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Published: Sat, 10 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sat, 10 Dec 2016 17:53:46 -0500


Clinton Insists Syria No-Fly Zone Would Save Lives, ‘Hasten’ End of Conflict

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.

Chuck Todd Asks Joe Biden: Why Is There Not a No-Fly Zone Over Aleppo?

Mon, 17 Oct 2016 13:18:00 -0400

In 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 how (except to say he would not announce U.S. operations) while Clinton has also insisted on a no-fly zone and taking a more provocative stance vis a vis Russia, with which the Obama administra[...]

No-Fly Zone in Syria Is a No Good Idea

Fri, 14 Oct 2016 13:45:00 -0400

The 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. Before that, the U.S. participated in the imposition of a no-fly zone over Iraq after the conclusion of the First Gulf War—the U.N. resolution used to justify that action did not referenc[...]

Martha Raddatz Debates Donald Trump on Syria, Clinton Pushes for More Intervention, Weapons

Mon, 10 Oct 2016 07:30:00 -0400

A 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 Putin and against Assad," Trump continued. "She talks in favor of the rebels. She doesn't even know who the rebels are. You know, every time we take rebels, whether it's in Iraq or anywhere else, [...]

Gary Johnson's Radical Foreign Policy Moment: Accused of "Moral Equivalence" Over Condemning U.S. Bombing of Civilians

Thu, 06 Oct 2016 00:34:00 -0400

One 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. Clinton "bears responsibility for what's happened, shared responsibility for what's happened in Syria. I would not have put us in that situation from the get-go." More than 400,000 people hav[...]

Gary Johnson Has an ‘Aleppo Moment’ (His Unfortunate Words) on MSNBC

Thu, 29 Sep 2016 10:51:00 -0400

Right 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="" 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 sucks being interviewed and put on the spot all day long, and it must be hard for a small-state governor to grapple with the overlapping policy implications of a messed-up globe. But no one put a[...]

Constantly Shifting Alliances in Syrian Civil War Are Orwell on Steroids

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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Refugee Crisis Isn't Just About Aleppo, or Even Syria for that Matter

Thu, 08 Sep 2016 15:55:00 -0400

(image) Libertarian 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.

Gary Johnson's Aleppo Gaffe Is an Inexcusable Blunder, But Hardly Unique to Presidential Candidates

Thu, 08 Sep 2016 12:15:00 -0400

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson scored the biggest publicity his campaign has received thus far following a foreign-policy gaffe on MSNBC's Morning Joe earlier this morning. Interviewer Mike Barnicle asked Johnson what he would do about Aleppo if elected President. Johnson replied, "And what is Aleppo?" Barnicle, aghast, remarked "You're kidding," before informing the man currently polling in third place to be commander in chief of the most powerful military in the history of the world that Aleppo is the epicenter of the Syrian refugee crisis. Watch the full exchange below: src="" width="635" height="500" frameborder="0"> This is a serious blunder by Johnson, who has said he will be slower to intervene militarily abroad than Hillary Clinton and that Donald Trump's promise to "bomb the shit out of ISIS" is uninformed policy. Johnson has pushed the idea that libertarians are not isolationists, but that there are better ways to help with situations such as Syria than sending U.S. troops, arming unvetted rebels, or using extralegal drone strikes which inevitably kill civilians. Johnson's Aleppo gaffe gives ammunition to those who think Libertarians are inherently unserious (especially about defense and foreign policy) and a pointless distraction from the two major-party candidates. Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough concluded today's show by remarking that Johnson's gaffe rendered him "unqualified to be president of the United States." Barnicle added that Johnson expressed "an appalling lack of knowledge." Following the segment, Johnson ran into MSNBC's Mark Halperin in the lobby of the NBC studios, who told the Libertarian candidate that his segment "is going to be a big flap, I promise you. It already is." Johnson admitted, "I'm incredibly frustrated with myself." And yet Johnson is hardly alone when it comes to Syria gaffes. Former Obama administration ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, followed Johnson on Morning Joe and mocked the former New Mexico governor's "blank stare." Hill predicted that "he will now be known as 'Aleppo Johnson'" and then called Aleppo "the capital of ISIS." In fact, Raqqa, not Aleppo, is widely considered the capital of the self-declared caliphate known as the Islamic State. The New York Times incorrectly referred to Aleppo as "the capital" of ISIS three times in its quick take on Johnson's screw-up before adding a correction to the bottom of the page. Even that correction required a correction, as it initially referred to Aleppo as Syria's capital, when it is in fact, Damascus. Foreign-policy misstatements actually are a staple of presidential elections. In 1999, George W. Bush scored 25 percent on a foreign policy quiz given to him by an NBC affiliate. He was unable to name the presidents of India, Pakistan, Chechnya, as well as the foreign minister of Mexico. During a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford insisted that "there is no Soviet domination of eastern Europe." Just last night in a forum about veterans issues and foreign policy to which Johnson was not invited, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared not to know that Libya is in a state of civil war. That the war is a result of the power vacuum created by the military intervention she aggressively pushed for while serving in Obama's cabinet makes her oversight particularly distressing. None of these examples of past campaign gaffes excuses Johnson's "blank stare" when asked about Aleppo. He and his running mate and the Libertarian Party have been insisting that they belong on the main debate stage, where they would prove both that their ideas are viable and their ability to effectively govern is based on sound footing. Choking on a simple question about what he would do about the refugee crisis by not knowing a [...]

