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Home/Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Why Saudi Arabia’s crown prince tanked oil markets. Frida Ghitis comments on Mohammed bin Salman’s risky decision to start an oil price war.

“Healthcare on the brink of collapsing.” James Mates reports on the deteriorating conditions in Italian hospitals with eyewitness accounts from doctors in Lombardy.

The many ominous signs about the shambolic U.S. response to coronavirus. Howard French explains why Americans should be humbled by the government’s failure to respond to the outbreak effectively.

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The Forever War in Iraq

The New York Timesreports that U.S. “retaliatory” strikes in Iraq ended up killing regular Iraqi soldiers and policemen and one civilian:

Iraqi military officials strongly condemned the United States military on Friday for airstrikes launched overnight that they said killed three Iraqi soldiers, two police officers and a civilian worker, and damaged an unfinished civilian airport.

American officials said on Friday that the strikes had hit sites where rockets and other weapons were stored by an Iranian-backed militia, Kataib Hezbollah. But according to multiple Iraqi military officials, who so far have been largely supportive of the U.S. role in Iraq, the bombings killed members of the Iraqi military and police. It was not clear whether they had killed any Kataib Hezbollah fighters.

The U.S. is carrying out attacks inside Iraqi territory against Iraqis in blatant violation of that country’s sovereignty. In this case, it appears that the strikes didn’t even hit the intended targets, but killed several people that had absolutely nothing to do with the rocket attack earlier this week. The Iraqi government is once again predictably furious that our government is committing acts of war that kill their people. A statement from Iraq’s military command denounced the attack:

In a statement released on Friday morning, the Iraqi Joint Command described the attack as “an aggression” that “targeted Iraqi military institutions violating the principal of partnership” between the Iraqi security forces and the Americans.

This attack “cost the lives of Iraqi fighters while they were doing their military duty,” the statement said.

The U.S. claims to value the Iraqi government as a partner, but in practice our government treats them as if they are a colony or protectorate. Our forces attack and kill some of their troops, and when they object we tell them that it was their fault for being there. The head of Central Command blew off Iraqi complaints as arrogantly as possible:

He and other American military officials were dismissive of the Iraqi complaints given that Iraqi soldiers and police officers are often located on bases with Iranian-backed militias like Kataib Hezbollah.

“I don’t know whether the Iraqis are happy or unhappy,” General McKenzie said. “These locations that we struck are clear locations of terrorist bases. If Iraqi military forces were there, I would say it’s probably not a good idea to position yourself with Kataib Hezbollah in the wake of a strike that killed Americans and coalition members.”

It takes extraordinary gall to lecture the Iraqis like this when these are their bases in their own country. Iraqi military forces are there because it is their base. Calling it a “terrorist base” may make McKenzie feel better, but it doesn’t change the fact that our forces are attacking Iraqi forces on their soil against the wishes of their government. We commit acts of aggression against them and then berate them for daring to say anything about it.

U.S. forces have been bombing and killing Iraqis for most of my lifetime. It is insane that the U.S. is still engaged in hostilities in the same country almost thirty years after Desert Storm. The official reasons for these attacks change, but the results are the same: more dead Americans and Iraqis. These strikes serve no discernible American interest. Our military presence in Iraq is unwanted, but it is also unnecessary for U.S. security. Keeping troops there just makes them targets for no good reason. The U.S. has no vital interests there and nothing that warrants a continued military presence. The U.S. has been waging a forever war in Iraq for decades, and it needs to end before any more lives are lost.

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So Much for ‘Restoring Deterrence’

An F-15E Strike Eagle over Afghanistan in 2008. According to reports, these Air Force fighters deployed Sunday's strikes against Iranian-backed targets in Syria and Iraq.(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon)

It’s a good thing that the Trump administration “restored deterrence” with the illegal assassination of Soleimani two months ago. Earlier today, U.S. forces struck Kata’ib Hezbollah targets again following a rocket attack on a base that killed two Americans and one British soldier yesterday:

United States warplanes struck five targets in southern Iraq Thursday night, hitting back at an Iraqi militia with ties to Iran that is believed to have been part of a rocket attack on Wednesday that killed two Americans and a British soldier, American officials said.

