Daniel Larison

The War on Yemen and the Failure of the U.N.

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

The Norwegian Refugee Council calls on the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution demanding the lifting of the coalition blockade and a cessation of all hostilities:

“The Security Council has been shamefully silent for months on Yemen when it has the power to redress the colossal crisis unfolding there through a binding and meaningful resolution,” said Suze van Meegen, NRC’s Protection and Advocacy Adviser on Yemen. “Another weak presidential statement will have little effect on the ground, if any at all. The worst humanitarian crisis in the world deserves more than just an ‘expression of concern’.”

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis absolutely deserves more attention from the rest of the world. The U.N. Security Council has a special obligation to do right by Yemen because it has utterly failed that country for at least the last three years, and it was their resolution in the spring of 2015 that allowed the coalition to cause so much harm to Yemen’s civilian population with their blockade. To make matters worse, several of the council’s permanent members are directly implicated in helping to create the disaster now engulfing more than twenty million people.

There is a draft resolution circulating at the U.N., but it is not concerned with condemning the destructive effects of the coalition blockade or calling for an end to it. Unfortunately, the U.K., France, and U.S. are more interested in chiding Iran over its alleged missile supplies than they are in addressing the larger conflict and humanitarian crisis. Focusing on Iran in a conflict where its involvement is minimal while ignoring the real drivers of the war and the main causes of the civilian population’s misery is absurd, and it is regrettably typical for the Western governments that have been backing the Saudi-led coalition from the start. The Security Council has remained so shamefully silent because several of the permanent members are deeply complicit in the wrecking and starving of Yemen. It is unlikely that they will do anything to remedy the situation, but I would very much like to be proved wrong about that.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , . Post a comment

Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis and the Failure of Western Media

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is the most important story in the world, but it rarely receives the coverage that such a massive crisis ought to have. When it is covered in Western papers, the reporting often omits key details and fails to inform readers of what has been happening. For example, today’s article in The Wall Street Journal makes it sound as if the Saudi-led coalition is trying its best to provide assistance to the people that it has been starving for three years:

Saudi Arabia and its allies are giving $1.5 billion to their war-ravaged neighbor, but their ability to fix the country’s humanitarian crisis is limited by their status as combatants—and because many aid groups are reluctant to take their money.

I would suggest that their “ability to fix” the crisis is limited even more by their deliberate effort to create that crisis as a way of starving Yemen into submission. The presumption of Saudi good intentions that runs throughout the article is baffling in light of the coalition’s ongoing blockade and their willingness to impose collective punishment on the civilian population. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the Saudis have been getting more credulous coverage of their “aid” efforts after they launched their latest public relations campaign, but that still doesn’t fully account for the failure to report the responsibility of the Saudis and their allies for their part in creating what could be the worst humanitarian crisis in half a century. U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war effort is also never mentioned at any point in the article.

The report takes at face value that the blockade is concerned only with preventing “an Iranian lifeline from reaching the Houthis,” but this ignores the previously reported facts that the coalition has stopped and diverted shipments of food and medicine that were already cleared by the U.N. verification mechanism. If there is weapons smuggling into Yemen, it wasn’t and isn’t happening on the cargo ships that deliver essential goods to the population, but that hasn’t stopped the coalition from strangling Yemen’s people and economy for years anyway. This was made clear when the coalition tightened the blockade last November. That tightening of the blockade is another detail that doesn’t appear in this report.

Why might aid groups be reluctant to take money from the governments responsible for causing much of the suffering of the civilian population? Could it be that they don’t trust those governments? Could it be that they don’t want to become part of the coalition’s cynical abuse of humanitarian relief? Could it be that they don’t want to become targets by associating themselves with the governments bombing and starving Yemen? I think it could. If this article were all one had to go by, one would never know that the coalition has been delaying and diverting aid deliveries for years or that the coalition blockade is the main cause of bringing more than eight million people to the brink of famine. Indeed, the words blockade and famine never appear once in the article, and there is no acknowledgment that the coalition bears the largest responsibility for causing what could prove to be the worst famine in decades.

Aid groups working in the country have no confidence in the Saudis’ “aid efforts” and have criticized the coalition for continuing to keep the biggest port of Hodeidah closed to commercial shipping. The article vaguely alludes to this, but doesn’t directly address it:

A new Saudi coalition aid plan unveiled in January includes additional capacity at ports in coalition-controlled areas, but offers no assistance at Houthi entry points, particularly the Hodeida port on the Red Sea.

