Luke O’Brien bats down the crazy notion of giving North Korea a “bloody nose”:
The allure of a punitive strike on North Korea is its seeming simplicity. North Korea continues its missile testing, or opts to detonate another nuclear device in a test shaft, and the United States fires a few missiles and fixes the problem. But this conclusion comes from a series of bad assumptions. We assume that the North Korean regime can detect with any realistic degree of confidence that a limited strike is in fact limited [bold mine-DL]. We assume that North Korea will only analyze the costs and benefits of retaliating based on the merits of a fleeting crisis. And we assume that Kim Jong Un’s power is limitless and that he has none of his own constituencies to placate in the hours and days after a strike.
The idea that the U.S. can give North Korea a “bloody nose” without provoking significant retaliation seems to be based on nothing more than wishful thinking. This administration in particular would have tremendous difficulty credibly signaling that it is carrying out only a limited attack and not launching the beginning of a war for regime change. Trump and McMaster have spent months insisting that Kim is irrational and cannot be deterred, and all top administration officials have said that denuclearization is the only acceptable outcome, so why would the North Korean leadership think that an attack on its territory was anything less than the beginning of an effort to destroy their regime? The U.S. is further hamstrung by the fact that it claimed to rule out regime change in Libya, but then proceeded to wage a war that toppled the regime. If the North Koreans really take Gaddafi’s downfall as an important cautionary tale of what happens to regimes that disarm (and many reports have said that they do), why would they believe American claims that regime change is not on the menu?
Even if the North Koreans believed that the attack was meant to be a limited one, it doesn’t follow that they wouldn’t exact a terrible price on South Korea anyway. Proponents of a “limited” strike would have us believe that an intensely paranoid and nationalistic regime would just absorb an attack from its main adversary and not respond in kind. This treats North Korea as if it were in the same position as Iraq in the 1990s or Syria last year when the U.S. opted to attack them with airstrikes, but that is a mistake. Unlike those regimes, North Korea has the means to strike back and inflict significant damage on the U.S. and its allies in a way that the others never could. Many Americans have become so accustomed to initiating hostilities against other governments without having to worry about retaliation that they have wrongly started assuming that the U.S. can attack heavily-armed adversaries with impunity.
Advocates of attacking North Korea err as badly as they do in part because they always fail to imagine what they would do if positions were reversed. If another government carried out a “limited” strike on U.S. military facilities in an attempt to compel our government to yield to its demands, we know very well that our government would respond with massive retaliation and would seek to inflict as much damage on the attacking state as possible. If our government believed that its very existence was potentially threatened by the attacking state, it would be even more likely to respond as forcefully as it could. Political leaders in any system would be under significant domestic pressure to retaliate against any attack on their territory, no matter how “limited” it was, and they would risk serious political costs if they did not do so. The pressure on Kim to use force in response would presumably be just as great and probably much greater.
O’Brien emphasizes these points later on with regard to Kim:
Chief among the problems with the limited strike option is that it assumes that the North is capable of discerning between a punch in the nose and a full-on pummeling — and that Kim could take the public humiliation of sitting on his hands throughout a limited U.S. strike and still cling to power. They can’t, and he wouldn’t. And North Korea isn’t the only case. In fact, studies of threats by larger powers against smaller ones show that most countries in North Korea’s position would retaliate with whatever means they have at their disposal.
It may seem counter-intuitive that a small, weaker state would respond in this way, but as O’Brien explains they also have to consider the implications of yielding to a demand made under duress or failing to respond to an attack:
The reason is simple: When confronted with the choice to resist against or acquiesce to a threat issued by a larger power, the smaller power isn’t merely considering that single interaction. It’s also considering what will happen further down the road based on the decision it makes. If it accedes to a coercive demand now, what happens when its adversary decides it wants to make more demands later? [bold mine-DL]
It is grimly amusing that proponents of attacking North Korea fail to appreciate that it would be North Korea’s fear of appeasing an aggressor informing its decision on how to respond to an attack. North Korea would retaliate against a “limited” attack even if it accepted that it was limited for fear that they might invite a larger attack later if they did not.
