Apr 27

(To read the rest of our coverage on foreign policy, the military and the presidential primaries, please click here.)

In our coverage of the Republican presidential candidates, we’ve been revisiting far too many topics and issues that should be settled by now, like torture, ROE, the size of the military, and so on and so on. Aside from admitting The Iraq War was a mistake, it seems the country hasn’t gained ground on becoming more tolerant (or intelligent) on foreign policy.

This list would include hate speech.

In one of my favorite series for the blog, we “Got Orwellian” on the use of hate speech towards Islamic people generally. To summarize our series:

“Muslims (even the so called “islamofascists”) aren’t animals. They aren’t less than human. They aren’t barbarians, primitives or savages. They’re people. We may hate them and what they do. They’re still human.

“We’ve been writing about language and hate speech for these last few months not because we’re grammar and usage mavens (though I am). We’re writing about language and war because words matter especially when those words sustain conflicts instead of ending them. Words actively change points of view and perceptions. Words actively shape worldviews. Language affects whether the American military ever tries to adopt population-centric counterinsurgency, or whether it decides that the enemy is an sub-human that must (and can only) be killed.”

Hate speech dehumanizes your enemy, turning your opponent into an other that exists outside of “civilized” society. Thus they become “savages”, “barbarians” or “primitive”. Trump, wanting to make the dehumanization clear, just refers to the terrorists and ISIS, as “animals”. Terrorists may commit acts of evil, but they’re still human.

Like torture, hate speech is both morally wrong and ineffective. It alienates many young Muslim men, aiding terrorists groups that rely on recruiting alienated young Muslim men to bolster their ranks. In broader terms, hate speech/racism limits America, Europe and the world’s ability to stop radical terrorists. Far too many people never bother to understand al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram and other groups because they don’t even consider them human. And if you can’t accurately diagnose the disease, you can’t treat it properly.

This is a huge tactical mistake in the war on terror. But it doesn’t really matter, because as we wrote before:

“But I hate writing about tactics. Just like the debate about torture, it doesn’t matter if hate speech is ineffective; morally, it’s wrong. That’s all that matters.”

Apr 25

(To read the rest of our coverage on foreign policy, the military and the presidential primaries, please click here.)

When we started preparing our series on the Republican primaries, I was excited to dust off an idea I had about a particularly destructive Secretary of State, inspired by this excellent Zack Beauchamp piece. It would perfectly fit in a season of Republican primaries that have seen legitimate presidential candidates call for war crimes and torture.

Then the Democrats beat me to it.

At the seventh Republican debate, responding to charges about who is advising his foreign policy, Bernie Sanders criticized Hillary Clinton’s support of Henry Kissinger. This sparked a round of internet commentary reviewing the legacy of America’s favorite international relations realist.

My (Michael C) thoughts on Henry Kissinger are too long to fit into our presidential election series, because you can’t really discuss Kissinger without discussing his philosophy on international relations. And I don’t just mean realism as a foreign policy, but his philosophy on when you can use violence to help your country at the expense of others. Or put another way, when to use violence on foreigners to help your fellow citizens.

Suffice it to say, On Violence thinks the good of Henry Kissinger (SALT treaties with Russia; rapprochement with China) is outweighed by the bad (the support of war crimes and genocide).

The current candidates for President disagree with me, except for (arguably) Bernie Sanders. Hillary Clinton kicked off this whole brouhaha by praising Kissinger in a debate and in one of her books. (She defended this decision by saying she listens to a wide range of opinions, and values Kissinger’s experience with and knowledge of China.)

Republicans also crave his approval, without feeling the need to justify it. Politico wrote a whole article on it:

“You’re a Republican thinking of running for president. It’s a dangerous world, and your foreign policy credentials are a little thin. Time to see Henry Kissinger. Scott Walker did it. So did Marco Rubio and Chris Christie. Rick Perry paid a visit in September — he even tweeted a photo to prove it. Rubio ‘met with Kissinger a couple of times in the past, and always appreciates his insights’”

Ted Cruz posted a picture of himself on Facebook with Henry Kissinger saying he is, “honored to share a few moments with Dr. Kissinger.”

