Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Yemen’s Hodeidah offensive: once avoidable, now imminent. Peter Salisbury warns that the offensive will worsen Yemen’s already severe humanitarian crisis and makes recommendations for reining in all parties to the conflict.

Grading the Pompeo certification. Larry Lewis analyzes the claims Secretary Pompeo made in his bogus certification that the Saudis and Emiratis were meeting the conditions set by Congress.

The books the Trump administration should read to understand Iran. Holly Dagres puts together a list of book recommendations on Iranian history and culture from leading experts.

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Media Campaign Targets UN Leaders in NY Over Yemen

PRI reports on a media campaign sponsored by Inside Arabia that is seeking to raise awareness of the war on Yemen’s human toll and to demand action from the world’s governments to put an end to the war:

A media group based in Washington, DC, launched an ad campaign this week in New York City that targets an exclusive audience: World leaders in town for the 73rd United Nations General Assembly. The goal? An end to the war in Yemen.

“This is a body that has the power, the resources, the influence to work to stop this war,” says Elisabeth Myers, whose publication, Inside Arabia, is behind the campaign. Provocative images and messages are being shown on billboards, kiosks and on some of Manhattan’s bright red double-decker tour buses.

“Looking out from the back of a bus is the eye of a Yemeni child,” Myers says. Inside the eye, if you look closely, she says, is the reflection of two flags: the Saudi flag and the Emirati flag.

The war on Yemen and the resulting humanitarian crisis have been severely neglected by the rest of the world, and the U.N. response has been hamstrung because of the unstinting support for the Saudis and Emiratis provided by the U.S., Britain, and other Western governments. Western media coverage has also been sporadic and lacking since the Saudi-led intervention began three and a half years ago, and that has made it easier for the war’s supporters to escape scrutiny and accountability for the catastrophe they have created.

An ad campaign timed to coincide with the U.N. General Assembly should embarrass some of the governments responsible for the disaster in Yemen and it may cause others to pay more attention to the war. Confronting the American public with the horrific costs of a war fueled by our government is an important step in bringing political pressure to bear on members of Congress and the administration. U.S. support for this war still isn’t well-known, but as Americans learn more about what our government is helping the Saudis and Emiratis do to the people of Yemen opposition to the war has steadily increased.

Here is an example of one of the advertisements on the side of a bus:

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The School Bus Massacre and Pompeo’s Bogus Certification

PBS NewsHour interviewed Larry Lewis last night in a report on Yemen and Pompeo’s dishonest certification of Saudi coalition conduct. Lewis worked for the U.S. government to try to improve Saudi coalition targeting up through 2016, but stopped after that. He wrote an analysis of Pompeo’s claims earlier this week. During the interview, Lewis made an important point about the coalition’s supposed admission of error in the Aug. 9 school bus massacre that has been lost in a lot of the coverage:

So, it’s good that they admitted a mistake.

But, unfortunately, the details of the explanation don’t look right. So they talked about problems in the timing of the airstrike. But the common understanding of what happened was, the problem was actually the target selection. I mean, they struck a school bus with kids [bold mine-DL].

And the fundamental problem is, if they are not getting the details right of what went wrong, it’s unlikely that they will be able to put solutions in place to get better.

The Saudi coalition has never acknowledged that they were wrong to attack the school bus, and their spokesman said earlier this month that there were no children on the bus they destroyed. The coalition’s admission of error amounted to saying that they attacked the bus later than they should have. The Saudis and their allies have never acknowledged that they killed dozens of schoolchildren, and instead they continue to claim that the target was “legitimate.”

I bring this up once again because there is a widespread misunderstanding that the Saudi coalition made a meaningful admission of error in this case, and that misunderstanding has in turn helped Secretary Pompeo to issue a bogus certification that the coalition is making progress in reducing harm to civilians. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article mentions that the coalition’s shoddy investigation into the massacre probably played a role in the decision to give the coalition a pass:

U.S. officials say that a contrite and robust Saudi response to its bombing of the school bus on Aug. 9 may have helped tip the scales in Riyadh’s favor.

