Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The United States (Probably) Won’t Go to War with Iran

For weeks the Trump administration has been issuing warnings about increased attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria by Iranian proxies. Recently the administration revealed that it has satellite imagery of what it says are Iranian paramilitary forces loading missiles onto a small boat. In response, the Pentagon recently presented national security adviser John Bolton and Trump’s national security team with an updated plan that would send 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacks American forces or ramps up its development of nuclear weapons. Though the plans apparently do not include a ground invasion of Iran, what scenarios they might encompass has not yet been revealed. Nor is it entirely clear what sort of Iranian action might trigger a response.

Considering John Bolton’s longstanding calls for a more confrontational approach to Iran and Trump’s desire to squeeze greater concessions from Iran through tougher sanctions and “maximum pressure,” tensions between the United State and Iran are certainly rising. As my colleague John Glaser has pointed out, it would be difficult to design a strategy more likely to lead to “accidental” conflict than the path the Trump administration is pursuing today. Thus, the question on everyone’s mind is: Will there be war? Though the risk is not zero, the smart bet – for now – is that there will not be war.

Though making predictions about complex political outcomes like war is fraught with peril, a reasonable approach is to start by asking two questions. First, how determined is the United States to start, or avoid, a war with Iran? Second, how determined is Iran to start, or avoid, a war with the United States? Though many other factors might be at work, such as what’s at stake for each country, the relative military capabilities of each, and so forth, most of those factors eventually get captured in those two questions. If either country desires war, war is coming. But even if neither seeks war, rising tensions, accidents, and the psychological dispositions of individual leaders could lead to war if both countries don’t take enough steps to avoid it.

So far news reporting suggests that the Trump administration has not yet decided on war, but the signals are certainly mixed. Trump himself has said that “we’re not looking to hurt anybody” and that “I’d like to see them call me” to continue talks. Even Iranian officials don’t think Trump wants war. Speaking on Face the Nation, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said “We don’t believe that President Trump wants confrontation.” More generally, given Trump’s historical opposition to military intervention and nation building, it is hard to imagine Trump’s instincts guiding him to launch a war with Iran. After all, during the 2016 campaign Trump called the war in Iraq a horrible mistake, and a regime-change invasion of Iran would be a far bigger challenge.

We Need More Objectivity About China’s Ambitions

In a recent Washington Post op-ed calling for more funding for U.S. diplomacy, Kori Schake and Brett McGurk said this:

President Xi Jinping has declared that “it is time for China to take center stage in the world”

Their link goes to a BBC piece, which provides additional words that seem very relevant:

“It is time for us to take centre stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind,” 

And for even more context, the official translation of the full context of the remarks is as follows:

This new era will be an era of building on past successes to further advance our cause, and of continuing in a new historical context to strive for the success of socialism with Chinese characteristics. It will be an era of securing a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, and of moving on to all-out efforts to build a great modern socialist country. It will be an era for the Chinese people of all ethnic groups to work together and work hard to create a better life for themselves and ultimately achieve common prosperity for everyone. It will be an era for all of us, the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation, to strive with one heart to realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. It will be an era that sees China moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind.

We checked the original Chinese version, and this translation appears to be accurate.

So we’ve gone from “it is time for China to take center stage in the world,” to “It is time for us to take centre stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind,” to “It will be an era that sees China moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind.”

We don’t think we should always take the Chinese government at its word, but if you are going to cite to those words as evidence, you should do so accurately. In this case, there are very different meanings to the various versions of the statement. The first one seems designed to be inflammatory, evoking the idea of a Great Power competition that China is trying to win, with the prize being world dominance. It does not go as far as Steve Bannon (“the goal of the radical cadre running China — the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — is to be the global hegemonic power”), but it strays from objectivity in ways that are dangerous, and puts us at risk of a conflict that can be avoided. It is true that China is an economic rival, that it does not respect many of the rights that Americans hold dear, and that there are even some real security conflicts. But the relationship is manageable and a full-on confronation can still be avoided. Exaggerating the threat and using inflammatory rhetoric will make the conflict worse, not better.

When Hostility to Russia Becomes Irrational

The growing hostility toward Russia among some members of America’s political elite is reaching alarming and irrational levels.  Indeed, some critics of the Trump administration’s Russia policy insist that U.S. leaders should not be talking to the Kremlin at all.  The latest person to voice that opinion is Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA), a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.  

When Trump spoke by telephone with Vladimir Putin, primarily to see if they could reach some common ground regarding Venezuela and North Korea, Swalwell denounced that call.  Repeating an accusation that he had made several times previously that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections constituted an act of war against the United States, Swalwell erupted:  “Remember that time Pearl Harbor was bombed and FDR called the Emperor of Japan? Or the time the Twin Towers were stuck and Bush ringed Osama Bin Laden? No? I don’t either.”  He then asked rhetorically why Trump called Putin after the Mueller Report delineated the extent of Russia’s election interference. 

