Blogs: The Skeptics

Washington Still Doesn’t Understand Iraq

The Skeptics

The results of Iraq’s parliamentary elections confirm that U.S. leaders and the American news media still don’t have a clue about the complex political dynamics in that country. Experts and pundits expected U.S.-backed incumbent Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s party to prevail. Instead the party headed by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr won a plurality of the votes. Sadr is a long-time U.S. nemesis who opposes Washington’s Middle East policy agenda and especially the presence of American troops in Iraq. Indeed, during the years immediately following Washington’s war to depose Saddam Hussein, Sadr’s armed followers frequently clashed with U.S. occupation forces.

His resurgent political prominence is more than a little worrisome to Trump administration officials. But from their standpoint, Sadr does have one virtue: he dislikes Iranian influence in his country almost as much as he does U.S. influence. His stance is solid evidence that Shiite solidarity goes only so far. Despite the mutual religious identity, there still is a significant, historical tension between Arabs and Persians that surfaces from time to time. Sadr epitomizes that ethnic distrust.

A more worrisome aspect of the election results from Washington’s perspective is that the party finishing second in the balloting, the Fatah (Conquest) Coalition, does not share Sadr’s wariness of Iran. Indeed, that Shiite bloc represents the interests of pro-Iranian militias that Tehran has funded generously, supplied with military hardware, and even provided direct assistance with its own “volunteers” on occasion. The bottom line is that the two strongest political factions in Iraq are both vehemently anti-America, and one also is strongly pro-Iran. One could scarcely envision a worse result in terms of Washington’s policy goals.

To the surprise of Western observers, Abadi’s party finished an anemic third. That disappointing performance is merely the latest in Washington’s long record of choosing Iraqi clients with weak public support. George W. Bush’s administration and its neoconservative allies assumed that Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, would be Iraq’s new leader once Saddam was overthrown. Indeed, the United States provided millions of dollars to the INC in the years leading up to the 2003 invasion and occupation. Yet when parliamentary elections occurred, Chalabi’s party garnered a pathetic 0.5 percent of the vote.

Washington’s next client was Nouri al-Maliki. His tenure in office was characterized by a relentless drive to marginalize and alienate the country’s Sunni minority that had been the political base for Saddam’s Baathist ruling party. Maliki’s vengeful approach, combined with his administration’s legendary corruption, paved the way for the rise of ISIS and that extremist faction’s shocking initial military victories in Iraq’s civil war.

Not only were the latest election results in Iraq as a whole a major setback for U.S. policy, the outcome in Iraqi Kurdistan was worrisome as well. The Kurdish regional government (KRG) was a staunch U.S. ally in the war against ISIS—as were Kurdish forces across the border in Syria. Some pundits and policy experts regarded the Kurds (along with Israel) as Washington’s most reliable allies in the Middle East and urged stronger ties with the KRG, even if that step annoyed the central government in Baghdad.

The 2017 decision of KRG president Masoud Barzani to hold a referendum on full independence from Iraq, however, disrupted the alliance with Washington. That move angered nearly all neighboring countries, most notably America’s NATO ally, Turkey, as well as the Baghdad government. U.S. leaders pulled back their support for the KRG, and the Iraqi national army launched a major crackdown. By overreaching, Kurdish leaders lost control over the oil rich city of Kirkuk and lost much of the self-governing status that the region had achieved in the years since Saddam’s ouster.

Expectations were widespread that Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and the region’s other longtime major party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, would suffer the electoral consequences of their tactical blunder. The Goran reform movement especially seemed poised to make major gains. Instead, both parties suffered only modest losses. Gorran and other opposition factions immediately screamed “fraud,” and there was strong evidence of election irregularities. Tensions have already escalated into violence in some northern Iraq cities.

Washington now confronts a situation in which Iraqi voters have rebuffed its principal political client at the national level, and the once promising collaboration with a stable, pro-American Kurdistan is in tatters. Yet even in this deteriorating environment, Trump administration officials apparently intend to retain a U.S. military presence in Iraq indefinitely. Such a policy looks less and less sensible or even viable. U.S. policymakers have made faulty assumptions about that country now for nearly two decades. The original belief that the Bush administration embraced, and which the Obama and Trump administrations followed, that Iraq could become a stable, united, democratic, pro-American bastion in the Middle East has proven fallacious on multiple levels. It is time to recognize the limits of U.S. influence and reassess a disastrous policy. The Trump administration needs to develop a prompt exit strategy from the Iraqi morass.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of ten books, the contributing editor of ten books, and the author of more than seven hundred articles on international affairs.

Image: Iraqi army inspect vehicles looking for weapons in Al Karma north of Basra, Iraq September 8, 2017. Picture taken September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Essam Al-Sudani

What if North Korea Makes an Offer Trump Can’t Refuse?

