Daniel Larison

U.S. ‘Disengagement’ from the Middle East Is a Myth

David Ignatius complains about an American “disengagement” from the Middle East that never happened:

Since Otaiba’s remarks, I’ve seen new examples of bad decisions when leaders decide that Uncle Sam doesn’t matter.

Topping the list of this summer’s most significant Middle East mistakes is Saudi Arabia’s move to punish Canada for criticizing human rights policies in the kingdom.

Saudi incompetence in foreign policy is primarily the fault of their own inept de facto ruler, and Ignatius’ complaint about American “disengagement” makes absolutely no sense in this case. The U.S. is as entangled with Saudi Arabia as ever. If anything, the Trump administration has increased and intensified ties with Riyadh over the last eighteen months. When the spat between Canada and Saudi Arabia started, the Trump administration’s response was to treat them both as equally important “allies” when only one of them is actually a treaty ally. This is not the behavior of a government that is “disengaging” from the Middle East. It is what we would expect from a president who is entwined with the Saudis and Emiratis to the detriment of U.S. interests and the region. The Saudi government would be acting recklessly no matter what the U.S. was or wasn’t doing, but there is no question that it has been encouraged to do whatever it wants because the Saudi king and his son know that the Trump administration is backing them to the hilt.

Ignatius’ column belongs to a long, bad tradition of worrying about supposed U.S. “retreat” from other parts of the world while U.S. involvement in other countries’ wars never ends. The word Yemen is notably absent from Ignatius’ hand-wringing, because acknowledging the ongoing U.S. involvement in a terrible war that is causing millions of people to starve would make a mockery of the paired ideas that the U.S. has been “disengaging” and that our “disengagement” would be a bad thing. Foreign policy pundits have been bemoaning American “retreat” from the region for at least the last decade, and yet the U.S. is still ensnared in unnecessary foreign conflicts in Syria and Yemen with no apparent end in sight. I keep hearing about our supposed “disengagement” from the region for years and I have yet to see any evidence that it is actually happening.

Ignatius says that he regrets “the way that decent people and ideas suffer when the umbrella of U.S. hegemony is withdrawn or discarded,” but I honestly have no idea what he’s talking about. Millions of Yemenis are starving and dying of preventable diseases in no small part because the “umbrella of U.S. hegemony” is casting a dreadful shadow over their country. Just a few days ago, dozens of Yemeni children were murdered by a Saudi coalition airstrike using weapons provided to them by the U.S. They were innocents, and they suffered death and injury for no reason except that it pleased U.S. client states to blow up a marketplace full of Yemenis.

U.S.-backed despots lock up their domestic critics, shoot protesters in the streets, and torture detainees without having to fear any loss of support from Washington. Just the other day, the Trump administration released the remaining military aid to Egypt in another sign that our government has no problem with the dictatorship there. The Trump administration aspires to create a new security alliance, a so-called “Arab NATO” that includes the Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan. It is a ridiculous idea that won’t work for many reasons, but it isn’t something that an administration interested in “disengaging” from the region would propose.

U.S. involvement in these countries and its ongoing support for despotic regimes across the region are the cause of suffering for millions upon millions of people, and our government’s influence in this part of the world has been mostly baleful for decades. If Ignatius can recall a time when this was not so, he is more of a foreign policy trilobite than a dinosaur. It would be a good thing for the region if U.S. influence were waning, but it isn’t true. Spinning tales about U.S. “disengagement” is a none-too-subtle way to argue for further deepening U.S. involvement in a part of the world that it keeps wrecking and destabilizing. Now that we have seen the results of decades of what U.S. engagement in this part of the world means in practice, it would be a welcome change for both the U.S. and the countries in the region to have a lot less of it.

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Trump Ignores Congress’ Yemen Conditions

Trump signed the new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) this week. Among other things, the bill contained provisions that place conditions on U.S. support for the Saudi coalition. The president made clear in his signing statement that he was going to ignore any limitations Congress tried to put on U.S. backing for the coalition’s war effort:

The signing statement singles out several provisions which Trump argues would restrict his control in ways he believes are needed for “military missions,” and inconsistent with his “constitutional authority as Commander in Chief.”

