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The Chaotic Debate in South Carolina

The South Carolina debate was one of the worst-moderated presidential debates in recent memory. Despite the moderators’ inability to control anything and the frequently insipid questions they asked, the debate nonetheless provided more insight into the candidates’ foreign policy views than the last time these candidates met. Since the previous debate included virtually no discussion of foreign policy, that was not a high bar to clear.

Mike Bloomberg was finally challenged to defend his claim that Xi Jinping is not a dictator. His response was extremely awkward and invited well-deserved mockery from Sanders. Bloomberg explained that Xi had to answer to members of the Politburo, as if that made him any less of a dictator. Sanders was attacked for his alleged sympathy with communist governments in the past, and he responded with a full-throated rejection of authoritarianism then and now. Unfortunately, too much of the foreign policy section was consumed by this “denounce a dictator” exercise and many other issues were neglected as a result. Bloomberg was able to escape without having to account for his past support for the Iraq war or his previous opposition to the JCPOA. He still managed to deliver a cringe-inducing description of the politics of the Middle East that suggested that he was relying on the laziest stereotypes for his understanding of the region:

Well, the battle has been going on for a long time in the Middle East, whether it’s the Arabs versus the Persians, the Shias versus the Sunnis, the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians, it’s only gone on for 40 or 50 years.

Bloomberg proceeded to describe his support for a two-state solution, but he couldn’t even bring himself to refer to Israel’s illegal settlements by name, much less condemn the illegality of the occupation. Sanders once again reiterated his view that “you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people.” The senator from Vermont remains the one candidate in the Democratic field who always acknowledges the rights of Palestinians and the need to respect their dignity. To her credit, Warren said much the same thing last night.

On North Korea, Biden offered up some word salad:

I would be in Beijing, I would be calling to — I would be speaking with Xi Jinping. I would be reassigning the relationship between the Japan and South Korea, and I would make it clear, I would make it clear to China, we are going to continue to move closer to make sure that we can, in fact, prevent China — prevent North Korea from launching missiles to take them down.

Biden’s statement doesn’t make much sense at all. To the extent that any sense can be made out of it, he seems to think that leaning on China can somehow resolve the disputed issues with North Korea. That happens to be wrong, and it shows how stale Biden’s foreign policy ideas tend to be.

Buttigieg was asked a question about what he would do in response to the Syrian government’s offensive in Idlib. He gave a boilerplate statement about “standing with” the people there, and then said this:

And this is one of the reasons we have got to change the balance of power in the region, because the president has basically vanished from the stage when it comes to even playing a role in the future there. Turkey, Russia, Iran all have so much more of a say than we do. We don’t have to be invading countries to be making a difference, working with our international partners, in order to deliver peace and support those who are standing up for self-determination.

Like his do-somethingist rhetoric earlier this year, Buttigieg’s statement is as vague as can be. What does he mean by “changing the balance of power in the region”? How does he propose to do that? Turkey, Russia, and Iran all have much more of a say than the U.S. because Syria matters far more to all of them than it does to us. Buttigieg ignores that and then says that the U.S. will somehow “deliver peace” when we have little or no leverage. His answer came across as if he was just reciting a series of common phrases that foreign policy pundits use without giving any thought to what they meant. He was then allowed to change the subject from talking about Syria to filibustering about why he doesn’t like Sanders’ ideas on health care. The discussion of foreign policy was a mess like the rest of the debate, but at least there was some discussion.

In terms of the political horse race, last night’s debate did little to change anything. Sanders and Biden were reportedly perceived to be the most effective candidates on the stage:

Among other strange things he said last night, Biden made a bizarre statement about 150 million deaths from gun violence since 2007. Presumably he was misstating another figure and he just got it wrong unintentionally, but it was a very big mistake to make. Bloomberg did poorly again, but he was not attacked quite as often as he was last week. Warren delivered another capable performance, and she took full advantage of the moderators’ lack of control to push her message for as long as possible. Buttigieg and Klobuchar didn’t do much to stem their slide into irrelevance. It seemed that the audience at the debate had been bought at least in part by Bloomberg, and that occasionally affected the atmosphere at the debate. If the other candidates needed to damage Sanders significantly to halt his momentum as the leading candidate, they failed.

