of a true realist, such as the University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer. As the Cold War ended, Mearsheimer was so committed to the “balance of power” principle that he made the striking suggestion of allowing nuclear proliferation in a unified Germany and throughout Eastern Europe. Kissinger, unable to see beyond the horizon of the Cold War, could not imagine any other purpose for American power than the pursuit of global supremacy.
Although he has criticized the interventionism of neoconservatives, there is scarcely a U.S. military adventure, from Panama to Iraq, that has not met with his approval. In all his meditations on world order, he has not thought about how contingent and unforeseen America’s rise as global superpower actually was. Nothing in the country’s republican tradition prior to the Second World War demanded it.
The contrast between the worldviews and careers of Kennan and Kissinger is instructive, and it helps to explain why the Washington foreign policy consensus has gotten so many things wrong over the decades. Meaney mentions that as early as 1965 Kissinger was privately admitting that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, but publicly he supported it and went on to preside over its continuation and escalation for many years. During the same period, Kennan spoke out against the war, and urged full withdrawal. Kennan famously said:
There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.
Kissinger insisted on just the opposite: that the cynical and stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives was necessary to prove American resolve. Kissinger couldn’t have been more wrong, as subsequent events showed beyond any doubt, but his profound wrongness had little or no effect on his standing in the U.S. It is no accident that Kissinger has repeatedly endorsed pursuing such objectives up to and including the invasion of Iraq. The blunders that Kennan warned against and correctly foresaw would be costly and wasteful are the same ones that Kissinger approved and defended.
Our government usually listens to and employs the Kissingers to make our foreign policy, and it ignores and marginalizes the Kennans once they start saying inconvenient things. Kissinger had great success in advancing himself, and he has continued to be a fixture in the foreign policy establishment almost fifty years after he last served in government, because he knows how to provide arguments that lend legitimacy to dubious and aggressive policies. He made bogus claims about “credibility” in the ’60s that helped to perpetuate one war, and later generations of hawks have used the same claims to justify involvement in new ones. Despite all the evidence that his “credibility” arguments were nonsense, Kissinger’s reputation has bizarrely continued to improve over time.
Meaney also compares Kissinger with Hans Morgenthau:
Like Kissinger, Morgenthau had become well known with a popular book about foreign policy, “Politics Among Nations” (1948). And he shared Kissinger’s belief that foreign policy could not be left to technocrats with flowcharts and statistics. But, unlike Kissinger, Morgenthau was unwilling to sacrifice his realist principles for political influence [bold mine-DL]. In the mid-sixties, working as a consultant for the Johnson Administration, he was publicly critical of the Vietnam War, which he believed jeopardized America’s status as a great power, and Johnson had him fired.
The different responses to Vietnam are telling. Kennan and Morgenthau could see very clearly that U.S. intervention was unnecessary and senseless, and they said as much. Kissinger could see the same thing, but he pretended otherwise to gain influence. U.S. foreign policy then and later would have benefited greatly from having more honest assessments of irresponsible policies and fewer cynical endorsements of unnecessary wars. If we are to learn anything from Kissinger’s example, it is that we should strive to be as unlike him as we can be.
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Trump’s Contemptible War Powers Veto
The president once again showed his contempt for the Constitution with his veto of another war powers resolution yesterday:
President Trump vetoed a Senate resolution on Wednesday that would have required him to seek congressional authorization before taking military action against Iran, rejecting a rare effort by the chamber to curb his authority and reasserting broad power to use military force.
In a statement released by the White House, Mr. Trump portrayed the measure as not only an encroachment on his presidential powers but also a personal political attack.
“This was a very insulting resolution, introduced by Democrats as part of a strategy to win an election on November 3 by dividing the Republican Party,” the president said. “The few Republicans who voted for it played right into their hands.”
