Daniel Larison

North Korea and the Trump Administration’s Lack of Credibility

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

John Bolton appeared on ABC’s This Week yesterday and told the following whopper:

KARL: Before you go, I want to ask you about North Korea. Of course, after the summit in Singapore, the president said, quote, “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea”.

Given what we have seen since that summit, and there are reports of North Koreans actively trying to deceive us about the extent of their nuclear program, and of course we had Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang.

He wasn’t even able to meet with Kim Jong-un, did not appear to be a very productive meeting. Given what we have seen since that Singapore summit, isn’t what the president said about there no longer being a nuclear threat from North Korea at the very least wildly premature?

BOLTON: Come on, what he was saying in context was that if North Korea lives up to the commitments that it made on denuclearization, then it would no longer be a threat. The test here will be what North Korea actually does to live up to the commitment that they made in Singapore that they say they still uphold and that now they need to fulfill.

Bolton is telling two major lies in this statement. First, he lied about what the president meant when he asserted that there is no threat from North Korea, and then he lied about the commitment that North Korea made in Singapore. North Korea merely agreed to “work toward” the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and that amounts to agreeing to doing nothing definite. Administration officials have repeatedly misrepresented what that means in order to make the summit seem more successful than it actually was. This keeps clashing with the reality of the North Korean position, and that is one reason why Pompeo’s meeting in Pyongyang last week went so poorly.

The main reason why all of these lies from the administration matter is that the public can’t trust their assessments of how negotiations are progressing when they have made a point of misleading us about them thus far. If they are willing to mislead the public about what was agreed to at Singapore, they will keep misleading us at every stage to come.

The administration’s consistent misrepresentation of the North Korean position creates false expectations of significant concessions from Pyongyang on its nuclear weapons and missile programs that won’t be forthcoming. That oversells what the administration has managed to do so far, and it is bound to create a backlash when those expectations are disappointed. It also boxes in U.S. negotiators, who might be able to hammer out a modest compromise with their North Korean counterparts if they weren’t locked into a completely unrealistic and unachievable goal of total disarmament. The issue here is not just that the administration is pursuing an impossible goal at the expense of more achievable diplomatic compromises. They cannot be trusted to report honestly on what they are doing and what the other side is willing to do.

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Syria and Trump’s Iran Obsession

John Bolton (Gage Skidmore/Flikr)

The Trump administration appears to be in no hurry to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria:

US President Donald Trump’s top security adviser said Sunday that US troops would remain in Syria as long as Iran continues to “menace” the region, seemingly reversing a promise by the White House to pull out sooner.

It is always possible that Trump could contradict what Bolton said, but if Bolton speaks for the administration this suggests that the Iran obsession takes priority over everything else. Bolton’s exact words tell us that the administration intends to keep U.S. forces in Syria for a very long time to come:

But I think the president has made it clear that we are there until the ISIS territorial caliphate is removed and as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Middle East [bold mine-DL].

The Iranian “menace” isn’t going to go away anytime soon because Iran has no intention of ending its involvement with its regional allies and proxies, so U.S. involvement in Syria remains an open-ended, unnecessary mission.

It bears repeating that U.S. forces are in Syria illegally. There is no Congressional authorization for U.S. forces to be in Syria, there is no international mandate for them to be there, and the Syrian government does not want them there. The U.S. has no business keeping an illegal military presence in Syria, and it certainly shouldn’t be conditioning the continuation of that presence on Iran’s involvement in the wider region. There is no compelling reason why U.S. forces should still be in Syria in 2018, and no vital American interests are served by keeping them there. The president has indicated in the past that he wants to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, but the withdrawal keeps being put off for bad reasons. Macron managed to talk Trump into maintaining a “strong and lasting footprint” there. I have assumed that his hard-line advisers would use the Iran obsession to prevent this from happening. Unfortunately, it seems that the Iran obsession has won out once again.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Is intentional starvation the future of war? Jane Ferguson reports on the role of the Saudi coalition blockade and bombing campaign in driving millions of Yemenis to the brink of famine.