The problem here is that the Saudi response was neither contrite nor robust. It was a cynical and deceptive response that paid lip service to the idea that the coalition had made a mistake, but it showed no understanding or acknowledgement of the appalling crime that their forces had committed against dozens of children. Contrition would have meant acknowledging that the attack on the bus itself was wrong and admitting that they had wrongfully killed 40 kids, and that should have been followed by profuse apologies and offers of compensation. Obviously none of that has happened, and the Saudi coalition has been let off the hook by Washington once again after shedding a few crocodile tears while clinging to the lie that their murder of 40 small boys was a “legitimate” military action.

The good news is that the credibility of the coalition and the administration has been shredded in the weeks that followed this horrific attack. The coalition’s investigation into the massacre and the administration’s certification were both done in such obvious bad faith that they are practically begging Congress to cut off all U.S. military assistance and block all arms sales. That is exactly what Congress needs to do.

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The Trump Administration Is Paving the Way for Disaster in Yemen

Peter Salisbury connects the Trump administration’s farcical certification with the coalition’s Hodeidah offensive:

The U.S., by certifying that the Saudis and Emiratis are meeting the requirements laid out in the National Defense Authorization Act without any caveats, has sent the wrong message at exactly the wrong moment, namely that the coalition can continue to act with impunity as it advances on Hodeida.

Salisbury is absolutely right about this. Certifying that the coalition is making progress in reducing harm to Yemeni civilians when the exact opposite has been happening tells the coalition that they can do what they like without having to fear any consequences from Washington. It lets the Saudis and Emiratis know that they aren’t going to lose the administration’s support no matter how many massacres they commit. They probably already assumed this was the case, but this makes it more certain.

Then again, signaling the coalition that it can act with impunity has been the message coming from the Trump administration for the last year and a half. The White House and Pentagon went to the mat to prevent the Senate from voting to cut off military assistance this spring, they green-lit the start of the Hodeidah offensive at the start of the summer, and Pompeo and Mattis lied on their behalf to keep refueling of coalition planes going in the fall. If you want a lesson in how to throw away all leverage and do the bidding of your clients, just copy what the Trump administration has done with the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen.

Salisbury concludes:

The coalition also needs to be reined in. The U.S. is best suited to do this. Unfortunately, by certifying the National Defense Authorization Act as he did, Pompeo gave away the leverage Congress had handed him. The certification requirement proved too weak to restrain a Trump administration intent on giving the Saudis and Emiratis considerable slack. Congressman Ro Khanna has said that he is willing to lead an effort to force a vote on the U.S.’s involvement in intelligence-sharing and in-air refuelling that is crucial to the coalition’s operations. Should the Democratic Party take control of the House after the November elections, it could make more stringent legislation a reality. If the UAE and Saudi Arabia are not careful, they could find their alliance with the U.S. – and their campaign in Yemen – constrained as a result of new Congressionally-imposed restrictions. And if the now likely offensive on Hodeida proceeds, the U.S. will shoulder the blame for its failure to use its considerable influence to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe [bold mine-DL]. That is a result that Washington can and should want to avoid.

The Trump administration has never wanted to rein in the Saudi coalition. One of the first things that the administration was to end the limited restrictions that the Obama administration had imposed as they were on their way out, and they have made a point of giving the coalition free rein ever since. It is not a coincidence that civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes have risen over this same period of time. U.S. officials spend far more of their time concocting implausible defenses for U.S. military assistance than they spend on pressuring the coalition to stop attacks on civilian targets. It is up to Congress to do what the administration refuses to do before the Hodeidah offensive causes massive loss of innocent life.

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Pompeo Lied to Congress About Yemen to Protect Arms Sales

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

Mike Pompeo’s certification earlier this month that the Saudi coalition was working to reduce harm to civilians in Yemen was an obvious sham. According to a new report in The Wall Street Journal, Pompeo made the decision to lie for the Saudis and Emiratis because he feared it would hurt arms sales:

Mr. Pompeo overruled concerns from most of the State Department specialists involved in the debate who were worried about the rising civilian death toll in Yemen. Those who objected included specialists in the region and in military affairs. He sided with his legislative affairs team after they argued that suspending support could undercut plans to sell more than 120,000 precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to a classified State Department memo and people familiar with the debate.