The Skeptics

North Korea has just reminded the United States that it is intent on negotiating with the United States, not accepting an administration diktat, especially one explicitly modeled after the Libya deal, which ultimately ended in the gruesome death of Muammar el-Qaddafi, who agreed to its terms.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently visited Pyongyang again and made Kim Jong-un an offer he hoped the North Korean supreme leader could not reject: abandon nuclear weapons and the North can “have all the opportunities your people so richly deserve.” But the Trump administration should be careful what it asks for. What if Kim said, “Yes, here are my nukes. Now where are my benefits?”

The summit between Kim and President Donald Trump is set but suddenly in doubt. Secretary Pompeo went to Pyongyang to finalize the details and bring home three imprisoned Americans. While there he made a pitch for North Korean disarmament. It sounded like a good deal, probably like the similar pitch to Qaddafi sounded in 2003.

Although most Korea-watchers expected an ever-so polite no from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, however disguised, at the summit rather than ahead of time, the most challenging answer would be a fulsome yes.

No one outside of Pyongyang knows the extent of North Korea’s nuclear program. Estimates of the number of weapons range from fifteen to sixty. Nor do American officials know where the weapons are located.

The so-called Children’s Palace is a venue for a variety of kid’s activities, and a must-stop spot for foreign visitors. I was taken there on both of my trips to North Korea, most recently last June. Dominating the building’s large open area is a model missile. At least, I assumed it was a model. The North might be hiding its weapons in plain view. How better to fool the Americans?

After the summit’s usual opening pleasantries have been exchanged, imagine Kim announcing that he sees no reason why two decisive men of action cannot quickly reach an agreement. To demonstrate his commitment to good relations with America he already released three U.S. citizens even though they had violated North Korean law. To further prove his good faith, he explains, at that very moment four North Korean nukes are on trucks just north of Panmunjom, ready for America to take if a deal is reached.

He then promises to deliver his nation’s remaining baker’s dozen weapons—sadly, he explains, Pyongyang was unable to develop as many nukes as the imperialistic foreigners imagined—in a similar fashion as the United States fulfills Secretary Pompeo’s promises and a bit more. Kim then makes a few simple requests: diplomatic recognition, peace treaty, sanctions end, economic aid, entry into multilateral development banks, military exercises terminated, U.S. troop levels reduced.

Of course, Kim continues, international inspectors would be free to visit, with all the usual caveats. To ensure parity, international inspections also would verify that no American nuclear weapons remain in South Korea. The two leaders’ minions can work out the details, Kim observes. For instance, a couple more nukes might be delivered after diplomatic relations are established, additional bombs could be turned over when sanctions are lifted, and so on. Now, with everything decided, time to break out the cognac, hold hands, and invite in the photographers.

How would President Trump respond?

Without knowing what weapons the North possessed, Washington would be flying blind. There would be widespread suspicion that the DPRK had more warheads than Kim said. But then what?

Declare that he is lying and refuse his proposal? Reject the proffered nukes? Admit that the president’s willingness to go to the summit was a mistake? This approach seems like a bad idea on many levels, not the least that it would be a very bad public-relations plan.

Insist on intrusive inspections first? Refuse to provide any benefits in the meantime, despite a dramatic, and positive, offer? What if inspectors can’t find any additional nukes, only those helpfully piled together by the authorities in a central location? After all, Kim might be telling the truth. And if not, then there are a lot of underground bunkers dug into a lot of mountains in the North. Even if errant documents or other evidence is discovered, how to resolve possible discrepancies?

If disagreement persists, then what? Blow up negotiations after the supreme leader offered everything Washington asked for? Explain to South Koreans why the United States was plunging the Korean peninsula back into a cold war? Tell the American people that war was back on the table, even absent hard proof that Kim was hiding much of his nuclear arsenal?

The easier path certainly would be for the United States to accept Kim’s offer as sufficient. Claiming denuclearization would allow the president’s partisans to continue to shout “Nobel!” Diminishing the North’s arsenal while foreclosing future developments would be a genuine achievement. Especially if the DPRK took other steps, such as reducing conventional forces, that suggested it was abandoning its own “hostile policy” toward the United States and South Korea. Surely Trump would recognize a win-win deal, at least in terms of politics.

Indeed, cheating might be inevitable given the DPRK’s security concerns. Frankly, Kim would be a fool to trust the United States after military intervention against Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. After President Trump appointed aides who urged regime change in North Korea and other nations. After Washington refused to protect Ukraine once it gave up its nukes. After the administration tossed out the nuclear agreement with Iran and demanded new restrictions as well as concessions in other areas. Why should Kim believe anything Washington says to him about accepting his government and living in peace?