This is what collapsing, health, education, water, and sanitation sytstems in Yemen look like. Henrietta Fore describes the dire conditions for Yemen’s civilian population.

Eritrea and Ethiopia’s common enemy. Bronwyn Bruton explains the causes of the recent thaw between the two states.

The Trump-Putin summit’s potential nuclear fallout. Jon Wolfsthal urges the U.S. and Russia to extend the current arms reduction treaty.

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Amnesty Report Condemns UAE Torture Prisons in Yemen

Amnesty International has called for the UAE and its proxies to be held accountable for war crimes committed in its torture prisons in Yemen:

An international rights group on Thursday called for an investigation into alleged disappearances, torture and possible deaths in detention facilities run by the United Arab Emirates and its allied militias in southern Yemen as potential war crimes.

Amnesty International’s call comes months after The Associated Press reported that the UAE and allied militias were running a network of secret detention facilities where torture and abuses were widespread, outside the control of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government.

In a report titled “God only knows if he’s alive,” Amnesty said it documented “egregious violations going unchecked, including systemic enforced disappearance and torture and other ill-treatment amounting to war crimes.”

These are just some of the war crimes committed by coalition forces in Yemen, and these are being committed against Yemenis in the supposedly “liberated” south where the UAE is carving out its sphere of influence. The UAE has maintained that it runs no prisons in Yemen, but this has been exposed as a transparent lie by the excellent Associated Press reporting on these abuses. Amnesty has looked into the cases of dozens of detained and missing Yemenis and confirmed the AP’s findings:

Amnesty said it investigated the cases of 51 men allegedly detained by UAE-backed militias between March 2016 and May 2018 in Aden, Lahj, Abyan, Hadramawt and Shabwa provinces. It said most of the cases involved forced disappearances, and 19 of the men remain missing.

“The families of these detainees find themselves in an endless nightmare where their loved ones have been forcibly disappeared by UAE-backed forces,” said Tirana Hassan, crisis response director at Amnesty. “When they demand to know where their loved ones are held, or if they are even still alive, their requests are met with silence or intimidation.”

Amnesty said it had documented “widespread use of torture and other ill-treatment in Yemeni and Emirati facilities.” Current and former detainees and families gave “horrific accounts of abuse including beatings, use of electric shocks and sexual violence,” the watchdog said.

It strains credulity that no American personnel knew about crimes committed by the UAE and their proxies in these prisons, and any U.S. knowledge of or involvement in the torture of Yemeni detainees should be fully investigated.

The Saudis and Emiratis have been waging an atrocious war on Yemen for more than three years. The UAE’s torture prisons are one of the most egregious and horrifying examples of coalition crimes committed against Yemeni civilians. This is just one more reason why the U.S. should have nothing to do with the Saudi coalition war and ought to halt all military assistance to the coalition at once.

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Republican Hawks and Trump

Michael Hogue

Dan Drezner tries to make sense of Trump’s deference to the GOP legal establishment compared with his disdain for the party’s foreign policy establishment:

Still, this only raises the question of why those petitions had such minimal effects, whereas Trump was quite solicitous of the Federalist Society throughout the campaign and his presidency. And I think the answer here is a variation of an argument I have made repeatedly in the past. The Federalist Society matters because a large segment of GOP voters care way more about the Supreme Court than they do about foreign policy.

Drezner’s explanation is plausible. There are certainly many more voters motivated to vote Republican because of social issues and judges than there are foreign policy-driven voters. Very few voters care about foreign policy, and even fewer base their votes on foreign policy above everything else. Having said that, I think there is more to it than this.

