Daniel Larison

The Pitfalls of Weaponizing Aid Deliveries

International aid organizations refuse to participate in weaponizing aid deliveries as part of our government’s regime change policy in Venezuela:

The U.S. effort to distribute tons of food and medicine to needy Venezuelans is more than just a humanitarian mission. The operation is also designed to foment regime change in Venezuela — which is why much of the international aid community wants nothing to do with it.

Humanitarian operations are supposed to be neutral. That’s why the International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations agencies and other relief organizations have refused to collaborate with the U.S. and its allies in the Venezuelan opposition who are trying to force President Nicolás Maduro from power.

“Humanitarian action needs to be independent of political, military or any other objectives,” Stéphane Dujarric, the U.N. spokesman, told a press briefing last week in New York. “The needs of the people should lead in terms of when and how humanitarian assistance is used.”

The dispute over aid deliveries to Venezuela is a good example of how taking sides in another country’s political crisis can undermine effective humanitarian assistance. Because the U.S. government has declared for the opposition leader against the current government, any aid that the U.S. provides will be and will be perceived as part of the effort to overthrow Maduro. As a result, Maduro has a strong incentive to block that aid, and that is exactly what he has been doing. Once outside governments weaponize the delivery of humanitarian aid, that makes it much harder to combat hunger and preventable diseases in the affected country. Aid deliveries should not be abused for P.R. purposes or to score political points against rivals.

Taken together with the imposition of sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector, the attempt to use aid as a political weapon to achieve regime change is particularly cruel. Not only are U.S. sanctions strangling the Venezuelan people, but what little relief our government is willing to offer can’t get into the country. At the same time, it puts additional pressure on local aid workers:

But the risks of linking humanitarian assistance to regime change are already coming into focus, with some Venezuelan aid workers being denounced by the Maduro government as opposition activists, says Daniel Almeida of CARE International, which partners with aid groups in Venezuela.

“Local NGOs have received some … warnings because of their engagement with international aid. The whole environment is becoming more aggressive,” Almeida said.

Another danger, experts say, is that Maduro — who currently allows in some humanitarian assistance from various international agencies — could close the door on aid altogether.

The destructive effects of the sanctions will not only worsen conditions for the people, but they will also make it more difficult for aid groups already in the country to operate and deliver goods to those in need:

Meanwhile, aid groups are bracing for a new round of U.S. sanctions that effectively block the sale of Venezuelan oil to the U.S. These proceeds make up the bulk of Venezuela’s cash income, which is used to import food and medical supplies.

That means rice, milk, antibiotics and other vital products could become even more scarce, says Phil Gunson, who is based in Caracas for the International Crisis Group. He says the situation could soon resemble a “medieval siege where you prevent your adversary from obtaining resources from outside the city walls.” [bold mine-DL]

What’s more, the sanctions could worsen the current shortages of gasoline and auto parts.

“If we can’t move around due to a lack of gasoline, that means humanitarian aid cannot be mobilized,” warns Feliciano Reyna, the founder of Acción Solidaria, a health and human rights group that distributes medicine to 14,000 Venezuelans.

When our government’s sanctions threaten to increase starvation and deprivation in a country already enduring a profound humanitarian crisis, providing aid shipments won’t be adequate to make up for the shortages created by sanctions. One cannot make up for strangling the civilian population with the effects of sanctions by sending some aid shipments, and when those shipments are being sent to advance a particular agenda they won’t be able to help very many people at all.

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Today’s Rift with Europe Echoes the Iraq War Debate

Pence repeated his tone-deaf demands to our allies to quit the nuclear deal at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend. The response from the Europeans was even frostier than it had been in Warsaw:

European officials brushed off U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s call this week for the bloc to ratchet up pressure on Iran, saying they will continue defending the 2015 nuclear deal and stay engaged with Iran’s government.

World leaders gathered at the annual Munich Security Conference on Friday to debate a range of issues from the Middle East, to trade, Europe’s future and cyberwarfare. Speaking at the conference on Saturday, Mr. Pence, who is on a diplomatic trip to Europe, said the European Union should follow the U.S. in leaving the Iran nuclear deal.

