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Middle East



All Reason.com articles with the "Middle East" tag.



Published: Sat, 24 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sat, 24 Jun 2017 17:02:52 -0400

 



Interventionism and Domestic Russia Hysteria Ratchet Up Syria Tensions

Mon, 19 Jun 2017 14:44:00 -0400

An American warplane "immediately" shot down a Syrian fighter jet that the U.S. military accused of dropping bombs "near" U.S.-backed fighters in a town in the Raqqa province "in accordance with the rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces," read a statement from the U.S. Central Command declares. The incident was preceded by an attack by pro-government forces on some U.S.-backed rebels nearby, and it was followed by a statement from Russia that it would suspend cooperation with the U.S. over Syria and treat coalition aircraft as potential targets. This escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Russia illustrates the dangers of wanton military intervention. The U.S.-led coalition in Syria is ostensibly focused on fighting ISIS, a terrorist organization that styles itself a caliphate. Yet the coalition acts independently of Russia, which was invited into Syria by the government, and it acts independently of countries like Iran, which have also been threatened by ISIS but are unwilling to follow the American line. The U.S.-led coalition has taken a lot of pressure off regional powers, even though ISIS threatens their security and territorial integrity far more than it threatens America. The presence of Western countries in the coalition has also reduced the need for states in the region to try to set aside their differences and cooperate on their own. America's toxic domestic climate when it comes to Russia has also made the situation in Syria more dangerous. Constant accusations of collusion between Moscow and the Donald Trump campaign have increased the political cost of cooperation with Russia. While Trump campaigned on improving relations with Russia, since assuming the presidency he has largely adopted the sorts of stances that Russia hawk Hillary Clinton might have been expected to take. Meanwhile, much of the mainstream media had an adulatory reaction to Trump's decision to bomb a Syrian airbase earlier this year—a response that taught Trump that "bold" military actions create strong political leaders. It's hard not to wonder whether this weekend's confrontation was influenced by the president's desire to shake off those accusations of Russia collusion. According to U.S. Central Command, pro-regime forces drove the rebels out of town. The coalition then "contacted its Russian counterparts by telephone via an established 'de-confliction line' to de-escalate the situation and stop the firing." It was after that, according to U.S. Central Command, that the Syrian plane dropped bombs near rebel forces and was subsequently shot down. "This strike can be regarded as another act of defiance of international law by the United States," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, according to CNN. "What was it, if not an act of aggression? It was also an act of assistance to those terrorists whom the United States is ostensibly fighting against." Russia's Ministry of Defense now says it will consider any coalition jet west of the Euphrates a potential target. The Euphrates runs, more or less, through the eastern portion of Syria. About two-thirds of the country—including Aleppo, its largest city, and Damascus, its capital—lie west of the Euphrates. The city of Raqqa, which ISIS claims as its capital, lies just north and east of the river. The pilot of the Syrian fighter jet was able to eject from the plane, but his fate is presently unknown.[...]



Senate Vote on Saudi Arms Deal Fails, But Momentum Against Saudi Alliance Growing

Tue, 13 Jun 2017 15:10:00 -0400

A vote to advance a resolution of disapproval of a $510 million U.S. deal to send precision guided weapons systems to Saudi Arabia failed in the Senate by a vote of 47-53. The resolution received far more support than a similar resolution last year targeting a $1 billion tank deal with Saudi Arabia blocked by the Obama administration. The vote indicates support is growing to question the foreign policy establishment status quo. This even as President Trump is abandoning the challenges of the underlying assumptions of U.S. foreign policy and the U.S.'s entangling alliances he made during his campaign. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a main sponsor of the resolution, admitted to reporters today the vote was purely symbolic, noting that that the House is unlikely to bring it up and that even if it passed Trump would veto it anyway. "How do we figure out how to have less war?" Paul asked reporters. "That's the big question. I'm not willing to invade Saudi Arabia to tell them what to do, but we don't have to support them." Last year's resolution, sponsored like this one by Paul, Chris Murphy (D-Ct.), and Al Franken (D-Minn.), sought to disapprove the sale of Abrams tanks and other arms to Saudi Arabia. It failed by a vote of 71-27 to table the resolution. Paul called today's vote a "continuation" of the last one. "We had a vote [last year], and we lost the vote, which I think is a good example of losing the vote but changing the policy," Paul told Reason. "We lost the vote, but then Obama said well maybe we shouldn't give them the special guided missiles, and then Trump has brought it back again." Paul predicted beforehand that there would be a lot more support from Democrats and most Democrats supported today's resolution, which disapproved of the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen. The Obama administration expressed concern over the way Saudi Arabia was conducting its military operations in the Yemen civil war when barring the sale last year. While Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and other supporters of the arms deal argued the precision guided systems would reduce civilian deaths, critics challenged that idea. "Saudi Arabia bombed a funeral procession," Paul said on the Senate floor, referring to an October 2016 incident. "There was no mistake here, there was no cloud cover, there was no growth or tops of trees and they accidentally bombed a funeral procession. They bombed them and killed 125 civilians in a funeral. They wounded 500." Rights groups expressed similar concerns. "Despite increased U.S. support in the form of training and smarter weaponry to lessen civilian casualties, it has become clear that several unaddressed flaws in Saudi Arabia's targeting process, not the precision of the munition or targeting skill, are the principal cause of harm," read a letter signed by Oxfam and 40 other humanitarian groups and sent to every member of the U.S. Senate. "According to analysis released by the American Bar Association, resuming unconditional sales of these weapons to Saudi Arabia violates the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act." That ABA report found that the U.S. could not "continue to rely on Saudi assurances that it will comply with international law and agreements concerning the use of U.S.-origin equipment." Oxfam has warned that Yemen, embroiled in a two-year civil war, is on the verge of famine, with nearly 7 million Yemenis facing starvation. "We need to realize that we are a part of it," Paul said, referring to the ongoing Saudi-led blockade of Yemen, which rights groups say is preventing food and humanitarian supplies from reaching the country. "Am I going to send one of my three sons to fight a war in Yemen?" Paul asked. "I'd have no idea what they were fighting for." As recently as September 2014, President Obama had pointed to U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen as a model for the fight against ISIS and other counterterrorism campaigns. Instead, U.S. actions in Yemen, increased the popularity of the local Al-Qaeda affiliate and helpe[...]



