How the Pentagon Enlisted Trump to Continue Its Perpetual “War on Terror”

How the Pentagon Enlisted Trump to Continue Its Perpetual “War on Terror”

The speech by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on January 17 laying out a series of conditions that would make it possible to withdraw US troops from Syria confirmed what had already been revealed by the Pentagon itself: The Trump administration is planning to keep US troops in Syria indefinitely.

Although it was not a comprehensive policy statement, the Tillerson speech completed a months-long process in which the Pentagon has succeeded in enlisting the Trump administration to sign on for a semi-permanent US military engagement in three countries with significant US troops contingents: Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

This trifecta of semi-permanent US military engagements reflects the extraordinary power of the Pentagon to sway even a president who had made opposition to such policies a central element of his campaign.

The Pentagon Gets Its War in Syria

Two months before Tillerson’s speech, Secretary of Defense James Mattis had already telegraphed the fact that the US military had been given approval for a long-term commitment in Syria now that ISIS (also known as Daesh) had been defeated and driven out of Raqqa. In mid-November in a briefing for reporters at the Pentagon, Mattis said that US forces in Syria would fight Islamic State “as long as they have want to fight” and that preventing the return of what he called “ISIS 2.0” was a “longer-term objective.” He even suggested that US forces would remain to help establish conditions for a diplomatic solution. “We’re not going to walk away before the Geneva process has traction,” said Mattis.

In another briefing for reporters in late December, Mattis said that the US forces in Syria would be “shifting from an offensive, terrain-seizing approach, to a stabilizing” role.

Tillerson’s talk was a political gloss on what the Pentagon had already begun planning to do. It provided a series of reasons for the US military to maintain a long-term presence in Syria, while at the same time giving it maximum latitude to avoid getting into a war with Iranian, Russian or Syrian forces.

Tillerson presented the US presence in Syria as necessary to ensure that not only ISIS but al-Qaeda in Syria will “suffer an enduring defeat” — a new term suggesting that the military mission would continue to be counter-terrorism. The reality, as Mattis had already announced, was that the US military is planning to be involved in post-war “stabilization” — something Trump had denounced during the campaign — for many years.

The Tillerson gloss struck the obligatory anti-Iran chord, vowing that US troops would remain until Iranian influence in Syria has been “diminished.” Mentioning that objective was an obvious way to justify a long-term US military presence in Syria, since no one believes that Iranian influence in Syria will be diminished in the coming years.

Despite its obvious bow to the administration’s anti-Iran-war constituency, the word “diminished” was clearly chosen as an alternative to other possible formulations that would have been supported by pro-Israeli figures and institutions lobbying the administration. It reflects the Pentagon’s interest in averting war against the Assad regime or its Iranian allies and its determination to keep its intervention in Syria focused on terrorism and avoid getting involved in forcible regime change.

In the early months of the Trump administration, Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford rejected a proposal from National Security Council staffers for US military intervention against Assad. And in June 2017, the US-led coalition fighting ISIS actually welcomed the likely Syrian and Iranian-supported forces entering the city of Deir ez-Zor, which had been under ISIS occupation, rejecting any idea of seeking to preempt such a move militarily. That determination to avoid being drawn into a war against Iran or Syria has remained unchanged through 2017.

Tillerson enunciated a vision of regime change in Syria that would bring about the departure of Assad and his family not by force, but through “an incremental process of constitutional reform and UN-sponsored elections.” He did not address the multiple violent political-military conflicts involving Turkey, the Kurds, the remnants of al-Qaeda-led opposition forces and the Assad regime, which is very likely to suck the United States into new and dangerous waters if it maintains a military presence in the region.

The Pentagon Ends Trump’s Anti-Interventionist Themes

The Trump administration’s clear commitment to open-ended US war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria adds Trump to the list of presidents who opposed wars only to ultimately give in to the war state bureaucracy under persistent pressure. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Barack Obama had all been skeptical about war proposals on Vietnam and Afghanistan, respectively. But both before and immediately after becoming president, Trump had expressed strong and explicit antagonism toward the idea of indefinite wars.

In a 2013 tweet, as he was contemplating a run for the presidency, Trump declared, “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghans we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” In a speech devoted to foreign policy during the 2016 primary election, Trump attacked war policies in Iraq, Libya and Syria as destructive of societies and creating unnecessary threats to the United States. “We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed,” he declared, adding that the US had created a “vacuum … that ISIS would fill,” along with Iran.

After he had won the presidential election, moreover, Trump did not abandon those anti-intervention themes. In the last speech on his “victory tour” in December 2016, Trump said “intervention and chaos” must “come to an end.” He vowed, “We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we knew nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with. Instead our focus must be on defeating terrorism and destroying ISIS, and we will.”

Trump asserted that past policies had “depleted” the US military, “because we’re all over the place fighting in areas we shouldn’t be fighting in.” He also declared that, instead of investing in wars, he would spend the money on rebuilding the US’s crumbling infrastructure.

Once Mattis took over at the Pentagon, however, he and Dunford, along with National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, began a campaign to get Trump to abandon his opposition to semi-permanent US military interventions in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

By April 2017, US officials were already engaged in discussions with governments in Afghanistan and Iraq on agreements for what US military officials were calling “open-ended commitments” of US troops in those countries — despite expectations that ISIS would soon be decisively defeated in its Iraqi and Syrian urban strongholds.

Afghanistan was the subject of the most acute tensions between the White House and the national security bureaucracy. The military bureaucracy was determined to obtain the deployment of many more troops and, even more important, unlimited time to carry out the US-sponsored war. But for the next four months, Trump — encouraged by political adviser Steve Bannon to remain true to his political base — refused to give his approval to any of the proposals.

Trump’s national security team became “alarmed” about Trump’s persistent questioning of the need for what they called a “robust American presence around the world,” according to an Associated Press account. On July 20, his advisers took Trump and Bannon into “the Tank” — the small room in the Pentagon where the Joint Chiefs of Staff meet regularly — and used charts and diagrams to drive home their message that the forward deployments of troops, spies and diplomats was necessary to “make the world safe for American businesses.”

In August, however, the administration’s crisis over the proposed unending war across the Middle East and Afghanistan came to a head, as Bannon sought to use his connections with the Zionist Organization of America to oust McMaster, claiming that he was not supportive of Israel’s interests. Bannon’s scheme collapsed, however, when Trump’s biggest campaign donor, arch-Likudist Sheldon Adelson, refused to support it. Suddenly, Bannon became much more politically vulnerable, and by the end of the month, he was forced out of the White House.

At the climactic meeting on Afghanistan at Camp David in mid-August, from which Bannon was excluded, Mattis, McMaster and Dunford pressed their advantage. Trump’s opposing stance to intervention dissolved completely. He did not question the generals’ plans for the indefinite continuation of the 16-year-old war, which they presented as necessary to prevent ISIS and al-Qaeda from having a “safe haven” in Afghanistan. They also showed Trump 1972 photographs of Afghan girls in Kabul in mini-skirts to convince him that Western values could prevail in Afghanistan.

Without an aide capable of seeing through the Pentagon’s deceptions, Trump who is well known for a deferential attitude toward senior generals, was a pushover. Announcing the Afghanistan decision a few days later, Trump repeated what he had been told at Camp David. “We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that allow terrorists to threaten America,” he declared.

Once they had turned Trump on Afghanistan, the Pentagon could rely on a simple argument to ensure his compliance with their plans for Syria and Iraq: liken any Trump interference in the war bureaucracy’s plan for open-ended US wars in Iraq and Syria to Obama’s policy of completing the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011. Tillerson emphasized that point in his speech: “We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011 when a premature departure from Iraq allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into ISIS,” he declared.

Thus, did Trump consent to the Pentagon’s plans for permanent US wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The New Pentagon Business Model

The permanent wars in those three countries represent, in effect, a new Pentagon business model for those regions. The model looks for far more payoff in term of congressional appropriations — as well as power at home and abroad in relation to budgetary and political costs — than the Pentagon obtained from waging the big wars of the past in Iraq and Afghanistan. It counts on US casualties remaining relatively small, because combat will take the form of bombings or Special Operations attacks.

Low US casualties are crucial to the new model, because most Americans are not convinced such US military endeavors are necessary or good for this country. A Morning Consult/Politico poll in August 2017 found only 40 percent supportive of additional troops for Afghanistan, while 32 percent wanted complete withdrawal from the war, with the remaining 28 percent unsure.

That reality will certainly require the Pentagon to exercise tighter control over information. Already, the Department of Defense has moved to classify data about Afghan security forces, so it will be more difficult to criticize the US effort as a failure. In order to avoid large-scale criticism, the Pentagon will likely also need to cover up the actual scale of civilian casualties from Special Operations raids and bombings by the United States, as has occurred in the past in Afghanistan, and has occurred again in regard to the US-led coalition bombing of ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq since 2014.

The new Pentagon model is taking advantage of a malleable president to prolong the war bureaucracy’s extraordinary increase in control over resources and power, which it has already enjoyed for more than 16 years. It may succeed in terms of bureaucratic interests, but at great cost to the people of the United States — and at even greater cost to the people of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

How the Pentagon Enlisted Trump to Continue Its Perpetual “War on Terror”

How the Pentagon Enlisted Trump to Continue Its Perpetual "War on Terror"

The speech by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on January 17 laying out a series of conditions that would make it possible to withdraw US troops from Syria confirmed what had already been revealed by the Pentagon itself: The Trump administration is planning to keep US troops in Syria indefinitely.
Although it was not a comprehensive policy statement, the Tillerson speech completed a months-long process in which the Pentagon has succeeded in enlisting the Trump administration to sign on for a semi-permanent US military engagement in three countries with significant US troops contingents: Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
This trifecta of semi-permanent US military engagements reflects the extraordinary power of the Pentagon to sway even a president who had made opposition to such policies a central element of his campaign.

The Pentagon Gets Its War in Syria

Two months before Tillerson’s speech, Secretary of Defense James Mattis had already telegraphed the fact that the US military had been given approval for a long-term commitment in Syria now that ISIS (also known as Daesh) had been defeated and driven out of Raqqa. In mid-November in a briefing for reporters at the Pentagon, Mattis said that US forces in Syria would fight Islamic State “as long as they have want to fight” and that preventing the return of what he called “ISIS 2.0” was a “longer-term objective.” He even suggested that US forces would remain to help establish conditions for a diplomatic solution. “We’re not going to walk away before the Geneva process has traction,” said Mattis.
In another briefing for reporters in late December, Mattis said that the US forces in Syria would be “shifting from an offensive, terrain-seizing approach, to a stabilizing” role.
Tillerson’s talk was a political gloss on what the Pentagon had already begun planning to do. It provided a series of reasons for the US military to maintain a long-term presence in Syria, while at the same time giving it maximum latitude to avoid getting into a war with Iranian, Russian or Syrian forces.
Tillerson presented the US presence in Syria as necessary to ensure that not only ISIS but al-Qaeda in Syria will “suffer an enduring defeat” — a new term suggesting that the military mission would continue to be counter-terrorism. The reality, as Mattis had already announced, was that the US military is planning to be involved in post-war “stabilization” — something Trump had denounced during the campaign — for many years.
The Tillerson gloss struck the obligatory anti-Iran chord, vowing that US troops would remain until Iranian influence in Syria has been “diminished.” Mentioning that objective was an obvious way to justify a long-term US military presence in Syria, since no one believes that Iranian influence in Syria will be diminished in the coming years.
Despite its obvious bow to the administration’s anti-Iran-war constituency, the word “diminished” was clearly chosen as an alternative to other possible formulations that would have been supported by pro-Israeli figures and institutions lobbying the administration. It reflects the Pentagon’s interest in averting war against the Assad regime or its Iranian allies and its determination to keep its intervention in Syria focused on terrorism and avoid getting involved in forcible regime change.
In the early months of the Trump administration, Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford rejected a proposal from National Security Council staffers for US military intervention against Assad. And in June 2017, the US-led coalition fighting ISIS actually welcomed the likely Syrian and Iranian-supported forces entering the city of Deir ez-Zor, which had been under ISIS occupation, rejecting any idea of seeking to preempt such a move militarily. That determination to avoid being drawn into a war against Iran or Syria has remained unchanged through 2017.
Tillerson enunciated a vision of regime change in Syria that would bring about the departure of Assad and his family not by force, but through “an incremental process of constitutional reform and UN-sponsored elections.” He did not address the multiple violent political-military conflicts involving Turkey, the Kurds, the remnants of al-Qaeda-led opposition forces and the Assad regime, which is very likely to suck the United States into new and dangerous waters if it maintains a military presence in the region.