The president talks about Congress’ assertion of its constitutional authority as if they were guilty of lèse-majesté. Americans have allowed presidents to wage illegal wars so often and for so long that it was probably just a matter of time before one of them took for granted that his war powers were effectively unlimited. A president who didn’t want to be able to start a war on his own would have no objection to the resolution passed by Congress. The resolution was a bipartisan one, and it was introduced to prevent the president from taking it upon himself to start a war with Iran without Congressional approval. The fact that he takes offense at this resolution reflects both his absurdly absolutist ideas about the powers of the presidency and his willingness to order illegal military action. The illegal assassination that the president ordered at the start of the year was not the first time that Trump has trampled on the Constitution to launch illegal attacks on other governments, and as long as he is in office it won’t be the last. His previous veto of the antiwar resolution on Yemen already proved that he had no respect for Congress’ role in matters of war, and the latest veto confirms it.
The president’s statement makes a number of false claims, including an assertion that the illegal assassination of Soleimani was covered by the 2002 Iraq war authorization. There is no honest reading of that resolution that supports this interpretation. The resolution reaffirms that the president does not have the authority to initiate hostilities without Congressional authorization, and Trump completely rejects that fundamental constitutional principle:
In his statement, Mr. Trump argued that Congress had overstepped its bounds, saying that the resolution “implies that the president’s constitutional authority to use military force is limited to defense of the United States and its forces against imminent attack.”
“That is incorrect,” he added.
Trump goes beyond this to claim that the president is essentially free to wage preventive war whenever he thinks it necessary:
We live in a hostile world of evolving threats, and the Constitution recognizes that the President must be able to anticipate our adversaries’ next moves and take swift and decisive action in response. That’s what I did!
Except to protect against an imminent attack, taking “anticipatory” military action is illegal. It is not only a violation of the U.N. Charter, but it also represents an egregious power grab by the executive at the expense of the people’s representatives. Trump would like to be able to order illegal attacks and then present Congress with a fait accompli. That is an attack on our form of government and an insult to every American who honors the Constitution.
It shouldn’t surprise us that he has the gall to accuse Congress of overreaching when they try to rein in his constitutional violations. Trump spits on the Constitution with the attack he ordered back in January, and he spits on it again with his veto.
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McMaster and the Myths of Empire
But the reality is that McMaster, and others committed to great power competition, is actually playing the role of Johnson and McNamara. This shines through clearest in McMaster’s selective, and ultimately flawed, application of strategic empathy.
Just as Johnson and McNamara used the Joint Chiefs as political props, soliciting their advice or endorsement only when it could legitimize policy conclusions they had already come to, McMaster uses strategic empathy as a symbolic exercise in self-validation. By conceiving of China’s perspective solely in terms of its tumultuous history and the Communist Party’s pathological pursuit of power and control, McMaster presents only those biproducts of strategic empathy that confirm his policy conclusions (i.e. an intuitive grasp of China’s apparent drive to reassert itself as the “Middle Kingdom” at the expense of the United States).
McMaster calls for “strategic empathy” in understanding how the Chinese government sees the world, but he then stacks the deck by asserting that the government in question sees the world in exactly the way that China hawks want to believe that they see it. That suggests that McMaster wasn’t trying terribly hard to see the world as they do. McMaster’s article has been likened to Kennan’s seminal article on Soviet foreign policy at the start of the Cold War, but the comparison only serves to highlight how lacking McMaster’s argument is and how inappropriate a similar containment strategy would be today. Where Kennan rooted his analysis of Soviet conduct in a lifetime of expertise in Russian history and language and his experience as a diplomat in Moscow, McMaster bases his assessment of Chinese conduct on one visit to Beijing, a superficial survey of Chinese history, and some boilerplate ideological claims about communism. McMaster’s article prompted some strong criticism along these lines when it came out:
I have heard from other colleagues that several CN scholars met w/ McMaster before he wrote this (while working on his book) and corrected him on many issues. He apparently ignored all of their views. This is what we face people: a simple, deceptive narrative is more seductive.
