John Yoo's Tortured Logic on Iraq

The Buzz

John Yoo, best known for his role in the White House’s Office of Legal Counsel during the George W. Bush administration, has this to say about the Iraq War’s ten-year anniversary and whether the war was a mistake:

In law, we often come upon a situation after an event -- a crime, an accident, etc. -- and we must decide what to do based on the knowledge we have now. Courts award damages based on the harm to the victim and the harm to society. Suppose you thought that the Iraq war was a mistake. If so, isn't the proper remedy to restore Saddam Hussein's family and the Baath Party to power in Iraq? If you are unwilling to consider that remedy, aren't you conceding that on balance, the benefits of the war outweigh the costs?

In a word: no. As the first commenter on Yoo’s piece says, “To say that the Iraq War was a mistake does not imply that Saddam Hussein and his family were the wronged party.” Nobody who thinks the war was a mistake now does so because they feel badly about what happened to Saddam or his coterie. Rather, their assessment is that the many victims were other players: the over a hundred thousand Iraqis who were killed and millions more who were displaced; the roughly 4,800 coalition soldiers who were killed and more who were wounded; and the U.S. taxpayers who collectively paid a financial price in the trillions of dollars, just to name a few.

For the most part, these are not costs that we have the power to “remedy.” But notably, where it is possible to do so (if in a partial way)—as in providing health care to returning veterans, for example—we already do this, and it’s totally uncontroversial. The problem is that Yoo’s calculus presents overthrowing Saddam as the principal cost of the war, whereas in reality most war opponents likely view it as a benefit in isolation, but one that is outweighed by the drawbacks listed above and elsewhere. Yoo wants war opponents to endorse a situation where they renounce the war’s principal benefit while keeping all of its costs. This argument simply doesn’t pass the laugh test.

TopicsDefenseMilitary StrategySecurity RegionsIraq

The Strange Friendship

Paul Pillar

Commentary yet to be written on President Obama's visit to Israel no doubt will be infused with readings of the congeniality meter—assessments of whether meetings between the president and the Israeli prime minister show any evidence of warming of U.S.-Israeli relations. Consensus expectations seem to be pretty low on this score, but that will not stop the meter-reading. There's nothing wrong with that on the face of it. What is wrong, however, is the prevalent assumption that warmth in this case is necessarily good, and lack of warmth necessarily bad. Warmth is good if it advances or protects U.S. interests, not if it doesn't.

In many alliances and friendships between nations this may seem almost like a distinction without a difference. There may be a reservoir of empathy, goodwill and, most important, a broad set of common or parallel interests that pays dividends to each side in ways that do not need to be connected explicitly with any one action or any one summit meeting at which leaders make nice to each other. Keeping the reservoir filled can confidently be expected to be good for the interests of one's own nation over the long term. This generally characterizes, for example, the relationship that the United States has with Britain or Canada. But the relationship between the United States and Israel is extraordinary and very different from any other—so much so in its nature and implications that it deserves to be called strange. The profuse provision of support and expressions that the larger country directs to the smaller one is not rooted in commonality of interests but instead in the larger country's internal politics.

Given the strangeness of the relationship, odd things are done about it and said about it every week, especially by American politicians. Consider an example from the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez (D-NJ), which also refers to something else this week—the ten-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War—and extends as well to the issue of dealing with Iran, which as it is treated politically in the United States is at least as much an Israel issue as an Iran issue. Menendez begins by noting that he opposed the Iraq War, which he correctly terms a war of choice. Good for him. Then he harks back to the earlier Gulf war in 1991 and recalls that Israel's restraint in not striking back for Iraqi Scud missile attacks, because “it knew America had its back,” was an important factor in the failure of “Saddam's desperate attempt to divide the international coalition.” He's right about that, too.

But then look at the implication he draws for current policy toward Iran. He says that “our security is enhanced when the United States stands with Israel,” that “when it comes to Iran's nuclear program, it's clear there cannot be any daylight between the United States and Israel,” and “that is why” Menendez and Senator Lindsey Graham introduced a resolution that would give a green light to Israel for launching a war against Iran and pledges to back Israel to the hilt if it does so. Let's get this straight. From the fact that it was in U.S. interests for Israel to stay out of one Persian Gulf war 22 years ago, we are supposed to welcome Israel not only getting involved in another conflict but also starting it and dragging the United States into a war it would not otherwise be fighting? It is with good reason that some have called the Menendez-Graham measure the “backdoor to war” resolution. As I said, the strange relationship with Israel leads American politicians to do and say odd things.