Rand Paul on Blocking Indefinite Detention and Saudi Arms Sales

Fri, 09 Jun 2017 11:14:00 -0400

When Rand Paul dropped out of the presidential race in February 2016, the self-described "libertarianish" senator from Kentucky vowed: "I will continue to fight for criminal justice reform, for privacy, and your Fourth Amendment rights. I will continue to champion due process over indefinite detention." On Thursday, amid the hullaballoo of former FBI director James Comey's dramatic testimony on Capitol Hill, Paul brought a handful of libertarian reporters inside his Senate office to discuss his recent work on these projects.

Front and center is a new piece of legislation, introduced this week, to once and for all ban indefinite detention. With the working title of "The Sixth Amendment Preservation Act," Paul's bill "prevents any future military force authorization from being used to justify indefinite detention without trial," according to a summary prepared by his office. More from that:

Section 1021 of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act unconstitutionally declares that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force allows our Armed Forces to indefinitely detain citizens, legal residents, and foreign nationals who are alleged to have engaged in hostilities against the United States. This means U.S. citizens apprehended within the boundaries of the U.S. could be held indefinitely without trial.

The Sixth Amendment Preservation Act repeals section 1021 making it clear that no military force resolution can legalize indefinite detention without a trial and seeks to restore our constitutional commitment to individual liberty.

Emphasis in original. "You never know who could be in the White House," Paul explained Thursday. "Could someone be there that would actually take away all of our rights and begin arresting us for who we are, what we are, what we think, what we read? And so I consider this to be one of the most important pieces of legislation that we'll put forward."

Also covered in the discussion: the senator's efforts to vote down the recent blockbuster arms sale to Saudi Arabia ("winning a battle like this would send a huge message out there"), the Trump administration's tough-on-crime posture ("I think there's very little of this attorney general, this Department of Justice, doing anything favorable towards criminal justice or towards civil liberties"), criticism of Paul's vote to confirm Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and his reaction to the Comey hearing, which we teased out yesterday.

Produced and edited by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Krainin and Mark McDaniel.

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Rand Paul on Blocking Indefinite Detention and Saudi Arms Sales

Fri, 09 Jun 2017 10:55:00 -0400

(image) When Rand Paul dropped out of the presidential race in February 2016, the self-described "libertarianish" senator from Kentucky vowed: "I will continue to fight for criminal justice reform, for privacy, and your Fourth Amendment rights. I will continue to champion due process over indefinite detention." On Thursday, amid the hullaballoo of former FBI director James Comey's dramatic testimony on Capitol Hill, Paul brought a handful of libertarian reporters inside his Senate office to discuss his recent work on these projects.

Front and center is a new piece of legislation, introduced this week, to once and for all ban indefinite detention. With the working title of "The Sixth Amendment Preservation Act," Paul's bill "prevents any future military force authorization from being used to justify indefinite detention without trial," according to a summary prepared by his office. More from that:

Section 1021 of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act unconstitutionally declares that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force allows our Armed Forces to indefinitely detain citizens, legal residents, and foreign nationals who are alleged to have engaged in hostilities against the United States. This means U.S. citizens apprehended within the boundaries of the U.S. could be held indefinitely without trial.