No, It’s Still Not a Good Idea to Bomb Assad

Wed, 10 Aug 2016 10:00:00 -0400

Washington foreign policy gurus still can't get over the idea that we ought to be bombing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Now, like clockwork, another piece has appeared in The New York Times urging aggression against the Syrian regime, this one by Dennis Ross and Andrew Tabler. According to Ross and Tabler, if Assad doesn't comply with a recent accord struck with Russia that restricts his actions, the United States should "punish the Syrian government for violating the truce by using drones and cruise missiles" to take out sensitive regime targets in areas without a Russian military presence. This, they assert, "should persuade [Russia] to make Mr. Assad behave." Let's start with the speciousness of their incentive. Assad's regime has been under endless international pressure. It's been threatened militarily by the United States. By 2015, it had lost 83 percent of its former territory. And yet it kept on fighting without any indication it intends to "behave." The one time Assad did comply with American demands was when Russia stepped in and brokered a deal over his chemical weapons, which is probably why Ross and Tabler think Moscow can bend him now. But Assad is in a much stronger position today and he knows the United States must prioritize fighting terrorism over toppling him. So why should he give in to even the most precisely calibrated of threats? Assad has, as Alexander Cockburn once wrote of Christopher Hitchens, "sloshed his way across his own personal Rubicon." He's reduced his civil war to a choice of total victory or ultimate destruction. There is no going back for him, which is why threats of pinprick Western bombings have failed to sway his behavior. Give it another try—follow Ross's and Tablum's advice—and he'll most likely remain noncompliant, too close to taking Aleppo to stop now. That will mean we'll have to continue bombing, and the mission creep will drag us deeper into a civil war in which we have no compelling option or interest. John Dickinson's advice that "experience must be our only guide" isn't half-bad when applied to foreign policy. So in America's experience, what will happen if we follow this course and bomb Assad? The deposal of both Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi ripped open vacuums in Iraq and Libya respectively, and extremist militias were happy to fill the voids. Ross and Tabler aren't suggesting toppling Assad, of course, or even severely damaging him, but given the formidable jihadist presence in Syria that's in many cases proximate to Assad's forces, their plan could still end up allowing our enemies to advance. That means not just the Islamic State, but also al-Nusra, the jihad syndicate that severed its ties with al-Qaeda last month for PR purposes, but hasn't changed any of its aims. To wit: Nusra wants to establish Sharia law in Syria and destroy groups it regards as apostates. It's collaborated with the Khorasan group of western Syria that observers believe is plotting an attack on the American homeland. It's toyed with the idea of declaring its own emirate to rival the Islamic State. It differs from ISIS only in that it's more insidious, ingratiating itself to the Syrian people by setting up food drives and avoiding public displays of brutality—at least for now. The bomb-bomb-bomb-Assad crowd counters that our options aren't limited to the regime, al-Nusra, and ISIS. There's a fourth alternative to fill any vacuum created by a weakened Assad: nationalist rebels from groups like the Free Syrian Army. The problem is that many of these brigades have already surrendered, and those that remain tend to lag behind the jihadists in training and equipment. This has compelled more moderate rebels to fight alongside the extremists, creating an overlap that's difficult to pull apart. The Syrian expert Charles Lister writes: "In fact, [...]