Ever since the U.S. killed Soleimani and Kata’ib Hezbollah’s Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, more retaliation against U.S. forces has just been a matter of time. It turns out that yesterday was Soleimani’s birthday, so the rocket attack was presumably intended to serve as a response to his killing. The decision to escalate against Iraqi militias and Iran at the start of the year was a reckless and illegal one, and it is one that two Americans and one British soldier have now paid for with their lives. This will keep happening until the administration takes U.S. forces out of Iraq.

U.S. troops should have left Iraq already. The Iraqi government does not want them there, U.S. security does not require them to be there, and as long as they remain they will be at risk of attack from Iraqi militias. Our continued military presence in Iraq against the wishes of their government puts our troops in an untenable position, and it represents an affront to Iraq’s sovereignty. Repeated attacks on Iraqi militias are direct violations of that sovereignty, and they are bound to put American forces there in greater danger the longer that they stay there. There will be more tit-for-tat attacks, and the U.S. military presence will only become more unpopular as time goes by.

The last thing that the U.S. or Iran needs right now is escalation with Iran and its proxies. Both of our countries are dealing with the effects of the pandemic, and neither can afford the added costs and dangers of armed conflict. The attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq prove that reckless U.S. actions in January did not “restore deterrence,” and by killing Soleimani and al-Muhandis the U.S. exposed our troops to greater danger than they faced before. The smartest thing that the administration could do under the circumstances is to remove U.S. forces from Iraq as quickly as possible. I fear that the president might choose to use this flare-up as a distraction from his failures here at home. That is why it is so important that Congress moved ahead with passage of legislation that rejects war with Iran without Congressional authorization:

The House of Representatives approved a War Powers resolution Wednesday, aiming to rein in presidential authority to use military action against Iran without congressional approval.
The resolution, introduced by Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, passed the Senate last month with bipartisan support despite President Donald Trump’s vocal opposition to it.

It passed the House with a vote of 227-186. A handful of Republicans, including Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Morgan Griffith of Virginia, Fred Upton of Michigan, and Tom Reed of New York, joined Democrats in supporting the resolution.

The president is expected to veto the legislation, because he has nothing but contempt for the Constitution, but it is very important that Congress takes this stand against waging war on Iran so that it is clear that Trump has no legitimate basis for further escalation.

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The Writing Is On the Wall for Trump

Donald Trump on the campaign trail in March 2016. Credit:Windover Way Photography

NPR interviewed Dan Diamond, a reporter for Politico, about the Trump administration’s coronavirus response or lack thereof. NPR drew attention to this passage from the interview on Twitter:

Sadly, the president’s willingness to put his own short-term political prospects ahead of the public interest is not the least bit surprising. That is how many of us interpreted his actions over the last six weeks as he consistently tried to minimize the danger from the virus and when he boasted about how successfully he had handled the problem. I said as much last week:

Trump spreads misinformation about the virus to offer people a false sense of security because he fears the effect that the outbreak will have on his political fortunes. Even when there is a public health crisis, the president remains concerned primarily about what it means for him.

This latest report lines up with his troubling remarks at the CDC last week when he talked about not wanting to bring passengers off from the cruise ship that was off the coast of California because doing that would raise the number of cases in the U.S. In the end, he relented and the passengers were brought to shore, but the expressed desire to keep the number down by putting more people at risk of exposure was there for all to see. As long as the official number stays low, that allows Trump to pretend that the problem is under control, so it is essential for him that the official number stay as low as possible. The federal government’s inadequate and slow testing is at least partly a result of this presidential resistance to knowing the real extent of the outbreak, and that has put more Americans at risk of serious illness or death.

Like his admitted willingness to use the powers of his office to advance his personal interests, the president openly admitted that he wanted to put his political advantage ahead of the health and safety of Americans. The president not only abuses power for personal benefit, but he puts his political interests ahead of the good of the people even in an emergency. One of the most unbelievable things that Trump said in his botched speech last night was this:

I will never hesitate to take any necessary steps to protect the lives, health, and safety of the American people. I will always put the well being of America first.

Unfortunately, this is not true, and his response to the outbreak has proven that it isn’t. We have seen him hesitate to take the necessary steps on many occasions, and we have watched as he squandered precious time with denial and obfuscation while many Americans became ill and some died. The president took a difficult but manageable situation and made it worse through neglect, indifference, and selfishness. The president does not serve the public interest and he never intended to do that. He sees public office simply as an opportunity for his own enrichment and aggrandizement, so when the test came in the form of this outbreak he was bound to fail it because his priority has always been to serve himself. The writing has been on the wall for a long time, but many Americans didn’t want to see it. Trump has been weighed in the balance and found severely wanting.