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Bloomberg’s Disinformation Campaign

The Guardianreports on how the Bloomberg campaign’s efforts to use disinformation to their advantage keeps backfiring on them. It mentions the ridiculous fake quotes that the campaign invented and pretended were from Sanders, and notes that the campaign then deleted all of its tweets because of the negative reaction to them:

The campaign also sent tweets pretending to be Sanders about the former Ugandan despot Idi Amin, and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

On Twitter, some users pointed out, without verbal cues, it was difficult for most followers to discern that the latest hashtag was a joke, not actual quotes from Sanders. The Bloomberg campaign ultimately clarified with a follow-up tweet that “all of these are satire”.

The tweets were then later deleted.

Earlier this month, Bloomberg also faced criticism for a video he tweeted that was misleadingly edited following the Democratic debate in Nevada. As a result, Twitter announced a new policy against misleading content that would flag videos as doctored clips.

The Bloomberg campaign resorted to deceptive editing of debate footage because their candidate performed so horribly in the last debate. The only moment that they could highlight without embarrassment was one that they had to make up. Likewise, they invented absurd quotes from Sanders in order to create a caricature of him as an apologist for dictators despite their own candidate’s record of defending the Chinese government in just the last few months. Bloomberg hopes to flood the airwaves and the Internet with content that will make him seem like a credible candidate while torching his Democratic rivals, but there is relatively little about his own record that appeals to core Democratic constituencies and quite a lot that alienates them. That is why his campaign has to smear his opponents with made-up quotes and fabricate debate successes that never happened. Bloomberg can’t defend his record on the merits, and he prefers to misrepresent and distort his opponents’ views. The result is that we are all subjected to a tidal wave of misleading propaganda. The Bloomberg campaign’s willingness to use disinformation like this shows their lack of respect for the voters and their lack of scruples, and we should expect much more of it in the coming months.

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Biden Knows a Thing or Two About Embracing Despots

Vice President Joe Biden in 2017 By Drop of Light/Shutterstock

Joe Biden has joined in the attack on Sanders’ unremarkable Cuba comments:

The Biden campaign’s statement is obviously cynical and desperate. It comes just before the last debate before the South Carolina primary, which Biden absolutely has to win and win convincingly if he is to have any chance of rescuing his dying campaign. Sanders has been a vocal critic of authoritarian regimes and rulers for decades, so it is preposterous to claim that he has been embracing these figures. Sanders does have a history of speaking out against aggressive and destructive U.S. policies that mostly hurt innocent people in the targeted countries. That doesn’t mean that he embraced the governments of those countries, but it showed that he was willing to hold our government responsible for the things that it did and still does overseas. We have seen him do the same thing with his opposition to U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen and our government’s indulgence of the Saudis and their allies there. Sanders comes under attack not because he “embraces” authoritarian governments, because he doesn’t do that, but because he questions and rejects U.S. interventionist and coercive policies that harm the people of other countries in the name of undermining their governments. His opposition to those policies is then dishonestly spun as proof of “support” for other governments.

Like Bloomberg, Biden has a lot of gall attacking another candidate for “embracing autocratic leaders” when he has done this much more frequently. It’s worth recalling Biden’s 2011 remarks about Hosni Mubarak, the former dictator of Egypt who died today:

When asked if Mubarak was a dictator, Biden responded, “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region, Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

“I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that — to be more responsive to some of the needs of the people out there,” Biden said after stressing that he shouldn’t resign.