The Israelis themselves come up with plenty of oddities. For example, they seem to have a flair for picking high-level U.S. visits as a good time to drive some more stakes into what is left of hope for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last weekend the new Israeli housing minister said that he wants “many, many more” Israeli settlers in the West Bank and that “there can be only one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea—Israel.”

The Israelis are also said to be intent on pressing for release of the spy Jonathan Pollard. Never mind that Pollard, the perpetrator of one of the largest cases of wholesale selling of secrets in American history, reportedly spied not only for Israel but offered his services to other countries (including the maker of the first Islamic bomb, Pakistan) and was motivated largely by money. Note the oxymoronic comments one hears that Pollard has been punished enough for someone who “spied for an ally.” Espionage is a hostile act; it is not the act of an ally.

Let's go ahead and gauge the temperature of the president's meetings in Israel and draw whatever conclusions we want. But let's not confuse any apparent warmth we can detect with genuine friendship, commonality of interests, or an advance of U.S. interests.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsForeign AidThe PresidencyPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelIranIraqUnited StatesPalestinian territories

The No-Fly Zone Doesn't Fly

The Buzz

Washington is marking the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq in an unusual way: with talk of a new war, this time in Syria. Following unconfirmed rumors of a chemical attack, Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a joint statement calling for “the provision of arms to vetted Syrian opposition groups, targeted strikes against Assad’s aircraft and SCUD missile batteries on the ground, and the establishment of safe zones inside Syria to protect civilians and opposition groups.”

Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, then told Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin that he believes “there should be the next ratcheting up of military effort and that would include going after some of Syria's air defenses.” He suggested, in agreement with earlier testimony by NATO head Admiral James Stavridis, that antiaircraft missiles could be placed on the Turkish border to create a no-fly zone in northern Syria without actually entering Syrian territory: “It is a way without putting boots on the ground and in a way that would be fairly cautious, that would put additional pressure on Assad.”

There are two problems with the no-fly zone idea. The first is that it is not “fairly cautious”—it still would be an act of war, regardless of whether troops ever enter Syrian territory. It would make the United States and Turkey parties to the conflict, and Syria could retaliate against them, likely resulting in a broader war. America will also perceive an element of responsibility for the fate of Syrians who flee to the no-fly zone. An atrocity by Syrian ground forces in the no-fly zone would cause an international outcry, potentially leading to a counterattack into Syria and the expansion of the war’s scope and goals. A no-fly zone increases the likelihood of deeper U.S. involvement, yet it does not address any of America's primary interests in the Syrian conflict—it does not secure Assad's chemical weapons, reduce the risk of the conflict spreading through the region, or cut the influence of Iran and Hezbollah (on Assad's side) and Al Qaeda sympathizers (on the rebel side).

Second, it is not clear what difference a no-fly zone would make. Aircraft and helicopters are not superweapons—they offer advantages to those that have them, but they aren’t a dramatic boost in the gritty, close-quarters urban fighting and ambush warfare seen so far in Syria. They also aren’t as effective as artillery in targeting civilians, as Assad’s father Hafez already demonstrated. The only major benefit aircraft offer Assad is that they are a symbol of an effective and powerful military. To the extent that wars are fought with symbols, it is true that Assad will face more pressure under a no-fly zone.

The most serious problem with a no-fly zone is thus strategic. War is, after all, the art of using violence to make the enemy do our will. What do we will in Syria, and will a no-fly zone compel Syria to do it? Admiral Stavridis echoed ambitious yet common opinion when he suggested the no-fly zone would “be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the Assad regime.” Whatever the merits of these two goals, the pressure a no-fly zone creates only advances them indirectly. Nobody is arguing that the loss of a few miles of airspace would make a dictator that has jailed, tortured or killed tens of thousands of his own countrymen see the error of his ways and resign. The theory is rather that the elites around Assad will fear rising international pressure—or a foreign invasion—and depose him. Yet many of these elites get their power from their ties to Assad, and would be hesitant to abandon him. The threat of invasion, meanwhile, is not very credible since few believe a general war serves U.S. interests—even the ultra-hawkish senator Graham only favors a rather limited ground intervention.The elites won’t be terrified, and Assad isn’t likely to be forced out. A no-fly zone merely allows us to continue failing to achieve our goals, but to work harder as we fail.