U.S.-European relations are lower than they have been at any time since the the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Just as the Bush administration berated and insulted longtime allies for refusing to fall in line behind their destructive and reckless war, the Trump administration is berating and insulting some of our closest allies over their refusal to capitulate to unreasonable American demands on Iran and the nuclear deal. Many of the elements of these two rifts are similar: an irrational American fixation on a wildly exaggerated or non-existent threat in the Middle East, an arrogant assumption that our allies are obliged to do whatever our government tells them to do, and open expressions of contempt for the allies that disagree with the course being set by the irresponsible U.S. administration. In both cases, some of our closest allies unsuccessfully try to stop the administration from making terrible, costly errors, and they are rewarded for their efforts with condemnation and threats.

The most worrying similarity between the 2002-03 breach with our European allies and today is the willingness of administration officials to promote obvious lies in the service of their destructive policy. Like other members of the administration, Pence has been pushing the dishonest claim that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. He said this in his Warsaw speech:

But beyond its hateful rhetoric, the Iranian regime openly advocates another Holocaust and it seeks the means to achieve it. Iran seeks to recreate the ancient Persian Empire under the modern dictatorship of the ayatollahs.

Iran’s government neither advocates for this, nor does it “seek the means to achieve it.” Any work that Iran did on nuclear weapons research took place more than fifteen years ago, and it has not resumed since then. Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, and the IAEA has confirmed Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal more than a dozen times in a row. The talking points of Iran hawks remain unchanged from the mid-2000s, but in the meantime the rest of the world has moved on.

If Pence really believed what he was saying, he wouldn’t be urging our allies to tear up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The nuclear deal has ensured that Iran cannot develop and build nuclear weapons, and anyone genuinely worried about Iran’s acquisition of such weapons would not try to destroy the agreement that makes that outcome practically impossible. The only reason to promote the lie that Iran seeks nuclear weapons is to create a pretext for war. Iran hawks hate the nuclear deal so passionately because it deprives them of that pretext. That is why they are determined to do whatever they can to kill the deal even if that means badly damaging relations with our most important treaty allies.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Under the Boot. Lyle Jeremy Rubin writes a withering takedown of Max Boot and his new book.

The massacre Trump’s Venezuela envoy wants us to forget. Ishaan Tharoor reviews the history of the El Mozoto massacre in El Salvador and Elliott Abrams’ role in covering it up as part of the Reagan administration.

Netanyahu’s “war” comment wasn’t an accident. Zev Chafets comments on Netanyahu’s “war with Iran” rhetoric at this week’s Warsaw conference.

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The U.S. Will Regret Interfering in Venezuela

U.S. policymakers have frequently failed to plan for what comes after the overthrow of a foreign government, but in the case of Venezuela the Trump administration and its allies failed to plan for the beginning:

Longtime observers, however, say the generals doubt the promises will be kept. This is a major reason why the revolution isn’t moving as quickly as some had hoped when Guaido electrified the world on Jan. 23 with his declaration. This has led to impatience and finger-pointing. U.S. policy makers and those around Guaido — as well as leaders in Brazil and Colombia — are eyeing one another and worrying about failure. Officials in each camp have said privately they assumed the others had a more developed strategy [bold mine-DL].

No one should have assumed that the Trump administration had a well-considered plan, but because the process leading up to the recognition of Guaido seemed less chaotic and dysfunctional than usual there seems to be the mistaken impression that U.S. officials aren’t just making things up as they go along. Administration officials probably thought they were seizing on an opportunity for a relatively easy foreign policy win, and they were being egged on by Marco Rubio and other hawks who had every incentive to minimize the difficulties and problems that this policy would face. There is an eerie similarity to the run-up to the Libyan intervention in the complete failure to plan ahead and the initial overestimation of the opposition’s capabilities. Let’s hope that any similarities with Libya end there.

One reason that the Venezuelan opposition doesn’t seem to have a “more developed strategy” is that the plan to install Guaido as interim president was made by only a handful of people without the knowledge of the rest of the opposition. The Wall Street Journal reported on this last week:

What appeared to be a carefully calibrated policy to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was actually a big gamble by a small group of opposition leaders acting on a hastily assembled plan.

The strategy marked a coup of sorts: this one within the country’s notoriously fractious opposition, which had been locked in debate over whether to negotiate with Mr. Maduro or take more direct action.