Many Republican foreign policy analysts and pundits rejected Trump from the start because they misunderstood him to be an “isolationist” and therefore judged him to be completely unacceptable to them. They also wrongly assumed that a reheated version of Bush-era hawkish interventionism was the broad consensus view of most people in the party, but they overestimated how much support that view had among rank-and-file Republicans and mistook the lack of intra-party debate under Bush for deep agreement with the Bush-era agenda. Crucially, they failed to grasp how badly the credibility of the party’s foreign policy establishment had been damaged by the Iraq war debacle because they refused to accept that the Iraq war was a debacle. They had spent so many years lying to themselves and their Republican supporters that the war had been “won” by the “surge” that they were wholly unprepared when Trump exploited that weakness despite his own lack of credibility as a war opponent. Put simply, the many petitions failed to have much of an effect because many of the signatories were tarred to one degree or another by the greatest foreign policy failure of the last generation, and the worst part was that they still hadn’t acknowledged the failure. When they attacked Trump as dangerous and unqualified, their criticisms were accurate enough but their collective record of failure made them the worst messengers possible.

Republicans that cared about judges and social issues more than anything else never made a concerted effort to thwart Trump or denounce him despite ample evidence that he wasn’t a serious social conservative and couldn’t care less about judicial philosophy. At the same time, Republican voters don’t perceive leaders of the conservative legal movement as failures responsible for a major debacle. These Republicans assumed that it didn’t matter what Trump believed or what values he had as long as he was willing to appoint the right people. They were happy to provide him with the names of those people, and Trump was happy to accept those names as long as it got him the support he needed. Trump’s hawkish critics were much more ideological and inflexible than the party’s social conservatives, and they were much more disparaging personally about Trump than any other faction. As a result, the former have been mostly frozen out of the administration while the latter have gained considerable influence. Regrettably, hawkish opposition hasn’t made the administration’s foreign policy any less hawkish or destructive, and it has created an opening for fringe hard-liners and lunatics to take over.

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Trump’s Obnoxious Meddling in Britain

photo: BackBoris2012 (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Trump repaid Theresa May’s hospitality with an attack on her handling of “Brexit” and an effective endorsement of Boris Johnson, who just resigned from the government in opposition to May’s plan:

In an extraordinary intervention timed to coincide with his UK visit, Mr Trump said Theresa May ignored his advice by opting for a soft Brexit strategy.

And he warned her any attempts to maintain close ties with the EU would make a lucrative US trade deal very unlikely.

This is obnoxious interference in British politics on Trump’s part and will presumably be seen as such by most people there regardless of party. U.S. presidents should refrain as much as possible from commenting on or speculating about political developments in an another country, especially an allied one. It is even more important to avoid giving offense to the host government when the president is there on an official visit. In this case, Trump’s intervention seems sure to backfire.

It is a measure of how deeply loathed he is in the U.K. that Trump’s embrace of Johnson and his criticism of May are likely to doom Johnson’s prospects and bolster support for the prime minister. According to YouGov, 77% of Britons hold an unfavorable view of the president. Even among Conservative respondents, the unfavorable rating is 66%. There has rarely been an American president as politically toxic in Britain as this one, and any politician linked with him is likely to become similarly radioactive.

The prime minister was weakened by the Johnson and Davis resignations last week, but Trump’s attack is likely to cause her party and her opponents to rally behind her just as the president’s attacks on Trudeau and Canada had a similar effect last month. Even many of her detractors will probably hold their fire for fear of appearing to do his bidding. If Trump was hoping to undermine May’s position, his statements have likely had the exact opposite effect.

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The Brussels Summit and NATO Expansion

Trump spent the last two days berating NATO allies to increase military spending, and it yielded nothing:

French President Emmanuel Macron has denied President Donald Trump’s claim that NATO allies have agreed to boost defense spending beyond 2 percent of gross domestic product.

It is not surprising that gratuitously haranguing other governments in public doesn’t make them more cooperative. The president managed to alarm allied leaders with his antics, but he doesn’t seem to have persuaded them to do anything more than they were already doing. As he did at some other recent summits, Trump put on a show that achieved nothing except to damage relations with allies. When he claims that he scored a great triumph, it is important to remember that he’s lying to the public as he so often does.

