Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

A rare look at Yemen’s war, where children starve and hospitals are on life support. Alex Potter reports on the dire conditions in Yemen and records some of the suffering of Yemeni civilians in photographs.

The ‘myths and lies’ behind America’s growing military presence in Africa. Joe Penney pieces together the ever-expanding U.S. military role in Africa.

It’s too early to call Greece and Macedonia’s name change agreement a done deal. James Ker-Lindsay explains the dispute over Macedonia’s name and describes some of the remaining obstacles to the agreement that was just reached by the two states.

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Trump’s Parallel Reality

Trump held a Cabinet meeting earlier today in which he told a remarkable number of whoppers:

During the Obama years, that’s all I heard about: War with North Korea.

Trump was imagining things during those eight years, because no one seriously suggested that war with North Korea was at all likely at any point during Obama’s presidency. It was only during Trump’s first year in office that fears of war with North Korea dramatically increased in large part because of the belligerent rhetoric from the president and then-National Security Advisor McMaster. Trump is trying to claim that he solved a longstanding problem, but by telling such an egregious and easily checked lie he just reminds everyone that it was his bellicosity and reckless threats that escalated tensions with North Korea in 2017. If the risk of war has receded, that is not because Trump has “solved” anything, but only because he has stopped making blood-curdling threats to annihilate another country.

Trump went on to say this later in the meeting:

Look, I’ve been given a very tough hand. Because I came up here, we had an economy that was going down. We had an Iran problem. We had a Middle East problem. Take a look at what was going on in the Middle East. It’s a lot better now. You’re a lot smoother right now than anything you heard over the last eight years [bold mine-DL].

This is all nonsense, starting with the dishonest claim about the economy. But it’s the absurd claims about the Middle East that really stand out. The U.S. continues to enable the Saudi-led war on Yemen, and that war now threatens to devastate the port of Hodeidah and put the lives of millions of civilians at risk. Things are not “a lot better now” than they were before he took office. They are measurably and demonstrably worse, especially in Yemen. The Saudi coalition is in the process of committing a massive crime against humanity with U.S. backing as Trump says this. He has managed to take the worst Obama-era policy in Yemen and make it even worse than it already was, and he has done this on purpose to cater to the preferences of despotic regimes that have flattered and curried favor with him over the last few years. Trump’s description of his parallel reality unwittingly calls to mind his most reckless and destructive actions, and it shows how oblivious he is to their consequences.

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Pompeo’s Nuclear Deal Hypocrisy

Then-Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-KS, speaking at a rally in 2013. He faces a senate grilling for his secretary of state nomination today.Mark Taylor/Creative Commons

Mike Pompeo can’t be as credulous as he pretends to be:

I was there. I was there when [Kim] said it. He made a personal commitment. He has his reputation on the line in the same way that we do, that says we’re going to create a brighter future for North Korea. We’re going to denuclearize just as quickly as we can achieve that.

Kim may have said something like this, or maybe he said something different that Pompeo misunderstood to mean this. Regardless, that doesn’t mean that North Korea is going to do what Pompeo says it will. The statement from the summit doesn’t support Pompeo’s interpretation, and so he has to pretend that lots of other things are implied or “understood” that haven’t been written down. Pompeo bristled when he was questioned about the weakness of the language of the summit declaration, because I suspect he knows deep down that he is defending an untenable position and doesn’t have good answers to basic questions about the substance.

Pompeo denounced the very good nuclear deal with Iran as a surrender by the U.S. Now he is claiming that the U.S. can trust North Korean intentions just because Kim told him something. Kim likely doesn’t care about his international reputation in “the same way that we do,” and he also has to keep his own domestic constituencies satisfied and can’t afford to be seen as capitulating to the U.S., much less doing so as quickly as possible. Pompeo ignored Iranian compliance with the JCPOA despite the use of the most rigorous and intrusive verification mechanisms anywhere, but he expects the public and Congress to accept that North Korea should be trusted without any verification because their leader offered him some assurances in private. The glaring hypocrisy is galling, but it is the intellectual dishonesty on display from members of this administration that is truly breathtaking.