— Michael D. Swaine (@Dalzell60) April 20, 2020
McMaster’s narrative is all the more deceptive because he claims to want to understand the official Chinese government view, but he just substitutes the standard hawkish caricature. Near the end of the article, he asserts, “Without effective pushback from the United States and like-minded nations, China will become even more aggressive in promoting its statist economy and authoritarian political model.” It is possible that this could happen, but McMaster treats it as a given without offering much proof that this is so. McMaster makes a mistake common to China hawks that assumes that every other great power must have the same missionary, world-spanning goals that they have. Suppose instead that the Chinese government is not interested in that, but has a more limited strategy aimed at securing itself and establishing itself as the leading power in its region.
Paul does a fine job of using McMaster’s earlier work on the Vietnam War to expose the flaws in his thinking about China. McMaster has often been praised for his criticism of the military’s top leaders over their role in running the war in Vietnam, but this usually overlooks that McMaster was really arguing for a much more aggressive war effort. He faulted the Joint Chiefs for “dereliction” because they didn’t insist on escalation. Paul observes:
McMaster’s tale of Vietnam is, counterintuitively, one of enduring confidence in the U.S.’s ability to do good in the world and conquer all potential challengers, if only it finds the will to overcome the temptations of political cowardice and stamp out bureaucratic ineptitude. This same message runs through McMaster’s tale about China: “If we compete aggressively,” and “no longer adhere to a view of China based mainly on Western aspirations,” McMaster says, “we have reason for confidence.”
McMaster would have the U.S. view China in the worst possible light as an implacable adversary. Following this recommendation will guarantee decades of heightened tensions and increased risks of conflict. McMaster’s dangerous China hawkishness calls to mind something that Jim Mattis said about him regarding a different issue when they served together in the Trump administration: “Oh my God, that moron is going to get us all killed.” His aggressiveness towards China is not driven by an assessment of the threat from China, but comes from his tendency to advocate for aggressive measures everywhere.
As Paul notes, McMaster is minimizing the dangers and risks that his preferred policy of confrontation entails. In that respect, he is making the same error that American leaders made in Vietnam:
Like Johnson and McNamara before him, McMaster is misleading both the public and himself about the costs, consequences, and likelihood for success of the path he is committed to pursuing, and in so doing is laying the groundwork for yet another national tragedy.
McMaster’s China argument is reminiscent of other arguments made by imperialists in the past, and he relies on many of the same shoddy assumptions that they did. Like British Russophobes in the mid-19th century, McMaster decided on a policy of aggressive containment and then searched for rationalizations that might justify it. Jack Snyder described this in his classic study Myths of Empire thirty years ago:
Russia is portrayed as a unitary, rational actor with unlimited aims of conquest, but fortunately averse to risk and weak if stopped soon enough. (p. 168)
McMaster uses the same “paper tiger image” to portray China as an unstoppable aggressor that can nonetheless be stopped at minimal risk. He wants us to believe that China is at once implacable but easily deterred, insatiable but quick to back off under pressure. We have seen the same contradictory arguments from hawks on other issues, but it is particularly dangerous to promote such a misleading image of a nuclear-armed major power.
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New START and the China Diversion
New START has a little over eight months left to live, and the Trump administration remains fixated on its impossible and bizarre condition of bringing China into the treaty:
The Trump administration is increasingly set on trying to bring China into a key nuclear arms deal with Russia, according to documents obtained by Foreign Policy, amid fears by arms control experts that the effort is futile and the United States is running out of time to recommit to the Obama-era New START treaty.
The effort to bring China into an arms reduction treaty certainly is futile. Not only is China not going to participate in arms control negotiations with the U.S. anytime soon, but even if China were persuaded to participate the limits set by New START would allow China to increase its nuclear arsenal many times over while still remaining in compliance. It makes no sense to press another government to join an arms reduction treaty when that government currently possesses a fraction of the number of weapons that the treaty permits. There is no compelling reason to add China to an existing arms control agreement when their nuclear forces are much smaller than ours. One might as well insist that Pakistan or Israel joins the treaty. It is obvious that the administration has never been serious about extending New START. Talk of bringing in China has been a diversion from the real issue and a weak excuse to let the treaty expire. U.S.-China relations are extremely poor right now, so it’s not as if negotiations on this or any other issue would be productive in any case. As a general rule, arms control agreements are reached during periods when both governments are trying to cooperate with each other because they desire to reduce tensions. It is safe to say that there is no appetite for detente in either capital at the moment. Even if there were a good reason to pursue negotiations with China on arms control, this is probably the least propitious time imaginable.
