Daniel Larison

Haley’s Stunt and the War on Yemen

Nikki Haley is very concerned about the origin of a missile that didn’t kill anyone in Yemen:

Haley, holding a press conference at the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C., presented what she described as recovered pieces of a missile fired by Houthi militants from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, pointing out the missile bears “Iranian missile fingerprints.” Yemen is facing a devastating civil war that has been raging since 2015.

“It’s hard to find a conflict or a terrorist group in the Middle East that does not have Iran’s fingerprints all over it,” Haley said Thursday.

Supporters of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war on Yemen have been desperate to shift the blame for the disaster engulfing that country to anyone other than the coalition and its Western patrons. They have therefore exaggerated the negligible role of Iran in the conflict in order to distract attention from the far larger, much more destructive role that the U.S. and our clients have had over the last two and a half years. Insofar as Iranian support for the Houthis has increased during the course of the Saudi-led intervention, that is just proof of how unsuccessful the coalition’s war has been and how pointlessly destructive their blockade continues to be.

That is why our U.N. ambassador feels the need to put on a show to accuse Iran of providing missiles to the Houthis at the same time that she and the rest of our government pointedly ignore the routine bombing of civilian targets by coalition forces and the coalition blockade that is strangling Yemen’s civilian population to death. The evidence in this case is not as clear-cut as Haley claims, but that is almost beside the point. Haley cannot defend what the coalition has been doing to Yemen for over thirty months, and she can’t justify the collective punishment they are inflicting on the population in response to the firing of this missile, so she has to try to change the subject. Haley’s stunt is a lame bid to try to make people forget that our clients are committing crimes against humanity with our government’s assistance. It is pitiful diversion and a confirmation of just how indefensible and disgusting our policy in Yemen is.

Haley says that it is difficult “to find a conflict or a terrorist group in the Middle East that does not have Iran’s fingerprints all over it.” That is not really true, but Yemen is probably the worst example she could have used. It is the coalition’s war that has strengthened Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the local ISIS affiliate in Yemen, and it is coalition forces that have been fighting alongside members of AQAP during this conflict. It is the Saudi-led coalition backed by the U.S. and other Western states that escalated the conflict in Yemen and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. These are the governments whose fingerprints are “all over” the devastation and loss of life in Yemen. Whatever else Iran may be responsible for elsewhere in the region, it is not responsible for most of what has happened in Yemen, and Haley’s stunt doesn’t change that.

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Where Is the Debate Over Attacking North Korea?

Dan Drezner warns about the increasing chances of a war with North Korea:

The message I heard was clear. Trump officials working on North Korea have developed the odd consensus that Pyongyang will use its nuclear arsenal to attempt a forcible reunification with South Korea. And if that is the goal, then time is running out for military options that would stop that from happening. In other words, I heard the exact same things as Osnos and Schake. The Trump national security team seems convinced that North Korea cannot be deterred, and war is the inevitable outcome.

What is equally disturbing is the lack of public debate on this question. Say what you will about Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the Bush administration took seven months between talking about it and doing it. In that time, administration officials secured congressional authorization and tried to do the same at the United Nations Security Council. There was also a vigorous public debate on the question. With North Korea right now, there is a lot of chatter but no visible debate. Indeed, if the Trump team is leaning toward a preventive attack, a debate is the last thing officials want, for tactical reasons. It is impossible to have a public debate about a surprise military strike.

There has been a noticeable lack of debate over attacking North Korea, but administration officials have been anything but coy about the possibility that they might do this. McMaster has been claiming for months that North Korea can’t be deterred and has repeatedly suggested preventive war as an alternative. He just said so again earlier this month. Trump has publicly emphasized the administration’s view that the North Korean regime isn’t rational. During his belligerent U.N. speech, he said, “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission.” If the U.S. does attack North Korea, it won’t be coming as much of a surprise to anyone at this point.

These very obvious signals from top administration figures have been ignored as much as they have because most people covering Trump have stopped taking Trump’s bluster and threats seriously. Many people opposed to the Trump administration are still wrongly assuming that Trump’s many generals will rein him in and keep him from doing anything truly insane. The sheer insanity of attacking North Korea has also made it seem like something that not even someone as reckless as Trump would do.