Trump suggested that he’d ignore all the limitations placed on the Yemen War, and objected to providing an assessment on war crimes to Congress, saying it violates executive privilege.

The attempt to put conditions on U.S. support for the war on Yemen was never likely to reduce military assistance to the coalition for the reasons I laid out here. The Secretary of State could very easily claim that the Saudis and their allies were meeting their requirements in order to continue U.S. military involvement, and nothing would change. The president’s signing statement confirms that the administration has no intention of paying attention to Congress’ conditions. Jeremy Konyndyk comments on this:

U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen is unauthorized and illegal. Presidents Obama and Trump have illegally introduced U.S. forces into hostilities in Yemen in support of the Saudi coalition bombing campaign without Congressional authorization. Neither of them had the authority to do so. Congress needs to force an end to U.S. support, and that means revisiting the war powers challenge that it failed to make earlier this year. Nothing less will be a strong enough challenge to the administration’s indefensible Yemen policy. If they don’t challenge the legality of U.S. involvement in the war, Congress will continue to be ignored and overridden.

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The U.S. Enables and Indulges Saudi War Crimes

The Red Cross has confirmed that 40 of the civilians killed in last Thursday’s massacre in Saada were children:

Forty children were among 51 people killed in a Saudi-led coalition air strike on a bus in rebel-held northern Yemen, the Red Cross said Tuesday, after thousands protested at a mass funeral.

Fifty-six children were also among the 79 people wounded in the Thursday strike on Saada province, a rebel stronghold that borders Saudi Arabia, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a new toll.

The coalition airstrike struck the bus in a crowded marketplace. The Saudis and their allies don’t deny committing this crime, but pretend instead that it was a “legitimate” attack. There is no way that attacking a school bus full of kids in the middle of a civilian area could ever be legitimate, and it is absurd that this even has to be said.

The Trump administration predictably has had very little to say about this except for one statement from Nikki Haley that notably omitted the identity of the perpetrator. The president and Secretary of State have yet to mention it, and the subject wasn’t included in the readout of Pompeo’s conversation with Mohammed bin Salman:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke Monday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but according to a State Department readout of the conversation, the top US diplomat made no mention of last week’s Saudi-led airstrike that hit a school bus in Yemen and killed dozens of children, many under the age of 10.

Pompeo and the White House have failed to publicly address the bombing in recent days, as reports continue to emerge detailing the tragic incident.

No one expects the Trump administration to condemn the Saudis over their conduct in Yemen, but it is remarkable that they won’t even mention the latest attack on civilians in passing for fear of offending the hypersensitive crown prince. When Houthi missiles were fired at Riyadh and other targets inside Saudi Arabia, the administration was quick to put on a big public show of accusing Iran. When the administration is presented with clear proof of a Saudi coalition massacre of dozens of children, they suddenly become mute and unwilling to draw conclusions.

The standard administration line about the war is that the U.S. has to continue supporting it in order to minimize harm to civilians, but attacks like this one and in Hodeidah earlier this month show that the coalition is not seriously trying to avoid civilian casualties. Our government doesn’t use the leverage it has with the Saudis and its allies to reduce the harm done to civilians, and it doesn’t hold the coalition accountable when it commits war crimes. Our Yemen policy makes the U.S. complicit in crimes that our government could prevent, and then once those crimes have happened the coalition governments pay no penalty for their slaughter of innocent civilians. The Trump administration in particular has made clear that our despotic clients can do whatever they want and still enjoy the full backing of the United States, and so as long as U.S. support for the war on Yemen continues there are sure to be more senseless killings of civilians like the one we saw last week.

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Our Despicable, Indefensible Policy in Yemen

The pathetic U.S. response to last week’s massacre of students in Yemen continues:

A senior general urged Saudi officials to conduct a thorough investigation into an airstrike that killed at least 40 children in Yemen, the Pentagon said Monday, an indication of U.S. concern about allied nations’ air operations against Houthi militants.

