Published: Tue, 24 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500
Last Build Date: Tue, 24 Jan 2017 02:35:31 -0500
Mon, 02 Jan 2017 11:05:00 -0500For the American press and many partisans, one of Donald Trump's very gravest sins is his "bromance" with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It's a sure sign of The Donald's stupidness, ignorance, naiveity, or flat-out lack of any moral seriousness that he seems to be OK with the Russians grabbing Crimea, edging its way into Ukraine, helping an even-bigger POS, Bashar al Assad, in Syria, and even "hacking" an election (or maybe not). These are all serious actions and worthy of argument, analysis, and sharp disagreement. But the presumption of most of Trump's critics (they exist on the right, too) when it comes to his Putinphilia is the unexamined equation of today's Russia and the Soviet Union. Just like the Soviets, this unspoken argument goes, Russia is bent on world domination or, at the very least, regaining the contours of its former empire of Soviet republics and effective control of countries in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. Against such a dire and unexamined starting point, Washington Post Moscow Bureau Chief David Filipov has written an important article worth reading. After recounting the very good year that Putin had in 2016 (brokering a cease-fire in Syria, winning praise from President-elect Trump, getting his "man" elected in the U.S., high-though-not-stellar approval ratings at home), he reminds us: Russia is not the Soviet Union, this is not the Cold War, and Moscow is not looking for world domination. Putin's goal is limited to reducing U.S. influence while ensuring Russia's vital interests, and the power he can project is still limited by a weak economy and a global reach that pales in comparison to that of the United States. He can't act anywhere he wants, he can't do it alone, and a lot still depends on whether and how far President-elect Donald Trump decides to go along with him. Filipov notes that Russia's economy is still in the shitter and highly dependent upon energy exports. Even though Putin has a personal rating in the 80s, only around half of the country thinks it is heading in the right direction and all sorts of structural reforms of the public sector and the economy have stalled or failed miserably. The typical Russian household is spending more than half its money on food and groceries for the first time in seven years and Russian GDP has declined from a peak of $2.2 trillion in 2013 to just $1.3 trillion, which works out to a second-world per-capita figure of $9,000. Putin recently refused a plan from his military to re-establish naval bases in Cuba and Vietnam, at least in part because of the cost. Filipov concludes: Putin has succeeded because he only picks fights with the United States when Russian vital interests are at stake and Russia has a reasonable chance of prevailing, said Simon Saradzhyan, founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Saradzhyan argues that the primary consideration here is whether the United States is willing to commit its full might: In Ukraine, U.S. vital interests were not at stake, and ultimately, he said, the Obama administration decided they were not in Syria, either. "Soviet leaders sought to counter the United States everywhere and anywhere," Saradzhyan said. "Putin has a much more limited outlook shaped by capacities of his country's economy, demographics and other components of national might."... Even as Putin steams into 2017 at the height of his power, the question is what happens to Russia's standing the moment Trump takes control of the world's most powerful nation. While Moscow is likely to continue to push to expand its influence where it can at the expense of the United States, co-opting the new administration — for example, in the fight against terrorism — wherever it is feasible, Putin is unlikely to act in a way that openly challenges the new U.S. president. Read the whole thing. HT: John Hudson at Foreign Policy. This is, to be sure, a generous reading of Putin's actions, but it's also a fair one. Most important, it forces Americans to break with the Cold War lens[...]
Fri, 30 Dec 2016 21:00:00 -0500
(image) The U.S. admitted 70,000 refugees last year. But according to the United Nations, 4.8 million people are currently registered for refugee status from Syria alone. In 2016, President Obama increased the U.S. intake of Syrians by 10,000—less than one-eighth the population being housed in three square miles of desert at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan (pictured here).
