Home/Daniel Larison

A Failed Secretary of State

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

Jackson Diehl comments on Mike Pompeo’s terrible performance during the coronavirus crisis:

Has any secretary of state been worse in an emergency? It’s impossible to think of a more feckless performance since World War II. Pompeo’s dreadful week followed a month in which he has been all but invisible on the coronavirus issue, apart from one appearance at Trump’s daily press conference-cum-reality show.

While more responsible leaders have struggled to contain the pandemic, Pompeo has pursued pet causes as if nothing else were happening. That’s especially true of the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, which he, more than any other official, has promoted.

Pompeo was doing an abysmal job as Secretary of State in better times, so it comes as no surprise that he is doing even worse now that more is expected of him. His tenure has been defined by issuing lots of unrealistic ultimatums and flinging lots of undiplomatic insults. Neither of those is useful or constructive, especially in an emergency like this one. Pompeo’s main contribution to the administration’s response to the outbreak has been to troll Iran and China in public in a desperate bid to distract attention from the president’s bungling. Behind the scenes, he has been one of the leading officials agitating for military escalation in Iraq. In the ghoulish opposition to sanctions relief for the Iranian people, Pompeo has been the chief ghoul.

Pompeo’s poor management of the department has also been on display in the response to the outbreak:

Frustration with State’s handling of the issue is growing both internally and externally.

Lawmakers and staffers are raising questions about why Pompeo has not been more up front about his workforce’s cases of the virus, while also expressing concerns about a lack of uniform guidance from Pompeo on how employees should adjust their work habits.

The department “has not put forth a coordinated, robust response, which I fear puts the health of its own employees at further risk, and further jeopardizes the health and well-being of the American people,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter to Pompeo dated Monday.

On top of that, Americans that find themselves stranded in other countries have struggled to get the help they need from U.S. embassies and consulates:

American citizens abroad aren’t getting the support they need from U.S. embassies and consulates as they scramble to return home amid the global coronavirus outbreak, a group of Democratic lawmakers says, raising new questions about the State Department’s handling of the pandemic that has shaken worldwide trade and ground most international travel to a standstill.

While Americans stuck overseas seek his department’s help, Pompeo is more concerned with poking other governments in the eye and trying to start a war with Iran.

The Secretary’s sabotage of the G7’s joint statement because the other governments refused to use Pompeo’s preferred “Wuhan virus” language is a good example in miniature of his ineptitude as a diplomat. Instead of setting aside his rhetorical jab, he made sure that it prevented this group of U.S. allies from reaching agreement. The only thing that seems to interest Pompeo is in affixing blame to and scoring points against other states, and he would rather do that than doing the work and making the compromises that real diplomacy requires. Diplomatic failure and sabre-rattling have been the hallmarks of Pompeo’s time running the State Department, and he has responded to the pandemic by doing more of the same. Diehl concludes:

That doesn’t change how this secretary of state will be regarded by history: Pompeo’s pandemic performance will ensure his place among the worst ever.

That is what comes of putting an obviously unqualified and highly partisan hack in such an important position. The Senate should never again confirm someone so unsuited to the job to serve as Secretary of State.

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Escalation in Iraq Would Be Insane

Top Trump administration officials continue to agitate for escalation in Iraq against Kata’ib Hezbollah and other Iraqi militias supported by Iran:

Some top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, have been pushing for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces — and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country.

Trying to destroy these groups would be folly under normal circumstances, and doing it while the pandemic is still spreading is insane. The last thing that the U.S. needs right now is an escalating conflict in Iraq. Escalation in Iraq would require a significant increase in the number of U.S. troops there, and it would also mean waging open war on armed groups that are part of Iraq’s own security forces. This is not a fight that the U.S. could realistically win. Even at the height of the U.S. occupation in the 2000s, U.S. forces were not able to eliminate Iraqi militia groups, and there is no chance of doing it now. Even if the U.S. managed to inflict considerable damage on these groups in the short term, the damage to the relationship with the Iraqi government would be extensive and very likely permanent.