The general’s request actually shows how little concern the U.S. has for how the Saudi coalition conducts its war effort. If the U.S. were concerned with how the war was being fought, our officials wouldn’t be asking the perpetrators of atrocities to investigate their own crimes. It is pointless to urge the Saudis to conduct an investigation into their own war crime when we already know that they will find that they did nothing wrong. As the Post article notes later on, the coalition’s investigations predictably excuse their actions:

According to Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch, Saudi investigators had cleared coalition military officials of legal responsibility in virtually all investigations the JIAT had conducted.

The pattern of Saudi coalition conduct over the last three years is clear. Their forces commit numerous documented war crimes, and then when they “investigate” those crimes they determine that their forces are guilty of nothing. It would have been laughable to ask the Saudis to investigate themselves back in 2015, and to do the same over three years later is inexcusable. It is an invitation to whitewashing heinous, illegal acts. The U.S. will not honestly call out the coalition members for their crimes against Yemeni civilians because our government is deeply complicit in those crimes, and so we are treated to this pantomime farce where we send officers to call for investigations whose results have been predetermined even before the crimes were committed. The entire policy is a disgrace, and it brings dishonor on everyone ordered to participate in it.

There needs to be an independent, international inquiry into war crimes committed by all sides in Yemen. All parties to the conflict are assuredly guilty of war crimes, and all parties should be held accountable for what they have done to Yemen’s civilians. As long as the U.S. enables Saudi coalition crimes and then shields them from scrutiny, our government is implicated in both the crime and the cover-up. Congress could put a stop to this if they were willing to do their jobs and assume their proper responsibilities, but for more than three years they have shirked their duties and acquiesced in a despicable and indefensible policy in Yemen.

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The Perils of Trump’s Iran Obsession

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

Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson chide Trump for his dangerous Iran obsession:

The United States’ treatment of Iran as a serious strategic competitor is deeply illogical. Iran imperils no core U.S. interests.

Trump’s Iran obsession is probably the most conventional part of his foreign policy and it is also the most irrational. The president’s reflexive hostility to Iran is one of the few constants in his view of the world, and it is one that aligns him most closely with his party’s hawks and parts of the foreign policy establishment. This has been clear for several years ever since Trump declared his opposition to the nuclear deal and surrounded himself with hard-liners. The Iran obsession is among the worst aspects of Trump’s presidency, but it is also one of the least surprising. Over the last eighteen months, Trump’s Iran obsession has become more of a derangement, and it is putting the U.S. and Iran on a collision course at the expense of our relations with many other states and our own economic interests. The risk of unnecessary war continues to rise because the president and his allies insist on making maximalist demands of Iran while imposing stringent sanctions on the country without justification.

As Simon and Stevenson capably explain, there is no valid reason to view Iran as a major threat to the U.S. Contrary to the fevered warnings about Iranian “expansionism,” Iranian military power in the region is quite limited:

Yet Iran’s foreign policy has evolved essentially on the basis of opportunistic realism rather than especially aggressive revisionism, and, as noted, it has a sparse military presence in the region.

There is certainly no reason for our government to treat Iran as if it were a major competitor. Our government’s fixation on Iran as the source of all the region’s problems exaggerates Iran’s influence and puts the U.S. at odds with a regional power whose interests are sometimes aligned with our own. The obsession simply makes no sense:

Casting Iran as a major strategic rival simply doesn’t make sense in terms of traditional international relations considerations such as threat- and power-balancing.

The authors list a number of causes for the unwarranted obsession with Iran, including “pro-Israel” influence and the influence of the Saudis and Emiratis in Washington, and I agree with them. Our political leaders’ enthusiasm for engaging in threat inflation and credulously accepting the threat inflation of others would has to figure prominently in any explanation as well. Obsessing over a non-existent Iranian threat to U.S. interests obviously has nothing to do with American security, and it represents an unhealthy subordination of American interests to those of its reckless regional clients. Indulging those clients in their paranoia about Iran will only stoke more regional conflicts and ensure that the U.S. becomes more deeply involved in those wars, and the result will be greater costs for the U.S. and greater turmoil, instability, and loss of life throughout the region.