Hawks continue to feign interest in a larger treaty because this is what they always do when they want to kill an existing agreement. As always, they claim that they just need to put more pressure on the other government and this will get them to cooperate:
Current and former Trump administration officials also reject the charge that they proposed trilateral arms negotiations simply to sink the deal, and insist Beijing could be pushed to the negotiating table with the right amount of pressure.
“The only thing that really makes this particularly worthwhile is bringing China to the table,” said Tim Morrison, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former top National Security Council official on Europe and arms control under Trump. “China is the greatest threat to American security, our way of life, in the world. Russia is a third-world dictatorship, they are a mafia-run gas station with nuclear weapons,” he added.
China isn’t going to be “pushed” to negotiate a non-starter of an agreement in which it has nothing to gain. This should be elementary even for the thickest hard-liners. Whatever threat China may pose to the U.S., its nuclear arsenal is not the main problem that we need to be concerned about. When discussing arms control, the state that has the much larger nuclear arsenal is the priority. Focusing on China as the main threat while dismissing Russia as a “gas station” is idiotic. Nuclear weapons are one of the few remaining reasons to take Russia seriously as a great power, so we don’t get to blow that off when we are talking about a treaty that limits how many of those weapons they can possess and deploy.
The Trump administration can’t even compel Iran or North Korea to make concessions despite years of punitive measures, so why does anyone think that China would be more accommodating? Even if the treaty-killers weren’t acting in such obvious bad faith, there simply isn’t time for any of this. New START will be dead in February 2021, and there will be nothing else left to limit the size or deployment of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. Floating pie-in-the-sky ideas about including China in an imaginary treaty that will never exist is nothing more than a delaying tactic so that the clock runs out on arms control.
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Pompeo’s Cynical Attack on the Nuclear Deal
The Trump administration has been desperately trying to kill the nuclear deal for the last two years after reneging on it. Now they will try to kill it by pretending to be part of it again:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is preparing a legal argument that the United States remains a participant in the Iran nuclear accord that President Trump has renounced, part of an intricate strategy to pressure the United Nations Security Council to extend an arms embargo on Tehran or see far more stringent sanctions reimposed on the country.
The administration’s latest destructive ploy won’t find any support on the Security Council. There is nothing “intricate” about this idea. It is a crude, heavy-handed attempt to employ the JCPOA’s own provisions to destroy it. It is just the latest in a series of administration moves that tries to have things both ways. They want to renege on U.S. commitments while still refusing to allow Iran to benefit from the agreement, and they ultimately hope to make things difficult enough for Iran that their government chooses to give up on the agreement. It reeks of bad faith and contempt for international law, and all other governments will be able to see right through it. Some of our European allies have already said as much:
European diplomats who have learned of the effort maintain that Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo are selectively choosing whether they are still in the agreement to fit their agenda.
It is significant that the Trump administration feels compelled to go through this charade after telling everyone for years that the U.S. is no longer in the deal. Until now, Trump administration officials have been unwavering in saying that the U.S. is out of the deal and can’t be considered a participant in it:
Can’t wait to see the tortured memo out of State/L claiming that somehow the U.S. is still a participant in the JCPOA. The May 8, 2018 announcement is literally titled “Ceasing U.S. Participation in the JCPOA….” https://t.co/I5t8LaC7dN
— Richard Johnson (@johnsonrc01) April 26, 2020
Or Secretary Pompeo himself, just two weeks after leaving the deal. “Two weeks ago, President Trump terminated the United States participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.” https://t.co/VHgzUwf7PT
— Richard Johnson (@johnsonrc01) April 26, 2020
The reporting on this at the time showed that the administration understood that abandoning the JCPOA meant giving up the possibility of using the provision that they are now hoping to use:
Shortly before Trump announced plans to withdraw from the pact, National Security Advisor John Bolton suggested to reporters that the United States would not turn to the U.N. Security Council to remake the nuclear accord because “we’re out of the deal.”