Moreover, China likely would accept such a deal. Beijing wants to keep a buffer state and prevent creation of a united Korea allied with the United States and hosting American troops. The People’s Republic of China also benefits from a heavily-armed DPRK which causes trouble for the United States. These objectives would be served if Washington and Seoul made deals with Pyongyang even though suspecting that the latter retained some nukes. Chinese officials have disliked the instability created by North Korea’s ostentatious nuclear and missile developments. However, if Kim adopted the Israeli approach—maintaining plausible deniability for everyone—constant verbal warfare and threats of real military action should cease.

In fact, this situation would well serve China’s interests. Just what did Kim and Xi talk about at their latest tete-a-tete, another surprise meeting, in Dalian, China? The People’s Republic of Cguba could offer enthusiastic support for Kim’s disarmament offer. Beijing might immediately relax sanctions enforcement to encourage Pyongyang to carry out its promises—and pressure the Trump administration to accept the deal. Would President Trump then turn on his Chinese “friend,” President Xi Jinping?

No one knows how the upcoming Kim-Trump summit (assuming it still occurs) will go. Kim never seemed likely to rush to dismantle his nuclear arsenal and repressive state. In which case the United States should expect the unexpected.

After all, as New Year’s dawned most people predicted more militaristic play-acting and confrontation with America by the DPRK. But in just four months Kim has transformed the region. He has gone from Stalinist caricature to charming statesman and forced South Korea, China and the United States to react to his initiatives.

There never was good reason to expect him to abandon the initiative when he meets with President Trump. The North’s latest eruption simply reinforces this point. Is the administration ready for an offer which it can’t refuse?

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and coauthor of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.

Image:  North Korean leader Kim Jung Un supervises a demonstration of a new rocket engine for the geo-stationary satellite at the Sohae Space Center n this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang September 20, 2016. KCNA via REUTERS

The Price for Peace in Syria Is Cooperation with Assad

The Skeptics

Two unpleasant propositions about the lengthy civil war in Syria have been substantially absent from current policy discussions. It seems time to bring them forward and to take them seriously.

The first acknowledges that the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad have pretty much won the war. As journalist Robin Wright noted recently, Assad has managed to “consolidate his hold over the majority of Syria” and now “controls all the major cities.” Grandstanding bombings devised to encourage the regime to kill with bullets and shrapnel rather than with gas are exercises in futility. As she concludes “Assad is . . . winning the war and the reality is that the military strike will not change that.”

And in February, a U.S. intelligence community report concluded that, “the Syrian opposition’s seven-year insurgency is probably no longer capable of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad or overcoming a growing military disadvantage.”

The second proposition is a stark observation put forward in a think tank report in 2015 by Ambassador James Dobbins and his colleagues: “any peace in Syria is better than the current war.”

For those whose chief concern is the welfare of the Syrian people, the conclusion, however painful, should be obvious. The United States and other intervening states should work primarily to bring the suffering to a substantial close, and this likely means cutting off support to most rebel combatants in Syria and working with—perhaps even directly supporting—Assad and his foreign allies.

This would, of course, constitute a massive reversal in policy—as well as a grim admission that the Russians have been essentially right in the civil war. But, although a great many elements in the Syrian tragedy remain cloudy, it seems clear that foreign assistance to the rebels has simply had the result of prolonging, or systematically stoking, the disaster. For years, much of the fighting has consisted of the mindless lobbing of ordnance on civilian areas, a process that mainly creates misery and refugees. All, or just about all, present policy proposals concerning Syria would essentially perpetuate this dismal condition.

There is a risk, of course, that, once something of a peace has been secured, Assad’s forces will embark on murderous rampages against former enemies. But it is more likely that this danger can be effectively dealt with if the United States and other interveners are inside the tent rather than outside of it.

The country would be effectively partitioned, with pockets still controlled by various rebel groups from U.S.-supported Kurds to Islamist operatives. And there would also be Islamic State remnants to deal with. Following the Dobbins proposal, this condition might prevail for years as efforts are made to negotiate difficult settlements.

But the very considerable bulk of the country would be substantially pacified. As a result, many refugees might find it safe to return and to help rebuild their shattered country.

And it is clear that a considerable portion of Syrians prefer being in government areas rather than areas controlled by rebels who are often incoherent and vicious. Details are sketchy, but given the choice, two-thirds of civilian evacuees from rebel-held East Aleppo asked to settle in government areas, not in rebel-controlled areas. One Aleppo professor, himself an opponent of the regime, estimates that in an election today, Assad would get more than 70 percent of the vote.