TopicsSecurity RegionsSyria

Europe, Russia, and the Mess in Cyprus

Jacob Heilbrunn

If you were a stolid burgher living in prosperous Bavaria who had conscientiously salted away his savings over the past several decades, would you really want to hand them over to Greece, Portugal, and even Cyprus? That's the conundrum facing the technocrats who are striving mightily in Brussels, Frankfurt, and Berlin to hold together the rickety contraption known as Europe. Now that Cyprus--which is more like a city-state than a country, with its one million inhabitants--needs a big bailout, the unresolved tensions of the European unification are becoming increasingly acute.

It seems like every few months Europe confronts a fresh crisis and then muddles through. But this time the Cypriots are putting up more resistance than usual to the financial engineers in Brussels and Berlin. What's more, there's a Russian connection that is also causing more than a bit of consternation among the Eurocrats. Cyprus is, at bottom, an old-fashioned kind of place--a country where you can park billions earned licitly or illicitly and figure, with a pretty high degree of confidence, that no pesky inspectors from the international community will be able to snoop around and discover the amount stashed away. Now that Switzerland is getting more transparent, Cyprus looks to be one of the last redoubts of a great banking tradition.

Which is why Russian president Vladimir Putin is having conniptions over the notion that a tax will be imposed upon deposit holders in Cyprus as an integral part of the bailout package. He's making the uncomfortable discoverey that Russia, too, is not immune to the European banking crisis. Putin says it would be "unfair, unprofessional, and dangerous" to impose a 9.9 percent tax on accounts worth over 100,000 Euros--a move that could cost Russian investors billions. For all we know, Putin himself may have stashed away a goodly amount in Cyprus. There is a solution: he could simply have Russia back its own bailout and buy Cyprus outright, turning it into an appanage of Russia. This would take Brussels off the hook and provide Moscow with a convenient banking station abroad. Putin wouldn't have to demand that the Cypriots learn to read and write Cyrillic, but he would certainly be within his rights to have the flag of the Russian federation flying over the island nation. In addition, Russian suzerainty would be another way of taking a swipe at the Cyprus-loving British, with whom Putin has frosty relations. 

For now, it looks as though Cyprus and its 56-member parliament will reject the bailout package sanctioned by Brussels. The plucky Cypriots don't want to pay what amounts to a tax on their own debt. Who can blame them?

But at the same time, it's more than a little peculiar that Europe would be so eager to rescue Cyprus. As the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung points out, Cyprus is of negligible importance. It accounts for 1.2 percent of the European Union's economic activity. Whether a contagion would really spread from Cyprus to the rest of Europe that afflicts its banking system is dubious. Berlin, for one, would probably be better off letting Cyprus sink.

At the moment, Cyprus is on bank holiday. But the moment its bank do open, the chance of a run on them is dauntingly high. There is one plus to the crisis. At least the chance of renewed conflict between Greece and Turkey over the nation is low. Greece doesn't have the money to go to war, Turkey is preoccupied with Syria, and, by now, who other than Russia would really want to possess it?

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Cyprus Investment Promotion Agency. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsGlobalization RegionsGermany

The Gun Lobby Tackles Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

Those of us who worry and write more about about foreign affairs than about domestic ones have largely been spared confrontation with the formidable U.S. gun lobby. There is only the sadness any citizen can feel at this country's political inability to regulate effectively the trade in implements used in the sorts of violent incidents that have led gun control to move back, at least for now, to a prominent place on the national agenda. The resumption this week, however, of multilateral negotiations on a treaty on the international trade in conventional arms demonstrates that foreign policy is not immune to the gun lobby's heavyweight presence. The lobby, as represented most familiarly by the National Rifle Association, is by no means the only source of disquiet about such a treaty in the United States—which is, by a small margin over Russia, the world's leading arms exporter. But the lobby is mounting a significant effort to spike the treaty even before negotiations are complete.