If the U.S. launched an illegal sneak attack on North Korea, it would likely trigger a major war, and it might even conceivably lead to a nuclear exchange. In return for giving North Korea a “bloody nose,” it is possible that hundreds of thousands could die and maybe even millions could be incinerated. Proponents of attacking other countries always minimize the risks and exaggerate the benefits of military action, and the costs are always much higher and the benefits are usually elusive. That would certainly be the case here. Any attack on North Korea would simply confirm them in their belief that they need their nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, and they would make the U.S. and our allies pay a significant price for attacking them. The reality is that any attack on North Korea is an insane option, and it is a disturbing sign of how warped our foreign policy debates are that it is being seriously considered.
James Stavridis wrote a predictably hawkish column calling for U.S.-Israeli cooperation against Iran, but I was most struck by this sentence about the Saudis:
With a dynamic young leader in Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the kingdom is assertively acting in Yemen and Syria, exerting influence in Lebanon, and generally confronting Iran from the Arabian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Saudis could hardly ask for more obsequious and dishonest spin than this. Instead of accurately describing the crown prince as the bungling incompetent that he has proven himself to be in foreign policy, he is praised as “dynamic” despite failing to achieve any of his goals abroad. Stavridis whitewashes the destabilizing and destructive role the Saudis have had in both Yemen and Syria, fails to mention that they are “exerting influence in Lebanon” by detaining its prime minister in an inept, unsuccessful bid to manipulate the country’s politics, and even renames the Persian Gulf to cater to their preferences. Needless to say, if Iran were causing the worst famine in decades and creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, Stavridis would not be lauding them for “assertively acting” in the country affected by their disastrous policies. He does so for the Saudis without any qualification. It is telling that leading Iran hawks cannot honestly describe what the Saudis are doing in the region. If they did, they would not be able to justify those actions or the close U.S. relationship with Riyadh that helps make their menacing behavior possible.
Paul Pillar comments on the Trump administration’s outrageous plan to keep U.S. troops in Syria indefinitely:
The Trump administration is having U.S. troops participate indefinitely in someone else’s civil war, for reasons that are quite different from the original stated objective of helping to quash the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State (ISIS). The new reasons do not stand up to scrutiny in terms of defending any threatened U.S. interests. The administration has in effect made a decision to immerse the United States in yet another foreign war.
Keeping U.S. forces in Syria is illegal and unnecessary, as I said last week. Preventing the Syrian government from reestablishing control over its own territory has nothing to do with American security, and there are still no vital American interests at stake in Syria. Putting U.S. forces in harm’s way to stop Iran from having influence in the territory of its own ally is as senseless a waste of American resources and manpower as one can imagine, but that is what we have come to expect from an administration irrationally fixated on harming Iran at the expense of everything else.
The unauthorized, open-ended commitment in Syria is also a good example of how easily presidents can perpetuate and expand U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts with only minimal resistance at home. There are some vocal critics of the plan for this very reason:
There is ZERO legal authorization to stay in Syria to fight Iran. If Administration gets away with this, there is no going back – executive branch war making power becomes absolute. https://t.co/xBWLuTmaMN
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) January 18, 2018
Sen. Murphy is right to object, but I fear that illegal presidential wars have become common enough over the last decade that it won’t even occur to most of Trump’s opponents to question the legality of what he’s doing here. The Libyan war, the war on ISIS, and U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen were all similarly unauthorized, but Obama was able to “get away” with all of these for years because most of his domestic opponents didn’t care and most in his own party weren’t willing to criticize him. Our political culture’s abject deference to presidential power on matters of war makes it easy for presidents to get away with these things. When Trump ordered an attack on Syrian government forces last year, he had absolutely no authority to do that and was in direction violation of the U.N. Charter and the Constitution, but instead of being condemned for his flagrantly illegal action he was celebrated and praised for his “leadership.”
