Daniel Larison

Trump’s Foreign Policy Is Destructive, Not Passive

Donald Trump and King Salman sign statement in Riyadh (Ninian Reed/Flickr)

Daniel Benaim and Brian Katulis rightly criticize Trump’s handling of the relationship with the Saudis, but then they frame it as part of Trump’s supposed “passivity” in the region:

As the Saudi son rises and the U.S. son-in-law falters, a dangerous dynamic is taking shape: Washington is shying away from setting a regional agenda, while Riyadh feels emboldened to fill the void. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric masks a surprising passivity allowing others to rush in—Russia in Syria, Iran in Iraq, and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. The result is a disengaged U.S. in the Middle East, where a new contest for power and influence is playing out.

Whenever a president is criticized for being “disengaged” from a region, the critics’ real problem is not that the president is “disengaged” but that he is acting in a way that the critics don’t like. Obama was frequently accused of passivity in this part of the world because he didn’t do what his (usually hawkish) critics wanted, and yet in reality he presided over eight years of war and meddling. The U.S. was arguably hyperactive in the Middle East under Obama and has remained so under Trump, who is even more of an interventionist in practice than Obama was. If the U.S. truly were “disengaged” from the region, we might debate whether that it desirable, but that simply isn’t the case. The problem with Trump’s foreign policy isn’t passivity. The problem is that his policies are reckless and destructive. Passivity would be a marked improvement.

The Trump administration hasn’t really “shied away” from setting a regional agenda. Their regional agenda is to oppose Iran everywhere, including in places where Iran has little influence, because they mistakenly believe that Iran is responsible for every problem in the region. The U.S. isn’t so much leaving a “void” for the Saudis to fill as it is indulging the Saudis in whatever they want to do because they think it lines up with the administration’s own Iran obsession. That is why Trump embraces the Saudis so tightly and why he sees no need to pressure them to change their behavior in the region.

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To Stop Famine in Yemen, Lift the Saudi-Led Blockade

Andrew Natsios and Jeremy Konyndyk urge the Trump administration to press Riyadh for an end to the Saudi-led blockade to avert a major famine:

The U.S. should make clear that maintaining the blockade is unacceptable and undermines our partnership with Saudi Arabia, and state explicitly that considerable U.S. support for the Saudi military – particularly U.S. arms sales and ongoing aerial refueling and intelligence-sharing – hangs in the balance.

U.S. pressure to date has prompted only modest action from the Saudis, and still no fundamental changes to the destructive policies that are starving millions of civilians in Yemen. A famine can still be prevented, but only if the Trump administration lays out tangible consequences – now – for Riyadh.

Millions of innocent lives hang in the balance.

U.S. support for the war on Yemen could be used as leverage to press Saudi Arabia and its allies to lift the blockade, but coalition governments would have to believe that the administration is willing to cut off military assistance if they won’t do that. Following the administration’s intense lobbying to defeat S.J.Res. 54, it is unlikely coalition governments will take such a threat seriously. Until they believe that the administration is willing to cut off that assistance, they will continue to assume that they have Washington’s unstinting support.

Yemen’s population relies on commercial imports to survive, and nothing less than a full lifting of the blockade is sufficient to halt the enormous humanitarian crisis in the country. The authors explain why the coalition’s modest changes in recent months are woefully inadequate:

But most damningly, rather than lift the blockade, the Saudis merely suspended it for 30 days. This is only marginally better than nothing: ambiguity around the blockade’s future still badly disrupts the commercial food imports on which Yemen depends.

Food importers plan and finance shipments months in advance, and cannot secure market financing if there is uncertainty over port access. Temporary blockade suspensions will not avert a famine. They indicate that the Saudis are still not serious about alleviating the humanitarian crisis. [bold mine-DL]

Halting the slide into famine will require much more. The Trump administration should convey a clear demand that the crown prince fully and permanently lift the blockade and enable the complete and unhindered flow of humanitarian and commercial shipments of food and medicines into Yemen.

Natsios and Konyndyk are absolutely right about all of this, and the administration should do as they recommend. The trouble is that the administration doesn’t seem willing to risk straining relations with Riyadh for any reason. Until that changes, it is up to Congress and the public to pressure the administration into doing just that.

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The Senate Votes to Kill S.J.Res. 54

Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Bernie Sanders (V-VT) speak to press Wednesday about new joint resolution demanding U.S. military gets out of Yemen. (You Tube)

This afternoon the Senate voted to table (i.e., kill) the Sanders-Lee resolution by a vote of 55-44. Most supporters of the resolution were Democrats, but there were five Republicans that broke ranks and voted to in support of S.J.Res. 54. This resolution was an unprecedented measure in the history of the Senate, and it was the most significant action in Congress on war powers in decades. The fact that the resolution managed to get 44 votes in the face of concerted opposition from the White House, the Pentagon, and Republican leadership is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the many organizations on the left and right that backed the resolution.

The Republican co-sponsor of the resolution reacted to the vote earlier today:

The Senate has failed in one of its most important constitutional duties today, but opponents of U.S. backing for the war on Yemen still have several reasons to be encouraged by the growing resistance to this indefensible policy. Each time that opponents of the war on Yemen have pushed to limit or end U.S. support, they have gained more backing in Congress and have drawn more attention to the war and the U.S. role in it. When a Saudi arms sale came up for a vote two years ago, only 27 senators voted against it. Now 44 are willing to vote for a resolution that would halt all U.S. military assistance to the Saudis and their allies. Perhaps next time there will be even more votes for ending the war than there were today. The debate and vote on the resolution have put additional pressure on members of Congress to pay attention to the war, and the vote has forced senators to declare one way or the other. It is frustrating that U.S. support for the war will continue illegally, but opposition to the war is much stronger than it was a year ago and should keep getting stronger.

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The Saudi-Led Blockade Is Still Starving Yemen

As the Saudi crown prince visits Washington today, Jan Egeland and David Miliband remind us what the Saudi government and its allies have done to Yemen with U.S. and other Western backing:

Saudi Arabia’s de facto and longstanding blockade of Yemen’s main Hodeidah port is, in spite of recent modifications, still preventing large quantities of food, fuel and medicine from reaching millions of people. Commercial flights to the country’s main Sana’a airport have been similarly blocked for over 18 months.

In a country that imports almost 90% of its food and the majority of its medicine, the result has been 8.4 million people pushed to the brink of famine. The resurgence of deadly but preventable diseases, like a million suspected cases of cholera and a frightening diphtheria outbreak, have already reached 22 of Yemen’s 23 governorates.

A UN panel of experts recently accused Saudi Arabia of using the threat of starvation as a weapon of war.

The coalition blockade of Yemen is the single most destructive part of the war on Yemen. It threatens the lives of millions upon millions of innocent civilians, and yet it is probably one of the least covered aspects of the conflict over the last three years. The countless victims of starvation and preventable disease that the blockade has caused remain largely invisible to the outside world, and the lives cruelly and prematurely ended by the man-made humanitarian catastrophe engulfing Yemen are usually left out of descriptions of the war’s true costs. It is certain that the blockade has silently claimed thousands and thousands of innocent lives, and it threatens to claim far more if the coalition continues to interfere with and block commercial and humanitarian shipments. This is the principal cause of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and it is one that could be removed fairly easily if the coalition’s Western patrons demanded it and stopped helping them.