Thu, 29 Dec 2016 14:00:00 -05002016 is mercifully coming to an end this weekend, and the Obama presidency will end less than three weeks later. Despite Donald Trump's insistence that he'll do things differently, January 20, 2017 will be no more a clean break from the past than January 20, 2009, was, especially when it comes to the exercise of U.S. foreign policy abroad. Both Barack Obama and Trump made a change in foreign policy part of their successful first presidential campaigns—for both, that promise of change was nebulous and uncertain. It allowed people with all different kinds of ideas about U.S. foreign policy to believe his vision would comport with their own. President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, just 10 months into office. He leaves office with a war in Afghanistan that's gone on longer than the Civil War, World War I, and World War II combined, a war in Iraq (and Syria) that's not quite the same as the one he inherited (the names and places have changed), and intervention-induced chaos in places like Libya and Yemen. Trump, meanwhile, sent all sorts of mixed signals about how his administration might conduct, or frame, its foreign policy during the campaign—he was no non-interventionist but also challenged the Republican foreign policy establishment during the primaries. His freewheeling style so far has earned some dividends, while his cabinet picks, like Rex Tillerson at secretary of state and Gen. James Mattis at defense, will at their confirmations have to frame whatever the Trump administration's actual foreign policy, or foreign policy narrative, might be. Even a foreign policy left adrift is destructive, and like the Obama administration before it, the Trump administration, too, will inherit a number of conflict zones and hot spots in which the United States is engaged. Afghanistan In 2009, President Obama ordered a troop surge in Afghanistan, a war that at that point had entered its ninth year. "When the history of the Obama presidency is written," The New York Times reported on December 5, 2009, about Obama's decision to accelerate the troop surge and subsequent withdrawal as visualized in a bell curve chart, "that day with the chart may prove to be a turning point, the moment a young commander in chief set in motion a high-stakes gamble to turn around a losing war." Seven years later, the Afghanistan war continues. Most recently, the putative withdrawal was pushed into 2017, with at least 6,000 U.S. troops staying through next year. In 2009, the point of the surge was to create the space for Afghan security forces to operate on their own. A concomitant "civilian surge" from the State Department was supposed to strengthen Afghan national institutions. Bureaucratic infighting and incompetence instead wasted any opportunity that the surge might have created for a withdrawal. Last year, President Obama became the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to bomb another Nobel Peace Prize winner when an American gunship launched a strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. Today, U.S. forces are fighting not just the Taliban but ISIS fighters as well. Obama has slowed down the pull out in large part because Afghan forces are unprepared to fight alone. Trump, meanwhile, has argued against both nation-building in Afghanistan and setting withdrawal dates (that insurgents would know) yet in favor of a long-term military presence in Afghanistan to keep it from becoming a failed states. Iraq By the time President Obama took office, a status of forces agreement had been negotiated between the U.S. and Iraq that would see all U.S. troops withdrawn by 2011. While Obama tried to keep a residual U.S. force of 10,000 in Iraq past that date, the Iraqi government was unwilling to extend immunity to U.S. troops who stayed in the country longer. Nevertheless, Obama campaigned for re-election in 2012 on the idea that he had brought the Iraq war to an end anyway. By 2014, the president had changed his tune. The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq compelled Obam[...]
Fri, 23 Dec 2016 15:00:00 -0500Frontline: Exodus. PBS. Tuesday, December 27, 9 p.m. Meet Isra'a, whose young life as a connoisseur of fine toys was rudely interrupted by a missile that obliterated the fine Syrian home of her merchant father. Now she's a canny street kid in the Turkish harbor town of Izmir, where her expertise includes one of the world's oddest niche markets—an open-air plaza where refugee families like hers can purchase all the appurtenances of illicit sea travel. Over there, she gestures, are the dealers in "rubber rings"—inner tubes, which are used as life preservers by upscale refugees and as vehicles by those whose hopes are bigger than their wallets. The rubber-ring trade is only for the hardiest of entrepreneurs, Isra'a observes, since cops periodically sweep through and confiscate their stocks in hopes of discouraging refugee traffic. (Isra'a, though only 10 or 12, knows a good bit about the police; she laughs as other kids admiringly describe how she shouted at them to run when cops recently grabbed her and slapped her around.) Less noticeable and therefore less risky, she advises, is the trade in small plastic bags that close with drawstrings: a waterproof carrying case for the cell phones that even the poorest emigres carry to map their trips and call for help in case of sinking, abduction or the other routine imperilments of refugee life. "If, God forbid, the dinghy sinks," Isra'a explains, "the phone will be safe." About the fate of the people carrying the phone, she is silent. Isra'a one of a dozen or so refugees whose journeys are chronicled in Exodus, a sweeping yet intimate episode of the PBS documentary series Frontline. From passengers frantically bailing water out of a floundering boat in the Mediterranean to a riot inside the notorious Calais camp known as "The Jungle," footage shot by the refugees themselves with smartphone cameras turns Exodus into something more like a diary than a documentary. Their message is that they are not so different than the rest of us would be if confronted with their dire circumstances. "Anyone can be a refugee," muses Ahmad, a young Syrian man who spent months slipping across borders in the Middle East and Europe in order to reach England after ISIS took over his village. "It's not something you choose. It's something that happens to you." The refugees are among more than a million who smuggled themselves into Europe from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East during 2015. The flow is even heavier this year as Syria disintegrates into total chaos, from which most of the refugees in Exodus are bolting. ("A country that's thousands of years old was destroyed in a minute," mourns one.) But as a young man named Sadiq, fleeing a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, reminds us, the ceaseless wars of the 21st century have left behind many burned-out hellholes in which the only reasonable alternative is escape. "I'm sure if they had the money, nobody would remain in Afghanistan," says Sadiq as he makes his way toward his personal vision of Utopia, Finland. "Afghanistan would be empty." How unlivable these ruined countries are is underlined again and again by the fact that not a single of the refugees profiled in Exodus ever turned back, despite enduring kidnappings, beatings, thefts, hunger, and extortions. When their fellow man wasn't using them as a punching bag, the Earth itself took over: treacherous seas, scorching deserts, sucking mud flats. But don't be misled; this is no tale of indefatigable pluckiness. Even the success stories among the refugees are half-mad before their travel ends. "I survived ISIS, I survived beheadings, I survived Assad," declares one Syrian refugee, nearing hysteria after yet another of his attempts to conclude his journey by crossing the English Channel falls to pieces. "I survived shellings, I survived the sea, I survived everything." To wind up in a squalid French refugee camp, it appears. Exodus is chock-a-block with harrowing scenes: Sixty people, jammed into a boat generously e[...]