Former CIA Head Supports Clinton over Trump for All the Wrong Reasons

Fri, 05 Aug 2016 12:05:00 -0400

The word "Libya" appears nowhere in former CIA Acting Director Michael Morrell's endorsement of Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in the New York Times today. In fact, he spends much more time on Trump's dangerous deficiencies than he does Clinton's competencies. And when he does, here's what he has to say about her decision-making: I also saw the secretary's commitment to our nation's security; her belief that America is an exceptional nation that must lead in the world for the country to remain secure and prosperous; her understanding that diplomacy can be effective only if the country is perceived as willing and able to use force if necessary; and, most important, her capacity to make the most difficult decision of all — whether to put young American women and men in harm's way. Mrs. Clinton was an early advocate of the raid that brought Bin Laden to justice, in opposition to some of her most important colleagues on the National Security Council. During the early debates about how we should respond to the Syrian civil war, she was a strong proponent of a more aggressive approach, one that might have prevented the Islamic State from gaining a foothold in Syria. Trump has argued (and evidence actually supports) that America's meddling in Syria (including efforts by the CIA) actually helped create the foothold for ISIS to grow stronger in the country. And there's no mention of how the Clinton-endorsed "smart power" of military intervention in Libya helped hasten that country's destabilization and decline. That's because Clinton is the right kind of war hawk: She shares the same belief in noble intentions driving foreign policy interventions that matches guys like Morrell and other CIA and foreign policy leaders. Morrell argues that because Clinton is "thoughtful and inquisitive" that makes her preferable to Trump, whom Morrell blasts for his "carelessness with the facts, his unwillingness to listen to others and his lack of respect for the rule of law." Oh, there's no mention of her little problems with her private email servers and her stubborn and untruthful handling of the scandal, which makes that list of critiques of Trump rather ironic. He does accuse Trump of being an unwitting Russian agent for "endorsing Russian espionage against the United States" but not the context in which it happened (revealing Clinton's hidden emails). But the critique of Trump isn't wrong. The horrible reality of this presidential cycle is that we know that Clinton has made many bad decisions and is one of the more openly military interventionist Democrats to pursue the presidency in modern times. But the alternative of Trump leaves us with an extremely unpredictable president who says he will be less of an interventionist, but he's so openly and obviously reactionary to both appeals to his ego and attacks upon them that it's really impossible to trust his policy positions as an indicator of what he'd do in office. That a former CIA head is openly endorsing Clinton in a major newspaper would be, in a completely different election cycle, a cause for concern among big chunks of the electorate.[...]

U.S. Airstrike in Syria Reportedly Kills At Least 60 Civilians

Wed, 20 Jul 2016 14:01:00 -0400

A U.S. air strike killed at least 60 civilians in Syria after they were mistaken for ISIS fighters, according to The Telegraph, which reports eight families were targeted while trying to flee a village in Northern Syria. The deadly air strike is indicative of some of the bigger problems the U.S. and coalition forces face in their campaign against ISIS. Absent a significant amount of boots on the ground, the coalition relies heavily on airstrikes, which tend to have more civilian casualties than ground fighting. Although Syria was certainly mentioned at the Republican convention—including to blame Hillary Clinton for the chaos—proposals about foreign policy toward Syria were light. According to Republicans, Hillary Clinton, more or less, did not do enough, even as she's blamed for interventions in places like Libya, which led to a terrorist presence, including of ISIS, that did not exist before the civil war. Democrats don't offer much more. Clinton has rejected the idea that her support of interventionism is in part responsible for the crisis in Libya, and has in general shown little indication of offering any kind of foreign policy that might be influenced by reflections on past errors. American voters have not punished either side. Candidates who preached caution in the Republican party did not fare well in the polls, while Democrats hardly offered any alternatives to Clinton's interventionism (her primary primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, largely focused on economic issues). It's not stopping Americans for getting self-righteous on social media over the airstrike in Syria. A #PrayforSyria hashtag on Twitter is full of users congratulating themselves for being aware of the attack, and lambasting the media for not covering it even while they share links about the incident from the media, through whom they found out about it in the first place. The hashtagging of the airstrike in Syira is illustrative of the problem with the way the American electorate engages with foreign policy, if it engages at all. One of the main arguments supporters of Hillary Clinton advance in favor of their candidate is that she has the experience. Yet, when it comes to foreign policy, her experience largely consists of mistakes rooted in her faith in the power of interventionism, from Iraq to Libya. She was a supporter of more intervention in Syria, and pushed, as Trump did, for more airstrikes on ISIS after the Orlando shooting, perpetrated by a gunman who pledged allegiance to ISIS but spent no time in Iraq or Syria. American voters ended with these two choices from the mainstream because not enough of them gave a shit about it, morally preening hashtags notwithstanding. Fortunately for those Americans concerned with the wages of U.S. foreign policy, third party options like Libertarian Gary Johnson, a self-described skeptic of interventionism, and the Green party's Jill Stein, are available, so it is possible to make a choice that reflects an interest in reducing U.S. violence overseas. The most diehard Clinton supporters argue voting for Jill Stein, who argues Hillary Clinton could be worse than Donald Trump, is too dangerous because she could "help" Trump win. A clip of Dan Savage shitting on the Green party for helping Republicans is making the rounds in this election cycle. He posits that the Greens, like most third parties, only show up for presidential elections, an attractive if untrue sentiment. While Democrats paint Donald Trump as some kind of particularly vile and unacceptable Republican candidate, they've made the same arguments about previous candidates. Savage dismissed the Greens as idealism. But what's happening is Democratic voters are privileging getting their favored domestic policies in place over doing anything, like supp[...]

