Israel Attacks Iran (Again)

The Israeli government launched another attack inside Iran this weekend:

A drone attack on an Iranian military facility that resulted in a large explosion in the center of the city of Isfahan on Saturday was the work of the Mossad, Israel’s premier intelligence agency, according to senior intelligence officials who were familiar with the dialogue between Israel and the United States about the incident.

This attack is just the latest in a series of aggressive moves that the Israeli government has made against Iran over the last several years. Some of the coverage of the strike has framed it as part of an effort to “contain” Iran. As far as I can tell, there has been no acknowledgment in any of the reporting that the Israeli attack was unprovoked and illegal. Israel’s illegal attacks on Iranian and other targets in Syria and Iraq over the years have become so common that no one even blinks when another one happens. They are all defined as “defensive” strikes because the attacker says they are.

As I was saying last week, it is simply taken for granted that the US and Israel can launch attacks against Iran with impunity, and that is how this attack is being treated. US officials have wanted to make clear that this was an Israeli operation, but the administration apparently isn’t going to rebuke or even discourage the Israeli government from conducting more operations like this one. It is probably no accident that this strike came on the heels of the joint U.S.-Israeli military exercises last week that were meant to simulate an attack on Iran. If the US didn’t specifically give Israel the green light for this strike, it has certainly given the Israeli government no reason to think that it would disapprove.

It is worth thinking through what the reaction would be like if Iran had launched a similar attack on Israeli soil. The condemnation from the US and many of its allies would be immediate and deafening. There would be demands from hawkish members of Congress for more sanctions and probably for retaliatory strikes on Iranian targets. The US would hasten to show solidarity with Israel and pledge to provide it with more military assistance.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

Bolton’s Big Error on China and North Korea

For some reason, The Washington Post lets John Bolton hold forth about China and North Korea:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Beijing in early February to meet with his new Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang. Bilateral relations between their two countries are on shaky ground, so the agenda will be crowded.

This may seem an inopportune moment to propose North Korea as a central agenda item. But recent threatening actions from Pyongyang, including ballistic-missile testing and preparing for a seventh nuclear test, offer Blinken a good way to gauge Beijing’s sincerity about seeking Indo-Pacific peace and stability.

No other US officials have done more to encourage North Korea’s nuclear weapons program than John Bolton. He has been called the “father” of their weapons program for good reason. Bolton is famous for opposing every nonproliferation and arms control agreement that has ever been negotiated or proposed, and he is responsible for killing more than a few of them, including the Agreed Framework with North Korea. His insistence on maximalist demands for North Korean disarmament at the Hanoi summit ensured the failure of the meeting and the collapse of direct talks. There is almost no one alive with less credibility to advise the US on what to do about North Korea’s nuclear weapons than this man, but he somehow still gets to spout his usual hardline nonsense using one of the biggest platforms in the country.

Bolton’s op-ed is useful only in the sense that it restates and exposes some of the most flawed assumptions that have undergirded US policy towards North Korea. The US has erred repeatedly by exaggerating Chinese influence over North Korea and assuming that Beijing could compel North Korea into making major concessions. This is an error that Bolton himself has made many times, including during his stint as Trump’s National Security Advisor. Since leaving government, he has been banging this drum incessantly.

Read the rest of the article at SubStack

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

The Economic Warfare Body Count

Vladimir Milov insists that sanctions on Russia are “working”:

Expecting immediate results is unrealistic and even counterproductive. Given time, sanctions may well deter Russia’s aggressive behavior.

Sanctions advocates always point to sanctions’ economic destructiveness as proof that the policy is “working,” but in most cases this doesn’t lead to the targeted state making any of the desired policy changes. Adversarial authoritarian states are least likely to make concessions under sanctions pressure, so whenever there is a debate over the efficacy of sanctioning an authoritarian state the supporters of the economic war have to resort to the equivalent of a body count to back up their claims. Nicholas Miller made this apt comparison several years ago:

Using economic damage to gauge the success of sanctions is like using body counts to measure success in counter-insurgency – it’s an indicator that your policy is having an effect, but does not necessarily imply you’re any closer to achieving strategic objectives.

While sanctions advocates are usually at pains to deny that US sanctions have caused widespread suffering in the targeted country in order to avoid the blame, they are nonetheless eager to take credit for spiking inflation, a plummeting currency, and GDP contraction to “prove” that their policy is “working.”

“Look at all the destruction we have caused!” they say, and then redefine success as nothing more than inflicting economic pain. This was a standard Trump administration defense of their “maximum pressure” campaigns. It didn’t matter if the targeted government’s behavior changed for the better (it didn’t) or if they became more conciliatory (they hadn’t), because their economies were being strangled.

Once sanctions advocates have defined success in these terms, they can say that sanctions are “working” without addressing the strategic goals that the sanctions were supposed to serve. The destructive effects of sanctions become the justification for causing more destruction. They no longer need to be able to show any discernible progress with respect to advancing US interests, because they have made hurting another country for the sake of hurting it their only real goal.

Read the rest of the article at SubStack

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

Learning the Lessons of Failure in Venezuela

James Bosworth looks back at the failed experiment with U.S.-led international backing for Juan Guaidó as “interim” president of Venezuela:

Disputed elections are far too common in Latin America, but only rarely has such a divide between the de jure and de facto presidencies recognized by the rest of the world lasted so long. For those countries that recognized Guaido, the failure of the strategy may now keep them from recognizing other legitimate presidents in the future, to the benefit of those who enter or hold onto office unconstitutionally. No one wants to work with dictatorships. But if the Guaido experience teaches us one thing, it is that governments need to be cautious when they attempt legal maneuvers that don’t change the actual balance of power on the ground, as they may just be setting a trap for themselves.