The Pentagon Ends Trump’s Anti-Interventionist Themes

The Trump administration’s clear commitment to open-ended US war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria adds Trump to the list of presidents who opposed wars only to ultimately give in to the war state bureaucracy under persistent pressure. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Barack Obama had all been skeptical about war proposals on Vietnam and Afghanistan, respectively. But both before and immediately after becoming president, Trump had expressed strong and explicit antagonism toward the idea of indefinite wars.
In a 2013 tweet, as he was contemplating a run for the presidency, Trump declared, “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghans we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” In a speech devoted to foreign policy during the 2016 primary election, Trump attacked war policies in Iraq, Libya and Syria as destructive of societies and creating unnecessary threats to the United States. “We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed,” he declared, adding that the US had created a “vacuum … that ISIS would fill,” along with Iran.
After he had won the presidential election, moreover, Trump did not abandon those anti-intervention themes. In the last speech on his “victory tour” in December 2016, Trump said “intervention and chaos” must “come to an end.” He vowed, “We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we knew nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with. Instead our focus must be on defeating terrorism and destroying ISIS, and we will.”
Trump asserted that past policies had “depleted” the US military, “because we’re all over the place fighting in areas we shouldn’t be fighting in.” He also declared that, instead of investing in wars, he would spend the money on rebuilding the US’s crumbling infrastructure.
Once Mattis took over at the Pentagon, however, he and Dunford, along with National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, began a campaign to get Trump to abandon his opposition to semi-permanent US military interventions in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
By April 2017, US officials were already engaged in discussions with governments in Afghanistan and Iraq on agreements for what US military officials were calling “open-ended commitments” of US troops in those countries — despite expectations that ISIS would soon be decisively defeated in its Iraqi and Syrian urban strongholds.
Afghanistan was the subject of the most acute tensions between the White House and the national security bureaucracy. The military bureaucracy was determined to obtain the deployment of many more troops and, even more important, unlimited time to carry out the US-sponsored war. But for the next four months, Trump — encouraged by political adviser Steve Bannon to remain true to his political base — refused to give his approval to any of the proposals.
Trump’s national security team became “alarmed” about Trump’s persistent questioning of the need for what they called a “robust American presence around the world,” according to an Associated Press account. On July 20, his advisers took Trump and Bannon into “the Tank” — the small room in the Pentagon where the Joint Chiefs of Staff meet regularly — and used charts and diagrams to drive home their message that the forward deployments of troops, spies and diplomats was necessary to “make the world safe for American businesses.”
In August, however, the administration’s crisis over the proposed unending war across the Middle East and Afghanistan came to a head, as Bannon sought to use his connections with the Zionist Organization of America to oust McMaster, claiming that he was not supportive of Israel’s interests. Bannon’s scheme collapsed, however, when Trump’s biggest campaign donor, arch-Likudist Sheldon Adelson, refused to support it. Suddenly, Bannon became much more politically vulnerable, and by the end of the month, he was forced out of the White House.
At the climactic meeting on Afghanistan at Camp David in mid-August, from which Bannon was excluded, Mattis, McMaster and Dunford pressed their advantage. Trump’s opposing stance to intervention dissolved completely. He did not question the generals’ plans for the indefinite continuation of the 16-year-old war, which they presented as necessary to prevent ISIS and al-Qaeda from having a “safe haven” in Afghanistan. They also showed Trump 1972 photographs of Afghan girls in Kabul in mini-skirts to convince him that Western values could prevail in Afghanistan.
Without an aide capable of seeing through the Pentagon’s deceptions, Trump who is well known for a deferential attitude toward senior generals, was a pushover. Announcing the Afghanistan decision a few days later, Trump repeated what he had been told at Camp David. “We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that allow terrorists to threaten America,” he declared.
Once they had turned Trump on Afghanistan, the Pentagon could rely on a simple argument to ensure his compliance with their plans for Syria and Iraq: liken any Trump interference in the war bureaucracy’s plan for open-ended US wars in Iraq and Syria to Obama’s policy of completing the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011. Tillerson emphasized that point in his speech: “We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011 when a premature departure from Iraq allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into ISIS,” he declared.
Thus, did Trump consent to the Pentagon’s plans for permanent US wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The New Pentagon Business Model

The permanent wars in those three countries represent, in effect, a new Pentagon business model for those regions. The model looks for far more payoff in term of congressional appropriations — as well as power at home and abroad in relation to budgetary and political costs — than the Pentagon obtained from waging the big wars of the past in Iraq and Afghanistan. It counts on US casualties remaining relatively small, because combat will take the form of bombings or Special Operations attacks.
Low US casualties are crucial to the new model, because most Americans are not convinced such US military endeavors are necessary or good for this country. A Morning Consult/Politico poll in August 2017 found only 40 percent supportive of additional troops for Afghanistan, while 32 percent wanted complete withdrawal from the war, with the remaining 28 percent unsure.
That reality will certainly require the Pentagon to exercise tighter control over information. Already, the Department of Defense has moved to classify data about Afghan security forces, so it will be more difficult to criticize the US effort as a failure. In order to avoid large-scale criticism, the Pentagon will likely also need to cover up the actual scale of civilian casualties from Special Operations raids and bombings by the United States, as has occurred in the past in Afghanistan, and has occurred again in regard to the US-led coalition bombing of ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq since 2014.
The new Pentagon model is taking advantage of a malleable president to prolong the war bureaucracy’s extraordinary increase in control over resources and power, which it has already enjoyed for more than 16 years. It may succeed in terms of bureaucratic interests, but at great cost to the people of the United States — and at even greater cost to the people of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

How the Pentagon Enlisted Trump to Continue Its Perpetual “War on Terror”

How the Pentagon Enlisted Trump to Continue Its Perpetual "War on Terror"

The speech by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on January 17 laying out a series of conditions that would make it possible to withdraw US troops from Syria confirmed what had already been revealed by the Pentagon itself: The Trump administration is planning to keep US troops in Syria indefinitely.
Although it was not a comprehensive policy statement, the Tillerson speech completed a months-long process in which the Pentagon has succeeded in enlisting the Trump administration to sign on for a semi-permanent US military engagement in three countries with significant US troops contingents: Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
This trifecta of semi-permanent US military engagements reflects the extraordinary power of the Pentagon to sway even a president who had made opposition to such policies a central element of his campaign.

The Pentagon Gets Its War in Syria

Two months before Tillerson’s speech, Secretary of Defense James Mattis had already telegraphed the fact that the US military had been given approval for a long-term commitment in Syria now that ISIS (also known as Daesh) had been defeated and driven out of Raqqa. In mid-November in a briefing for reporters at the Pentagon, Mattis said that US forces in Syria would fight Islamic State “as long as they have want to fight” and that preventing the return of what he called “ISIS 2.0” was a “longer-term objective.” He even suggested that US forces would remain to help establish conditions for a diplomatic solution. “We’re not going to walk away before the Geneva process has traction,” said Mattis.
In another briefing for reporters in late December, Mattis said that the US forces in Syria would be “shifting from an offensive, terrain-seizing approach, to a stabilizing” role.
Tillerson’s talk was a political gloss on what the Pentagon had already begun planning to do. It provided a series of reasons for the US military to maintain a long-term presence in Syria, while at the same time giving it maximum latitude to avoid getting into a war with Iranian, Russian or Syrian forces.
Tillerson presented the US presence in Syria as necessary to ensure that not only ISIS but al-Qaeda in Syria will “suffer an enduring defeat” — a new term suggesting that the military mission would continue to be counter-terrorism. The reality, as Mattis had already announced, was that the US military is planning to be involved in post-war “stabilization” — something Trump had denounced during the campaign — for many years.
The Tillerson gloss struck the obligatory anti-Iran chord, vowing that US troops would remain until Iranian influence in Syria has been “diminished.” Mentioning that objective was an obvious way to justify a long-term US military presence in Syria, since no one believes that Iranian influence in Syria will be diminished in the coming years.
Despite its obvious bow to the administration’s anti-Iran-war constituency, the word “diminished” was clearly chosen as an alternative to other possible formulations that would have been supported by pro-Israeli figures and institutions lobbying the administration. It reflects the Pentagon’s interest in averting war against the Assad regime or its Iranian allies and its determination to keep its intervention in Syria focused on terrorism and avoid getting involved in forcible regime change.
In the early months of the Trump administration, Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford rejected a proposal from National Security Council staffers for US military intervention against Assad. And in June 2017, the US-led coalition fighting ISIS actually welcomed the likely Syrian and Iranian-supported forces entering the city of Deir ez-Zor, which had been under ISIS occupation, rejecting any idea of seeking to preempt such a move militarily. That determination to avoid being drawn into a war against Iran or Syria has remained unchanged through 2017.
Tillerson enunciated a vision of regime change in Syria that would bring about the departure of Assad and his family not by force, but through “an incremental process of constitutional reform and UN-sponsored elections.” He did not address the multiple violent political-military conflicts involving Turkey, the Kurds, the remnants of al-Qaeda-led opposition forces and the Assad regime, which is very likely to suck the United States into new and dangerous waters if it maintains a military presence in the region.

The Pentagon Ends Trump’s Anti-Interventionist Themes

The Trump administration’s clear commitment to open-ended US war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria adds Trump to the list of presidents who opposed wars only to ultimately give in to the war state bureaucracy under persistent pressure. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Barack Obama had all been skeptical about war proposals on Vietnam and Afghanistan, respectively. But both before and immediately after becoming president, Trump had expressed strong and explicit antagonism toward the idea of indefinite wars.
In a 2013 tweet, as he was contemplating a run for the presidency, Trump declared, “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghans we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” In a speech devoted to foreign policy during the 2016 primary election, Trump attacked war policies in Iraq, Libya and Syria as destructive of societies and creating unnecessary threats to the United States. “We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed,” he declared, adding that the US had created a “vacuum … that ISIS would fill,” along with Iran.
After he had won the presidential election, moreover, Trump did not abandon those anti-intervention themes. In the last speech on his “victory tour” in December 2016, Trump said “intervention and chaos” must “come to an end.” He vowed, “We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we knew nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with. Instead our focus must be on defeating terrorism and destroying ISIS, and we will.”
Trump asserted that past policies had “depleted” the US military, “because we’re all over the place fighting in areas we shouldn’t be fighting in.” He also declared that, instead of investing in wars, he would spend the money on rebuilding the US’s crumbling infrastructure.
Once Mattis took over at the Pentagon, however, he and Dunford, along with National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, began a campaign to get Trump to abandon his opposition to semi-permanent US military interventions in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
By April 2017, US officials were already engaged in discussions with governments in Afghanistan and Iraq on agreements for what US military officials were calling “open-ended commitments” of US troops in those countries — despite expectations that ISIS would soon be decisively defeated in its Iraqi and Syrian urban strongholds.
Afghanistan was the subject of the most acute tensions between the White House and the national security bureaucracy. The military bureaucracy was determined to obtain the deployment of many more troops and, even more important, unlimited time to carry out the US-sponsored war. But for the next four months, Trump — encouraged by political adviser Steve Bannon to remain true to his political base — refused to give his approval to any of the proposals.
Trump’s national security team became “alarmed” about Trump’s persistent questioning of the need for what they called a “robust American presence around the world,” according to an Associated Press account. On July 20, his advisers took Trump and Bannon into “the Tank” — the small room in the Pentagon where the Joint Chiefs of Staff meet regularly — and used charts and diagrams to drive home their message that the forward deployments of troops, spies and diplomats was necessary to “make the world safe for American businesses.”
In August, however, the administration’s crisis over the proposed unending war across the Middle East and Afghanistan came to a head, as Bannon sought to use his connections with the Zionist Organization of America to oust McMaster, claiming that he was not supportive of Israel’s interests. Bannon’s scheme collapsed, however, when Trump’s biggest campaign donor, arch-Likudist Sheldon Adelson, refused to support it. Suddenly, Bannon became much more politically vulnerable, and by the end of the month, he was forced out of the White House.
At the climactic meeting on Afghanistan at Camp David in mid-August, from which Bannon was excluded, Mattis, McMaster and Dunford pressed their advantage. Trump’s opposing stance to intervention dissolved completely. He did not question the generals’ plans for the indefinite continuation of the 16-year-old war, which they presented as necessary to prevent ISIS and al-Qaeda from having a “safe haven” in Afghanistan. They also showed Trump 1972 photographs of Afghan girls in Kabul in mini-skirts to convince him that Western values could prevail in Afghanistan.
Without an aide capable of seeing through the Pentagon’s deceptions, Trump who is well known for a deferential attitude toward senior generals, was a pushover. Announcing the Afghanistan decision a few days later, Trump repeated what he had been told at Camp David. “We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that allow terrorists to threaten America,” he declared.
Once they had turned Trump on Afghanistan, the Pentagon could rely on a simple argument to ensure his compliance with their plans for Syria and Iraq: liken any Trump interference in the war bureaucracy’s plan for open-ended US wars in Iraq and Syria to Obama’s policy of completing the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011. Tillerson emphasized that point in his speech: “We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011 when a premature departure from Iraq allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into ISIS,” he declared.
Thus, did Trump consent to the Pentagon’s plans for permanent US wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The New Pentagon Business Model