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The U.S. Is Deeply Complicit in Saudi Coalition Crimes in Yemen

Micah Zenko catches Secretary Mattis making an obviously false claim about U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen:

I saw Mattis’ comment yesterday and said this:

When we remember that the U.S. has provided the Saudi coalition with arms, refueling, intelligence, and diplomatic cover so that they can wage their war on Yemen for more than three years, it is remarkable that U.S. officials try to keep up the pretense that our government is not involved in the conflict. The Pentagon is quick to remind us that their support is “limited” and “non-combat” in nature whenever the Saudi coalition kills civilians with U.S.-supplied weapons, but at the same time they are adamant that their “limited” support must never be cut off. When they assert that U.S. assistance helps limit civilian casualties (for which they provide no evidence), U.S. officials stress how vitally important that assistance is. When it comes to answering for coalition atrocities, they pretend that they have nothing to do with the fighting. If that excuse doesn’t work, they will shrug and claim not to know the extent of U.S. responsibility:

“We may never know if the munition [used] was one that the US sold to them,” Army Maj. Josh Jacques, a spokesperson for US Central Command, told me.

In fact, there is evidence that the bomb that destroyed the school bus in Thursday’s massacre was one that the U.S. sold to them:

This tweet, from respected Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee, shows part of a 500-pound MK-82 bomb. It is manufactured in the United States and sold in large numbers to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Continued military assistance to governments that have routinely struck civilian targets and killed thousands of people is abhorrent. When our government has reason to believe that the assistance it provides will be used to commit human rights abuses and war crimes, it is obligated to withhold that assistance. Pretending not to know how the coalition is using the weapons and fuel the U.S. provides them is not credible after more than three years of coalition atrocities against Yemeni civilians.

The reality is that the coalition relies on U.S. and British military assistance to wage their war and would not be able to continue it without that support. Bruce Riedel says as much here:

Mattis must know this, and this is why he has strenuously opposed any effort to curtail or end U.S. support for the war. Cutting off U.S. military assistance to the coalition would force those governments to halt their campaign, and the Trump administration has no desire to stop them. On the contrary, the administration has backed them to the hilt and refuses to hold them accountable even when they commit the most egregious war crimes, including the slaughter of dozens of children.

U.S. support for the Saudi coalition is essential to their war effort, and that makes our government deeply complicit in what the coalition does in Yemen.

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The Costs of Reneging on the Nuclear Deal

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

Iran rejects Trump’s empty offer of talks:

“I ban holding any talks with America… America never remains loyal to its promises in talks,” said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on policy in the Islamic Republic.

“America’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal is a clear proof that America cannot be trusted,” state TV quoted Khamenei as telling a gathering attended by thousands of Iranians.

There was never any reason to think that Iran would be interested in negotiating with the U.S. after Trump reneged on the nuclear deal, and Khamenei’s statements confirm that there won’t be any talks as long as Trump is in office. Violating our government’s obligations under this agreement has a cost for the U.S., and part of that cost is that the possibility of negotiating with Iran about anything is dead for the foreseeable future. It isn’t possible to trash one of the most significant diplomatic agreements of the last several decades and then get the other parties that you just betrayed to come back to the table.

Of course, Trump and the Iran hawks around him have never wanted real negotiations with Iran. That would require compromise, and they loathe that. Following the decision to refuse to take yes for an answer from Iran, the Trump administration has gone out of its way to make an “offer” that Iran could not possibly accept without also agreeing to surrender. No self-respecting government would agree to that, and so Iran has refused to capitulate to Trump’s bullying.

Trump has been a serial deal-breaker all his life, so it is no surprise that he has continued doing this as president. Violating agreements and reneging on commitments appear to be the only things he is qualified to do. The danger for the U.S. is that many other governments in addition to Iran’s will be wary of making agreements with our government, at least as long as Trump is the president. That will cause the U.S. to miss numerous opportunities to secure and advance our interests, and it will give other states currently negotiating with the U.S. good reason not to believe the promises this administration is making to them.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

“Support Iranian voices” does not mean what you think it means. Shervin Taheran criticizes the Trump administration’s empty rhetoric of support for the Iranian people and contrasts it with its hostile policies.