The Sixth Amendment Preservation Act repeals section 1021 making it clear that no military force resolution can legalize indefinite detention without a trial and seeks to restore our constitutional commitment to individual liberty.

Emphasis in original. "You never know who could be in the White House," Paul explained Thursday. "Could someone be there that would actually take away all of our rights and begin arresting us for who we are, what we are, what we think, what we read? And so I consider this to be one of the most important pieces of legislation that we'll put forward."

Also covered in the discussion: the senator's efforts to vote down the recent blockbuster arms sale to Saudi Arabia ("winning a battle like this would send a huge message out there"), the Trump administration's tough-on-crime posture ("I think there's very little of this attorney general, this Department of Justice, doing anything favorable towards criminal justice or towards civil liberties"), criticism of Paul's vote to confirm Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and his reaction to the Comey hearing, which we teased out yesterday.

Watch an edit of our exchange here:

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/ZWadlrFil54" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0">

Reason on Rand Paul here.




Trump: Uniquely Qualified for an Israeli-Palestinian Peace Deal?

Tue, 23 May 2017 17:45:00 -0400

(image) For decades American presidents have tried, with varying degrees of effort and to varying degrees of success, to negotiate a peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Donald Trump, with his apparent lack of interest both in policy detail and in pretending the U.S. is a neutral party, could be uniquely qualified to accomplish what has eluded his predecessors.

Since the Camp David talks of the mid-1970s, the term "peace process" has mostly meant American-led negotiations. That in itself is a problem: When the U.S. takes too large a role in the talks, it removes the pressure from Palestinian and Israeli diplomats to arrive at a deal on their own. But Trump has shown little capacity for the kind of long-term, sustained attention that allows Israelis and Palestinians to abdicate their leadership.

That attention, full of "shuttle diplomacy" and frenetic attempts at legacy-building, rarely moves the peace process forward in a meaningful way. U.S. disengagement, by any avenue, could create the space for real progress.

Trump has also shown little interest in upholding some of the fictions of American diplomacy. When he declares that his administration will "always stand with Israel," he adds none of the nuance of the Obama era, when such language of friendship was constantly coupled with promises to hold Israel accountable. Trump's rhetoric matches the reality on the ground: Since Israel is one of the top recipients of U.S. military aid, negotiators won't see Washington as a neutral party even if the U.S. would like to assume that role.

Trump has, in fact, said he wanted to remain neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Let me sort of be a neutral guy," he said at one campaign stop last year. "I don't want to say whose fault is it. I don't think it helps." This desire did not stop Trump from making unabashedly pro-Israel statements during the campaign or since taking the presidency. With any other politician, a desire for neutrality would be incompatible with statements of unqualified friendship. But Trump is not a typical politician, and his propensity to make contradictory statements without even attempting to reconcile them has arguably destroyed the credibility of his presidency.

Whatever else that might do, it could have the salutory effect of giving Israeli and Palestinian negotiators the impression that they're on their own. A long series of active and respected American presidents have been unable to move the peace process forward. Maybe an inactive president with little credibility is just the jumpstart the negotiations need.




Trump's Saudi Trip Wasn't a Break From Tradition

Mon, 22 May 2017 19:02:00 -0400

Want to see the disconnect between America's actual foreign policy and the way many media professionals imagine it? Check out Anne Applebaum's Washington Post column calling Donald Trump's stop in Saudi Arabia a "bizarre and un-American visit." Applebaum complains that Saudi Arabia, a longstanding beneficiary of U.S. largesse, was a "very strange choice for a first trip abroad" because the last four presidents made their first foreign stops in Mexico or Canada instead. This critique is more about optics than substance, but she's right to see a shift here. The last five presidents, not four—and six of the last seven—had their first foreign excursions in either Canada or Mexico. Ronald Reagan never visited Saudi Arabia. George W. Bush didn't go there until the last year of his presidency. Barack Obama, on the other hand, visited in June 2009, not much later in his presidency than Trump, although he had made nine other foreign trips before then. Obama also visited the kingdom a record four times. (No other president had visited more than twice.) This shift doesn't reflect a specific policy goal of the Trump (or Obama) administration so much as a broader realignment of American priorities. Counterterrorism has taken on an ever more central role in U.S. foreign policy, and Saudi Arabia is America's largest Muslim-majority ally in the Middle East, despite its record of supporting the sort of Islamist extremism that contributes to terrorism. The U.S. has a long history of linking up with murderous dictatorships when it suits America's short-term foreign policy goals, with little regard for potential blowback. The unquestioned alliance with Saudi Arabia is part of that proud tradition. Applebaum complains that Saudi Arabia was Trump's first stop overseas, but what's really troubling is that the president has abandoned his campaign rhetoric questioning such relationships. Applebaum is aware of Saudi support for Islamism; indeed, her second complaint is that Saudi Arabia is a "strange place to speak out against Islamic extremism" because the government there subsidizes certain strains of extremism. True enough, though there really isn't a perfect venue for a speech on Islam. Obama delivered his first-year Islam speech in Cairo, the capital of a secular murderous dictatorship—and also went to Saudi Arabia first to, in his own words, seek the king's counsel on Islam. A similar amnesia afflicts Applebaum when she objects to Trump's participation in the sword dance, a traditional Saudi ritual. "[U]ntil now," she claims, "American presidents made it clear that, while we have to deal with Saudi leaders, we don't endorse their culture. Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others in the delegation did exactly that, by participating in this sinister all-male dance." There's just one problem with that take: George W. Bush also participated in the sword dance when he visited Saudi Arabia. And U.S. presidents regularly "endorse" Saudi culture by participating in various cultural activities while there. It's U.S. spending, not a sword dance, that underwrites the Saudis' reactionary and repressive regime; it's U.S. spending, not a medal or a bow, that raises thorny questions about how much responsibilty we bear for Riyadh's repression at home or its brutal war in Yemen. But acknowledging that means acknowledging that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is a longstanding, bipartisan project, and not simply the product of a single American president who appears enamored with strongman leaders. After complaining that the Trump administration appeared to embrace repressive Saudi culture, Applebaum also manages to complain about Tillerson denouncing human rights violations in Iran. "Yes, Americans are often hypocritical about where and when they promote human rights," she writes. "But to denounce human rights in Iran while standing in Saudi Arabia, a place where there is no political freedom and no religious f[...]