Mon, 19 Dec 2016 14:00:00 -0500Aleppo — the Syrian city that's been the center of the anti-Assad resistance for more than five years — appears to have finally fallen after a spectacularly brutal onslaught by Syrian government and Russian forces. President-elect Donald Trump responded to the humanitarian disaster, which includes the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and other atrocities, by telling attendees of a Pennsylvania rally last week, "When I look at what's going on in Syria, it's so sad," adding, "we're going to help people." Trump said he wants to build "safe zones" for civilians "so they can have a chance." In 2015, Trump also advocated for safe zones as a potential solution to the refugee crisis. Arguing that large numbers of refugees could "destroy all of Europe," Trump instead proposed building "a big beautiful safe zone and you have whatever it is so people can live, and they'll be happier." Knowing that the creation of such safe zones will require both an enormous financial commitment but also military personnel, Trump called for the oil-rich Sunni Gulf states (presumably including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar), which have been supporting rebel forces, to band their resources together for this vaguely-defined humanitarian project. During the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton had called for the imposition of "no-fly zones" in Syria, which Trump warned could "lead to World War 3." Indeed, no-fly zones are enforced with the threat of violence and with Russian fighter jets providing cover for Syria's Assad regime, any U.S. efforts to repel them would reasonably be seen as an act of war. One retired naval officer described no-fly zones as "the cocktail party military application of power of choice," but without an actual proposed end-game, they are potentially disastrous. That's why Trump's call for "safe zones," while not in the Clinton mold of humanitarian war-making, should also be met with skepticism. Even if Trump is able to convince a regional power like Saudi Arabia to invest its cash and military in providing "safe" areas for civilians, they will inevitably be forced to face down hostile actors — be they Assad's military forces, Russian forces, or even ISIS. It's hard to imagine the Saudis sticking their necks out for Syrian civilians, especially after more than half a decade of civil war in Syria. Besides, even if the Saudis did intervene at this late stage, they're bogged down with their own war in Yemen, where they've very likely committed war crimes against that country's civilian population backed by both U.S.-provided weapons and even U.S. tactical military support. Trump's foreign policy — nearly always inscrutable during the campaign — is slowly being fleshed out. His opposition to military intervention in Syria won him plaudits from some anti-war libertarians, but "safe zones" are just "no-fly zones" by another name. And even if Trump is able to convince the U.S.' nominal allies in the Gulf to intervene on behalf of civilians, he should remember that they'll inevitably lean on the U.S. for support, and that's the kind of mission creep that inevitably drags a country into a war.[...]
Mon, 19 Dec 2016 13:45:00 -0500
(image) The Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was shot and killed at an art exhibition in Ankara. The unidentified gunman reportedly shouted "revenge, Aleppo!" and "allahu Akhbar" while shooting Karlov nine times before being killed by police.
Turkey and Russia have enjoyed improving relations since the fall of the Soviet Union, but have experienced tensions recently, especially over Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war. The Turkish government has been intensely opposed to the regime of Bashar Assad, and has been accused of tacitly supporting ISIS before directly entering the conflict earlier this year.
In November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet, briefly leading to a diplomatic crisis. Russia President Vladimir Putin called it a "stab in the back" by "accomplices of terrorists." Russia imposed sanctions on Turkey in response to the action. In June, Turkey President Recep Erdogan apologized for the incident, beginning the process of renormalizing relations.
Turkey has suffered from a number of terrorist attacks in the last 14 months, most recently twin car bombings in Istanbul that killed 38 people and injured more than 150, for which a Kurdish militant group took responsibility. That group and ISIS have claimed responsibility or been blamed by the Turkish government for most of the terrorist attacks since last October.
Thu, 15 Dec 2016 16:30:00 -0500
(image) Between the "Hamilton Elector" movement, which is trying to get Electoral College members to vote for anyone but Donald Trump, celebrity-plagued videos attacking the next president, and profane tweets from ostensibly reputable journalists (see right), Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS) is kicking into high gear.
