Daniel Larison

Trump’s Destructive Decision to Embrace Haftar

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Source: МИД России/Flickr

The New York Times reports more on Trump’s sudden about-face in Libya:

The policy reversal came as a surprise in part because Mr. Hifter’s forces also appear to be losing ground. His promises of a quick victory have proved false, and his forces appear outmaneuvered by those aligned against them. Most analysts say that he has little hope of exerting his authority over all of Libya any time soon, so his continued campaign may only prolong the country’s instability.

In the meantime, the battle for Tripoli has now diverted the attention of most of the Libyan militias that had been engaged in combating the fighters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, said Frederic Wehrey, an expert on Libya at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“It is nuts,” Mr. Wehrey said of Mr. Trump’s statement. “Even judging by the hard-nosed American goals of stabilizing the flow of oil and combating terrorism, this is completely shocking.”

The last time Trump endorsed a policy shift in the region as reckless and arbitrary as this one was probably when he decided to back the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, and my guess is that this shift has been made for many of the same bad reasons. Much like the start of the Qatar crisis, Trump appears to be doing whatever the Saudis and UAE want him to do, and he apparently thinks that it has something to do with combating terrorism (probably because that is what the Saudis and UAE have told him). The absurdity of Trump’s position is that the escalation of civil war in Libya relieves pressure on the local ISIS affiliate and undermines current U.S. policy, and Trump’s backing of Haftar contradicts the position that his own officials took less than three weeks ago. The Washington Post also reported on the reversal:

Trump’s call with Hifter “pretty much undermines seven or eight years of U.S. policy,” including during Trump’s first two years, said Ben Fishman, who served as director for Libya at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “Our policy was to support a U.N.-backed peace process.” By describing Hifter as a counterterrorism partner and “someone who would protect the oil fields,” Fishman said, “it sure sounds to me that [Trump] is playing favorites.”

If Haftar had somehow succeeded in taking the capital, Trump’s decision to take his side might at least make sense as a matter of de facto recognition that he was winning, but instead he offers this encouragement after the offensive had already stalled. Embracing Haftar will help to prolong and intensify the conflict, and that in turn will create more refugees, many of whom will likely perish at sea in their attempts to reach Europe. It is possible that other administration officials will try to walk back Trump’s apparent embrace of Haftar, but knowing Bolton and Pompeo they are more likely to go along with it and spin it as much as they can. But there is only so much that they will be able to do to spin a destructive and destabilizing move like this:

“It’s a huge boon to his offensive,” Frederic Wehrey, a Libya expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington said of Mr. Haftar. “For the first time you have this very personal endorsement that elevates Haftar putting him in direct communication with the most powerful leader in the world.”

By encouraging Haftar’s offensive, Trump is giving jihadists a reprieve while he indulges reckless clients in their power play to the detriment of Libya’s people and regional stability.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Radhya Almutawakel. Bernie Sanders profiles the Yemeni human rights activist and co-founder of Mwatana as one of Time‘s 100 Most Influential People.

Saudi Arabia’s true reformers are behind bars. Sam Hamad comments on the detention on trumped-up charges of Saudi activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul.

Iranian bankers fear IRGC terrorism designation dooms vital financial reforms. Maziar Motamedi reports on concerns that the Trump administration’s IRGC designation will prevent Iran from adopting international standards on money laundering and terrorism financing.

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Taking the Wrong Side in Libya

Last week, I pointed out the destabilizing role of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt in backing Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli. It appears that the Trump administration is abandoning its previous opposition to the offensive and backing Haftar against the internationally recognized government:

The Reuters report that Miller mentions was published yesterday, but it didn’t offer an explanation for the U.S. rejection of the proposed resolution calling for a ceasefire:

Russia objects to the British-drafted resolution blaming eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar for the latest flare-up in violence when his Libyan National Army (LNA) advanced to the outskirts of Tripoli earlier this month, diplomats said.