Trump To Muslim World: Peace Only Possible "if your Nations Drive Out the Terrorists and Extremists"

Sun, 21 May 2017 15:50:00 -0400

President Donald Trump's speech in Saudi Arabia was in many ways window-dressing to a new, $110-billion arms deal with one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. But his 30-minute talk, televised widely through the Arab and Muslim worlds, is an interesting statement that's worth spending serious time with. If Candidate Trump was openly scornful of Islam, often denouncing it as an inherently violent religion, he's singing a different tune now, saying he's not interested in how countries conduct their internal affairs as long as they don't export terrorists. America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership—based on shared interests and values—to pursue a better future for us all. Beyond in the rejection of what he would call a globalist worldview, Trump seems to be signaling a return to a non-humanitarian dimension to U.S. foreign policy. The problem is that he specifically justified his ineffective bombing of a Syrian airstrip on humanitarian grounds (that the Assad government had used prohibited chemical weapons on innocent civilians). More important, while he sounded somewhat non-interventionist as a candidate at times, he also pledged to "bomb the shit" out of Muslim terrorists in the Middle East and Afghanistan, a promise he has shown signs of keeping, even beyond Syria. It's worth pointing out, too, that even when the U.S. government has embraced or eschewed humanitarian motivations for foreign policy, it has never been constrained by such declarations. To pretend, for instance, that Bill Clinton's various interventions and actions were motivated by humanitarian concerns rather than vulgar domestic politics requires a suspension of disbelief beyond that of the most-devoted fan of Starlight Express or Cop Rock. Yet from a libertarian perspective at least, it's good to hear a president rhetorically lay out a foreign policy that is basically limited to defending American interests rather than saving the world (how many countries and innocent people must die to prove America is virtuous?). Same, too, with getting overly involved with the internal workings of foreign countries. America should always be a place of refuge for people fleeing tyranny and oppression, and our government can and should exert influence to liberalize and open-up repressive hellholes. But the past 15 years of U.S. interventions (and if we're being honest, most of our overseas adventuring before that) have clearly failed. Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson's campaign may have floundered due to some misstatements about the Syrian civil war, but he was right in saying the United States should use trade, cultural exchange, and diplomacy to affect other countries. We simply don't have the knowledge or resources to bully or beat the world into our shape. Military intervention, regime change, and all the rest should be last resorts and exceptionally rare. The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children. It is a choice between two futures—and it is a choice America CANNOT make for you. A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. Drive. Them. Out. DRIVE THEM OUT of your places of worship. DRIVE THEM OUT of your communities. DRIVE THEM OUT of your holy land, and DRIVE THEM OUT OF THIS EARTH. For our part, America is committed to adjusting our strategies to meet evolving threats and new facts. We will discard those strategies that have not worked—and will apply new approaches informed by experience and judgment. We are adop[...]



Israel Decriminalizes Pot Possession

Sat, 13 May 2017 06:00:00 -0400

"More and more citizens are demanding marijuana use be permitted," Yohanan Danino, then Israel's police chief, observed in 2015. "I think the time has come for the Israel police, together with the state, to re-examine their stance on cannabis. I think we must sit and study what's happening around the world."

If it was surprising to hear a sitting police chief talk about tolerating cannabis consumption, it was even more surprising when the country's right-wing government followed Danino's advice, although it didn't go quite as far as he suggested. In March, the Israeli cabinet approved a plan to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of pot with civil fines.