Zack Beauchamp (again, the inspiration for a series of posts I will write on the national interest versus morality) had the best summary of Kissinger’s positions and actions that would probably brand him a war criminal if charges were brought by the International Criminal Court. For the longer take, go to Christopher Hitchen’s foundational text, the aptly named, The Trial of Henry Kissinger. By their count, Kissinger could be charged with supporting mass murder in Pakistan, Argentina, Cambodia, East Timor and many African nations. Despite this, somehow Kissinger is not a pariah, but a fixture of the international relations world in Washington.

We just can’t condone that level of murder and support for dictatorships, and therefore don’t condone candidates who ignore that record.

Apr 12

(To read the rest of our coverage on foreign policy, the military and the presidential primaries, please click here.)

Back in May of 2015, Republicans decided the Iraq War was a mistake.


It started when Jeb Bush told Megyn Kelly that he would have invaded Iraq even, “knowing what we know now”. It was a bad answer, or as Seth Meyers framed it on his late night show, “I have to say, Jeb, you’re making a real Iraq out of this. And just so you know, Iraq is slang for mess, because that’s what everyone agrees it was.”

Shockingly, other Republicans agreed with Seth Meyers. Zack Beauchamp tallied up the responses for Vox: Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and John Kasich all said that, if Iraq didn’t have WMDs, they would NOT have invaded Iraq. Slate added Rick Santorum and Carly Fiorina to the list of Republicans who said, knowing what we know now about WMDs, they wouldn’t have invaded. Eventually, even Jeb Bush reversed himself.

Donald Trump perhaps said it best in the ninth debate:

“Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake. All right?...The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don't even have it. Iran has taken over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Obviously, it was a mistake.”

On the one hand, “hurray” for the country finally deciding that the Iraq war was a mess. But it also shows that the media still struggles to properly discuss war and American foreign policy. Some thoughts...

1. The Iraq War is no longer debatable. That’s insanely awesome.

The Iraq War--at least America’s justification for that war--is nearing “no-longer-debatable” territory. It was a failure. No serious thinker, pundit or politician questions the non-existence of WMDs. Despite the polling numbers below, Republican presidential candidates know they can’t come out in favor of the war in Iraq or challenge the non-existence of WMDs without the majority of Americans not taking them seriously.

In the context of the truly objectionable positions many Republicans have taken on foreign policy, at least we’ve made progress, as a country, on this issue. And frankly, I’m stunned. Delighted, but stunned.

2. Rank and file Republicans--in general--still don’t believe this.

In late 2014, we wrote up one of my personal favorite posts, “Weapons of Mass Dis-information: 5 Different Books By or About Navy SEALs That Repeat the Same Misinformation”. As we wrote then, according to a YouGov poll, only 42% of Americans think Iraq didn’t have WMDs. 25% have no idea. More importantly, 62% of Republicans believe Saddam Hussein did.

Perhaps that 2012 poll is too old for you. Here’s one from early 2015: half of Republicans think Iraq had WMDs. For Republican presidential candidates to come out against the existence of WMDs, that’s both a good thing and totally mind-blowing. I’d have thought, like Obama’s “birth certificate”, they would have addressed this issue with code words. But they didn’t. That’s progress.

3. This is still the wrong question to ask.

I got so caught up with Republicans admitting that Iraq didn’t have WMDs that I completely missed the silliness of this question and the ensuing media spat. On its face, the question is misleading, or as Michael C put it, it’s like asking someone “Why do you beat your wife?”

We knew then that Iraq didn’t have WMDs, as James Fallows, Greg Sergeant, Jonathan Chait, Paul Krugman, and Peter Beinart pointed out. By framing the question as, “knowing what we know now” pretends that we didn’t “know what we knew” then. It absolves the Bush administration for cooking the intelligence books and misleading the American public. Reporters should ask, “How would you ensure you get accurate intelligence?”

4. What happened to the “Saddam was a bad guy” argument?

Marco Rubio, defending his position, pointed out that even George W. Bush wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Except that’s not really true, at least not according to Bush’s autobiography, Decision Points (H/T to the Washington Post fact checker). As the justifications for war in Iraq fell away--there were no links to al Qaeda; we didn’t find any WMDs; the country didn’t become a democracy--George W. Bush, other administration officials, and their defenders still had one last justification: Saddam Hussein was a bad guy.

Here’s what Bush wrote in his memoir:

“But inaction would have had consequences, too. Imagine what the world would look like today with Saddam Hussein still ruling Iraq. He would still be threatening his neighbors, sponsoring terror and piling bodies into mass graves.”

The better question for today is, would a Saddam Hussein regime be better than ISIS?