The issue is not that the coalition doesn’t offer “assistance” for the ports that are not under its control, but that it is very deliberately preventing commercial shipping from using those ports. The Norwegian Refugee Council addressed this in an article published on their website today:

The Saudi-led coalition’s continued restrictions on imports at Hodeida Port, Yemen’s largest, are having a particularly detrimental effect on the humanitarian situation, NRC said. The coalition imposed a complete blockade in November 2017. While the coalition has eased the blockade on Hodeida Port for two consecutive periods of 30-days since December 20, uncertainty around the operation of the port together with ongoing bureaucratic hurdles have reduced the confidence of shipping companies in using Yemen’s Red Sea ports. Based on data from the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM), NRC calculates that fuel imports have constituted only 32% of the estimated amount required this year so far.

“Yemen’s 29 million people can’t survive on humanitarian aid alone,” van Meegen said. “When the coalition chokes imports, they strangle a whole population. More and more people are pushed into aid dependency, more are nudged closer to starvation.”

The WSJ article also fails to mention that Hodeidah is the main port that serves the most heavily populated areas of the country, which seems somewhat relevant when reporting on Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis needs a lot more coverage than it is getting, and it is tempting to take whatever we can get, but what we’re getting is simply not good enough. When media coverage obscures or ignores the real causes of the crisis and portrays the people responsible for starving Yemen as well-meaning humanitarians, it helps the propaganda efforts of some of the world’s worst governments and keeps Western publics in the dark about the nature of the war that their governments have been enabling since 2015.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 2 comments

The Trump Administration’s Diplomatic Malpractice

North Korean officials canceled a meeting with Pence at the Olympics when they realized that it would be pointless. Pence was intending to give them an ultimatum:

The president and vice president were in agreement on the goal of the private meeting in Seoul: Pence was not to open any negotiations with North Korea but to deliver the Trump administration’s tough stance face-to-face, two White House officials said.

If Trump wanted this message delivered in person, Pence’s posturing and threats of more sanctions guaranteed that it didn’t happen. Threatening more punitive measures in the days leading up to the Olympics was bound to annoy the other side, and so it did. It’s not clear what purpose the meeting would have served if it had gone ahead. Meeting with officials from an adversarial government only to make the same unrealistic demands that they have already rejected numerous times before isn’t just useless in itself, but it also reduces the chances of opening a channel for dialogue that might be valuable later on. It can only make it more difficult to arrange talks if the other side assumes that the exercise will be a waste of of their time.

This fits a pattern of hard-line bluster and diplomatic malpractice that we have seen from the administration before. The administration tried to arrange a similarly pointless meeting with Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly last fall. The purpose of that meeting? To issue a series of familiar demands that Iran had no intention of accepting. As I said before, this was a weird offer, and Rouhani predictably refused to meet with a representative of the government that had just denounced his in the harshest terms. The Trump administration seems to think that the only reason to meet with representatives of other governments is to dictate terms to them, and unsurprisingly the representatives of these governments have no interest in playing along. That certainly bodes ill for the administration’s Iran and North Korea policies, and it confirms how much scorn they have for diplomacy in general.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 4 comments

Maximalist Demands Make Successful Diplomacy Impossible

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

Sina Azodi presents a reasonable proposal for diplomacy with Iran:

Washington’s concerns over Iran’s missile program are legitimate, but so are Iran’s concerns for its security. Diplomacy requires forgoing maximalist aspirations and a willingness to reach a compromise that serves the interests of all parties [bold mine-DL].

Azodi’s proposal makes sense as a way to address international concerns with Iran’s ballistic missile development while still taking Iranian security interests seriously. I don’t think that the Trump administration will follow these recommendations, but if they were followed they could help manage the disagreement over Iranian missiles without ratcheting up tensions too much and without jeopardizing the nuclear deal. Azodi specifically recommends building on the diplomatic success of the nuclear deal, and then reaching an accommodation with Iran on the missile issue:

To address Iran’s missile program, Iran and the US – in conjunction with the Europeans — could agree on a moratorium on missile testing, in return for economic or other incentives. Since Tehran already has said that it is not planning to increase the range of its missiles beyond 2000 kilometers, an agreement on this issue could also be part of a new understanding.