McMaster’s consistent advocacy for such a reckless North Korea policy should put an end to all that wishful thinking. Trump isn’t being advised to avoid war with North Korea. He isn’t being reined in. Instead, his National Security Advisor is regularly endorsing the very hard-line view that deterrence can’t work. That makes war much more likely, and it is even harder to stop that war from happening when Congress and the public aren’t taking the danger seriously.

One problem is that Congress doesn’t care to do its job of checking the executive. The U.S. has been waging old wars and starting new ones without public or Congressional debate for so long now that it now seems a bit strange to expect that any administration would bother trying to make a public case for attacking another country. When it comes to matters of war, most members of Congress don’t insist on having their say and prefer letting the president do whatever he wants. The costlier a war is likely to be, the less eager members of Congress are to do their duty by debating and voting on it. A war with North Korea would be far costlier for the U.S. and its allies than anything Americans have seen since at least Vietnam. That makes it vital that we have a debate, and it also reminds us why so many of our representatives want to duck that debate.

If we had a debate over attacking North Korea, it would become clear very quickly that the case for war is extremely thin and shoddy. A preventive war can’t be a defensive war by definition, and it isn’t a response to an imminent threat, so there is no justification for it. Attacking North Korea would be just as wrong and strategically disastrous as invading Iraq was, but the devastation it would unleash would be far worse. Preventive war with North Korea would likely bring about the very nuclear catastrophe that it is supposedly trying to avert, and millions would die in a senseless conflict that could have been easily avoided. Launching a preventive war against North Korea would also be a massive violation of the U.N. Charter and international law, and by doing this the U.S. would be guilty of damaging the foundations of the so-called “rules-based order” in spectacular fashion. Supporters of attacking North Korea have no credible case for what they want to do, and so it is all the more alarming that so few people are challenging them in public.

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McMaster’s North Korea Myopia

Wikimedia Commons

Trump’s National Security Advisor dismissed any possibility of talking to North Korea without preconditions, and once again insisted on the administration’s impossible goal:

The national security adviser also said that because North Korea “is a regime that uses extortion on a routine basis as a part of their policy,” there is a singular goal the U.S. must pursue — denuclearization.

“Denuclearization is the only viable objective and if we all focus on that, we have a strong chance for success,” McMaster said.

The U.S. will not succeed in forcing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program whether “we all focus” on this goal or not. Our focus, or lack thereof, doesn’t change the reality that North Korea isn’t going to give up its nuclear weapons willingly. The U.S. doesn’t have a “strong chance for success” in this case, because it is chasing after something that can’t be had short of a bloody invasion and regime change. Since denuclearization is a fantasy, the continued pursuit of it invites disaster for the U.S., the Koreas, and the surrounding region.

McMaster’s single-minded focus on a goal that the U.S. can’t achieve means that he and Trump are ignoring the viable and preferable options besides this one. Trump already has poor judgment, but it really doesn’t help when his top adviser on national security matters suffers from myopia about one of the most important issues of the day. Trump and McMaster are taking the U.S. down a dead-end road that will put the administration in a position of having to climb down from their maximalist demands or resort to using force. Members of Congress and the public need to wake up to the dangerous path that the Trump administration is leading us on, and they need to object strongly to an unrealistic policy that is needlessly increasing the chances of a major war.

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The Iran Obsession Is Getting Worse

President Trump and Supreme Leader Ali Khomeini. CreativeCommons, Shutterstock.

The Trump administration’s Iran obsession threatens to drag the U.S. into new and unnecessary conflict in Syria:

U.S. officials are wrestling with where and how to repel what they describe as a significant Iranian military expansion across the region, a development of increasing concern in Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh.

“Our leadership has set as an objective not to allow Iran and its proxies to be able to establish a presence in Syria [bold mine-DL] that they can use to threaten our allies or us in the region,” one senior U.S. administration official said. “There are different ways to implement that, and we are still working through them.”