Refusing to call Mubarak a dictator in the midst of the 2011 protests that led to his overthrow, calling him an ally, and saying that he shouldn’t leave power sound a lot more like embracing an authoritarian leader than anything Sanders said about Cuba. Of course, Biden’s statement has been all but forgotten, just as the Obama administration’s acquiescence in Sisi’s coup in 2013 has also been mostly forgotten here in the U.S. Indulging and embracing dictators in Cairo are not grounds for outrage in Washington. It is taken for granted and even expected. It also shows that Biden’s attack on Sanders can’t be taken seriously. Biden is grasping at anything he can use to attack Sanders, and so we are treated to this hypocritical and false accusation of “embracing” despots against someone who has been leading the effort to cut off U.S. support to despotic war criminals.

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A Worthless ‘New Deal’ from the Iran Hawks

Two Iran hawks from the Senate, Bob Menendez and Lindsey Graham, are proposing a “new deal” that is guaranteed to be a non-starter with Iran:

Essentially, their idea is that the United States would offer a new nuclear deal to both Iran and the gulf states at the same time. The first part would be an agreement to ensure that Iran and the gulf states have access to nuclear fuel for civilian energy purposes, guaranteed by the international community in perpetuity. In exchange, both Iran and the gulf states would swear off nuclear fuel enrichment inside their own countries forever.

Iran is never going to accept any agreement that requires them to give up domestic enrichment. As far as they are concerned, they are entitled to this under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and they regard it as a matter of their national rights that they keep it. Insisting on “zero enrichment” is what made it impossible to reach an agreement with Iran for the better part of a decade, and it was only when the Obama administration understood this and compromised to allow Iran to enrich under tight restrictions that the negotiations could move forward. Demanding “zero enrichment” today in 2020 amounts to rejecting that compromise and returning to a bankrupt approach that drove Iran to build tens of thousands of centrifuges. As a proposal for negotiations, it is dead on arrival, and Menendez and Graham must know that. Iran hawks never talk about diplomacy except as a way to discredit it. They want to make a bogus offer in the hopes that it will be rejected so that they can use the rejection to justify more aggressive measures.

The identity of the authors of the plan is a giveaway that the offer is not a serious diplomatic proposal. Graham is one of the most incorrigible hard-liners on Iran, and Menendez is probably the most hawkish Democratic senator in office today. Among other things, Menendez has been a booster of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), the deranged cult of Iranian exiles that has been buying the support of American politicians and officials for years. Graham has never seen a diplomatic agreement that he didn’t want to destroy. When hard-liners talk about making a “deal,” they always mean that they want to demand the other side’s surrender.

Another giveaway that this is not a serious proposal is the fact that they want this imaginary agreement submitted as a treaty:

That final deal would be designated as a treaty, ratified by the U.S. Senate, to give Iran confidence that a new president won’t just pull out (like President Trump did on President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal).

This is silly for many reasons. The Senate doesn’t ratify treaties nowadays, so any “new deal” submitted as a treaty would never be ratified. As the current president has shown, it doesn’t matter if a treaty has been ratified by the Senate. Presidents can and do withdraw from ratified treaties if they want to, and the fact that it is a ratified treaty doesn’t prevent them from doing this. Bush pulled out of the ABM Treaty, which was ratified 88-2 in 1972. Trump withdrew from the INF Treaty just last year. The INF Treaty had been ratified with a 93-5 vote. The hawkish complaint that the JCPOA wasn’t submitted as a treaty was, as usual, made in bad faith. There was no chance that the JCPOA would have been ratified, and even if it had been that ratification would not have protected it from being tossed aside by Trump. Insisting on making any new agreement a treaty is just another way of announcing that they have no interest in a diplomatic solution.

Menendez and Graham want to make the obstacles to diplomacy so great that negotiations between the U.S. and Iran can’t resume. It isn’t a serious proposal, and it shouldn’t be taken seriously.