When Juan Guaidó declared himself Venezuela’s interim president on Jan. 23 in front of a crowd of 100,000 people under a broiling sun, some leading opposition figures had no idea he would do so, say people who work with Mr. Guaidó and other top leaders. That included a few standing alongside him. A stern look of shock crossed their faces. Some quietly left the stage.

“What the hell is going on?” one member of a group of politicians wrote to the others in a WhatsApp group chat. “How come we didn’t know about this.”

The plan was largely devised by a group of four opposition leaders—two in exile, one under house arrest and one barred from leaving the country.

Guaido and his allies valued speed and surprise over preparation, but because of that they don’t appear to have any idea what to do next. That doesn’t bode well for Venezuela in the coming months, and it helps explain why there have been so few defections of military officers to the opposition’s side:

In a country with more than 2,000 generals and admirals, only one top officer — who commands no troops — has pledged allegiance to Guaido.

There is usually a dangerous combination of hubris and failure to anticipate setbacks in every regime change policy, and this one is no exception. Again and again, we see the same arrogant, breezy assumption that regime change will be quick, easy, and relatively cheap, and we find that the regime changers never considered what they would do when things didn’t go according to their hastily-made, ill-conceived plan. Toppling an entrenched government is always going to be harder, take longer, and be more costly than anyone expects, and that is why it is something that the U.S. shouldn’t attempt unless it is absolutely necessary. As the standoff in Venezuela drags on, it will become increasingly clear that the U.S. should not have interfered in this crisis.

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Yemen’s Humanitarian Catastrophe Keeps Getting Worse

The latest report on Yemen from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) details the horrifying conditions there:

An estimated 80 per cent of the population – 24 million people – require some form of humanitarian or protection assistance, including 14.3 million who are in acute need. Severity of needs is deepening, with the number of people in acute need a staggering 27 per cent higher than last year [bold mine-DL]. Two-thirds of all districts in the country are already pre-famine, and one-third face a convergence of multiple acute vulnerabilities.

As the report says, more than 20 million Yemenis are food insecure, and another 10 million suffer from “extreme levels of hunger.” Yemenis are dying daily from hunger and other preventable causes. A new outbreak of swine flu has already claimed scores of lives in the capital and threatens hundreds more:

Reuters reports on the case of Fatima Qoba, a severely malnourished 12-year old girl, who was displaced along with her family from their home in northern Yemen by Saudi coalition bombing:

After trying two other hospitals which could not help, a relative found the money to transport Qoba to the clinic in Houthi-controlled Aslam, one of Yemen’s poorest districts with high malnutrition levels.

Lying on green hospital sheets, Qoba’s skin is papery, her eyes huge and her skeletal frame encased in a loose orange dress. A health worker feeds her a pale mush from a bowl.

Fatima is one of millions of Yemeni children suffering from extreme malnutrition, and at least 85,000 Yemeni children under the age of 5 have perished from hunger. The escalation and prolongation of the war from outside intervention and the destructive economic policies of the Saudi coalition and the “legitimate” Yemeni government have created these appalling conditions. The lives of more than half the population remain at risk from starvation each day that the war is allowed to drag on.

This is what the war on Yemen has done to Fatima and the many millions of children who are being starved to death:

These are the horrors that U.S. support for the war on Yemen helps make possible. This is the humanitarian catastrophe that has continued to worsen as our government has enabled and covered for the Saudis and Emiratis for the last four years. Extricating the U.S. from the war is a necessary step towards ending the war on Yemen, but the only way to end Yemen’s enormous suffering is if opponents of the war keep working for a lasting peace.

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Trump’s Fatally Flawed Iran Policy

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

Mike Pompeo is pleased that sanctions have made things worse for the Iranian people:

Pompeo dodges the question he is asked, because the obvious answer to Saberi’s question is no. The administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has failed to change regime behavior, and it isn’t going to force Iran to negotiate anything with the U.S. The Secretary of State makes it clear that the administration’s goal is to make conditions inside Iran so bad that there is an uprising, but the administration is going to fail here, too.

There are at least two fatal flaws in the administration’s policy. First, the Iranian people don’t want the chaos and upheaval that would come with such an uprising. That is a consistent message coming from people inside Iran in one report after another. Second, Iranians aren’t going to assist the U.S. in overthrowing their own government. The more that the administration emphasizes that regime change is their true goal, the more resentment and opposition that is going to inspire among the people suffering under sanctions.