“At this time, there’s no plan to go up to New York” to push for a snapback of sanctions, a senior State Department official explains. “The United States is out of the deal … so we’re not going to use a provision as if we were still a participant in the deal to invoke the snapback.”
Leave it to someone as dishonest as Pompeo to try to claim that the U.S. belongs to a deal that it flatly rejected.
Trying to use the so-called “snapback” mechanism in an effort to destroy the JCPOA is a deeply cynical maneuver. The mechanism was designed to be used only when Iran failed to comply with the agreement, and it was meant to be used by the other parties on the assumption that they would have honored their commitments. The U.S. violated the deal first when it reimposed sanctions despite ongoing Iranian compliance, and Iran remained in full compliance for another year after that. Iran has reduced its compliance in protest against U.S. sanctions in the hope that the other parties to the deal would devise a way to provide them with the relief they were promised. Iran has wanted to keep the agreement alive, and so have all of the other P5+1 members besides the U.S. The administration’s so-called “strategy” depends on getting one or more of these governments to turn against the agreement they have spent years defending against U.S. attacks.
Had the U.S. not reneged on the JCPOA in 2018, there would be no issue with Iranian compliance today. By all rights, there ought to have been some sort of “snapback” mechanism to penalize the other parties for breaking their promises, but at the time no one seriously thought that any of the P5+1 countries would want to tear up a successful nonproliferation agreement. The “snapback” mechanism was meant to preserve the JCPOA, and all of the other parties to the deal know this. No one else is going to accept the administration’s argument that the U.S. is once again part of the agreement just so that it can blow up what remains of it.
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Trump Draws a Reckless ‘Red Line’ in the Sea
Earlier this week, I said that we would be hearing more exaggerations warnings about minor nuisances around the world. One example of these nuisances has been the recent “harassment” by Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf. Right on schedule, the president tweeted another reckless threat of escalation:
I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 22, 2020
Threatening to commit acts of war against another country over something like this is unhinged. These confrontations have gone on for years without any loss of life. As long as no one overreacts and starts killing people, there is no reason for the situation to escalate. Once again, Trump is choosing escalation when he doesn’t have to. There is always some danger in having our naval forces and theirs in close proximity, but threatening to start a war over it is cartoonish overkill. The president is giving a green light to further escalation against Iran when he has no legal authority to do so, and that makes it more likely that the U.S. and Iran end up in an avoidable conflict. The president likes to mock Obama over his ill-advised “red line” in Syria, but this is far more irresponsible because the behavior that he is using as his “red line” isn’t a serious threat to anyone. At best, this is the president’s desperate attempt to distract attention from the ongoing failure of the federal government’s response to the outbreak here at home. At worst, he is trying to provoke an incident to give him an opening to launch a diversionary war.
If the U.S. and Iran had normal diplomatic relations, our government could protest Iranian actions that we find unacceptable without having to risk taking our countries to the brink of war for the third time in a year. Even without Trump as president, U.S.-Iranian tensions could easily flare out of control because there are no regular channels of communication to avoid accidents and to deescalate incidents when they do occur. There needs to be a military channel set up between the U.S. and Iran so that we can prevent accidents and calm the situation down if there is a collision or confrontation. We aren’t likely to get one anytime soon when we have a president shouting threats of war to the world.
The significant U.S. military presence in and around the Persian Gulf has never made less sense. The price of oil is now extremely low, so we have little reason to fear that temporary disruption to the supply from the region would create a serious problem. Our naval presence is not stabilizing, but rather serves as a constant source of friction between the U.S. and Iran. The Middle East has never mattered less to vital U.S. interests, so it would be truly absurd if we were to blunder into yet another war there at a time when we can least afford one.