Meanwhile, NATO expansion continues to shuffle forward like the zombie policy that it is:

NATO on Wednesday invited Macedonia to start talks to join the alliance after Skopje reached a deal with Greece in a long-running row over the country’s name.

Alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said Macedonia would be able to become NATO’s newest member, provided the new name was approved in a referendum later this year.

Macedonia’s membership in NATO had been blocked by Greece because of the dispute over the country’s name, and it is likely that the recent agreement to settle that dispute will resolve the matter in the near future. While the possible resolution of the disagreement between the two neighbors is welcome news, it makes no sense to bring yet another country into the alliance. The alliance also continues to string along Georgia with the promise of future membership, and Trump said that Georgia would have a chance to join in the future. The U.S. doesn’t need any new security dependents, and it certainly shouldn’t support Georgian membership in the alliance, but the alliance keeps adding new members and keeps giving aspiring members encouragement that they will be let in at some point.

It is strange that ongoing NATO expansion never seems to provoke Trump’s ire. If Trump’s objections to European levels of military spending were rooted in a concern about free-riding allies, he ought to be opposed to adding new members that are guaranteed to be free-riding dependents. Curiously, he raised no objections to Montenegro’s accession last year and he evidently doesn’t oppose bringing in Macedonia. He isn’t even clearly opposed to bringing in Georgia. No matter what one thinks about the alliance, halting its continued, mindless expansion should be the priority for the U.S.

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Pompeo’s Breathtaking Arrogance

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

Mike Pompeo gave an interview to Sky News Arabia this week in which he made some remarkable statements:

Well, Iran needs to get out of Syria. They have no business there. There’s no reason for them to be there. There’s been Iranian influence there for a long time. Iranian forces, Iranian militias must leave the country.

If Iran has no business in Syria, the U.S. certainly doesn’t have any business keeping troops there. Leave aside the absurdity of the statement that the ally of a government has no business supporting that government in a war, and just consider the breathtaking hypocrisy of this statement coming from a U.S. official. The U.S. is engaged in hostilities in at least a half dozen countries around the world and attacks other governments at will. Our government has been actively supporting the Saudi-led attack on Yemen for more than three years, and we have had U.S. force operating illegally in Syrian territory and airspace for almost four. It is the height of arrogance and folly to issue this ultimatum. The U.S. has no right or authority to make such a demand, and the administration should be focused instead on withdrawing our forces from wars that we have no business fighting or supporting.

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Killing Yemen with Hunger

Jane Ferguson writes about the use of starvation as a weapon in the war on Yemen:

A blockade of the rebel-held area is intermittently enforced by the Saudis, with all shipments of food and other imported goods subject to U.N. or coalition approval and inspections, driving up prices. Saudi-led aerial bombing has destroyed infrastructure and businesses, and has devastated the economy inside rebel-held areas.

The coalition blockade drives up prices of basic goods so that they are prohibitively expensive at the same time that they wreck the country’s economy with their military campaign. The war on Yemen further impoverishes an already poor country and strangles the civilian population with starvation. This has been documented and made known to all parties for years, so there is no question that the coalition governments know the effects that their actions are having. They are acting deliberately to starve Yemen into submission while feigning concern for the victims of their own policies.

The ongoing attack on Hodeidah threatens to make all of this much worse:

The Saudis have ignored pleas from every humanitarian organization operating in Yemen to halt the offensive in Hodeidah. The groups warn that disrupting the port’s operations will spark food-price increases and famine in areas under Houthi control. “I would say if it’s closed for a matter of two weeks you will start seeing an impact on the streets,” Frank McManus, the country director for the New York-based International Rescue Committee, told me.