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Bloomberg’s Dictatorship Double Standard

Mike Bloomberg’s campaign thinks that it is smart to go after Sanders for his fairly unremarkable Cuba comments despite the former mayor’s admiration for authoritarian systems in other countries. Bloomberg’s campaign Twitter account started making up fake quotes as a way to “guess” what Sanders thought about other authoritarian rulers around the world:

The Bloomberg campaign is the last one that should be attacking other candidates over supposed coziness and sympathy with dictators. Bloomberg is on record just last year claiming that Xi Jinping is not a dictator. The year before that, he was very chummy with Mohammed bin Salman during the crown prince’s American tour, and it is safe to assume that it would be business as usual with the Saudi royals if Bloomberg were president. One doesn’t have to go very far back in time to find proof that Bloomberg has a huge blind spot when it comes to currying favor with certain authoritarian governments. Making up quotes and putting words in Sanders’ mouth that he has never said and never would say is a despicable tactic. It is something that we would expect from an Internet troll, which makes the same campaign’s whining about the importance of civility even more irritating. Bloomberg has a hard enough time defending his own authoritarian record as mayor that you would think that his campaign would be careful not to throw stones from inside their own glass mansion.

It is striking that Bloomberg has mostly been able to get away with acting as an apologist for the Chinese government so far. Michael Dougherty did a good job calling him out for this last week:

Like the NBA’s, his bottom line is given such a massive boost by Chinese dollars that he is willing to lie about the nature of the regime, or at least to delude himself about it. A significant number of Americans has awoken to the reality of China’s regime in the last year, and many fear that Beijing’s iron-handed incompetence may be a risk to their own health. They will conclude that a man like Bloomberg is unfit to be president, as well they should.

Emma Ashford noticed that Bloomberg’s foreign policy is generally very hawkish, but he suddenly becomes much more accommodating when it concerns a government where his company does a lot of business. That leads her to conclude that Bloomberg’s foreign policy is really the worst of both worlds:

But in focusing so heavily on Bloomberg’s record, moderators and candidates alike missed the opportunity to question his foreign policy views, a disturbing amalgam of Clinton-style hawkishness and Trumpian conflicts of interest.

Bloomberg is an authoritarian, and he clearly sympathizes with how some authoritarian regimes “get things done.” He is desperate to deflect attention from his own positions, and so he launches misleading and absurd attacks on the candidate whose foreign policy agenda is firmly opposed to authoritarianism and corruption abroad. Bloomberg thinks he is exposing Sanders’ vulnerabilities on foreign policy when he is really just calling attention to some of the reasons why he should never be president.

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Sanders’ Smart North Korea Policy

Bernie Sanders was recently interviewed by 60 Minutes, and among other things he made a very good statement about North Korea and diplomacy:

Sanders also said he would meet with Kim Jong Un as president.

“Yeah. I mean I’ve criticized Trump for everything… under the sun,” Sanders said. “But meeting with people who are antagonistic is, to me, not a bad thing to do. I think, unfortunately, Trump went into that meeting unprepared. I think it was a photo opportunity and did not have the– kind of the diplomatic work necessary to make it a success. But I do not have a problem with sitting down with adversaries all over the world.”

Sanders’ statement strikes the right balance in acknowledging that there is nothing inherently wrong with meeting with hostile foreign leaders while rejecting the president’s failed pseudo-engagement. Some other Democratic politicians and a few other presidential candidates have been so eager to fault Trump for his incompetent dealings with North Korea that they repudiate engagement itself. Sanders recognizes the difference between careful, well-informed diplomatic engagement and the president’s irresponsible desire to put on a show for the cameras, and he correctly endorses the former at the same time that he dismisses Trump’s empty stagecraft. This shows that Sanders understands the importance of diplomacy done the right way, and it shows that he assesses the president’s performance on the merits and not just out of knee-jerk rejectionism. Sanders’ North Korea position is much more realistic than the administration’s, and it is far more flexible.
Van Jackson comments on the answer:

Sanders’ answer in the new interview echoed the points made in the New York Times questionnaire. In the answers to the Times‘ questions, Sanders said that he would not keep tightening sanctions until North Korea gave up its nuclear weapons and missile programs, and he said that he would support lifting sanctions in exchange for a freeze on the development of fissile material. Sanders sees that North Korea isn’t going to make huge concessions without receiving something in return, and so he doesn’t insist on conditioning sanctions relief on North Korean disarmament. He still talks about “the eventual elimination of all North Korean nuclear weapons,” but it is clear from his other answers that he sees this as a long-term aspirational goal rather than insisting that it be a precondition for making progress on other issues.