As always, Iran hawks fail to take into account the agency and aspirations of the population they claim to support, and they definitely fail to take their nationalism into account. They imagine that they can strangle and choke an entire nation, and then that nation will spontaneously fall in line with the hawks’ preferences. It is on the basis of this risible assumption that they support spreading more misery across an entire country.

Iranians certainly aren’t going to want to help the U.S. after our government has been strangling their economy and impoverishing them. Inflicting collective punishment on the entire population would be the wrong thing to do in any case, and it also isn’t going to get the administration what it wants. They are exacerbating the suffering of tens of millions of people for nothing.

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Pence’s Insulting Warsaw Speech

Vice President Mike Spence, speaking at the Southern Baptist Convention (Fox4 News DFW screen grab)

Mike Pence berated our closest European allies while in Poland and demanded that they withdraw from the JCPOA:

In a speech in Warsaw on Thursday, Pence reprimanded the U.K., France and Germany for creating a financing plan that would allow European companies to continue trading with Iran in spite of renewed American sanctions on the Islamic republic.

“They call this scheme a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’,” Pence said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “We call it an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime.’’

Pence fails to grasp that our allies don’t accept the legitimacy of these sanctions. The U.S. reimposed these sanctions in clear violation of the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231, and by threatening to apply them to European companies the U.S. has overreached and violated the sovereignty of our allies. The fact that they have gone to the trouble of creating a workaround mechanism should tell the Trump administration how seriously they take this. Our allies object to being told how and with whom they are permitted to do business by Washington, and they are finally doing something about it. Were it not for Trump’s irrational decision to exit the nuclear deal and his vindictive decision to reimpose sanctions, there would be no rift with our allies. Thanks to Pence’s histrionics, that rift is sure to grow even wider.

U.S. officials can’t make up their minds whether they think the “special purpose vehicle” is worthless or dangerous. They have tended to dismiss it as having little or no effect, but Pence’s attack suggests that they think it might be much more successful in facilitating legitimate trade between Europe and Iran. The vice president’s complaints about the mechanism are telling. At the moment, the European Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) is supposed to be used to facilitate trade in humanitarian goods. The administration likes to pretend that their sanctions allow for this trade, but in practice their restrictions on financial institutions make it practically impossible for Iranians to pay for the goods. The “special purpose vehicle” is a way around that obstacle, and Pence makes clear in his speech that the administration is very much against anything that might actually succeed in getting the Iranian people the food and medicine they need.

That makes his demand that our allies renege on their commitments all the more ridiculous:

“The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and join with us as we bring the economic and diplomatic pressure necessary to give the Iranian people, the region and the world the peace, security and freedom they deserve,” he said.

Our allies aren’t going to join the Trump administration’s policy of collective punishment against the Iranian people. The nuclear deal is working as intended, and our allies have no reason to give up on it as long as Iran is complying with it. The administration’s pressure campaign is bringing hardship and misery to the Iranian people, and our allies refuse to participate in a policy of regime change in all but name. Our allies are doing what they can to uphold their end of the bargain that we all made, and Pence’s response is to throw a fit on European soil and make absurd demands that will be taken as an insult.

Pence’s speech confirms that the administration’s Iran obsession is an intense and destructive as ever. The Warsaw conference was already a mess. Pence’s insults directed at our allies guarantee that it will be a complete failure.

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House Passes H.J.Res 37, 248-177

Yemeni child eats ready-to-use therapeutic food bag in 2017. Credit: UNICEF/USAID/Flickr

The House has passed the antiwar Yemen resolution, H.J.Res. 37, by a vote of 248-177. Rep. Ro Khanna, the lead sponsor of the resolution, issued a statement following the historic vote:

Today is historic. This is the culmination of several years of legislative efforts to end our involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen. I’m encouraged by the direction people are pushing our party to take on foreign policy, promoting restraint and human rights and with the sense they want Congress to play a much larger role.

I applaud all cosponsors for supporting this historic effort and thank my 248 colleagues who voted yes on passage today, especially Speaker Pelosi and Leader Hoyer, HASC Chair Smith, HFAC Chair Engel, Rules Chair McGovern, CPC Co-Chair Pocan and nearly 100 cosponsors of my resolution. I’d also like to thank Senator Sanders for being my thought partner and co-lead on this work in the upper chamber.