The United States gave no reason for its position on the draft resolution, which would also call on countries with influence over the warring parties to ensure compliance and for unconditional humanitarian aid access in Libya, which has been gripped by anarchy since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.

We may have our explanation for the U.S. position now. Trump appears to be throwing our government’s support behind the man responsible for escalating the fighting in Libya, and it seems that he is doing so at the behest of the UAE and perhaps the Saudis and Egypt as well. When I saw the news about Trump’s call with Haftar, I said:

Mark Leon Goldberg responded:

The administration probably wouldn’t publicize the call with Haftar unless they wanted to show support for him. If the U.S. were still opposed to Haftar’s offensive and if it still supported the government in Tripoli, Trump wouldn’t be having a friendly chat with him and our government wouldn’t be blocking a ceasefire resolution at the U.N. The Trump administration is taking sides in Libya’s civil war, and thanks to the president’s bad judgment our government is taking the wrong side.

If I had to guess, Trump’s newfound support for Haftar is probably based on propaganda from the Saudis and the UAE that he is opposed to jihadists and therefore should be considered a “stabilizing” force in Libya. The reality is that Haftar’s offensive threatens the stability of the entire country:

Libya needs an end to the fighting, and the more support and encouragement Haftar receives from outside governments the less likely it is that the war can be brought to an end.

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Cholera Outbreak Continues to Surge in Yemen

According to Oxfam, the number of cases from the new cholera outbreak in Yemen has continued to surge:

Some 195,000 people are suspected to have contracted the disease so far this year, of which more than 38,000 are in districts that are hard for aid agencies to reach.

If that figure is correct, the number of cholera cases has jumped by more than 80,000 in less than a month. When I wrote about the outbreak in late March, the number was 110,000. In a couple of weeks at the current rate, it will be twice that. The threat to the civilian population in Yemen is real and rapidly growing, and the need for a halt to the fighting and unimpeded humanitarian aid is extremely urgent.

Almost 18 million Yemenis are without access to clean water and sanitation. That is more than half the population of the entire country. Almost as many are also malnourished and starving. Between the breakdown in sanitation from the bombing of treatment plants and non-payment of salaries for sanitation workers, the extensive destruction of health care facilities, the fuel shortage that prevents the pumping of clean drinking water, and the ongoing starvation of millions of people, the conditions are ripe for another explosion of cholera that could claim thousands more lives. Young children are among the most likely to be at risk, and children under the age of 5 make up a quarter of new cases. It shouldn’t be possible for a treatable, preventable disease like this one to flourish in the modern world year after year, but the warring parties including the Saudi coalition and the U.S. have so devastated Yemen’s infrastructure and economy that innocent civilians in the hundreds of thousands and potentially in the millions are still in danger of being infected with cholera.

Oxfam issued a new report on the cholera outbreak today, and they warn that if the outbreak keeps spreading at its current rate it will be even worse at its height than the one in 2017:

Oxfam has calculated that if suspected new cases continue to be identified at current rates for the rest of the year, this spike in the outbreak will exceed that of 2017.

Muhsin Siddiquey, Oxfam’s Yemen Country Director, said: “The people of Yemen have already endured the worst cholera outbreak in history, amid more than four years of war and the collapse of the country’s economy.

“Unfortunately instead of siding with Yemeni people demanding peace and struggling to survive, the Trump administration this week doubled down on its support for one side of this conflict. This war is causing disease, hunger, and death, and its keeping us from reaching some of those in most risk and need. The international community urgently needs to ensure safe, secure and unimpeded access for humanitarian aid for all people in need across the country.”

Oxfam and other aid agencies are doing all they can to combat Yemen’s multiple, overlapping humanitarian crises, and their work is saving many lives, but aid alone will not be enough to end these crises. Yemen needs peace, an end to the Saudi coalition’s economic war and blockade, and a concerted international effort to stabilize and revive the country’s battered economy. The U.S. and the rest of the world are still failing the people of Yemen, whose country we have helped to wreck over the last four years. That has to start changing, or many more tens of thousands of Yemenis will die from preventable causes.