Sanctions on Iran are morally wrong, and they won’t work. Afua Hirsch makes the case against Trump’s collective punishment of the Iranian people.

Trump’s sanctions will hurt the wrong people in Iran. Jamal Abdi and Sina Toossi argue that the administration’s sanctions “will serve to increase control of the Iranian economy by unaccountable and repressive forces.”

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The Pathetic U.S. Response to the Latest Saudi Massacre

The U.S. response to the massacre of dozens of children and other civilians earlier today was predictably feeble:

The U.S. State Department called on Thursday for the Saudi-led coalition to investigate reported air strikes in Yemen that killed dozens of people, including children.

“We are certainly concerned about the reports that there was an attack that resulted in the deaths of civilians. We call on the Saudi-led coalition to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the incident,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a press briefing.

Any investigation conducted by the Saudi coalition into this attack will be neither thorough nor transparent. There is no point in calling for an inquiry by the perpetrators of the crime. We already know that they will determine that they did nothing wrong. We know this because the coalition governments always find that their pilots did nothing wrong, and if that weren’t enough the Saudi king offers blanket pardons for any crimes that his forces might commit in Yemen. Coalition forces know that they won’t be punished by their own governments if they commit crimes against Yemeni civilians, and their governments know that Washington won’t penalize them, either. The Trump administration can’t even muster pro forma condemnation of the senseless slaughter of schoolchildren, so they certainly have no intention of pressuring the coalition to scale back its bombing campaign.

The Saudis and their allies have strenuously opposed independent, international investigations into war crimes committed by all sides for years. They know that an independent inquiry would expose them as serial violators of international law. The administration feigns concern about these violations, but does nothing to hold the coalition governments accountable for their crimes because our government is complicit in the commission of those crimes. That leaves it up to Congress and the public to challenge and end our indefensible policy in Yemen.

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The Aftermath of the Latest Saudi Coalition Massacre

The Washington Post reports on the airstrike that destroyed a school bus in a crowded market in the north of Yemen today:

“Body parts were scattered all over the area, and the sounds of moaning and crying were everywhere,” said Hassan Muwlef, executive director of the Red Crescent office in Saada, who arrived an hour after the attack on Thursday morning. “The school bus was totally burned and destroyed.”

Bodies were burned beyond recognition while many of the injured were riddled with shrapnel, he added.

Fatik Al-Rodaini of the charity Mona Relief posted photos from the site of the attack:

The Saudi coalition stated that they consider the attack on the market and school bus to be a “legitimate military action,” but nothing can justify attacking a crowded marketplace and a school bus. The coalition has skipped its usual denials of responsibility and gone straight to rationalizing the massacre of schoolchildren. The coalition’s irrelevant excuse is that they were supposedly targeting missile launchers involved in attacks on Saudi territory, but that appears to be false:

But others disputed that the area of Thursday’s attack posed a military threat.

“I am really shocked because there is no military base or troops in that area,” said Muwlef. “Why would they carry out such an action?”

It has been obvious from the start of the Saudi-led intervention that the coalition ignores and flouts international law in Yemen, and this is just one of the more egregious examples of how they wantonly commit war crimes while pretending that they have done nothing wrong. The U.S. has aided and abetted them in these crimes for more than three years.

The New York Times also reported on the attack. The children were going on a summer trip:

The attack, in a busy market area, hit a bus carrying students on a recreational trip with a Quran memorization program. It killed at least 43 people and wounded 63, according to Muhammad Hajar, an official in charge of emergency services for the Health Ministry. He said the final toll could be higher because rescue operations were ongoing.

The war already takes a devastating toll on Yemen’s children. A Yemeni child dies every ten minutes from preventable causes of starvation and disease. These Yemeni children were murdered and maimed in a senseless attack. How many more Yemeni schoolchildren will the Saudi coalition have to blow up before Congress acts to put a stop to U.S. support for these atrocities?

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