Are 'Iranian proxies' really Iranian proxies?

By Connor Echols, Jul 16 2021

In recent weeks, Iran-backed militias have stepped up attacks on American forces in Iraq and Syria, triggering a wave of commentary about what Biden should do in response. Many observers rely on a key assumption to inform their analysis: Iran is using these militias as a way to hit the US without getting its hands dirty. Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, for example, called on Biden to “put forward a real strategy for deterring and ending these attacks” and added that the current approach is “failing to deter Iran or its militias.”

It’s not hard to understand why people believe that the militias are simply Iran’s footsoldiers. After all, most mainstream media outlets give that impression. A recent piece in the New York Times reports that Iran “is using its proxy militias in Iraq to step up pressure on the United States” and increase Tehran’s bargaining power in the nuclear negotiations.

The problem with this framing goes beyond the facts of this particular case. The broader issue is the common and uncritical use of the word “proxy” to describe various Iranian allies in the Middle East. The term conjures up images of a puppet master sitting in Tehran and pulling strings across the region. This is reminiscent of the Cold War, when American policymakers perceived the Soviet Union as a hidden hand behind militants and governments from Vietnam to Nicaragua—a perception that led decision-makers to underappreciate the local roots of these conflicts in consequential and, at times, catastrophic ways. So it’s worth asking the question plainly: Is Iran really the puppet master it’s assumed to be?

The short answer is no. And our tendency to overstate Iran’s control of its “proxies” leads to all kinds of trouble.

Consider Yemen, where a brutal civil war has left much of the population on the brink of starvation. The mainstream narrative holds that the Houthis—one of the key belligerents in the conflict—are an Iranian proxy. Indeed, showing a willingness to counter Iranian influence was a major reason that the US got involved in the conflict, providing key logistical support for the Saudi war effort. This support helped turn the situation in Yemen into what both the United Nations and the World Food Program have called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

If the Houthis really had been acting at Iran’s behest, arguments for American support of the Saudi military intervention might have had at least some merit. But that’s a moot point, because the reality of the relationship between Iran and the Houthis was much more complex. 

The Houthis began as a small opposition movement in the 1990s and grew more prominent over the course of six guerrilla wars with the Yemeni government. Iran had no real ties to them until the last of these conflicts, and even then the relationship was fairly tenuous. When Yemen’s longtime president was forced out of office in 2011, the Houthis seized their opportunity and began moving toward the capital, Sanaa, which they took in 2014. This suggested limits on Tehran’s influence over the group: Iran had reportedly opposed the decision to take the capital.

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Why are there still US troops in Iraq and Syria?

By Robert Wright, Jul 02 2021

This week the US launched airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria that it said had attacked its troops in Iraq. Notably, the Iraq government, which American troops are in Iraq to support, protested the strikes.

This could make a person wonder: If local militias are attacking US troops in hopes of getting them to leave, and American retaliation draws protest from the Iraqi government, maybe it’s time for the US troops to leave?

To try to get a deeper understanding of the situation, I talked to Derek Davison, an expert on the Middle East who publishes the Foreign Exchanges Newsletter. Below is a transcript of part of our exchange. An audio version of the whole conversation is in the Wright Show podcast feed, and a video version is here.     

What America’s seizure of Iran-linked websites says about the “rules-based order”

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Jun 25 2021

This week Peter Beinart, writing in the New York Times, took aim at one of the Blob’s favorite terms: the “rules-based order.” The Biden administration often invokes the term, typically in reference to the threat allegedly posed to that order by China. The problem, Beinart notes, is that no one ever bothers to explain what rules constitute the order—what rules America is supposedly abiding by while its adversaries violate them. “Since the ‘rules-based order’ is never adequately defined, America’s claim to uphold it can never be disproved,” Beinart writes.

This sort of skepticism about boilerplate “rules-based order” rhetoric has been growing lately, and that’s a welcome development in foreign policy discourse—maybe even a sign that the Blob’s days of hegemony are numbered. The trend dates back to the Trump administration, when observers noted that some of the Blobsters most loudly complaining about Trump’s failure to uphold the “rules-based order” had championed things like invading and bombing countries in violation of international law. When Biden took office, and staffed his foreign policy team with exactly this kind of rules-based-order scold, it was an open invitation for Beinart and other Blob critics to turn up the heat.

