Home/Daniel Larison

What Would Biden’s Foreign Policy ‘Restore’?

Stephen Wertheim considers Biden’s restorationist foreign policy and finds it seriously wanting:

Biden deserves credit for stating flatly that he would end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. But he does not acknowledge how such support began — under what he now likes to call the “Obama-Biden” administration. Nor does he grapple with the basic reason for U.S. involvement in a place like Yemen: Washington’s desire to dominate the region by force, including by closely aligning with one set of repressive states in the region and making enemies of the rest.

Biden does more than miss an opportunity to acknowledge the mistakes of the Obama administration and explain how he would do better. He extends his nostalgia even further, and to less defensible terrain. “For 70 years,” he writes, “the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations and advance collective security and prosperity — until Trump.” Does Biden really believe that President George W. Bush conducted a responsible, constructive, rule-abiding foreign policy?

Biden’s nostalgia for the pre-Trump U.S. foreign policy consensus is one of the biggest flaws in his worldview. The “return to normalcy” that Biden is supposed to represent means “returning” to an era that was marked by illegal preventive wars, the hyper-militarization of U.S. foreign policy, and intensifying support for reckless clients. To treat decades of U.S. foreign policy before Trump as essentially benevolent and constructive not only ignores the glaring examples of when it was anything but that, but it serves to rehabilitate advocates of the worst and most reckless policies. It’s still not cleat that Biden learned anything from the Iraq war debacle despite having almost twenty years to do so.

It is good that Biden has turned against the war on Yemen, but why did it take him four years until he was a presidential candidate to do it? Notably absent from the Foreign Affairs article that Wertheim cites is any mention of changing the U.S.-Saudi relationship itself. Wertheim notices that, too:

He says nothing about America’s intimate partnership with Saudi Arabia, even though this is the one area of Mideast policy most ripe for change given support across party lines for reducing arms sales to the kingdom and demanding accountability for Saudi human rights abuses.

If Biden now believes that the U.S. was wrong to support the Saudi coalition in Yemen, shouldn’t that inform his view of the relationship in the future? The Obama administration famously backed the war to “reassure” Saudi Arabia and the UAE, so shouldn’t the U.S. rethink whether these clients are worth “reassuring”? Biden’s rival for the Democratic nomination is strongly in favor of scaling back and even eliminating U.S. support for these clients, so what does Biden have to say about that? Who is more likely to follow through on changing the U.S.-Saudi relationship: the centrist supporter of the status quo or the senator who led the charge to end U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen? That’s a question I’d like to hear Biden answer.

Biden is nothing if not conventional. He proposes no serious reassessment of U.S. grand strategy, and there is no hint of scaling back U.S. commitments anywhere. Wertheim continues:

Indeed, Biden does not wish to demilitarize U.S. foreign policy in any structural sense. He expresses no desire to cut the Pentagon’s trillion-dollar-a-year budget, even though surveys have found that the single most popular foreign policy stance among the American public is to spend less money fighting wars in order make more investments at home.

The United States is currently obligated to defend approximately one-third of the world’s countries, and informally dozens more. As long as the United States divides the entire world into protectorates and, implicitly or explicitly, enemies, it will struggle to cut its military spending significantly. That is apparently the way Biden wants it. His stance toward military alliances is nothing short of reverential: NATO, Biden writes, is “sacred.”

Biden shares the foreign policy establishment’s disapproval of Trump’s alliance management, but that makes him unwilling to question how useful some of these commitments still are to the U.S. There is a tendency among supporters of these alliances to see them as ends in themselves rather than as means to achieving common goals, and Biden certainly does that.

Wertheim concludes:

So far, however, it looks like he will not only prolong the endless wars but also restore and revive the ideas that generated them in the first place.

When he was first running for president, Obama talked about ending the mindset that led to the Iraq war. Unfortunately, Obama didn’t do that as president, but it was a good idea. Is there any reason to think that Biden would try to end the mindset that has led to our many ill-advised wars of choice over the last twenty years? How could he end that mindset when he has shared it for most of his career? The issue is not just whether Biden would wind down and end the wars that the U.S. is fighting now (he probably wouldn’t), but whether he would be willing and able to avoid new ones in the future.