Sure, Donald Trump is the most unlikely president in American history and he has said truly vile things about whole groups of people while outlining policy preferences that are unsettling at best. And yet, calls to subvert the Electoral College—whether made by Harvard Law profs or TV presidents such as Martin Sheen—seem pretty nuts, too.
In the latest Reason Podcast, Katherine Mangu-Ward, Matt Welch, and I talk about and debate whether it's simply a continuation of the partisan hysteria that followed in the wake of Bill Clinton's, George W. Bush's, and Barack Obama's elections or if it is some kind of super-bug. We also talk about Rand Paul's increasingly public (and increasingly popular) call for a non-interventionist foreign policy and whether the United States deserves some responsibility for the horrific situation in Syria. Also discussed: Donald Trump's tech summit in which Trump delegates such as Peter Thiel rubbed shoulders with Trump targets such as Jeff Bezos, and what if any bright spots are on the horizon for 2017.
Subscribe to the Reason Podcast at iTunes (rate and review us while you're there!). Or listen below via SoundCloud.
Produced by Ian Keyser and Mark McDaniel. Photoshopped image below via Reddit/Imgur.
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Thu, 20 Oct 2016 10:50:00 -0400
(image) Hillary Clinton reiterated her desire for the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone in Syria at the third presidential debate, saying it "could save lives and could hasten the end of the conflict" even as she insisted she understood the "really legitimate concerns" about such an action drawing the U.S. deeper into the conflict (as Chris Wallace noted that President Obama worried) or start a war with Russia and Syria (as Wallace noted that the joint chief of staff chairman, Gen. Joseph Dunford, worried).
Once again, Clinton used the viral photo of a wounded 4-year-old boy at a hospital in Aleppo, calling it "haunting," to defend her decision to support accepting more Syrian refugees (her current position differs from her position while she was Secretary of State, when the U.S. accepted virtually no Syrian refugees, something it would continue to do until last year). But she did not talk about how escalating the U.S. role in the conflict in Syria was likely to exacerbate the refugee crisis, as did U.S. interventions in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, nor how her preferred course of action would lead to more civilian casualties in Syria, which she admitted in a private speech to Goldman Sachs in 2013, when Russia was not as involved yet and Syrian forces were not as entrenched in the conflict as they are now.
"They're getting more sophisticated thanks to Russian imports," Clinton said back then. "To have a no-fly zone you have to take out all of the air defense, many of which are located in populated areas. So our missiles, even if they are standoff missiles so we're not putting our pilots at risk—you're going to kill a lot of Syrians." Clinton continued in the Goldman Sachs speech: "So all of a sudden this intervention that people talk about so glibly becomes an American and NATO involvement where you take a lot of civilians."
At the debates she has ignored this private idea, treating U.S. intervention glibly and ignoring the civilian casualties she so easily uses to justify her policy positions when the casualties are not U.S.-caused. There is not a widespread awareness of the situation in Syria, let alone widespread support for further intervention. U.S. meddling in Syria so far has mostly just aggravated the conflict and introduced weapons that end up in the hands of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. There is not a clearly identifiable public constituency calling for war with Syria (except perhaps the mainstream media) so it's hard to take Clinton's enthusiasm for escalating U.S. involvement in Syria as anything but genuine. Clinton has not had to answer at the general debates why she was wrong on the Iraq war, or any questions about her role in pressing for intervention in Libya and the disastrous results there. For all the talk (including last night) of the prospects of Donald Trump deciding to start a nuclear war, Hillary Clinton seems to have a better grasp of the policy decisions that would lead there and a genuine fervor for advancing them.