The Iraqi government naturally doesn’t want their country to be turned into a battlefield once again because of the anti-Iranian obsession of U.S. officials. There is no conceivable U.S. interest that is served by escalating a conflict with Iraqi militias. The only reason that U.S. troops are in any danger from these groups is the administration’s refusal to withdraw from Iraq as their government has insisted. The U.S. would be going to war in Iraq for the sake of keeping troops in Iraq indefinitely over the objections of the Iraqi government, which is one of the dumbest reasons for escalation imaginable. Needless to say, the president has absolutely no authority to launch such a campaign, but that hasn’t stopped him from ordering illegal attacks before.

According to the latest report, military commanders in Iraq have been ordered to draw up plans for escalation against the militia, and that has led to unusually strong pushback from the top U.S. commander in Iraq:

The Pentagon has ordered military commanders to plan for an escalation of American combat in Iraq, issuing a directive last week to prepare a campaign to destroy an Iranian-backed militia group that has threatened more attacks against American troops.

But the United States’ top commander in Iraq has warned that such a campaign could be bloody and counterproductive and risks war with Iran. In a blunt memo last week, the commander, Lt. Gen. Robert P. White, wrote that a new military campaign would also require thousands more American troops be sent to Iraq and divert resources from what has been the primary American military mission there: training Iraqi troops to combat the Islamic State.

Among other things, U.S. escalation against these militias would be a gift to Iran. Like every other deluded hawkish policy in this part of the world, it would drive Iraq closer to Iran out of necessity. I can’t believe that it has to be said, but escalation against Iraqi militias will not make the Iraqi government more hostile to Iran. Obviously, a U.S. campaign that seeks to kill many of the same people that defended the country against ISIS will result in deeper hostility towards the U.S. from both the government and most of the population. The more force that the U.S. uses in Iraq to “weaken” Iranian influence, the weaker the U.S. position in Iraq will become.

This section of the report might be the understatement of the year:

The memo also pointed out that such a campaign might run afoul of the current agreement with the Iraqi government that allows American troops to operate in the country.

There is no question that launching a major campaign with the goal of killing tens of thousands of Iraqis would “run afoul” of any agreement with Baghdad, because it would amount to launching illegal attacks on Iraqi citizens on their own soil. The only legal fig leaf that U.S. troops have for operating in Iraq is the permission of the local government, and the government has already told the U.S. to leave. Killing Soleimani didn’t make U.S. troops safer, and launching a larger campaign will get many of them killed for nothing. The U.S. should be hastening the withdrawal of all forces rather than looking for new excuses to escalate.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Collective punishment has always been Iran hawks’ stated goal. Eli Clifton reminds us that attacking the Iranian people has always been the purpose of the economic war.

The worst intelligence failure in U.S. history. Micah Zenko considers who is responsible for the coronavirus debacle in the U.S.

How Trump sanctions on Iran will worsen the pandemic. Mahsa Rouhi and Narges Bajoghli explain why “maximum pressure” makes it harder for Iranians to combat coronavirus.

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Farewell to Sanctions

Asli U. Bâli and Aziz Rana make the case the U.S. must end the use of sweeping unilateral sanctions against other countries:

In a world imperiled by global pandemic, it is long past time to end these broad sanctions regimes and to reconstruct U.S. foreign policy on lines grounded instead in international solidarity. The latter is impossible without doing the former.

To begin with, this means stopping entirely the use of sanctions as a weapon of mass immiseration against American rivals and adversaries. Broad unilateral embargoes—including secondary sanctions—that weaponize U.S. primacy and cut countries off from the global financial system must be repudiated. They are expressions of an imperial conception of foreign policy, whether aimed at inducing regime change in Iran and Venezuela or at coercing compliance more generally with national security dictates. If the United States wants to make the case that certain far more limited sanctions—such as weapons embargoes of belligerent actors targeting civilians—serve important global ends, then it should do so only by engaging in the hard work of multilateral diplomacy, rather than leveraging its global financial primacy to force participation.