Under the plan, which was endorsed by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, a member of the conservative Likud Party, people 18 or older caught with up to 15 grams (half an ounce) of marijuana would be subject to a fine of 1,000 shekels (about $275). The amount would be doubled for a second offense, while third-time offenders would receive probation, possibly coupled with treatment or additional sanctions, such as suspension of their driver's licenses. Criminal charges would be possible, at the discretion of police, only after a fourth offense.

Possession of 15 grams or less is currently punishable by up to three years in prison, although the consequences are usually much less severe. Under attorney general's directives issued in 1985 and 2003, people caught with small amounts of marijuana are not supposed to be arrested for a first offense. Police have discretion as to whether charges should be brought for subsequent offenses.

Arrests for marijuana possession fell 30 percent between 2010 and 2015, from 4,967 to 3,425, in a country with a population of 8.2 million. By comparison, police in the United States, which has a population 40 times as big, arrested about 575,000 people for marijuana possession in 2015, or 168 times as many.

"The current law enforcement policy may come across as arbitrary and draconian, or, alternatively, a dead letter that is no longer enforced," a committee appointed by Erdan concluded. Tamar Zandberg, a member of the left-wing Meretz Party who chairs the Knesset Special Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, said the new approach "sends a message that a million Israelis who consume marijuana aren't criminals."

While recreational use remains illegal, about 25,000 Israelis legally use marijuana as a medicine. Last year, the government made medical marijuana more accessible by letting more doctors prescribe it and allowing ordinary pharmacies to dispense it. In January the government announced $2.1 million in funding for medical marijuana research, and 37 growers received preliminary permits in March, more than quintupling the number of cultivation sites.




The United Martian Emirates

Thu, 11 May 2017 10:05:00 -0400

Once it became clear that "bizarre building plan from the United Arab Emirates" was basically a regional subgenre of science fiction, something like this was probably inevitable:

(image) Earlier this year, the United Arab Emirates' grabbed the world's attention when Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced a plan to establish a colony on Mars by 2117. Officials have been relatively mum about the details of the "Mars 2117 Project"—but [Tuesday] a person helping to lead the endeavor discussed how young Arab people will lead the mission....

According to early mockups, the UAE colony will involve some pretty advanced infrastructure, though more formalized models have not yet been made public.

If there's one thing the UAE is great at producing, it's "early mockups" of cool-looking structures. The structures themselves frequently fail to get built, but don't let that stop you from enjoying the images:


[Hat tip: Bryan Alexander.]




Former Obama Lawyers Are Suddenly Worried About Illegal Wars

Tue, 09 May 2017 10:29:00 -0400

Yesterday an anti-Trump group called United to Protect Democracy filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit aimed at finding out something you really shouldn't need a FOIA lawsuit to find out: the president's legal rationale for lobbing cruise missiles at a Syrian air base last month. The lawsuit seeks "any and all records, including but not limited to emails and memoranda, reflecting, discussing, or otherwise relating to the April 6, 2017 military strike on Syria and/or the President's legal authority to launch such a strike." To be clear: We know why Trump bombed Syria—because he was upset by images of children and other innocent civilians dying from the government's April 4 sarin gas attack on a rebel-held town. What we don't know is why Trump, who in 2013 argued that "Obama needs Congressional approval" to attack Syria as punishment for President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons, thought he had the legal authority to do the same thing, assuming he gave the issue any thought at all. On April 10, the FOIA lawsuit notes, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer "claimed that the Constitution gives the President 'the full authority to act' whenever military force is 'in the national interest.'" In addition to the humanitarian concerns raised by Assad's use of chemical weapons, Spicer mentioned the threat posed by ISIS, which is fighting the Assad regime. That same day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the missile assault was all about "holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world"—a breathtakingly broad justification for military action. The following day, Defense Secretary James Mattis said: "Our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS." He said the attack on the Syrian air base was the best way "deter the regime" from using chemical weapons, which are prohibited by an international agreement to which Syria is a party. None of those explanations amounts to a legal rationale for the U.S. attack. The Chemical Weapons Convention does not authorize signatories to enforce its provisions through unilateral military action, and the U.S. Constitution requires the president to obtain congressional authorization for acts of war unless the country is under attack. Trump is hardly the first president to ignore the latter rule. Describing "a split between the apparent intent of the Constitution and how the country has been governed in practice," New York Times reporter Charlie Savage notes that "presidents of both parties have a long history of carrying out military operations without authorization from Congress." That emphatically includes Barack Obama, who famously argued that bombing Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces did not constitute "hostilities" under the War Powers Act and justified his unauthorized war against ISIS by citing congressional approval of a different war against a different enemy. I am not sure which is worse: insulting our intelligence with such transparently inadequate rationales or dispensing with the pretense of legality altogether, as Trump has done. But the members of United to Protect Democracy, former Obama administration lawyers who for all we know had a hand in crafting the 44th president's laughable excuses for illegal military interventions, seem considerably more perturbed about presidential overreach now that Trump is commander in chief. "We have seen an unprecedented tide of authoritarian-style politics sweep the country that is fundamentally at odds with the Bill of Rights, the constitutional limitations on the role of the President, and the laws and unwritten norms that prevent overreach and abuse of power," the group says. "The only limits to prevent a slide away from our democratic traditions will be those that are imposed by the Courts, Cong[...]



