Here’s why ‘Sharpiegate’ matters

The Abqaiq oil facility burns Saturday night. (Credit: Reuters)

Because when this administration claims it has evidence that Iran was responsible for a devastating attack on a Saudi oil production facility over the weekend, the world, and the American public, is right to be skeptical.

President Trump, enabled by craven and opportunistic aides and advisors, lies the way the rest of us breathe. As my friend and colleague Steve Saideman writes at his blog:

[W]e know that the Trump Administration has no credibility–it has lied about a great many things, so even if they come out with some evidence of either Iranian complicity (and Iran is almost certainly at least complicit) or Iran guilt, it will be easy for folks to dismiss these claims.

Let’s be honest. Can a president who would take a Sharpie to alter a weather forecast map in a childishly obvious attempt to cover for an inconsequential mistake, and then mobilize his Commerce Secretary to threaten to fire some of the nation’s top weather officials unless they also lied to support the president’s lie, be trusted to tell the truth on a matter of real consequence?

Even now, while the Trump administration claims photographic evidence proves the attacks came from Iranian territory, the Saudi government has so far declined to back that conclusion, according to Beirut-based reporter Dion Nissenbaum of the Wall Street Journal:

This all has real consequences, because Trump has again turned to Twitter threatening American military retaliation, raising the specter of triggering what virtually all observers realize would be an absolutely catastrophic war.

Of course this is not the first time that Trump has made a threat like this against Iran, as I’ve commented on here and here. Threats that this president, who seemingly believes tough talk is as good as tough action, has in every case failed to follow through on. I put it this way back in the good old days of “fire and fury”:

The problem is that Trump simply has no credibility. His words are not believable and therefore his threats likely carry no weight with North Korea or anyone else for that matter. Not even the American public believes what they hear coming out of the White House. So why should our adversaries?

Trump routinely lards his rhetoric with threats, violence, and aggression. Such language was part and parcel of his stump speeches as a candidate, reared its head in his inaugural address, and comes out when he talks to or about his political opponents and adversaries.

And he routinely fails to follow through on the threats he makes. He threatens to force Mexico to fund his border wall, but Congress is scrounging for the money. He threatened to withdraw from NAFTA but hasn’t. He threatened a trade war with China but was talked out of it. He threatened Germany over what he believes to be unfair terms of trade. He threatened to lock Hillary Clinton up and sue James Comey. Neither seems to be sweating over it.

Couple all of this with Trump’s penchant for lying and his administrations overall lack of credibility when it comes to the threats it so easily tosses off, and the danger is clear.

The key to successful application of coercive diplomacy – in short using threats of force to either deter an opponent from action, or to compel him to act – relies on more than the capability to inflict an unacceptable level of punishment if your opponent fails to comply. It also requires credibility. The opponent must believe that you will follow through on the threats you’ve made. Without that belief, coercion fails.

And then you’re stuck.

Fail to follow through and you create an impression of weakness, the perception that you are either unable or unwilling to deliver on your threats, a blowhard whose blustering can be safely ignored in the future. Or use the force you’ve threatened and risk dragging yourself into a military conflict no one wanted and which could easily spiral out of control.

The perception of weakness has dire consequences in international politics, which is why most responsible foreign policymakers are very cautious when it comes to the threats they make. Sadly, responsible policymakers are in short supply in this White House.

We’re going to have to wait to find out what the fallout from this particular episode is going to be. I’m not optimistic.

Praise for Donald Trump

American-Exceptionalism

President Trump’s statement on US-Saudi relations in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a perversely refreshing breath of fresh air. That sounds kind of like praise, but it really isn’t.

No, what Trump has done, in his typical barely-literate way, is to brutally expose the hypocrisy that has long marked the United States’ approach to human rights. In this, his statement represents a real service.

Other American presidents have long claimed to stand for human rights, but as human rights scholar Julie Mertus writes in her award-winning book Bait and Switch:

The United States still pretends to support universal human rights when it actually recognizes different standards for itself and its friends than those it applies to its enemies.

Mertus concludes:

For the White House … human rights talk is not supported by consistent human rights behavior. On the contrary, the United States applies a double standard for human rights norms: one that applies to the United States and one that applies to the rest of the world.

This makes Trump’s honesty that much more surprising, given his serial dishonesty. He doesn’t even bother with the human rights talk. Trump truly does not care if human rights are violated if there’s something in it for us. Like arms sales, or cooperation against our enemies, or a regional alliance, or low oil prices:

After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!

Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!

That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!

After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!

Journalist Graeme Wood sums it up like this: “In other words: our friendship is too sweet to spit out, no matter how poisonous it may be.”

By reaffirming our alliance with Saudi Arabia and standing by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, whom the CIA has determined ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, Trump shines a bright spotlight on the very hypocrisies other presidents have hidden behind high-minded human rights rhetoric. Like this from Ronald Reagan:

The American people cannot close their eyes to abuses of human rights and injustice, whether they occur among friend or adversary or even on our own shores.

And now consider the reality of Reagan’s record on human rights: condemnation for abuses in the Soviet bloc while turning a blind eye to the brutality of the Haitian government, the murder of civilians by the Honduran and Guatemalan militaries, government-backed death squads in El Salvador, and pro-US contra rebels in Nicaragua, atrocities committed by pro-American rebels in Angola, selling arms to the genocidal Suharto regime in Indonesia …

So maybe we should thank Trump for his honesty by saying out loud what foreign policy realists like Hans Morgenthau long advocated:

The principle of defense of human rights cannot be consistently applied in foreign policy because it can and must come in conflict with other interests more important than the defense of human rights.

Or, as Trump says, America First!

Those feisty Toyotas are back

Those machine guns are not OEM. (Getty Images/AFP)

 

Here I am on a Friday afternoon, lazily trawling through Twitter, and what do I spy but the picture above, capturing the 20th century’s ultimate war-wagon: the trusty Toyota Hilux pickup truck.

In this case, the little pickup that could is in the possession of pro-government Yemeni militias battling Houthi rebels in an effort to recapture, with the help of Saudi and UAE forces, the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah.

As I wrote back in October 2015, Toyota pickups in general, and the Hilux in particular, have long been a fixture of battlefields across the developing world, from Afghanistan and the Arabian Peninsula, to Syria, North Africa, and Latin America. ISIS loves them. The Sandinistas love them. Al Shabab loves them.

And now, it appears, so do the Yemenis. On both sides of the fight.

The Houthi use them too. (AP)
The Houthi use them too. (AP)

 

Syria solved!

3825

After five years of brutal civil war in Syria, an agreement has finally been reached on peace talks with the aim of establishing a nationwide ceasefire. The United Nations will oversee the rewriting of Syria’s constitution and then new elections that will presumably mark the end of the Assad family’s dictatorial rule.

There’s only one problem.

None of the parties doing the actual fighting were part of the negotiations in Vienna.

Assad wasn’t invited, and, as the New York Times reports, it is “unclear” whether either he or any of the constellation of rebel groups will agree to the deal.  The uncertainties don’t end there:

There was no target date or deadline for either the cease-fire or a new constitution and election that would follow.

Even the language used to describe what was decided after the final seven hours of heated talks between the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, along with additional European, Arab, and Gulf states, 17 countries in all, was obscure and vague. As Secretary of State John Kerry explained, the parties have agreed to “explore the modalities of a nationwide cease-fire” on the way to a new political arrangement for Syria.

So what was the point of all this? A couple of things come to mind.

First, the ceasefire plan specifically does not apply to combat against ISIS. This suggests that the US and Russia might finally end up on the same side here rather than working at cross purposes. With Obama’s announcement today that the US will deploy Special Operations forces into Kurdish-controlled territories in northern Syria, that Russia and the US might finally be fighting the same enemy is particularly welcome news.

Second, the agreement to seek a new constitution and elections for Syria signals that Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, are willing to see him go, which further suggests that they can see a way to secure their own separate interests in any post-Assad dispensation. This is important because, as I noted in a post several weeks ago, Russian military intervention to date can be seen to be creating conditions on the ground in which the US (and everyone) else would be forced to choose between a Syria under Assad and a Syria which falls to ISIS.

Third, it offers some semblance of hope that with both Iran and Saudi Arabia at the table together, the proxy war aspect of the Syrian situation may start to ratchet down in intensity.

Whether any of this bears actual fruit remains to be seen. The negotiations will reconvene in a few weeks to try to iron out details. And at some point someone will have to try and bring the forces on the ground into the discussions as well. That will be challenging enough.

Until then, this is the first sign of progress on the political front in a very long time. That’s worth something. Exactly how much it means we will have to wait to find out.