As early as 2014, Graham Fuller, a Middle East specialist and former vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council, pointed out that although Assad “is hardly an ideal ruler,” he “is rational, has run a longtime functioning state,” and scarcely represents a threat to the United States. Moreover, Assad is supported by many in Syria who “rightly fear” the “domestic anarchy” that might come after his fall. The lessons of Libya are clearly relevant here.

Fuller concluded that “The time has now come to bite the bullet, admit failure, and to permit—if not assist—Assad in quickly winding down the civil war in Syria.”

This suggestion was highly unfashionable at the time, and then, like the Dobbins assessment, it was overwhelmed for a while by hysteria over the rise of the vicious, if ultimately rather ridiculous, ISIS group. However, although the perspective remains very much a minority view, its time may well have come.

John Mueller is a political scientist at Ohio State University and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC.

Image: Reuters

America Should See Saudi Arabia's War on Yemen for the Horror It Really Is

The Skeptics

The U.S. is at war in Yemen. Special Forces are on the ground in Saudi Arabia assisting the oil giant against its impoverished neighbor. Washington also is providing Riyadh’s military with munitions, targeting assistance, and aerial refueling. All to bomb a nation whose people have done nothing against Americans.

Although President Donald Trump once criticized the Saudi royals for trying to “control U.S. politicians with daddy’s money,” he has continued to support Saudi Arabia’s war efforts. Congress has too, with the Senate recently voting 55 to 44 against taking up a measure to decide whether America should involved in Yemen. At least the vote was closer than last year, when the Senate refused to block a sale of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis urged the Saudis to “accelerate” the peace process, but they have not listened. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), who is a supposed reformer, continues to jail his critics and apparently wants only the peace of the grave for his Yemeni victims. Already most of his foreign initiatives—involving Syria, Qatar, and Lebanon—have misfired disastrously. So far, Yemen is his most consequential blunder.

The Obama administration backed MbS’ Yemen gambit in a futile attempt to assuage Saudi concerns over the Iranian nuclear deal, now abandoned by the Trump administration. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph Votel claimed that “We’re not parties to this conflict,” but the Yemeni people, dying from bombs provided by Americans dropped by planes supplied and refueled by Americans and guided to their targets by Americans would disagree.

Gen. Votel then used ignorance as a defense, testifying to the Armed Services Committee that “we do not” know what happens after providing our assistance. Robert Karem, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, confirmed that the U.S. does not “monitor their aircraft.”

In reality, America is an accomplice to Saudi aggression with horrific consequences for the Yemeni people. Perry Cammack of the Carnegie Endowment observed: “By catering to Saudi Arabia in Yemen, the United States has empowered Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), strengthened Iranian influence in Yemen, undermined Saudi security, brought Yemen closer to the brink of collapse, and visited more death, destruction, and displacement on the Yemeni population.”

Yemen sits at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and has a long history of being dominated by Saudi Arabia as far back as 1934. When Yemen became independent in the 1960s, it was emerged as two independent and fractured states. Over the decades they fought each other and experienced domestic conflict intermittently, often finding their wars exacerbated by foreign intervention, including by Saudi Arabia. The two Yemens eventually united in 1990, but conflict continued with internal secessionists and outside meddlers.

For years President Ali Abdullah Saleh sat atop Yemen’s political volcano. He worked with both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to maintain control and counted among his enemies the Houthis. That group was a militia that is as much tribal as political or religious. Also known as Ansar Allah (“Supporters of God”), the Houthis are Zaydis, a moderate, Shia-related sect that also shares some characteristics with Sunnis. They battled Saleh’s government through at least six separate conflicts. In addition, as Gregory Gause at Texas A&M observed, “The Houthis wanted to be affiliated with the Iranians much more than the Iranians wanted to be affiliated with them.” Later in 2009, Saleh gained and used Saudi support against the Houthis.

In 2012 Saleh was overthrown amid the backwash from the Arab Spring and succeeded by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. However, Saleh was able to fight his way back into power thanks to help from the Houthis. In response, Saudi Arabia joined with the United Arab Emirates and several lesser “coalition” partners in March 2015 in an attempt to restore Hadi, who had fled to Riyadh. Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis would become troubled, eventually leading to a split and his assassination at their hands in 2017. It should be noted that throughout all of this, Iran had little to do with what went on. Rather, U.S. intelligence reported that Tehran counselled against the Houthis’ decision to take over the capital of Yemen.

Today a Yemeni nation and state no longer exist. As April Longley Alley of the International Crisis Group said, Yemen “has fragmented along historical divides, and you have various power centers.” Furthermore, a recent Chatham House report concluded that “Yemen resembles less a divided country than a collection of mini-states engaged in a complex intra-regional conflict.”