It was an absurd comparison.  As Hunter DeRensis, a reporter with the National Interest, noted acidly:  “The attacks on Pearl Harbor and on 9/11 killed 2,403 and 2,996 Americans, respectively.  There are currently no casualties connected to the leak of the DNC emails.”  DeRensis makes a crucial distinction.  Moscow’s meddling was an unfriendly act, but it was not even remotely comparable to an act of war.  Indeed, most of it was basic espionage and propaganda.  Espionage in the twenty-first century consists primarily of electronic surveillance and the hacking of computer systems.  The days in which spies purloined printed documents and taped them to the bottom of park benches to be retrieved later by other agents are long gone.  

Although Russia’s propaganda and other intrusive initiatives were more extensive than those of other countries, they were not dramatically different in kind.  The United States certainly has engaged in similar surveillance, eavesdropping not only on Russia’s ambassador to the United States but on numerous allied leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  Nor is Russia alone in trying to manipulate the outcome of elections in foreign countries.  The United States itself has a record of such behavior going back decades.  And evidence has emerged that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election with the hope that Hillary Clinton would emerge victorious.  Yet one does not hear calls from Swalwell and his ideological allies to cut-off communications or even scale-back relations with Kiev.  

Unfortunately, Swalwell is not the only prominent political figure to exaggerate Russia’s offenses and to argue that pursuing a constructive dialogue with the Putin government constitutes suspicious conduct bordering on treason.  Indeed, an especially tenacious myth is that Trump has pursued an excessively soft policy toward Moscow, despite ample evidence (ranging from weapons sales to Ukraine, to continuing NATO expansion, to U.S. efforts to oust Russian client regimes in Syria and Venezuela) that all point to the opposite conclusion

Arguing that U.S. leaders should not even talk to their Russian counterparts is especially reckless.  Even during the dark days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the United States never severed communications.  Negotiations on various issues continued, and at least in a few cases produced important, beneficial results.  The treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests, the establishment of a telephone “hot line” between Moscow and Washington to reduce the danger of false alarms that might trigger a catastrophic nuclear exchange, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty all emerged because the parties continued to communicate and negotiate. 

If the United States was willing to adopt such stance toward a totalitarian superpower enemy, it makes no sense to take a harder line toward a conventional, noncommunist regional power.  Putin’s government is a corrupt, authoritarian regime, but no sensible person can argue that it is worse than the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and his successors.  Swalwell and like-minded individuals do a disservice both to America’s security and basic logic when they imply that even talking to Russia constitutes disloyalty.

Boiling a Frog in the Middle East

Tensions in the Middle East are getting higher, with the announcement that Iran would take steps that could make it harder for them to comply with the terms of the nuclear deal – and more importantly, that they would potentially violate the deal if the other parties to the agreement don’t do more to mitigate the impact of U.S. sanctions.

The announcement came after weeks of Trump administration moves to ratchet up pressure on Iran, from oil sanctions waivers to designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization. Just this week, John Bolton announced that the U.S. would be sending “a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime” by speeding up the deployment of a carrier strike group to the region.

Is the Trump administration pushing for war in the region? It’s hard to say. As I point out in a recent article

While there are superficial similarities with the 2003 Iraq war, the Trump administration has made no real effort to actually make the case for war against Iran. Instead, they’ve spent the last two years alienating US allies in Europe, doing everything possible to undermine international non-proliferation frameworks, and generally giving the impression that America will be to blame in the case of a conflict. To be blunt, if the administration is seeking war, they’re doing it in a very stupid way.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that conflict won’t happen:

Just because the Trump administration isn’t uniformly pushing for war doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. The slow, purposeful build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is one way to start a conflict. But miscalculation and mistakes are another. By repeatedly escalating the situation – particularly in the military realm – the Trump administration risks an unplanned clash with Iranian-backed forces in the Gulf, Iraq, or Syria.

You can find the whole article, along with discussion of the differences between Trump’s advisors on this question, over at Inkstick.  

Sen. Rick Scott’s Venezuela “Genocide” Hype

In media interviews on April 30, Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) accused Venezuela’s leftist regime of engaging in genocide. It was not merely a slip of the tongue; Scott used that inflammatory term repeatedly—as he had on previous occasions. Foreign policy hawks have resorted to similar tactics to arouse public opinion and generate support for U.S. military interventions in other conflicts, and Scott appears to have that objective in mind regarding Venezuela.