Trump's Empty Bluster and Bombing

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 00:01:00 -0400

When terrorism raises its head, governments often take steps that are supposed to make us safer—banning tiny knives from airplanes, putting metal detectors at stadium entrances, issuing "orange" alerts. Skeptics dismiss these measures as "security theater." They're a show, not a genuine obstacle to terrorists. The Trump administration, obsessed with imagery, has adapted this approach to national security. The president tweets bellicose warnings to North Korea. The vice president goes to South Korea to don a bomber jacket and stare implacably across the Demilitarized Zone. An aircraft carrier steams toward the Sea of Japan—or rather, Trump claims it's doing so even as it heads the opposite direction, thousands of miles away. Anyone who heard Donald Trump brag about his choice for defense secretary knows that half the appeal of James Mattis was his nickname, "Mad Dog," which the president used every chance he got. Had Mattis been known as "Peewee" or "Mouse," he would have been passed over. With all the noise and spectacle, this presidency often seems less like an attempt at governance and more like a rehearsal for a Broadway musical. It's just not clear whether it will be a comedy or a tragedy. Some of the props are real. When the military dropped the biggest conventional bomb in the U.S. arsenal on an Islamic State position in Afghanistan, it came as a surprise. But you know the Pentagon had Trump at "mother of all bombs." Once he heard about it, he had to use it. The problem is that these gestures are no substitute for strategies. This sortie was meant to highlight our power in a way no one could miss. But what happens if you drop your biggest bomb and it doesn't win the war? Those on the other side conclude that they can take the worst you can inflict. The rest of the world sees the same thing. It's known as shooting your bolt. The most important question in fighting a war is often, "Then what?" It's one of many questions Trump doesn't spend hours contemplating. He certainly didn't let it delay his missile strike on a Syrian air base, which was supposed to punish President Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons. That attack sent a couple of signals. The first is that if Assad resorts again to chemical weapons, the U.S. may respond with military force. The second is that if the Syrian dictator uses other methods—as he has done in killing some 100,000 civilians—he has nothing to worry about. Assad can take a hint. In the week after the missile strike, according to the Voice of America, the Syrian Network for Human Rights noted an increase in his use of cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and barrel bombs, which killed at least 98 civilians, 24 of them children. The 22,000-pound bomb that hit a network of caves used by the Islamic State in Afghanistan was said to have killed 96 enemy fighters while causing no civilian casualties. The latter claim invites skepticism. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both declined to use this weapon because of its indiscriminate effects. Bush considered it for taking out Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In the end, the danger to innocent bystanders was deemed so great that it was left on the shelf—until now. Trump clearly thinks that worrying about civilian casualties makes you look weak. But indifference to collateral damage doesn't mean he will succeed in Afghanistan or Syria. One huge conventional bomb, or two or five, won't defeat the Islamic State—which isn't even our chief enemy in Afghanistan. And deploying it against the Taliban, who have a wider and deeper presence, would doubtless spawn more terrorists than it would kill. The missile strike and the giant bomb drop both amount to an admission of impotence. We can't win in Syria without dispatching a large number of ground troops, and so far Trump is no[...]