Instead of pressing Mohammed bin Salman to end the blockade, Western governments are only too happy to sell his government more weapons while ignoring the deliberate starvation of Yemen. Because he is the Saudi heir to the throne and a U.S. client, he is warmly received at the White House, many of our media outlets go out of their way to conceal his crimes from the American public, and he is feted as a “reformer” and modernizer. If the de facto ruler responsible for these outrages wasn’t considered an “ally” in Washington, he would most likely be facing sanctions, travel bans, and regular condemnation by U.S. officials. He would rightly be regarded as a war criminal and international pariah. The problem isn’t just that the U.S. holds its clients to a very different, lower standard than it holds other governments, but that when it comes to its clients it seems to have absolutely no standards at all.

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Trump’s Saudi Infatuation and the War on Yemen

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)

The president hosted the Saudi war criminal at the White House today:

During Tuesday’s meeting with the Crown Prince, who was chosen last year as his father’s successor, the president’s tone was almost fawning [bold mine-DL].

“Now you’re beyond the Crown Prince. I want to congratulate you. I thought your father made a very wise decision,” Trump said.

Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of the Saudis is nothing new, but it is nonetheless striking how obsequious the president is towards the Saudi king and his son. Shortly after last year’s purges, Trump enthused, “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they’re doing.” The president is excessively fond of many foreign authoritarian leaders, but with the Saudis he still seems to be even more under their sway ever since they buttered him up during his visit to Riyadh. Trump has shown that he can be very easily manipulated with flattery, and once that is done a foreign leader doesn’t have to do anything else to earn his support.

A president as enamored of Saudi despots as Trump is won’t end U.S. support for the war on Yemen on his own. The only way that the administration will cut off assistance to the Saudi-led coalition is if Congress votes for S.J.Res. 54 to force an end to that support. The Senate is expected to vote on the resolution this afternoon, and we can hope that they deliver a stinging rebuke to Mohammed bin Salman and his government.

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The Nuclear Deal Isn’t Broken, So There Is Nothing to ‘Fix’

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

Philip Gordon takes apart the absurd idea that reneging on the nuclear deal will improve the chances of negotiating an agreement with North Korea:

The problem with this sort of linkage — nice as it may sound — is that is has virtually no chance of working. The Iran deal is highly unlikely to be modified in the way Trump wants and even if it somehow were, that wouldn’t lead to a similar agreement with North Korea. In fact, the most likely result of trying to get a nuclear deal with North Korea by demanding changes to the existing one with Iran is not two effective nuclear deals, but zero, along with a situation in which U.S. options shrink to either acquiescence or military intervention.

When Iran hawks say they want to “fix” the nuclear deal with Iran, we can be very sure that they are not arguing in good faith. Opponents of the deal never wanted any agreement with Iran that Iran would find acceptable, and so their interest in “fixing” what isn’t broken is driven entirely by a desire to wreck the existing agreement. Their approach is akin to someone saying that he would like to “fix” your broken arm by cutting it off. Framing their sabotage as repair work makes their efforts to destroy a successful nonproliferation agreement seem less obnoxious, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is nothing in the deal that needs to be “fixed.” The “fix” that the deal’s opponents have in mind is just another way of smuggling in unreasonable and irrelevant demands into the nuclear deal after it has already been concluded. It can’t “work” except to undermine the agreement, but then it was never intended to “work” any other way.

Many supporters of the nuclear deal will sometimes preface their support by acknowledging that the deal isn’t “perfect,” but then that is true of any agreement that is negotiated among various states that have divergent interests and goals. There can never be a “perfect” agreement because there will never be a compromise that is completely satisfying to all parties. That is the essence of compromise: a willingness to accept certain things that you don’t like for the sake of concessions that you regard to be more important. The “flaws” in the deal, such as they are, are bound up in the necessary compromises that all parties made in order to reach an agreement. It is not possible to retroactively “fix” those flaws against the wishes of one or more of the parties, because the very attempt represents a breach of trust and a violation of the existing deal. Trying to “fix” an agreement that already works very well just reeks of bad faith, and that is most obvious to the other parties to the deal.

If North Korea’s government is paying attention to the “fix it or nix it” charade, they will probably be very wary of negotiating with a government that won’t really take yes for an answer. The North Koreans might reasonably wonder why they should make any deal that people on our side will try to unilaterally change a few years down the road. Hawks are always saying that the U.S. can’t trust the other side to honor their commitments, but they are working overtime to make sure that no one can trust the U.S. to honor ours.

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The Iraq War Was a Crime, So Why Don’t We Treat It As One?

DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby / Released

Sinan Antoon wrote a powerful op-ed about the effects of the Iraq war for The New York Times. Here is his conclusion:

No one knows for certain how many Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion 15 years ago. Some credible estimates put the number at more than one million. You can read that sentence again. The invasion of Iraq is often spoken of in the United States as a “blunder,” or even a “colossal mistake.” It was a crime. Those who perpetrated it are still at large. Some of them have even been rehabilitated thanks to the horrors of Trumpism and a mostly amnesiac citizenry. (A year ago, I watched Mr. Bush on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” dancing and talking about his paintings.) The pundits and “experts” who sold us the war still go on doing what they do. I never thought that Iraq could ever be worse than it was during Saddam’s reign, but that is what America’s war achieved and bequeathed to Iraqis.

U.S. foreign policy debates rarely pay attention to the views of the people from the countries harmed by our interventions. Interventionists frequently pretend to speak on behalf of the inhabitants of other countries, but this is almost always projection of their preferences on people who want nothing to do with the policies they support. Opponents of intervention often focus on the risks and dangers to the U.S. instead of emphasizing the harm that will be done to the people in the targeted country. We tend to focus only on the costs that our wars of choice inflict on our country, and that usually means that the damage done to the countries we have supposedly “helped” gets pushed to the side or ignored all together. Antoon’s op-ed is a valuable corrective to our bad habits, and our debates would benefit from including more perspectives like this one. It is often taken for granted in Washington that U.S. interventions leave the affected country better off than it was before, and that is why it is so crucial that we pay attention to witnesses from the country in question when they say that it isn’t so.

I have often called the Iraq war a blunder, and I have sometimes called it an enormous crime, and it was both. It was a crime against international law and the people of Iraq, and it was a grievous blunder for American interests. Antoon is absolutely right that describing the war as a crime is almost never been used in arguments about the war here in the U.S. over the last fifteen years, and that is simply a failure to grapple with what our government did in our name. We don’t call the Iraq war a crime because we don’t like to think that our government does things like that, but when we fail to confront it once it is more likely to keep happening. If preventive war against Iraq had been more thoroughly discredited years ago, perhaps there might not be as much support for preventive wars against Iran and North Korea today.