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Don’t Be Fooled by Pompeo’s Empty ‘Restraint’ Rhetoric

Stephen Walt responds to Mike Pompeo’s repeated misuse of the words realism and restraint to describe the Trump administration’s foreign policy:

If the secretary genuinely believed in these concepts, and if the broad sweep of U.S. foreign policy reflected them, it would be tempting to applaud politely and offer Pompeo a non-resident fellowship at the Quincy Institute after he leaves office. Unfortunately, Pompeo’s words are mostly empty rhetoric. Viewed objectively, U.S. foreign policy under his and Trump’s leadership bears little resemblance to what a realist and restrained foreign policy would be.

For starters, let’s not forget that the Trump administration has continued to expand an already bloated defense budget, without offering a convincing justification for seemingly endless increases. Advocates of a more realist and restrained foreign policy favor maintaining a strong U.S. military, but we recognize that we have that already. It is hardly “restraint” when Trump, Pompeo, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper insist that the United States must continue to spend more on national security than the next seven or eight countries combined, while critical domestic needs go unmet.

Walt is absolutely right. As I have said before, Pompeo doesn’t know the meaning of restraint. He doesn’t know what realism means, either. The Secretary of State uses this rhetoric to distract from just how unrealistic, hard-line, and maximalist Trump’s foreign policy has been. One of Pompeo’s favorite talking points is that the Trump administration is merely “recognizing the reality” of a situation when it decides to endorse illegal Israeli territorial claims or chooses to tear up successful arms control and nonproliferation agreements. Of course, these are attempts to alter political and policy realities to the liking of hard-liners and extremists. When Pompeo talks about “realism,” he is really talking about cynical power grabs that the administration or a U.S. client is making.

Trump is the anti-restraint president. His administration’s foreign policy has been defined by arrogant ultimatums, attempted regime change, aggressive economic warfare, increased military spending, illegal assassination, and illegal wars. It does not deal with the world as it is, but seeks to force the world to bend to the administration’s will. It has not reduced U.S. commitments and liabilities abroad, but instead keeps adding to them. Even the Afghanistan agreement that Pompeo was referring to last month sets so many conditions on U.S. withdrawal that full withdrawal is very unlikely to happen. An administration that was genuinely committed to realism and restraint would have done things very differently and in many cases it would have done the exact opposite of what Trump has done.

The third pillar that Pompeo mentions is respect, and this is where the Secretary of State’s habit of making things up really gets out of control. There have been few U.S. administrations that have treated other countries with less respect than this one. Not only has the U.S. continued to violate other states’ sovereignty with impunity, but the Trump administration also presumes to dictate to other governments what their domestic and foreign policies should be. They have enabled a brutal war on Yemen for more than three years, they have punished Iran for complying with the JCPOA, and they have berated our allies for supporting the same agreement. When the Iraqi government called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops over repeated violations of their sovereignty, the Trump administration ignored them. They have tried treating allies like vassals and assume they can treat everyone else like colonies.

Walt concludes:

The bottom line: Pompeo’s use of words like “realism” and “restraint” is a smokescreen, intended to confuse his audience and make Trump’s foreign policy sound like it squares with the policies most Americans want.

Like everything else Pompeo says, his rhetoric about realism and restraint can’t be trusted.

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Help Wanted: A Minimally Competent President

The president was busy minimizing the significance of the outbreak again this morning:

The president is remarkably bad at reassuring the public. It is one thing to tell people to remain calm, but when the president keeps telling people to ignore the evidence of a worsening crisis and pretends that it isn’t a serious problem that will inevitably cause more alarm. The administration’s response has been as slow and lacking, and that makes Trump’s equivalent of telling people to go shopping seem even more irresponsible. The federal government dropped the ball in its initial response, and as a result of those failures the outbreak is worse than it had to be. Part of being a responsible leader is acknowledging those errors and learning from them, but the president refuses to admit error and seems incapable of learning. Even now he is still making the wildly misleading comparison with the seasonal flu. The most conservative estimates point to a fatality rate from coronavirus that is at least ten times as high as it is for the flu, so it is far more serious and could end up killing hundreds of thousands of people. Incredibly, the president is still touting the small number of confirmed cases, when that number is a measure of how far behind the U.S. is in testing for the virus. He doesn’t know how to do anything but minimize the problem and mislead the public, and there is no reason to expect that he will change in the coming months.