Mon, 17 Oct 2016 13:18:00 -0400In an interview with Vice President Joe Biden on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd continued the tradition of journalists shamelessly asking questions that incorporate their own worldviews and political preferences into the questions themselves. "Why is there not a no-fly zone over Aleppo?" Todd asked in an exasperated tone of the situation in Syria. There's a long answer to that and a short one. The long one involves, among other things, the misconceptions people have about the effectiveness of no-fly zones, the lack of a clear strategic U.S. interest, disagreement about the facts on the ground in Syria and the difficulty of imposing a no-fly zone there specifically. The short answer is Russia operates in Syria, increasing the risk of conflict escalation significantly. Much of the media and political class, however, worked up into a frenzy over Donald Trump and his supposed connections with Russia and Russia's alleged attempts to interfere in the U.S. election, have chosen to ignore Russia as a complicating factor in Syria. When Hillary Clinton callously suggested a no-fly zone, which she had previously admitted would inevitably lead to civilian casualties, could be used to create leverage that could force Russia to the negotiating table over Syria, no one asked her what the purpose of forcing Russia to the negotiating table would be. The U.S. government's only clear goal in Syria is the removal of Bashar Assad. While President Obama acknowledged failing to plan for the aftermath of the intervention in Libya was the greatest mistake of his presidency, no one seems particularly concerned that Clinton (who was secretary of state during the Libya war) has not explained what the plan for a post-Assad Syria is. That so-called moderate rebels are in danger of joining extreme groups absent U.S. support suggests there are no substantive moderate forces in Syria, let alone ones the U.S. could with any kind of confidence support as a new Syrian government. Even if there were, the strategic benefits to the U.S. of toppling Assad are murky at best. For his part, Biden responded to Todd's question by insisting the U.S. had to defeat ISIS first. "We could not do both." Biden also blamed Republicans for not giving the Obama administration the authority to use force in Syria. "All those Republicans talk about how tough they were," Biden insisted, blatantly tapping into the machismo conceits of U.S. interventionism, before revealing that those Republicans had a point. "They'd say, 'What happens, we send planes over there, they get shot down? We have to go in and get 'em'," Biden explained. "Well, yeah, we have to go in and get 'em." Todd pressed on with the leading questions: "How does Syria not become the Rwanda of this administration? That you guys look back and wonder what if? What if? What if? What if?" The comparison itself is ridiculous and reveals a shallow understanding of the 1994 conflict in Rwanda, the current conflict in Syria, or both. "Rwanda was soluble," Biden insisted. "This is complicated." Todd continued: "So we're not gonna regret not doing more in Aleppo?" Biden's response was that the administration regretted whenever anyone dies. "I regret that we're not doing something about, you know, genital mutilation in Africa. I regret there's still real problems in Afghanistan," Biden said, without explaining what he had in mind about what could or should be done in those areas. "But there has to be a sense of humility about what is able to be done at the time. And what we're doing is the right thing. Generating a consensus among the Arab countries as to what we should be doing in the region. And at the same time, going after ISIL [ISIS] to destroy it." Trump and Clinton both broadly agree with the Obama administration's anti-ISIS strategy as summarized by Biden. Trump says he will be tougher but doesn't specify ho[...]
Fri, 14 Oct 2016 13:45:00 -0400The push for a no-fly zone in Syria has been ratcheted up in recent days, with Hillary Clinton explaining at Sunday's presidential debate why she was in favor of imposing a no-fly zone and members of government in the United Kingdom pressing for one. At the debate, Clinton said she advocated for a no-fly zone as Secretary of State (she served from 2009 to 2012—the Syrian civil war began in 2011) and said she was doing so again as a presidential candidate. "We need some leverage with the Russians," Clinton explained, "because they are not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution, unless there is some leverage over them. And we have to work more closely with our partners and allies on the ground." At an emergency parliamentary session in the United Kingdom on Syria on Tuesday, Conservative, and Labour, members supported a no-fly zone, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called on the West to explore more "military options" in Syria, saying Russia was at risk of becoming a "pariah nation." The new prime minister, Theresa May, said she would carefully consider the option but that it was up to "the international community to continue to put more pressure on Russia." France, for its part, has tried to pass a United Nations Security Council resolution that would demand an "immediate halt" to the bombings by the Syrian and Russian air force in Aleppo. The resolution, which could have been used to justify the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria, was unsurprisingly vetoed by Russia. China, another veto-wielding power, abstained. While Clinton admitted at the debate more U.S. intervention in Syria would have the aim of creating leverage vis a vis Russia, Clinton and other intervention advocates generally cite the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo as their motivating factor, claiming that Russia and Syrian forces were bombing populated civilian areas under the control of rebel groups. Syria insists these are terrorist groups, among them ISIS. Donald Trump repeated that claim at Sunday night's debate. At a speech to Goldman Sachs in 2013, Clinton explained the difficulties of imposing a no-fly zone in a way she hasn't at the debate or elsewhere on the public campaign trail. "To have a no-fly zone you have to take out all of the air defense, many of which are located in populated areas," Clinton said according to leaked transcripts. "So our missiles, even if they are standoff missiles so we're not putting our pilots at risk—you're going to kill a lot of Syrians." Clinton continued: "So all of a sudden this intervention that people talk about so glibly becomes an American and NATO involvement where you take a lot of civilians." This was in 2013, before ISIS had become a recognized threat and before Russia intervened in the civil war. Back then, then Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCOS) chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said that tens of thousands of U.S. troops would be needed to impose a no-fly zone and that the operation could cost a billion dollars a month. A no-fly zone is an even more difficult proposition now and would be harder still by the time Hillary Clinton were to enter office in 2017. More recently, last month current JCOS chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said that imposing a no-fly zone would "require" war with Syria and Russia. Previously, the U.N. passed a Security Council resolution in 2011 concerning violence in Libya (China and Russia abstained) that was used by Western powers led by France and the U.S. as a justification for a no-fly zone. China and Russia complained almost immediately that the resolution was being used beyond the scope for which it was intended, with the Russian ambassador to NATO arguing the aim of the operation was to oust Col. Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator. Rebels eventually captured, sodomized, and killed Qaddafi with the help of U.S. air cover[...]