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Trump’s North Korea Fabulism

President Trump greets U.S. State Department officials in Singapore, June 11 ahead of the talks.  U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Trump continues to make delusional statements about the summit with North Korea:

When the president says things like this, he is either deliberately misleading the public or so misinformed that he doesn’t even know what the summit statement said. Either way, it doesn’t say much for the process that Trump is presiding over that he feels compelled to misrepresent the results of the summit and claim that North Korea has agreed to do things when they have not. When the president lies so often publicly about an important issue, that should alarm all of us, and it should worry supporters of continued engagement with North Korea most of all. If Trump is lying this much and this often at such an early stage of the process, how will we be able to trust anything that comes out of that process?

The document signed in Singapore never says that the denuclearization of North Korea will begin “immediately,” but only that the U.S. and North Korea will work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” It is not necessarily a bad thing that the two sides are using ambiguous language at the beginning of the process, but you can’t defend the use of that language while simultaneously pretending that there has been an ironclad North Korean commitment to disarm quickly. Vipin Narang comments on the president’s statement:

Making false claims about what was agreed at the summit is a good way to sow distrust in Congress and with the North Koreans, and that could easily undermine or derail diplomacy.

It would be one thing if Trump said that the summit was just the start of a long process and there was still a great deal of work to be done, but he doesn’t say that. Instead, he asserts that everything has been resolved, claims North Korea has yielded everything that the administration wants, and demands credit for “achieving” all of this. The most reasonable defenses of the summit acknowledge that the negotiations are very much a work in progress, but the president is out there already running multiple victory laps when the race has only just begun. When the president is congratulating himself for achieving things that haven’t happened and probably won’t, that should tell us that there is a lot less to the policy he is touting than meets the eye.

Trump’s North Korea policy shouldn’t be judged in a vacuum. It has to be set in the context of his overall disdain for diplomacy and his repudiation of the JCPOA. The president just reneged on a major nonproliferation agreement that was doing exactly what it was supposed to do, and he did this because the agreement was supposedly not “tough” enough on Iran. His complaints about that deal were spurious and reflected his profound ignorance about these issues, and the decision to renege on the agreement was one of the worst foreign policy decisions he has yet made.

If his judgment was this awful about a nuclear deal that was widely acknowledged to be successful, why should we expect better judgment when it comes to making an agreement with North Korea? He ignored arms control experts that urged him not to renege on the agreement, and again on North Korea he is ignoring their advice and plowing ahead in pursuit of a goal that can’t be reached. Now he is claiming that the summit statement says things that it clearly does not say, and he wants people to be grateful to him for de-escalating a crisis that he escalated in the first place. The president is toying around with major national security issues primarily for his own self-gratification and aggrandizement, and he clearly doesn’t care about the consequences of anything that he’s doing.

Update: The full quote from the Cabinet meeting reads as follows:

But the document we signed, if people actually read it to the public, you’d see: Number one statement, we will immediately begin total denuclearization of North Korea. Nobody thought that would be possible.

This is not the “number one statement.” On the contrary, it never appears anywhere in the text that the president cites.

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Bolton Keeps Trying to Sabotage North Korea Diplomacy

John Bolton wants to remind you that he really hates diplomacy:

President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton says North Korea is facing a “decisive and dramatic choice” on whether to give up its nuclear program and ballistic missiles.

Bolton told Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday that the U.S. will find out soon enough because diplomatic engagement will proceed quickly. He says Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others will be meeting with North Korean officials. Bolton says the U.S. has no interest in lengthy talks [bold mine-DL].

Even if North Korea were prepared to disarm, hammering out the details of how and when this would happen could not happen quickly. Bolton rejects lengthy talks because he has no interest in a diplomatic solution. Any productive negotiations are going to take a long while. When Bolton says that the U.S. has no interest in lengthy talks, he is confirming that the administration isn’t going to take the time and make the effort required to secure an agreement on anything. Combined with Trump’s delusion that the problem has already been “solved” and the danger eliminated, Bolton’s statements make it less likely that talks between the U.S. and North Korea will be productive. Since North Korea isn’t going to make the “decisive and dramatic choice” that Bolton wants, he is setting up the negotiations to fail.