The permanent wars in those three countries represent, in effect, a new Pentagon business model for those regions. The model looks for far more payoff in term of congressional appropriations — as well as power at home and abroad in relation to budgetary and political costs — than the Pentagon obtained from waging the big wars of the past in Iraq and Afghanistan. It counts on US casualties remaining relatively small, because combat will take the form of bombings or Special Operations attacks.
Low US casualties are crucial to the new model, because most Americans are not convinced such US military endeavors are necessary or good for this country. A Morning Consult/Politico poll in August 2017 found only 40 percent supportive of additional troops for Afghanistan, while 32 percent wanted complete withdrawal from the war, with the remaining 28 percent unsure.
That reality will certainly require the Pentagon to exercise tighter control over information. Already, the Department of Defense has moved to classify data about Afghan security forces, so it will be more difficult to criticize the US effort as a failure. In order to avoid large-scale criticism, the Pentagon will likely also need to cover up the actual scale of civilian casualties from Special Operations raids and bombings by the United States, as has occurred in the past in Afghanistan, and has occurred again in regard to the US-led coalition bombing of ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq since 2014.
The new Pentagon model is taking advantage of a malleable president to prolong the war bureaucracy’s extraordinary increase in control over resources and power, which it has already enjoyed for more than 16 years. It may succeed in terms of bureaucratic interests, but at great cost to the people of the United States — and at even greater cost to the people of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

How Cheney and His Allies Created the North Korea Nuclear Missile Crisis

How Cheney and His Allies Created the North Korea Nuclear Missile Crisis

The Trump administration has been telling people for months that the crisis with North Korea is the result of North Korea’s relentless pursuit of a nuclear threat to the US homeland and past North Korean cheating on diplomatic agreements. However, North Korea reached agreements with both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations that could have averted that threat, had they been completed.

Instead, a group of Bush administration officials led by then-Vice President Dick Cheney sabotaged both agreements, and Pyongyang went on to make rapid strides on both nuclear and missile development, leading ultimately to the successful late November 2017 North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test.

The record shows, moreover, that Cheney and his allies derailed diplomatic efforts to curb North Korean nuclear and missile development, not because they opposed “arms control” (after all, the agreements that were negotiated would have limited only North Korean arms), but because those agreements would have been a political obstacle to fielding the group’s main interest: funding and fielding a national missile defense system as quickly as possible. The story of Cheney’s maneuvering to kill two agreements shows how a real US national security interest was sacrificed to a massive military boondoggle that served only the interests of the powerful contractors behind it.

Curbing North Korean Arms or Missile Defense?

In October 1994, the Bill Clinton administration reached a historic agreement with North Korea called the “Agreed Framework,” under which Pyongyang agreed to freeze its existing plutonium reactor and related facilities within a month, with full monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and to dismantle them as soon as they could be replaced with light water reactors. The United States promised to provide the reactors, as well fuel oil, until the light water reactors were built. And even more crucially, the US also pledged to take steps to end the enmity toward North Korea and normalize relations between the two longtime adversaries.

No sooner had the Clinton administration negotiated the “Agreed Framework,” however, than the Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress in the 1994 election. That seismic political shift enabled a powerful lobby of military contractors pushing for a national missile defense system to achieve a congressional mandate for rapid development and deployment of such a system.

It was a fateful convergence, because the missile defense lobby’s strategy was to create a sense of urgency about an alleged imminent threat to the US homeland from ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons mounted by “rogue states”– Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

And the Clinton administration’s agreement with North Korea — the only “rogue state” known to have a nuclear weapons program as well as a missile program — threatened that missile defense lobby strategy.

When a 1995 CIA intelligence estimate said that none of the three “rogue states” would have ballistic missiles capable of threatening the United States for at least 15 years, the missile defense lobby got Congress to pass legislation creating a “national commission” on the ballistic missile threat that would contradict the CIA assessment. The commission, led by Republican hard-liner Donald Rumsfeld, asserted in its final report in July 1998 that either Iraq or North Korea might acquire long-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States in as little as five years. In a craven retreat under political pressure, the CIA then largely adopted the commission’s argument.

North Korea had only carried out two tests of medium or longer-range missiles in the decade from 1988 to 1998, neither of which had been successful, so the Clinton administration was not focused on the threat of an ICBM: It held just two rounds of talks on the ballistic missile program between 1996 and 1998.

In fact, it was not the United States, but North Korea that proposed an agreement in 1998 that would end its development of new missiles as part of a broader peace agreement with Washington.

When the United States failed to respond to the proposal, however, North Korea launched a three-stage rocket called the Taepodong on August 31, 1998, which the missile lobby and news media argued was a major step toward a North Korean ICBM. The missile lobby used that event to push for legislation establishing a national policy goal to deploy and “effective National Missile Defense System” as soon as technologically possible.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il was using the regime’s missile development as a prod to get the Clinton administration to negotiate a deal that would include concrete steps toward normalization of relations. He even sent a personal envoy to Washington to present the outline of a new North Korean offer to give up the regime’s quest for an ICBM, as well as its nuclear weapons capability. In October 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang, and the two sides came close to a final agreement that would have ended North Korean missile development as well as its nuclear weapons program and led to normalizing relations.

But Clinton didn’t go to North Korea to sign the deal in the final months of his presidency, and the election of George W. Bush in November 2000 was a major victory for the missile defense lobby. Bush named Rumsfeld, the primary political champion of a missile defense system, as his Secretary of Defense. And no less than eight figures with direct or indirect ties to Lockheed Martin, the leading defense contractor in the missile defense business, became policymakers in the new administration. The most important was Dick Cheney, whose wife, Lynn Cheney, had earned more than half a million dollars serving on the board of directors of Lockheed-Martin from 1994 to 2001.

Cheney set about killing the Agreed Framework and securing the missile defense system even before Bush entered the White House. Cheney chose Robert Joseph, a hardline supporter of missile defense and foe of an agreement with North Korea, as a key member of the transition team that Cheney led. Cheney then made Joseph senior director on the National Security Council (NSC) staff with responsibility for both missile defense and “weapons of mass destruction” proliferation policy.

“Joseph really hated the Agreed Framework,” Larry Wilkerson, then in the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, told journalist Mike Chinoy. “His objective was first to kill the Agreed Framework and to make sure that nothing like it could ever get created again.”

Joseph’s first project was to draft a National Security Presidential Directive that laid out a “new strategic framework,” essentially built around a ballistic missile defense system, as Joseph later told a National Defense University researcher.

Joseph drafted a speech that the president gave on May 1, 2001, in which Bush debuted a new central argument for national missile defense. “Deterrence can no longer be based solely on the threat of nuclear retaliation,” Bush declared, adding that missile defense system could “strengthen deterrence by reducing the incentive for proliferation.”

Cheney and Bolton Go for the Kill

Colin Powell’s State Department posed the main obstacle to the Cheney group’s plans for trashing the Agreed Framework. The Department’s East Asian Bureau got Bush’s approval for a formal policy review on North Korea, which concluded by defining the policy goal of exploring a deal with North Korea that would involve “an improved relationship.”

But Cheney had a bureaucratic strategy to frustrate that endeavor and finish off the Agreed Framework. The NSC staff initiated a “nuclear posture review,” which was carried out without any participation by Powell’s allies. The final document included North Korea on a new list of countries that could be targets for US use of nuclear weapons.

That designation, which was leaked to the press in March 2002, conflicted directly with the US pledge in the Agreed Framework to “provide formal assurances to the DPRK, against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the U.S.”

Then Bush’s State of the Union message in January 2002 introduced the idea of North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq. That was not merely a throwaway line introduced by a speechwriter, but reflected lobbying by Cheney and Rumsfeld for “toughening sanctions and isolation to lay the groundwork for regime change in North Korea,” according to Condoleezza Rice’s memoir, No Higher Honor.

John Bolton, Cheney’s proxy in the State Department on proliferation issues, writes in his memoir Surrender is Not an Option that he considered the “axis of evil” speech a signal that he could now begin a bureaucratic offensive aimed at killing the Agreed Framework. Bolton recalls that he pushed the State Department to adopt the position that North Korea was out of compliance with the Agreed Framework for having “failed to make a complete and accurate declaration of its nuclear activities and refused to allow inspection of related facilities.”

However, Bolton was misrepresenting the terms of the agreement, which provided that North Korea would come into full compliance with its safeguards agreement, including the accuracy and completeness of its declaration on its nuclear program, “[w]hen a significant portion of the LWR [light water reactor] project is completed, but before delivery of key nuclear components…” Construction on the light water reactor had not even begun in 2002, when the State Department notified Congress that North Korea was out of compliance.

Bolton’s plan was frustrated temporarily by resistance from the NSC, over which then-National Security Adviser Rice had some influence. But the decisive blow to the Agreed Framework came in July 2002, when, according to his memoir, Bolton obtained an intelligence assessment stating that North Korea “began seeking centrifuge-related materials in large quantities” in 2001, and that it had “obtained equipment suitable for use in uranium feed and withdrawal systems.” Bolton recalls that the new intelligence finding was “the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.” He argued in interagency meetings that North Korea had pledged to “take steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” and therefore any North Korean move toward uranium enrichment violated its commitment.

Bolton was creating another false issue. Robert Carlin, a North Korea expert and adviser to the US negotiators, has pointed out that the reference to that document was an “afterthought” and that “no one really believed that the reference to the North-South agreements would constitute one of the core DPRK obligations” in the agreement.

Bush’s negotiator with North Korea, Charles L. Pritchard, suggested bringing the uranium enrichment issue into the Agreed Framework, using the North Korean interest in normalization as negotiating leverage, according to Bolton. He also warned that if the United States withdrew from the agreement, North Korea would resume its plutonium program or start a new uranium program.

However, Bolton recalls telling Pritchard that wouldn’t make “the slightest difference,” because North Korea already had enough plutonium for “several weapons.” In fact, it was not at all clear that Pyongyang had already converted plutonium into a single nuclear weapon.

However, Bolton showed no apparent concern about North Korea’s long-range missile program, which the Clinton administration and North Korea had agreed would be negotiated in conjunction with moves toward normalization. “I wanted a decisive conclusion that the Agreed Framework was dead,” Bolton writes.

In October 2002, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly went to Pyongyang with explicit orders, which Rice attributes to those who were undermining diplomacy, to accuse Pyongyang of cheating on the agreement by having a uranium enrichment program. North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju did not deny the government’s interest in uranium enrichment, but said it was a response to the clear indications from the Bush administration that it had no intention to improve relations with his government. He also said North Korea was prepared to negotiateon all enrichment, including uranium, if the United States changed its hostile policy.

However, at an NSC meeting a week later, no one disagreed with the assertion that the Agreed Framework was dead, according to Bolton. In December 2002, the Bush administration strong-armed its Japanese and South Korean allies to end their supply of oil to the North Korea, officially terminating the Agreed Framework.

Cheney and his allies were clearing the political path to full funding for the national missile defense system they wanted to rush to deployment as quickly as possible. Rumsfeld had created a new Missile Defense Agency in the Pentagon in early 2002, which had unprecedented freedom from congressional or Department of Defense oversight.

They were also opening the floodgates for North Korean nuclear and missile development.

Cheney Kills Rice’s North Korea Agreement

For the next three years, the Bush administration refused direct negotiations with North Korea. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got Bush to agree in September 2005 to a joint statement of principles with North Korea in the context of Six-Party Talks.

In October 2007, Washington and Pyongyang negotiated an agreement under which Pyongyang would first seal and then disable its plutonium-based facilities for shipment of heavy fuel and provide a full accounting of its entire nuclear program, including uranium. For its part, the US pledged to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and lift other trade restrictions. In a later phase, the two sides would agree on a verification system and on steps leading to normalization of relations.