More members of Congress could challenge Trump over the illegality of the ongoing U.S. military presence in Syria, but most of them seem content to abdicate all responsibility for these matters in order to minimize their exposure when something goes wrong later. Americans have been conditioned by the last sixteen years of unending war and decades of the cult of the presidency to shrug when the president commits the U.S. to another open-ended military mission in a foreign country that has nothing to do with our security or self-defense. Perhaps now that Trump is the one doing it there will be a stronger reaction. I hope there is, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
How the U.S. is making the war in Yemen worse. Nicolas Niarchos reports on the devastating effects of the war on Yemen and the U.S. role in the war.
Americans aren’t ready for another big war. Christopher Preble comments on the findings of two new public opinion surveys on foreign policy and military intervention.
Remember those protests in Iran? Paul Pillar remarks on the Trump administration’s embrace of the protesters in Iran.
Nicolas Niarchos reports on the devastating effects of the war on Yemen and the role of U.S. and other Western support in making that war possible:
Since the war began, at least ten thousand Yemeni civilians have been killed, though the number is potentially much higher, because few organizations on the ground have the resources to count the dead. Some three million people have been displaced, and hundreds of thousands have left the country. Before the war, Yemen was the Middle East’s poorest state, relying on imports to feed the population. Now, after effectively being blockaded by the coalition for more than two and a half years, it faces famine. More than a million people have cholera, and thousands have died from the disease. unicef, the World Food Program, and the World Health Organization have called the situation in Yemen the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Yet the U.S. and Great Britain have continued to support the coalition, mainly with weapons sales and logistical help. (A small contingent of U.S. Special Forces fights Al Qaeda militants in the south of the country.) Without foreign assistance, it would be very difficult for the Saudis to wage war [bold mine-DL].
Our regular readers will already be familiar with much of what the article says about the war and the U.S. role in it, but it is the coalition’s reliance on U.S. and other Western backers that needs to be emphasized here. News reports on the war frequently minimize or completely ignore U.S. involvement in the conflict, and very few make clear how essential our military assistance has been to keeping the coalition war effort going. This is why I and other opponents of our involvement have talked about the enabling role our government has in this war. If the U.S. curtailed or halted its assistance to the coalition, it would be difficult if not impossible for them to continue fighting the war as they have. It would be bad enough if the U.S. were merely aiding and abetting the coalition in its wrecking and starving of Yemen, but it is worse than that. Our government’s support helps make continuing the war possible, and that ensures that the suffering of tens of millions of Yemenis, at least eight million of whom are on the verge of famine, will only get worse over time.
As awful as things were under the previous administration, it is also important to remember that they have gotten much worse in just the last year:
The former senior Administration official told me, “Since January, you’ve seen the humanitarian situation in Yemen fall off a cliff, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.” According to Rajat Madhok, of unicef, the cholera crisis and the malnutrition are unprecedented. “ ‘Bad’ would be an understatement,” Madhok told me. “You’re looking at a health collapse, a systemic collapse.”
The Trump administration is now belatedly and half-heartedly making some noises about the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Yemen, but that catastrophe grew significantly worse thanks in no small part to the administration’s indulgence of the Saudis and their allies over the last year. There still appears to be no recognition among administration officials that continued U.S. support for the war is partly responsible for creating the dire humanitarian conditions in the country, and unless that changes the world’s worst humanitarian crisis will keep claiming more innocent lives.
It can’t be stressed enough that the U.S. has no good reasons to be involved in this war. The coalition’s enemies in Yemen pose no threat to the U.S., and the coalition war has effectively strengthened the jihadist groups that do pose some threat to the U.S. and our allies. U.S. clients have committed numerous war crimes, and our government has made itself complicit in those crimes for the dubious honor of “reassuring” the war criminals in Riyadh that they can rely on us. Our military involvement in the conflict is not only unauthorized by Congress, but it is also a violation of U.S. law to provide military assistance to governments that impede the delivery of humanitarian aid. Even if the coalition relaxes some restrictions, it is still blockading an impoverished country for the purpose of starving it into submission, and it is outrageous that the U.S. is a party to that in any way. There is no justification for what the Saudi-led coalition has been doing to Yemen with our government’s backing, and there is no excuse for continuing to assist them in their ongoing crime against humanity.