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Trump’s Botched Coronavirus Speech

The president’s speech on the outbreak last night went over like a lead balloon. The new 30-day ban on travel from some parts of Europe took our allies completely by surprise, because they had not been consulted about it at all:

European officials strongly condemned President Trump’s decision to severely restrict travel from Europe to the United States on Thursday, a sudden move that took them by surprise and that many saw as politically motivated.

Of all the slights between Washington and Europe in recent years, the new travel restrictions represented a blow an order of magnitude beyond previous disputes. In a short statement on Thursday morning rare in its directness, the European Union expressed only exasperation.

It is not the most urgent problem right now, but once the outbreak is over our allies are going to remember how our government treated them in the middle of a pandemic. Instead of the solidarity and cooperation that one would expect between allies, they get a gratuitous travel ban.

Trump also botched his explanation of the details of his own policy, which created panic among Americans still in Europe who thought that they might be cut off from coming home. That isn’t the case, but that didn’t stop a run on last-minute airline tickets because Americans thought that they had just a couple days to get out:

Markets also tanked because the president initially said that the ban would also apply to goods as well as people:

There will be exemptions for Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings, and these prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things as we get approval. Anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing.

Administration officials had to issue multiple clarifications to reassure the public that the president had not meant what he had just told us. It turns out that “Europe” only refers to people who have been in Schengen zone nations, and it doesn’t apply to goods at all. The U.K. was exempted, which makes the targeting of the ban seem driven by political bias more than anything else. That was not lost on European leaders:

Many policymakers said Thursday that the fact that the travel ban excludes Britain, where coronavirus is already spreading, but which is led by a populist leader who has sought to build ties to Trump, was a sign that the ban was political rather than driven by science.

When officials have to contradict the president’s message within hours of the speech because the president gave out bad information, it defeats the point of delivering an address to the nation. As is often the case with this president, it would have been better if he had said nothing.

The multiple failures to communicate the policy clearly were nothing compared to the uselessness of a travel ban at this point in the outbreak. The virus is already here and spreading mostly undetected, and barring some Europeans from coming here won’t do anything to stop that. In addition to inflicting more economic damage on our allies, a new travel ban is mostly useless at best and it is much more likely to be a harmful distraction from what needs to be done. A former Homeland Security Advisor to Trump commented on this earlier this morning:

One of the biggest errors in the speech was Trump’s unjustified boasting that “no nation is more prepared” than the U.S. when it seems clear that we are still shockingly unprepared. Jeremy Konyndyk was disgusted by what he heard:

The president barely addressed the question of testing, and what he did say wasn’t accurate. All that he said about that was this:

Testing and testing capabilities are expanding rapidly, day by day. We are moving very quickly.

That would be excellent news if it were true, but this is another case of the president misleading the public to believe that things are better than they are. In fact, it remains very difficult for people to get tested here.

The U.S. has the lowest per capita testing of any country. South Korea appears to have gotten their outbreak under control for now, but the U.S. is lagging far behind them when it comes to testing:

South Korea’s testing total so far, when broken down into number of tests performed per million citizens, seems to be about 700 times as high than the US’s.

Now it appears that our labs are running out of the raw materials needed to conduct the tests:

A looming shortage in lab materials is threatening to delay coronavirus test results and cause officials to undercount the number of Americans with the virus.

The slow pace of coronavirus testing has created a major gap in the U.S. public health response. The latest problem involves an inability to prepare samples for testing, creating uncertainties in how long it will take to get results.

CDC Director Robert Redfield told POLITICO on Tuesday that he is not confident that U.S. labs have an adequate stock of the supplies used to extract genetic material from any virus in a patient’s sample — a critical step in coronavirus testing.

So testing is not “expanding rapidly” and the U.S. is not “moving very quickly.” Testing may be expanding, but it is not nearly widespread enough and it is not happening as quickly as needed.