Then Cheney sabotaged the new agreement. In April 2007, Israel claimed Syria had built a nuclear reactor in the desert in eastern Syria with North Korean assistance. Bush’s advisers all accepted the Israeli claim as true, but nearly a decade later, the IAEA’s expert on North Korean reactors at the time revealed detailed technical evidence that had led him to conclude with certainty that the Syrian site could not possibly have been a North Korean-designed reactor.

Cheney seized on the alleged Syrian reactor to wrest control over North Korea policy from Rice. In a January 4, 2008 White House meeting, he recalls in his memoirs In My Time how he successfully prodded Bush and Rice to agree with his assumption that a “failure to admit they’ve been proliferating to the Syrians would be a deal killer.” Two months later, Bush gave Cheney power to approve any joint US-North Korean text negotiated by the State Department.

Under pressure from Cheney, Rice adopted a new diplomatic strategy. In addition to their obligations in the first two phases of the October 2007 agreement, she writes inNo Higher Honor, “[t]he North Koreans would also have to agree to a verification protocol to govern the on-site inspection of all aspects of their nuclear program.”

That verification protocol — not the actions pledged by Pyongyang in the October 2007 agreement — would now be the basis for deciding whether the administration would take North Korea off the terrorist list and stop the application of the Trading with the Enemy Act.

Rice was changing the rules after the fact. After had North Korea delivered its declaration on its plutonium enrichment program in late June 2008, US negotiators sought North Korean agreement for inspectors to go into any site, whether declared or not, including sensitive military sites. Pyongyang conveyed its strong private objections to that, as well as to environmental sampling by inspectors. The 45-day period during which the United States was supposed to have taken its two small steps toward normalization came and went.

North Korea immediately accused the United States of violating the October agreement and suspended the disabling of its nuclear facilities. The US negotiator, Chris Hill, got what he regarded as North Korean verbal agreement to an amended version of the verification protocol, but North Korea would not sign it. On the basis of that unwritten understanding, Bush agreed to take North Korea off the US list of terrorist sponsors, and the physical disabling of the North Korea’s plutonium complex was completed.

But Bush insisted that North Korea sign the verification protocol, and in December, after Barack Obama’s election, Pyongyang rejected the Bush administration’s unilateral rewriting of the agreement, issuing a statement that it would only agree to intrusive inspections when US “hostile policy and nuclear threat to the North are fundamentally terminated” US-North Korean diplomacy on the October 2007 nuclear deal came to a halt.

Cheney and his allies had prevented the successful completion of two agreements that could have averted the present crisis with North Korea. When Bush took office in 2001, North Korea was believed to possess less than an atomic bomb’s worth of plutonium. By the end of his second term, North Korea was already a nuclear power, with several nuclear weapons.

Even more significant, however, the Bush administration never even attempted to negotiate limits on North Korea’s long-range missile program. That failure was very costly to the interests of the American people — but it was a gift to the national missile defense program that has kept on giving.

Reprinted with permission from Truthout.org.

Congress to Debate US War on Yemen

Congress to Debate US War on Yemen

The bill introduced by a bipartisan group of House members last week to end the direct U.S. military role in the Saudi coalition war in Yemen guarantees that the House of Representatives will vote for the first time on the single most important element of U.S. involvement in the war—the refueling of Saudi coalition planes systematically bombing Yemeni civilian targets.

In doing so, moreover, the bipartisan bill, H. Con. Res. 81, will provide a major test of Congressional will to uphold the War Powers Act of 1973, which reasserted a Congressional role in restraining presidential power to enter into wars without its approval in the wake of the Vietnam War debacle.

Since the Obama administration gave the green light to the Saudi war of destruction in Yemen in March 2015, it has been widely recognized by both Congress and the news media that U.S. military personnel have been supplying the bombs used by Saudi coalition planes. But what has seldom been openly discussed is that the U.S. Air Force has been providing the mid-air refueling for every Saudi coalition bombing sortie in Yemen, without which the war would quickly grind to a halt.

The Obama administration, and especially the Pentagon and the U.S. military, became nervous about public statements about that direct U.S. military role in the Saudi war after some legal experts began to raise the issue internally of potential U.S. legal responsibility for apparent war crimes in Yemen. Refueling Saudi coalition bombing missions “not only makes the U.S. a party to the Yemen conflict, but could also lead to U.S. personnel being found complicit in coalition war crimes,” Kristine Beckerle, Yemen and UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch, has observed.

The political sensitivity of that direct and vital U.S. military role in the Saudi coalition airstrikes was so great in the last year of the Obama administration that U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, in an interview with a New Zealand journalist twice declared, deceptively, “We are not involved in carrying out airstrikes in Yemen.”

The bill introduced by Democratic Representatives Ro Khanna of California and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, and Republican Representatives Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Walter Jones of North Carolina, calls for Congress to “direct” the president to “remove” U.S. military personnel from their role in the Saudi air war against the forces of the Houthi-Saleh alliance in Yemen. It would give the President 30 days in which to end the U.S. military role in support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen unless and until Congress has enacted either a declaration of war or an authorization of those activities.

The co-sponsors believe members will support it because U.S. direct involvement in the Saudi war of destruction in Yemen has enmeshed the United States in the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis in many years. Some 542,000 Yemenis, already weakened by starvation, have now succumbed to a cholera epidemic that is far worse than any in the world for the past fifty years, as the New York Times reported in August.

The starvation and cholera epidemic are the consequences of a multi-faceted strategy aimed at creating such civilian suffering as to finally break the resistance of the Houthi-Saleh forces. The Saudi strategy has included:

  • Targeting of hospitals, markets and agricultural infrastructure.
  • Destruction of cranes necessary to offload any large-scale humanitarian assistance at the main port of Hodeida and refusal to replace them with new cranes.
  • A naval blockade that has strictly limited shipping of food, fuel and other necessities to Hodeida port.
  • Closing down the civilian airport to prevent delivery of humanitarian aid.
  • Destruction of roads and bridges necessary for delivery of humanitarian aid.
  • Closing down the Central Bank of Yemen – the only institution in Yemen that was providing liquidity to millions of Yemenis.

Another selling point for H. Con Res. 81 is that it is based explicitly on the language of the War Powers Act of 1973, passed by a two-thirds majority in the House overriding a veto by President Richard M. Nixon. The War Powers Act includes a provision that, “[A]t any time that United States Armed Forces are engaged in hostilities outside the territory of the United States, its possessions and territories without a declaration of war or specific statutory authorization, such forces shall be removed by the President if the Congress so directs by concurrent resolution.”

The proposed bill argues that the direct U.S. military involvement in the Saudi Yemen war has never been authorized by Congress, and that the provision in the wars powers act is therefore applicable. It specifically exempts U.S. forces operating in Yemen against al Qaeda, which were authorized under the 2001 Authorization for Military Force (AUMF) and which have not generated critical public and Congressional reactions.

Con. Res. 81 applies a provision of the War Powers Act to ensure that opponents in the Foreign Affairs Committee or the majority leadership won’t be able to keep it bottled up without a vote. The War Powers Act puts any proposed Congressional resolution for action regarding an unauthorized use of force on a fast track for an early floor vote, making it a “priority resolution.” Once the measure is referred to the House or Senate foreign affairs committee, the War Powers Act requires that the committee report out a resolution within fifteen days, and that the resolution must then come to a vote within three days.

Aides say the co-sponsors will present the measure as a response to a policy initiated and carried out for nearly two years by the Obama administration.They say a number of Republican offices are now seriously considering co-sponsorship of H. Con. Res. 81.

In addition to the humanitarian disaster and war powers issues linked to the direct U.S. military role in Saudi airstrikes, the co-sponsors will be pointing to multiple ways the U.S. role in the war makes the American people less secure, according to Congressional aides. One of the effects of the war has been to enormously strengthen the position of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered the biggest single foreign threat to carry out terrorist actions against the United States after two failed efforts in recent years. Saudi-backed Yemeni forces have been fighting alongside AQAP against the Houthis-Saleh forces. And the war has given AQAP much greater territorial control, political legitimacy and access to money and arms than it ever had before.

Yet another argument is the longer-term hatred of the United States that the U.S. direct involvement in the Saudi bombing campaign and starvation strategy is creating. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told CNN’s Jake Tapper in June 2016, “If you talk to Yemenis, they will tell you, this is not perceived to be a Saudi bombing campaign. This is perceived to be a U.S. bombing campaign. What’s happening is that we are helping to radicalize the Yemeni population against the United States.”

Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, has been meeting with Republican House members to urge them to support the bill. “The war being waged in Saudi Arabia with U.S. assistance is brutal and vicious, and it is a losing one for both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia but a boon for AQAP,” Wilkerson said in an interview with TAC. “It should cease immediately.”

But sponsors and advocates of H. Con. Res. 81 may have to refute arguments about Iran that the Saudis and the Obama administration have used to justify the Saudi war in Yemen. Wilkerson noted Republican members who cited Iran’s alleged role in the Houthi war effort and the common U.S.-Saudi opposition to it. “They argue that the Saudis are doing our work for us, so we’ve got to hold our nose and support them,” said Wilkerson.

But that argument reflects a false narrative created by the Obama administration that Iran has been arming the Houthis for years.  Administration officials used a UN panel obviously set up at Washington’s behest to recycle old and demonstrably fabricated claims of Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis. The Houthis have undoubtedly obtained missiles and other weapons from Iran, but the UN panel of experts on Yemen reported in January 2017 that it did not have sufficient evidence to “confirm any direct large-scale supply of arms” from Iran to the Houthis.   

More importantly, the modest military assistance from Iran came in response to the Saudi coalition air assault on Yemen—not the other way around. And contrary to the official Pentagon myth of a “proxy war” against Iran in Yemen, the Houthis are fighting the Saudis for Yemeni interests—not to serve Iranian interests.

Reprinted from the American Conservative magazine.

How America Armed Terrorists In Syria

How America Armed Terrorists In Syria

Another Middle East debacle

Three-term Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a member of both the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, has proposed legislation that would prohibit any U.S. assistance to terrorist organizations in Syria as well as to any organization working directly with them.  Equally important, it would prohibit U.S. military sales and other forms of military cooperation with other countries that provide arms or financing to those terrorists and their collaborators.

Gabbard’s “Stop Arming Terrorists Act” challenges for the first time in Congress a U.S. policy toward the conflict in the Syrian civil war that should have set off alarm bells long ago: in 2012-13 the Obama administration helped its Sunni allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar provide arms to Syrian and non-Syrian armed groups to force President Bashar al-Assad out of power.  And in 2013 the administration began to provide arms to what the CIA judged to be “relatively moderate” anti-Assad groups—meaning they incorporated various degrees of Islamic extremism.

That policy, ostensibly aimed at helping replace the Assad regime with a more democratic alternative, has actually helped build up al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise al Nusra Front into the dominant threat to Assad.

The supporters of this arms-supply policy believe it is necessary as pushback against Iranian influence in Syria. But that argument skirts the real issue raised by the policy’s history.  The Obama administration’s Syria policy effectively sold out the U.S. interest that was supposed to be the touchstone of the “Global War on Terrorism”—the eradication of al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates. The United States has instead subordinated that U.S. interest in counter-terrorism to the interests of its Sunni allies. In doing so it has helped create a new terrorist threat in the heart of the Middle East.

Read the rest at The American Conservative magazine here.

 

Why Afghanistan? Fighting a War for the War System Itself

Why Afghanistan? Fighting a War for the War System Itself

President Donald Trump is hesitating to agree to thousands of additional troops for the war in Afghanistan as recommended by his secretary of defense and national security adviser, according to a New York Times report over the weekend.

So, it’s a good time to put aside, for a moment, the troop request itself and focus on why the United States has been fighting the Taliban since 2001 — and losing to them for well over a decade.

Some of the war managers would argue that the United States has never had enough troops or left them in Afghanistan long enough. But those very figures are openly calling for an indefinite neocolonial US military presence. The real reason for the fundamental weakness of the US-NATO war is the fact that the United States has empowered a rogues’ gallery of Afghan warlords whose militias have imposed a regime of chaos, violence and oppression on the Afghan population — stealing, killing and raping with utter impunity. And that strategy has come back to bite the Pentagon’s war managers.

The Taliban hold the same sexist ideas as many members of rural Afghan society about keeping girls out of schools and in the home. But the organization appeared in 1994 in response to the desperate pleas of the population in the south — especially in a Kandahar province divided up by four warlords — to stop the wholesale abduction and rape of women and pre-teen boys, as well as the uncontrolled extortion of tolls by warlord troops. The Taliban portrayed themselves as standing for order and elementary justice against chaos and sexual violence, and they immediately won broad popular support to drive the warlords out of power across the south, finally taking over Kabul without a fight.