John Glaser reviews Trump’s foreign policy record, and dismisses claims that it represents “retreat” from the world:
But it doesn’t accurately describe Trump’s foreign policy, which hasn’t backed away from any theater in which the US military was committed or engaged at the time of his inauguration. In some respects, Trump is more interventionist than his predecessors.
One of the many unfortunate consequences of the Bush era is that any foreign policy that is even slightly less aggressive than George W. Bush’s is now interpreted in Washington as “turning inwards,” “retreat,” “abdication of leadership,” and so forth. Obama presided over eight years of uninterrupted foreign wars, including at least two that he initiated without Congressional authorization, but he was supposedly engaged in a “retreat” from the world because his illegal wars of choice were smaller and less costly and because he didn’t ensnare the U.S. as deeply in every foreign conflict as his critics wished. Trump has continued involvement in every war he inherited from Obama, and in each case he has increased U.S. involvement, but because pundits and analysts don’t know how to make sense of his unilateralist militarism he is also accused of withdrawal and retreat.
These accusations aren’t true and require us to ignore what Obama and Trump have done while in office, but it is notable that these accusations keep being made. The preoccupation with imaginary “retreats” from the world is the flip side of the obsession with global “leadership.” If it is an article of faith in Washington that the U.S. “leadership” is “indispensable,” the only broadly accepted way in Washington to object to an administration’s foreign policy is to bemoan the president’s lack of “leadership,” whine about his lack of belief in “American exceptionalism,” and accuse him of some form of “isolationism.” These charges are typically false and the people making them usually know that they’re false, but they are extremely useful to interventionist critics of any president. The so-called “Blob” thrives on bashing presidents for their failure to “lead” and demanding that they “do something,” and the quickest way to box a president into taking the “action” they crave is to pretend that he is leading a general retreat.
Like the “isolationist” slur itself, they are bludgeons to be used against a president when his critics want him to be more aggressive generally or when they want a harder line on whichever adversary happens to be their target at the moment. The purpose of these accusations is never to describe accurately what a president does, but rather to badger him into endorsing the critic’s preferred policies. Every president presides over a very activist and hawkish foreign policy, but for many hard-liners and interventionists of different stripes it is never enough, and so they fault the authors of permanent war for withdrawing from the world in order to goad them into doing even more of the same.
Rex Tillerson confirmed today that U.S. forces are staying in Syria indefinitely. The reason he gave for keeping them there makes no sense:
American troops will remain in Syria long after their fight against the Islamic State to ensure that neither Iran nor President Bashar al-Assad of Syria take over areas that have been newly liberated with help from the United States, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said on Wednesday.
According to Tillerson, U.S. forces will remain in Syria on an open-ended mission to ensure that the recognized government of the country does not establish control over its own territory. To call this policy deranged would be too generous. The U.S. has no business in having a military presence in another country without its government’s permission, and it has no right to maintain that presence for the explicit purpose of preventing that government from exercising control inside its own internationally recognized borders. If another state did what the U.S. is now doing in Syria, Washington would condemn it as an egregious violation of international law and would probably impose sanctions on the government in question.
U.S. forces are in Syria without authorization from Congress and they have no international mandate to be there. A continued U.S. presence in Syria is both illegal and unwarranted, and it exposes American soldiers to unnecessary risks for the sake of spiting the Iranian and Syrian governments. This obviously has nothing to do with defending the U.S. or its treaty allies, and it serves no discernible American security interest.
Stephen Walt faults the Trump administration for its obsession with Iran and notes that it has little relationship to Iran’s regional power:
Trump and his aides appear to have embraced the view that Iran is a potential hegemon poised to dominate the Middle East — and specifically to control the oil-rich Persian Gulf. This logic helps make sense of Trump’s unswerving support for Saudi Arabia, including his endorsements (both tacit and explicit) of the political shake-ups organized by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at home and his apparent efforts to interfere in Lebanon’s internal politics. It also explains Trump’s refusal to recertify the Iran nuclear deal in October.