Like last year’s passage of S.J.Res. 54, the passage of this resolution is a significant assertion of Congressional authority in matters of war. While opponents of the measure desperately tried to deny that the U.S. was involved in hostilities in Yemen, the evidence of extensive U.S. involvement over the last four years made that an untenable claim. Despite years of lies from this administration and the Pentagon, most House members could recognize an unauthorized U.S. war when they saw one. Despite the constant fear-mongering of pro-Saudi hawks in both houses, most House members understood that the war serves no American interests and implicates us in war crimes and crimes against humanity. When the only argument that the war’s supporters had was to keep shouting “Iran!” at the other side, it was just a matter of time before they lost.

It is unfortunate that it has taken almost four years for Congress to act on U.S. involvement in the war, but it has not been for lack of effort on the part of the war’s opponents. In just the last two years, we have seen the war on Yemen go from being almost completely invisible and ignored to becoming the focus of the most important antiwar vote in modern U.S. history. The successful passage of H.J.Res. 37 has once again forced the issue to center stage, and it sets up an overdue fight with the executive over war powers and over our relationship with the Saudis and the rest of the coalition.

There is still much more to be done. The people of Yemen remain in dire need of help as they face famine, cholera, displacement, poverty, and continued war, and we know that the Trump administration will fight to keep U.S. support for the war going as long as they can. Nonetheless, today’s vote was a huge step in the right direction, and it is a success that advocates for peace and restraint can be proud of.

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Netanyahu’s War Talk

Israeli Prime Minister B. Netanyahu Credit:Ververidis Vasilis /shutterstock

While attending the Warsaw conference that is ostensibly committed to promoting “peace and stability” in the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu let loose with this statement:

“What is important about this meeting – and this meeting is not in secret, because there are many of those – is that this is an open meeting with representatives of leading Arab countries, that are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of war with Iran.” Netanyahu said.

The prime minister’s official Twitter account used the exact same wording:

This isn’t a case of Netanyahu’s words being taken out of context or misinterpreted. The prime minister’s own official account used this wording because this is the message that Netanyahu wanted to convey. It should come as no surprise that someone who has railed against Iran throughout his career would use language like this. The prime minister has talked up the idea of bombing Iran for years, and his government has obviously been attacking Iranian targets inside Syria for quite a while. Netanyahu said this in the context of talking about attacking Iranian forces in Syria and forcing them out of the country:

“What we are doing is pushing and driving Iran from Syria. We are committed to doing this,” he said.

Netanyahu seems to be trying to create the illusion of broader regional support for possible escalation against Iran in Syria and Lebanon. He may be interested in war with Iran, but most Arab states don’t actually have any interest in war with Iran if they are the ones that have to fight it. The Omani government whose foreign minister Netanyahu just met at the conference certainly has no desire for such a war. In any case, the prime minister has helped to confirm that the Warsaw conference is a poorly-disguised anti-Iran gathering.

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Pompeo’s Botched Warsaw Conference

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

Pompeo’s Warsaw conference isn’t going to amount to much, and almost half the invited governments may not be sending their foreign ministers to represent them:

What Pompeo originally billed as a major conference to pressure Iran on its regional influence, missile testing and terrorism is now as likely to be defined by what it is not — and who is not coming. Several key countries appear to be engaging in a subtle diplomatic snub to protest the Trump administration’s policies toward Iran and Syria.

Scratch Federica Mogherini, the foreign policy chief for the European Union, who said she had a prior commitment. France and Germany are sending second-tier-level diplomats. Russia won’t be there at all. And the British foreign secretary may leave early.

Pompeo botched this conference from the start, but it is ultimately the administration’s bankrupt approach to issues related to Iran that is to blame for the failure. The U.S. needlessly created the rifts with our allies over the nuclear deal, and that has undermined cooperation with them on everything else. Fixating on Iran as the source of all regional problems regardless of the facts may gain Pompeo points with the president, but it alienates and antagonizes most of the governments that the administration is trying to get on board with their agenda. Fortunately, there is no international consensus in support of the administration’s Iran policy, and Trump and Pompeo are too inept at diplomacy to change that. As a result, the Warsaw conference isn’t likely to get them any results, and it is more likely to underscore just how isolated they are on Iran and on some other Middle Eastern issues as well.

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