Then in 2001 the United States ousted the Taliban regime — implicitly as retribution for 9/11, even though the Taliban leader Mullah Omar had not been informed of Osama bin Laden’s plot and had strongly opposed any such plotting. Instead of forcing the warlords to give up their power or simply letting Afghan society determine the Taliban’s fate, the United States helped its own warlord allies consolidate their power. President Hamid Karzai was encouraged to appoint the most powerful warlords as provincial governors and their private militias were converted into the national police. The CIA even put some of the militias on their payroll along with their warlord bosses to help track down Taliban and al Qaeda remnants.

These early US decisions created the plague of abuses by the “police” and other militias that has remained the underlying socio-political dynamic of the war ever since. Ron Neumann, US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, explained the accepted rules for the warlords and the commanders of their militias toward those who are not part of their tribal in-group. “You take the people’s land, their women — you steal from them — it’s all part of one package,” he told me in a 2009 interview.

It was not long before the Taliban began to reorganize for a second resistance to the warlords. From 2003 to 2006, they were taking the offensive across the Pashtun area of the south, with a rapidly increasing tempo of attacks.

In 2006 the US-NATO command responded to the Taliban offensive by creating the “Afghan National Auxiliary Police” (ANAP). ANAP officers were given new AK-47 assault rifles and uniforms like those of regular police, but the group was in essence another warlord militia, composed of the same individuals as other warlord militias. As a senior official in the Afghan Ministry of Interior told Human Rights Watch, the ANAP “was made for the warlords.” They were “the same people, committing the same crimes, with more power.”

The ANAP program was abandoned in April 2008, an apparent failure, but the US-NATO reliance on the warlords’ militias continued. When US and British troops moved back into Lashkar Gah district of Helmand Province in mid-2009, their plan was to rely on police to reestablish a government presence there. But the police, commanded by mujahideen loyal to province warlord Sher Mohammed Akhunzadeh, had terrorized the population of the district with systematic violent abuses, including the frequent  abduction and rape of pre-teen boys. The residents and village elders warned the British and Americans stationed in the district that they would again support the Taliban if necessary to protect themselves against being victimized by the police.

By September 2009 as the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal was pressing Obama to add 40,000 more troops, his command was no longer under any illusions about being able to regain the support of the rural Pashtun population as long as it was so closely associated with the warlords. In his initial assessment of August 2009, McChrystal referred to “public anger and alienation” toward the US and NATO troops, because of the general perception that they were “complicit” in “widespread corruption and abuse of power.”

But by then McChrystal and the US-NATO command chose to continue to rely on their warlord clients, because the US military needed their militias to supply all the US and NATO troops in the country. In order to get food, fuel and arms to the foreign troops at over 200 forward-operating military bases and combat outposts, the command had to outsource the trucking of the supplies and the security to private companies. Otherwise the command would have had to use a large percentage of the total foreign troops in Afghanistan to provide security for the convoys, as the Russians had done in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

But the only plentiful and instantly available supply of armed forces to provide the security was in the ranks of the warlords’ own militias. So, the Pentagon designed a massive $2.16 billion annual logistics contract in 2008-09 under which about 25,000 militiamen were paid by dozens of private trucking companies and security companies owned by the warlords. The warlords were paid tens of millions of dollars a year, further consolidating their hold on the society.

The abuses by militias continued to be the primary complaint of village residents. The district governor in Khanabad district of Kunduz province told Human Rights Watch, “People come to me and complain about these arbakis [militias], but I can do nothing about this. They collect ushr [informal tax], take the daughters of the people, they do things against the wives of the people, they take their horses, sheep, anything.

When he assumed command in Afghanistan in mid-2010, Gen. David Petraeus immediately decided to turn yet again to the same warlord source of manpower to create the “Afghan Local Police” or ALP to provide 20,000 men to patrol the villages. Each ALP unit had its own Special Forces team, which gave its officers even greater impunity. The chief of the Baghlan Province council recounted a meeting with the US Special Operations Forces officer in charge of the ALP at which he had warned that the militiamen were “criminals.” But the officer had flatly rejected his charge.

In theory, the ALP was supposed to be accountable to the chief of police in each district where it was operating. But one district chief of police in Baghlan province complained that it was impossible to investigate ALP crimes because the US Special Operations Forces were protecting them.

A Green Beret officer interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor in 2011 explained the US Special Operations Forces’ perspective on the depredations of its Afghan clients:  “The ugly reality,” he said, “is that if the US wants to prevail against the Taliban and its allies, it must work with Afghan fighters whose behavior insults Western sensibilities.”

By 2013 the ALP had grown to nearly 30,000, and even the State Department annual report on human rights in Afghanistan acknowledged the serious abuses blamed on the ALP. The 2016 State Department report on human rights in Afghanistan refers to “credible accounts of killing, rape, assault, the forcible levy of informal taxes, and the traditional practice of ‘baad’ — the transfer of a girl or woman to another family to settle a debt or grievance” — all attributed by villagers to the ALP.

The linkage between warlord militia abuses and the cooperation of much of the rural population with the Taliban has long been accepted by the US command in Afghanistan. But the war has continued, because it serves powerful interests that have nothing to do with Afghanistan itself: the careers of the US officers who serve there; the bureaucratic stakes of the Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA in their huge programs and facilities in the country; the political cost of admitting that it was a futile effort from the start. Plus, the Pentagon and the CIA are determined to hold on to Afghan airstrips they use to carry out drone war in Pakistan for as long as possible.

Thus Afghanistan, the first of the United States’ permanent wars, is in many ways the model for all the others that have followed — wars that have no other purpose than to serve the US war system itself.

Reprinted with permission from Truthout.org.

US ‘Deep State’ Sold Out Counter-Terrorism to Keep Itself in Business

US ‘Deep State’ Sold Out Counter-Terrorism to Keep Itself in Business

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman outraged many readers when he wrote an opinion piece on 12 April calling on President Trump to ”back off fighting territorial ISIS in Syria”. The reason he gave for that recommendation was not that US wars in the Middle East are inevitably self-defeating and endless, but that it would reduce the “pressure on Assad, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah”.

That suggestion that the US sell out its interest in counter-terrorism in the Middle East to gain some advantage in power competition with its adversaries was rightly attacked as cynical.

But, in fact, the national security bureaucracies of the US – which many have come to call the “Deep State” – have been selling out their interests in counter-terrorism in order to pursue various adventures in the region ever since George W Bush declared a “Global War on Terrorism” in late 2001.

The whole war on terrorism has been, in effect, a bait-and-switch operation from the beginning. The idea that US military operations were somehow going to make America safer after the 9/11 attacks was the bait. What has actually happened ever since then, however, is that senior officials at the Pentagon and the CIA have been sacrificing the interest of American people in weakening al-Qaeda in order to pursue their own institutional interests.

‘The only game in town’

It all began, of course, with the invasion of Iraq. Counter-terrorism specialists in the US government knew perfectly well that US regime change in Iraq through military force would give a powerful boost to Osama bin Laden’s organisation and to anti-American terrorism generally. Rand Beers, then senior director for counter-terrorism on the National Security Council staff, told his predecessor Richard Clarke in late 2002, “Do you know how much it will strengthen al-Qaeda and groups like that if we occupy Iraq?”

After it quickly became clear that the US war in Iraq was already motivating young men across the Middle East to wage jihad against the US in Iraq, the chief architect of the occupation of Iraq, Paul Wolfowitz, came up with the patently false rationalisation that Iraq would be a “flytrap” for jihadists.

But in January 2005, after a year of research, the CIA issued a major intelligence assessment warning that the war was breeding more al-Qaeda extremist militants from all over the Middle East and even giving them combat experience that they would eventually be able to use back home. In a 2006 National Intelligence Estimate, the intelligence community warned that the number of people identifying themselves as jihadists was growing and was becoming more widespread geographically and even the predicted growing terrorist threats from “self-radicalized cells” both in the US and abroad.

The war managers continued to claim that their wars were making Americans safer. CIA Director Michael Hayden not only sought to sell the flypaper argument on Iraq, but also bragged to the Washington Post in 2008 that the CIA was making great progress against al-Qaeda, based mainly on its burgeoning drone war in Pakistan.

But Hayden and the CIA had a huge bureaucratic interest in that war. He had lobbied Bush in 2007 to loosen restraints on drone strikes in Pakistan and let the CIA launch lethal attacks on the mere suspicion that a group of males were al-Qaeda.

It soon became clear that it wasn’t really weakening the al-Qaeda in the northwest Pakistan at all. Even drone operators themselves began privately criticising the drone attacks for making many more young Pakistanis hate the United States and support al-Qaeda. The only thing Leon Panetta, Hayden’s successor as CIA director, could say in defense of the programme was that it was “the only game in town”.

Covert wars

Barack Obama wanted out of a big war in Iraq. But CENTCOM Commander Gen David Petraeus and Joint Staff director Gen Stanley A McChyrstal, talked Obama into approving a whole new series of covert wars using CIA drone strikes and special operations commando raids against al-Qaeda and other jihadist organisations in a dozen countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. At the top of their list of covert wars was Yemen, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had just been formed.

Since 2009, the Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA have launched 16 cruise missile strikes and 183 drone strikes in Yemen. Unfortunately, they lacked the intelligence necessary for such a campaign. As many as one-third of the strikes killed innocent civilians and local notables – including the cruise missile strike in December 2009 which killed 41 civilians and attack on a wedding party in December 2013. Virtually every independent observer agrees that those killings have fed Yemeni hatred of the US and contributed to AQAP’s luster as the leading anti-US organisation in the country.

The CIA again claimed they were doing a splendid job of hitting AQAP, but in fact the Yemeni offshoot of al-Qaeda continued to be the primary terrorism threat while the covert war continued. Three times between late 2009 and 2012, it mounted efforts to bring down airliners and nearly succeeded in two of the three.

Sharpened contradictions

In late 2011 and early 2012, the contradiction between the US pretension to counter-terrorism in its Middle East policy and the interests sharpened even further. That’s when the Obama administration adopted a new anti-Iran hard line in the region to reassure the Saudis that we were still committed to the security alliance. That hard line policy had nothing to do with a nuclear deal with Iran, which came more than a year later.

At first, it took form of covert logistical assistance to the Sunni allies to arm Sunni anti-Assad forces in Syria. But in 2014, the Obama administration began providing anti-tank missiles to selected anti-Assad armed groups. And when the Nusra Front wanted the groups the CIA had supported in Idlib to coordinate with the jihadist offensive to seize control of Idlib province, the Obama administration did not object.

The Obama national security team was willing to take advantage of the considerable military power of the Nusra Front-led jihadist alliance. But it was all done with a wink and a nod to maintain the fiction that it was still committed to defeating al-Qaeda everywhere.

When the Saudis came to Washington in March 2015 with a plan to wage a major war in Yemen against the Houthis and their new ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the deep state was ready to give Saudi a green light. A predictable consequence of that decision has been to fuel the rise of AQAP, which had already emerged as the primary threat of terrorist attack on the US, to an unprecedented position of power.

The biggest winner

As documented by the International Crisis Group, AQAP has been the biggest winner in the war, taking advantage of state collapse, an open alliance with the Saudi-supported government and a major infusion of arms – much of its provided indirectly by the Saudis.

Endowed with a political strategy of playing up AQAP’s role as champion of Sunni sectarian interests against those Yemenis whom they wrongly call Shia, AQAP controlled a large swath of territory across southern Yemen with the port of Mukalla as their headquarters. And even though the Saudi coalition recaptured the territory, they maintain a strong political presence there.

AQAP will certainly emerge from the disastrous war in Yemen as the strongest political force in the south, with a de-facto safe haven in which to plot terrorist attacks against the US.  And they can thank the war bureaucracies in the US who helped them achieve that powerful position.

But the reason for the betrayal of US counter-terrorism interests is not that the senior officials in charge of these war bureaucracies want to promote al-Qaeda. It is because they had to sacrifice the priority of countering al-Qaeda to maintain the alliances, the facilities and the operations on which their continued power and resources depend.

Reprinted with permission from Middle East Eye.

The US Provided Cover for the Saudi Starvation Strategy in Yemen

The US Provided Cover for the Saudi Starvation Strategy in Yemen

As Yemen’s population has teetered on the brink of mass starvation in recent months, the United States has played a crucial role in enabling the Saudi strategy responsible for that potential humanitarian catastrophe.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have prioritized the US’s alliance with the Saudis and their Gulf allies over the lives of hundreds of thousands of Yemenis under imminent threat of starvation.