Update: As an added bonus, the president just retweeted the fake persona run by the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) because it praised his reckless threat:
To state the obvious, the American president just retweeted a fake account managed by the MeK – a violent, corrupt cult based in Albania that has literally zero support or legitimacy inside Iran. https://t.co/YcTRb2JEWC
— Thomas Juneau (@thomasjuneau) April 22, 2020
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Even a Pandemic Can’t Kill Threat Inflation
There have been news reports in the last few days that have portrayed fairly routine behavior by other states as an attempt to “take advantage” of the U.S. during the pandemic. The incidents in question are consistent with how these states were behaving before the outbreak. For example, The Wall Street Journalreported on Monday that China continues increasing its control in the Spratly and Paracel islands. This is something that the Chinese government has been doing for decades before now, but this is how it was described in the article:
In recent weeks, Beijing has conducted operations to gain more of a foothold in the Spratly and Paracel island chains in the South China Sea, emblematic of China’s attempts to assert its influence around the world.
In other words, China continued a policy in its own backyard that it has been pursuing since before the turn of the century, but because it is happening at the same time as the pandemic it is treated as somehow more menacing than before. How asserting territorial claims on their doorstep is “emblematic” of asserting influence “around the world” is left to the reader’s imagination. This is not just a problem of strange framing in media reports. U.S. officials are promoting the idea that other states are “taking advantage” by simply doing the same things they have done many times in the past:
While some of the operations might have been planned before the pandemic swept the globe, U.S. officials said American rivals like China are capitalizing on the Trump administration’s diverted attention and the strains on its military.
“Beijing is a net beneficiary of global attention diverted towards the pandemic rather than military activities in the South China Sea,” said Navy Capt. Mike Kafka, a spokesman for Indo-Pacific Command, Honolulu.
Claims like this raise an obvious question: what would the U.S. have been doing to discourage this behavior if there were no pandemic? As far as I can tell, there is nothing that the U.S. could or should be doing that would make China less likely to pursue its claims in the South China Sea. The U.S. conducts so-called “freedom of navigation” operations (FONOPs) all the time, but this has had no effect on anything China does. If the U.S. is not able to conduct these operations right now, that doesn’t invite more aggressive behavior from China because the FONOPs weren’t deterring anything in the first place. That strongly suggests that the U.S. is wasting its time and resources on operations that serve no purpose.
The claim here that adversaries are using the coronavirus timeout to test US will is silly; they're calling military activity that would've occurred anyway a test. What we're really seeing is that presence patrols said to be vital to deterrence are an expensive waste of time. pic.twitter.com/RzNBpHUm16
— Ben Friedman (@BH_Friedman) April 17, 2020
Similarly, recent “harassment” of U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf by Iranian boats is more proof that the U.S. did not “restore deterrence” with Iran when it assassinated Soleimani at the start of the year. That shows that the administration’s Iran policy continues to backfire. If adversaries are supposed to be taking advantage of a distracted U.S., the Iranian example doesn’t support that because the administration remains obsessively focused on Iran even now. The Pentagon started drawing up plans for massive escalation last month:
Last month, the Pentagon began drafting plans for a major escalation against the Iran-backed factions — namely the hardline Kataeb Hezbollah — blamed for the rockets.
“Washington told us they’d simultaneously hit 122 targets in Iraq if more Americans died,” a top Iraqi official said.
If tensions between the U.S. and Iran remain high, that is a consequence of earlier American escalation. It is not happening because the U.S. is preoccupied by the pandemic.
All of the incidents cited in these reports pose no serious threat to the U.S. or our military, and were it not for the pandemic they would be seen as fairly typical and predictable behavior from all of these governments. The only reason that these activities are being portrayed as “tests” of U.S. “resolve” is that our interests have been inflated so absurdly over the decades that anything these governments do in their own immediate neighborhood is viewed as a challenge. As we rightly focus on the threat from the pandemic here at home, we should expect to hear more exaggerated warnings about minor foreign nuisances as supporters of a bloated military budget seek to justify unnecessary missions and deployments.
