Blogs: The Skeptics

How U.S.-Saudi Relations Got So Twisted

ISIL Cannot Win the Battle for Mosul (But They Can Make It Slow and Bloody)

Does America Really Need Overseas Bases?

3 Wars the Next President Must Avoid

The Skeptics

Syria’s war is one of the most terrible humanitarian calamities in the world today. Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal that should be defending himself in The Hague, not sitting in a presidential palace in Damascus continuing to approve indiscriminate and unprecedented barrel bombings against civilians in cities across the country. And yet the United States needs to come to terms with the hard reality that a major power, the Russian Federation, is allowing Assad to fight the war the way he wants to fight it, and that Moscow has devoted so much to the regime’s survival that any U.S. military action against the Syrian government could provoke the Russians to such an extent that a new layer of war could erupt. As Dave Majumdar has written in these pages, “the United States cannot know for certain if Moscow will idly stand by while American forces attack Syrian forces.”

2. Ukraine:

By all objective standards, the Russians have treated Ukraine as a vassal state that deserves to be beaten down into submission rather than an independent nation whose sovereignty ought to be respected. The annexation of Crimea and Moscow's military support to the separatists in the Donbass is about as subtle as sneaking into a party by barreling through the front door. Legally speaking, Russia’s intervention—some would say covert invasion—of Ukraine is contrary to the very foundation of international law and state sovereignty that the United Nations system sought to cement after World War II. A government that cannot make decisions without having to worry about sparking more violence by separatists on its own territory is not exactly the definition of having free will.

And yet, international-law violations aside, the simple fact remains that the Russians have national interests in that part of the world that counter the spread of Western democratic ideals. The collapse of Viktor Yanukovych’s government and its replacement with one that is far more pro-Western and anti-Russian was simply too much for President Putin to handle. The last thing that Putin needed was another state on his borders that was itching to join NATO, so he took action to complicate that project from becoming a reality. We in the United States and Europe may not like it, but we ought to understand it.

A President Clinton or a President Trump will come into office with the same recommendations on Ukraine that have been sent to President Obama. James Stavridis, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, have both pushed for Washington send defensive weapons systems to Kiev in order to make the costs of Russia’s policy harder for Putin to sustain. A large contingent of lawmakers agree; the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act includes a provision in the law that would provide the White House with the authority to send $50 million in assistance to the Ukrainian military on everything from counter-artillery radars and ammunition, to antiarmor weapons systems and crew-served weapons.

How the Russians would be bound to respond in the event that U.S.-supplied weapons killed Russian troops on the battlefield is left to the margins, as if Ukraine’s political direction is simply too much trouble to care about. Proposals to pour more weapons into the theater, particularly one where Moscow has much more of an interest than the United States, would likely antagonize the Russians and perhaps light a fuse on what is now a relatively low-grade conflict. Americans and Russians fighting against one another via proxy is so 1980’s, especially when the status of Ukraine is far more vital to Moscow’s strategic position than America’s.

3. Yemen:

The civil war in Yemen has claimed approximately ten thousand lives over eighteen months. At first glance, it would seem like the conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country is pretty straightforward and warrants sustained American support; Saudi Arabia, the nation leading the military coalition, is after all a strategic ally of the United States in the region. The Houthi militia is anything but—an illegal, armed group of fighters at least partly supported by Iran that overthrew a democratically and internationally recognized government by force of arms. Why wouldn’t the United States sell billions of dollars in weapons to the Saudis and fuel Saudi jets in mid-air as they attempt to reinstall the legitimate Yemeni government?

In addition to the civilian casualties, multiple documented case studies of war crimes being committed against civilians, and what seems like purposeful bombing of hospitals, medical clinics and ports to make life miserable in Houthi-controlled areas, the answer should lie in the results of the campaign thus far: U.S. intelligence and enabling support over the past eighteen months really haven’t made much of a difference in the war. The conflict is as intractable as it has ever been, the battle geometry has stabilized, and the pro-government forces on the ground have made so few gains that Yemen’s capital city is still effectively a rebel-controlled domain. And by selling more arms to the Saudis and ensuring that coalition jets in the air can perform their bombing missions without having to return to the kingdom to refuel, the United States is contributing to the bloodshed by giving Riyadh, and Yemen’s President Hadi, an incentive to keep fighting rather than negotiating. What reason does a state have to embrace conflict-ending diplomacy when they have an unlimited and dependable supply of U.S. weapons and intelligence support at their disposal?