Although the UN agencies have offered no public estimate of the number of Yemenis who have died of malnutrition-related conditions, it is likely that the figure is much higher than the estimate of 10,000 killed directly by the Saudi-coalition bombing. United Nations agencies have estimated that 462,000 Yemeni children under five years of age are already suffering severe acute malnutrition, putting them at serious risk of death from starvation and malnutrition-related disease.

The Saudi coalition has pursued a war strategy of maximizing pressure on the Houthi resistance by destroying agricultural, health and transportation infrastructure and by choking off access to food and fuel for most of Yemen’s population. The United States has enabled the Saudis to pursue that strategy by refueling the Saudi-led coalition planes bombing Yemen and selling the bombs. Equally important, however, the US has provided the political-diplomatic cover that the Saudis need to carry out this ruthless endeavor without massive international blowback.

The Trump administration has gone even further in supporting the Saudi strategy.  Whereas the Obama administration opposed a Saudi-led coalition offensive to regain control over the main port of Hodeidah and the rest of the Red Sea coast, saying it would worsen the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the Trump administration has clearly given the green light to th Saudis to launch that offensive.

Furthermore the commander of Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, has called Yemen a “vital interest” of the United States, arguing that anti-Iranian forces must be in control of it to prevent Iranian threats to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. That argument, which conjures a wholly artificial threat to commercial traffic through the Strait, clearly implies active support for the Saudi strategy of recapturing Hodeidah and choking off all access to food for the portion of the Yemeni population under the control of forces loyal to the Houthi and to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

But the Obama administration had already acquiesced to a series of moves by the Saudi-led coalition to impose ever-tighter restrictions on the population’s access to food, fuel and medical supplies. A coalition of Houthi rebels and troops loyal to former President Saleh had driven the US- and Saudi-backed Saudi-supported President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi from power in 2015, and he ultimately escaped from Aden to Riyadh. The Saudis sought and obtained the support of the Obama administration for a war to reinstall the Hadi government by force. But the Saudi-led coalition advance soon stalled, as the Houthi-Saleh forces demonstrated their mastery of guerrilla tactics. So the Saudis started to rely on a strategy that deprived the population in the Houthi-Saleh area of control of food and fuel.

The administration’s permissive stance toward the Saudi war strategy was evident from the beginning of the war. When the United Nations Security Council was negotiating the April 2015 resolution on Yemen, the original text circulated for discussion included a requirement for “humanitarian pauses” in military operations, but after the Saudis and other coalition members objected vigorously to the language, it was dropped from the final text, according to journalist Sharif Abdel Khouddous.

The Saudi coalition quickly revealed the essence of its strategy in Yemen: to impose extreme hardship on the population in Houthi-controlled governorates. The strategy included not only bombing raids that targeted Yemen’s fragile infrastructure for transportation, food production and medical care, but a naval blockade, ostensibly to prevent any arms from reaching Yemen, but also clearly intended to limit severely the population’s access to foodstuffs and fuel.

Even in peacetime, Yemen is dependent on imports for 90 percent of its staple foods as well as virtually all of its fuel and medical supplies. The consequences of the blockade on the nutrition and health of the civilian population were bound to be devastating.

Oxfam-America humanitarian policy adviser Scott Paul testified to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in January 2017 that, after imposing a naval blockade, the Saudi-led coalition had begun to withhold or delay permission for major commercial and humanitarian vessels to berth in Yemen ports. The coalition held up approval of the delivery of such shipments for weeks, and food often spoiled. “By setting up an arbitrary and onerous regime,” Paul told the Commission, the coalition created a “de facto blockade” preventing food, fuel and medicine from reaching the population.

The climax of the blockade strategy was a series of airstrikes on August 17, 2015, that destroyed all of the cranes used to unload container ships at the main commercial port of Hodeidah, Yemen’s only port capable of receiving such ships. The strikes also destroyed an entire World Food Program warehouse, one of the berths, the port authority warehouse, the port control building and the customs building.

By February 2016, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen as a result of the Saudi blockade was already worse than Syria’s. The UN Security Council had a series of meetings about humanitarian access in both Syria and Yemen, and the members of the Council agreed that resolutions should guarantee humanitarian access — the ability to get food and other humanitarian assistance — to those in need in both countries. But once again, after the Saudis intervened with the United States and its European allies to oppose such a resolution on Yemen, the idea was dropped.

In mid-2016 the Saudis and the Hadi government began planning a much more drastic form of pressure on the population in the Houthi-Saleh-controlled North: eliminating the last institutional barrier to starvation, the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY).

The CBY, which was located in the Houthi-controlled capital, Sanaa, was playing a key role in providing a minimum of liquidity in the society. It was paying the monthly salaries of 1.2 million people on the government payroll, the vast majority of who were still loyal to former president Saleh and are now fighting the Saudi-led coalition forces alongside the Houthis. It was also financing the commercial shipments of food and fuel still arriving at Hodeidah and other ports.

The international financial institutions — with the support of Western governments, including the United States — understood the crucial role of the CBY as an “economic truce” between the warring Yemeni parties that was a necessity to avoid a complete humanitarian catastrophe. But in early July Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr of the Saudi-backed government in Aden explicitly criticized that “economic truce” indicating the intention to bring it to an end. And on August 6, bin Daghr accused the CBY of having used its funds to finance the Houthi-Saleh war effort and called on banks and financial institutions holding large Yemeni foreign reserves to cut off relations with the CBY.

The bank’s governor, Mohammed Awad bin Humam, a highly respected technocrat, wrote a letter to President Hadi denying the charge and proposing that the IMF send a reputable accounting firm to verify his staff’s management of the bank’s accounts. In a press briefing on September 1, IMF press spokesman Gerry Rice endorsed bin Human’s proposal and confirmed that the CBY had played “a crucial role in facilitating minimum levels of import of basic food items, fuel and medicine” over the previous 16 months and had “averted an all-out humanitarian crisis.”

But in mid-September the Hadi government went ahead with its plan to name a new governor of the Central Bank, who would serve in Aden, which was under Saudi coalition control. An unnamed Western diplomat harshly criticized the move to Reuters, calling it an effort to “weaponize the economy by preventing the central bank access to funds abroad.”

The Hadi government promised that the relocated CBY would continue to maintain the bank’s role in providing liquidity and financing imports. In fact, none of Yemen’s civil servants have been paid since the Sanaa-based CBY was cut off from Yemen’s foreign currency reserves abroad, further increasing the number of Yemenis who can no longer purchase food.

Oxfam humanitarian affairs adviser Scott Paul recalled in an interview that Obama administration officials had told him that they had informed the Saudis that they disapproved of the Hadi government’s decision. But the administration said nothing about the move publicly, signaling that it had decided to accept the move. “The idea that the administration should tell the Saudis that Hadi had to back off his replacement of the Central bank governor was never going to fly,” said Paul.

Obama was unwilling to override Saudi policy because of his administration’s firm commitment to the alliance with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 9, 2017, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Dafna Rand recalled that the administration’s policy toward Yemen had reflected “unconditional support for the coalition,” because of what she called “our deep loyalty to our allies” and their aims in regard to Iran.

That “deep loyalty” primarily reflects the overriding US interest in military relations with the Saudis and their Gulf allies. The Saudis and Qataris control the major US bases in the Arab world, such as the naval base in Bahrain — a Saudi client state — and the air and ground bases in Qatar. Moreover the Saudi-led coalition had accounted for $130 billion in US arms sales during the Obama administration alone, generating crucial foreign revenues for major arms contractors and more lucrative future jobs for senior military officers.

So it should come as no surprise that the Pentagon has been the main driver in the US policy of supporting the Saudi strategy of starvation. In August 2016, the Saudis bombed a bridge that the Obama administration had put on a list of targets that were not to be hit, because it was crucial to getting humanitarian goods to population centers in northern Yemen. But the administration did nothing in response.

In fact, the Pentagon openly declared its disinterest in which targets the Saudis and their Gulf allies were actually hitting. A spokesman at the Central Command told journalist Samuel Oakford that the US refueled the coalition’s jets without regard to the target or whether and how it had been vetted, and that if the Saudis decided on more bombing targets, the command would refuel more missions.

The United States shares responsibility with the Saudi-led coalition for the Yemeni deaths from starvation that will result from the Saudi war strategy, because of the coalition’s dependence on US logistical and political-diplomatic support. But the Pentagon and the Central Command are already actively diverting attention from that shared guilt by focusing media attention on what they claim is a new threat from Iran. The result will be to compound the US guilt for mass starvation in Yemen.

Reprinted with permission from Truthout.org.

How the Pentagon Enlisted Trump to Continue Its Perpetual “War on Terror”

How ‘New Cold Warriors’ Cornered Trump

The U.S. intelligence community’s extraordinary campaign of leaks claiming improper ties between President Trump’s team and Russia seeks to ensure a lucrative New Cold War by blocking détente

Opponents of the Trump administration have generally accepted as fact the common theme across mainstream media that aides to Donald Trump were involved in some kind of illicit communications with the Russian government that has compromised the independence of the administration from Russian influence.

But close analysis of the entire series of leaks reveals something else that is equally sinister in its implications: an unprecedented campaign by Obama administration intelligence officials, relying on innuendo rather than evidence, to exert pressure on Trump to abandon any idea of ending the New Cold War and to boost the campaign to impeach Trump.

A brazen and unprecedented intervention in domestic US politics by the intelligence community established the basic premise of the cascade of leaks about alleged Trump aides’ shady dealing with Russia. Led by CIA Director John Brennan, the CIA, FBI and NSA issued a 25-page assessment on Jan. 6 asserting for the first time that Russia had sought to help Trump win the election.

Brennan had circulated a CIA memo concluding that Russia had favored Trump and had told CIA staff that he had met separately with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director James Comey and that they had agreed on the “scope, nature and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election.”

In the end, however, Clapper refused to associate himself with the document and the NSA, which agreed to do so, was only willing to express “moderate confidence” in the judgment that the Kremlin had sought to help Trump in the election. In intelligence community parlance, that meant that the NSA considered the idea the Kremlin was working to elect Trump was merely plausible, not actually supported by reliable evidence.

In fact, the intelligence community had not even obtained evidence that Russia was behind the publication by WikiLeaks of the e-mails Democratic National Committee, much less that it had done so with the intention of electing Trump. Clapper had testified before Congress in mid-November and again in December that the intelligence community did not know who had provided the e-mails to WikiLeaks and when they were provided.

The claim – by Brennan with the support of Comey – that Russia had “aspired” to help Trump’s election prospects was not a normal intelligence community assessment but an extraordinary exercise of power by Brennan, Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers.

Brennan and his allies were not merely providing a professional assessment of the election, as was revealed by their embrace of the the dubious dossier compiled by a private intelligence firm hired by one of Trump’s Republican opponents and later by the Clinton campaign for the specific purpose of finding evidence of illicit links between Trump and the Putin regime.

Salacious Gossip

When the three intelligence agencies gave the classified version of their report to senior administration officials in January they appended a two-page summary of the juiciest bits from that dossier – including claims that Russian intelligence had compromising information about Trump’s personal behavior while visiting Russia. The dossier was sent, along with the assessment that Russia was seeking to help Trump get elected, to senior administration officials as well as selected Congressional leaders.

Among the claims in the private intelligence dossier that was summarized for policymakers was the allegation of a deal between the Trump campaign and the Putin government involving full Trump knowledge of the Russian election help and a Trump pledge – months before the election – to sideline the Ukraine issue once in office. The allegation – devoid of any verifiable information – came entirely from an unidentified “Russian émigré” claiming to be a Trump insider, without any evidence provided of the source’s actual relationship to the Trump camp or of his credibility as a source.

After the story of the two-page summary leaked to the press, Clapper publicly expressed “profound dismay” about the leak and said the intelligence community “has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable,” nor did it rely on it any way for our conclusions.”

One would expect that acknowledgment to be followed by an admission that he should not have circulated it outside the intelligence community at all. But instead Clapper then justified having passed on the summary as providing policymakers with “the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.”

By that time, US intelligence agencies had been in possession of the material in the dossier for several months. It was their job to verify the information before bringing it to the attention of policymakers.

A former US intelligence official with decades of experience dealing with the CIA as well other intelligence agencies, who insisted on anonymity because he still has dealings with US government agencies, told this writer that he had never heard of the intelligence agencies making public unverified information on a US citizen.

“The CIA has never played such a open political role,” he said.

The CIA has often tilted its intelligence assessment related to a potential adversary in the direction desired by the White House or the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but this is the first time that such a slanted report impinges not only on domestic politics but is directed at the President himself.