U.S. Can’t Be Responsible for ISIS in Syria Because There Wasn’t an ‘Intervention,’ Says Vox

Tue, 14 Jun 2016 09:20:00 -0400

(image) In its explainer about Donald Trump's recent foreign policy speech, attempted to show just how inaccurate Trump was in the 150 word segment of the speech where he criticized the U.S. and Hillary Clinton for the intervention in Libya, pointed out that the push for U.S. intervention in Syria helped destabilize that regime, and noted that NATO needed to change its mission to support counterterrorism.'s Matthew Yglesias insists the short portion of the speech has a "remarkable amount" that's wrong. But his list mostly amounts not to inaccuracies but inconsistencies between what Trump said yesterday and what he's said in the past about those issues. Two of the points made by Yglesias are worth highlighting for how they illustrate a blind spot in the left to its own establishment foreign policy.

First, Yglesias argues that the "collapse of the Syrian state can't be the fault of a US intervention to overthrow Assad, because we never mounted any such intervention." But that's not what Trump said. Trump argued that "pushing for the overthrow of the regime in Syria, among other things, without plans for the day after, have created space for ISIS to expand and grow." This is true.

The U.S. has been supporting so-called "moderate" rebels since near the beginning of the conflict. The U.S. has sent weapons and other military gear to those rebels, which has sometimes ended up in the hands of other warring factions, up to and including ISIS. At one point, CIA-backed rebels were fighting Pentagon-backed rebels. Of course this creates space for ISIS to grow. I can't see how denying it does anything other than re-inforce the narratives Trump is using to build support for his campaign.

Later, Yglesias argued that "Trump's habit of insisting that every US military alliance—from NATO to our defense treaties with Japan and South Korea—should be scrutinized in narrow financial terms is the exact opposite of replicating the Cold War strategy to unite the civilized world." But Trump did not talk about his aspirations for a more transactional foreign policy in the short foreign policy segment Yglesias argues is full of misinformation (but actually just full of more pedestrian flip-flopping). Instead, Trump argued in yesterday's speech that "NATO needs to change its focus to stopping terrorism" and took credit for NATO doing just that.