Secretary Mattis offered an accurate assessment of the situation earlier today:

Defense Secretary James Mattis on Wednesday said he is “not aware” of any steps North Korea has taken yet to denuclearize following the historic summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

North Korea has not taken any steps to do this because it is not going to do this. The longer that the president is allowed to pretend that this is going to happen, the worse it will be when he realizes that it won’t. Bolton is counting on the disappointment of unrealistic expectations to derail all diplomatic engagement with North Korea, and everyone that wants to thwart Bolton needs to make it as clear as can be that North Korea’s disarmament is not in the cards.

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The UAE Runs Torture Prisons in ‘Liberated’ Yemen

Foreign Ministers from Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE meet with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in July 2017. (State Department photo/ Public Domain)

While the UAE and its proxies attack Hodeidah in northern Yemen, the Emirati government is also torturing Yemeni detainees in the occupied south:

Witnesses said Yemeni guards working under the direction of Emirati officers have used various methods of sexual torture and humiliation. They raped detainees while other guards filmed the assaults. They electrocuted prisoners’ genitals or hung rocks from their testicles. They sexually violated others with wooden and steel poles.

The UAE and its proxies have been brutally abusing Yemenis in these prisons for years, and they have done so in the name of “counter-terrorism.” The U.S. government feigns ignorance about what the Emiratis are doing, but it continues to work with the UAE in Yemen and it strains credulity that no one from our military knows what is being done to these detainees. According to the AP report, it is likely that some American military personnel are aware of what is happening:

In the same city, at the UAE-run prison inside the Buriqa military base, two prisoners told the AP they think that American personnel in uniform must be aware of the torture – either because they have heard screams or seen marks of torture.” Prisoners said that they haven’t seen Americans directly involved in the abuse.

“Americans use Emiratis as gloves to do their dirty work,” said one senior security official at the Riyan Prison in the city of Mukalla. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

At best, the U.S. is ignoring a lot of evidence that one of its “partners” is torturing its prisoners in Yemen. If the U.S. knows about and tolerates this, it is complicit in violations of international law and human rights abuses. While all of this is going on, our government continues to provide unstinting support to the UAE’s military campaign in Yemen.

These are just the latest allegations of horrific abuses committed by the UAE and their proxies. The Associated Press previously reported about torture in UAE-run prisons last year:

Hundreds of men swept up in the hunt for al-Qaida militants have disappeared into a secret network of prisons in southern Yemen where abuse is routine and torture extreme — including the “grill,” in which the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire, an Associated Press investigation has found.

In addition to the obvious immorality and illegality of these abuses, the torture of detainees is a guaranteed way to strengthen terrorist organizations:

The UAE’s control over southern Yemen, and the prisons, has left many Yemenis worried that innocent civilians are being pushed into the arms of the very extremists that Emirati forces claim they are fighting.

“In the prisons, they are committing the most brutal crimes,” said a Yemeni commander currently in Riyadh. “Joining ISIS and al-Qaida became a way to take revenge for all the sexual abuses and sodomization. From here, the prisons, they are manufacturing ISIS.”

The UAE is likely creating many more terrorists with its brutal treatment of Yemeni detainees, and it is subjecting countless Yemenis to horrifying abuse while it occupies part of the country that they and their coalition allies are busy wrecking and starving. Even if the U.S. is not directly involved in the torture of Yemenis at the hands of the UAE, it appears to be tacitly allowing appalling crimes to be committed because the perpetrator is deemed to be one of our “allies.”

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‘Relief Plan’ Issued By Saudi Arabia is a Gimmick

The International Rescue Committee dismissed Saudi coalition “relief” plan for Yemen as a public relations gimmick:

The “relief” plan announced by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to protect civilians living in Hodeidah as they attack the port city is a publicity stunt by the Saudi-led coalition (SLC) coalition meant to draw attention away from the undue suffering the attack is causing. The port is absolutely critical to the survival of many innocent Yemenis, and 600,000 civilians living in the port city and surrounding areas are in immediate danger. An attack on or disruption of operations of the port will be catastrophic.

The Saudi coalition’s intervention has been the main cause of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The coalition governments pay lip service to providing relief to the civilian population only as a means to deflect attention from the collective punishment and atrocities that it has inflicted on them for more than three years. They are attempting to do so again by pretending that their assault on Hodeidah benefits the people of Yemen when it is sure to cause more death, suffering, displacement, and starvation. If the coalition were even slightly concerned with alleviating the suffering of Yemen’s civilian population, they would halt their current offensive, lift their blockade, and cease their indiscriminate bombing campaign.