Cutting off refueling to the coalition likely would make it extremely difficult to sell more weapons to the Saudis and Emiratis, but that is not a good reason to ignore evidence and expert advice and then lie to Congress. Opponents of the war have been trying to block arms sales to both countries for years, and this just gives them one more reason to keep trying. The U.S. should not be in the business of arming governments that we know will use them to commit war crimes, and that certainly applies to the Saudis and the UAE as long as the war on Yemen continues. The longer that the war drags on, and the more civilians that the coalition kills using U.S.-made weapons, the more politically toxic arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE will become. In the end, Pompeo’s decision to flout the law and lie to Congress will just make opposition to future arms sales that much more intense.

To their credit, most State Department officials were telling Pompeo that he shouldn’t do what he ended up doing:

The experts argued that certification would “provide no incentive for Saudi leadership to take our diplomatic messaging seriously,” and “damage the Department’s credibility with Congress,” according to portions of the memo shared with The Wall Street Journal.

The department’s experts were right on both counts, but they may have underestimated how much damage Pompeo has done with Congress by making such a transparently dishonest certification that flies in the face of all the available evidence. Unfortunately, the department experts still favored continued military assistance for the war anyway:

They urged Mr. Pompeo to instead tell Congress that he couldn’t certify that the Gulf nations were doing enough to minimize civilian casualties, but that the U.S. would continue to provide military support to the coalition because it is in America’s national security interest.

Here the experts couldn’t be more wrong. No U.S. interests are being served by enabling coalition war crimes and the mass starvation of innocent people. Our security is not threatened by the coalition’s enemies in Yemen. The only people in the country that pose any threat to the U.S. are the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) members that the coalition has been buying off and recruiting. The coalition’s war is not making the U.S. any safer, and it is actively harming what few interests we do have in the area.

USAID stands out as the only one involved in the process that had the right answer:

The U.S. Agency for International Development went even further and argued that the U.S. should halt military aid because “USAID does not believe that continued refueling support will improve either country’s approach to civilian casualties or human protections.”

There was never any chance that Pompeo was going to pay attention to this advice. This report just underscores why it is critical for Congress to do what the administration never will. Congress needs to vote for an end U.S. involvement in the war and to block all arms sales in order to pressure the Saudi coalition to stop their military campaign.

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Trump’s Bankrupt Iran Policy

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, President Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton at the NATO Foreign Ministerial in Brussels, Belgium on July 12, 2018. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

The head of the Trump administration’s Iran Action Group, Brian Hook, spoke at the Hudson Institute earlier today. He repeated the administration’s preposterous demands for Iran and feigned interest in negotiations:

Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “have all made clear that we are ready to negotiate and to have those discussions,” Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, told the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank.

“There hasn’t been any aversion to meeting with the Iranians,” he added.

Hook stressed the goal was a “comprehensive deal” with Iran, based on a tough set of conditions Pompeo laid out in May.

The Trump administration’s willingness to “negotiate” with Iran is very much like its readiness to make a “deal” with the Palestinians: the other side is expected to make extensive concessions in exchange for nothing and will be punished severely until they agree to these humiliating terms. It is no wonder that the Iranian government has no interest in “negotiations” that amount to capitulation. Even if the U.S. had not reneged on the nuclear deal and proven that it can’t be trusted to honor its commitments, it would be extremely unlikely that Iran would be open to making more concessions than it has already made on the nuclear issue. Once the U.S. reneged on the deal, that made it politically impossible for any Iranian leader to negotiate with Washington. Once the U.S. started reimposing sanctions without justification, it became clear that the administration’s real goal was not a “new deal” but the destabilization and toppling of the regime.

The administration’s feigned interest in diplomacy is an unpersuasive attempt to dress up a cruel and destructive policy of collective punishment as something more reasonable. Hook claimed that the administration is open to negotiating a “treaty” with Iran to cover all outstanding issues, but no one believes this is serious. The Trump administration can’t even honor a nonproliferation agreement that cost the U.S. nothing, so why would anyone believe they would be willing to honor a “comprehensive deal”? Many of the things that would be contained in the “comprehensive deal” are also obvious non-starters for Iran, so why would Tehran even consider talking about them?

Trump’s policy is deeply hostile to both the Iranian government and the people of Iran. Why would the Iranian government want to talk to people that have no respect for them, refuse to honor commitments to them, and actively seek to harm them? The simple answer is that they have no reason to talk to the U.S. as long as Trump is in office, because Trump’s idea of “negotiation” is to demand that they give up everything in return for nothing.