Trump says that “nothing is shut down,” as if that is supposed to be good news. When Italy is willing to lock down entire regions to prevent the virus from spreading further, the president’s insouciance just makes people more worried that our government doesn’t have a clue what to do.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the FDA, spoke on Face the Nation yesterday and had this to say:

DR. GOTTLIEB: Well, I think no state and no city wants to be the first to basically shut down their economy. But that’s what’s going to need to happen. States and cities are going to have to act in the interest of the national interest right now to prevent a broader epidemic [bold mine-DL].

MARGARET BRENNAN: Shut down their economy? You mean–

DR. GOTTLIEB: Close businesses, close large gatherings, close theaters, cancel events [bold mine-DL]. I think we need to think about how do we provide assistance to the people of these cities who are going to be hit by hardship, as well as the localities themselves to try to give them an incentive to do this. Right now, if there’s no economic support to do this, you don’t want to be the first to go. And I think you’re seeing that. This exposes one of the challenges of our federal system that we leave a lot of authority to state and local officials. And there’s a good- there’s good reasons why. But in a situation like this, we want them to act not just in their local interests, but the national interests, I think we need to think about both trying to coerce them. We can’t force them but also try to provide some incentives in terms of support. And we’re going to end up with a very big federal bailout package here for stricken businesses, individuals, cities and states. We’re better off doing it upfront and giving assistance to get them to do the right things than do it on the back end after we’ve had a very big epidemic [bold mine-DL].

A semi-competent and responsible president would be making preparations to assist states and municipalities with funding to get them through the difficult weeks and months to come. A competent president would be appealing to the public to prepare themselves and to be willing to make sacrifices for the good of the country as a whole. There will need to be a coordinated effort to provide economic relief to the areas of the country that are hardest hit by the dislocation and disruption that quarantines will create. The president and Congress ought to be working together to organize that effort. There will be a lot of Americans that need assistance because of this crisis, and the government needs to be providing that assistance now to prevent the outbreak from getting a lot worse.

Trump’s latest remarks show that he doesn’t understand any of this. It has become common to describe Trump’s bungling of the outbreak as his “Katrina” moment (which conveniently ignores his mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria), but it is actually much worse than that.

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The Saudis Launch Another Reckless War

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (U.S. Department of State)

The Saudis just tanked the oil market as part of their intra-OPEC feud with Russia. U.S. oil producers are going to suffer as a result:

Saudi Arabia had pushed last week for a steep cut in production by OPEC countries and by those oil producers in league with OPEC, particularly Russia. The idea was to prop up prices in the wake of a global decline in demand because of the epidemic of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But Russia balked, not wanting to give up market share, and over the weekend, the Saudis turned 180 degrees.

They are now moving to flood the market with hundreds of thousands of barrels of additional oil per day and offering steep discounts to refineries around the world.

Analysts fear the move is the beginning of a price war between the Saudis and Russia — which will squeeze American shale oil producers as prices are heading sharply downward.

The Saudi move will inflict some pain on Russia, but they are cutting off their own nose to spite their face. Flooding the market with more oil hurts the Saudi government’s revenues at a time when they need all the revenue they can get. This is something they cannot afford to do for very long. Like so many other Saudi government actions over the last few years, this was an ill-considered and reckless gamble that is likely to blow up in their face. The Saudi break-even point is higher than it is for any other major oil-producing state. The Saudis need an oil price above $80 per barrel, and the Russians can get by at almost half that.

In the U.S., the collapse in oil prices will have a negative effect on the local economies that depend heavily on energy, and along with the effects of the outbreak on the broader economy these parts of the country will be harder hit than most. Our “ally” has just taken aim at undermining an important part of the U.S. economy at a critical time. Maybe this will help drive home the message that the U.S. owes Saudi Arabia nothing and should stop supporting them.

Once again, Mohammed bin Salman has started a war he cannot win. David Fickling explains:

The bigger problem for Saudi Arabia is that even a withdrawal of shale production will leave the fragile truce it’s enjoyed with Russia in tatters, just as the prospect of a plateau and peak in oil demand looms ever closer.

