A Veteran on Endless War, Trump, and 2020 with Danny Sjursen

Empire Has No Clothes podcast at The American Conservative

On this episode, Danny Sjursen, an Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran-turned antiwar activist, talks about the most recent rift between Trump and the military and what veterans really think about the president and his policies. You may be surprised. Also, Kelley, Matt, and Dan talk about how successful – or not – Democrats will be in trying to turn the military community against him.

The Failures of Potemkin Diplomacy

From The American Conservative:

The Trump administration recently touted an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo that has proven to be much less than it appeared. Majda Ruge explains:

Despite the unpredictability that surrounded the negotiations, one thing was clear from the start about the much-hyped U.S. effort to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo: It would be light on substance and heavy on publicity.

So it came as no big surprise that the result – two separate documents signed by each party individually – reflected the superficiality and lack of planning involved. Essentially a restatement of things already agreed between Kosovo and Serbia, the primary purpose of Friday’s “deal” was not to advance dialogue but to advance Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

Like the Israel/UAE deal that preceded it, the one between Serbia and Kosovo has been celebrated by the White House as “historic” and a significant breakthrough, and much like that other deal it is not nearly as significant as the hype would suggest. The portion of the agreement that concerned their bilateral relations contained provisions that both governments had previously committed to, and even that part is on very shaky ground because the two governments signed separate documents. They had to do this because of the ongoing dispute over Kosovo’s status, since Vucic did not want to give the impression that he was recognizing Kosovo’s independence.

Some of the major pieces of the agreement are already falling part, and it seems unlikely that any of it will be approved by Kosovo’s parliament. The former prime minister of Kosovo denounced the agreement in very strong terms yesterday:

Kurti is understandably opposed to this agreement because it was the end result of US machinations that led to the fall of his government. Ric Grenell pressured Kosovo to force a deal, and Kurti objected to his strong-arm tactics. Kurti’s domestic opponents organized against him with US encouragement, and that brought down his government. In a struggle between a corrupt establishment and a popular challenger, the US sided with the corrupt:

The toppling of Kurti’s government, when the public sought a common front against the coronavirus, is again seen as proof that the old guard will get together to protect their ill-gained profits. Unfortunately, the US is seen as having sided with the kleptocrats who are less likely than Kurti to question Washington’s policies on solving the Serbia-Kosovo stalemate.

Given Kurti’s intense opposition to the agreement and his popularity in the country, it seems unlikely that this deal will be enacted. The Trump administration’s practice of dictating terms to other states seems to have backfired once again.

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‘Strategic Clarity’ on Taiwan Is Clearly Mad

From The American Conservative:

Richard Haass and David Sacks make the case for the very dangerous idea of explicitly committing the U.S. to defend Taiwan:

The policy known as strategic ambiguity has, however, run its course. Ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities. The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.

If the U.S. declared its intention to come to Taiwan’s defense, it would be taking on another major security commitment that the U.S. does not have to assume and it would be extending a guarantee that Beijing would not believe. The U.S. is not bound by treaty to come to Taiwan’s defense, and it would be hard for the Chinese government to take such a commitment seriously enough that it would deter them from attacking if that is what they were otherwise determined to do. The authors specifically rule out a treaty with Taipei on the grounds that this would “force Xi’s hand,” but they never explain why making this security guarantee wouldn’t have the same effect.

There is not much public support for coming to Taiwan’s defense. According to a survey conducted by the Chicago Council for Global Affairs last year, just 35% of Americans favor U.S. military action to respond to an attack on Taiwan. 59% oppose doing this. The U.S. cannot make such an important commitment to go to war to defend another country when there is so little public support for doing so. It goes without saying that Taiwan matters far more to the Chinese government and the Chinese people on the mainland than it matters to us, and the U.S. would be at a significant disadvantage in fighting a war to defend Taiwan if this bluff were ever called.

Insofar as an explicit U.S. security guarantee might encourage Taiwan to declare independence, it could end up triggering the very crisis that the guarantee is supposed to forestall. Extending security guarantees can have destabilizing effects as well as stabilizing ones. When a government believes that it has full U.S. backing, it can start to behave more recklessly than it otherwise would. Haass and Sacks say that the DPP-led government has behaved pragmatically in recent years, so why would we want to change U.S. policy in a way that gives them incentives to take greater risks? We should be wary of encouraging yet another government to engage in what Barry Posen calls “reckless driving” because it thinks that the U.S. will bail them out.

There is no compelling reason to abandon strategic ambiguity. The authors say it has “run its course,” but there is no evidence that it no longer does what it is intended to do. They admit that it “kept this powder keg from exploding,” so why do away with it now? They point out the growing power imbalance between Taiwan and the mainland, as if this were a good reason to make an explicit security guarantee to the weaker side. They note that it is no longer certain whether the U.S. could prevail in such a conflict, and they actually think this is an argument in favor of their position. What Haass and Sacks propose is to increase tensions between China and Taiwan through a new provocation on our part. In Beijing’s view, this would be equivalent to their making a security guarantee to part of our country. They would react angrily, and it is possible that it might provoke them to take the military action that the guarantee is supposed to stop.