And yet—so much more heat is needed! The average member of the foreign policy establishment, to say nothing of the average American voter, has no idea how hypocritical America’s sermons about following the rules look from abroad. As it happens, an object lesson in this hypocrisy took shape on the same day Beinart’s piece was published, when the US Justice Department announced that it had disabled 36 Iran-linked websites. Let’s take a look at this exercise in American rules enforcement and try to imagine how it might look from perspectives other than America’s.

Three kinds of rules, in particular, are implicated in the Justice Department’s website takedown:    

Can we talk about NATO?

By Connor Echols, Jun 18 2021

Last year, a wave of young people got caught up in a new self-help trend: “manifesting.” The basic idea, according to Vox, is to think “aspirational thoughts with the purpose of making them real.” TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube are full of Gen Zers and Millennials insisting that you can manifest a sudden influx of wealth or a response from a crush who won’t text you back.

Even young world leaders have joined the craze, judging by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent attempt to manifest Ukraine joining NATO: “Commend @NATO partners' understanding of all the risks and challenges we face,” Zelensky tweeted Monday. “NATO leaders confirmed that [Ukraine] will become a member of the Alliance.”

The tweet fooled some people, including PBS journalist Yamiche Alcindor, who relayed Zelensky’s claim uncritically. But in reality, all NATO had done was reiterate its prior promise that Ukraine will eventually join the alliance, as long as Kiev meets admission standards. And, as Joe Biden pointed out in a news conference later in the day, Ukraine falls short of NATO standards when it comes to corruption. Asked whether there was news about Ukraine’s aspiration to join the alliance, Secretary of State Tony Blinken was clear: “Nothing has changed.”

Meanwhile, as Zelensky’s attempt to expand the Overton Window on NATO’s future failed, an attempt to expand it in the opposite direction was more successful. Also on Monday, the New York Times published an op-ed by Stephen Wertheim that raised fundamental questions about NATO’s value and purpose—a debate that has long been pushed to the margins.

Tom Friedman's Iran problem

By Robert Wright, Jun 18 2021

This week New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman shared his views on policy toward Iran: “I support Joe Biden trying to revive the [2015 nuclear] deal. And I support Israel’s covert efforts to sabotage Iran’s ability to ever build a nuclear weapon—no matter what the deal.”

That this declaration—in the first paragraph of a piece by the dean of America’s foreign policy columnists—occasioned virtually no comment on social media is yet more evidence of how little America’s foreign policy establishment actually cares about upholding the “rules based order” that virtually everyone in it purports to care deeply about. And in this case we’re not just talking about rules like, “You’re not allowed to blow up another country’s centrifuges, since that’s an act of war and a violation of international law and is all the more indefensible when the centrifuges are being monitored to ensure that they’re not producing weapons-grade material.” We’re also talking about rules like, “You’re not allowed to have scientists in another country murdered, since that’s both an act of war and deeply immoral.”

Friedman’s piece has flashes of insight. He recognizes that “Iran’s ruling clerics cultivate and celebrate conflict with America and Israel as an essential tool for locking themselves in power…” But it’s weird that (1) this appropriately cynical interpretation of the clerics’ hyperbolically expressed hostility toward “the Zionist regime” doesn’t lead Friedman to question his belief, expressed only two paragraphs earlier, that the Iranian government actually intends to “destroy the Jewish state;” and (2) Friedman shows no awareness that every time Israel has an Iranian scientist murdered or an Iranian centrifuge blown up it is strengthening the Iranian regime’s narrative of Israeli (and in some cases American) persecution and therefore helping the clerics more securely “lock themselves in power.”

So, in the end, Friedman’s ideas fail whether they’re judged by moral ideals (such as, Murder is bad) or pragmatic dictums (such as, If you want to weaken the grip of authoritarian regimes over their people, then don’t strengthen it). In this regard they are classic Blob products.