Trump's Thin Skin vs. Clinton's Thick Head

Wed, 08 Jun 2016 00:01:00 -0400

Hillary Clinton warns that Donald Trump is "temperamentally unfit" to be commander in chief, and she may be right about that. But Clinton's eagerness to wage war suggests she is ideologically unfit for the job. "This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes," the former secretary of state said last Thursday, "because it's not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin." Given Clinton's record of supporting pretty much every proposed and actual use of military force during her career in public life, it is even easier to imagine her leading us into war for reasons unrelated to national security. In a speech that was billed as a major foreign policy address and a sharp rebuke to her Republican opponent in this year's presidential election, Clinton mentioned Iraq twice: once in reference to the country's "sectarian divide" and once in reference to ISIS "strongholds" there. She did not mention that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which she supported as a senator and did not repudiate until 2014, ripped that sectarian divide wide open, creating the chaotic conditions that allowed ISIS to take over those strongholds. "We honor the sacrifice of those who died for our country," Clinton said, "by carrying out a smart and principled foreign policy." The 4,400 or so members of the U.S. armed forces who died during the Iraq war did not die for their country; they died for George W. Bush. Their sacrifice did not make this country (or Iraq) any safer. That's leaving aside the 134,000 civilians who were killed during this Clinton-endorsed war, along with more than 16,000 Iraqi allies of the United States and some 27,000 insurgents—not to mention the cost to American taxpayers, which is expected to total more than $2 trillion. For more than a decade, from 2003 until 2014, that was Clinton's idea of "smart and principled foreign policy." Clinton learned nothing from the catastrophe in Iraq. As secretary of state, she was instrumental in pushing President Obama to pick sides in Libya's civil war, overthrowing another Middle Eastern dictator and creating another lawless zone hospitable to terrorists. Testifying before Congress last October, Clinton described the Libyan intervention as "smart power at its best." Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations a month later, she insisted "it's too soon to tell" whether the operation created more problems than it solved. I don't want to say that no one else on Earth shares that view, but it is not widely held. Michael T. Flynn, who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014, offered a more common assessment when he told The New York Times, "This was not a failure. This was a disaster." Unfazed by the Libyan debacle, Clinton pushed for more aggressive U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war. She argues that Obama made a big mistake by not following her advice. Trump, whose inconsistency is his main consistency, did not always oppose U.S. intervention in these countries, and last Sunday he waffled again on Libya. But during his campaign for the Republican nomination, he repeatedly warned that toppling dictators, no matter how nasty they are, tends to have unanticipated costs that swamp the benefits—a possibility that seems never to cross Clinton's mind. Trump says "we can't continue to be the policeman of the world." Clinton wants "a strong, confident America that leads," which is code for unending meddling. Even as first lady, Clinton was pushing wars completely unrelated to national defense. She urged her husband to bomb Serbia (which he did) and, according to both of them, intervene in Rwanda (which he didn't).   "A president has a sacred responsibility to sen[...]

Marco Rubio vs. Rand Paul on Foreign Policy - and Fantasy vs. Reality

Tue, 17 May 2016 18:49:00 -0400

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) recently called a Foreign Relations Committee to discuss "America's Role in the World." It's pretty riveting stuff, especially coming after at least 15 years of utter incompetence on the part of the United States when it comes to diplomacy and war-making. Whatever else you can say about how George W. Bush and Barack Obama have mismanaged domestic concerns, you've got to admit that they handled foreign policy even more poorly. Among the guests of honor at Corker's hearings were former Secretary of State James Baker (under George H.W. Bush) and former National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon (under Barack Obama). Corker, for what's it worth, has expressed confidence in Donald Trump's foreign policy as laid out in the billionaire's recent "America First" speech. Baker, who also served in the Reagan administration and was involved in the managing America's response to the end of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War, has been widely portrayed as dismissing Trump's foreign policy vision, which emphasizes getting allies to pay more of the costs associated with security ("burden-shifting") and generally being less gung-ho in terms of military intervention. In fact, Baker's response was pretty mediated, as elements of Trump's plan (such as it is) reflect Baker's own ideas about "selective engagement," which argues for a compelling American interest in all military interventions. Rubio got him to say that anything that reduced NATO's presence in Europe would destabilize the world and Baker also smacked away Trump's suggestion that letting South Korea and Japan gain nuclear weapons would be a good idea. By the same token, Baker embraced the idea that our allies, whether in Asia, the Middle East, or Europe should be footing more of the defense bill in terms of both dollars and bodies. You can watch the full hearing here (thank you, C-SPAN!) but first check out these two this transcription of Rubio's comments and a short, incredible exchange between Baker and Rubio and then Baker and Paul. Note: These clips are hosted on Rand Paul's YouTube channel, which is worth keeping in mind while evaluating them(New note: The Rubio vid has been taken off line). Rubio wants to "revisit this Libya-Syria situation." Don't you see that it wasn't the United States causing any sort of chaos in these countries, he says. It was the people rising up against tyrants. We just got involved because it was the right thing to do and because, says Rubio, otherwise the Qaddafi and Assad regimes would be toppled and a power vacuum would develop...and radical Islamists would rush in: I think it's important when we talk about [these interventions] to remind ourselves these were not efforts by the U.S. government to go in and overthrow dictators. It was the people of those countries... In the case of Qaddafi, if he had gone into Benghazi and massacred all these people, what you would have seen emerge there would have been all these militias taking up arms, staying in perpuity, leading to the kind of instability we see now anyway.... It was in our national interest to ensure that whatever resistance there was to those dictators would be make up of people more stable and who we could work with, because in the absence of those sorts of developments, those vacuums would be filled by the radical elements that have now filled those vaccums in the absence of our leadership....[emphasis added] This is where the hawks start chewing their own talons off: "There would have been all these militias taking up arms, staying in perpuity, leading to the kind of instability we see now anyway." Seriously, AYFKM? Our actions have led to worst-case outcomes and yet that's wh[...]