The egregious triple abuse of the power in publishing a highly partisan opinion on Russia and Trump’s election, appending raw and unverified private allegations impugning Trump’s loyalty and then leaking that fact to the media begs the question of motive. Brennan, who initiated the whole effort, was clearly determined to warn Trump not to reverse the policy toward Russia to which the CIA and other national security organizations were firmly committed.

A few days after the leak of the two-page summary, Brennan publicly warned Trump about his policy toward Russia. In an interview on Fox News, he said, “I think Mr. Trump has to understand that absolving Russia of various actions that it’s taken in the past number of years is a road that he, I think, needs to be very, very careful about moving down.”

Graham Fuller, who was a CIA operations officer for 20 years and was also National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East for four years in the Reagan administration, observed in an e-mail, that Brennan, Clapper and Comey “might legitimately fear Trump as a loose cannon on the national scene,” but they are also “dismayed at any prospect that the official narrative against Russia could start falling apart under Trump, and want to maintain the image of constant and dangerous Russian intervention into affairs of state.”

Flynn in the Bull’s Eye

As Trump’s National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn presented an easy target for a campaign to portray the Trump team as being in Putin’s pocket. He had already drawn heavy criticism not only by attending a Moscow event celebrating the Russian television RT in 2016 but sitting next to Putin and accepting a fee for speaking at the event. More importantly, however, Flynn had argued that the United States and Russia could and should cooperate in their common interest of defeating Islamic State militants.

That idea was anathema to the Pentagon and the CIA. Obama’s Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had attacked Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiating a Syrian ceasefire that included a provision for coordination of efforts against Islamic State. The official investigation of the US attack on Syrian forces on Sept. 17 turned up evidence that CENTCOM had deliberately targeted the Syrian military sites with the intention of sabotaging the ceasefire agreement.

The campaign to bring down Flynn began with a leak from a “senior US government official” to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius about the now-famous phone conversation between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak on Dec. 29. In his column on the leak, Ignatius avoided making any explicit claim about the conversation. Instead, he asked “What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the US sanctions?”

And referring to the Logan Act, the 1799 law forbidding a private citizen from communicating with a foreign government to influence a “dispute” with the United States, Ignatius asked, “Was its spirit violated?”

The implications of the coy revelation of the Flynn conversation with Kislyak were far-reaching. Any interception of a communication by the NSA or the FBI has always been considered one of the most highly classified secrets in the US intelligence universe of secrets. And officers have long been under orders to protect the name of any American involved in any such intercepted communication at all costs.

But the senior official who leaked the story of Flynn-Kislyak conversation to Ignatius – obviously for a domestic political purpose – did not feel bound by any such rule. That leak was the first move in a concerted campaign of using such leaks to suggest that Flynn had discussed the Obama administration’s sanctions with Kislyak in an effort to undermine Obama administration policy.

The revelation brought a series of articles about denials by the Trump transition team, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, that Flynn had, in fact, discussed sanctions with Kislyak and continued suspicions that Trump’s aides were covering up the truth. But the day after Trump was inaugurated, the Post itself reported that the FBI had begun in late December go back over all communications between Flynn and Russian officials and “had not found evidence of wrongdoing or illicit ties to the Russian government….”

Two weeks later, however, the Post reversed its coverage of the issue, publishing a storyciting “nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls,” as saying that Flynn had “discussed sanctions” with Kislyak.

The story said Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak was “interpreted by some senior US officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.”

The Post did not refer to its own previous reporting of the FBI’s unambiguous view contradicting that claim, which suggested strongly that the FBI was trying to head off a plan by Brennan and Clapper to target Flynn. But it did include a crucial caveat on the phrase “discussed sanctions” that few readers would have noticed. It revealed that the phrase was actually an “interpretation” of the language that Flynn had used. In other words, what Flynn actually said was not necessarily a literal reference to sanctions at all.

Only a few days later, the Post reported a new development: Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI on Jan. 24 – four days after Trump’s inauguration – and had denied that he discussed sanctions in the conversation. But prosecutors were not planning to charge Flynn with lying, according to several officials, in part because they believed he would be able to “parse the definition of the word ‘sanctions’.” That implied that the exchange was actually focused not on sanctions per se but on the expulsion of the Russian diplomats.

Just hours before his resignation on Feb. 13, Flynn claimed in an interview with the Daily Caller that he had indeed referred only to the expulsion of the Russian diplomats.

“It wasn’t about sanctions. It was about the 35 guys who were thrown out,” Flynn said. “It was basically, ‘Look, I know this happened. We’ll review everything.’ I never said anything such as, ‘We’re going to review sanctions,’ or anything like that.”

The Russian Blackmail Ploy

Even as the story of the Flynn’s alleged transgression in the conversation with the Russian Ambassador was becoming a political crisis for Donald Trump, yet another leaked story surfaced that appeared to reveal a shocking new level of the Trump administration’s weakness toward Russia.

The Post reported on Feb. 13 that Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama holdover, had decided in late January – after discussions with Brennan, Clapper and FBI Director James Comey in the last days of the Obama administration – to inform the White House Counsel Donald McGahn in late January that Flynn had lied to other Trump administration officials – including Vice President Mike Pence – in denying that he discussed sanctions with Kislyak. The Post cited “current and former officials” as the sources.

That story, repeated and amplified by many other news media, led to Flynn’s downfall later that same day. But like all of the other related leaks, the story revealed more about the aims of the leakers than about links between Trump’s team and Russia.

The centerpiece of the new leak was that the former Obama administration officials named in the story had feared that “Flynn put himself in a compromising position” in regard to his account of the conversation with Kislyak to Trump members of the Trump transition.

Yates had told the White House that Flynn might be vulnerable to Russian blackmail because of the discrepancies between his conversation with the Ambassador and his story to Pence, according to the Post story.

But once again the impression created by the leak was very different from the reality behind it. The idea that Flynn had exposed himself to a potential Russian blackmail threat by failing to tell Pence exactly what had transpired in the conversation was fanciful in the extreme.

Even assuming that Flynn had flatly lied to Pence about what he had said in the meeting – which was evidently not the case – it would not have given the Russians something to hold over Flynn, first because it was already revealed publicly and second, because the Russian interest was to cooperate with the new administration.

The ex-Obama administration leakers were obviously citing that clumsy (and preposterous) argument as an excuse to intervene in the internal affairs of the new administration. The Post’s sources also claimed that “Pence had a right to know that he had been misled….” True or not, it was, of course, none of their business.

Pity for Pence

The professed concern of the Intelligence Community and Justice Department officials that Pence deserved the full story from Flynn was obviously based on political considerations, not some legal principle. Pence was a known supporter of the New Cold War with Russia, so the tender concern for Pence not being treated nicely coincided with a strategy of dividing the new administration along the lines of policy toward Russia.

All indications are that Trump and other insiders knew from the beginning exactly what Flynn had actually said in the conversation, but that Flynn had given Pence a flat denial about discussing sanctions without further details.

On Feb. 13, when Trump was still trying to save Flynn, the National Security Adviser apologized to Pence for “inadvertently” having failed to give him a complete account, including his reference to the expulsion of the Russian diplomats. But that was not enough to save Flynn’s job.

The divide-and-conquer strategy, which led to Flynn’s ouster, was made effective because the leakers had already created a political atmosphere of great suspicion about Flynn and the Trump White House as having had illicit dealings with the Russians. The normally pugnacious Trump chose not to respond to the campaign of leaks with a detailed, concerted defense. Instead, he sacrificed Flynn before the end of the very day the Flynn “blackmail” story was published.

But Trump’s appears to have underestimated the ambitions of the leakers. The campaign against Flynn had been calculated in part to weaken the Trump administration and ensure that the new administration would not dare to reverse the hardline policy of constant pressure on Putin’s Russia.

Many in Washington’s political elite celebrated the fall of Flynn as a turning point in the struggle to maintain the existing policy orientation toward Russia. The day after Flynn was fired the Post’s national political correspondent, James Hohmann, wrote that the Flynn “imbroglio” would now make it “politically untenable for Trump to scale back sanctions to Moscow” because the “political blowback from hawkish Republicans in Congress would be too intense….”

But the ultimate target of the campaign was Trump himself. As neoconservative journalist Eli Lake put it, “Flynn is only the appetizer. Trump is the entree.”

Susan Hennessey, a well-connected former lawyer in the National Security Agency’s Office of General Counsel who writes the “Lawfare” blog at the Brookings Institution, agreed. “Trump may think Flynn is the sacrificial lamb,” she told The Guardian, “but the reality is that he is the first domino. To the extent the administration believes Flynn’s resignation will make the Russia story go away, they are mistaken.”

The Phony “Constant Contacts” Story

No sooner had Flynn’s firing been announced than the next phase of the campaign of leaks over Trump and Russia began. On Feb. 14, CNN and the New York Times published slight variants of the same apparently scandalous story of numerous contacts between multiple members of the Trump camp with the Russian at the very time the Russians were allegedly acting to influence the election.

There was little subtlety in how mainstream media outlets made their point. CNN’s headline was, “Trump aides were in constant touch with senior Russian officials during campaign.” The Times headline was even more sensational: “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts with Russian Intelligence.”

But the attentive reader would soon discover that the stories did not reflect those headlines. In the very first paragraph of the CNN story, those “senior Russian officials” became “Russians known to US intelligence,” meaning that it included a wide range Russians who are not officials at all but known or suspected intelligence operatives in business and other sectors of society monitored by US intelligence. A Trump associate dealing with such individuals would have no idea, of course, that they are working for Russian intelligence.

The Times story, on the other hand, referred to the Russians with whom Trump aides were said to be in contact last year as “senior Russian intelligence officials,” apparently glossing over a crucial distinction that sources had had made to CNN between intelligence officials and Russians being monitored by US intelligence.

But the Times story acknowledged that the Russian contacts also included government officials who were not intelligence officials and that the contacts had been made not only by Trump campaign officials but also associates of Trump who had done business in Russia. It further acknowledged it was “not unusual” for American business to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly in Russia and Ukraine, where “spy services are deeply embedded in society.”

Even more important, however, the Times story made it clear that the intelligence community was seeking evidence that Trump’s aides or associates were colluding with the Russians on the alleged Russian effort to influence the election, but that it had found no evidence of any such collusion. CNN failed to report that crucial element of the story.

The headlines and lead paragraphs of both stories, therefore, should have conveyed the real story: that the intelligence community had sought evidence of collusion by Trump aides with Russia but had not found it several months after reviewing the intercepted conversations and other intelligence.

Unwitting Allies of the War Complex?

Former CIA Director Brennan and other former Obama administration intelligence officials have used their power to lead a large part of the public to believe that Trump had conducted suspicious contacts with Russian officials without having the slightest evidence to support the contention that such contacts represent a serious threat to the integrity of the US political process.

Many people who oppose Trump for other valid reasons have seized on the shaky Russian accusations because they represent the best possibility for ousting Trump from power. But ignoring the motives and the dishonesty behind the campaign of leaks has far-reaching political implications. Not only does it help to establish a precedent for US intelligence agencies to intervene in domestic politics, as happens in authoritarian regimes all over the world, it also strengthens the hand of the military and intelligence bureaucracies who are determined to maintain the New Cold War with Russia.

Those war bureaucracies view the conflict with Russia as key to the continuation of higher levels of military spending and the more aggressive NATO policy in Europe that has already generated a gusher of arms sales that benefits the Pentagon and its self-dealing officials.

Progressives in the anti-Trump movement are in danger of becoming an unwitting ally of those military and intelligence bureaucracies despite the fundamental conflict between their economic and political interests and the desires of people who care about peace, social justice, and the environment.

Reprinted Reprinted from Consortium News with the author’s permission.

How the Pentagon Enlisted Trump to Continue Its Perpetual “War on Terror”

Ignore the tough talk – Trump’s Iran policy will be much like Obama’s

For all its grandstanding, Trump’s administration is just following an American tradition of coercing Iran and its ‘malign influence’

The first public pronouncements by President Donald Trump’s administration on Iran have created the widespread impression that the US will adopt a much more aggressive posture towards the Islamic Republic than under Barack Obama’s presidency.

But despite the rather crude warnings to Tehran by now ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn and by Trump himself, the Iran policy that has begun to take shape in the administration’s first weeks looks quite similar to Obama’s.

The reason is that the Obama administration’s policy on Iran reflected the views of a national security team that adhered to an equally hardline stance as those of the Trump administration.

Flynn declared on 1 February that the Obama administration had “failed to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions” and suggested that things would be different under Trump. But that rhetoric was misleading, both with regard to the Obama administration’s policy toward Iran and on the options available to Trump going beyond that policy.