I should be generous: Bush’s defenders didn’t really have any arguments left after all the other ones fell away. The irony of the Saddam was a bad guy argument is what has taken Saddam’s place: a region mired in civil war and not one but two destabilized regimes, fostering Islamic extremists and terrorism. Oh, and tons of mass graves.

5. What about the veterans?

Jeb Bush had the strangest dodge of all, trying to avoid answering anything about Iraq’s non-existent WMDs. He brought up the real victims of the debate: soldiers and veterans (with their invincibly strong approval ratings).

“I admired the men and women -- mostly men -- that made the ultimate sacrifice. So, going back in time and talking about hypotheticals -- what would have happened what could have happened, I think, does a disservice for them."

So because soldiers died in a war, we can’t discuss the decisions that led to them dying in that war? We can’t analyze a bad decision to prevent future bad decisions?

Nothing in this whole debate is more illogical than that.

Apr 06

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

Let’s imagine a hypothetical.

A President spends significant foreign policy resources--his time, his Secretary of State’s time, political capital--to build a coalition. Crafting this coalition requires cajoling, bribing, encouraging, compromising and sacrificing...on all sides. At the end of a long process, the coalition is built and decides to act.

In other words, the President is leading on the issue. Everything described above is leadership if, you know, leadership means convincing others to follow your lead. (Which it does.)

But I didn’t say what the issue was on purpose. The moment I do, well, the opposite side of the political spectrum will say it isn’t actually leadership. If the above paragraph is describing President George W. Bush building a coalition to invade Iraq--well, either President Bush building a coalition to invade Iraq--that’s leadership in the minds of Republicans. If the above paragraph described President Obama crafting a treaty on climate change or Iran’s nuclear program, that’s leadership to Democrats.

Sadly, the concept of leadership is amorphous. Imprecise. Unclear. Vague. Almost so vague as to be meaningless and unhelpful. And nothing demonstrates this better than the Republican candidates critiques of President Obama’s leadership.

John Kasich on Obama’s Leadership:

“You know, the fact of the matter is the world is desperate for our leadership. Sometimes they may -- they may make a remark here or there that we don't like, but frankly, the world needs us. And we have an opportunity now to assemble a coalition of the civilized people, those who respect civilization, the rights of women, the rights to protest, to be able to reassert our leadership all across this globe again and make sure this century is going to be the best we've ever seen.”

Rebuttal: Except that Obama has led the world on at least three major issues: Iran, climate change and free trade. And on each of those issues, he was stymied by a Republican Congress. (Or as some commentators pointed out, one half of one half of one third of America’s government prevents action for the entire world.) It turns out, the world is  desperate for American leadership, but that “leadership” fits with Democratic issues more than Republican ones.

Carly Fiorina on Obama’s Leadership:

“Ours was intended to be a citizen government. This is about more than replacing a D with an R. We need a leader who will help us take our government back....The truth is this, the big problem, we need a leader in Washington who understands how to get something done, not to talk about it, not to propose it, to get it done.”

Rebuttal: Again, it is hard not to look at Obama’s foreign policy initiatives and not see a whole lot of accomplishment. See the three issues mentioned above. But hand-in-hand with the accomplishment has been Republican intransigence. For example, the defining failure of his administration--not being able to close Guantanamo--isn’t/wasn’t his fault. Republicans refuse to close that base. You can’t adamantly oppose a sitting President on every issue, then fault him for not leading.

Jeb Bush on Obama’s Leadership:

“Serious times require strong leadership, that's what at stake right now.”

Rebuttal: We don’t have to say it again, but the times we live in aren’t that serious. They’re the greatest times in human history.

Donald Trump on Obama’s Leadership:

“No, a good deal maker will make great deals, but we'll do it the way our founders thought it should be done. People get together, they make deals.”

Rebuttal: Nonsense gibberish aside, turns out that President Obama got a deal on Iran specifically by getting people in a room together. Go to Fred Kaplan at Slate to see the specifics.

Donald Trump again on Obama’s Leadership:

"[Putin’s] running his country, and at least he's a leader. Unlike what we have in this country."

At this point, Trump is putting leadership in the same category as running roughshod over your opposition. Or dictatorship. We don’t even need to rebut that.