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Iran Is Not Ours to ‘Steer’
The Edelman/Takeyh article on Iran had so many bad ideas in it that it will take a second post to respond properly to some of the rest. One of the sillier claims that they make is that regime collapse won’t cause Iran to become a failed state because it is a real country, unlike the other countries that the U.S. destabilized and turned into failed states:
But there are significant differences between Iran and those countries. An Iranian state and polity have existed for thousands of years: unlike Iraq and Libya, Iran is not an invention of European postcolonial cartography. What is more, although ethnic tensions do exist in Iran and the regime in Tehran does repress religious minorities, Iranian society is overwhelmingly Shiite and not riven by the ethnic and sectarian divisions that plague Iraq or the tribal factions that make Libya difficult to govern.
Each time that regime changers talk about bringing down a foreign government, they offer these reassurances, and they are consistently proven wrong. Before the invasion of Iraq, supporters of the invasion insisted that religious differences among Iraqis were nothing to worry about. Prior to intervention in Libya, we were told by the interventionists that Libya was not divided like Iraq and there was no need to worry about the country sliding into civil war. Now we’re told that Iran isn’t like either of them because it isn’t an “invention of European postcolonial cartography,” so we shouldn’t worry about civil war there. There is a lot wrong with this assumption. First, countries that have a long history of having their own “state and polity” can and do fall into civil war following the collapse of an earlier regime all the time. It happened in France after the destruction of the monarchy, it happened in Russia after the tsar’s abdication, and of course it happened in China more than once in just the last hundred years. A country can be mostly ethnically homogeneous and united by the same religion and still be rent by other political divisions. It is an analytical error to assume that religious and ethnic divisions drive internal conflicts. These become the rallying points that people use to ensure their own security when political order breaks down. That would look different in a post-regime collapse Iran, but the need for security would be the same.
It is remarkable that there are still people so breathtakingly arrogant after almost twenty years of staggering, costly U.S. failures in multiple countries that they can write this:
The Iranian people want an accountable government and do not share their leaders’ animus toward the West. But things don’t always happen just because they should. To avoid outcomes such as those in Iraq and Libya, a U.S. policy of regime change must include plans for steering a post-theocratic Iran in the right direction, since Washington would share a large degree of responsibility for the outcome.
The U.S. can barely govern itself effectively, but we still have people claiming that our government has the knowledge and ability to “steer” a country on the other side of the world. That would be wrong even if the U.S. were filled with credible, genuine Iran experts, but we actually have very few that know much about the country in depth. The U.S. does not know how to “steer” other countries, and we have no right to try. Our government cannot “steer” Iran in “the right direction,” and Iran is not ours to “steer” in any case. One would think that the experience of repeated humiliations abroad would instill some humility in regime changers, but it never does.
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Regime Change Is Wrong
Eric Edeleman and Ray Takeyh dispense with the usual hawkish smokescreens and evasions and call for regime change in Iran:
“Regime change” is a toxic phrase in Washington. It conjures up images of the Iraq war, with the United States trapped in a quagmire of its own making. That is why those who favor a coercive U.S. approach to Iran are routinely charged with secretly supporting regime change. In response, the accused almost always deny it. They don’t want regime change, they insist: they just want the Islamic Republic’s theocrats to change their behavior.
But no such transformation will ever take place, because the Iranian regime remains a revolutionary movement that will never accommodate the United States. That is why regime change is not a radical or reckless idea but the most pragmatic and effective goal for U.S. policy toward Iran—indeed, it is the only objective that has any chance of meaningfully reducing the Iranian threat.
Edelman and Takeyh are as wrong as can be, but their article does have the virtue of being a straightforward case for this terrible idea. There is no need to tease out the implications of their position to figure out that they want to destabilize the region and cause more massive upheaval, because they tell us this right from the start. At the very least, it saves us some time.