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Trump’s Self-Destructive Infatuation with the Saudis

President Trump and his good friends the Saudis (White House photo)

The Washington Post reports on Trump’s shameful Yemen veto:

Trump viewed the Yemen vote as a rebuke of his administration after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and urged some senators not to go along with it, according to White House and congressional aides.

There is no denying that Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the hands of Saudi agents on the crown prince’s orders contributed to the success of the antiwar resolution. Following the murder, there was an increase in critical media coverage of everything related to the Saudis, and the much-neglected war on Yemen received more attention than it had in the past. It was unfortunate that it took so long and that it required such a gruesome act to shock people into paying attention, but it was better late than never. That must have helped to make more Americans aware of what the Saudi coalition had been doing with U.S. support for more than three years at that point. It’s also true that Trump’s discrediting attempts to cover up for Mohammed bin Salman undermined the administration’s claims about Yemen. Members of Congress that were horrified by Khashoggi’s murder were presumably not impressed by reassurances on Yemen from the same people that were carrying the crown prince’s water in both cases.

If administration officials were prepared to obfuscate and run interference for the Saudis about the one crime, that gave members of Congress another reason to assume that they were doing the same with regard to the many thousands of Saudi coalition crimes in Yemen. It was only natural that there would be more support for taking steps to penalize Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s murder became public knowledge, and Trump handled the intensified criticism of the Saudis so poorly that he encouraged an even larger backlash. The passage of the antiwar resolution was first and foremost a matter of reclaiming Congress’ role in matters of war and challenging the administration over its despicable Yemen policy, but there is no question that it was also a rebuke of Trump’s overall handling of the relationship with the Saudis because he richly deserved to be rebuked for that. Trump’s full embrace of Saudi leaders and his constant whitewashing of Saudi crimes made it clear that Congress would have to act to rein the Saudis and their allies in, and with his shameful veto of the resolution Trump just proved his critics’ point better than they ever could. The more that Trump tries to shield the Saudis from the consequences of their actions, the worse it will get for him and the Saudis in Congress and with the public.

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The Shameful Yemen Veto and Trump’s Foreign Policy

Michael Hogue

Trump had the gall to cite his supposed opposition to “endless wars” in his statement explaining his shameful Yemen veto:

As I said in my State of the Union address in February, great nations do not fight endless wars. My Administration is currently accelerating negotiations to end our military engagement in Afghanistan and drawing down troops in Syria, where we recently succeeded in eliminating 100 percent of the ISIS caliphate. Congressional engagement in those endeavors would be far more productive than expending time and effort trying to enact this unnecessary and dangerous resolution that interferes with our foreign policy with respect to Yemen.

If Trump follows through on ending these other wars, there is nothing for Congress to do. The only reason there would need to be “engagement” from Congress is if he chooses to prolong them. I don’t believe for a second that Trump actually wants Rep. Ro Khanna and Sen. Bernie Sanders to focus on the illegality of our ongoing military presence in Syria, and if they were able to get houses to pass another war powers resolution to force Trump to complete the so-called withdrawal that he ordered last year I wouldn’t be surprised if he vetoed that resolution, too. He brings up these other wars to deflect attention from the fact that he is refusing to end U.S. involvement in the one war that he can end immediately. Trump’s rhetorical opposition to “endless wars” has proven to be nothing more than that. His Yemen veto shows that he will do everything he can to keep an unjust and horrific war going for as long as possible when it is within his power to end U.S. involvement and to try to bring the conflict to an end. There was never any doubt that he would veto the resolution. Now that he has vetoed it, I hope we can dispense with the last of this nonsense that Trump is any kind of non-interventionist or opponent of foreign wars.