Our economic wars against several countries were already cruel and iniquitous before the pandemic began, and now the pandemic has made the human costs of these wars much more obvious and harder for sanctions advocates to deny. That hasn’t stopped sanctions advocates from trying to dodge responsibility for causing more misery and death in the targeted countries, but their arguments are becoming ever more strained and desperate. We are witnessing how economic warfare saps another country’s resources and weakens their ability to withstand unexpected disasters, and in the event of a pandemic like the one that is happening now weakening their resistance to the spread of a deadly virus also exposes their neighbors and the wider world to greater risk as well. The drive to isolate and punish certain states has the potential not only to cause massive suffering and loss of life in the targeted countries, but it can also endanger many other countries.

Economic warfare isn’t just an abhorrent and immoral policy, but right now it also represents a threat to global health and safety as well. Depriving Iran of the essential resources and equipment they need to cope with the outbreak will harm and kill a lot of Iranians, but it will also spill over into other countries. That is why Pakistan’s prime minister recently called for the lifting of U.S. sanctions, and there is already evidence that the outbreak is spilling over into Afghanistan as Afghan refugees return home:

Afghanistan has already imported its epidemic. And each day it adds to it, as thousands more displaced Afghans continue to flow across the border from Iran, which has reported among the world’s highest numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths.

The returnees, some surely infected with the coronavirus when in Iran, cluster shoulder to shoulder in massive crowds on both sides of the crossing, where toilet facilities are primitive and soap and potable water are scarce.

Later, they climb aboard overloaded taxis, buses and minivans for the two-hour trip to Herat city, the sprawling and crowded hub of western Afghanistan, where they sleep in packed hostels and cramped rooms behind restaurants.

As Bâli and Rana point out, U.S. “maximum pressure” campaigns aren’t just attempts to coerce the targeted states to comply with maximalist demands, but they also seek to compel all other states to participate in the pressure campaign whether they agree with its goals or not:

Abroad, the consequences for internal democratic norms and deliberative health are even more severe. Secondary sanctions compel other states to carry out the whims of U.S. officials, regardless of whether the citizens and leaders of those states actually oppose the policy. In the Iran context, some U.S. officials such as Pompeo may actually view rising infection rates and health care breakdown as the intended effect, something helpful in promoting regime change. But for countries in the Middle East and Europe, being forced against their wills to participate in such a scheme—even if it spreads illness to their communities and causes mass death everywhere—is not just inhumane. It makes fundamentally hollow any ideal of a global order premised on local self-government and autonomy, in which publics assert control over basic questions of life and death—their own as well as those of others abroad affected by their actions.

There is an inevitable contradiction between the U.S. acting unilaterally as an enforcer and an international system in which all states are expected to abide by the same rules. The U.S. has been able to get away with this contradiction for the last few decades because most of its allies trusted that the U.S. would use its extraordinary clout in constructive ways, but especially in the last few years they have begun to see how the U.S. can abuse its position to everyone’s detriment. It is dawning on our allies that the U.S. cannot be counted on to use its enormous power responsibly, and they are realizing that the U.S. is increasingly behaving more like a rogue state.

Van Jackson talked about the failings of sanctions regimes recently:

Sanctions are fairly ineffective most of the time anyway. They have symbolic power, they’re statements…ironically they’re usually statements of moral authority, especially in the case of North Korea, but in this case and in any case where you’re dealing with a regime…Iran and North Korea are the most acute cases that I can think of where trying to apply “maximum pressure” sanctions on regimes who have fairly brutal, quasi-totalitarian holds on power…is that your sanctions regime creates all kinds of risks just on a normal basis that you’re going to push the regime leadership int a corner and then they’ll lash out. You’re taking a big risk when you do that. And the U.S. generally seems to be fine with that risk. I’m not, but most policymakers seem to be okay with that risk, because it means that [the other government] would have started it….So now the pandemic itself is creating this great strategic opportunity to pivot to regain moral authority, to reduce human suffering, and literally yesterday…Pompeo announced new sanctions on Iran. So midstream of the pandemic…he announced new sanctions! New sanctions!

An Iranian human rights activist, Hadi Ghaemi, is the latest to implore the U.S. to lift sanctions in response to the outbreak:

We can spend months deliberating over what this repressive government has brought on itself and what it deserves. But during that time, many more people will die in Iran, and the virus will continue to spread. This collective punishment of the Iranian people will only endanger our own efforts by letting the epidemic spread beyond its borders.