Syria is Iran’s main regional ally, and Iran and its proxies have firmly established their presence there over the last five years and more. It is the height of hubris to imagine that the U.S. is in a position “not to allow” something that has been happening at least since 2011. Even if it were within America’s power to keep Iran and its proxies out of Syria, it would come at an unacceptably high cost and it would be completely unnecessary for U.S. security. The “allies” that may be threatened by the presence of Iran and its proxies in Syria are more than capable of providing for their own defense. More to the point, they aren’t actually our allies and the U.S. is under no obligation to police Syria for their benefit.

I call the Trump administration’s fixation on and hostility towards Iran as an obsession because it is so clearly irrational and separated from any discernible U.S. security interest. If Iran and its proxies have an ongoing presence in Syria, that poses no threat to the U.S. American forces shouldn’t be put at risk to put a stop to it, and the sooner all American forces are withdrawn from Syria the better.

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North Korea and Trump’s Dysfunctional Foreign Policy

Tillerson suggested earlier this week that the U.S. would be willing to talk to North Korea without preconditions, but the White House immediately made clear that his words didn’t mean anything:

President Trump and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson are once again at odds over how to deal with nuclear-armed North Korea after Mr. Tillerson declared on Tuesday that the United States was ready to open talks with the North “without precondition.”

The secretary’s comments were remarkably conciliatory for an administration that has repeatedly threatened North Korea with military action, and ruled out any negotiations, if it did not curb its missile and nuclear programs. But a few hours later, the White House distanced itself from his overture.

In an unusual statement released to reporters on Tuesday evening, the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Mr. Trump’s position on North Korea had not changed — namely, that talks were pointless if the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, continued to menace his neighbors.

Tillerson has been publicly undermined so many times by the Trump White House that it is safe to assume that the Secretary of State never speaks for the president when he says anything remotely reasonable. Whenever Tillerson has expressed an openness to talking to North Korea’s government, Trump has been quick to contradict him. This has made it impossible to take conciliatory rhetoric from Tillerson seriously, and it has underscored just how deep Trump’s disdain for diplomacy truly is. That can only make North Korea’s government even more skeptical of the value of entering into talks with Washington.

In the latest example of Trump administration foreign policy dysfunction, the White House undercut Tillerson because they supposedly didn’t want to create confusion about U.S. policy:

White House officials were alarmed by Mr. Tillerson’s conciliatory tone, according to several people, because they feared that it would sow confusion among allies after Mr. Trump rallied them behind a policy of “maximum pressure.”

It is the president’s habit of gainsaying his own Secretary of State at almost every turn that sows confusion and makes it impossible for Tillerson to do his job. Floating the possibility that the U.S. is willing to talk to North Korea wouldn’t confuse anyone. When Tillerson hinted that the U.S. was open to doing this, his remarks were greeted with relief because it suggested that the administration might not be as inflexible and confrontational as it has been all year long. There is no longer any pretense that there is some sort of “good cop, bad cop” routine at work here, since the administration is quick to telegraph to the rest of the world that the would-be “good cop” should be ignored entirely.

The bigger problem with the administration’s North Korea policy is that the U.S. and North Korea continue to talk past one another:

For her part, Choe signaled that North Korea had its own red line. Speaking to a group of former U.S. officials in separate meeting in Oslo, Choe said that her government would not enter into talks with the United States if Washington sought to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons [bold mine-DL], according to a source familiar with those talks.

Administration officials imagine that the purpose of talks with North Korea is to get them to give up the very thing that they will never talk about with us. No talks can possibly succeed when one side is seeking the elimination of the other side’s sine qua non, and it is very troubling that no one in the administration understands this.

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Tillerson’s Reckless Rejection of Deterrence

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a meeting for the Global Coalition on the Defeat of ISIS at the State Department in Washington, D.C., March 22, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

Rex Tillerson added to the list of irresponsible administration statements on North Korea yesterday:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ruled out pursuing a traditional Cold War-style containment and deterrence strategy against a nuclear-armed North Korea, citing concerns that Pyongyang will transform its arsenal into a commercial business and sell nuclear weapons to other actors.

The Trump administration seems desperate to find excuses for rejecting containment and deterrence as the appropriate responses to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. If there is reason to worry that North Korea might try selling nuclear weapons to others, that suggests that the U.S. shouldn’t be trying to strangle the regime economically. The more sanctions that the U.S. and others impose on North Korea, the more attractive we make it for them to get into the business of proliferation. It seems unlikely that any regime would part with costly, hard-won weapons such as these, and the burden of proof is on the people rejecting deterrence to show otherwise.