The Banality of U.S. Foreign-Policy Hawks And Their Media Enablers

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 12:45:00 -0400

As Donald Trump's bombing of a Syrian air base last week testifies, nothing stifles political dissent in America more quickly and completely than military action. Suddenly, even the Democratic congressional leadership of Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi is linking arms with a president they regularly assail as incompetent and unqualified. The mainstream media fell into line, too, with 83 percent of major newspapers supporting the action by one tally. Out of the 46 largest newspapers that editorialized on Syria, only one—The Houston Chronicle—opposed the air strike. Where does such a mind-set come from? This is especially important since it's not clear that political and cultural elites are speaking for the majority of Americans when pushing a pro-intervention line. Indeed, one of Donald Trump's most-potent populist attacks during his presidential campaign sprung directly from suspicion of leaders being dangerously out of touch with what typical Americans felt. Iraq and Libya, he averred during the 2016 race, were flawed because they put the interests of "globalists" ahead of actual American interests. At least since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States can't be fairly characterized as a non-interventionist country, but it's also fair to say that our country's foreign policy after World War II was not necessarily an expression of the vox populi. Foreign policy isn't something that should be put to a majority vote, of course, but when your whole political persona is speaking for the "forgotten" men and women of America, it's worth thinking about (this is also true, incidentally, when it comes to free trade and liberal immigration laws, which are also supported by majorities of voters). At Hot Air, Allahpundit notes that even as one poll shows "52 percent of Republicans" strongly or somewhat support using ground troops to remove Bashar al-Assad from Syria, a plurality of Americans (44 percent to 41 percent) are plainly against such action. Other polls, such as CBS, show virtually no support for anything more than random, "humanitarian" airstrikes (which of course are anything but). The CBS polls says just 17 percent of us support the use of troops to unseat Assad. YouGov, meanwhile, finds massive and swift growth in the percentage of Republicans who believe that the United States "has a responsibility to intervene in trouble spots." Four years ago, just 18 percent of Republicans agreed with such a sentiment. As of last week, 51 percent does. Which suggests that foreign policy is much more about domestic politics. While there is a strong pro-interventionist, neoconservative caucus within the Republican Party (think John McCain, who rarely meets a bombing or invasion program he doesn't fall in love with), partisan politics often does a better job of explaining where voters and leaders stand on anything. That is, until the bombs start exploding and the bullets start buzzing. Then you get 83 percent of newspapers rallying around the flag pole and otherwise mortal enemies linking arms and singing "Kumbaya," albeit in the name of war. And you get commentaries like this by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in The Week: Whether you like it or not, America is the world's lone superpower, and its military dominance over the rest of the world has, despite all its flaws, produced an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. The phrase "world policeman" is usually taken as a pejorative, but it is actually extremely apt: A policeman should not be a nanny or a busybody, but, by god, if he sees a thug punching a grandmother, he should intervene. It is actually the antithesis of that other pejorative word, "empire." In political theory terms, a policeman enforces a minimal rule set — what you must not do — whereas an empire enfor[...]



In Syria, the Wrong Kind of Humanitarian Intervention

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 00:01:00 -0400

Americans are a generous and selfless people, ever eager to improve the lives of foreigners cursed to live in less fortunate places. In fact, we are the nicest folks who would ever invade your country and leave it in ruins. President Donald Trump's heart was long thought to be two sizes too small. But he was suddenly so moved by the sight of Syrian children caught in a nerve gas attack that his nobler impulses overcame him. These were victims he didn't care enough about to admit to the United States as refugees. But he cared enough to blow up some stuff at a Syrian air base on their behalf. The Syrian attack is the latest case of using the American military for humanitarian intervention—a term that has become a virtual oxymoron, like "Midwestern skiing" or "national unity." Our presidents have a long practice of using soldiers and warplanes to heal conflict and a long record of opening new wounds. One early example was Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, ordered in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush to help alleviate a famine brought on by a civil war. How did that work out? Reported The Economist last year, "After a quarter-century of costly foreign intervention, Somalia is still Africa's most-failed state"—plagued by war, terrorism and, yes, famine. In 1999, President Bill Clinton bombed Yugoslavia, a response to the Serbian-dominated government's persecution of ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. The NATO air campaign, however, spurred the Serbs into a frenzy of ethnic cleansing and killed some 500 Serbian civilians in raids that "violated international humanitarian law," according to Human Rights Watch. President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq was justified as a favor to the oppressed people of Iraq, who had been brutalized by Saddam Hussein and were expected to greet us as liberators. But in toppling Saddam, we unleashed deadly chaos that persists even now. A 2013 study led by public health professor Amy Hagopian of the University of Washington concluded that the Iraq war and occupation caused nearly a half-million Iraqi deaths. That's not counting the turmoil in Syria, another regrettable byproduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In Libya, President Barack Obama acted against the alleged prospect of mass slaughter by dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Our intervention played a central role in turning Libya into what it is today: yet another failed state, a cauldron of anarchy and a hotbed of terrorists. Our assumption that nothing could be worse than Gadhafi turned out to be overly optimistic. Trump's air raid confirms that the main thing Americans have learned from history is that our leaders don't learn from history. He and his advisers say Bashar Assad's savagery could not be excused. But the only savagery that has prompted retaliation involved chemical weapons. As long as he limits himself to conventional forms of slaughter, the administration has made clear, he can expect to be left alone. If Trump elected to expand our military involvement, on the other hand, the likely consequence would be more bloodshed rather than peace. If the president were serious about humanitarian concerns, he would not be trying to cut the foreign aid budget—which has a better record than military force of actually helping the afflicted. George W. Bush set out to curb AIDS in Africa with a program that has saved millions of lives through prevention and treatment. So what does Trump propose? He proposes to cut U.S. funding for that program by $300 million this year. He is lavishing money on efforts that have proved destructive while shorting those that have worked. As a humanitarian, he's got things backward. "International public health programs are almost certainly the most cost-effective way to save lives a[...]