Beyond that, Azodi’s formulation of how diplomacy works is exactly right. It is obvious that successful diplomacy requires mutual compromise, and yet it is common in U.S. foreign policy debates to shun the very idea of compromising with adversaries and to view any concession, no matter how small, as the same as complete surrender. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. has become less and less effective in finding diplomatic answers to thorny international problems because of this preference for all-or-nothing posturing from many of our political leaders. Recognizing that the U.S. and its allies have to be willing to give the other side something of value in order to obtain their cooperation on disputed issues would be very helpful in reducing tensions with Iran, and it would also be readily applicable to other disputes, including the standoff with North Korea.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 4 comments

Trump’s Mismanagement of the Alliance with Seoul

Most South Koreans’ prefer their government’s engagement with North Korea to trying to pressure the DPRK to change:

A poll conducted on February 15 showed that 61.5 percent of South Korean adults nationwide were in favor of Moon travelling to Pyongyang for face-to-face talks with Kim, while 31.2 percent disagreed and expressed the belief that additional pressure – such as international sanctions – is the best way to force North Korea to moderate its behavior.

The U.S. should respect the preference of a large majority of the people living in the allied country that has the most at stake in a conflict with North Korea. For all the administration’s talk of solidarity with allies, they have been remarkably bad at showing it with South Korea. In both their public statements and the substance of the North Korea policy they have been carrying out, the administration has resisted Moon’s efforts at engagement and made his task that much harder.

Washington should be encouraging Moon to pursue engagement as far as it will go, and he should not have to fear that accepting the invitation to go to Pyongyang will damage relations with the U.S. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has not been doing that, and Moon does have to worry that the U.S. won’t back his policy all the way. Moon now has to thread the needle of following up on the contacts made during the Olympics without provoking the wrath of Trump, and that makes an already very difficult diplomatic challenge even trickier than it ought to be. That could cause Moon to end up missing the window of opportunity that his own diplomatic efforts created, and if that happens it would be a real loss for both the U.S. and South Korea.

It says quite a bit about Trump’s foreign policy that his administration is eager to maintain “no daylight” with authoritarian client regimes in the Middle East as they wage senseless and atrocious wars while they are happy to undermine the diplomatic outreach of a major democratic treaty ally. We can see a consistent bias in favor of military action and enabling the excesses of clients and a marked disrespect for the states that the U.S. is actually obliged to defend.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 4 comments

Tillerson’s Blinkered Understanding of North Korea

60 Minutesinterview with Rex Tillerson makes for depressing reading:

Margaret Brennan: What is the carrot that you’re dangling for North Korea to convince them to talk?

Rex Tillerson: We’re not using a carrot to convince them to talk. We’re using large sticks [bold mine-DL]. And that is what they need to understand. This pressure campaign is putting– is having its bite on North Korea, its revenue streams. It’s having a bite on its military programs.

Margaret Brennan: But to say full denuclearization, why would they agree to give up something they’ve already got that they think is an insurance policy?

Rex Tillerson: Because it buys them nothing [bold mine-DL]. It buys them more of being the hermit kingdom, isolated, isolated from the world diplomatically, isolated from the world economically.

Each of these answers is troubling, and taken together they show how hopeless the administration’s policy towards North Korea is. The U.S. is expecting North Korea to give up something that is clearly extremely important to them, but it is offering them absolutely nothing in exchange. There is something about dealing with “rogue” states that causes people in our government to shut off their ability to reason. If our positions were reversed and we were the ones being put under “maximum pressure” to force us to give up our nuclear deterrent, would we respond to increasing pressure by caving or by doing whatever we could to keep building up the thing that our adversary wants to eliminate? It would obviously be the latter. If North Korea is given no incentives to do something, and faces only more and more pressure unless it capitulates, it is a virtual certainty that their government will dig in its heels and concede nothing.