Iraq war opponents often complain that there is no accountability for supporters of the war, and this complaint is a legitimate one. It is frustrating that the pundits, analysts, and politicians that backed the worst foreign policy decision of the last generation have paid almost no price for getting the biggest question in decades completely wrong. The bigger problem is that the architects of an illegal war have been allowed to get away with it without any penalty. The failure to define the invasion of Iraq as the crime that it was not only lets the people responsible for it off the hook for what they did, but it makes it easier for later administrations to do likewise without having to fear any consequences.

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The WSJ’s Pathetic Case for Supporting the War on Yemen

The Wall Street Journal has distinguished itself for promoting pro-Saudi and pro-Emirati propaganda about the war on Yemen, gushing over Mohammed bin Salman, and for credulous reporting on the war and the humanitarian crisis it has created. Now their editors rail against S.J.Res. 54 because it threatens to put an end to the war they have supported for three years:

Saudi Arabia finally has a young leader pushing social and economic reform, fighting Iran’s attempt to dominate the Middle East, and even cooperating quietly with Israel. Wouldn’t you know now would be the time that a left-right coalition in Congress wants to snub this ally by pretending to be commanders in chief.

The WSJ editorial does its best to duck the real issues at stake while casting baseless aspersions at opponents of an indefensible war. U.S. involvement in the war is unauthorized by Congress, and it does constitute engaging in hostilities. U.S. refueling of coalition planes makes our government a party to the conflict, and it means that our military is engaged in hostilities against the coalition’s enemies even if they are not directly involved in the fighting. The language of the War Powers Resolution is clear on this point. Our military is participating in the movement of coalition forces while they are carrying out attacks in Yemen, and as such they have been introduced into hostilities without Congress’ authorization.

The Saudi-led coalition is responsible for most of the war’s civilian casualties. The claim that their “targeting has improved thanks to U.S. intelligence and training” ignores that the coalition has frequently targeted civilian structures and infrastructure on purpose. Our military has just confirmed that they don’t track what happens after the refuel coalition planes, so by their own admission they have no way of knowing what the coalition is doing with the support that our government happily provides. The coalition has committed numerous war crimes, and so long as the U.S. provides refueling and arms for their bombing campaign our government is complicit in those crimes. Voting for S.J.Res. 54 is also a vote to put an end to that complicity. Because U.S. support for the coalition is so important to their war effort, they would be hard-pressed to continue their campaign without it. Halting support for the bombing campaign is the best option that the U.S. has for ending the war and ameliorating the country’s humanitarian crisis.

The editorial is called “the Senate’s Iran helpers,” but that is as dishonest as can be. Refusing to support the Saudis and their allies in their atrocious war does not make anyone a “helper” of Iran. One has to buy into Saudi propaganda without thinking to make the accusation in the first place. The WSJ‘s simplistic and inaccurate sectarian framing of the conflict might as well come from the Saudi government itself.

If anyone has been helping Iran, it is Mohammed bin Salman and his senseless efforts to “oppose” Iranian influence by destroying Yemen, a country where Iran has negligible influence. He has not only plunged his country into an unwinnable war at great expense, but he has given Iran an easy way to bleed Saudi and Emirati resources while doing almost nothing. This would hardly be the first time that Iran hawks have foolishly endorsed an unnecessary war in the region that ended up boosting Iranian influence, but the much bigger problem is that they are more than willing to jeopardize the lives of millions of Yemenis to satisfy their obsessive hostility towards Iran.

Not surprisingly, the editorial never once mentions that Yemen suffers from the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in large part because of the Saudi-led war and blockade. Indeed, the words humanitarian crisis, blockade, and famine never once appear in their pathetic pro-Saudi screed. The cholera epidemic is briefly mentioned, but the editors don’t tell their readers that the coalition has bombed water and sewage treatment plants and blocked the delivery of medicines needed to combat the epidemic. Their lack of interest in the plight of Yemen’s civilian population is hard to miss.

For their part, the editors claim that the resolution’s co-sponsors “are indifferent to these strategic stakes,” but the truth is that opponents of the war on Yemen are paying much closer attention to the effects of the war on regional security and U.S. interests than its supporters are. The only beneficiaries of continuing the Saudi-led war on Yemen are Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Iran. The defenders of U.S. support for the war are doing far more to “help” Iran than the supporters of S.J.Res. 54.

The WSJ editors complain that passing S.J.Res. 54 “would also needlessly insult Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” but the rebuke is very much needed and appropriately timed. Mohammed bin Salman would like very much if he can seek out foreign investors and cultivate American support without having to face awkward questions about how his government is causing civilian casualties and mass starvation in Yemen. As one of the chief architects of the failed war on Yemen, he should not be allowed to come to the U.S. without having to face intense scrutiny for what he and his allies have done there. Why should a major war criminal be spared a Congressional vote to deny him the means for committing more war crimes?

The editors have no problem with the misguided Young-Shaheen resolution because they understand that it poses no threat to continuing U.S. support for the Saudi-led war. It is “fine” as far as they are concerned, because it is completely toothless and will have no impact on the war. That should make it very clear to all senators that the only resolution worth supporting is S.J.Res. 54, because that is the only resolution that can end U.S. support for the war on Yemen.

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A ‘Stomach-Churning’ Recipe for Endless War

Two Air Force F-22 Raptors fly over Syria, Feb. 2, 2018, while supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Colton Elliott

Steven Cook makes some shockingly bad recommendations for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East:

At the same time, Washington needs to make a commitment to the security of its friends and allies, even if that requires a certain amount of stomach-churning moral compromise. If these countries share the broad interests of the United States, then it is important for Washington to support them in word and deed. And that does not just mean selling them “beautiful weapons” as U.S. President Donald Trump famously remarked during his visit to Saudi Arabia in the spring of 2017. It means making hard decisions like accepting and supporting the Turkish position not just on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but also their affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has served as Washington’s principal ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. This would, in turn, require the deployment of more American troops to Syria [bold mine-DL] to hold the line against the Islamic State and to deter Iran.

It also means restoring military assistance to Egypt despite the brutality of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule, and giving the Israelis a green light to do what they believe is necessary to protect themselves from Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon [bold mine-DL, obviating the need for Israeli leaders to constantly seek Moscow’s assistance and reassurances. And finally, it means using American military force to destroy the capacity of the Iranians and the Houthis in Yemen [bold mine-DL] to threaten the security of Saudi Arabia, thereby allowing the Saudis to extract themselves from a debilitating conflict. Leaving the Saudis to bleed in Yemen is not just a strategic gain for Tehran, but also for Moscow, which would be only too happy to see Washington’s primary Arab ally stuck there and in need of a lifeline that U.S. policymakers are too ambivalent to provide.

For those keeping score at home, Cook wants to send more Americans into at least two wars and possibly more, he wants the U.S. to back more Israeli wars against their neighbors, and he wants the U.S. to do this to make sure that our clients don’t fall into Moscow’s orbit. It’s as if Cook tried to think up the worst possible policies for the U.S. and the worst justification imaginable. If that was the goal, he has succeeded.