Humanitarian disasters should be an occasion for showing solidarity with the people suffering in other countries. That is especially true in this case when all countries are confronting the same threat. It should not be the time for exploiting the disaster to pursue a longstanding vendetta or a misguided goal of regime change.

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The Ghoulish Opposition to Sanctions Relief for Iran

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

The Wall Street Journal predictably rejects sanctions relief for Iran, but it is worth noting that they have to tell a lot of lies to make their argument:

Easing sanctions would shore up the regime’s shaky position without providing relief to the Iranian people. Tehran has money for medicine if it cuts spending on missiles, nuclear-weapons development and military adventurism. Diverting billions from the mullahs’ violent imperial project is the best way to relieve suffering in Iran and the broader Middle East.

Iran is not engaged in “nuclear-weapons development” and hasn’t been for more than a decade and a half, so we can dismiss that as the utter nonsense that it is. The rest of the editorial is just as divorced from reality. The one thing that the editorial gets right is when it says that the “sanctions campaign has starved the government of hundreds of billions of dollars.” Starving the government of all that revenue means that it has fewer resources to combat the current outbreak. Unlike non-sanctioned governments, Iran’s government cannot afford to undertake the costly measures needed to safeguard public health. Mahsa Rouhi and Narges Bajoghli explain this in their recent op-ed:

At the same time, the American sanctions and falling oil prices have severely weakened the Iranian economy. An impoverished Iran needs financial and medical resources — from food and medicine to cash transfers — to carry out an effective nationwide quarantine and other measures to curb the outbreak.

Iran can’t afford to halt its economy and enforce a complete lockdown. Tehran has sought to shore up the financial security of its poorest families through cash transfers over the past week but faces a huge budget deficit. Pirouz Hanachi, the mayor of Tehran, explained that a quarantine was nearly impossible to enforce because the government would be unable to financially support people unable to work.

Hard-liners in the U.S. take great pleasure in the economic damage and dislocation that their sanctions have caused, but as soon as someone tries to hold them accountable for inflicting misery and death on Iranians they suddenly start pretending that sanctions are harmless and irrelevant to conditions inside Iran. They are quick to declare that “maximum pressure” is “working” because of the havoc that sanctions wreak on Iran’s finances, but they don’t want to be held responsible when that havoc results in the preventable deaths of innocents. It is indisputable that U.S. sanctions block Iranians from making transactions with the rest of the world because financial institutions refuse to do business with them, and that prevents them from being able to obtain vital medicine and medical equipment. Sanctions are collective punishment that hurt the weakest and most vulnerable people in Iran, but sanctions advocates don’t want to own the consequences of the economic war that they fanatically defend.

The WSJ editors refer to $16 billion that Iran has spent since 2012 on its support for armed groups and proxies around the region. That leaves a much larger sum from earlier sanctions relief that Iran used for other purposes. According to the testimony of our own officials, Iran used most of the so-called “windfall” from post-JCPOA sanctions relief on domestic social spending:

“Now as part of the deal, Iran is bringing back some of that money. But the overwhelming majority of that money is going into their economy which is in dire straits. It’s not going to the military,” Blinken said.

Even under the reimposed sanctions, Iran increased domestic subsidies according to none other than The Wall Street Journal. It is important to get the history on this right because it directly bears on how the Iranian government is likely to use money gained from sanctions relief now. The Iranian government is always going to spend a certain amount of its budget on its military defenses and support for proxies, but it is a serious mistake to assume that most or all sanctions relief has been or will be used this way. It suits the simplistic, ideological caricature of Iran that hard-liners have to claim that all sanctions relief goes only toward “malign activities,” but that is not how Iran has used sanctions relief in the past and it is not how they are likely to use it in the future.

The WSJ editors also disingenuously claim that humanitarian goods are exempted, but we know that isn’t true in practice. Rouhi and Bajoghli continue:

The Trump administration claims that its sanctions do not hinder medicine and humanitarian trade. But since the sanctions prevent international financial transactions and shipping, any trade, including that of medicines and medical equipment, is almost impossible. Several companies that supply the medical equipment required to fight coronavirus have stopped shipping to Iran because their banks refuse to handle the transactions.

