Saudi Recklessness and the Myth of ‘Withdrawal’

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Hal Brands makes an extremely shaky assertion about recent Saudi recklessness and U.S. involvement in the Middle East:

Much of Saudi Arabia’s recent behavior has been linked to the rise of MBS, who seems driven by a combination of ambition, arrogance and recklessness. Yet it is not a coincidence that Saudi misdeeds have accumulated at a time when the US is widely seen to be drawing down in the Middle East.

The US has backed the Saudis and Emiratis in the war on Yemen from the start. The US has not been “drawing down” in the region, unless one wants to arbitrarily use the height of the Iraq war as the standard by which to measure our level of involvement. It is preposterous to suggest that Saudi misdeeds are the result of a US withdrawal from the region when no such withdrawal has happened, and it is even worse to make this claim when the US is actively aiding the Saudis in the commission of those misdeeds. Brands correctly says that “Saudi conduct since 2015 has been destabilizing in the extreme,” but omits that the US has been an accomplice in the worst of that destabilizing conduct.

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‘Maximum Pressure’ Is a Dead End

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Vali Nasr predicts that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaigns against North Korea and Iran won’t succeed:

What North Korea is looking for is a step-by-step diplomatic process in which the United States offers concessions ranging from a declaration of peace on the Korean Peninsula to the lifting of economic sanctions. Instead, Trump’s national-security team is demanding full denuclearization before offering anything up in return. That looks to be what Washington has in mind for Iran as well.

Faced with this reality, Pyongyang or Tehran could see a benefit in resisting Washington’s pressure strategy.

The main flaw in the Trump administration’s approach to both states is that it pairs maximalist demands that the other side will never accept with “maximum pressure” tactics that depend on broad international support that doesn’t exist. Our government demands things that are politically impossible for any self-respecting government to agree to, and then sets out to punish the other side when it refuses to meet Washington’s absurd expectations.

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Netanyahu’s ‘Nowhere Land’ Blunder

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave another one of his typical U.N. speeches last week in which he accused Iran of having a “secret atomic warehouse”:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel told the United Nations on Thursday that his intelligence agents had discovered a “secret atomic warehouse” in downtown Tehran, escalating a growing confrontation with Iran and setting up a direct challenge to its government to open the facility to inspectors and prove it is not in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran denied the accusation, and Netanyahu’s claim was subjected to widespread ridicule in Iran. The location of the facility that he identified was in a remote village whose name, Torquzabad, called to mind the Farsi expression for “nowhere land,” and the building that he identified as the warehouse is a former carpeting cleaning site. Holly Dagres describes the reaction from Iranians:

A group of young Iranian men wasted no time and visited this so-called nowhere land right after Netanyahu’s speech. “Don’t bother coming here – there’s nothing here,” they laugh in a video popularly shared on social media. Since the video, Iranians are now using the Persian carpet cleaning facility site as an opportunity to post selfies. At least two were featured on the frontpage of Iranian newspapers. Even the Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, weighed-in on the speech on Twitter with the Persian hashtag #Torquzabad and a photo of himself and other high ranking officials laughing.

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Our Immoral and Irrational Yemen Policy

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Nicholas Kristof has written an excellent column attacking U.S. support for the war on Yemen:

The United States is not directly bombing civilians in Yemen, but it is providing arms, intelligence and aerial refueling to assist Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as they hammer Yemen with airstrikes, destroy its economy and starve its people. The Saudi aim is to crush Houthi rebels who have seized Yemen’s capital and are allied with Iran.

That’s sophisticated realpolitik for you: Because we dislike Iran’s ayatollahs, we are willing to starve Yemeni schoolchildren.

It can’t be emphasized enough that US policy in Yemen is both deeply immoral and irrational. Our government is a partner in war crimes and crimes against humanity ostensibly because of an exaggerated fear of Iranian influence, but even if the latter weren’t exaggerated there is no way to justify what is being done to the people of Yemen. US interests are not advanced in the slightest by the coalition’s war, but any limited benefit would be outweighed by the horrifying costs imposed on a country whose people have done nothing to us. Destroying and starving Yemen does nothing to harm Iran (a dubious goal in itself), but it is inflicting massive suffering on tens of millions of people and destabilizing the entire area for years and possibly decades to come. Even if the worst-case scenario is avoided and millions don’t die from famine, widespread malnutrition has already devastated the health and development of an entire generation.

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Trump Pushes His Destructive Iran Policy at the UN

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Aside from being laughed at by the audience, Trump achieved very little in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly today. The president talked a lot about the importance of sovereignty, and then called on the rest of the world to gang up on Iran to infringe on their sovereignty. It is nothing new for hard-liners to treat the sovereignty of their country as sacrosanct at the same time that they routinely violate the sovereignty of other states, but Trump made a point of boasting about this double standard before the entire world.

There was also the usual hypocritical denunciation of Iranian behavior that we have come to expect in these speeches:

“Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death and destruction,” Trump said in his address. “They do not respect their neighbors or borders or the sovereign rights of nations.

Other governments would have more reason to use those descriptions for the behavior of our government in the Middle East over the last thirty years. Iran has pursued destructive policies during the same period, but the same could be said of several U.S. clients as well. Trump refers to Iran’s “agenda of aggression and expansion,” which would much more accurately describe the actions of the Saudis and Emiratis. The president had the gall to praise the Saudis and Emiratis for their humanitarian assistance to Yemen when it is their U.S.-backed bombing campaign and blockade that created the catastrophe that threatens to claim millions of lives. Trump ignores the latter because the US is aiding and abetting the coalition in its war crimes and shares responsibility for creating the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. The Saudi coalition’s leaders and our political leaders are just as guilty of sowing death and destruction, and in Yemen they are doing so on a massive scale.

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Pompeo Lied to Congress About Yemen To Protect Arms Sales

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

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

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

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

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