Nicolas Maduro’s government is indeed a corrupt, repressive regime that has turned what was once South America’s most prosperous society into a chamber of socialistic horrors. In an effort to suppress growing political opposition, Maduro also has jailed critics and tried to silence the country’s independent press. The brutality of his security forces was on graphic display during yesterday’s opposition demonstrations when an armored vehicle deliberately plowed into a crowd of protestors. Decent people around the world should erupt in vigorous cheers if the Maduro regime finally ends up on the ash heap of history.

Nevertheless, it is a gross misuse of the term genocide to describe what is currently taking place in Venezuela. The United Nations defines genocide as acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Venezuela’s mounting turmoil amounts to a mundane struggle for political power, not a campaign to slaughter a hated target group.

Unfortunately, advocates of U.S. military crusades have a nasty habit of hyping disorders in certain countries. That effort was evident during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and the emotional lobbying effort succeeded in producing U.S.-led military campaigns. The absurdity of the genocide allegation was especially evident in Kosovo. Before the onset of NATO’s air war in the spring of 1999, the Albanian Kosovar insurrection against the Serbian government had resulted in barely 2,000 fatalities in nearly two years of warfare. At least half of that total consisted of military personnel, both rebels and government security forces. If that modest total constitutes genocide, then almost any conflict (however minor) meets that standard. Yet even some proponents of U.S. military intervention later conceded that the genocide allegation was inappropriate with respect to the Kosovo conflict.

A similar campaign occurred to exaggerate the humanitarian stakes involved in Libya during the 2011 revolt against longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Western politicians and their media allies contended that Qaddafi’s security forces would kill as many as 500,000 civilians. The U.S. led war, sold to the American people and the rest of the world as a humanitarian rescue mission, was a cynical cover for yet another regime-change war in the Middle East. The ouster of Qaddafi soon made the situation in Libya far more tragic, as the country became a chaotic arena for fighting among rival militias. That dreadful situation persists to this day.

Given that distressing track record, we should be doubly critical of Scott and other individuals who deploy the genocide label in a promiscuous manner. Indeed, using that term to describe garden-variety political conflicts is an insult to the victims of actual genocide, as in the Holocaust and the mass slaughters in such places as Cambodia and Rwanda. Above all, we must not allow proponents of U.S. military intervention in Venezuela to use such an emotionally laden term to generate public support for yet another unnecessary, ill-advised war.

Peace, War, and Liberty: Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy

Americans have debated how to engage with the world since our nation’s founding. These discussions often went well beyond questions of war and peace, and of what was required to keep us safe and prosperous; we have also pondered what we can and should do to advance the cause of liberty globally. 

In recent years, however, more and more Americans have come to doubt our capacity for accomplishing great things, or even the wisdom of trying. The trauma of 9/11, followed by nearly two decades of inconclusive military interventions, casts a cloud over the conduct of U.S. foreign relations. The Cold War once seemed to unite Americans around a single, common purpose; today, foreign policy is subject to the same “blue team vs. red team” dynamics that cripple honest, frank discussions of domestic policy. The status quo prevails, driven mostly by inertia. 

In Peace, War, and Liberty: Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy, I try to shake up this tired consensus. I explore U.S. global engagement and reaffirm America’s unique role as an exemplar of human freedom. I hope that the book gets wide exposure. If it doesn’t, it will be entirely my fault. There are already several podcasts (including herehere, and here), to help get the word out, and a few other promotions planned, so now I’m hoping people will read it, like it, and recommend it to friends.

Some of the material may be familiar. There are shades of The Power Problem, published nearly ten years ago, plus some of the ideas explored in the edited volumes that have come out in the interim, including Terrorizing Ourselves, with Benjamin H. Friedman and Jim Harper; and Our Foreign Policy Choices, with Emma Ashford and Travis Evans.

But there is also quite a bit of original content. The book is split in two parts. The first half discusses the history of U.S. foreign policy, with a particular focus on the tension between limited, constitutional government and individual liberty, which flourishes during peacetime, and the growth of government and the erosion of liberty, which occurs mostly when the country is at war. I enjoyed the opportunity to dig more deeply into a few cases, including the debate over continental expansion in the mid-19th century, and the anti-imperialists’ apparent last gasp in the late-19th and early-20th. I relied on some favorite go-to sources, including Walter McDougall’s Promised Land, Crusader State, and Richard Immerman’s Empire for Liberty, but am also grateful for David Mayers’s Dissenting Voices in America’s Rise to Power and Stephen Kinzer’s The True Flag. I will be pleased if more people become acquainted with some classic speeches, including John Quincy Adams’s address on July 4, 1821William Graham Sumner’s “The Conquest of the United States by Spain”; and Dwight David Eisenhower’s “Chance for Peace” – which are now all posted at  