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Millions of Yemeni Children Are Starving

Save the Children warns that the closure of the Hodeidah port would add another million children to the the current number of 5 million at risk of famine:

British charity Save the Children has warned that 5 million children are at risk of famine in Yemen as the Saudi-led coalition carries out a major offensive on a strategic port in the country.

On Tuesday, the coalition launched a campaign to recapture the rebel Houthi-held port of Hodeidah, according to state media in the United Arab Emirates, a partner in the coalition.

Save the Children has said that damage to the port or its temporary closure would increase food and fuel costs, putting 1 million more children at risk of famine.

The number of Yemenis at risk of dying from starvation is staggering, but for some reason the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen still fails to register in the rest of the world. The 5 million children that are already at risk of famine are suffering because of a man-made crisis for which the Saudi coalition and its Western patrons, including our government, are largely responsible. Another million children could be put at risk because of an offensive that our government supports. These millions of lives are at risk because the U.S. offers effectively unconditional support to the Saudi coalition and the Saudi coalition acts with callous disregard for the civilian population. There does not have to be a massive famine that devours an entire generation of Yemeni children, but unless there is a cease-fire and an end to the blockade there will be.

The Hodeidah offensive obviously threatens the civilian population in and around the city, but beyond that it endangers the lives of millions more throughout the country that depend on the port for their supply of food and fuel. The blockade already impedes delivery of goods and drives up prices beyond what most Yemenis can afford. Further interruptions could be fatal to huge numbers of them:

“Millions of children don’t know when or if their next meal will come. In one hospital I visited in north Yemen, the babies were too weak to cry, their bodies exhausted by hunger. This could be any hospital in Yemen,” Thorning-Schmidt said.

“What happens in Hodeidah has a direct impact on children and families right across Yemen. Even the smallest disruption to food, fuel and aid supplies through its vital port could mean death for hundreds of thousands of malnourished children unable to get the food they need to stay alive,” she said.

The U.S. had previously opposed launching an offensive on Hodeidah because some officials in our government understood the disastrous consequences it could have for the civilian population. Unfortunately, Trump chose to ignore these concerns and supported the attack on Hodeidah instead. It is still within our government’s power to use its leverage with the Saudis and Emiratis to halt this offensive, establish a cease-fire, and allow normal commercial shipping and humanitarian aid to flow into the country, but the administration refuses to do any of this. Congress has a chance to end at least some of the causes of this disaster. William Hartung appeals to Congress to do just that:

Rarely does Congress have an opportunity make a difference in the lives of millions of people. This is one such chance, and the time to act is now.

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Nonproliferation and Trump’s U.N. Stunt

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

The Trump administration is changing its plans for its stunt at the U.N. later this month, but their Iran obsession will still play a large role:

Mindful of the danger, the Trump White House has already dialed back plans to dedicate a session of the U.N. Security Council that Trump himself will chair to the subject of Iran; the meeting will now cover the broader subject of nonproliferation, which could comprise other issues, like North Korea. Officials worried that Trump could appear to be all alone on a Security Council with many members who believe he should not have withdrawn from the nuclear deal.

But Trump’s speech to the General Assembly, set for Sept. 25, will include tough anti-Iran language, an administration official confirmed. And Iran’s behavior is still expected to come up during the U.N. Security Council session Trump will chair, tentatively set for Sept. 26.

Changing the focus of the meeting from Iran to nonproliferation shows that even administration officials recognize how isolated the U.S. is on its Iran policy, but it isn’t going to spare Trump the embarrassing rebukes from other members of the Security Council. In fact, a meeting squarely focused on nonproliferation will make it even easier for other members to emphasize their disagreement with the U.S. over Trump’s decision to renege on the deal. The U.S. can’t renege on the most successful nonproliferation agreement in decades and still be taken seriously when it talks about its commitment to nonproliferation. Trump has shredded whatever credibility the U.S. had on this issue four months ago, and we should expect several other governments to take this opportunity to point that out. Iran won’t be given a chance to respond to Trump at the Council meeting itself now that the agenda has changed, but the U.S. is still going to be just as isolated as before. It will be difficult for other members to ignore that the U.S. is probably just using the issue of nonproliferation as cover to recite its usual list of complaints about Iran.