The IRC statement makes an important point that the coalition has completely failed to provide relief to the people living in so-called “liberated” parts of Yemen, and so there is no reason to expect anything more in Hodeidah:

The Hadi government, backed by this coalition, has been in control in Aden and other areas in southern Yemen for three years, yet, innocent Yemeni civilians living in these areas continue to suffer from a total lack of basic healthcare and critical life-saving services. The coalition has had plenty of time to rebuild healthcare services and jump start the economy in the south, but they chose to pour money into their war efforts instead. Healthcare services remain inaccessible to the majority of Yemenis in the south and businesses and shops remain shuttered. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have clearly not demonstrated the desire nor the capacity to priortize the well-being of Yemeni civlians, therefore, we have no reason to believe they will follow through on their plan to provide healthcare, food and economic recovery assistance to the people of Hodeidah.

The Saudi coalition is waging a war on Yemen, and it harms Yemen’s civilians all across the country. Attacking Hodeidah won’t bring Yemen’s population relief, nor will seizing the port. The overwhelming consensus among aid groups and international institutions is that an attack on the port will be calamitous for Yemeni civilians. After only a few days, there are already tens of thousands more displaced people fleeing the area, and there are likely to be hundreds of thousands more as the battle spreads. Only a cessation of hostilities, an end to the blockade, and the start of negotiations can provide the relief that the people of Yemen so desperately need, and further escalation by the coalition shows that they have no intention of offering them any of these things.

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Withdrawing from the Human Rights Council Is a Mistake

Ambassador Nikki Haley at the United Nations. Credit: IPP Photo Archive/CreativeCommons

The Trump administration has pulled the U.S. out of the U.N. Human Rights Council:

The United States withdrew on Tuesday from the world’s most important human rights body in protest of its frequent criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. It was the latest effort by the Trump administration to pull away from international organizations and agreements that it finds objectionable.

It was the first time a member has voluntarily left the United Nations Human Rights Council. The United States now joins Iran, North Korea and Eritrea as the only countries that refuse to participate in the council’s meetings and deliberations [bold mine-DL].

There are legitimate reasons to criticize the U.N. Human Rights Council, but as usual the administration has managed to find the least compelling reason for its bad decision. The Human Rights Council’s failing is not that it criticizes Israel for its abuses, but that it frequently fails to hold other member states accountable for theirs. It is ridiculous to have some of the most abusive governments in the world as part of this body, but that is all the more reason why the U.S. should remain a member and seek to hold those states accountable for what they are doing. It is embarrassing that the U.S. now joins a handful of some of the most abusive governments in the world in refusing to participate. Withdrawing from the council can only benefit the worst governments in the world.

The U.S. has often been an enabler of the abuses of its clients, and it has helped them to whitewash their crimes and shield them from international scrutiny. There is nothing quite so hypocritical as condemning the Human Rights Council for hypocrisy when the U.S. is providing cover for illegal Israeli shootings of Palestinian protesters and aiding and abetting Saudi coalition war crimes in Yemen. Withdrawing from the council does nothing to remedy any of its defects, but it does forfeit U.S. influence for the sake of pandering to one of its reckless clients.

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The JCPOA and the Singapore Statement

Trump speaks at Washington rally against the Iran deal back in September 2015. Credit: Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom

Abigail Tracy writes about the intra-administration positioning after the Singapore summit. Here she sums up the summit’s results:

Among foreign-policy experts I spoke with, the summit appeared to be a major win for North Korea based off the joint statement signed by the two leaders. “It is less than any statement that the North Koreans have ever agreed to in the past,” Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury, told me last week. “The president continues to say that Kim is giving up his nuclear weapons. Kim continues to refuse to promise that. I don’t know how long they can keep fudging this.”

The president and other members of the administration have boxed themselves in with their insistence that anything less than “comprehensive, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” (CVID) is unacceptable. Trump’s delusion that North Korea agreed to anything close to this in Singapore compounds the problem, because it means that he is already taking victory laps for a process that has just barely started. Instead of continuing to “fudge” the huge gap between the two sides, the administration needs to modify its demands and expectations to match the reality that North Korea isn’t disarming.