Riyadh’s race-to-the-bottom strategy only worked in 1985 because it was the lowest-cost producer. Now, its bloated budget means that it’s one of the highest-cost and shakiest players [bold mine-DL]. It remains embroiled in a costly and brutal military quagmire in Yemen, and on Friday arrested senior royals on the grounds they were plotting a coup.

More than four years after Prince Mohammed Bin Salman began the economic reforms that were intended to diversify the economy’s dependence on crude, the prospect of prices ever returning to fiscal breakeven levels looks even more remote. Even Saudi Aramco shares are now trading below their offer price.

Countries embarking on wars often expect they’ll be over in a few months, only to discover their opponents were stronger than they thought. Should this turn into a prolonged fight, Moscow is unlikely to be the first player to fold.

Like the war on Yemen, which has been Mohammed bin Salman’s signature policy for the last five years, this price war is ill-considered, likely to drag on much longer than the crown prince expects, and ultimately ruinous.

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The Coronavirus Debacle

The AP reports on more of the Trump White House’s bungling of the coronavirus response:

The White House overruled health officials who wanted to recommend that elderly and physically fragile Americans be advised not to fly on commercial airlines because of the new coronavirus, a federal official told The Associated Press.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention submitted the plan this week as a way of trying to control the virus, but White House officials ordered the air travel recommendation be removed, said the official who had direct knowledge of the plan. Trump administration officials have since suggested certain people should consider not traveling, but they have stopped short of the stronger guidance sought by the CDC.

There is no good reason for the White House to prevent this recommendation from being made public. This is another example of how the president and his top officials are trying to keep up the pretense that the outbreak is much less dangerous than it actually is, and in doing so they are helping to make the outbreak worse than it has to be. For the last several weeks, we have seen the president and top administration officials presenting the public with misleading and outright false information in an effort to conceal the magnitude of the problem and the extent of their initial failures. The president has been unwilling to tell the public the truth about the situation because he evidently cares more about the short-term political implications than he does about protecting the public:

Even as the government’s scientists and leading health experts raised the alarm early and pushed for aggressive action, they faced resistance and doubt at the White House — especially from the president — about spooking financial markets and inciting panic.

“It’s going to all work out,” Mr. Trump said as recently as Thursday night. “Everybody has to be calm. It’s going to work out.”

Justin Fox comments on the president’s terrible messaging:

The biggest problem, though, is simply the way that the president talks about the disease. His instinct at every turn is to downplay its danger and significance.

Minimizing the danger and significance of the outbreak ensured that the government’s response was less urgent and focused than it could have been. It encouraged people to take it less seriously and thus made it more likely that the virus would spread. Then when the severity of the problem became undeniable, the earlier discredited happy talk makes it easier for people to disbelieve what the government tells them in the future.

The administration had time to prepare a more effective response, but as I said last week the administration frittered away the time they had. They were still preoccupied with keeping the virus out rather than trying to manage its spread once it arrived here, as it was inevitably going to do:

“We have contained this. I won’t say airtight but pretty close to airtight,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said in a television interview on Feb. 25, echoing Trump’s tweeted declaration that the virus was “very much under control” in the United States.

But it wasn’t, and the administration’s rosy messaging was fundamentally at odds with a growing cacophony of alarm bells inside and outside the U.S. government. Since January, epidemiologists, former U.S. public health officials and experts have been warning, publicly and privately, that the administration’s insistence that containment was—and should remain—the primary way to confront an emerging infectious disease was a grave mistake.

The initial response and the stubborn refusal to adapt to new developments have meant that the U.S. is in a much worse position in handling this outbreak than many other countries. Max Nisen comments on the lack of testing in the U.S.:

Don’t cheer just yet. The lower case count doesn’t mean Americans are doing a better job of containing the virus; rather, it reflects the fact that the U.S. is badly behind in its ability to test people. The Centers for Disease Control stopped disclosing how many people it has tested as of Monday, but an analysis by The Atlantic could only confirm 1,895 tests. Switzerland, a country with fewer residents than New Jersey, has tested nearly twice as many people. The U.K., which has far fewer cases, has tested over 20,000. This gap is particularly worrisome given evidence of community spread in a number of different states and a high death count, both of which suggest the number of cases will jump as more tests are conducted.