Our European allies continue to resist the Trump administration’s threats, because they see the dispute as being about much more than Iran or the nuclear deal:

A senior German diplomat told POLITICO that, for Europe, Iran has become a “question of principle” that has as much to do with preserving international norms as it does with reining in the Iranian nuclear threat. European officials are happy to confront the U.S. over Iran at international gatherings, the diplomat said, because they believe Trump can’t rally many people to his defense.

The U.S. is the only party to the JCPOA in violation of the agreement and UNSCR 2231, the resolution that endorsed the nuclear deal. As such, anything our government has to say about nonproliferation or the nuclear deal itself will be dismissed by the other member states, and the administration will just be calling attention to its own costly errors.

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Saudi Coalition Slaughters Yemeni Fishermen

The Saudi coalition commits another war crime against Yemeni civilians. In this case, a coalition warship shelled a group of fishermen and killed 18 people:

A frigate attacked a fishing boat off Yemen’s Red Sea port of al-Khoukha, killing 18 fishermen on Tuesday, relatives said. The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi group denied reports that it had carried out the attack.

Members of the fishermen’s families told Reuters only one person survived when a warship attacked the boat.

The Saudi coalition maintains a naval and air blockade of Yemen, and it enforces the former with Saudi and Emirati naval vessels. Whenever there is an attack on civilians at sea by ship or from the air, it is certain that coalition forces are responsible for it for the simple reason that they are the only ones capable of launching such attacks. This latest attack on Yemeni fishermen is consistent with previous attacks on fishing boats and fish markets, and it fits into the systematic campaign of targeting Yemen’s sources of food production. The coalition blockade starves Yemenis of basic necessities, and then when some of them seek to make a living and gather food to sell at sea they are murdered by coalition forces. The killing of these fishermen is unfortunately all too common in this war, because coalition forces have no regard for the lives of Yemeni civilians and know that they can act with impunity.

We all understand by now that Saudi coalition denials are completely worthless. They always deny that they launched the attacks that only their forces could carry out. They grudgingly acknowledge responsibility for their massacres only when there is intense international scrutiny of their actions, and even then they won’t admit that they did anything wrong. Needless to say, military forces that blow up peaceful fishermen at sea are not making the slightest effort to reduce harm to civilians. This is just the latest attack that exposes the Trump administration’s certification of coalition behavior as a lie. On the contrary, there is daily more evidence that coalition forces deliberately target civilians on the assumption that their governments and their Western patrons will do nothing about it.

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Rubio and the Iran Hawks’ Petty Grudge Against Kerry

When he’s not busy harassing local businesses on social media, Marco Rubio likes to make spurious charges against former U.S. officials:

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Tuesday asked the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into former Secretary of State John Kerry’s private meetings with top Iranian officials, which Trump administration officials have characterized as undermining U.S. interests.

In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Rubio asked the department to determine whether Kerry violated federal laws including the Logan Act and the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The statutes prohibit unauthorized individuals from negotiating with foreign governments and require disclosures by anyone acting on behalf of a foreign government, respectively.

Opponents of the nuclear deal are not satisfied with reneging on the agreement and harming U.S. interests. They feel compelled to go after one of the deal’s leading supporters by manufacturing a controversy over unremarkable meetings that Kerry had with the Iranian foreign minister earlier this year. Kerry informed Pompeo about the meetings ahead of time, and reported back on what he had learned. If the administration’s Iran policy is failing to deliver the promised results, that isn’t because of anything Kerry did, but rather because of the deep flaws inherent in that policy.

Rubio is wasting the Justice Department’s time with this silly request, and it would be a ridiculous waste of resources for the department to honor the request. The junior senator from Florida has never displayed good judgment on matters of foreign policy, but his attempt to get a former Secretary of State brought up on charges for having conversations with another country’s foreign minister is particularly ill-advised. Kerry did nothing illegal, and it is hard to see what he did that warranted Pompeo’s little tantrum about this the other day. Rubio’s decision to join the administration in pursuing this grudge against Kerry is petty and an embarrassment for the people that voted him into office.

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