Mon, 10 Oct 2016 07:30:00 -0400A question about U.S. intervention in Syria at the second presidential debate devolved into quibbling between moderator Martha Raddatz, the chief global affairs correspondent at ABC News, and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, that illustrated the assumptions embedded in the debate over intervention. Raddatz read a question submitted via social media about what the candidates would "do about Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo." The question continued: "Isn't it a lot like the Holocaust when the U.S. waited too long before we helped?" Clinton answered first, making a disturbing case to impose no-fly zones and so-called "safe zones" in Syria, because the U.S., she argued, needed "some leverage with the Russians" because Russia was "not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution, unless there is some leverage over them." No-fly zones easily become stepping stones for broader interventions. The U.S. previously imposed no-fly zones in places like Iraq and Libya. Russia, which has a naval base in Syria that offers it access to the Mediterranean, is unlikely to permit such a no-fly zone to be approved by the United Nations Security Council (where it holds veto power), let alone for one to be imposed without some resistance. Advocates of further U.S. intervention in Syria have not identified a compelling national security interest that might begin to justify intervention. Raddatz's intro to the question included a reference to video of a 5-year-old boy in an ambulance who had just been pulled out of the rubble in Aleppo. What was at stake in Aleppo according to Clinton? "What is at stake here," Clinton explained, "is the ambitions and the aggressiveness of Russia. Russia has decided that it's all in, in Syria. And they've also decided who they want to see become president of the United States, too, and it's not me. I've stood up to Russia. I've taken on Putin and others, and I would do that as president." Clinton added that "wherever we can cooperate with Russia, that's fine," noting her work as secretary of state (during the famous "reset" of U.S.-Russian relations) on nuclear weapons treaties and the Iran nuclear deal. In response to a previous question about Trump's December 2015 Muslim ban comments, Clinton referenced a picture of an injured 4-year-old in Syria who'd "been bombed by the Russian and Syrian air forces." She continued: "There are children suffering in this catastrophic war, largely, I believe, because of Russian aggression." Children suffering from U.S. actions overseas don't come up in the mainstream as reasons to reconsider interventionism. In his own response to the question about Aleppo, Trump ridiculed Obama's "so-called line in the sand" with Russia. Clinton interrupted to complain she "was gone" by the time that happened and Trump appeared to concede the point. "You were in total contact with the White House, and perhaps, sadly, Obama probably still listened to you," Trump responded. Obama first made comments about a "red line" with Syria in 2012 when Clinton was secretary of state. In 2013, after Clinton was gone, reports of the Assad government using chemical weapons against civilians briefly led to renewed calls for the U.S. to intervene militarily in Syria. Off the cuff remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry about Assad relinquishing his chemical weapons led to Russia President Vladimir Putin offering to arrange just such a thing. Trump then moved on to talk about the nuclear, pointing out that whole Clinton "talks tough against Russia, the U.S. nuclear program "has fallen way behind, and they've gone wild with their nuclear program," appearing to suggest the U.S. should not have entered into nuclear weapons treaty with Russia. "Now, she talks tough, she talks really tough against Puti[...]
Thu, 06 Oct 2016 00:34:00 -0400One of the things that fans of Ron Paul, the former congressman and antiwar GOP presidential candidate in 2008 and 2012, tended to admire about him was a bracing willingness to actually point out that the U.S. was not always a good actor in the world when it came to their foreign policy interventions. This is not something considered polite or sayable in most respectable thought, so seems especially refreshing, or shocking to some, when it is said, or even suggested. The New York Times seems thrilled tonight to have "caught" Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson doing the same sort of thing, actually seriously questioning the moral propriety of our foreign policy interventions and their often fatal effects. This sort of thing had not previously been front and center in Johnson's foreign policy pronouncements. The headline: "Gary Johnson Equates Syria Deaths Caused by Assad and West." The fuller context, in which reporters Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns insist that Johnson: drew a parallel on Wednesday between the Syrian government's targeting of noncombatants in that nation's civil war and the accidental bombing of civilians by United States-backed forces. Attacking Hillary Clinton over what he criticized as her overly interventionist instincts, Mr. Johnson pointed to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians killed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, as well as civilian deaths caused by the American-backed coalition, and said Mrs. Clinton, the former secretary of state, bore at least partial responsibility. But when pressed four times on whether he saw a moral equivalence between deaths caused by the United States, directly or indirectly, and mass killings of civilians by Mr. Assad and his allies, Mr. Johnson made clear that he did. "Well no, of course not — we're so much better than all that," Mr. Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, said sarcastically. "We're so much better when in Afghanistan, we bomb the hospital and 60 people are killed in the hospital." Given the admitted badgering and that the actual quote out of his mouth the Times presents in fact is discussing the larger question of whether U.S. actions anywhere rise to the level of condemnable murder of civilians, by bringing in Afghanistan, and not just about Syria, that headline could just be one more in the media's very lively practice lately of misrepresenting the meaning of what public figures say in order to gin up controversy. Someone not blinded by a sense that American amour propre requires never saying we are to blame for anything we do when it comes to our foreign policy missions, or what atrocities or even highly fatal "accidents" are caused by those we arm and fund, might find it not that shocking that someone might think civilian deaths caused by decisions made by the U.S. government, or even, as their only direct quote makes clear, actually committed by U.S. forces, might be blameworthy. One may decide in their total moral calculus that particular means, or particular motives, or particular end goals, make one set of people blown to bits a moral monstrosity (by them) and the other just something sort of regrettable (by us and ours). But it shouldn't be considered idiotic or disqualifying for serious policy discussion to actually have enough of a sense of responsibility, especially for someone vying to lead the U.S. military machine, to actually worry, and worry a lot, about innocents killed in our foreign policy adventures. Johnson went further, as the Times quotes: "Because Hillary Clinton can dot the i's and cross the t's on geographic leaders, of the names of foreign leaders," he said, "the underlying fact that hundreds of thousands of people have died in Syria goes by the wayside." He charged that Mrs. [...]