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The Pentagon Must Stop Abusing the War Budget

The Skeptics

Syria’s war is one of the most terrible humanitarian calamities in the world today. Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal that should be defending himself in The Hague, not sitting in a presidential palace in Damascus continuing to approve indiscriminate and unprecedented barrel bombings against civilians in cities across the country. And yet the United States needs to come to terms with the hard reality that a major power, the Russian Federation, is allowing Assad to fight the war the way he wants to fight it, and that Moscow has devoted so much to the regime’s survival that any U.S. military action against the Syrian government could provoke the Russians to such an extent that a new layer of war could erupt. As Dave Majumdar has written in these pages, “the United States cannot know for certain if Moscow will idly stand by while American forces attack Syrian forces.”

2. Ukraine:

By all objective standards, the Russians have treated Ukraine as a vassal state that deserves to be beaten down into submission rather than an independent nation whose sovereignty ought to be respected. The annexation of Crimea and Moscow's military support to the separatists in the Donbass is about as subtle as sneaking into a party by barreling through the front door. Legally speaking, Russia’s intervention—some would say covert invasion—of Ukraine is contrary to the very foundation of international law and state sovereignty that the United Nations system sought to cement after World War II. A government that cannot make decisions without having to worry about sparking more violence by separatists on its own territory is not exactly the definition of having free will.

And yet, international-law violations aside, the simple fact remains that the Russians have national interests in that part of the world that counter the spread of Western democratic ideals. The collapse of Viktor Yanukovych’s government and its replacement with one that is far more pro-Western and anti-Russian was simply too much for President Putin to handle. The last thing that Putin needed was another state on his borders that was itching to join NATO, so he took action to complicate that project from becoming a reality. We in the United States and Europe may not like it, but we ought to understand it.

A President Clinton or a President Trump will come into office with the same recommendations on Ukraine that have been sent to President Obama. James Stavridis, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, have both pushed for Washington send defensive weapons systems to Kiev in order to make the costs of Russia’s policy harder for Putin to sustain. A large contingent of lawmakers agree; the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act includes a provision in the law that would provide the White House with the authority to send $50 million in assistance to the Ukrainian military on everything from counter-artillery radars and ammunition, to antiarmor weapons systems and crew-served weapons.

How the Russians would be bound to respond in the event that U.S.-supplied weapons killed Russian troops on the battlefield is left to the margins, as if Ukraine’s political direction is simply too much trouble to care about. Proposals to pour more weapons into the theater, particularly one where Moscow has much more of an interest than the United States, would likely antagonize the Russians and perhaps light a fuse on what is now a relatively low-grade conflict. Americans and Russians fighting against one another via proxy is so 1980’s, especially when the status of Ukraine is far more vital to Moscow’s strategic position than America’s.

3. Yemen:

The civil war in Yemen has claimed approximately ten thousand lives over eighteen months. At first glance, it would seem like the conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country is pretty straightforward and warrants sustained American support; Saudi Arabia, the nation leading the military coalition, is after all a strategic ally of the United States in the region. The Houthi militia is anything but—an illegal, armed group of fighters at least partly supported by Iran that overthrew a democratically and internationally recognized government by force of arms. Why wouldn’t the United States sell billions of dollars in weapons to the Saudis and fuel Saudi jets in mid-air as they attempt to reinstall the legitimate Yemeni government?

In addition to the civilian casualties, multiple documented case studies of war crimes being committed against civilians, and what seems like purposeful bombing of hospitals, medical clinics and ports to make life miserable in Houthi-controlled areas, the answer should lie in the results of the campaign thus far: U.S. intelligence and enabling support over the past eighteen months really haven’t made much of a difference in the war. The conflict is as intractable as it has ever been, the battle geometry has stabilized, and the pro-government forces on the ground have made so few gains that Yemen’s capital city is still effectively a rebel-controlled domain. And by selling more arms to the Saudis and ensuring that coalition jets in the air can perform their bombing missions without having to return to the kingdom to refuel, the United States is contributing to the bloodshed by giving Riyadh, and Yemen’s President Hadi, an incentive to keep fighting rather than negotiating. What reason does a state have to embrace conflict-ending diplomacy when they have an unlimited and dependable supply of U.S. weapons and intelligence support at their disposal?

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