Worse still has been the impact on the Yemeni people. As of early 2018, the United Nations declared, “Yemenis are facing multiple crises, including armed conflict, displacement, risk of famine and the outbreaks of diseases, including cholera—creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

A year ago an estimated 10,000 civilians had been killed and another 40,000 had been wounded. A March update from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported: “Conflict in Yemen has left 22.2 million people, 75 percent of the population, in need of humanitarian assistance and has created a severe protection crisis in which millions face risks to their safety and are struggling to survive.”

More than a million cases of cholera have been reported, the largest recorded outbreak in history. A recent epidemic of diphtheria reached all but one of Yemen’s 23 governates. As many as 18 million people are food insecure and 14 million are at risk of starvation. Meritxell Relano, representing the UN’s Children’s Fund in Yemen, explained: “water and sanitation systems are collapsing. More than half of Yemen’s health facilities are out of service, cutting off nearly 15 million Yemenis from access to safe water and basic healthcare.” As if these woes weren’t enough, it is also estimated that three million people have been displaced.

Of course, Saudi Arabia’s MbS denied any blame. “It is very painful … and I hope that this militia ceases using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community. They block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis.”

His claims are wrong and distorted. The Houthis have behaved badly, but the conduct of the coalition is far worse. Saudi airstrikes, described as “indiscriminate or disproportionate” by Human Rights Watch, have caused at least two thirds of infrastructure damage and three-quarters of casualties. Observed Yemeni-American Rabyaah Lthaibani: “For three years now, the Saudi Coalition has bombed hospitals, schools and wedding parties. They have systematically targeted roads and farms and blocked ports so lifesaving aid and other goods could not reach people facing famine and the world’s fastest-growing cholera outbreak.”

This would be outrageous under any circumstance, but attacks on civilians appear to be conscious strategy. A UN panel of experts recently charged that Riyadh was using starvation as a weapon of war. Most obvious is the blockade which, reported Human Rights Watch, “has severely restricted the flow of food, fuel, and medicine to civilians, in violation of international law.”

But the coalition’s crimes go much further. Matthew Reisener of the Center for the National Interest cited “mounting evidence that Saudi Arabia has deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure to manufacture a food insecurity crisis in Yemen’s Houthi-controlled areas. Hundreds of airstrikes have purposefully targeted farms, marketplaces and food-storage facilities, while over two hundred fishing ships have been destroyed in coalition bombings.”

A different kind of human horror also comes from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Last June Human Rights Watch and Associated Press reported that Abu Dhabi and its local allies operated 18 secret prisons in Yemen’s south where prisoners were tortured. According to AP: “Hundreds of men swept up in the hunt for al-Qaeda militants have disappeared into a secret network of prisons in southern Yemen where abuses is routine and torture extreme.” In addition, American forces were reportedly stationed at some of those facilities, though U.S. officials denied involvement in human rights violations.

What could justify U.S. complicity in another state’s murderous war of aggression?

One of many poor arguments is one from the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano, who argued that U.S. have to be involved, “to keep the region from falling apart,” because “the collapse of any friendly regime there is bad for us.”

The reality is that Washington has done far more to destroy Middle Eastern order than preserve it. The invasion of Iraq, bombing of Libya, and support for jihadist radicals in Syria boosted militarist and Islamist movements throughout the region and greatly enhanced Iran’s influence. Today, Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen, and America’s assistance in that war, has continued this process.

Whether Hadi was nominally friendly toward America no longer matters. Since his ouster he allied with Islamist radicals and is no friend of democracy or human rights. Moreover, by calling in airstrikes on his own people Hadi lost whatever legitimacy he once possessed. By helping kill thousands of civilians in attempting to restore him to power, Washington ensured that much of the population will be unfriendly, whatever the character of the regime that emerges. One Yemeni described the destruction of his apartment by a Saudi airstrike to The New Yorker’s Nicolas Niarchos, angrily stating, “America is the main sponsor of all that is happening to us.”

Secretary Mattis claimed that ending U.S. combat support would allow the Houthis to use ballistic missiles to threaten “vital shipping lanes in the Red Sea.” Alleged proof of this was an earlier Houthi missile attack on an American warship. That attack led other administration officials to express concern about navigational freedom, especially in the Bab-el-Mandeb waterway.

But Yemenis attacked the U.S. vessel because Washington is helping their killers, Saudi Arabia. Before this war, Houthis did not target Americans and they had no reason to. In peace the Yemenis rely on Gulf trade and they would never want to impede it. Yet now the Saudi-led coalition has blockaded Yemen and its access to the Gulf. By internationalizing the war Riyadh has also internationalized the weapons. As U.S. Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan complained and noted, previously “there was no explosive boat that existed in the Yemeni inventory.”