Capacity is finally ramping up, but only after weeks of delays prompted by unforced errors and botched early test kits from the CDC. The continuing inability to test broadly is leading to missed cases, more infections, and an outbreak that will be bigger than it needed to be.

The administration not only bungled their initial response, but they have also been extremely resistant to admitting error. Trump’s appointees are reluctant to contradict the president when he spouts nonsense about the outbreak, and that in turn makes it more difficult for them to communicate clearly and consistently with the public. All of this serves to undermine public trust in the government’s response, and it prevents health officials from being able to do their jobs without political interference. The federal government’s response has been hampered by a president who wants to make people think that the problem isn’t that bad and is already being dealt with successfully:

At the White House, Trump and many of his aides were initially skeptical of just how serious the coronavirus threat was, while the president often seemed uninterested as long as the virus was abroad. At first, when he began to engage, he downplayed the threat — “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” he tweeted in late February — and became a font of misinformation and confusion, further muddling his administration’s response.

On Friday, visiting the CDC in Atlanta, the president spewed more falsehoods when he claimed, incorrectly: “Anybody that needs a test, gets a test. They’re there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful.”

When the president lies about such a serious matter, he is causing unnecessary confusion and he is sending exactly the wrong message that remedying earlier failures is not an urgent priority. Because Trump’s primary concern is making himself look good in the short term, he is willing to risk a worse outbreak. During his visit to the CDC, the president went on in an even more bizarre vein to praise the tests by comparing them to his “perfect call” with the Ukrainian president last summer that led to his impeachment:

In an attempt to express confidence in the CDC’s coronavirus test (the agency’s second attempt after the first one it developed failed), Trump offered an unorthodox comparison from the last enormous crisis to swamp his presidency. The tests are just like his impeachment-causing attempt to pressure a foreign government to help him get reelected. “The tests are all perfect like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect. Right? This was not as perfect as that but pretty good,” Trump told reporters after falsely stating, again, that anyone who needed a test right now could get one.

This morning the president was back at it this morning with more self-serving misinformation:

The president needs people to think that everything he does is perfect, so he is incapable of acknowledging his failures and prefers to vilify accurate reporting about those failures. He cannot help but mismanage the government response because he cannot put the national interest ahead of his own selfishness. An untold number of Americans will be paying a steep price for the president’s unfitness for office in the weeks and months to come.

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U.S. Foreign Policy and the ‘Return to Normalcy’

Joe Biden’s candidacy is defined by the idea that he will “restore” things to the way they were four years ago and that he will preside over a “return to normalcy” after the Trump years. The phrase “return to normalcy” has been linked to the Biden campaign for the better part of the last year. TAC‘s Curt Mills commented on this after Biden’s recent primary wins:

Biden then, not Trump, would be the candidate of the centennial. Like Warren Harding, he promises a return to normalcy.

The Harding comparison is quite useful because it shows how Biden’s “return to normalcy” will be quite different from the one Harding proposed a century ago. Harding contrasted normalcy with “nostrums.” This was a shot at the ideological fantasies of the Wilson era and the upheaval that had come with U.S. entry into WWI. This is the full quote:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.

The “normalcy” to which Biden would return the U.S. is rather different. There would be a restoration of sorts, but the restoration would be that of the bankrupt bipartisan foreign policy consensus, among other things. As Emma Ashford suggested in a recent discussion, Biden’s foreign policy could be described as “Make American Exceptionalism Great Again.” Where Harding’s “normalcy” represented the repudiation of Wilsonian fantasies, Biden’s would be an attempt to revive them at least in part. Harding contrasted “normalcy” with Wilson’s “nostrums,” but Biden’s rhetoric is full of the tired boilerplate rhetoric about U.S. global leadership. Biden’s new article for Foreign Affairs includes quite a bit of this:

As president, I will take immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances, protect the United States’ economic future, and once more have America lead the world. This is not a moment for fear. This is the time to tap the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two world wars and brought down the Iron Curtain.