The sanctions harm the entire population, and they are designed to do just that. It is pure sophistry to claim that sanctions relief wouldn’t help the Iranian people when the people have so clearly suffered because of them.

The Trump administration has gone out of its way for years to make humanitarian channels as difficult to use as possible, and even now the limited Swiss channel is inadequate for Iran’s needs in the middle of the pandemic. Iran hawks know all of this, and in their more unguarded moments they exult in the horrors they have unleashed on the Iranian people, so no one should take their protestations seriously when they argue for keeping murderous sanctions in place. Given their evident delight in starving Iran of resources while it struggles against the pandemic, Iran hawks might be more appropriately called Iran ghouls.

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Don’t Forget Yemen

As the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the U.S.-backed war on Yemen approaches, Shireen al-Adeimi sounds the alarm about the what the spread of coronavirus would mean for the country if it comes there:

If coronavirus were to be detected in Yemen, the country experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis would face challenges above and beyond any other nation in the world today. Simply put, it would spell complete destruction to a population that is already dying, starving, facing illness, and being terrorized by five years of U.S. and Saudi bombings.

In addition to there not being enough coronavirus reagents in Yemen—which are crucial to testing the disease—Dr. Jumaan notes that most of the population lacks access to drinking water: “How can they wash their hands with their scarce water?” she asks, adding that Saudi bombing has targeted water systems in Yemen and there’s not enough fuel to operate water plants that could still be functional.

As for the ability to test and treat any cases of coronavirus, Dr. Jumaan sounds a clear and dire alarm: “They do not have the capacity to test large numbers of people. They don’t have chemicals for disinfectants. Face masks are highly expensive, if available at all. They cannot test or isolate [people]. They do not have equipment. They do not have ventilators. There’s nothing that they have to even make them deal with this at 10% capacity.”

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has been the worst in the world for years, and tens of millions of lives were already in jeopardy from famine and preventable disease. Now there is a possibility that the country could also be ravaged by the pandemic that is affecting much of the rest of the world, and if that were to happen the death toll might be staggeringly high. Like other countries that have been suffering from the destructive effects of economic warfare, Yemen has been subjected to years of blockade, inflation, and mass unemployment. In addition to that, Yemenis have been enduring a cholera epidemic fueled by the destruction of sanitation and water treatment facilities by the bombing campaign. Some 18 million people lack access to clean water, and more than three million are displaced from their homes and many live in camps where conditions are very poor. Malnutrition is widespread, and four-fifths of the population relies on humanitarian aid. Even the wealthiest and theoretically best-prepared countries in the world are struggling with this pandemic, and five years of war and humanitarian catastrophe have made Yemen more vulnerable than any other country in the world.

The Saudi coalition bombing campaign remains as indiscriminate as ever. The Yemen Data Project has released its latest findings that a third of all airstrikes carried out by the Saudi coalition have struck civilian targets:

Nearly a third of all Gulf coalition air raids on Yemen have hit civilian targets including hospitals, schools and food stores, new data has revealed, as the war-ravaged country marks the fifth anniversary of the conflict amid the coronavirus crisis.

Attentive readers will remember that this has been the same percentage of strikes hitting civilian targets throughout the entire war. Supporters of the war in the U.S. have long argued that U.S. support and advice were making coalition bombing more precise, but it is clear that the coalition’s pilots have been consistently hitting civilian targets at the same rate anyway. One reason for this is that many of those targets have been bombed deliberately, and sometimes on multiple occasions. The U.S. has been enabling these war crimes for five straight years, and the administration shows no sign of stopping now.

Human Right Watch has also documented evidence of torture and arbitrary detention of Yemenis by the Saudi government in the east of Yemen in the governorate of al-Mahrah:

Saudi military forces and Saudi-backed Yemeni forces have carried out serious abuses against Yemenis since June 2019 in al-Mahrah, Yemen’s far eastern governorate, Human Rights Watch said today. The abuses include arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and illegal transfer of detainees to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi and Saudi-backed forces have arbitrarily arrested demonstrators protesting the presence of Saudi forces, as well as other local residents not connected with the protests, in al-Mahrah’s capital al-Ghaydah, residents told Human Rights Watch. Former detainees said that they were accused of supporting opponents of Saudi Arabia, interrogated, and tortured at an informal detention facility at the city’s airport in which Saudi officers supervise pro-Saudi Yemeni forces. Detainees’ families said that Saudi forces forcibly disappeared at least five detainees for three to five months while illegally transferring them to Saudi Arabia and not providing information on their whereabouts.