83 Percent of Major Newspaper Editorial Boards Supported Syria Strike

Wed, 12 Apr 2017 21:40:00 -0400

Lest we forget, war is not only the health of the state, it's one of the great enforcers of media groupthink. According to the tally put together by Adam Johnson at Fair.org, out of 46 major newspaper editorial boards, exactly one—The Houston Chronicle's—opposed the Trump administration's bombing of a Syrian airbase last week. Seven were ambiguous. Reason's coverage has been anything but ambiguous, noting that from effectively every possible angle, the Tomahawk missile attack was not only ineffective—planes were flying out of the airbase within 24 hours—but unjustifiable.

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Writes Johnson:

Of the top 100 US newspapers, 47 ran editorials on President Donald Trump's Syria airstrikes last week: 39 in favor, seven ambiguous and only one opposed to the military attack.

In other words, 83 percent of editorials on the Syria attack supported Trump's bombing, 15 percent took an ambivalent position and 2 percent said the attack shouldn't have happened. Polls showed the US public being much more split: Gallup (4/7–8/17) and ABC/Washington Post (4/7–9/17) each had 51 percent supporting the airstrikes and 40 percent opposed, while CBS (4/7–9/17) found 57 percent in favor and 36 percent opposed.

More here.

The difference between elite opinion (including elected officials; even liberal Trump critics such as Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi supported the attack) and the vox populi is striking and calls to mind Thaddeus Russell's comments in Monday's Reason podcast. Russell, a historian who is working on a book about the effect of Wilsonian ideas on U.S. foreign policy, noted that media and political elites have long been far more bellicose than voters writ large. Similarly, they have been more hostile to immigration and free trade than jes' plain folks too.

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Firing Missiles at Syria Makes Donald Trump a 'Serious' Leader?

Wed, 12 Apr 2017 00:01:00 -0400

Somehow, firing Tomahawk missiles at Syria suddenly changed people's opinions of President Trump. Now they call him a "serious" leader. William Kristol said Trump's action "reassures you." Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), long critical of Trump, now say he "deserves the support of the American people." Politicians from France, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Australia expressed their support. So did Hillary Clinton. "Why is war such an alluring illusion?" asks Jeffrey Tucker, of the Foundation for Economic Education. "Good intentions are never enough to justify government intervention in anything. This is especially true in war, the meanest, deadliest, and most destructive government program ever conceived. And yet we keep doing it." Trump says pictures of Syrian children killed by nerve gas moved him to order the attack. His supporters say launching the missiles was the "moral" thing to do. But Syria's dictator killed more children in the past. In 2013, after a horrible chemical attack, Trump tweeted, "Do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside... If the U.S. attacks Syria and hits the wrong targets, killing civilians, there will be worldwide hell to pay. Stay away." Fortunately, it appears that these missile strikes didn't kill civilians. But four years ago Trump also said, "What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict?" What changed? Just seeing pictures on TV? For years, we've tried to sort out who is on which side in Syria. Last week's attack was an awfully fast switch to military action. Both Democratic and Republican interventionists focus on Assad as the bad guy. Many say getting rid of him will make the Syrian public less likely to side with ISIS. Maybe. But they've been completely wrong before about the aftermath of war. In Syria, dozens of factions are fighting each other. We don't know the motives of all of them. Some rebels Assad wants to crush are openly allied with ISIS. None of this makes Assad a good guy, but it means we don't know what will replace him if he gets toppled. Fourteen years ago, many people thought nothing could be worse for Iraq than Saddam Hussein. The groups unleashed when Saddam fell were worse. Before that, our support of "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan helped arm the Taliban and eventually ISIS. Today, they kill Americans with weapons American taxpayers paid for. In Libya, Tucker reminds us, "The US intervened with airstrikes to overthrow a terrible dictator but instead of unleashing freedom, the results unleashed a terror army that continues to spread violence and death ... It is not enough merely to bomb a government or regime into disgrace, resignation or obliteration. It is grossly irresponsible not to ask the question: what comes after?" We don't even know for certain that it was the Syrian president who used nerve gas. He claims his regime attacked anti-government militias with conventional bombs, and one must have hit gas that the militias themselves stored. I don't know if that's true, but I have a hard time being as confident as people like McCain about what's going on over in the Middle East. Even if Assad was responsible for the nerve gas, it's not obvious that using nerve gas is a more horrendous crime than fighting wars by other means. Nearly everyone seems to think so, and chemical weapons do drift in the air, making them more likely to kill civilians. But families torn apart by conventional bombs take little consolation in knowing that what killed their relatives wasn't poison gas. If Trump turns out to be like most past presidents, he'll see his popularity rise b[...]