Cook says, “If these countries share the broad interests of the United States, then it is important for Washington to support them in word and deed.” That raises two obvious questions: do these states still share our “broad interests” and does supporting them have to mean giving them carte blanche and indulging all of their worst behavior? I submit that most of the clients in the region that Cook wants the U.S. to embrace more closely have interests that are increasingly diverging from ours, and their usefulness as clients has also diminished significantly. However, even if they do still share our “broad interests,” it is one thing to “make a commitment to the security of” certain states and quite another to encourage them in their most reckless and destructive behavior. Cook is calling for the U.S. to do the latter.

Giving Israel a “green light” to rain down death and destruction on Lebanon and Syria may be giving the current Israeli government what it wants, but it is far from obvious that this is the best thing for Israeli and regional security. It’s important to bear in mind that allowing them “to do what they believe is necessary to protect themselves” means endorsing air campaigns that will in turn provoke a great many missile attacks on Israeli cities. Israel could very well find itself fighting a much larger version of its unsuccessful 2006 Lebanon war. Needless to say, the effect of a new war on Lebanon would be disastrous for that country.

Restoring full military assistance to the Egyptian dictator presumably won’t lead to any new wars, but it is nonetheless the wrong thing to do. By all rights, the U.S. shouldn’t be providing any military assistance to Egypt because its current government came to power through a coup. Even if that weren’t the case, Egypt is no longer valuable enough as a client to warrant the amount of military aid that the U.S. provides them. Instead of worrying about “losing” Egypt to another patron, it is long past time that the U.S. reconsider what it gets out of the arrangement with Egypt that requires continued support for an increasingly repressive dictatorship.

Current U.S. support for the war on Yemen is already indefensible and harms our security interests. Escalating the U.S. role in Yemen and using our forces to attack a country that our government has already helped to bomb and starve for three years wouldn’t just be a “stomach-churning moral compromise.” It would be absolutely despicable. It would also be foolish and unnecessary. It is not our government’s responsibility to take over the unnecessary wars that our clients start, and it would be wrong and pointlessly destructive to intensify a conflict that has already caused enormous suffering. The best way to bail the Saudis out in Yemen is to stop providing military assistance and to pressure them to accept a compromise that allows them to end their intervention before it drags on any longer. Intensifying U.S. involvement in this war makes no sense for U.S. interests, and it would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis that is already the worst in the world.

Besides being illegal, putting more Americans in harm’s way in Syria is risking a major conflagration for no good reason. The longer that the U.S. maintains an illegal military presence in Syria, the greater the danger that there will be more clashes between U.S. and pro-regime forces, and that could lead to direct conflict with Russia. The downside of cultivating and intensifying a rivalry with Russia in Syria of all places is huge, and there would appear to be no benefit for the U.S. in doing so. Accepting Turkey’s position on the YPG would mean treating the Kurdish group as terrorists and acquiescing in Turkish attempts to destroy them. This is particularly distasteful because the Kurds in Syria have been one of the only groups willing to fight ISIS in support of U.S. goals. The U.S. shouldn’t still have any forces in Syria, but we certainly shouldn’t be sending more so that we can let Turkey kill one of the only groups that has been on our side.

The policies Cook recommends are terrible, but the reason he gives for doing these things is even worse. He is claiming that if the U.S. doesn’t do these awful things it will “hand parts of the Middle East over to Moscow.” That grossly exaggerates Russia’s ability to “take” these parts of the region, and it overrates the importance of the region to the U.S. Suppose for the sake of argument that the U.S. is in danger of “losing” some of these states to Russia’s orbit. Is that worth sending more Americans to kill and die in wars in Syria and Yemen? How many, and for how long? Cook would have the U.S. engage in multiple unnecessary wars for the sake of keeping bad clients happy and out of Moscow’s orbit, but the clients simply aren’t worth that much to the U.S. and we should continue to modify our relationships with them accordingly.

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The Senate Must Refuse to Confirm Haspel

Sen. Rand Paul explains his reasons for opposing the Haspel and Pompeo nominations. These are his reasons for opposing Haspel:

People already distrust the CIA. So why on earth has this administration picked someone to run the Agency who was instrumental in running a place where people were tortured and then covered it up afterwards?

Multiple undisputed accounts have detailed how Gina Haspel not only ran a CIA “black site” in Thailand but also destroyed video evidence of torture.

The retraction of one anecdote from a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter doesn’t absolve her of wrongdoing and certainly doesn’t negate the rest of the facts, which remain the same. Those actions alone should preclude her from ever running the CIA.

I commend Sen. Paul for his opposition to these nominees, and I hope that others in the Senate join him. There may not be enough opposition to derail both nominations, but with any luck Haspel will not be confirmed. The Haspel nomination is particularly offensive for all the reasons that he gives here. Torture was and is a heinous crime, and any person involved in committing such a crime should have no place in our government, much less running a government agency. Peter Van Buren observes that this is happening because the previous administration failed to punish lawbreakers from the Bush era:

Arguing over just how much blood she has in her hands is a distraction from the fact that she indeed has blood on her hands.

Gina Haspel is now eligible for the CIA directorship because Barack Obama did not prosecute anyone for torture; he merely signed an executive order banning it in the future. He did not hold any truth commissions, and ensured that almost all government documents on the torture program remained classified. He did not prosecute the CIA officials who destroyed videotapes of the torture scenes.

The question before the Senate is whether they will magnify the mistake of giving torturers a pass by giving one of them a promotion to the highest ranks of our government. They should follow Rand Paul’s lead and refuse to confirm Gina Haspel.

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60 Minutes’ Embarrassing Interview with Mohammed bin Salman

Crown Prine Mohammed bin Salman. (U.S. Department of State)

The 60 Minutes interview with Mohammed bin Salman was predictably not very informative and served as little more than a platform for the crown prince to spread propaganda. Perhaps the most egregious failure by 60 Minutes was this summary of what has happened in Yemen:

The United Nations says thousands of civilian deaths in Yemen are the direct result of Saudi airstrikes and a blockade, since lifted, of Yemen’s port [bold mine-DL] that temporarily stopped food and medicine from getting to hundreds of thousands of people.

The coalition blockade has not been lifted, and it continues to block the delivery of commercial goods to Hodeidah as we speak. The tightening of the blockade that occurred in November was eased slightly, but the original problem of delaying and preventing the delivery of essential goods remains. The blockade is the principal cause of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, but CBS viewers would come away from this interview with the false impression that the blockade is no longer in place. It is bad enough that Yemen’s humanitarian crisis receives so little outside attention, but to misinform the public this badly on a major news program is inexcusable.

The interview mostly consisted of letting the crown prince offer up self-serving spin. His arguments for the intervention in Yemen were not countered or put in context, and there was absolutely no pushback on any of his assertions. Consider this exchange:

Norah O’Donnell: Do you acknowledge that it has been a humanitarian catastrophe, 5,000 civilians killed and children starving there?

Mohammed bin Salman: It is truly very painful, and I hope that this militia ceases using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community. They block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis.

It is not surprising that Mohammed bin Salman is trying to shift the blame for the humanitarian crisis to everyone except his government and their allies, but his evasion prompts no relevant follow-up questions or challenges from the interviewer. The coalition has been strangling Yemen for three years. They have been delaying and diverting ships that were already inspected and found to have no weapons on board. It is the blockade that is primarily responsible for driving more than eight million people to the brink of famine and millions more to suffer from severe malnutrition. The average viewer tuning would come away from this interview knowing none of that.