The central difference between Sanders’ proposed North Korea policy and the one that the Trump administration is carrying out is that Sanders sees the importance of doing the hard work of laying the foundations for successful negotiations, and he is committed to supporting that work. The administration has tried to do North Korea diplomacy on the fly without any of the necessary preparation, and it has predictably led nowhere. Sanders has set a more realistic and achievable goal in the near term, he has left the door open to direct negotiations, and he has shown a willingness to be flexible in offering North Korea incentives to make concessions. This is the smart North Korea policy that the U.S. should have, and it is the one that it currently lacks.

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Sanders Wins Big in Nevada

Bernie Sanders won the Nevada caucuses by a wide margin on Saturday, as TAC editor Jim Antle said in his recent post:

It’s starting to dawn on people—not least of all Democrats running for president—that Bernie Sanders might win the Democratic presidential nomination. The longtime independent socialist senator from Vermont rolled up yet another early state win, this time a landslide victory in the Nevada caucuses. And he may have solved the problem that doomed his 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton.

Sanders is cobbling together a multiracial coalition. Entrance polls showed him winning 54 percent of Hispanics, trouncing Joe Biden who came in a distant second with 16 percent. (He did carry this demographic against Clinton in Nevada four years ago.) He finished second among African-American caucus-goers, though Biden won a plurality. Sanders took 65 percent of voters between the ages of 17 and 29, though he didn’t lose among any age group except the 65 and up crowd. “In Nevada, we have just put together a multi-generational, multi-racial coalition which is going to not only win in Nevada, it’s going to sweep this country,” Sanders crowed to supporters.

Sanders’ big Nevada win is a testament to his campaign’s efforts to organize and turn out voters, especially those voters that have usually not participated in the process. His campaign has made a concerted effort toreach and mobilize Latino voters, and virtually none of his competitors has done the same. The New York Times reports:

The strong showing in the first-in-the-West caucus state seemed to be a payoff for Mr. Sanders’s unique political philosophy and his campaign team’s electoral strategy, which bet big on grass-roots outreach to Latinos and immigrant populations. It’s a model the campaign is looking to take across the country, working to reach people across racial and ethnic groups who have traditionally been less likely to vote.

That effortpaid huge dividends on Saturday when Sanders reportedly received more than half of the Latino vote in Nevada. The senator from Vermont has done what no other major party candidate has done by winning the popular vote in the first three consecutive states, and he seems well-positioned to continue his winning streak. The reaction from many “centrist” Democrats to this development has been a mixture of horror and loathing, but this is just a measure of how little these people seem to understand the voters in their own party. One poll after another finds that Sanders is the best-liked candidate in the field with favorability numbers over 70% among Democrats, but the professional pundits and campaign flacks keep pretending that Sanders is wildly out of step with the party and doesn’t represent it. They are just proving that they are the ones out of touch with the people they claim to speak for. The reality is also slowly dawning on these people that they are describing a Democratic Party that hasn’t existed in 15 or 20 years.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Pompeo’s nostalgic, fraudulent promotion of “the West.” Andrew Bacevich counters Mike Pompeo’s speech at the Munich Security Conference and calls for reviving “the West” with “a radical redefinition of its collective purpose and of America’s own role.”

The road to hell. Samuel Moyn reviews Samantha Power’s The Education of an Idealist.

Trump’s Venezuela strategy is a total failure. Daniel DePetris describes the failure of the Trump administration’s regime change policy.