The Cold War ended thirty years ago, and it is telling that Biden does not point to any victories for the U.S. in the decades that have followed. Proponents of U.S. global “leadership” have to keep reaching farther and farther back in time to recall a time when U.S. “leadership” was successful, and they have remarkably little to say about the thirty years when they have been running things. That is what they want to “restore,” but it’s not clear why Americans should want to go back to a status quo ante that produced such staggering and costly failures as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Like the early 19th century Bourbon restoration, it would be a return to power for those who had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

John Carl Baker comments on an op-ed co-authored last year by Robert Kagan and Anthony Blinken. Blinken is now Biden’s main foreign policy adviser, and that leads Baker to draw this conclusion:

Inasmuch as Biden is much more comfortable with the nostrums of the foreign policy establishment and with their assumptions about the U.S. role in the world than Obama was, that seems like the right conclusion. A foreign policy that is like Obama’s but more conventional probably doesn’t sound that bad, but we should remember that this is the same foreign policy that left the U.S. engaged in more than one illegal war and normalized illegal warfare without Congressional authorization. Returning to an era of “normalcy” characterized by repeated policy failures, lack of accountability, and open-ended warfare is not the kind of restoration that Americans need. It might be good enough to win the election, but it isn’t going to fix what ails U.S. foreign policy.

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Mohammed bin Salman’s Latest Purge

The Wall Street Journalreports on Mohammed bin Salman’s latest purge:

Saudi Arabian authorities detained two of the kingdom’s most prominent figures for an alleged coup attempt, further consolidating the power of the king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and clearing away once-formidable rivals to the throne, according to people familiar with the matter.

The detentions occurred early Friday morning when guards from the royal court wearing masks and dressed in black arrived at the homes of the two men, took them into custody and searched their homes, according to people familiar with the matter.

Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a brother of Saudi King Salman, and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al Saud, the king’s nephew known as MBN, were both accused of treason, the people said. The guards also arrested one of MBN’s brothers.

The Saudi royal court accused the two men of plotting a coup to unseat the king and crown prince, according to people familiar with the situation.

The crown prince has been steadily consolidating power over the last two years, but this is a much more aggressive move against senior members of the royal family than we have seen before. Accusing such prominent royals of treason suggests that the crown prince is very nervous about his grip on power. Ever since Mohammed bin Nayef was pushed aside so that the king’s son could be made crown prince, he has been kept under house arrest, so something must have happened to push Mohammed bin Salman to take such drastic action against his uncle and cousins. There would be no need for him to move to eliminate potential rivals for the succession unless he was afraid that his succession was in doubt. If Mohammed bin Nayef and his father and brother are executed for their alleged treason, that will be the clearest sign yet that the crown prince is completely out of control.

Hauling away senior members of his own family is another example of the crown prince’s increasing repression. Not even some of his closest relatives can escape his brutal crackdowns. Like his earlier purges, this is undoubtedly intended to terrify other dissenters into staying quiet. It is possible that the crown prince has once again miscalculated and overreached. Mohammed bin Salman has already made many enemies with his previous power grabs, and this could end up being one power grab too many. These arrests were supposedly to thwart a coup, but they might very well trigger unrest and opposition to the crown prince. Whether this latest move backfires on him or not, it shows Mohammed bin Salman to be the reckless despot that his critics have claimed him to be. The U.S. should have nothing more to do with him, and the U.S.-Saudi relationship should be downgraded for as long as he remains in power.

It is not the role of the U.S. to decide who becomes the next Saudi king, but our government does decide what our relationship will be with the kingdom. We have known for years that Mohammed bin Salman is an incompetent and dangerous ruler whose worst habits have been encouraged by unceasing U.S. support. One of the top priorities of the next administration ought to be to cut off all support to the Saudi government in recognition that the U.S. doesn’t need the Saudis and shouldn’t want to be implicated in any more of their crimes.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Amid coronavirus outbreak, Trump-aligned pressure group pushes to stop medicine sales to Iran. Eli Clifton reports on the efforts of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) to get pharmaceutical companies to stop doing business with Iran.

“Doomed from the start”: experts say the Trump administration’s coronavirus response was never going to work. Vera Bergengruen and W.J. Hennigan report on why the administration’s sole focus on keeping the virus out of the U.S. hampered more effective measures to manage its spread inside the country.

New START has less than one year left. Daniel DePetris implores the administration to extend New START before it’s too late.