MbS similarly tried to paint Yemenis as aggressors. He told 60 Minutes that the Houthis were “conducting military maneuvers right next to our borders and positioning missiles at our borders.” Suggesting that Yemeni rebels, deeply involved in a bitter civil war, planned to invade Saudi Arabia was an obvious fantasy and wouldn’t make sense. Saudi and U.S. officials also cited missile attacks on Riyadh as justification for the war—yet the Yemenis were responding to repeated the bombing of their capital of Sanaa and killing of thousands of civilians. When striking back, Houthi leader Abdul-malik al-Houthi announced: “As long as you continue to target Sanaa we will strike Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.” It should be clear that someone cannot retroactively justify an invasion just because the victims fought back.

Yet, Iran has become an all-purpose boogeyman with which to justify Saudi and American military involvement. For instance, MbS told 60 minutes that “The Iranian ideology penetrated some parts of Yemen” and “Iran is playing a harmful role.” This from a regime which pushed radical Wahhabism onto Yemen for years. Yousef al-Otaiba, UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., contended: “Iran must not be allowed to create a Hezbollah-like proxy in Yemen through the Houthis.” Yet it was his nation’s aggression that pushed Abu Dhabi’s enemies together.

In any case, there is also the fact that Iran is militarily weak, economically decrepit, and politically divided. MbS admitted that: “Iran is not a rival to Saudi Arabia. Its army is not among the top five armies in the Muslim world. The Saudi economy is larger than the Iranian economy. Iran is far from being equal to Saudi Arabia.” If this is the case, then why does he worry so much about Iran?

Washington officials also appear to constantly exaggerate the Iranian threat, often making it seem as though they are vast and powerful, they know otherwise. Robert Karem claimed: “We see the war in Yemen as pushing back against Iran’s attempt to destabilize the entire region and beyond.” However, Tehran’s supposed attempt at regional “domination” involves wretched Syria and Yemen, perpetually divided Lebanon, and Iraq, whose Shia majority was unleashed by America’s intervention in 2003.

Moreover, history suggests that no Yemeni faction, except perhaps that headed by Hadi, would sacrifice the country’s autonomy in order to become a puppet of Tehran. As Katherine Zimmerman of the American Enterprise Institute has said, “The al-Houthi leadership retains its independence from Iran and has pushed back on Tehran’s statements and offers repeatedly.” Additionally, Gabriele vom Bruck at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies observed that, “The Houthis want Yemen to be independent, that’s the key idea, they don’t want to be controlled by Saudi or the Americans, and they certainly don’t want to replace the Saudis with the Iranians.”

For these reasons, we ought to be skeptical anytime Iran is made out as the excuse for involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. Indeed, Iran’s role in Yemen always has been limited anyway. Tehran has been a minor player compared to the Riyadh. According to Thomas Juneau of the University of Ottawa, the present fight “is at its root a civil war, driven by local competition for power, and not a regional, sectarian or proxy war.” It should be clearly spelled out that the Houthis are not Tehran’s proxy. Adam Baron of the European Council on Foreign Relations noted that, “It’s not as if the Houthis were created by Iran, and further, it’s not as if the Houthis are being controlled by Iran. This is a group that is rooted in local Yemeni issues.” Furthermore, after  three years of watching the war, vom Bruck concluded that “I don’t think the Iranians have influence in their decision-making. It’s not a relationship like that between Iran and Hezbollah.”

The relationship between Iran and the Houthis was largely one of the Saudi-led coalition’s making. The coalition’s invasion made such a Iranian-Houthi partnership inevitable because choice did the Houthis have after being attacked by their rich neighbors equipped and backed by the global superpower? As Kevin L. Schwartz of the Library of Congress concluded, “Only after the onset of the Saudi-led campaign did the arming of the Houthi rebels by Iran increase.”

Nor did Iran have to invest much to hinder Saudi Arabia’s well-equipped but ineffective legions. Iranian assistance mainly involved training and ground weapons, which pale in comparison to Washington’s aid to Saudi Arabia. Chatham House’s Peter Salisbury argued that Tehran “has reaped fantastic returns on a modest investment, drawing Saudi Arabia into a destructive war it cannot win without a substantial investment of personnel or resources.”

Yet American is drawn into yet another foreign conflict with no end in sight. Secretary Mattis has argued that the allies “stood by the United Nations-recognized government.” Additionally, the Emirati Gulf News recently proclaimed that the aim of the military campaign was “To uphold the legitimacy of [Hadi’s] internationally recognized government.” However, neither the U.S. or UAE cares about these arguments and legal niceties when it comes to their desire to intervene in Syria. This argument also frayed badly when Abu Dhabi began supporting southern separatists against that same UN-recognized government. Observed Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute, “The reality seems to be that the UAE has become exasperated with Hadi and is orchestrating its own plans for the south.”