Tillerson got some premature credit yesterday for saying that the U.S. was willing to talk without preconditions. The White House quickly shot this down anyway, but Tillerson’s other remarks show that the opening is less meaningful than it appears. As long as denuclearization remains the administration’s goal in North Korea, the policy remains as unrealistic as ever. Explicitly ruling out containment and deterrence as Tillerson just did implies that the only things that the administration will accept are negotiated surrender or preventive war. Since North Korea can be expected to reject the former, that leaves us with the frightening prospect of an unnecessary war with an unacceptably high cost.

The Secretary of State’s reasoning on this matter is not persuasive. He said:

The difference is that with the past behavior of North Korea, it is clear to us that they would not just use the possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. This would become a commercial activity for them.

But this is not clear at all. Engaging in the proliferation of conventional weapons and missile technology is not the same as selling off nukes. The administration is assuming that North Korea would treat its nuclear weapons like any another commodity and deliver them to the highest bidder. That is a huge leap for which there is no evidence, and it is on the basis that unfounded assumption that the administration is rejecting the one proven way of defending against an adversary with nuclear weapons.

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The Saudis’ Cruel Collective Punishment of Yemen Has Not Ended

The starvation blockade imposed on Yemen by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition remains in place:

There are no signs that a blockade of Yemen’s ports by a Saudi-led military coalition has eased to allow aid to reach communities increasingly at risk of starvation, the head of the US government’s aid agency said on Tuesday.

Thanks to this blockade, more than eight million people are one step away from famine, and over twenty million are in need of humanitarian assistance. At least nine cities cannot pump fresh water and have run out of clean water because of the fuel shortage brought on by the tightened blockade. Millions of people living in those cities are at heightened risk of contracting water-borne diseases. Yemen’s civilian population needs the delivery of humanitarian aid, but more than that they need the full resumption of commercial imports to stave off massive loss of life from starvation and disease. The plight of Yemen’s people has been made worse by the systematic, deliberate coalition campaign to attack the country’s sources of food production. Iona Craig reports:

Research on the pattern of bombing, carried out by emeritus professor Martha Mundy at the London School of Economics, concluded that in the first 17 months of the Saudi-led bombing campaign there was “strong evidence that coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution” in areas controlled by the Houthis and allied forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh was killed by Houthi forces in Sana’a last week, days after declaring he had switched allegiances.

Data on coalition airstrikes collected by the Yemen Data Project have recorded 356 air raids targeting farms, 174 targeting market places and 61 air raids targeting food storage sites from March 2015 to the end of September 2017.

Between the ongoing blockade and their targeting of food production and storage, we can see that the Saudi-led coalition has been deliberately trying to starve Yemen into surrender.

The Trump administration has recently paid some brief and halfhearted lip service in calling for an end to the blockade, but it has not backed up this talk with any attempt to pressure the Saudis and their allies to stop their cruel and illegal collective punishment of Yemen’s people. No matter what they may have said recently, the Trump administration continues to enable and support the Saudi-led war and blockade in practice and remains complicit in the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Yemen.

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Tillerson’s Unrealism

Tillerson and Trump are frequently at odds with one another, but it seems they are united in holding completely unrealistic views of what U.S. policy can accomplish overseas:

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in remarks later on Tuesday, plans to say that he is optimistic about North Korea denuclearization talks and that there is no role for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s future [bold mine-DL], a U.S. official said.

The secretary is very optimistic that we can achieve denuclearization through negotiation [bold mine-DL]. We are in the middle of that path and that continues,” the official told reporters ahead of two planned speeches by Tillerson.

Tillerson’s job at this point seems to be reciting administration talking points that have no relationship to the real world. His confidence that “we can achieve denuclearization through negotiation” seems to be based in nothing but wishful thinking. North Korea has repeatedly said that their nuclear weapons program is not even up for discussion, so there is no question of having a negotiation aimed at getting them to give that up. There is absolutely a need for direct talks with North Korea and a de-escalation of tensions through diplomatic engagement, but those talks aren’t going to lead to denuclearization. It is time that the administration accepted this.