The ‘malign influence’

The idea that Obama had somehow become chummy with Iran doesn’t reflect the reality of the former administration’s doctrine on Iran.

The Obama nuclear deal with Iran angered right-wing extremists, but his nuclear diplomacy was based on trying to coerce Iran to give up as much of its nuclear programme as possible through various forms of pressure, including cyber attacks, economic sanctions and the threat of a possible Israeli attack.

Despite Trump’s rhetoric about how bad the nuclear deal was, he has already decided that his administration will not tear up or sabotage the agreement with Iran, a fact made clear by senior administration officials who briefed the media on the same day as Flynn’s “on notice” outburst. Trump’s team has learned that neither Israel, nor Saudi Arabia wish that to happen.

On the larger issues of Iran’s influence in the Middle East, Obama’s policy largely reflected the views of the permanent national security state, which has regarded Iran as an implacable enemy for decades, ever since the CIA and the US military were at war with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Shia militias in the Strait of Hormuz and Beirut in the 1980s.

A member of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards chants slogans after attacking a naval vessel during a military drill in the Strait of Hormuz in February 2015 (AFP)

 

The antagonism that the Trump team has expressed toward Iran’s regional role is no different from what had been said by the Obama administration for years. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has referred to Iran’s “malign influence” and called Iran the “biggest destabilising force” in the region. But Obama and his national security advisers also had talked incessantly about Iran’s “destabilising activities”.

In 2015, the Obama administration was using phrases like “malign influence” and “malign activities” so often that it was said to have become “Washington’s latest buzzword”.

Different presidents, same policies

Beginning with President Bill Clinton, every administration has accused Iran of being the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism, not on the basis of any evidence but as a settled principle of US policy. Starting with the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, the Clinton administration blamed Iran for every terrorist attack in the world even before any investigation had begun.

As I discovered from extended investigations into both the Buenos Aires terror bombing of 1994 and the Khobar Towers bombing of 1996, the supposed evidence of Iranian involvement was either nonexistent or clearly tainted. But neither inhibited the continued narrative of Iran as a terrorist state.

Some Trump advisers reportedly have been discussing a possible presidential directive to the State Department to consider designating the IRGC as a terrorist organisation.

But such a move would fall under the category of political grandstanding rather than serious policy. The IRGC is already subject to sanctions under at least three different US sanctions programmes, as legal expert Tyler Culis has pointed out. Furthermore, the Quds Force, the arm of the IRGC involved in operations outside Iran, has been designated as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” for nearly a decade.

About the only thing the proposed designation might accomplish is to allow the United States to punish Iraqi officials with whom the Quds Force has been cooperating against the Islamic State group.

The Trump team has indicated its intention to give strong support to Saudi Arabia’s regional anti-Iran policy. But it is now apparent that Trump is not inclined to do anything more militarily against the Assad regime than Obama was. And on Yemen, the new administration is not planning to do anything that Obama did not already do.

When asked whether the administration was “reassessing” the Saudi war in Yemen, a senior official gave a one-word answer: “No”. That indicates that Trump will continue the Obama administration policy of underwriting the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen – providing aerial refuelling, bombs and political-diplomatic support – which is necessary for Riyadh’s war.

Both Obama and Trump administrations thus appear to share responsibility for the massive and deliberately indiscriminate bombing of Houthi-controlled cities as well as for the existing and incipient starvation of 2.2 million Yemeni children.

As for Iran’s missile programme, there is no discernible difference between the two administrations. On 1 January, Trump officials called Iran’s late January missile test “destabilising” and “provocative”. But the Obama administration and its European allies had issued a statement in March 2016 calling Iranian missile tests “destabilising and provocative”.

Trump has imposed sanctions for Iran’s alleged violation of the 2015 UN Security Council resolution – despite the fact that the resolution used non-binding language and that Iran’s missiles were not designed to carry nuclear weapons. The Obama administration imposed sanctions for Iran’s allegedly violating a 2005 Bush administration executive order.

Use of force unlikely

However, one may object that this comparison covers only the preliminary outlines of Trump’s policy towards Iran, and argue that Washington is planning to step up military pressures, including the possible use of force.

It is true that the possibility of a much more aggressive military policy from the Trump administration cannot be completely ruled out, but any policy proposal involving the threat or use of force would have to be approved by the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and that is very unlikely to happen.

The last time the US contemplated a military confrontation with Iran was in the George W Bush administration. In 2007 Vice-President Dick Cheney proposed that the US attack bases in Iran within the context of the Iranian involvement in the Iraq war against US troops. But the secretary of defence, Robert M Gates, supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, headed off the effort by insisting that Cheney explain how the process of escalation would end.

There was a very good reason why the plan didn’t pass muster with the Pentagon and the JCS. The time when the US could attack Iran with impunity had already passed. In 2007, any attack on Iran would have risked the loss of much of the US fleet in the Gulf to Iranian anti-ship missiles.

Today, the cost to the US military would be far higher, because of the greater capability of Iran to retaliate with missiles and conventional payloads against US bases in Qatar and Bahrain.

In the end, the main contours of US policy toward Iran have always reflected the views and the interests of the permanent national security state far more than the ideas of the president. That fact has ensured unending US hostility toward Iran, but it also very likely means continuity rather than radical shifts in policy under Trump.

Republished with the author’s permission from Middle East Eye.

Trump’s Hard Line on Iran Gives Saudi Free Hand in Yemen

Trump’s Hard Line on Iran Gives Saudi Free Hand in Yemen

The Trump administration’s truculent warning last week that it was putting Iran “on notice” over its recent missile test and a missile strike on a Saudi warship off the coast of Yemen appears calculated to convince the American public that the current administration is going to be tougher on Iran than the Obama administration was.

However, despite the tough talk from National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and other senior officials, the new administration appears to be focused primarily on aligning US policy more closely with that of Saudi Arabia — especially in its war in Yemen and its broader conflict with Iran. The Saudis have been leading a coalition of Sunni Gulf regimes in bombing most of the Yemeni territory controlled by Houthi rebels since March 2015, with US support.

An unidentified senior administration official speaking at a February 1 press briefing, a transcript of which Truthout has obtained, indicated that, apart from economic sanctions, the administration was considering options “related to support for those that are challenging and opposing Iranian malign activity in the region” — meaning the Saudis and Israel.

During the briefing, the senior officials signaled clearly that the Trump administration will unconditionally support the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen. In response to the question of whether the administration was “reassessing” US support for the Saudi war in Yemen, the unnamed senior official answered with one word: “No.”

The Trump administration’s lack of public reservation about the indiscriminate Saudi-led bombing campaign, as well as its lack of interest in exerting pressure on the Saudis to end the war by accepting a compromise with the Houthis and the forces of former Yemeni president Saleh, significantly increases the likelihood that the Saudi bombing will continue indefinitely. That means that the food shortage that is killing thousands of Yemeni children will probably become far worse in the coming months.

The Saudi attacks’ devastating impact on nutrition in Yemen has long since eclipsed direct results of the bombing as a cause of death. No estimates of deaths from starvation have been given by relief organizations but UNICEF reported in December that 462,000 Yemeni children already suffer “severe acute malnutrition,” a life-threatening condition in which their bodies shrink to little more than skeletons. Another 1.7 million children currently suffering from “moderate acute malnutrition” are at risk of crossing the threshold to severe malnutrition.

The main cause of a humanitarian crisis worse than in Syria is the Saudi coalition blockade by naval ships and aerial bombing of the main commercial port in the area controlled by the Houthis, which has sharply limited commercial and humanitarian shipments of food, fuel and drugs to the populations targeted by the bombing.

The Obama administration had approved the Saudi-led bombing campaign before it started and had provided aerial refueling to Saudi coalition planes carrying out the bombing. The Obama administration had also replenished the coalition’s supply of bombs and supplied intelligence to its planners, long after it had evidence of war crimes against the population in Houthi-controlled areas. It tried to persuade the Saudis to negotiate seriously with the Houthis but refused to force the issue of ending the war. Now, the Trump administration appears to be encouraging the Saudis to impose a military solution, regardless of the mass starvation it will continue to cause.

The Trump administration’s threatening posture toward Iran is also related primarily to a decision to tighten the US relationship with Saudi Arabia. Senior officials indicated in the February 1 briefing that the Trump administration will continue to confront Iran not only on its missile testing but also on its plans for a new stage of missile production. In the press briefing on February 1, a senior Trump administration official referred to both the missile test and the Houthi attack on the Saudi ship as “inherently destabilizing and a threat to our friends and our allies.”

The official also cited an announcement by Iran’s defense minister last September that Iran would soon begin production of a variant of the Shahab 3 missile with an advanced guidance stem that allows it to target specific military and infrastructure sites in Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel.

These remarks indicate that the Trump administration intends to mount a public campaign of pressure on Iran over its production and testing of new, more accurate missiles, beginning with a new round of sanctions against companies that were linked to the missile program. That policy expands the existing list of individuals and companies subject to US financial and travel sanctions for such alleged links.

Citing the UN Security Council resolution for the purpose of justifying the new sanctions was politically convenient but legally baseless. Resolution 2231, which was negotiated with Iran in July 2015 in conjunction with the nuclear agreement, actually has no legally binding effect on Iran.

A previous UN resolution touching on Iranian missiles tests, Resolution 1929, had used two words — “decides” and the peremptory “shall” — that have long been considered necessary for a resolution to be binding. The resolution said the Security Council “decides that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” But Resolution 2231 says only, “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” for as long as eight years. That language left room for Iran to refuse.

The Trump administration also chose to ignore not only the nonbinding character of the 2015 language but also the difference between “capable” and “designed to be capable” in the two resolutions. In the press briefing on February 1, a senior official cited the payload weight and range of the Shahab-3 — variables that can’t be used to determine whether a missile is designed to carry a nuclear weapon — as the justification for the new sanctions against Iran.

In fact, Iran’s medium-range missiles have been designed for conventional deterrence or war fighting, as the leading Israeli expert on Iran’s missile program, Uzi Rubin, has been saying for many years. Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC, has observed that Iran would have to redesign at least the internal components of the missile to adapt it to carrying nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is not facing Iran’s ballistic missile force empty-handed. It had already purchased dozens of Chinese missiles with a maximum range well beyond the Shahab-3 in 1987, a decade before Iran had begun to test its first medium-range missile. And as early as 2007, Saudi Arabia went on to acquire an unknown number of advanced D-21 Chinese missiles with maneuverable warheads and precision-guidance systems.

The Israelis had hoped the United States would help stop the Iranian missile program in the late 1990s by choking off technological help from the Russians. But that effort to use power to halt the progress of Iranian missile development was an utter failure. Now it is too late for the United States to do anything about Iranian missile development and production except express disapproval.

The Trump administration’s accusation that Iran is responsible for the Houthi attack on a Saudi warship on January 31 is primarily a show of toughness for domestic consumption and a show of support for the Saudi war of destruction in Yemen. Administration officials are treating a military action by the Houthis against the Saudis as “destabilizing” — as though the Houthis were either a terrorist organization or the aggressors, rather than the victims of external aggression.

That propaganda line reflects the fact that the United States refused to accept the 2014 overthrow by the Houthis of the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, which had been put in power by the US and Saudi Arabia in 2012. The Obama administration supported the Saudi effort to delegitimize the Houthis by calling them proxies of Iran. It has repeatedly accused Iran of sending shiploads of arms to the Houthi forces, supporting a claim by the Hadi government about an arms shipment in 2013 that the evidence shows originated in Yemen and was headed or Somalia.

In fact, the Houthis did not depend on Iranian arms to gain control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. Former president Saleh, who was supporting their bid for power, ordered the Yemeni military to turn over much of the arms it had acquired from the United States to the Houthi forces on their way from Saada governorate to Sanaa. And when the Iranians advised the Houthis not to occupy the capital militarily in 2014, the Houthis rejected their advice and listened instead to former president Saleh — their old enemy who was now their main ally, as US intelligence officials were aware.

The Houthis did apparently get guided missiles from Iran after the Saudis began the bombing campaign to allow the Houthis to have some means of retaliation.

The Trump national security team consists of some of the most extreme anti-Iran figures from the military (National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Secretary of Defense James Mattis) and from Congress (former Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo, who is now serving as CIA director). These officials share visceral, antagonistic feelings about the Iranian regime and its role in the region. But for the time being at least, the practical effect of those views is not to move the administration toward a military confrontation. The effect is mainly to double down on the US support of Saudi Arabia’s war and to inflict ever-worsening agony on the population of Yemen.

Reprinted from Truthout.org with permission of author.

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