Hadi may be the “legitimate” president, but he does not offer stability. Chatham House reported that Hadi was “widely seen as a bit player whose importance is derived from legal technicalities, external support, and access to resources rather than from hard-earned ‘grounded’ legitimacy.” He is dependent on foreign support and fears being killed if he returns to his country. Indeed, two of his ministers recently resigned, claiming that the Saudi government barred them, and Hadi, from returning to Yemen.

America’s only serious security issue involving Yemen is the revival of al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group’s most active affiliate. AQAP has accelerated recruiting and expanded its presence. The Jamestown Foundation’s Michael Horton observed that “AQAP has become more pragmatic and continues to de-prioritize ideology—at least in terms of its day-to-day operations—in favor of building alliances, recruiting and training capable fighters and enhancing access to revenue streams.” The group now controls an estimated third of the country.

Carafano argued that if Washington stopped underwriting Riyadh’s aggression, “Tehran, Islamic State group and al-Qaeda would feel emboldened and likely double-down on expanding the war.” This is incorrect because for Islamists and terrorists the war has been a godsend. The Houthis, though anti-American, also are anti-AQAP. However, their attention has been diverted, by Saudi and UAE aggression, giving AQAP room to breathe. In addition, even the State Department admitted that AQAP and the Islamic State have “exploited the political and security vacuum left by the conflict between the Yemeni government and Houthi-led opposition.”

Moreover, journalist Laura Kasinof observed that Hadi, lacking internal support, “cozied up to the Islamists” before his ouster, even quietly cooperating with AQAP in some areas. Also, noted Reisener, “al-Qaeda was significantly bolstered by the transfer of weapons from Saudi Arabia to a number of al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni militia groups in Yemen.” Zimmerman said that “The Saudi-led coalition tolerates AQAP’s presence on the battlefield, so long as the group fights against the al-Houthi-Saleh forces.” Thus, the Trump administration arms the Saudis- who arm or turn a blind eye of AQAP- while also increasing airstrikes and ground deployments against al-Qaeda. The U.S. is therefore undermining its own objectives by supporting a bad ally in a bad war.

Yet, American war advocates incongruously claim that the way to reduce casualties and end the war is to support escalating Saudi attacks. Secretary Mattis warned that restricting U.S. aid “could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counterterrorism, and reduce our influence with the Saudis—all of which would further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis.” Arguing that Americans must continue to help the coalition kill civilians to stop it from killing more civilians is bizarre. How can the U.S. know it is stopping the killing of civilians if officials admit that they do not even pretend to monitor Saudi attacks.

Carafano declared, “Instead of turning our back on Yemen, the U.S. should focus on ending the war.” By continuing to subsidize Saudi aggression? Doing so reduces the cost of war for Riyadh. Furthermore, as an active belligerent the U.S. has no credibility to try to mediate and so cannot bring everyone to the table. Instead, the best hope to end the bloodshed is forcing the Saudi royals to pay for their murderous misadventure. The truth is that the U.S. has no leverage when it underwrites and ignores Saudi failure.

Lastly, Carafano pointed to the supposed Russian menace: “Putin would interpret an American withdrawal as a green light for additional Russian meddling—the type that Moscow has brought to the Syrian civil war.” However, this is just more threat inflation as Moscow never demonstrated any interest in joining the war in Yemen. The situation is not comparable to Syria, with whom Russia has long been an ally. In general, Moscow’s influence in the Middle East remains minor compared to that of Washington and so doesn’t require U.S. involvement in Yemen.

Candidate Donald Trump criticized President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, but President Trump is doubling down on Obama’s unnecessary Middle Eastern war. There is no good reason to do so on behalf of an authoritarian regime guilty of promoting Islamic radicalism. The U.S. is subordinating fundamental American interests and values to those of a royal dictatorship and entangling the U.S. in another distant, unnecessary, and unwinnable conflict. Ultimately, a political settlement is necessary, putting the interests of the Yemeni people before that of either the Saudi royals or Iranian mullahs.

Carafano argued that, “The U.S. cannot be a bystander.” But, of course the U.S. can and, in this case, it should. American policy has created chaos, spread radicalism, underwritten tyranny, and aided aggression. Washington has done all of these in tragic Yemen and has yet to learn from the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm. The first step towards that should be President Trump choosing to end America’s disastrous meddling in Yemen.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

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Saudi Arabia Will Use Trump to Gain Leverage over the War in Syria

The Skeptics

As President Trump muses periodically about a prompt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, he confronts warnings, including from his own foreign-policy advisers, that such a move would risk the onset of greater chaos in that country. He has responded with suggestions that an Arab stabilization force supplement and gradually replace U.S. troops to forestall that danger. However, the replacement force he has in mind would not be a generic “Arab” contingent, as he and other proponents describe. It would consist primarily of personnel from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.