The insistence that there is no role for Assad in Syria’s future is, if anything, even less connected to political reality. The U.S. isn’t in a position to dictate who does or doesn’t have a role in Syria’s future. That isn’t really a criticism, but simply a statement of fact that U.S. influence there has been and remains negligible. Tillerson periodically says this about Assad, but it seems to be something that he feels he has to say because trying to get rid of Assad has been U.S. policy for so many years. Much like the fixation on denuclearization that won’t happen, the administration’s anti-Assad rhetoric is just echoing what the last administration said with no regard for changed circumstances. Both examples show that administration officials lack imagination and don’t know how to adapt to new realities.

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Pence’s Misguided Mideast Trip

Mike Pence will be visiting the Holy Land and Egypt later this month, but none of the local Christians will have anything to do with him:

Palestinian officials have pressured local church leaders not to welcome Pence, encouraging them to take the same stance as the Egyptian Coptic Christian church whose pope announced his refusal to meet with the U.S. vice president due to the Jerusalem decision.

It is not surprising that the leaders of the local Christian churches in Egypt and Palestine won’t meet with Pence in the wake of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The decision was just as much an affront to them, and so they understandably have no desire to be seen meeting with a representative of our government. The heads of the various churches in Jerusalem appealed to the president not to make that decision in the days leading up to it:

The patriarchs and heads of the main churches in Jerusalem on Wednesday delivered a last-minute plea to US President Donald Trump, urging him not to change US policy toward Jerusalem for fear this could cause “irreparable harm.”

Their appeal was predictably ignored. Dismissing the concerns and neglecting the interests of native Christians throughout the region has been one of the enduring flaws in U.S. policy in this part of the world for decades, and it is most noticeable in the one-sided approach to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The Trump administration panders to some of its supporters here at home at the expense of Christians in the Holy Land, and it barely registers anymore because it is what everyone has come to expect from the U.S. These snubs are just the first of many that the administration will experience as a result of Trump’s ill-considered, harmful recognition of Jerusalem, and they are among the first of the destructive effects that the recognition is having on America’s reputation throughout the region.

Pence’s visit as a whole is misguided, and coming on the heels of Trump’s announcement its timing could hardly be worse. The vice president is one of the most ardent “pro-Israel” hawks in his party, so sending him to this part of the world right now is akin to pouring salt on a fresh wound. His trip drives home how insincere the administration’s claims to advance the cause of peace are.

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Trump Is Still Determined to Renege on the Nuclear Deal

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

The U.S. is getting closer to fully reneging on the nuclear deal with Iran:

A Congressional deadline for taking action on Iran expires on Tuesday, handing the fate of a historic nuclear deal with Tehran back to Donald Trump and increasing doubts about its future.

The US president vowed in October to scrap the agreement unless Congress and US allies intervened to fix his concerns. In January, he faces deadlines to recertify the deal and waive sanctions or break the pact, with no signs of success in Congress in helping to finding a way through.

Trump isn’t going to choose to certify the nuclear deal after having already refused to do so once before, and since he refuses to certify the deal he isn’t going to waive sanctions. There is no “fix” that Congress can make that would satisfy Trump without violating the deal itself. The destructive Corker-Cotton legislation went nowhere once that became obvious. Unfortunately, there is no chance that Trump is suddenly going to decide to support an agreement that he has wanted to see wrecked for so long.

Once the U.S. goes back on its promises to provide sanctions relief, the U.S. will be openly breaching its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The other parties to the deal may try to keep it going for the foreseeable future, but reneging on our commitments will be a serious blow to the agreement and could very well cause it to collapse entirely. After Trump refused to certify the deal back in October, breaking the deal was always a very likely outcome. I said as much at the time:

While decertification will not mean an immediate U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, it will set into motion a process that’s very likely to lead to the same result, and send a clear signal of the administration’s determination to be rid of the deal in its current form.

Trump has made it clear many times that he intends to scrap the deal, and in a few weeks we have to assume that he is going to do just that. Once that happens, the chances of unnecessary war with Iran increase. It will be up to members of Congress and the public to stop the Trump administration from pursuing the confrontational policies that will make such a war more likely.

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