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The ‘Well-Meaning’ Warmongers

Samuel Moyn reviews Samantha Power’s memoir to devastating effect. He begins his essay with a withering observation and never lets up:

At her first dinner with future president Barack Obama, a forty-five-minute meet and greet that turned into a four-hour mind­meld, the then senator from Illinois told Samantha Power he admired her first book, “A Problem from Hell”, an already classic study of genocide prevention. But, he added, it “seemed like malpractice to judge one’s prospects by one’s intentions, rather than making a stren­uous effort to anticipate and weigh potential consequences.”

Power went on to serve as a National Security Council staffer for multilateral affairs and human rights during Obama’s first term. During his second, she became America’s ambassador to the United Nations. But her recently released memoir, The Education of an Idealist, reveals that she never learned her boss’s first lesson.

Interventionists rarely anticipate and weigh potential consequences, because if they did that it would be much harder for them to get the interventions they want. Advocates for military action routinely minimize the risks and costs of war in order to reduce opposition to it, but “humanitarian” interventionists have another incentive to downplay negative consequences and preferably to ignore consequences in their entirety. If a “humanitarian” intervention creates worse conditions than existed prior to the intervention, it has to be declared a failure on its own terms. That is why “humanitarian” interventionists go to such lengths to turn a blind eye to the destructive effects of their interference. After all, they see themselves as defending the legitimacy of “humanitarian” intervention and preserving the possibility of future interventions. To admit that one of their interventions failed and made things worse, especially when it was one that they sold so aggressively as “good” and successful, would be to bring discredit on the entire project.

As Moyn puts it, the “overall thrust of Power’s argument is to deny the need for any accounting of how good intentions can drive perverse results in the use of state power abroad.” The only consequences that “humanitarian” interventionists usually worry about are those elusive “consequences of inaction.” It doesn’t seem to trouble them that inaction can’t actually have consequences. Where there is no action, there is no effect, and no one can be held responsible for what one does not do. At the heart of do-somethingism is a belief that not waging a war of choice is less moral than attacking people that have not threatened or attacked you. It is the conviction that illegal and aggressive warfare can be admirable instead of vicious because the intentions of the aggressors are well-meaning. It treats international peace as less important than “taking sides” in another country’s quarrels. It sees international law as an obstacle to be overcome. It valorizes killing as long as the “right” people are being killed.

Moyn calls attention to how Power’s own arguments were taken up by supporters of the Iraq war even though she came out against the invasion:

Power records in her memoir, accurately, that she opposed that war, but she does not reflect at all on why so few in her position could do so convincingly at the time—or why so many of her allies and fans became Bush’s “useful idiots,” as historian Tony Judt memo­rably called the liberal hawks of the day. “I was uncomfortable seeing my writing used in a way that might help justify a war,” she confesses of this period in her memoir. “A Problem from Hell”, which won the Pulitzer prize a few weeks after the Iraq intervention began, was “liable to misinterpretation,” she concedes. But that is not much different from saying that you didn’t mean for the loaded gun you left on the table to be used by someone else in the room. Lionizing unilateralism and illegality in a good cause turns out to be part of the problem when others prove to be devious or hoodwinked, even if you were not [bold mine-DL]. After all, the whole reason for constraints on force—which include demands for multilateralism and legalism—is the risk of pretextual abuse and simple mistake.

When you toss the law aside “in a good cause,” as many liberal hawks believed they did in Kosovo, you not only try to justify something unjust, but you also invite others to justify even worse behavior in the same way. The same actions that these interventionists would denounce as crimes if committed by another government are transmuted into unfortunate but unavoidable “mistakes” whose lessons we should not “overlearn” by refraining from making them again in the future. The worst mistake in the worldview of “humanitarian” interventionists is to conclude that previous failed wars prove that the U.S. should mind its own business, and so they keep defending them long after it has become obvious to the rest of us that they aren’t worth defending.

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