One big lesson that the U.S. should take away from its failed regime change policy in Venezuela is that it should steer clear of taking sides in the internal political disputes of other countries. Another lesson our government should draw is that it should not listen to the convenient, self-serving recommendations of ideological exiles and their allies in Congress when they promise quick success in bringing down a foreign government. The US shouldn’t be seeking regime change in any case, but our leaders should know by now that they are being set up for failure when opposition activists and their cheerleaders paint a picture that’s too good to be true.

If it is ever tempted to get in the middle of a dispute, the US should definitely set a much higher standard for recognizing an opposition leader as another country’s leader. Guaidó’s claim to be acting as interim president was fairly sketchy from the outset, but it provided a fig leaf to dress up a regime change policy as something else. As Noah Feldman pointed out at the time, “Even as fig leaves go, it’s particularly wispy and minimal.” The constitutional interpretation that the opposition used to elevate Guaidó required stretching the document’s language so that it seemed to fit the situation, but the plain meaning of the provision they invoked didn’t really allow them to set up an alternative government as they did. It was expedient to pretend that Venezuela’s presidency was vacant for the purposes of rallying international support to remove the person who was still very much occupying the presidency. You can pretend that if you want, but don’t claim that it has something to do with legitimacy.

One of the main reasons why the Trump administration embarked on this foolish course was that Trump believed that he could get an easy foreign policy win, and he was encouraged in this misguided belief by Marco Rubio and other hardliners that didn’t understand the political landscape in Venezuela. When the quick win didn’t materialize, Trump soon lost interest, but the killing sanctions have remained in place ever since. As I discussed with my colleague Kelley Vlahos a couple weeks ago, the administration sidelined those in the government that knew something about Venezuela and listened to the fantasies of ideologues instead. It comes as no surprise that the more knowledgeable country experts knew that the regime change attempt wouldn’t work out, and their words of warning fell on deaf ears. When the US makes major decisions about its relations with another country by heeding the advice of reckless hawks that don’t know much about that country, its policy typically fails or backfires and the other country ends up worse off than it was.

Read the rest of the article at SubStack

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

Remembering How Close We Came to Disaster With North Korea

The US and North Korea came dangerously close to war during Trump’s presidency. This is often discounted or forgotten in assessments of Trump’s foreign policy record because the war didn’t happen and Trump then made a big show of meeting with Kim Jong-un, but the crisis was real and war was much closer than most people realize. As Van Jackson has written in new report gives another example of how Trump spoke privately about the possibility of attacking North Korea, including the option of a nuclear first strike:

Behind closed doors in 2017, President Donald Trump discussed the idea of using a nuclear weapon against North Korea and suggested he could blame a US strike against the communist regime on another country, according to a new section of a book that details key events of his administration.

The claim rings true. It not only lines up with the deranged threats that Trump was making publicly during this same period, but it fits with how Trump talks and thinks about the use of force against other countries. Just last year, Trump “joked” that the US should “bomb the shit” out of Russia and then blame China for it. It is a classic Trump proposal: extremely aggressive, heedless of consequences, and eager to shift responsibility to someone else for his actions. It may be possible to distract Trump from following through on his crackpot notions, but it is important to remember that his first instinct is to attack.

Read the rest of the article at SubStack

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

Beware the Hawkish Consensus on China

Judah Grunstein warns against the entrenchment of the hawkish consensus on China:

The result is that competition and even potential conflict are now considered the default position for relations with China; those who suggest that cooperation – even on existential challenges like the climate crisis – is still valuable and at times necessary are seen as either naïve or, worse still, useful idiots.

What’s striking is that this approach has now become so entrenched that its premises are no longer scrutinized or debated. Moreover, maximalist objectives that only recently were considered farfetched and unfeasible are now granted serious consideration or else taken for granted.

Grunstein is right to sound the alarm here, and I fear that he is also correct when he says that “the momentum behind the hard-line consensus on China will only grow.” Once there is a bipartisan consensus about an adversary, the debate sharply narrows to fights over tactics. In this case, it is no longer a question of whether the US should continue pursuing a militarized rivalry with China, but rather how and where it should do so. There is remarkably little debate over the scope of Chinese ambitions or the necessity of “countering” them, and it is simply assumed that US “leadership” requires the latter.

To the extent that there are differences between the major parties, it is a difference in rhetoric and emphasis and not a fundamental disagreement over the substance of the policy itself. Unfortunately, this gives the advantage to more hawkish elements as they constantly push for more military spending, more deployments, and more coercive measures. Less aggressive adherents of the consensus feel compelled to go along with most or all of it in order to be taken “seriously,” and even critics often feel the need to frame their arguments using the language of the hardliners. Even those that believe that the US and China must cooperate on some major issues are now described as “competitive coexisters” for fear that identifying too much as advocates of engagement is politically toxic.

Hardliners set the agenda, “centrists” quibble over details at the margins, and only a small minority challenges the wisdom of the strategy itself. That was the pattern in the Cold War and the “war on terror,” and we can see that the same thing is happening again now. One of the reasons why those “considered cranks and extremists before the new consensus emerged” are so easily accepted as part of a new hardline consensus is that mainstream policymakers have chosen to embrace the extremism that they previously shunned.

Whenever the US sets out on some new global struggle, it empowers ideological zealots and causes previously sensible people to adopt that zealotry as a way of remaining “relevant.” Zealotry is a poor guide for statecraft, and before you know it the US is on the road to another reckless war in a country that has little or nothing to do with our security. Each time this happens, it is a predictable consequence of following the flawed consensus to its “logical” conclusion, but then no one seems to learn much of anything from that failure and the US proceeds to do it all over again a generation later.

Read the rest of the article at SubStack

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.