As Ishaan Tharoor observes, Trump’s veto gives him full ownership of U.S. support for the war on Yemen. He could have easily done what Congress demanded, and in doing so he would have put significant pressure on the Saudis and Emiratis to halt their campaign. That would have been the right thing to do, and it would have been popular as well. Instead, Trump has fought opponents of the war every step of the way, and during the debate his Congressional allies have used every procedural trick to delay final passage of the antiwar resolution that Trump just vetoed. It is significant that Trump won’t withdraw the U.S. from the one war where the benefit from doing so is most obvious and the costs are practically non-existent. When push comes to shove, Trump always ends up choosing the relatively more hawkish option because he foolishly fetishizes “toughness” and because he has surrounded himself with hard-liners with disastrous effect. He would rather act as the Saudis’ yes-man and the errand boy of weapons manufacturers instead of doing what is in the best interests of both the United States and Yemen, and that will be one of his main foreign policy legacies.

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The Illegal and Immoral War on Yemen

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

The Wall Street Journal predictably defends Trump’s shameful Yemen veto:

His veto of a congressional demand that the U.S. withdraw support from the Saudis in their war in Yemen keeps responsibility for foreign policy in the White House, where it belongs.

The WSJ‘s framing of the issue is misleading as always. The question is not whether the president should be responsible for conducting foreign policy, but whether the executive is allowed to involve the U.S. in a foreign war without Congressional approval. The Constitution clearly assigns responsibility for that decision to Congress. The president is not allowed to involve the U.S. in foreign wars on his own. Congress has reasserted its role in matters of war and decisively answered that the executive is not allowed to do that and must stop at once. Even the otherwise reliably pro-war David French has acknowledged that there is no question that U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen is unconstitutional:

It’s now official: The president who ran for office pledging to reduce military entanglements abroad is involving American forces in a foreign war in direct defiance of the plain language of the Constitution.

The foreign war in question also happens to be morally indefensible and a failure on its own terms, but the fact is that it would still be illegal for the U.S. to be involved in the war if those things weren’t true. The U.S. has been enabling war crimes and crimes against humanity in support of a war of aggression against a country that has done nothing to us and poses no threat to us. These are all very good reasons why support for the war on Yemen should be terminated regardless of its legality, but that support is also in violation of the Constitution. It takes extraordinary gall for the WSJ editors to invoke the wisdom of the Founders in their blatant attempt to subvert the clear meaning of the Constitution, but that is to be expected. The president does not have the authority to start or join wars at will, and in the absence of Congressional authorization he is acting illegally when he involves the U.S. in a foreign war. U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen is illegal and unconstitutional, and one way or another Congress and the public will bring it to an end.

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Trump’s Sanctions Kill Iranian Reforms

Iran President Rouhani and U.S. President Trump. Drop of Light/Shutterstock and Office of President of Russia.   

Rohollah Faghihi reports on the damage that Trump administration decisions have done to the political fortunes of Iranian moderates and reformists and their agenda. One of the practical effects of designating the IRGC as terrorists has been to reduce the chances that Iran will adopt international standards on money laundering and terrorism financing:

Another impact of the IRGC’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization is the deterioration of prospects for the passage of bills designed to counter money laundering and terrorism financing.This legislation was submitted by the government to parliament in order to permanently exit the blacklist of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental organization created in 1989 that combats money laundering and terrorism financing. Accession to the UN Palermo Convention against transnational organized crime as well as becoming part of what is termed Combating the Financing of Terrorism has been stalled for months, with the bills stuck in the Expediency Council, which mediates disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council. The dispute has pitted the Rouhani administration against mainly hard-liners.

“The US action will enhance and strengthen the position of Expediency Council members regarding the FATF [bills] and the likelihood of rejecting them has increased,” said Gholam-Reza Mesbahi Moghaddam, a member of the Expediency Council, on April 8.