The issue isn’t that Obama can’t lead. It is that the definition of leadership has been warped by Republicans writ large. Saying, “We don’t like President Obama because he disagrees with us,” sounds childish and self-evident. Yes, of course the leader of the opposing party disagrees with you on most issues. “Leadership” isn’t “doing what I want”. Fred Kaplan has also covered this at Slate. Dan Drezner summed this up perfectly:

“One of the memes that political scientists like to mock to within an inch of its life is the “Why won’t the president lead?” lament that occasionally bubbles up among the pundit class. This is an easy meme to mock because, frequently, the reason the president isn’t doing the thing that the pundit wants is because of pesky structural constraints like the Constitution or pesky political constraints like the opposition party.”

Republicans usually take it as a point of pride to axiomatically oppose any policy Obama endorses. So when Obama came out in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he was endorsing a Republican-friendly issue: free trade. That issue also required tons of leadership with other countries. So Republicans had to twist themselves in knots to somehow still insult the deal while not trying to submarine a free-trade agreement.

But it required tons of global and domestic leadership. So did keeping together a coalition of countries with competing interests to agree to stricter agreements on Iran. But Obama did it.

And he topped it off by again supporting a deal on climate change in Paris. The only thing he couldn’t control was discord at home on those same issues. But he was leading on the global stage. It may not have been the leadership Republicans wanted, but it was leadership nonetheless.

Apr 04

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

In a future post, I’ll argue that some actions are on their face/a priori immoral. (Conservatives have a big issue that qualifies in their minds.) And if some things can by their Kantian/Platonic nature be immoral, it isn’t a stretch to say genocide, murder, war crimes, torture and other horrible things are also on their face immoral, regardless of their supposed benefit to society.

I would put supporting dictatorships in that category.

Some candidates (and former candidates) for President disagree with me. Former Governors Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush and others expressed support for General Sisi in Egypt. Many of the candidates have expressed support for the monarchy of Saudi Arabia (and other dictatorial Gulf states). Donald Trump has expressed admiration for Putin and Xi Jinping. Ted Cruz and Trump have even gone so far as to not express hatred for Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi.

I don’t agree for two reasons.

First, either America was founded a set of universal ideals or it wasn’t

I have a simple piece of evidence that our Founding Fathers believed our values were universal: the Declaration of Independence [emphasis mine]. From the second paragraph:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

So America was founded on a set of ideals that the Founding Fathers wrote were self-evident and universal. More than that, it is based on the consent of the governed, that can only be derived from democratic principles. Any strong man, any dictator, any monarch, or any tyrant cannot claim that consent of the governed. If Republicans or Democrats want to support dictatorships, they are either conceding that Jefferson was wrong or ignoring our ideals or both. (And I’ll get to the wrong counter-argument about this in a moment.)

Second, to be clear, dictatorships just tend to be nasty.

It turns out Plato’s philosopher-kings just don’t exist.

Crimes against humanity--genocide, murder of innocents, violence against peaceful protestors, kidnappings, torture, stealing natural resources, rape--are staples of dictatorships. Saudi Arabia crushes democratic protests. Egypt murders innocent people. Putin silences the press. All of those dictatorships use torture.

I don’t mind saying that I don’t want to support crimes against humanity. I don’t want to support dictatorships that commit crimes against humanity. So I don’t want my government to support dictatorships. (And I can hear the critics saying, “Kidnappings? Torture? What about the United States of America?” Fair point. We shouldn’t do those things. And at least we have a democratic process to stop them and release “torture reports” and investigate. And we’re not nearly as abhorrent as any of the above examples.)

So the counter-argument that people trot out: we don’t have the resources to go around the world overthrowing dictatorships. Even the Founding Fathers knew that.

True, but I’m not asking for us to overthrow every dictatorship around the globe. There is a huge ocean of difference between passively supporting dictatorships and proactively overthrowing those same dictatorships. Just because I don’t support dictatorships, doesn’t mean I think we need to go around overthrowing dictatorships Iraq-style. Clearly when a dictatorship falls--Iraq, Libya and Syria come to mind--the aftermath is devastating. We can’t afford that.

My argument is simpler. I don’t want my government to passively or actively support any dictatorships with money, military equipment or diplomatic support. We shouldn’t give Saudi Arabia tanks to crush peaceful protests in Bahrain. We shouldn’t give Egypt millions of dollars in aid to allow it to murder civilians. We shouldn’t have propped up dictatorships around the globe during the Cold War. Whatever we get back in so called “national interest” isn’t worth the moral price.

At the very least, we shouldn’t support them with our rhetoric on the campaign trail.