The president’s speech was a political and substantive failure. We should just tune out the noise coming from the White House and pay attention to what health officials and medical professionals have to tell us instead. Dr. Scott Gottlieb outlined what Americans need to start doing immediately in this thread:

The cancellation of large events is an important start, but he also urges everyone to stop attending small gatherings as well:

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‘He Is a Devil, and the Devil Is Learning From Him’

President Donald Trump speaks with Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

I was very interested to read the new book on the Saudi crown prince, MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman, by Ben Hubbard of The New York Times. It is an engaging work that does a very good job of describing Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power and his destructive policies, and Hubbard combines this with his own experiences in reporting in Saudi Arabia and Yemen to paint a picture of an increasingly repressive state ruled by an impulsive and inexperienced prince. There is a telling quote from the relative of one of the Ritz-Carlton detainees that describes the crown prince in the most unflattering terms:

“He is a psycho. He has spite. He wants to break people. He doesn’t want anyone to have an honorable name but him,” she told me. “He is a devil, and the devil is learning from him.” (pp. xvii)

Given the subject of the book, it would have been easy for Hubbard’s account to become a polemic, but he does not do that. He writes very matter-of-factly about how the crown prince maneuvered his way to the top of the Saudi government, and he delivers a fair accounting of what the crown prince has done with the power he has amassed. Hubbard weaves together the story of Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power with that of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi insider-turned critic and Washington Post columnist whom the crown prince had murdered in October 2018. The book concludes with the gruesome murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the ensuing international backlash against the kingdom. Khashoggi’s murder is just the most egregious example of the repression and cruelty that have defined Mohammed bin Salman’s tenure. Hubbard puts it this way:

His murder crystallized, and made it harder to ignore, the ruthlessness of the MBS era: the uncounted deaths in Yemen; the kidnapping of a foreign prime minister; the lock-up at the Ritz; the arrests and torture of activists and clerics; and the harsh, new, with-us-or-against-us environment that considered those who did not cheer, or cheer loudly enough, enemies. (p.276)

There is one anecdote about Mohammed bin Salman from the Obama years that stands out as an early example of his arrogance and excessive ambition. While visiting the U.S. with his father in the fall of 2015, Mohammed bin Salman attended a dinner at John Kerry’s house, and this happened:

During a discussion of Middle East politics, MBS surprised his host again by suggesting that he could determine who ruled where in the Arab world.

“If I want Sisi out, he’ll be out,” he said, referring to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.

None of the Americans present knew how serious he was, but when the official report on the dinner made its way around the White House, many were taken aback by the prince’s cockiness.” (p.44-45)

When Mohammed bin Salman said this, he was not yet crown prince. It shows his hubris that he thinks it was in his power or the power of the Saudi government to decide this. That same overconfidence in being able to dictate terms to other countries in the region has led Saudi Arabia into one blunder after another. Observers that keep expecting him to learn from his previous errors don’t appreciate that this is how he operates and how he looks at the world. Hubbard casts Mohammed bin Salman as a Machiavellian operator (“a truly Machiavellian prince”), but I’m not sure that this comparison is quite right. The crown prince is undoubtedly ruthless and possesses some low cunning with respect to political maneuvering inside his own country, but he seems utterly clueless about the rest of the world and consistently miscalculates how others will respond to his aggressive behavior. If Machiavelli had seen the last few years of the crown prince’s recklessness, I suspect he would use it as a cautionary tale of what rulers should not do.

One of the most informative chapters detailed the activities of Saud al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s right-hand man who was also responsible for organizing Khashoggi’s killing. Hubbard writes about how al-Qahtani presided over the creation of “a new kind of electronic authoritarianism” that sought to track down dissenters and punish them. “MBS recognized the power of these technologies and deputized al-Qahtani to deploy them.” This electronic authoritarianism was how the Saudi government set out to hunt down dissident in the diaspora and to identify and punish domestic regime critics, and it was also how the government would propagandize and enforce loyalty to the crown prince’s policies:

Thought control was one thing; pursuing dissidents in the real world was another, and MBS authorized al-Qahtani to do that, too. Sometime early in his father’s reign, MBS had ordered al-Qahtani and his organization “to target his opponents domestically and broad, sometimes violently,” according to an assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Saudi intelligence service issued a standing order to bring home dissidents from abroad, but without spelling out how to do it. Figuring that out fell to a team of operatives that al-Qahtani oversaw, called the “Rapid Intervention Group.” Over time, it would engage in surveillance, harassment, and kidnapping of Saudi citizens overseas, as well as their detention and sometimes torture inside palaces belonging to MBS and his father. (p.144)