O’Donnell’s follow-up to that exchange is even more embarrassing:

Norah O’Donnell: Is what’s happening in Yemen, essentially, a proxy war with Iran?

Mohammed bin Salman: Unfortunately, Iran is playing a harmful role. The Iranian regime is based on pure ideology. Many of the Al-Qaeda operatives are protected in Iran and it refuses to surrender them to justice, and continues to refuse to extradite them to the United States. This includes the son of Osama bin Laden, the new leader of Al-Qaeda. He lives in Iran and works out of Iran. He is supported by Iran.

It suits Mohammed bin Salman’s purposes to cast the war as a “proxy war with Iran,” but it isn’t accurate. Before the Saudi-led intervention, the war had local causes based on local grievances, and the intervention itself was an attempt to reimpose the Hadi government that had been overthrown. Saudi propaganda has framed the war as a struggle against Iran, but this is wrong in several ways. The Houthis weren’t and still aren’t an Iranian proxy. Iran’s involvement in the war was always negligible, but has grown somewhat as the intervention has dragged on. Resistance to the Saudi-led coalition is not fueled by ideology, Iranian or otherwise, but by the predictable hostility that invaders have encountered in Yemen for centuries.The absurdity of a representative of the Saudi government trying to link Al Qaeda and Iran speaks for itself. There is essentially nothing that he won’t say to mislead Americans into taking his side in regional rivalries. Once again, the interviewer doesn’t correct or challenge anything the crown prince says, but lets his statements stand.

This exchange may be the most cringe-inducing of all:

Mohammed bin Salman: Iran is not a rival to Saudi Arabia. Its army is not among the top five armies in the Muslim world. The Saudi economy is larger than the Iranian economy. Iran is far from being equal to Saudi Arabia.

Norah O’Donnell: But I’ve seen that you called the Ayatollah, Khamenei, “the new Hitler” of the Middle East.

Mohammed bin Salman: Absolutely.

Norah O’Donnell: Why?

Mohammed bin Salman: Because he wants to expand. He wants to create his own project in the Middle East very much like Hitler who wanted to expand at the time. Many countries around the world and in Europe did not realize how dangerous Hitler was until what happened, happened. I don’t want to see the same events happening in the Middle East.

Leave aside the crown prince’s stupidity in emphasizing relative Iranian weakness before warning that they are the Nazis of our time, and note that the interviewer fails to point out that it is the Saudi government and its allies that are engaging in an aggressive invasion of a neighboring country. If this were an interview with the de facto ruler of an adversary, we would not be watching this ridiculous kid gloves treatment of a known war criminal.

There is some news value in interviewing foreign leaders and getting them to explain themselves and their policies publicly. That can be informative, and it can help hold those leaders to account for their actions. There is no news value in giving a foreign leader a major news program to use as his megaphone to spread misinformation and lies. Unfortunately, 60 Minutes allowed itself to be used in just this way, and in so doing they have done a huge disservice to the American public and especially to the suffering people of Yemen.

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Congress Should Ignore Trump and Vote for S.J.Res. 54

Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Bernie Sanders (V-VT) speak to press Wednesday about new joint resolution demanding U.S. military gets out of Yemen. (You Tube)

The Trump administration is pulling out all the stops to oppose S.J.Res. 54, the resolution that would end U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen:

The Trump administration is furiously trying to fend off a bipartisan effort in Congress to halt American military support to the deadly Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen as the kingdom’s influential young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, arrives in Washington this week for talks with President Trump.

Congress needs to ignore the administration’s pressure and it needs to deliver a long-overdue rebuke to the Saudis and their allies over their conduct of the war on Yemen. Halting U.S. support for the Saudi-led war is absolutely the right thing to do for the sake of the people of Yemen, and it is also in the best interests of the United States. The Obama and Trump administrations have committed the U.S. to having a significant role in supporting this war without debate or authorization, and it is imperative that Congress reclaim its rightful authority in matters of war. The longer the war continues, the better things will be for jihadist groups and the worse they will be for regional peace and security. Insofar as the U.S. has any interests at stake, they are served by disentangling the U.S. from the war and ultimately by ending the war itself. The Trump administration is utterly in the wrong in opposing the resolution, just as they are utterly in the wrong by providing support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war. Voting for S.J.Res. 54 is Congress’ chance to stand up against a grave injustice that our government has been perpetrating for the last three years.

The best way that the U.S. can pressure the Saudi-led coalition to end their intervention is to deprive them of the assistance that they have relied on to carry it out. Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the U.S. provides the ideal opportunity for cutting off that support, since it needs to be made very clear to the crown prince and future king just how many Americans refuse to give his government a blank check. The case for continuing support for the war on Yemen is remarkably weak because the policy itself is indefensible. Every day that U.S. support for the war on Yemen continues is another day that our government is implicated in the coalition’s war crimes and the starvation of millions of people. It is a disgraceful blot on our record as a nation that grows ever larger.

Administration officials are warning “that approving the Senate measure could seriously damage relations with Saudi Arabia.” That is probably the only true thing that defenders of the current policy have said about it, but it just shows how noxious and destructive the current U.S.-Saudi relationship is. If good relations with Riyadh require that the U.S. aids and abets their war crimes and crimes against humanity, that is proof that the relationship is not worth preserving in its present state. The relationship with Saudi Arabia is increasingly a liability for the U.S., and it certainly isn’t worth being complicit in the wrecking and starving of an entire country.

The administration’s arguments that the U.S. military isn’t engaged in hostilities by supporting the war on Yemen strains credulity. The Republican co-sponsor of S.J.Res. 54 said as much last week:

“The U.S. government claims that it’s not engaged in hostilities unless U.S. troops are on the ground being shot at by the enemy,” Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican and co-sponsor of the resolution, said on the Senate floor last week. “It stretches the imagination, and it stretches the English language beyond its breaking point, to suggest the U.S. military is not engaged in hostilities in Yemen.”

The U.S. has no business being involved in this war, and it should not be enabling the region’s wealthiest governments to batter and starve one of its poorest countries. U.S. interests, respect for the Constitution, and justice all dictate that Congress should vote to end U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-led war on Yemen.

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Pompeo’s All-or-Nothing View of Diplomacy

Mike Pompeo, CIA director (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

Uri Friedman reviews Mike Pompeo’s hard-line foreign policy views. Here he quotes Pompeo’s criticism of the negotiations leading up to the nuclear deal with Iran:

The Obama administration failed to take “advantage of crushing economic sanctions to end Iran’s nuclear program,” he declared when the deal was struck. “That’s not foreign policy; it’s surrender.”

Pompeo’s statement is ridiculous, but it does provide us with a useful window into how he understands foreign policy issues. Like many other Iran hawks, he opposes the nuclear deal because it “failed” to bring an end to Iran’s nuclear program. He dubs Iran’s major concessions on the nuclear issue as “surrender” by the U.S. because they were not forced to give up absolutely everything. That reflects the absurd all-or-nothing view of diplomacy that prevails among hard-line critics of the JCPOA.