Leading hawkish House Democrats recently wrote a letter urging the Saudis and UAE to reconsider their demands for the surrender of the port. There is growing opposition in Congress to the assault on Hodeidah, and that is increasing overall opposition to U.S. support for the war. Congress needs to move more quickly and bring more pressure to bear on the Saudis and their allies if they are to prevent the world’s worst humanitarian crisis from getting even worse.

While the blockade is doing the most harm, it is important to remember that the coalition is also attacking food production and distribution inside Yemen as well. Here Ferguson notes that systematic targeting of farms and fishing boats, which Iona Craig reported on last year:

Martha Mundy, a retired professor of anthropology from the London School of Economics, has, along with Yemeni colleagues, analyzed the location of air strikes throughout the war. She said their records show that civilian areas and food supplies are being intentionally targeted. “If one looks at certain areas where they say the Houthis are strong, particularly Saada, then it can be said that they are trying to disrupt rural life—and that really verges on scorched earth,” Mundy told me. “In Saada, they hit the popular, rural weekly markets time and again. It’s very systematic targeting of that.”

There was a recent example of this just a few days ago when an airstrike near Taiz killed ten civilians at a farm:

Civilian targets in Saada have been struck frequently ever since the entire area was illegally declared to be a military target by the coalition over three years ago:

Saada, the Houthis’ ancestral home and stronghold in the country’s northwest, has been pummelled by air strikes. Refugees from that area, who moved into makeshift camps near the border with Saudi Arabia after the strikes, told me that coalition forces then bombed their settlements. A man named Jabr Ali Al Ghaferi said that his wife was hit with shrapnel and died a few days later. “The air strikes targeted the gate and the bridge which connected the camp to the market,” he said.

The U.S. enables these attacks with its military assistance to the Saudi coalition. Contrary to administration claims, this is an aggressive war being waged on the people of Yemen, and our participation in it is wholly indefensible. The U.S. ought to have nothing to do with this campaign, and it ought to be using whatever leverage it has with the Saudis and the UAE to stop it, lift the blockade, and give political negotiations a chance to put an end to the war for good. The Trump administration isn’t going to do this on its own, so that means Congress and the public have to insist on it.

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The Trump Administration’s Warped View of the War on Yemen

This exchange from a background briefing with State Department officials shows just how distorted the administration’s view of Yemen has become:

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the Secretary has talked of the role that Iran has played to really worsen and deepen the humanitarian situation in Yemen. When Iran supplies missiles that are fired into a commercial airport, it threatens people from every nation who are flying into another country’s airport. So we talked about how to better deter Iran, how to cut off their supply lines so that they’re not able to supply the Houthis with material to conduct bomb attacks inside Saudi Arabia. We think a role – that Iran has played a very large role in contributing to the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen [bold mine-DL].

QUESTION: What about Saudi or Yemenis’ responsibility in Yemen, Saudi or the UAE?

MODERATOR: Guys, we – we got to – we got to go, but I can – I can – I think I can probably connect you with David Satterfield, who’s been involved in the – he’s our Yemen guy.

The Saudi coalition air and sea blockade has been starving Yemenis for three years while Iran has done nothing to impede commercial goods and humanitarian aid, so of course Iran is the one that U.S. officials claim has a “very large role” in contributing to the crisis. The Emiratis and their proxies are right now engaged in an attack on a port that is essential to the survival of millions of people, but there is no mention of how this threatens to exacerbate a crisis that the coalition created. The administration isn’t interested in identifying the real causes of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, because it was caused in large part by the coalition acting with U.S. support, and so U.S. officials cynically feed the public this propaganda to shift the blame anywhere but where it really belongs.

This in keeping with the administration’s habit of dishonestly blaming Iran for anything that happens in the region, and it is also proof of the disgraceful carte blanche that the U.S. continues to give the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen. The official giving the briefing can’t even be bothered to address the question of Saudi and Emirati responsibility for the humanitarian crisis. The administration’s determination to cover for the Saudi coalition and ignore their numerous crimes against Yemeni civilians means that U.S. officials won’t even mildly criticize the coalition governments in a briefing.

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