How Politico and the New York Times pass off hawkish opinions as facts

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Jun 11 2021

This week the New York Times published an article titled “Senate Poised to Pass Huge Industrial Policy Bill to Counter China.” It details how the growing perception of a threat from China has created bipartisan support for massive new government spending on tech. What makes the piece interesting is how it subtly supports the trend it describes. Here’s the lead paragraph:

WASHINGTON — Faced with an urgent competitive threat from China, the Senate is poised to pass the most expansive industrial policy legislation in U.S. history, blowing past partisan divisions over government support for private industry to embrace a nearly quarter-trillion-dollar investment in building up America’s manufacturing and technological edge.

Note that “urgent competitive threat from China” has no attribution. The Times simply states as fact that China poses a threat—and an urgent one, the kind that must be countered immediately—even though many foreign policy analysts would take issue with this claim.

The piece was co-written by David Sanger, a star foreign policy reporter for the Times whom this newsletter has characterized as having “apocalypse-hastening tendencies.” Through melodramatic framing and occasional editorializing, Sanger has time and again heightened America’s perception of threat from such adversaries as China, Russia, and Iran.

But Sanger is far from being the only mainstream reporter who subtly promotes a hawkish worldview. The journalistic “voice of God”—the ostensibly objective and therefore authoritative tone that traditional American news outlets convey—is often used to defend interventionist American policies or push our leaders to do something about, well, everything. Indeed, as another news outlet illustrated this week, sometimes this hawkish voice of God is used to create scary stories almost out of whole cloth.

The revolving door keeps on spinning

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, May 28 2021

Shortly after taking office, President Biden made headlines by putting new restrictions on the "revolving door" between government and private sector jobs. Among the most notable rules were a temporary ban on lobbying after leaving office and a requirement that appointees wait at least two years before working on matters connected to previous clients or employers.

Luckily for the Blob, these seemingly strict rules haven't stopped Biden from recruiting people who spent the Trump years cashing in on their government experience. Many of Biden's top foreign policy aides—including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan—waited out Trump’s presidency by working for defense contractors or opaque outfits known as "strategic consultancy firms," which rarely disclose clients and often work on behalf of multinational corporations and foreign governments.

The potential conflicts of interest don’t stop there. As Biden continues to fill mid-level foreign policy posts, it’s worth taking a look at the background of some recently announced or reported nominees who haven’t been confirmed yet.

Frank Kendall, Biden's nominee for Air Force Secretary. Kendall represents a particularly egregious example of the revolving door. After retiring from military service in 1994, he worked as an executive at Raytheon, a major weapons maker, and later became a consultant for various defense companies. He came back into government as head of acquisitions at the Defense Department under President Obama, then, when Trump took office, quickly began working for a weapons manufacturer that had received a big Pentagon contract during his tenure.

The contract went to Northrop Grumman for production of the B-21 bomber. Since he left office, the firm has paid him over $700,000 in consulting fees, according to Eli Clifton of the Quincy Institute. Kendall also spent some of the Trump years working with Leidos, a major defense contractor that won a $4 billion IT contract with the Pentagon during Kendall’s time in government. He holds at least $500,000 in Leidos stock and has earned $125,000 per year for his work on the firm’s board, according to Clifton.

If confirmed, Kendall vows, he’ll divest himself of this stock. Great—but since he’ll keep the proceeds, this will still be another example of him getting money from companies that received government contracts on his watch. And this history will give us reason to worry that as Air Force secretary his performance will be corrupted by his anticipation (whether conscious or unconscious) of repeating that process a few years hence.

It’s time to talk one-state solution

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, May 14 2021

In 2006, former President Jimmy Carter published a book called “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley, one of many commentators outraged by Carter’s use of the term apartheid, called the allusion to South Africa “a foolish and unfair comparison, unworthy of the man who won—and deserved—the Nobel Peace Prize.” Weeks later, the Post published a piece by the historian Deborah Lipstadt in which she argued that Carter had a “Jewish Problem” and implied that his book was anti-Semitic. Carter wrote an op-ed in response to the blowback, but even he avoided defending the legitimacy of the term.