Applying an overly broad and inappropriate designation to the IRGC has just made it more difficult for supporters of the anti-money laundering legislation to get their bills passed. The administration’s heavy-handed misuse of the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) list is actually harming efforts to combat the financing of terrorism. Instead of encouraging Iran to crack down on money laundering and terrorism financing, the Trump administration just handed the opponents of these measures a propaganda coup and most likely torpedoed the legislation by once again undermining its advocates.

As I have mentioned before, the IRGC designation has not only been a boon to hard-liners generally, but it has forced Iranians from different camps to rally behind the Guards. Faghighi writes:

The outcome of the designation was clear to those living in Iran: it caused citizens to rally around the flag. Indeed, as a direct result of the IRGC’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization, even the most well-known and ardent critics of the military force have thrown their weight behind it.

This was a wholly predictable result, and one that underscores just how absurd the administration’s demands for Iran are. The administration seeks to use economic warfare to turn the population against the regime and its policies abroad, but the effect has been to solidify support for leading regime institutions and to unite opposing factions in common cause against the U.S. Faghihi quotes Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, a reformist figure who has been imprisoned by the regime in the past, as saying this: “Despite all the disagreements over domestic issues, we support our armed forces in unison against the unreasonable foreign enemy.” It is not at all unusual for domestic opponents to come together when they feel that their country is under threat, and the administration’s relentless hostility Iranians has brought this about. By failing to distinguish between the regime and the people and by punishing the entire nation for the actions of a few, the administration has demonstrated that it considers all Iranians as the enemy, and Iranians are responding accordingly. Far from turning Iranians against their government, the administration’s sanctions and threats are giving Iranians of all political stripes a reason to side with their government against unreasonable foreign demands.

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Yemenis Will Pay the Price for Trump’s Veto

Three-year-old Yemeni girl seeking medical help for malnutrition, January 2019. (Voice of America/Screengrab).

The International Rescue Committee issued a statement in response to Trump’s shameful Yemen veto:

This veto by President Trump is morally wrong and strategically wrongheaded. It sets back the hopes for respite for the Yemeni people, and leaves the US upholding a failed strategy. Yemen is at a breaking point with 10 million people on the brink of famine. There are as many as 100 civilian casualties per week, and Yemenis are more likely to be killed at home than in any other structure. Shelling is increasing inside Hodeidah despite the ceasefire, while conflict rages on in the rest of the country, impeding efforts by humanitarians to reach thousands in desperate need. International backers like the US should be shepherding warring parties to peace – not fueling the conflict.

Yemeni men, women and children will pay the price for this veto with their safety and in the worst cases with their lives.

All of the aid organizations involved in providing humanitarian relief in Yemen have been clear and consistent in urging an end to U.S. support for the Saudi coalition. They understand what the consequences for the civilian population will be if the war is not brought to an end, and they can see that the war won’t be stopped as long as the foreign patrons of the warring parties continue providing unconditional support. When Trump vetoed S.J.Res. 7, he was proving yet again that he valued good relations with despotic war criminals more than the lives of the many millions of Yemenis being starved and subjected to the most horrific conditions imaginable.

One of the most disingenuous parts of Trump’s veto statement was the lip service he paid to reaching a negotiated settlement in Yemen:

We cannot end the conflict in Yemen through political documents like S.J. Res. 7. Peace in Yemen requires a negotiated settlement.

Without “political documents” like S.J.Res. 7, there is no chance of a negotiated settlement. The Saudis and Emiratis won’t agree to such a settlement unless they believe they are risking their relationship with the U.S. by refusing it, and as long as Trump keeps covering for them and bailing them out they will keep fighting. Just as Congressional pressure has aided the cause of diplomacy in Yemen, the president’s veto of the antiwar resolution will only encourage the Saudis and Emiratis in their belief that they can act with impunity and don’t have to worry about losing U.S. backing for their war. Passing S.J.Res. 7 was not going to end the war by itself, but it was a necessary first step to bringing the end of the war closer. Trump’s veto has dashed that hope for now, and Congress will have to find other ways to cut off support for the Saudi coalition. In the meantime, more Yemenis will suffer and die needlessly because Trump refused to heed the will of the American people expressed through our representatives in Congress.