Once there is no longer any illusion that North Korean disarmament might happen, U.S. and North Korean officials could have potentially very productive talks to reach important compromises on a permanent test freeze. One possibility that I have seen mentioned several times in the last few weeks is to propose that North Korea and the U.S. ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). That would be a significant improvement over the status quo in its own right, and it is something that is not nearly as far-fetched as CVID.

The trouble is that the president isn’t going to be interested in a modest, useful agreement when he already thinks North Korea has given up “everything.” His contempt for expertise and his habit of surrounding himself with flatterers and yes-men mean that no one is likely to tell him the truth about any of this, and if anyone did try to explain it to him he would dismiss it out of hand. The president’s rejection of the nuclear deal with Iran and his embrace of the “deal” in Singapore seem wildly contradictory in that the former was actually an agreement with verification measures and all the things the summit statement lacked. If Trump sees the JCPOA as fatally flawed, he ought to see the non-existent “deal” with North Korea as something even worse, but of course he isn’t judging either of these things on the merits. Once you realize that both positions stem from contempt for expertise and total ignorance of the relevant issues, it is not surprising that these are the positions that Trump has taken. It is also why so many of the people most supportive of the real nonproliferation agreement with Iran are so unimpressed with the phony one that Trump is celebrating.

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The Destabilizing and Reckless Mohammed bin Salman

Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner, and his wife, Assistant to the President Ivanka Trump,at the Murabba Palace with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Iyad el-Baghdadi reviews Mohammed bin Salman’s record and finds it severely lacking:

In short, the crown prince is promising economic reform while imprisoning economic reformers; he’s promising religious reform while imprisoning religious reformers; he’s promising social reform while imprisoning leading feminists. As he silences the once dynamic Saudi public sphere, note how these voices are being replaced: thousands of bots are flooding Saudi social media, many with pictures of the crown prince, cheering his every move.

The decision-making of the world’s largest oil exporter is now in the hand of a small number of individuals with no consultative process in place, and with dissenters immediately jailed.

Many of the crown prince’s big moves have deteriorated into protracted wars of attrition, such as the war in Yemen or the feud with Qatar. His mass arrest of the leading women’s rights activists is another potential quagmire.

Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has proven himself to be very good at picking fights and grabbing power, but so far those are just about the only things that he has been able to do successfully. The atrocious war on Yemen is now over three years old, which is three years longer than the Saudis and their allies expected it would last. The war has thus far failed to achieve any of the coalition’s stated goals, it has been marred by thousands of war crimes committed by coalition forces, and it has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Qatar crisis has dragged on for more than a year, and in that time the Saudi-led bloc’s efforts to bully Qatar into submission have backfired about as badly as they could have. Qatar has not only rejected the bloc’s demands, but has improved relations with Iran and Turkey in a pointed rebuke to Saudi and Emirati wishes. Inept, heavy-handed Saudi meddling in Lebanon redounded to the benefit of Hizbullah and its allies. The crown prince’s only notable foreign policy achievement has been to cultivate the easy marks in the Trump administration, who have foolishly bound themselves and the U.S. to the crown prince’s fortunes. Even when MbS delivers on promised modest changes inside Saudi Arabia, he makes a mockery of those changes by locking up the activists that supported them. He has made many enemies with his hasty and reckless behavior, and those enemies can only be encouraged when they see that he doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing.

Many foreign pundits and journalists may bend over backwards to flatter and spin for the crown prince, but foreign investors are not nearly as enthusiastic. As el-Baghdadi notes, the supposed “anti-corruption” purge last fall probably contributed to the slump in foreign investment in the kingdom:

His recent shakedown of leading business figures had nothing to do with the rule of law and may have spooked investors. Recent figures show that foreign direct investment hit a 14-year low in Saudi Arabia last year (compared to an 8 percent rise in the neighboring United Arab Emirates).

Investors typically crave stability, and Mohammed bin Salman’s behavior over the last year has done nothing to reassure them that the kingdom is a good investment.

The crown prince’s Western fans have spent months building him up and celebrating his agenda before he had succeeded at anything beyond taking more power for himself. It should start dawning on them sooner or later that their enthusiasm wasn’t just premature but also entirely misplaced.

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