Many Yemenis have suffered similar abuse over the years from the coalition’s occupying forces and their proxies. Dozens of Yemenis were detained and tortured in secret UAE-run prisons in south Yemen, and now the Saudi government is “disappearing” and torturing Yemenis that peacefully oppose their military presence. These Yemenis have no government to speak for them because the so-called “legitimate” Yemeni government sits in Riyadh and toes the coalition line, so it is left to activists and journalists to call attention to their plight. These horrific abuses of innocent people will continue as long as the Saudis and their allies know that they can act with impunity in Yemen, and they will assume that they can get away with anything until their Western patrons call them to account for their many outrages.

The very least that the U.S. can do at this time is to stop participating in the destruction of Yemen and to press the Saudi coalition to withdraw from Yemen and observe a ceasefire.

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Trump’s Irresponsible Rhetoric Is a Menace to Public Health

The response from medical experts to the president’s irresponsible rhetoric this week about “reopening” the country has been overwhelmingly negative:

“That is exactly the wrong thing to do,” Dr. Howard Markel, a noted medical historian at the University of Michigan, wrote NPR in an email. “Cases would go up and so would deaths…we now need to stay the course!”

The president is promoting false hope that things can get back more or less to where they were in just a few weeks. His statement that he wants the country to be “opened up and just raring to go by Easter” is either one of the most delusional things he has ever said or one of the most cynical, because there is absolutely no chance of this. The worst of the outbreak is still to come in every state, and there is no question of letting our guard down so early. To adapt a Churchill quote, this is not even the beginning of the beginning, and Trump already wants to throw in the towel.

It is reckless, wrong, and if any state and local governments follow the president’s lead on this it will be fatal for many people. We are fortunate that we have a federal system that entrusts many of the most important decisions to state and local officials, because if it were up to this president we would be in much greater danger. Trump is offering the country a false choice between getting the outbreak under control and economic growth. There won’t be anything like normal economic activity as long as the pandemic spreads across the country, and thanks to the government’s early failures we are not remotely close to contemplating a loosening of restrictions. Until there is widespread testing that can identify where the virus is spreading, it is premature in the extreme to talk about reducing restrictions designed to limit that spread.

Perhaps if the U.S. had gotten a handle on the problem from the start as South Korea did, it would be a different story, but we didn’t. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. has to suffer the worst-case scenario of economic cataclysm, but averting that outcome depends on swift and extraordinary efforts by the federal government to support workers and businesses until the crisis has passed. That will mean appropriating trillions of dollars to support the economy until normal business can resume. The government needs to act as a guarantor of last resort to keep people afloat in the midst of this disaster. Another part of the federal government’s role is mobilizing factories to produce the essential protective equipment and ventilators that hospitals all over the country desperately need and currently lack. Trump’s failure here is manifold: he is not pushing for the critical relief that people need to make it through the current shutdown, he is failing to use the emergency authority that he possesses to mobilize production of vital equipment, and he is undermining the campaign to bring the outbreak under control with his deranged happy talk about everything being over by Easter.

It needs to be emphasized that the president’s irresponsible rhetoric this week is absolutely wrong and harmful. A CNBC report quotes another expert:

Medical experts quickly recoiled at Trump’s suggestion that Americans could gather en masse amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“Obviously Trump is not rooted in reality,” said Dr. Tina Tan, a board member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and a staff member at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

“This is the making of a major public health disaster. I am not sure where he is getting his information from, but it is extremely flawed,” Tan said.