Such a force would be neither politically neutral nor dedicated to restoring and preserving peace in Syria. Instead it would be the instrument of Sunni Arab power dedicated to overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, since the earliest stages of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and 2012, the Gulf powers (along with Turkey) have been intent on that objective. The rebellion against Assad is primarily a Sunni bid for power against Assad’s coalition of religious minorities. As early as 2012, journalists embedded with rebel forces noted that they were virtually all Sunnis. Arrayed against them were Assad’s followers, primarily members of his quasi-Shiite Alawite sect, Christians and Druze. Syrian Kurds were busy pursuing their own agenda of carving out a de facto independent state in the north.

Predictably, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other Sunni powers backed the rebels to the hilt, supplying them with both money and military hardware. Soon, though, they lost control of some of those forces—factions that evolved into ISIS. As early as 2012, the United States cooperated with Riyadh and Ankara, sending “nonlethal” aid to supposedly moderate insurgents. By 2013, Washington was shipping arms to them, further entangling the United States in an increasingly murky ethno-religious conflict. The effort to boost the fortunes of Riyadh’s Syrian clients failed, though, when Russia intervened in 2015 and backed government forces with extensive air power.

Introducing a bogus stabilization force at a time when Assad and his Russian patrons are on the verge of victory over the insurgents is a last-ditch Sunni ploy to help the rebels avoid defeat. Even reasonably astute U.S. officials should understand that reality. They should also comprehend that Riyadh’s goals do not necessarily benefit America’s interests. Most of the factions that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have backed are staunchly Islamist. One prominent client is the Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham. And Saudi support also seems to be flowing to Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) once that group officially ended its ties with Al Qaeda.

The emergence of a post–Assad government that such factions would dominate might advance the agenda of the ultra-conservative Saudi royal family, but replacing a secular dictator like Assad with a Sunni Islamist regime does not enhance U.S. security in the slightest. Yet Syria is not the only arena in which Washington is supporting Riyadh’s policies contrary to America’s best interests. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have backed the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The United States continues to refuel coalition aircraft and provide intelligence data to assist those planes strike targets in that country. New information indicates that Washington has Special Forces on the ground to combat Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Washington’s collusion with Saudi Arabia’s military campaign continues despite mounting evidence of the coalition’s repeated, systematic war crimes against civilians in Yemen.

Washington’s explanations for that collaboration range from weak to laughable. One justification is that Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (perhaps the most dangerous of AQ’s affiliates) is active in Yemen. But that explanation ignores the fact that the Houthis are vehemently opposed to the group. Scarcely better is the allegation that the Houthis are Iranian pawns who are to blame for Yemen’s instability and violence. The extent of Tehran’s backing actually is quite modest, and Riyadh’s meddling is far more extensive and disruptive. As in Syria, defeating the Houthis and consolidating the hold of a Saudi-backed Sunni regime in Yemen may serve the Kingdom’s interests, but that outcome does not benefit America’s interests or reputation. Collaborating in the commission of war crimes certainly does not do so.

Unfortunately, U.S. leaders seem inclined to blindly back Saudi Arabia whenever and whenever Riyadh’s rivalry with Tehran takes place. President Trump’s ongoing efforts to undermine the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran appear to reflect the wishes of both Saudi Arabia and Israel. But sabotaging that accord creates needless tensions with Washington’s European allies and intensifies dangers throughout the Middle East. Worse, it increases the likelihood that Iran will acquire a nuclear arsenal, thereby likely leading to a U.S.-Iranian war. Such a conflict that removed Iran as a serious regional power would undoubtedly gladden the hearts of the Saudi royals, but it is hard to see how that destructive outcome benefits America.

For too many decades, the United States has adopted without much reflection policies that advanced Riyadh’s agenda when American interests were not at stake or even when they were undermined. Trump’s fawning behavior toward the Saudi rulers during his 2017 state visit to the Kingdom encapsulated Washington’s willingness to overlook or excuse Riyadh’s outrageous domestic and international behavior.

Despite the assertion that Saudi Arabia has been a loyal U.S. ally, the record indicates otherwise. The Saudi government funds the Wahhabi clergy that has spread a virulent, anti-Western brand of Islam throughout much of the Muslim world. Saudi-backed extremists have become cadres in terrorist organizations from Al Qaeda to ISIS. That fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi nationals is indicative of the problem that Riyadh’s sponsorship of Islamic extremism creates.

Saudi Arabia is a nasty, duplicitous power that pursues its own goals even when that pursuit imperils crucial American interests. President Trump needs to adopt a real America First policy in the Middle East—one that no longer allows the Saudi tail to wag the American dog.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of ten books, the contributing editor of ten books, and the author of more than seven hundred articles on international affairs.

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