Thu, 29 Sep 2016 10:51:00 -0400Right before I interviewed him at the Libertarian National Convention in May and again before his CNN townhall in June, Gary Johnson made the same odd comment to me (this is a paraphrase): "Matt, I'm so sorry that it's me up there defending libertarian ideas instead of you people who have been speaking about it so eloquently for so long!" He made a similar comment to longtime Libertarian activists just after accepting their nomination in Orlando. Aside from being an expression of his endearing-for-a-politician humility, the pre-apologies pointed to a central paradox of the Johnson campaign: His strategy has been laser-focused on getting into the presidential debates, and yet as a communicator, he is uneven, goofy around the edges, and prone to the occasional WTF moment. Like this: src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/uXFb0eSYjEA" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> Oh sure, you can come up with some caveats and whataboutisms here. I don't know who my favorite foreign leader is either! NPR and Salon and all the rest are unfairly mischaracterizing this as Johnson being "unable to name a foreign leader"! There's scant evidence that the voting public cares about foreign-policy gotcha moments, particularly in this of all campaign seasons! Also, what about Hillary Clinton's warmongering and Donald Trump's incoherent Mideast bluster! All of that may be interesting, but it doesn't change the fact that Gary Johnson screwed up bigly here, because this is who Gary Johnson is. A partial list of self-inflicted errors in this exchange: 1) If you don't like or can't answer a question in a live broadcast situation, don't answer the damned question. The English language is filled with little sidestepping phrases like, "Well, the most important thing is," or "When you step back and take the broader view...." Also available are the Pushback ("Chris, I'm not playing your foreign policy trivia game"), the Shutdown ("It's not appropriate for a presidential aspirant to pre-emptively name international favorites"), and the Redirect ("I'm more focused on rolling back our friendship with dictatorships, like Saudi Arabia!"). Not a viable option for a potential commander in chief? Stammering out loud about your own inability to answer a question. 2) The phrase "Aleppo moment" is wrong for several obvious reasons. Starting with, Aleppo is a city where a lot of people are dying—imagine someone using terminology such as "Sarajevo moment," or "Darfur moment"; feels icky and wrong. Also, it's a self-inflicted callback to one of the campaign's lower points. 3) Neither "Vincente Fox" nor "Angela Merkel" are good answers, either. If you're gonna go former office-holder, there are no shortage of legitimate heroes to choose from (I would start with Václav Havel, who served contemporaneously with Fox). As for Merkel, she hasn't had what you would call a particularly good year. Look, you can rage that the questioning was somehow unfair, or at least that the way people will seize on it will be. But part of running for president is showing people—live, on TV, constantly, to the point of mental and physical exhaustion—that you are nimble enough on your feet to deal with a brainfart without saying "Hey look, we're having a brainfart over here!" Libertarians and other marginalized groups have a weird man's burden in which they are frequently held to even higher standards than the two-party dolts who actually hold power, but the response to that is to gratefully accept the challenge and then rise to the occasion, not be resigned to your own flaws. After the first Aleppo moment, Gary Johnson warned that it wouldn't be the last one. He was right on the prediction, but wrong on the expectation. It suck[...]
Fri, 09 Sep 2016 08:26:00 -0400
(image) So what did we learn from yesterday's impromptu lesson on how little everyone in the United States—from presidential candidates to former Iraqi ambassadors to the planet's "paper of record"—actually knows about the six-year-old Syrian civil war?