Yet this ongoing full-court press against Iran makes little sense because it is nowhere close to being a regional hegemon. If anything, the willingness of pundits and politicians to embrace this alarmist fantasy says more about the cavalier nature of U.S. strategic discourse than it does about the actual challenge Iran may pose.
As Walt explains, Iran doesn’t have the resources to become the region’s hegemon. Its military and economic power are both inadequate to the task, and that isn’t going to change in the foreseeable future. While Iran is an important regional power, it is not in a position to dominate the region. The people claiming otherwise are simply trying to scare Congress and the public into endorsing misguided and destructive regional policies that serve no discernible American interest and risk more unnecessary wars. Conjuring up the specter of Iran as a possible regional hegemon is worse than threat inflation. It is threat invention.
Alarmist claims that Iran was “on the march” throughout the region engaged in an “imperial” project of “expansionism” have plagued our foreign policy debates for many years, but it was only when Trump took office that the hard-liners advancing those claims gained a receptive audience in the White House. For at least the last five years, Iran hawks have been warning us about the dangers of an imaginary Iranian “empire” during the exact period when the growth of Iranian regional influence stalled and even went into reverse across much of the Middle East. At the same time, the same hawks carefully ignored the most significant thing the U.S. did to increase Iranian influence in the last fifteen years, namely the invasion of Iraq and the ousting of the old Iraqi regime.
It is not an accident that the people most preoccupied with hurting Iran have frequently backed policies that have worked to benefit that regime. The aggressive policies they favor tend to backfire or have unintended consequences, and their foreign policy judgment is reliably poor. Even if there were a danger that Iran might become a regional hegemon, it would be folly to follow their advice on how to prevent that, and it is a measure of how shoddy their analysis is that the danger they warn about isn’t real.
The most destructive and costly consequence of these bad ideas has been the ongoing rationalization of an atrocious Saudi-led war on Yemen that Washington and Riyadh have dishonestly framed as “countering” Iranian “expansionism.” That has made it possible for an indefensible policy of U.S. support to go mostly unnoticed and unchallenged for the last two and a half years, and it has given both the Obama and Trump administrations undeserved political cover for their disgraceful enabling of Yemen’s destruction and starvation. U.S. policy in Yemen would still be outrageous and shameful in any case, but it is made even more so because it has been wrapped up in this lie.
Trump’s statement on the nuclear deal last week included a ridiculous ultimatum that the other P5+1 governments will ignore, and it also contained a significantly misleading description of the ongoing disaster in Yemen created by the U.S.-backed coalition war there:
We are countering Iranian proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.
Describing the war in Yemen as an “Iranian proxy war” is misleading in itself, since the role of Iran in the conflict has been and continues to be negligible, especially when compared to the major direct intervention of the Saudis and their allies backed by the U.S. and other Western governments. Despite limited Iranian support for the Houthis, the latter aren’t Iran’s proxies and have their own agenda defined by local concerns. Inasmuch as Iranian influence in Yemen has grown from what it was two and a half years ago, that is a result of the calamitous Saudi-led intervention and not the real reason for it.
Claiming that the U.S. is “countering” something that barely exists is another example of how this administration faithfully echoes Saudi talking points. Framing U.S. policy in Yemen as “countering” Iran not only misrepresents the nature of the conflict and the extent of Iran’s involvement, but it deliberately obscures the huge role that the U.S. and its clients have had in creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis there. U.S. support for the war on Yemen has done enormous harm to the people of Yemen and has done nothing to advance U.S. interests in the slightest, but the administration’s Iran obsession keeps it going.
Trump can’t honestly defend U.S. policy in Yemen, because that policy amounts to aiding and abetting Saudi war crimes and enabling the worst modern famine in decades. Instead, he dresses up an indefensible policy as something very different from what it is and hopes that no one is paying close enough attention to notice the deception.
Trump continues to demand impossible “fixes” to the nuclear deal with Iran and threatens to withdraw from the agreement if his ultimatum isn’t met:
President Donald Trump gave the Iran nuclear deal a final reprieve on Friday but warned European allies and Congress they had to work with him to fix ”the disastrous flaws” in the pact or face a U.S. exit.