The second half of the book focuses on contemporary U.S. foreign policy and the principles that should guide it. The United States is blessed by favorable geography and a vibrant economy. This gives us strategic depth and the luxury of choice. We are safer than we think, but too often fixated on what Ben Friedman calls the “Terrible ‘Ifs’”. Americans should beware of perilous partners and free riders, but remain committed to peaceful engagement with the rest of the world. Preserving our security should go hand-in-hand with advancing our prosperity and championing human liberty. It isn’t an either-or proposition. America once served as a beacon for others, and human freedom flourishes in many places where U.S. soldiers have never set foot. We need to become comfortable again with the many instruments of American power and influence, and retain our healthy skepticism of preventive action, which inevitably leads to unintended consequences. We also need a new appreciation for the importance of trade, which isn’t merely beneficial on economic grounds, but can also serve the cause of peace.

I’d like to thank everyone involved in the project, especially Grant Babcock, Tess Terrible, and the entire team, as well as my colleagues in Cato’s Defense and Foreign Policy Studies Department, including John Glaser and Ted Galen Carpenter, who read early drafts and suggested areas to expand or cut. Eleanor O’Connor kept everything on track. Now that the book is officially out, I welcome feedback from others. It is available at, plus from all of your favorite booksellers, and in several formats, including paperbackKindle, and audiobook.

A New Installment in the Libya Tragedy

The Libya tragedy that Barack Obama’s administration unleashed with a U.S.-led NATO military intervention in 2011 has entered yet another violent phase. Forces loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a one-time CIA asset that Washington now opposes, are waging an offensive against the so-called Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli. Both the United Nations Security Council and the European Union support the GNA and have passed resolutions demanding that Haftar’s troops cease their advance and adhere to the cease fire and plan for nation-wide elections that French President Emmanuel Macron negotiated last year. It is highly uncertain whether Haftar or his adversaries will heed such calls. More than 120 people have perished already in the new conflict, and fierce fighting continues, especially in and around Tripoli.

Libya’s violent reality is a sharp contrast to the optimism that U.S. officials and its news media allies trumpeted when NATO helped a motley rebel coalition overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. Western leaders and pundits believed that Libya would enjoy a much better future as a result of U.S. and Western ministrations. As Qaddafi fled the capital, President Obama intoned: “Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant.” He added: “The people of Libya are showing that the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator.” Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) were equally gratified and optimistic. “The end of the Gadhafi regime is a victory for the Libyan people and the broader cause of freedom in the Middle East and throughout the world,” they concluded. The two senators, along with colleagues Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), proclaimed during a visit to “liberated” Tripoli that the rebels had “inspired the world.”

Washington’s hopes for an orderly transition to democracy in Libya proved as illusory as they had been in Iraq. Just weeks after Qaddafi’s fall, the insurgents began to fragment, largely along tribal and regional lines. The western tribes started to coalesce around a power center in Tripoli, whereas the eastern tribes generally supported a rival movement headquartered in Benghazi. Haftar gradually gained control over the latter faction, whose armed fighters became the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA). Egypt and Saudi Arabia have provided support to that group, while the Western powers threw their support to opposing factions based in Tripoli.

The outcome has been years of low-intensity civil strife, frequently involving local militias under little more than tenuous control by the two rival governments. That chaos has produced a humanitarian catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of Libyans have been displaced internally, while hundreds of thousands more desperately try to flee across the Mediterranean in overcrowded, leaky boats.

It is probable that Haftar is now making a bold bid to control the entire country, not just the eastern portion where the LNA has been dominant for several years. His offensive may be a blessing in disguise, though, since it has the potential to end the country’s political and military fragmentation. Haftar is no heroic armed, democratic insurgent. One of the reasons that Washington declined to back him during and following the 2011 revolution is that U.S. officials believed that he merely wanted to replace Qaddafi as Libya’s new dictator. That assessment may well be correct. But even a new autocrat might be preferable to the ongoing bloody chaos. Washington has done more than enough harm already trying to “save” Libya. The United States, the European Union, and the United Nations should back off and let the Libyan civil war reach a conclusion, regardless of which faction proves victorious.

As I document in a new article in Mediterranean Quarterly, if there was ever a case demonstrating that good intentions in foreign policy are not enough, the 2011 U.S.-led military intervention in Libya is it. U.S. policymakers sought to prevent a slaughter of innocents, overthrow a brutal dictator, and help a new, democratic regime come to power. But policies must be judged by their consequences, not their intentions. Indeed, the observation that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions is all-too-true in Libya’s case. The consequences of U.S. meddling in Libya have been nothing short of hellish and continue to be so.