The idea of implementing additional international legal control on the arms trade has been around for some time. Diplomatic activity leading directly to the current negotiations began about a decade ago. Back in the 1970s, ultimately unsuccessful bilateral negotiations to curb the trade in conventional arms took place between the two largest arms sellers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The type of multilateral treaty that is currently under discussion at the United Nations would hardly be a cure-all for the kinds of internal violence that are the main concern. It would, however, be a modest and reasonable measure to provide a legal framework aimed at reducing the means for perpetrating the most egregious instances of such violence, and otherwise creating greater transparency in the international arms trade.

The NRA has introduced some strange arguments against the not-yet-completed treaty, forming an interesting contrast to arguments it is making against domestic gun control legislation. The organization argues that military and civilian firearms are two different and easily distinguishable things, and that although military arms are a legitimate subject for such a treaty the problem is that civilian guns also would be caught up in it. That position hardly seems consistent, at least in spirit, with the NRA's vigorous opposition to Senator Feinstein's bill to curb the trade in military-style assault rifles.

The NRA also notes with alarm that under some of the draft versions of the treaty that have been circulated, “law-abiding Americans” might not be able to buy foreign-made guns because exports could be blocked if they would "support" or "encourage" terrorist acts or "provoke, prolong or aggravate acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace," or could be used in "gender-based violence" or to inflict "human suffering." Of course, in opposing domestic legislation the NRA contends that the gun trade doesn't do any of those things. Granted, this is not an outright contradiction, because the organization is saying that it is only the claims of “anti-gun activists” that could lead foreign governments to “abuse” this provision in a treaty. But if this is not a contradiction, it certainly is a contortion.

The gun lobbyists at the NRA also seem to be saying, without being explicit about it, that their own future lobbying will screw up the way the treaty would work. They say this about how end-user registration requirements in the treaty would work. Under such requirements, according to the NRA,

if you bought a Beretta shotgun, you would be an "end user" and the U.S. government would have to keep a record of you and notify the Italian government about your purchase. That is gun registration. If the U.S. refuses to implement this data collection on law-abiding American gun owners, other nations might be required to ban the export of firearms to the U.S.

In other words, the gun lobby opposes the treaty because if the gun lobby is successful enough in the future to get the U. S. government not to fulfill obligations under the treaty, other countries might react in ways the gun lobby doesn't like.

It is hard to believe the NRA lobbyists take this sort of stuff seriously. More likely what we are seeing is simply unrelenting opposition to anything that is at all related to controlling munitions and thus could be part of a slippery slope that might increase even marginally the chance of effective domestic gun control in the future. Meanwhile, this lobbying is impeding effective U.S. participation in the creation of a treaty that, it should be remembered, is not just about shotguns and rifles but also tanks, jet aircraft, and all other kinds of conventional armament.

As in the debates about domestic gun control, there is the added confusion of trying to make this a constitutional issue. The Second Amendment is patently about militias, and as any American high school student ought to know, the Bill of Rights of which it is a part was born amid a vigorous debate over ratification of the original Constitution. The overriding concern of those who resisted ratification was about the power of the new federal government. The particular concern about militias and about state power was intensified by the provision in the original Article II that gave the president the power to take command of the state militias.

The individual right that got discussed in connection with this was not so much a right to have a gun but rather the right on religious grounds to avoid military service, including in a militia. James Madison's original version of what would become the Second Amendment said that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, a well-armed and well-regulated militia being the best security of a free country, but no conscientious objector shall be compelled to render military service in person." The provision about conscientious objectors received the most attention in debate in the House of Representatives, which ultimately left it in. The Senate took it out, while almost putting in the clarifying language “for the common defense”. After some more rearrangement of words we got the Second Amendment we have today—an amendment written not just by one but by several committees.

It's too bad there wasn't some master editor back then who could, with a single pen, express most clearly the consensus intent, producing language such as:

The right of the states to maintain well-armed, well-regulated militias shall not be infringed.

That might have avoided or at least reduced a number of problems, including the NRA messing around with foreign policy.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsUNDefenseK StreetTrade RegionsUnited States