Iran yielded a great deal, but they were never going to give up their entire nuclear program. That is not just because Iran is permitted to have such a program under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but also because Iran had already invested so many resources at significant cost that retaining some part of it was a matter of national pride. If the Obama administration had insisted on the elimination of Iran’s nuclear program, the negotiations would have failed and the restrictions on that problem that are now in place would not exist. There would have been no nuclear deal if the U.S. had insisted on maximalist demands. What Pompeo calls surrender is what sane people call compromise. Putting someone so inflexible and allergic to compromise in charge of the State Department is the act of a president who has nothing but disdain for diplomacy, and Pompeo’s all-or-nothing view of the nuclear deal bodes ill for talks with North Korea.

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Corker: Trump Will Renege on the Nuclear Deal

Sen. Bob Corker expects that Trump will withdraw from the nuclear deal in a little under two months:

Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, believes President Trump will pull out of the Iran nuclear deal when the deadline for certification to Congress arrives on May 12. Corker, a Tennessee Republican, told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan in an interview airing Sunday that the deal “doesn’t feel like it’s going to be extended.”

Trump’s hostility to the nuclear deal is well-known, and it has been pretty clear for the last several months that U.S. withdrawal was just a matter of time. Now that Tillerson is out and McMaster will soon follow him, there will be fewer people in the administration arguing for keeping the nuclear deal and more vocal advocates for scrapping it. Ever since the president delivered his ridiculous ultimatum to our allies earlier this year, the intention to renege on the agreement has been impossible to miss. In that sense, Corker isn’t telling us anything that we didn’t already know, but his remarks give us additional confirmation that Trump intends to follow through on his public threats.

It is important to remember that the nuclear deal has been entirely successful in restricting Iran’s nuclear program and subjecting it to one of the most intrusive inspection regimes in the world. The JCPOA is the most significant nonproliferation agreement negotiated in decades, and it is a major victory for U.S. diplomacy. Throwing that away is a colossal blunder and will stand out as one of the most pointlessly destructive foreign policy decisions of this administration. When Trump reneges on that deal, the agreement will very likely collapse, and the responsibility for that collapse will lie solely with the president and his allies. Iran hawks will desperately try to pin the blame on European allies or Iran or anyone other than the Trump administration, but everyone else understands that the JCPOA would not be in danger if the president and his hawkish supporters didn’t want it dead. Trump and his hawkish allies will own the aftermath of this decision.

Corker also made the following statement about the implications of reneging on the deal for diplomacy with North Korea:

But Corker said he doesn’t think backing out of the Iran deal will impact any negotiations with North Korea. Mr. Trump has said he intends to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by the end of May.

“I don’t,” Corker said, asked about any relationship between backing out of the Iran deal and talking with North Korea. “Look, I have used that argument, OK? But at the end of the day I think this whole situation with North Korea and the way that it’s shaping up right now is, as I mentioned, is somewhat unorthodox, and I think you’re dealing with a leader there that probably doesn’t think the same way that other countries and their leadership might [bold mine-DL]. So I’m not sure that it’s going to end up having a detrimental effect.”

If I understand Corker’s point, he is saying that North Korea’s leadership is different enough from others that they won’t take American withdrawal from the nuclear deal as a sign that the U.S. can’t be trusted. There is no reason to think this, and as far as I can tell this is simply wishful thinking on the part of some nuclear deal opponents that reneging won’t sabotage diplomacy with North Korea. If anything, a paranoid authoritarian regime that assumes the worst about U.S. intentions would be more likely to judge U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA more harshly than others. It is much more likely that Kim would feel vindicated in North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons when he sees the U.S. refuses to honor its commitments to Iran, and he is even less likely than before to make meaningful concessions.

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The Indiscriminate Bombing of Yemen and the Failure of Western Media

Last month, The Wall Street Journal published a credulous report that took Saudi “aid” efforts in Yemen at face value. Just before Mohammed bin Salman comes to the U.S., they have published another report that tries to put the Saudi-led coalition bombing campaign in the most positive light possible:

The issue is expected to shadow this week’s Washington visit by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s defense minister and a reformer who has established strong ties with the Trump White House. U.S. officials sometimes describe the crown prince as the chief architect of a war known as Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan.

In advance of his high-profile visit, Saudi Arabia provided The Wall Street Journal with exclusive access to its main military command centers for the Yemen war and top generals overseeing the campaign.

Obtaining that exclusive access to Saudi command centers could be potentially valuable, but unfortunately it seems to have come at expense of properly reporting on the effects of the coalition bombing campaign. The article leaves out many of the most important facts about the bombing campaign, and in so doing presents a very lopsided account of what the coalition has been doing to Yemen over the last three years. Coverage of the war on Yemen is rare enough that it magnifies the importance of mistakes and omissions in the few articles that do reach Western audiences. When a major American newspaper publishes a report that fails to include any Yemeni perspective of a bombing campaign carried out against their country, that makes it easier for Americans to ignore the consequences of the war that their government enables and it makes it very easy for supporters of that war to argue for continued U.S. backing. When Western media outlets obscure the true nature of the coalition bombing campaign, they are misleading their audiences and failing to tell the whole story.

For starters, the report fails to mention that the coalition has deliberately and systematically targeted the country’s economic infrastructure and food production. Iona Craig reported on this last year:

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.

Combined with the coalition blockade, the targeting of Yemen’s food production has worsened the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The deliberate targeting of food production and distribution in Yemen confirms that the coalition is not even trying to avoid hitting civilian targets in many instances. The repeated targeting of medical facilities in Yemen is also no accident. Coalition bombing of water and sewage treatment plants has contributed to the spread of preventable diseases and helped to create the worst cholera epidemic of modern times. Alia Allana wrote about coalition attacks on a water treatment plant in an op-ed last year:

The workers left the lights on at the plant hoping the coalition pilots would read it as a sign that the plant wasn’t a military target. “Little did we know that all of Yemen was a military target,” said an engineer at the plant [bold mine-DL], who asked to remain anonymous for his safety. On another night, the coalition bombed a crane at the plant.

Another significant omission from the article is that Saudi-led coalition bombing has hit civilian targets more than 30% of the time, and that may be a conservative estimate. The coalition has bombed many schools, houses, weddings, funerals, medical facilities, and factories since 2015, and their campaign has targeted critical infrastructure needed to transport food and medicine to the most populated areas of the country. The Saudis and their allies are credibly accused of committing numerous war crimes in Yemen with their indiscriminate bombing campaign, but in another telling omission those words never appear once in this report.

Perhaps the most glaring omission is the failure to mention what the coalition has done to Saada in northern Yemen. The coalition illegally declared the entire area a military target and has made no effort to avoid hitting civilian structures there. As far as the coalition is concerned, everything in Saada can be targeted with impunity. The relentless bombing of Saada can’t be reconciled with coalition claims that it is seeking to minimize civilian casualties, and it makes a mockery of the idea that U.S. military assistance makes civilian casualties less likely. The coalition will always assert that it is not showing blatant disregard for the lives of civilians in Yemen, but everything they have done for the last three years proves otherwise.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Mohammed bin Salman: bold reformer or reckless autocrat? William Hartung criticizes the Saudi crown prince’s record ahead of his visit to the U.S. and calls on the Senate to pass S.J.Res. 54.