Regime change is a toxic phrase in that few people want to describe their regime change policies that way, but it is evidently not yet a toxic idea if it can still be openly promoted in the flagship publication of the Council on Foreign Relations. The phrase is closely associated with the Iraq war, but it can describe other kinds of destructive interventions in the affairs of other nations. U.S.-backed coups are examples of regime change, and they are horrible and dangerous without needing an American invasion. Intervention in Libya was another regime change war that threw the country into chaos that it still has not recovered from, but there was no quagmire for the U.S. That will be small consolation for the thousands who have perished in the ensuing power struggles. The U.S. helped to fuel the war in Syria with another attempt at regime change. That one failed, but the attempt still contributed to greater loss of life. The record of U.S.-sponsored regime change is bloody and ugly, and it is has reliably made things worse in the countries that suffer from it. That is the future that advocates of regime change propose for Iran: violence, devastation, and displacement.
Iranians understandably don’t want their country to be turned into the next Syria or Libya, so pushing for regime change in their country has nothing to do with what the Iranian people want or need. The “Iranian threat” is a comically exaggerated one since Iran lacks the capabilities to threaten the United States and our treaty allies, so this also has nothing to do with making the U.S. more secure. Regime changers want to bring down the Iranian government because its existence offends against U.S. hegemony and because regime change suits the interests of U.S. clients in the region. Neither of these is a good reason for destabilizing a country of more than eighty million people. Then again, there is no good reason to do that, because doing that is deeply wrong. Regime change is wrong, and those that advocate for it are advocating for wrongdoing.
It is very unlikely that the U.S. can bring about regime change in Iran short of an invasion, but it would be a terrible idea even if it could. Look around the region, and you will see that the countries that have suffered regime change or attempted regime change are among the most miserable in the world. Regime collapse leaves the population at the mercy of armed gangs, and the fight over who replaces the old regime condemns the people to years of living in hell. This does not make the surrounding countries any safer, because they are then forced to deal with the influx of refugees, the proliferation of weapons to extremists, and increased insecurity along their own borders. Instability in a neighboring country also invites some states to fish in troubled waters by backing this faction or that in order to carve out spheres of influence. A destabilized, chaotic Iran would give all of the worst governments in the region opportunities to make mischief. All of this would expose U.S. forces in the region to more dangers. Depending on what replaced the old regime, it might very well create a state that is more aggressively hostile to the U.S. than the current one. That is made more likely if the U.S. was the one responsible for triggering the chaos in the first place.
If Edelman and Takeyh’s prescription of regime change is terrible, their diagnosis of Iran is also badly flawed. They recycle a very dated, ideological interpretation of the Iranian government that hasn’t been accurate in decades. They continue to insist that it is committed to “a revolution without borders” when it has long since settled into being a reactive and opportunistic actor interested primarily in regime preservation and Iranian security. The way that they describe Iran today is like describing the Soviet Union in the 1970s as if Trotsky were still in charge of the Red Army. No doubt Edelman and Takeyh would have denounced detente, too, and they would have made similarly hard-line arguments against it, because they cannot accept the possibility that the revolutionary bogeyman they have been railing against throughout their careers is not what it used to be.
When Edelman and Takeyh talk about promoting regime change, they mostly mean covertly compromising members of Iranian civil society and labor unions:
Adopting the goal of regime change will not be terribly costly, but it will require a stepped-up program of covert action to aid those elements within Iranian civil society that are contesting the regime’s legitimacy. Chief among those are professional syndicates, such as labor unions and teachers’ unions, which have gone on strike to protest government policies and actions, and student groups, which have organized protests on college campuses.
Few things could be worse for genuine Iranian dissidents than to be associated with U.S. covert operations, and the “aid” that they propose to give these groups amounts to a death sentence. The best thing that the U.S. could do to help Iranian civil society is to stop strangling their economy and stop making the lives of ordinary Iranians miserable, and after that it should stop trying to “help” at all. Iran hawks still can’t or won’t acknowledge that most Iranians view our government very unfavorably, and they resent our constant attempts to interfere in their country. As much as many Iranians dislike their government and wish to see significant political change, there is no desire for U.S.-sponsored for regime change. If regime change “must be undertaken by the Iranians themselves,” then it isn’t going to happen and the U.S. will need to learn how to live with and cooperate with the current government.