Trump said he would waive sanctions against Iran that were lifted as part of the international deal for the last time unless his conditions were met.
It has been clear for years that Trump wants to renege on the nuclear deal, but it’s also clear that he wants to be able to blame someone else when he does so. The problem for Trump is that his bad faith on this issue is so obvious to everyone that his attempt to shift the blame for his poor policy choices won’t work. Our European allies won’t yield to his ridiculous ultimatum because they have no reason to do so. If the U.S. opts to break the commitments it made under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it will do so without obtaining their assistance in providing political cover. The EU and the governments of Britain, France, and Germany have all been very clear that they see no need to revisit or revise the agreement, and there is no interest in renegotiating something that was already successfully conclude the first time. Our allies oppose U.S. efforts that put the agreement in jeopardy, and they are not going to participate in a transparent attempt to blow up the deal.
The president has telegraphed his desire to scrap the deal so often that no one can honestly believe that he wants the deal “fixed,” and the content of his demands confirms as much. The “flaws” that Trump wants to “fix” aren’t really flaws at all, or they are compromises that had to be made in order to secure the important concessions that Iran made. For example, restrictions that expire after an agreed period of time are an unavoidable part of any nonproliferation agreement. These are some of the provisions that have made a successful nuclear deal possible in the first place. None of the other parties to the JCPOA views these things as a problem that needs to be solved. Trump insists that the deal’s limitations and the additional restrictions he wants be maintained in perpetuity, but that is a non-starter with Iran as well as being entirely unnecessary.
Paul Pillar explains why:
The statement fails to mention how most of the important provisions of the accord, including the intrusive inspections and Iran’s basic commitment never to acquire a nuclear weapon, are permanent. Nor does it mention how expiration dates are standard fare in arms control agreements, including some of the big ones the United States has reached with the USSR or Russia. But this very subject of sunset clauses underscores the shambolic nature of the demands that Trump’s statement lays out. Trump explicitly threatens to pull out of the agreement if his demands are not met and his “components” don’t materialize. So what would happen if the component about ending sunset clauses doesn’t materialize, the United States pulls out of the agreement, and Trump’s dream of killing the JCPOA altogether is met? Why, then Iran would be free to spin as many centrifuges and enrich and stockpile as much fissile material as it wants right away, rather than having to wait ten or twelve years or to some other time limit. So much for the supposed importance of limits that never expire.
Iran hawks have been trying to sabotage the nuclear deal even before it was concluded, and once a deal was reached they have looked for any excuse they could find to scrap it. The difficulty for opponents of the deal is that it has worked exactly as intended and has been entirely successful, and so they have had to keep moving the goalposts to make it seem as if the deal has fallen short. Of course, most opponents of the JCPOA are opposed to any deal with Iran that could realistically be made because they loathe the very idea of diplomatic engagement with Tehran, so the details have always been and will always be beside the point for them. Trump has been a willing accomplice in this because he has been determined to do what he can to erase Obama’s legacy and because hostility to Iran seems to be one of the only consistent things in his foreign policy. Lacking the faintest understanding of any of the relevant issues, Trump has echoed the hawks’ pathetic complaints about the agreement.
Pillar sums up Trump’s predicament very well:
Trump’s effort is impeded by the fact that the JCPOA is working. It continues, as confirmed by international inspectors, to fulfill its purpose of blocking all possible paths to a possible Iranian nuclear weapon. Iran continues to comply with its obligations under the agreement. As such, the JCPOA continues to serve the interests of the United States and of international security and the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. These evidently are not interests that motivate Trump, but he cannot afford to be honest about his actual motivations. The fact that the agreement is working prevents him from making any case for withdrawing from the agreement directly and explicitly.
Trump wants to trash U.S. international commitments and break faith with some of our most important allies on a major issue, but he doesn’t want to be blamed for the costs that will impose on the U.S. If international and domestic pressure don’t stop Trump from following through on his threat, it is important to remember that he and his allies are the only ones to blame for the consequences.