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The Lawless and Cruel Iran Hawks

National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster (Jamestown Foundation/YouTube)

A recent debate on Iran policy confirmed that many Iran hawks are nothing but advocates for lawlessness and cruelty:

Former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster delivered a fiery defense of the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a debate at the Hoover Institution on Tuesday. The debate was focused on whether the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran is working.

“It was the righteous use of violence,” McMaster said. “I don’t really care what international law said. I think Article II of the Constitution gave the president the authority to make the decision he made.”

McMaster evidently doesn’t care about the Constitution, either, because the president is not permitted to order an attack on another state without first having Congressional approval. Article II does not give the president license to initiate hostilities against other governments. McMaster’s dismissive attitude towards international law is consistent with what we have heard from him before. After all, he was National Security Advisor who kept floating the possibility of waging illegal preventive war against North Korea. The former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly described him in very unflattering terms in 2017 because of McMaster’s support for taking military action against Iran and Syria:

But an unnamed former White House official told the Examiner that McMaster favored attacking Iran and intervening in Syria, putting him at odds with Mattis.

Mattis inadvertently made his thoughts known about McMaster during the 2017 conference call, when the cabinet secretaries mistakenly thought that McMaster was no longer on the line, according to the Examiner.

“They thought the White House hung up our side of the phone call,” the former official told the Examiner. “Mattis was like: ‘Rex, are you still here?’ [Mattis] was like: ‘Oh my God, that moron is going to get us all killed. He is an unstable asshole.’ McMaster was standing there over his desk. … He was turning bright red.”

So it comes as no surprise that McMaster is a big defender of Soleimani’s illegal assassination, because he has been a reliable supporter of launching wars against other states for some time. He didn’t end up at the hard-line Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) by accident. Like many other Iran hawks, McMaster views the law as an inconvenience to be tossed aside, and he celebrates the lawless use of violence as “righteous.” Our foreign policy debates are marred by these vile arguments because the people that make them are never held accountable for the outrageous things they say. Matt Duss comments:

McMaster’s teammate in the debate was Victor Davis Hanson, who had this to say about the impact of sanctions on the Iranian people:

Early in the debate, Hansen also argued for restrictive sanctions against Iran, saying that the “short-term suffering” they cause the Iranian people are justified by the potential for long-term regime change.

During the audience-question portion, a woman challenged Hansen’s [sic] description of the sanctions’ impacts as short-term.

“How is it that the impact of my people not having food, not having medicine, is dismissed as a temporary issue?” she asked.

Hanson supports the cruel collective punishment of the civilian population. Unlike some Iran hawks, he doesn’t deny that the sanctions are responsible for a lot of the Iranian people’s suffering. He still thinks that can somehow be justified by the “long-term” goal of regime change. This is a morally bankrupt position to take. Knowingly inflicting suffering on innocent people in an attempt to bring down their government is monstrous and criminal. The ends don’t justify the means. Depriving sick people of medicine for any reason is contemptible, but many Iran hawks believe it to be worth doing. Eli Clifton just reported on the efforts of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a hard-line anti-Iranian organization, to pressure pharmaceutical companies to stop doing business with Iran while Iranians try to cope with the terrible coronavirus outbreak:

“U.S. sanctions have had a long-term impact on Iran’s ability to freely import medical supplies,” said Tyler Cullis, an attorney specializing in sanctions law at Ferrari & Associates. He pointed to “outside groups” that seek to bolster the Treasury Department’s investigatory heft and provide information on companies doing trade with Iran. “In tandem with U.S. sanctions,” Cullis said, “these groups have sought to impose reputational costs on companies that engage in lawful and legitimate trade with Iran, including humanitarian trade.”

The medical and humanitarian trade are carved out of crippling sanctions against Iran through special licenses issued by the Treasury Department. But companies must apply for the licenses then carry out the trade — something United Against Nuclear Iran, known as UANI, seeks to discourage.

“Their efforts are not insignificant,” Cullis said. “It is, after all, not an altogether lucrative enterprise selling medical supplies to Iran, so the name-and-shame operations of outside groups have a significant impact on the cost-benefit analysis associated with doing business with Iran.”

All of this ought to discredit supporters of the economic war on Iran. It is a measure of how warped our foreign policy debates are that it never does.

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