As if that weren’t bad enough, our officials can’t or won’t even acknowledge that North Korea gets something out of refusing to give up their nuclear weapons and missile programs. They get to keep what they have already built, and they retain an ability to use these weapons that they didn’t possess a little over a decade ago. If they consider having such a deterrent to be essential to their regime’s survival (and we have good reason to believe that this is what they think), refusing to denuclearize has almost inestimable worth to them. If our top government officials don’t understand that or can’t admit it publicly, we’re in much bigger trouble than I thought.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 7 comments

Saudi Aggression and the War on Yemen

The Saudi foreign minister had some surprising information for the attendees at the Munich Security Conference:

“In contrast to Iran’s policy, Saudi Arabia has never carried out an attack” against another country, remarked Jubeir.

I know Saudi officials are obliged to spin things to make their government look slightly less odious, but even by that standard this is a ridiculous piece of fiction. The Saudi government is not only responsible for arming and sponsoring rebels in Syria, but it has obviously been engaged in almost three years of bombing and starving its next-door neighbor. The Saudi-led coalition has hid behind the increasingly meaningless justification that its intervention has the backing of the Hadi government, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Saudis and their allies have been waging an aggressive war against another country that posed no threat to any of them. As they have waged that war, the coalition has routinely violated international law and created the conditions for the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Their deliberate starvation of the population by delaying and blocking the import of food is the largest use of collective punishment against a civilian population anywhere in the world today.

It is a measure of how twisted the international response to the war on Yemen is that Iran is likely to be sanctioned for its alleged minimal role there while the Saudis and their allies continue escaping censure for their well-documented and severe crimes.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 3 comments

The U.S. and Japan Close the Door on North Korean Diplomacy

Japan and the U.S. are in agreement that they have no intention of seriously pursuing diplomacy with North Korea:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump agreed that there would be no meaningful dialogue with North Korea unless Pyongyang decides to give up its nuclear weapons, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday.

If North Korea has to make major concessions as a condition for beginning a “meaningful dialogue,” that guarantees that there will be no dialogue of any kind. This is not a difficult concept to grasp, and yet it seems to elude top officials in at least two major governments. The only reason to make denuclearization a condition of dialogue is if you do not wish for a diplomatic solution to the standoff. Insisting on this certainly won’t compel North Korea to yield and agree to denuclearization, and by insisting on it our government has closed the door to having any productive talks. If the U.S. and its allies require all or nothing from North Korea on this question, we will assuredly get nothing, and then there is an increased danger of escalation leading to a devastating war.

The Japanese-U.S. position is described in this report as “getting tough” with North Korea, but the truth is that our intransigence and inflexibility on this issue make things very easy for North Korea. Their government assumes that the U.S. and its allies have no intention of negotiating in good faith, and they see denuclearization as a trap that serves as a prelude to regime change, and the U.S. has been working overtime over the last year to confirm them in their suspicions. If the U.S. and Japan really wanted to make progress with North Korea through negotiations, they would drop their insistence on “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” and start with much smaller demands that North Korea might be willing to accept. They aren’t doing any of these things, and that should tell all of us that they’re not really interested in finding a realistic solution.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 3 comments

Haley’s Misleading Op-Ed and the War on Yemen

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. Credit: Flickr/Creative Commons/U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers

Haley’s fixation on Iranian missiles continues:

Last week, the United Nations published a report with news a lot of people don’t want to hear. A panel of experts found that Iran is violating a United Nations weapons embargo — specifically, that missiles fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels into Saudi Arabia last year were made in Iran.

Haley’s preoccupation with this missile issue is out of all proportion to its importance in the ongoing war on Yemen. She refers to the massive humanitarian crisis that affects the vast majority of Yemenis, and even mentions that the coalition blockade has worsened conditions, but she doesn’t consider that situation to be the urgent one that demands an international response. Of course, she represents the government that has helped to make Yemen’s humanitarian crisis possible through its unflagging support for the coalition intervention, so she waxes indignant about missiles while U.S.-refueled coalition planes routinely kill civilians. If readers were relying on Haley to inform them about coalition crimes in Yemen, they would never know that they happened.