The specialists quoted in The New York Times’ report were even more blunt:

But if people are told they can head back to work, commuting by bus or subway while thousands of new infections are confirmed each day, “the virus will surge, many will fall ill and there will be more deaths,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a preventive medicine expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Amir Attaran, a professor of law and medicine at the University of Ottawa, was even more pessimistic. “Nobody voted in Donald Trump thinking he would become a ‘one-man death panel’ empowered to dispense with American lives like cannon fodder,” he said. “It would be political suicide for him and murder for many others.”

The good news is that many state and local officials are rejecting Trump’s nonsense. Unlike the president, they take their responsibilities of protecting the public seriously, and the repudiation of his message came from governors from both parties:

Governors across the nation on Tuesday rejected President Donald Trump’s new accelerated timeline for reopening the U.S. economy, as they continued to impose more restrictions on travel and public life in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The dismissal of Trump’s mid-April timeframe for a national reopening came from Republicans and Democrats, from leaders struggling to manage hot spots of the outbreak and those still bracing for the worst. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, the head of the National Governors Association and a Republican, called the messaging confusing since most leaders are still focused on enforcing the restrictions, not easing them. He accused the White House of running on a schedule made of some “imaginary clock.”

The quickest way for the U.S. to “get back to work” is to get the spread of the virus under control first. We should consider easing restrictions only when the number of cases has been reduced to almost nothing, and even then we should be cautious in how quickly those restrictions are lifted. In the meantime, the federal government needs to step up and provide relief for American workers and businesses that cannot survive without that support.

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The Extravagant Wastefulness of the Iran Obsession

The USS McCampbell and aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the Persian Gulf. (Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. is deploying a second aircraft carrier to operate in the Arabian Sea ostensibly to “deter” Iran. This puts an enormous strain on the Navy, it doesn’t appear to have any effect, and it leaves the U.S. shorthanded in other, much more important parts of the world:

But some experts and former senior Navy officials warn there is very little evidence that Iran is deterred by the presence of two carriers. Though they do note there’s ample evidence that the naval deployment draws forces away from operations aimed at deterring China and Russia — something on which the U.S. is supposed to focus per its National Defense Strategy. Furthermore, they told Defense News that the payoff for maintaining two carriers in the region may not be worth the stinging toll it exacts on Navy readiness, adding that pursuing such as strategy will reverse the hard-won readiness gains of recent years.

The deployment of these carriers shows how overcommitted the U.S. is in the Middle East, and it illustrates the irrationality of the Iran obsession. Iran is a medium-sized regional state with limited ability to project power. Dedicating a quarter of all active carriers to “deterring” such a minor threat is an extravagant waste of resources and manpower on an unnecessary mission. Doing this also comes at a cost to naval readiness everywhere else. The Navy had just started to recover from the ill effects of the last time that the U.S. had a two-carrier deployment in the region, and now that will be undone:

During the early 2010s, long deployments and regular surge deployments wore out the ships, aircraft and sailors, creating huge readiness gaps that took years to recover from, Clark said, warning that a return to that posture would have significant consequences.

“The carrier schedules are going to be such that they may not be able to make, or take full advantage of, their maintenance periods,” he said. “And then you’re going to see the kind of cascading effects on carrier readiness that will take years to dig out of.

“Really it has only been in the last nine months that the Navy has managed to shake the lasting effects of that readiness troth.”

Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who presided over the readiness shortfalls created by Mattis’ two-carrier requirement, told Defense News in a March 20 interview that pushing for two carriers now means that down the line those carriers won’t be there when perhaps the need is urgent.

“When Mattis was CENTCOM commander, he demanded [two-]carrier presence and got it, and it messed up the carrier rotations for years [bold mine-DL],” Mabus said. “If you go [with a two-carrier presence] now, you are guaranteeing yourself a gap later on.”

That might be an acceptable risk to take if there were a legitimate reason to devote so many ships to this part of the world, but there isn’t one. Iran is not “deterred” by this, and another carrier just gives the IRGC another target:

“And when they are inside the Persian Gulf, the Iranians perceive them as being an easy target. They can range the entire gulf with shore batteries along the coast in caves and other terrain where it’s hard to root them out,” he added. “So the Iranians see the carrier as a way to get the Americans to spend a lot of money on a show of force that doesn’t really impact their strategic calculation.”