The book reminds us of the fate of many of the Saudi government’s victims over the last few years. Hubbard calls attention to the cases of the women activists who were detained, interrogated, and tortured, including Loujain al-Hathloul, who still remains in detention to this day. He writes about the Ritz-Carlton detainees who were physically abused and tortured. He recounts the finals days of Khashoggi and describes the grisly murder at some length. Remarking on the premiere showing of the movie Black Panther in Saudi Arabia, Hubbard writes:

MBS clearly wanted to be Saudi Arabia’s T’Challa, but his deputies were increasinly acting like Erik Killmonger. While the prince was off charming Hollywood and Silicon Valley, Saud al-Qahtani and his team had ramped up activities against those they perceived as threats to the kingdom–and to MBS. (p.229)

The details of these episodes recounted in the book will be familiar to those that closely follow Saudi and Yemen-related news reports. Readers that are looking for a lot of new information about the crown prince will not find much that hasn’t been previously reported, but Hubbard has done a real service in synthesizing all of these events and tying them together into a coherent narrative. For those that haven’t been following the crown prince’s record as closely, it provides a useful reconstruction of the first several years of Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power. There are some amusing asides that crop up here and there, such as the fate of the “orb” (stored away in the U.S. embassy in Riyadh), but reading an account of the crown prince’s ugly record is an unavoidably grim affair. Despite that, I found that I couldn’t put it down, and I read it all the way through this afternoon.

My only major criticism of the book is that it did not spend enough time spelling out the disastrous consequences of the Saudi government’s war on Yemen. I would have preferred to see more extensive coverage of both the war and the humanitarian crisis, since the war is still dragging on and remains the signature policy of the crown prince. That said, the account of the war and the descriptions of the Saudi coalition’s war crimes that he does include are both accurate and damning. The war on Yemen remains the main example of what Hubbard calls Mohammed bin Salman’s “hands-on approach” to foreign policy, and this book reminds us that those hands are very bloody.

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Listen to Kennan and End the War in Afghanistan

George F. Kennan in 1947  (Library of Congress)

Van Jackson comments on the comparisons being made between the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, especially in this article by George Herring. Jackson notes that ending U.S. involvement in these unwinnable wars has a long-term benefit (quote starts at around 29:00):

Most allies were glad we got out [of Vietnam]. We cut bait from a strategic loss. So [the allies think] they’re not irrational after all. There’s a huge upside longer term to making consistently strategic moves. Getting out of a losing war is consistently strategic [bold mine-DL]. There are people on Twitter and neocons who say, literally, when this Foreign Affairs article came out, “You know if we stayed in Vietnam a little longer, we would have turned the…corner.” Are you out of your cotton-picking mind?…Also, Afghanistan is less important than Washington thinks. Yes, the Taliban was there, is there, and yeah it was a base for Al Qaeda, but everywhere can be a base for Al Qaeda. It doesn’t mean you put troops there.

The comparison with Vietnam is instructive in a few ways. First, it was the longest U.S. war prior to the war in Afghanistan, and like the vast majority of the war in Afghanistan it had nothing to do with U.S. security. Both wars were/are unwinnable, because in the end the local forces opposed to the U.S. will always be able to outlast our commitment to propping up a client government. Neither war was worth the cost. In both cases, politicians and policymakers inflated the importance of these conflicts in order to justify prolonged involvement, but when Vietnam ended it became clear very quickly how little the war actually mattered to larger U.S. policy goals. Once our war in Afghanistan is over, we will all soon realize how unnecessary it was to keep fighting there for almost two decades.

Jackson’s comment about the upside that comes from ending a losing war reminded me of the famous quote from George Kennan, who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1966 to express his opposition to the war in Vietnam and said this:

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.

If there is one sentence that U.S. politicians and policymakers should sear into their brains when thinking about U.S. involvement in foreign wars, it is this one. Kennan’s statement was all the more powerful because he had been the intellectual architect of the containment doctrine that the war was supposedly being fought to uphold. Kennan never believed that containment should apply to conflicts like the one in Vietnam, and he recognized it as the folly it was from the start. He was saying this in the earliest years of the war, but unfortunately his recommendation went unheeded until after tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese lost their lives. Whenever hawks start screeching about the danger of losing credibility, Kennan’s words serve as an effective rebuke. The U.S. position in Afghanistan is an unsound one, and it has been for a long time. It does no one any favors to keep pretending otherwise, and the U.S. cannot conclude our part in the war there until we recognize this.