It speaks volumes about the administration’s absurd Iran obsession that the alleged Iranian violation of an embargo warrants U.S. scrutiny and condemnation while Haley ignores the far more numerous and egregious violations of international law by the Saudis and their allies over the last three years. Haley says that the alleged Iranian missiles have “come close to hitting civilian targets,” but she has nothing to say about the hundreds and hundreds of coalition attacks that have hit civilian targets through both indiscriminate and deliberate bombing. Her comments on the humanitarian crisis are made in passing. She doesn’t say anything about the more than eight million people being starved by the coalition blockade with U.S. backing, and she never mentions the record-setting cholera epidemic that flourished in the conditions created by the coalition’s war and blockade. Just as it was last fall, her real concern is to get more punitive measures enacted against Iran and to distract attention from the culpability of the coalition and its patrons for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It is particularly galling that Haley poses as a concerned observer interested in resolving the conflict when the U.S. is actively backing belligerent states that have done most of the damage to the country. If the Trump administration were genuinely interested in opposing what is being done to the people of Yemen, it could stop helping the coalition as it wrecks and starves Yemen. The U.S. should suspend all military assistance to coalition governments and bring pressure to bear on the actual war criminals that have done so much to destroy the country. Each day that the U.S. continues to arm and refuel coalition planes is more proof that the administration isn’t interested in that and prefers using the red herring of Iranian involvement as an excuse to perpetuate our involvement an atrocious war.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 3 comments

Trump the ‘Illiberal Hegemonist’

President Donald Trump poses for photos with ceremonial swordsmen on his arrival to Murabba Palace, as the guest of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Saturday evening, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Barry Posen offers a helpful description for Trump’s foreign policy:

Yet Trump has deviated from traditional U.S. grand strategy in one important respect. Since at least the end of the Cold War, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have pursued a grand strategy that scholars have called “liberal hegemony.” It was hegemonic in that the United States aimed to be the most powerful state in the world by a wide margin, and it was liberal in that the United States sought to transform the international system into a rules-based order regulated by multilateral institutions and transform other states into market-oriented democracies freely trading with one another. Breaking with his predecessors, Trump has taken much of the “liberal” out of “liberal hegemony.” He still seeks to retain the United States’ superior economic and military capability and role as security arbiter for most regions of the world, but he has chosen to forgo the export of democracy and abstain from many multilateral trade agreements. In other words, Trump has ushered in an entirely new U.S. grand strategy: illiberal hegemony.

Posen hits on something important here, and it helps explain why Trump’s approach to the world appalls both liberal internationalists and advocates of restraint. The former recoil from Trump’s zero-sum positions and enthusiastic embrace of authoritarian regimes, and the latter reject his support for the open-ended policing and meddling around the world that drive up the costs of our foreign policy. Restrainers would probably not care about giving up on democracy promotion if it implied a cessation of endless wars of choice and toxic entanglements with bad clients, but dropping the pretense of being interested in improving political conditions abroad has just made these other things easier to perpetuate. Trump doesn’t bother claiming that his foreign policy is intended to improve other countries at all, but that isn’t going to stop the U.S. from policing many of them indefinitely anyway.

“Illiberal hegemony” is the worst of both worlds. It combines the many costs of pursuing hegemony with higher costs of a damaged reputation and the trashing of commitments previously made in good faith. Illiberal hegemony still generates the same resentments and hostility as its liberal version, but it also stokes more distrust and loathing among our allies. It keeps getting the U.S. involved in wars it doesn’t need to fight, and it shows even more blatant disregard for the lives of foreign civilians than before. The definition of our interests remains just as expansive and all-encompassing as ever, and there is even less respect for the requirements of international law.

None of this has anything in common with restraint. As Posen says at one point, Trump’s foreign policy is “decidedly unrestrained.” Trump doesn’t do the things needed to encourage burden-sharing. On the contrary, he inundates our military with funds and gives other governments no incentive to do more for their own security. Trump is always claiming that other countries take advantage of the U.S. and the U.S. wastes its resources overseas, but when it comes to the most expensive and consequential commitments–foreign wars and security commitments–Trump is happy to be the biggest sucker of all. Instead of demanding more from allies and clients as his supporters might have expected him to do, Trump is far more indulgent of their worst habits so long as they flatter him and endorse his policies. Because he is a militarist and hegemonist, he can’t imagine reducing the size of the military or eliminating any of its missions, and instead supports more and more commitments abroad. Rather than letting regional allies take the lead in handling their own security problems, he wants the U.S. to dictate the terms of the solution.

All of this is the opposite of what restraint requires, and it proves that Trump really is the anti-restraint president with an anti-restraint foreign policy.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 8 comments
← Older posts