A costly and useless show of force that doesn’t affect Iranian government behavior is exactly what you would expect from the Trump administration’s bankrupt Iran policy.

The article quotes John Glaser, who puts the deployment in the context of the administration’s failed maximalism:

For John Glaser, the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, the increased carrier presence is a continuation of a failed policy that is less about some vague sense of deterrence and more about compelling Iran to completely fold its cards and bow to U.S. demands.

“If you’re Iran right now, you are incredibly confused as to what the U.S. administration even wants,” Glaser said. “Trump has repeatedly sent the message that he would like to meet face-to-face with Iran’s leaders and hash out a new deal. At other times, he threatens to flatten the country with bombs. Many other principals in his administration are set on regime change.

“And if you take a look at the only specific set of conditions for relief from maximum pressure [as laid out by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2018], what the U.S. is really trying to do is get Iran to capitulate, to forfeit efforts to build defensive weapons and to effectively stop having a foreign policy.”

Ultimately, the failure to achieve a breakthrough is unlikely to be reversed by increased carrier presence, Glaser added.

“Iran’s response to maximum pressure has so far been to rebuild some of its nuclear infrastructure and to lash out with increased violence in the region,” he said. “The tit-for-tat we have seen is Iran reacting to aggressive U.S. policies, and the U.S. not acknowledging the failure of the approach.

“They always say it’s a problem of ‘not enough deterrence.’ ”

The Middle East matters less to U.S. security than ever before and our government needs to be reducing its military footprint in the region instead of looking for excuses to increase it. The Iran obsession is not just reckless and irrational, but it is also compromising U.S. security elsewhere by tying up a large part of our naval forces in useless deployments.

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Five Years of the U.S.-Backed War on Yemen

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The war has not ended, and the humanitarian crisis created by the war has only grown worse over time. I have to apologize to my readers and to the people of Yemen, because I have not been covering the story in Yemen as regularly as I should have. There have certainly been many other important stories in the first three months of this year, but that is no excuse for ignoring what remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Our government’s role in creating that crisis and prolonging the misery of the people of Yemen cannot be forgotten. Despite the considerable efforts of many activists and members of Congress, illegal U.S. involvement in this war has continued into a new decade. The fault for that lies squarely with the president, who has vetoed Congressional resolutions that would end the shameful U.S. role in wrecking and starving a country whose people have done nothing to us.

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis demands special attention now because the devastation of the health care system and the severely compromised immunity of the population because of malnutrition make them very vulnerable to the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic. We have to hope that the virus does not spread widely in Yemen, because if that should happen it would be fatal for countless innocent people:

“It is a perfect storm of a disaster should this virus introduce itself,” the country’s World Health Organisation (WHO) representative, Altaf Musani, said.

Cholera, dengue, malaria and poor sanitation are rife and around 80% of Yemenis are reliant on humanitarian aid while millions live on the brink of starvation, leaving them vulnerable to other forms of disease.

Over the course of the last five years, the U.S. has aided and abetted some of the worst governments in the world as they have committed thousands of atrocities against the civilian population of Yemen. More than 100,000 people have died in combat, and at least 130,000 more have died from starvation and disease. There have been well over a million cases of cholera in the largest epidemic of that disease in modern times, and more than ten million are on the verge of famine. The wholly man-made crisis in Yemen is to a very large degree the fault of the U.S. policy of unconditional support for the Saudi coalition, and we must stop enabling the starvation and slaughter of innocent people.

Rereading my article for TAC from the summer of 2015, I was struck by this line:

No one with any understanding of local conditions in Yemen thought the intervention would succeed.

Five years on, everyone understands that the intervention has failed, but somehow no one in a position to do anything about it is willing to end it. The Saudi crown prince remains stubbornly committed to a disastrous policy that defines his foreign policy record, and Trump reflexively sides with the Saudis no matter what. The Saudis can no longer afford this war, but their leaders are still too proud to admit that they failed. It is imperative that the U.S. pressure the Saudis to end their intervention once and for all, and Congress needs to keep pressing the Trump administration to that end. Every year that U.S. support for this disgraceful war continues is another year that we have failed to end our government’s role in a horrific humanitarian catastrophe.

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