Fast forward to now. Early this week, as Palestinians protested against impending evictions in East Jerusalem, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Noura Erakat and Mariam Barghouti in which the two Palestinian researchers wrote matter-of-factly that “we need solidarity to overcome apartheid.” And two weeks earlier, H.A. Hellyer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published an essay in the Post titled “Israel uses apartheid to exclude Palestinians. When will Washington face that?” The piece was pegged to the release of a high-profile Human Rights Watch report which had concluded that Israel is committing crimes of apartheid (a conclusion Hellyer called “behind the curve”).  

This week veteran Middle East observers exuded a sense of déjà vu as they lamented the latest of the “cycles of violence” that reliably punctuate Israeli-Palestinian relations. Yet something has changed.

Mainstream media discussion has expanded to encompass previously marginalized terms and ideas and previously sidelined voices—including voices that reject the status quo as untenable yet doubt the possibility of a two-state solution. And this shift has raised the cost for some politicians (on the Democratic side, at least) who are accustomed to deploying rote statements that affirm Israel’s right to self-defense, call for de-escalation on both sides, and reiterate support for a "peace process" that hasn’t shown signs of life since Americans now entering college were born.

Is all of this cause for hope? Or is there nothing to hope for? Does the longstanding reliance of politicians on these cliches reflect, in part, the absence of realistic alternative formulations?  

Menendez the menace

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, May 07 2021

If New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez gets his way, the Biden administration will continue to immiserate the Venezuelan people via sanctions, fail to restore the Iran nuclear deal, and preserve one of the more ridiculous relics of the Cold War—the blockade against Cuba. And, as Menendez has made clear, he does intend to use his position as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to get his way.

As we’ve noted before, we don’t consider the Biden foreign policy team a font of wisdom. Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan have a history of supporting ill-fated interventions, military and otherwise; their presence at the seat of power is discouraging testament to the pervasive influence of the Blob. But it’s not as discouraging as the fact that the most powerful congressional foreign policy figure in their own party makes them seem dovish by comparison.

Consider Menendez’s latest masterpiece: the “Strategic Competition Act.” The bill, co-sponsored by Menendez and Republican Jim Risch, is characterized by the Quincy Institute’s Michael Swaine as “a de facto declaration of a cold war with the People’s Republic of China.”

Here is a sentence from it: “The US must ensure that all Federal departments and agencies are organized to reflect the fact that strategic competition with [China] is the US top foreign policy priority.”

All agencies? The Federal Housing Finance Agency? The Minority Business Development Agency? The Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia? The Botanic Garden (or any of the 23 other agencies that start with the letter B—to say nothing of the 61 that start with the letter F)? Do the 21 (out of 22!) senators who voted to send this bill out of the foreign relations committee in late April really think we should structure our entire federal government to compete with Beijing?

The case against vaccine diplomacy

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Apr 30 2021

This week Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey called on the Biden administration to send vaccines to India, where covid cases have been spiking. “This is India’s moment of need,” he said.

So far so good. But then Kim started talking the language of “vaccine diplomacy.” He warned that China and Russia “have been using their vaccines to gather favor globally.” India, he noted, is an ally, and “America’s strategic strengths (especially in relation to China) are our allies and partners.”

Vaccine diplomacy has become the standard Blob framing of the case for sending vaccines abroad. “The United States can’t ignore China’s vaccine diplomacy in Latin America,” warns a headline above a piece by Washington Post writer and ardent neo-Cold Warrior Josh Rogin. A news flash from NBC: “Russia and China are beating the U.S. at vaccine diplomacy, experts say.”

The vaccine diplomacy mindset has its virtues. Sending vaccines abroad for reasons of realpolitik beats not sending them at all. Joe Biden’s pledge this week to release 60 million surplus AstraZeneca doses is an improvement over America’s previous policy of hoarding ever-growing vaccine stockpiles—aka, “vaccine nationalism.” If whispering “soft power” in Biden’s ear is what did the trick, that’s better than the trick not getting done. 

Still, this narrow choice between isolationist vaccine nationalism and competitive vaccine diplomacy misses a fundamental point: Viruses don't care about geopolitics. For that reason, a vaccine distribution strategy aimed at fighting an imagined cold war will look very different from a vaccine distribution strategy aimed at fighting a real global pandemic.