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The ‘Snapback’ Stunt Will Blow Up in Pompeo’s Face

From The American Conservative:

Following last week’s humiliating rebuke of the US at the Security Council, Mike Pompeo is going to the United Nations in a transparent, bad-faith effort to trigger the so-called “snapback” provision to reimpose U.N. sanctions on Iran. Only JCPOA participants can invoke this provision, and the US publicly ended its participation more than two years ago:

But diplomats in Europe, China and Russia – the other powers that brokered the deal during the Obama administration – have questioned the legality of the demand because the United States is no longer part of the nuclear agreement.

The administration wants to have things both ways. It wants to be able to quit the JCPOA, wage economic war on Iran in violation of our previous commitments, and then it expects to able to use the deal’s own provisions to destroy the deal. When they first started floating this idea earlier this year, I said that it wouldn’t receive any support from the other parties to the deal, and it won’t. The US obviously forfeited any right to act as a participant in the JCPOA when it reneged on that agreement. Everyone understands this, and the rest of the Security Council will not put up with this duplicity. The US doesn’t even have the legal standing to bring this up at the Council, and I expect that is what the other members will say to Pompeo today.

The Trump administration maintains that it can use the “snapback” provision because it is a permanent member of the Security Council, and UNSCR 2231 listed the P5+1 among the participants, but this is clearly a case of trying to use the letter of the law to defeat the spirit of the law. When that resolution was written, it was taken for granted that the P5+1 would all remain parties to the deal. As soon as the US left the deal, that was no longer the case.

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Our Cruel Collective Punishment of the Syrian People

From The American Conservative:

Joshua Landis and Steven Simon detail the cruel and destructive effects of U.S. sanctions on the people of Syria:

The Trump administration designed the sanctions it has now imposed on Syria to make reconstruction impossible. The sanctions target the construction, electricity, and oil sectors, which are essential to getting Syria back on its feet. Although the United States says it is “protecting” Syria’s oil fields in the northeast, it has not given the Syrian government access to repair them, and US sanctions prohibit any firm of any nationality from repairing them – unless the administration wishes to make an exception. Such an exception was recently made for a US firm to manage the oil fields, but oil leaks continue to drain into the Khabour and Euphrates Rivers. US sanctions not only punish people, who receive only an hour or two of electricity a day, but also poison their environment.

The sanctions even prevent non-U.S. aid organizations from delivering reconstruction assistance. Humanitarian exemptions are deliberately vague, as are the requirements that the Syrian government would have to meet in order to obtain sanctions relief. Such uncertainty is meant to deter aid suppliers and investors who might otherwise help Syria rebuild but who can’t be wholly confident that they are in the clear to do so. This chilling effect, known as overcompliance, is a rational response to the fear of inadvertent entanglement in complex legal issues that could destroy a nongovernmental organization or a firm.

Blocked from reconstructing their country and seeking external assistance, Syrians face “mass starvation or another mass exodus,” according to the World Food Program.

Current US sanctions on Syria are among the most extensive and sweeping on any country in the world. Like sanctions on Venezuela and Iran, they are meant to inflict pain on the entire population in order to punish them for the actions of governments they do not control. Crippling Syria’s ability to rebuild from the war will cause more suffering to a population that has already endured more than eight years of conflict. There is no discernible American interest that is served by “competing with Assad over who can hurt Syrian peasants more,” as Landis and Simon put it, but as of right now that is the policy that our government is pursuing. This policy is exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Syria, and it threatens to trigger a new refugee crisis that will have consequences for all of Syria’s neighbors and for Europe. It is very destructive and needlessly destabilizing. There is nothing peaceful about waging economic war on entire nations.

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The Bogus ‘Emergency’ and the War on Yemen

From The American Conservative:

The State Department attempted to spin the results of the Inspector General investigation into the bogus emergency that Pompeo declared to expedite arms sales to the Saudis and the UAE last year, but the full report included some damning details about Pompeo’s disregard for civilian life in Yemen:

The State Department did not fully consider the risk of civilian casualties when it approved more than $8 billion in arms sales to Middle Eastern countries last year, according to a redacted inspector general report released Tuesday.

An unredacted version of the report, obtained by POLITICO, also raised questions about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertions that an emergency situation existed, allowing him to greenlight the sales over congressional objections.

The risk to civilians from the weapons that the U.S. has been selling the Saudis and the UAE is the main reason why these arms sales have encountered such strong resistance from Congress. It is not surprising that Pompeo’s State Department did not weigh this risk seriously, because their priority has been to get the weapons to the Saudi coalition no matter what the coalition does with them. That is why Pompeo previously certified that the Saudi coalition was seeking to reduce harm to civilians when all of the evidence and the majority of his own officials said the opposite: he wanted to protect current and future arms sales at any cost. The purpose of abusing the emergency declaration last year was to avoid Congressional scrutiny, because it is undeniable that the Saudis and the UAE have been and would be using these weapons to commit war crimes against innocent people in Yemen. Because the Trump administration could not defend its indefensible Yemen policy, they sought to go around Congress by abusing this provision in the law governing arms exports.

It is significant that the IG report does not give an evaluation of Pompeo’s decision to declare an emergency, so the report does not and cannot exonerate Pompeo on the most important question. The Post reports:

Because the Arms Export Control Act does not define the word “emergency,” the report said, the IG did not evaluate whether Pompeo’s stated reason – aggression from Iran – constituted one. But in making the emergency declaration, it said, the State Department did not meet other requirements to “fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties and legal concerns associated with the transfer of” precision-guided munitions.

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