Continuing to pursue “extravagant or unpromising objectives” is neither wise nor strong. It is simple pigheadedness that allows the U.S. to waste lives and resources on a futile effort that will eventually be ended on even worse terms than it could be ended now. An essential part of statecraft is having the courage to admit when a policy has failed and to correct course as swiftly as prudence allows, and that also means admitting that we promised results that we were incapable of delivering.

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The Real Biden Record on the Iraq War

Vice President Joe Biden in 2016.  By  By Mark Reinstein/ Shutterstock

Joe Biden still refuses to own up to his real record on the Iraq war:

Kaczynski cites earlier reports that he wrote about Biden’s support for the Iraq war. The most striking piece of evidence that Biden was fully in favor of the invasion comes from a speech he delivered in May 2004 in which he said this:

“Let me tell you what I see with Iraq,” Biden told the graduates. “We had to go into Iraq, not because Saddam (Hussein) was part of Al Qaeda, there was no evidence of that, not because he possessed nuclear weapons or because he posed an imminent threat to the United States, there was no evidence of that.”

“The legitimate reason for going into Iraq, was he violated every single commitment he made and warranted being taken down. And the international community and us had a right to respond.”

In other words, Biden’s argument more than a year after the invasion of Iraq was that the U.S. had to violate international law in order to uphold it. Biden was saying in 2004 that the Bush administration’s claims about potential threats from Iraq were clearly false but that the war was still the right thing to do. For Biden to try to claim now that he was voting to “prevent” the war that he openly supported for years is a shameless attempt to deceive the public about his record and his foreign policy views. Much of the rest of the speech was an exercise in touting the virtues of multilateralism. Biden’s own words show he didn’t disagree with the substance of what the Bush administration did, but only with how they went about doing it. That was a common refrain from Democratic hawks that voted for the war. They wanted credit for backing the invasion, but they wanted to be able to fault Bush for poor execution. In the end, all they did was enable one of the biggest foreign policy debacles in American history by authorizing a war that was both illegal and unwise.

The 2004 speech was not an isolated example of his endorsement of war and regime change in Iraq after the war started. Kaczynski found Biden saying this in October 2003: “I think it was necessary to enforce the international rules of the road.” Biden’s defenses of the Iraq war from back then are typically couched in these terms. He not only approved of the invasion, but he actually believed that the U.S. was doing this as a legitimate enforcer of the “rules of the road.” That is essentially no different from Bush’s own arguments in his U.N. speech in the fall of 2002. These arguments were an attempt to dress up a war of aggression as a defense of U.N. resolutions. Biden not only bought these arguments, but he then used them himself to defend his vote.

Biden’s lies about his Iraq war record are bad enough, but his refusal to grapple with his bad decisions and arguments from those years is just as troubling. He won’t acknowledge that he was a proud supporter of the war, and instead concocts an absurd story that he was trying to prevent the war that he himself later said was legitimate and necessary. That shows that he hasn’t reflected nearly enough on the war and his part in making it happen, and given the gravity of his mistake that is unacceptable. Can he admit now that war and regime change in Iraq had nothing to do with upholding the “rules of the road”? Does he understand that putting multilateralist window-dressing on aggressive war doesn’t make it any better? Will he accept responsibility for his role in giving Bush the authority to launch an unjust and criminal war? These are some of the questions Biden should have to answer before he becomes the nominee, and he should have his own words quoted back to him the next time he tries to lie about his record.

Why does Biden’s Iraq war record matter now? For one thing, the 2002 Iraq AUMF vote was one of the most consequential actions Biden took as a senator, and he got it wrong because he failed to question the assumptions behind the case for war. He wasn’t alone in that failure, but he was part of the problem. Following the start of the war, Biden didn’t recognize that failure for what it was. Instead, he continued to defend his vote to authorize the war. Once the war became politically radioactive, he started to move away from his previous support. Now that he is seeking the presidency again, he has decided that it is politically safer for him to pretend to have been secretly opposed to the war when all of his public statements from that time show him to be for it. This outdoes Kerry’s “I voted for it before I voted against it” line by claiming that Biden was actually voting against the war when he voted to authorize it. It is a preposterous claim, and it is an insult to the voters to tell them such a bald-faced lie over and over.