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A Weak Defense for an Indefensible Veto

The full White House statement on Trump’s shameful Yemen veto is full of the usual obfuscations and lies that the administration has used to defend involvement in the war for the last two years:

This joint resolution is unnecessary because, apart from counterterrorism operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS, the United States is not engaged in hostilities in or affecting Yemen.

As long as the U.S. is providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi coalition, deploying troops to the Saudi border with Yemen, and assisting in the enforcement of the naval blockade, it is a party to the conflict and engaged in hostilities.When the president and other officials claim otherwise, they are not telling the truth. The administration very much wants to have things both ways. On the one hand, they will say that the U.S. isn’t a party to the conflict and therefore the resolution isn’t needed, but then they’ll insist that U.S. involvement in the conflict must continue for the sake of the Saudi relationship, weapons sales, and so on. Supporters of the war are desperate to claim at the same time that U.S. involvement is so meager that it doesn’t amount to hostilities but also so vitally important that it must not be ended. Of course, if the U.S. role were really as small as they sometimes claim, there would be no danger in ending it, and if it is as significant as they say at other times it is absolutely appropriate for Congress to shut it down because Congress never authorized it.

Much of the rest of the statement is the same tedious propaganda they have been reciting for years:

The joint resolution would also harm the foreign policy of the United States. Its efforts to curtail certain forms of military support would harm our bilateral relationships, negatively affect our ongoing efforts to prevent civilian casualties and prevent the spread of terrorist organizations such as al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS, and embolden Iran’s malign activities in Yemen.

The “ongoing efforts to prevent civilian casualties” have been famously unsuccessful because Saudi coalition pilots so frequently attack civilian targets on purpose. If the U.S. is giving them the right advice on how to avoid causing civilian casualties, the coalition forces are either incapable or unwilling to follow it. That means that the U.S. is enabling more civilian casualties by continuing to provide support for the bombing campaign. The Saudi coalition war has strengthened AQAP and the local ISIS affiliate in two ways: it has distracted from and interfered with combating these groups and that has allowed them to become more powerful, and the coalition has taken to arming, recruiting, and funding AQAP members and their allies when it suits them. The Saudis and UAE have been providing known terrorists with access to weapons sold to them by the U.S. and other arms suppliers in violation of the agreements they signed. Continuing to back the war means backing the allies of AQAP. The Saudi coalition governments are not reliable or trustworthy partners, and if curtailing assistance to them damages relations with them in the near term that is not such a great price to pay for ending our complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Trump absurdly claims that aiding and abetting Saudi coalition war crimes has something to do with protecting Americans in Gulf countries, but there would be no threat to those countries if the bombing campaign were halted. The continued bombing of Yemen’s cities and villages is what puts coalition countries at risk of retaliation. Trump’s determination to keep assisting this bombing campaign is what’s truly dangerous.

At one point, Trump unwittingly provides an argument against his own position:

In addition, the conflict in Yemen represents a “cheap” and inexpensive way for Iran to cause trouble for the United States and for our ally, Saudi Arabia.

To the extent that Iran is involved at all, it is the continuation of the war that gives Iran this opportunity to cause trouble. The longer that the U.S. supports the Saudi coalition and keeps the war going, the better things are for Iran. Iran’s involvement in Yemen has always been very limited, but it has increased because of the war and the best way to make sure that it doesn’t continue to increase is to pressure the Saudis and Emiratis to bring the war to an end. Otherwise, the Saudis and the UAE will remain bogged down in a quagmire of their own choosing, and the U.S. will continue to be implicated in their many crimes because of the support Trump refuses to end.

The war on Yemen is indefensible, so it is no surprise that the arguments offered in support of it are always so weak and riddled with falsehoods. Trump’s statement in defense of his indefensible veto is exceptionally weak and dishonest, and members of Congress should treat his message with the contempt it deserves.

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