Yemen and the Defense Department’s articles of faith. Eric Eikenberry objects to the Pentagon’s attempts to deny responsibility for aiding the Saudi-led coalition while demanding that senators continue supporting it on blind faith.

Trump’s radical American imperialism. Thomas Meaney and Stephen Wertheim make the case that Trump’s mainstream foreign policy critics overstate his abnormality and exaggerate his departures from U.S. foreign policy in the past.

Is Trump an anomaly or the new normal? Steven Metz considers the effect that Trump’s presidency could have on U.S. foreign policy.

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Mattis’ Weak Case for Supporting the War on Yemen

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stands with Deputy Crown Price of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud before a bi-lateral meeting held at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Mar. 16, 2017. (DOD photo by Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

The Secretary of Defense has written to Congressional leaders to express his opposition to S.J.Res. 54, the resolution that would end U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen:

In a letter sent to congressional leaders Wednesday and obtained by The Washington Post, Mattis wrote that restricting military support the United States is providing to the Saudi-led coalition “could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counterterrorism, and reduce our influence with the Saudis — all of which would further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis.”

He urged Congress not to impose restrictions on the “noncombat,” “limited U.S. military support” being provided to Saudi Arabia, which is “engaging in operations in its legitimate exercise of self-defense.”

The Pentagon has been putting forward very weak legal arguments against S.J.Res. 54, and Mattis’ statement of the policy arguments against the resolution are not any better. The Saudi-led coalition would have great difficulty continuing their war without U.S. military assistance. U.S. refueling allows coalition planes to carry out more attacks than they otherwise could, so it is extremely unlikely that ending it could possibly result in more civilian casualties than the bombing campaign causes now. Mattis is taking for granted that U.S. military assistance somehow makes coalition bombing more accurate and less likely to result in civilian casualties, but that is hard to credit when coalition forces routinely target civilian structures on purpose and when the military admits that it doesn’t keep track of what happens after it refuels coalition planes.

Secretary Mattis says that cutting off support could jeopardize cooperation on counter-terrorism, but the flip side of this is that continuing to enable the Saudi-led war creates the conditions for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the local ISIS affiliate to flourish. The coalition’s war has made AQAP stronger than it was before, and AQAP members have sometimes even fought alongside coalition forces on the ground. Instead of worrying about whether the U.S. is jeopardizing cooperation with these states, we should be asking whether that cooperation is worth very much in Yemen.

He claims that the Saudis and their allies are engaged in “a legitimate exercise of self-defense,” and this is simply not true. The Saudis and their allies were not attacked and were not threatened with attack prior to their intervention. Saudi territory now comes under attack because the coalition has been bombing Yemen for years, but that doesn’t make continuing the war self-defense. If an aggressor launches an attack against a neighboring country, it is the neighbor that is engaged in self-defense against the state(s) attacking them.

Mattis also warns that ending support for the Saudi-led coalition would have other undesirable consequences:

As Mattis put it in his letter to congressional leaders Wednesday, “withdrawing U.S. support would embolden Iran to increase its support to the Houthis, enabling further ballistic missile strikes on Saudi Arabia and threatening vital shipping lanes in the Red Sea, thereby raising the risk of a regional conflict.”

These claims also don’t hold water. Iranian support for the Houthis remains limited, but it has increased as a direct result of the war. The longer that the war goes on, the greater the incentive the Houthis and Iran will have to cooperate. The absurdity of this intervention is that it was dishonestly sold as a war against Iranian “expansionism” and yet it has done more to aid Iran than anything Iran’s government could have done on its own. Missile strikes on Saudi Arabia wouldn’t be happening if the Saudis and their allies weren’t regularly bombing Yemeni cities. If the coalition halted its bombing, the missile strikes would almost certainly cease as well. Continuing the war is a guarantee that those attacks will continue, and U.S. military assistance ensures that the war will continue. Every reason Mattis gives here for continuing U.S. support for the war is actually a reason to end it.

Shipping lanes weren’t threatened before the intervention and won’t be threatened after it ends. Yemenis have every incentive to leave shipping lanes alone, since these are their country’s lifeline. Meanwhile, the cruel coalition blockade is slowly starving millions of Yemenis to death by keeping out essential commercial goods from the main ports that serve the vast majority of the population. Mattis is warning about potential threats to shipping from Yemen while completely ignoring that the main cause of the humanitarian disaster is the interruption of commercial shipping into Yemen by the Saudi-led blockade. The regional conflict that Mattis warns about is already here. It is called the Saudi-led war on Yemen. If one wants to prevent the region from being destabilized further, one would want to put an end to that war as quickly as possible.

Mattis mentions that the U.S. role in the war is a “noncombat” and “limited” one, but for the purposes of the debate on Sanders-Lee resolution that is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that the military assistance the U.S. is providing doesn’t put Americans in combat. That is not the only way that U.S. forces can be introduced into hostilities. According to the War Powers Resolution, the U.S. has introduced its armed forces into hostilities under these circumstances:

For purposes of this joint resolution, the term “introduction of United States Armed Forces” includes the assignment of member of such armed forces to command, coordinate, participate in the movement of, or accompany [bold mine-DL] the regular or irregular military forces of any foreign country or government when such military forces are engaged, or there exists an imminent threat that such forces will become engaged, in hostilities.

Any fair reading of this definition has to apply to the regular U.S. refueling of coalition planes that are engaged in an ongoing bombing campaign. The U.S. is obviously participating in the “movement” of coalition forces when it provides their planes with fuel. Indeed, our forces are making the movement of their forces possible through refueling. U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen clearly counts as introducing U.S. forces into hostilities under the WPR, and neither administration has sought or received authorization to do this. No president is permitted to do this unless there is “(1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” There has obviously been no action from Congress that authorizes this, and there is certainly no emergency or attack that justifies it. U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen is illegal, and the Senate should pass S.J.Res. 54 to end it.

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Ignore the Iran Hawks and Keep the Nuclear Deal

Iran hawks have never let little things like logic or evidence get in the way of their desire to destroy the nuclear deal. Richard Goldberg and Mark Dubowitz aren’t about to start now:

The path to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula thus runs through Tehran. If Mr. Trump fixes the fatal flaws of the Iran deal, or even if he scraps it because the Europeans balk, his high-stakes North Korean gamble may yet succeed. Even if it doesn’t, he’ll have stopped Iran from following North Korea’s path to nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them.

It is tempting to dismiss an argument this full of holes and leave it at that, but the position they are staking out in this op-ed is unfortunately the one that the Trump administration appears to be adopting. We are probably going to hear these lousy hawkish arguments many more times in the months to come, so it is important to understand why they are so wrong.

Common sense would dictate that scrapping a nonproliferation agreement with another government at the outset of negotiations with North Korea is counterproductive at best. North Korea will take it as one more piece of evidence that the U.S. cannot be trusted, and it will keep pursuing development of its nuclear weapons and missiles. It is not possible to win the trust of an authoritarian pariah regime if you have just broken all your promises to the last regime you negotiated with. There is no chance of winning any concessions from North Korea if the U.S. breaks its word with Iran.