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Sanders’ Commitment to Peace and Diplomacy

There was a silly story in The New York Times last week that tried to portray Bernie Sanders’ sister-city relationship with Yaroslavl as an opening for Soviet propaganda. In fact, as President Reagan’s former U.S. ambassador to the USSR, Jack Matlock, explained in a letter to the editor a few days ago, this program was a successful example of constructive American diplomacy encouraged by the U.S. government:

“Papers Detail Soviet Hopes for Sanders” (front page, March 6) is a distortion of history. The truth is that Bernie Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, Vt., opened a sister-city relationship with Yaroslavl in 1988 with the encouragement and strong support of the United States government.

The visit was not used as propaganda by the Soviet Union. I know because I was U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R. at the time and gave strong official support to Mayor Sanders’s effort, along with those of other American mayors, to establish ties with cities in the Soviet Union [bold mine-DL].

Expanding people-to-people ties was one of the important goals of President Ronald Reagan’s policy toward the U.S.S.R., a policy that was continued by President George H.W. Bush.

The explanation the Soviets gave to local Communist officials in Yaroslavl — that sister-city relationships are useful for “carrying out information-propaganda efforts” — was actually an effort to justify Mikhail Gorbachev’s new openness to people who had no contacts with Americans and were trained to see all Americans as spies.

In fact, the contacts played an important role in opening up Soviet society and facilitating Mr. Gorbachev’s reforms.

Sanders went to the USSR during the era of glasnost (lit., openness), and he built a relationship with a Soviet sister city in the name of promoting greater understanding and cooperation. This was not only an admirable goal, but it also happened to be the stated goal of both the U.S. and Soviet governments at that time. There was nothing wrong with what he did, and as Ambassador Matlock explains he helped to advance U.S. policy goals. The fact that he was willing to participate in this program and engage with people from the other side of the divide in the Cold War is to his enormous credit. The original NYT article quotes Sanders as writing this:

“I believe that sister city programs like the Yaroslavl Burlington one, will help improve Soviet American relations and develop a more peaceful world,” Mr. Sanders wrote.

That is a laudable sentiment, and one that was widely shared at the time that he wrote it. Sanders was right about this. It is a measure of how warped our foreign policy debates are that a worthwhile diplomatic initiative from over thirty years ago is being spun as something else now that Sanders happens to be running for president. It is no wonder that our foreign policy is so heavily biased in favor of confrontation and belligerence when the most harmless diplomatic contacts from decades ago are still portrayed in a somewhat sinister light. Matlock’s point bears emphasizing: the explanation delivered to local Soviet officials was “an effort to justify Mikhail Gorbachev’s new openness to people who had no contacts with Americans.” In other words, it was an attempt to circumvent Soviet hard-liners by making them think that it was a propaganda campaign when it wasn’t. Now Sanders is being attacked because of a political fiction that Gorbachev’s people invented to make it easier for the U.S. and the Soviet Union to cooperate. It is a given that the NYT doesn’t like Sanders and doesn’t want him to be the Democratic nominee, but the framing of that article is absurd.

It is curious how critics of Sanders’ foreign policy record feel that they have to go back thirty years or more to find something that they think will be damning, but each time that they dig something up they just remind the rest of us that Sanders has been upholding the same sound principles. He has espoused a commitment to peace and diplomacy from the time that he was a mayor, and he has held fast to that commitment since then. Should Sanders be embarrassed that he took part in an effort to improve ties between the U.S. and the USSR as the Cold War was winding down? Should he apologize for trying to promote peace between these countries? I don’t think so. The truth is that U.S. foreign policy would be better if we had more officials at all levels that embraced engagement with their counterparts in other countries.

It is regrettable that there is nothing comparable to this program today to bridge the chasms that have opened up between the U.S. and other nations over the decades. The lack of regular people-to-people contacts between the U.S. and Iran greatly hampers both our government’s understanding of Iran and prevents the sort of diplomatic breakthroughs that occurred near the end of the Cold War. We would benefit from having more officials that want to build relationships with other countries instead of constantly promoting those that thrive on conflict.

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