Various things, I suppose, but for me the big reveal goes something like this: The commentariat is far more interested in discussing the media fallout of blunders such as Gary Johnson's cringe-inducing "What Is Aleppo?" remark than actually discussing what various candidates plan to do regarding U.S. foreign policy.
Saw a ton of stories and cable segments in the past 24 hours about whether this means lights out for the Libertarian nominee but precious little time devoted to the the actual answer about Syria he gave on Morning Joe. Consistent with his stated positions, Johnson argued that pushing for regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere has destabilized whole regions and basically come a cropper, both for the people stuck in the places we've liberated and Americans here at home. Our role, he said, should be limited to bringing about a diplomatic solution, which means involving Russia, Iran, and other regional players to create a less-lethal status quo. Sounds pretty good to me, to be honest, especially after a dozen-plus-years of essentially complete U.S. failure in the area. But really, why should we actually discuss foreign policy and debate America's military role in the world when we can just go into an endless loop of navel-gazing about horse-race politics?
The insistence on superficial analysis is, I think, rooted in a presentism that infects most journalism and politics, but is particularly visible in cable news. Flash a heartbreaking picture of an ash-covered Syrian orphan and then demand of all viewers, guests, and policymakers: "What are you going to do to fix this or make sure this never happens again?" The last thing anyone seems interested in or capable of is discussing why such images predictably flow from American military actions. Sometimes it's mere days, other times it's years later, and it's always independent of actual intentions of interventions, but there you have it. Rather than hosting substantive conversations and debates about different ways of deploying (or not) American might around the globe, we get something that distracts us from important questions and does nothing to clarify all the troubles in the world—even as it sets up the next cycle of violence and despair.
Here's an excellent video circulating on Facebook that lays out all the ways in which the United States and other groups involved in Syria are teaming up with allies and enemies in ways that make the ever-changing alliances in Orwell's 1984 seem positively straightforward. "Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia." Except of course, when Oceania was supplying arms to rebels who were clients of Eurasia but actually working with Eastasia to destabilize Oceania while promoting a separate, non-allied homeland...
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Thu, 08 Sep 2016 15:55:00 -0400Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson finally got his viral moment. Unfortunately for him, it was a gaffe. Asked on Morning Joe what he would, if he were elected, "about Aleppo," Johnson asked what "an Aleppo" was. The interviewer explained that Aleppo was the "epicenter of the refugee crisis." Not quite. Had the interviewer, Mike Barnicle, called Aleppo the "epicenter of the Syrian refugee crisis," he would be less incorrect, but still incorrect. Aleppo may have since the start of the Syrian civil war become the most well-known Syrian city in the U.S. outside of the Syrian capital of Damascus (The New York Times, in reporting on Johnson's flub, even incorrectly identified Aleppo as the capital of Syria) and may be the site of some of the most intense fighting, but the crisis in Syria involves the entire country. Aleppo is a major city which has seen fighting between government forces and various anti-government forces ranging from the so-called moderate and U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army to the Islamic State (ISIS). But ISIS controls large swaths of Syrian territory and government forces are engaged in fights around the country. Because of the prominence of the Syrian civil war in international news, Syrian refugees are the most identifiable refugees today. But the refugee crisis is not fueled exclusively, or even primarily, by Syrian refugees. For example, in 2015, while more refugees in Europe came from Syria than anywhere else, they made up less than half of the refugee total. The second and third most common place of origin for refugees in Europe applying for asylum for the first time in 2015 were Afghanistan and Iraq. That fact suggests the reason why so many Western observers, and especially American "thought leaders", prefer to talk about a Syrian refugee crisis than a wider regional refugee crisis—U.S. involvement in Syria, such as it is, is far less obvious and intense than U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq was and continues to be. Before President Obama committed in the last year to accepting 10,000 of the 4 million refugees produced by the Syrian conflict, the U.S. spent the first several years of the Syrian civil war accepting virtually no refugees from Syria out of the about 60,000 to 80,000 or so refugees accepted into the U.S. each year. In fiscal year 2014, for example, the U.S. accepted 105 Syrian refugees, and in fiscal year 2015, the first year in which Syrian refugees became a prominent enough issue on the political stage to yield some kind of action, 1,682. Neither did the general flow of refugees become a contentious issue until the last year. The U.S. has been accepting tens of thousands of Muslim refugees, largely from countries in which U.S. intervention has helped create an environment where terrorism thrives. In fiscal year 2015, the U.S. accepted 12,676 refugees from Iraq, and 8,858 from Somalia. The only country from which more refugees came was Burma. It's more convenient for the foreign policy establishment and its apologists to talk about the Syrian refugee crisis, because it's easier to imply (however incorrectly) that it is the result of U.S. inaction. The large numbers of refugees from countries the U.S. has helped destabilize make those kinds of implications, and the case in favor of even more U.S. intervention, harder to make.[...]