Reneging on the JCPOA can only hurt diplomacy with North Korea, but the more pressing problem is that it will blow up a nonproliferation agreement that was working exactly as intended for no good reason. Iran hawks don’t care that the JCPOA is working, and they have been looking for pretexts for sabotaging it for years so that they can stoke tensions with Iran. No one should trust these hawks when they claim that giving them what they want is good for the rest of us. The people that normally obsessed over damaging U.S. “credibility” have no problem with trashing our reputation if it helps them get closer to the war they want.

Goldberg and Dubowitz pretend to address this objection, but it turns out they have no answer for it:

Former Obama-administration officials warn that if Mr. Trump abandons their Iran nuclear deal, North Korea will view the U.S. as an untrustworthy partner. The opposite is true. The North Korean dictator wants to talk because the Trump administration’s campaign of maximum economic sanctions pressure is working.

Whatever Kim’s reasons for extending an invitation to Trump, this is not “the opposite” of what supporters of the nuclear deal are saying. Reneging on the nuclear deal calls into question U.S. reliability as a negotiating partner. Sanctions don’t make the U.S. more trustworthy in the eyes of our adversary, and they don’t make the sanctioned party more likely to believe promises of sanctions relief. That is especially true if the U.S. backs out on a deal in which sanctions relief is the only thing it offered Iran. In order to think that reneging on the JCPOA helps U.S. diplomacy with North Korea, you would have to believe that North Korea would trust Trump more because he proved that he would not honor an agreement made by his predecessor. When we restate the hawks’ position clearly, we can see just how stupid it is.

Regardless, it is downright absurd to think that reneging on the nuclear deal with Iran will stop Iran from “following North Korea’s path.” It doesn’t guarantee that Iran will follow North Korea’s path, but it makes it much more likely than it would otherwise be. North Korea took the path it is on now after the Bush administration blew up the Agreed Framework. North Korea’s first nuclear weapons test and its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) were direct consequences of the Bush administration’s blunder. Blowing up the JCPOA would be a senseless repetition of that blunder, and it could end up leading either to war with Iran or an Iranian nuclear weapon. The JCPOA makes the latter practically impossible and makes the former completely unnecessary, and so the only people that would want to see it destroyed are those interested in creating conditions for starting a war with Iran.

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Beware the Coming of Bolton

Gabriel Sherman reports on more likely personnel changes in the Trump administration. Here he confirms some depressing news that was first reported by Curt Mills earlier this year:

Sources said Trump fired Tillerson partly because Tillerson opposed Trump’s oft-stated desire to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal—Trump even mentioned their disagreement when speaking to the press. And three sources told me that the next official likely to go is National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who, like Tillerson, had advocated for remaining in the deal.

Last Tuesday, Trump met with ultra-hawkish former U.N. ambassador John Bolton in the Oval Office to discuss a potential job offer. Bolton has for years argued that the United States should pre-emptively attack Tehran. In 2015, he wrote a New York Times op-ed headlined, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” and last month, he wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed outlining the legal case for a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.

According to a person who spoke with Bolton after the meeting, Bolton recalled that Trump said he wanted him to join the administration: “We need you in here, John.” Bolton responded that there were only two jobs he’d consider: secretary of state and national security adviser. Trump said, “O.K, I’ll call you really soon.”

Much like replacing Tillerson with Pompeo, appointing Bolton as McMaster’s replacement would be going from bad to worse. Bolton’s name has been floated for top jobs in the administration before, but I get the sinking feeling that this time it might really happen. Bolton is more than willing to work for Trump, he and Trump seem to share the same hard-line worldview, and the president seems even more eager than usual to surround himself with flatterers and enablers. He is getting rid of the people that have opposed him on some issues and replacing them with yes-men, and picking Bolton would be consistent with that. Even if Bolton isn’t the next National Security Advisor, the fact that Trump keeps seriously considering him for important positions in the administration is further proof of the president’s appallingly bad judgment.

The biggest problem with Bolton isn’t just that he always prefers aggressive policies and endorses preventive war all the time. That ought to be enough to disqualify him, but unfortunately in this administration they are probably the reasons why he is being considered. The real danger is that he is such an ideologue that he would keep information from the president that contradicts his views and prevent Trump from getting the best available advice. Trump is poorly informed to begin with, and having Bolton as his main adviser on matters of national security and foreign policy would make sure that he stays that way.

Bolton has repeatedly advocated preventive war against Iran, and he has argued for preventive war against North Korea. His op-ed on North Korea called this pre-emption, but that is an example of how Bolton twists language and concepts to suit his purposes. A Bolton appointment wouldn’t necessarily mean that either of those wars will happen, but it would mean that Trump will have a dedicated warmonger urging him in that direction every day. Taken together with the Pompeo nomination, a Bolton appointment would send the clearest possible message that the Trump administration has absolutely no use for diplomacy.

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End the U.S. Enabling of Saudi War Crimes in Yemen

Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr: air strike in Sana’a, May 2015

Zaid Jilani reports that the U.S. military has no idea what missions are carried out in Yemen by the coalition planes that they refuel:

In a surprising admission on Tuesday, the head of U.S. Central Command — which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia — admitted that the Pentagon doesn’t know a whole lot about the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen that the United States is supporting through intelligence, munitions, and refueling.

U.S. CENTCOM Cmdr. Gen. Joseph Votel made the admission in response to questions from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“General Votel, does CENTCOM track the purpose of the missions it is refueling? In other words, where a U.S.-refueled aircraft is going, what targets it strikes, and the result of the mission?” Warren asked.

“Senator, we do not,” Votel replied.

If the U.S. military doesn’t track what the coalition planes do after they are refueled, it can’t honestly claim that it isn’t aiding and abetting coalition violations of international law. They don’t know what the coalition planes they refuel do later on, and perhaps they don’t want to know. If the U.S. isn’t tracking how our assistance is used, it isn’t credible to say that our government is using that assistance to change the coalition’s conduct of the war for the better. The U.S. is blindly enabling indiscriminate coalition bombing without making any effort to understand the effects of our support.

Gen. Votel also stated that the U.S. is not a party to the conflict. This is the lie that U.S. officials have been hiding behind for the last three years. When our military refuels planes that go on to bomb targets in another country, our military has joined that war on the side of the governments it is aiding. That should be an uncontroversial statement of fact, but supporters of U.S. involvement in the war are desperate to deny it. If the U.S. weren’t a party to the conflict, there would be no need to debate the extensive assistance that the U.S. provides to the governments wrecking and starving Yemen for the last three years.

U.S. support has been essential to the Saudi-led war, and it would be much harder for the Saudis and their allies to continue waging that war without our military assistance. That is why those in favor of continuing the war don’t want to cut off that support. They wish to keep the war going, but they want to dodge the responsibility our government has for aiding and abetting the coalition’s crimes. Americans that want to end U.S. involvement and help bring an end to the war on Yemen should urge their senators to vote for S.J.Res. 54.

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