During impeachment, US officials were hyping the vital importance of Ukraine to US policies, particularly to the policy of hostility toward Russia. That not being sufficiently pro-Ukraine was being presented as an impeachable offense has clearly gone to Ukraine’s head, however.
A $30 million commercial sale of arms is hardly the sort of thing officials get particularly vocal about. Three current Ukrainian officials were describing the matter to the press, however, and a former US official concurred on the matter. Ukraine made a down-payment on the arms, but they haven’t finalized the sale yet.
As a practical matter, President Trump has yet to approve the sales, officials are still not clear why, and Ukrainian officials are very keen to get a refund for the down payment, as one US official said they’d probably be better off buying from someone else.
What’s really going on, however, is that Ukraine is trying to parlay their newfound importance into some beneficial resolution. They are likely particularly interested in presenting a “held” sale as tantamount to frozen aid, and again the sort of slight against Ukraine that could become a vital US policy issue, even if it is just a small matter over minor arms sales.
How sustainable this is for Ukraine is anyone’s guess, but the sense of entitlement and of indispensability in anti-Russia policy could evaporate in an instant, and it’s hardly unusual for the US to change its mind who they really “need” in a long-term policy effort.
Flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump unveiled his long anticipated peace plan, in a public event seemingly more designed to distract from Netanyahu’s indictment than to actually offer anything of substance.
A lot of terms of the plan have been long-rumored, and effectively remain so even after the presentation, as there was a conspicuous lack of specificity, and of any concrete details, beyond Trump insisting this is the Palestinians’ “last chance.“
But their last chance for what? That’s less clear. Trump talked of Palestinian statehood, but doing so next to Netanyahu, who repeatedly has denounced the very notion of a Palestinian state, gives that very little credibility. Moreover, reports are that the deal forbids the Palestinians from having any of the trappings of a state, including even superficial control over its own borders.
What was said Tuesday put no doubt on that interpretation, and indeed the biggest takeaway of the offer was not that the Palestinians were getting barely something, but that Trump was prepared to immediately endorse Israeli sovereignty on the annexation of all settlements, and the Jordan Valley.
Trump did suggest Palestinian territory would double, but as with everything else the Palestinians might get, this was vague. Trump even declared that Israel had for the first time accepted a map, but then proceeded to say that a committee was being formed with Israel to actually work out what the map will look like, underscoring that no map has been settled upon at all.
Further offers to the Palestinians were similarly dubious, as Trump reiterated a $50 billion US investment offer, now conditioned on accepting the plan, such as it is. Trump also promised a four year window in which Israel would not develop any settlements in the occupied part of the West Bank that is nominally set aside for Palestinian statehood. Yet there is no apparent enforcement mechanism for this within the plan, and it is unlikely that either Trump or the Israeli government would be able to stop illegal settlements popping up across Palestine.
That both Netanyahu and his political rival Benny Gantz were able to endorse the plan underscores how little the Palestinians would really get, as anything that might conceivably end in a proper Palestinian state would be wildly unpopular on the Israeli right, and a non-starter during Israel’s constant elections.
This assumption of Palestinian rejection is likely a big part of Israeli acceptance, as it would allow them to spin themselves as the pro-peace ones, and the Palestinians as the real problem.
The Ambassadors of Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates were in attendance at the unveiling, which suggests at least some nominal support within the Arab world. This is being emphasized, and presented as some support by “the other side,” even though no Palestinians were there, nor is it clear if any Palestinians were even invited.
Trump’s threats on Iraq seem to have delayed troop ouster
After repeated threats from President Trump to sanction Iraq, to seize its primary bank account, and cut all military aid, Iraqi PM Adel Abdul-Mahdi has backed away from calls to expel US troops from Iraq.
That could take some time. Abdul-Mahdi nominally resigned last month, and there is meant to be work on reforming election law and holding fresh elections, meant to placate the anti-government protesters. There is no timetable for any of this, however, and efforts seem to have all but stopped since the US attack on Baghdad Airport.
US sanctions could quickly bankrupt Iraq, especially if Trump seized the bank account holding all their oil revenue, which is 90% of their budget. At the same time, not expelling the US after parliament already voted to do so could have major consequences for Iraqi sovereignty, and will likely be addressed again.
President Trump confirmed that Iran is “standing down” after the attack, though his comments were mostly boilerplate about the Iran nuclear deal, and he accused President Obama of providing the funds Iran used to buy the missiles fired on Tuesday.
Trump and Zarif had both pointed to deescalation on Tuesday night in Tweets, with the takeaway that Iran considered what they did proportionate, and that the US could live with that since there were no casualties.
Other analysts suggested that some Iranian missiles were deliberate duds “designed to miss,” giving Iran a chance to play up the attack domestically, in reaction to calls for revenge after the death of Qassem Soleimani, without doing anything so serious that it would escalate the fight any further. This was supported by photos of unexploded ballistic missiles inside Iraq.
This restored some Iran deterrent capability, and provided the US with an off-ramp to avoid further tit-for-tat escalation. It seems the US is taking that, even if Trump is calling for more NATO involvement and more sanctions. That rhetoric returns the US to mostly an ex ante state, however, and so the US can also be said to be standing down, even if it is in Trump’s usual, bellicose manner.
On Thursday night, a US drone carried out an airstrike against the Baghdad International Airport, killing seven people, including top Iraqi officials and Iran’s top Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The Pentagon confirmed that the attack was carried out on orders of President Trump.
The timing of the 3,500 more troops arriving is unclear, though they’ll likely mostly arrive in Kuwait. This plans are in addition to 750 sent earlier this week, and 4,000 announced at the time.
This caps off a shockingly escalatory week that has left the US on the brink of war with Iran and, realistically, with Iraq as well. On last Friday, a series of rockets hit an Iraqi base, killing a US contractor. The US blamed an Iraqi militia, and on Sunday attacked five of the militia’s bases, killing 25. The militia responded with protests at the US Embassy, which the US blamed on Iran, and by Thursday had escalated that to killing Gen. Soleimani when he arrived at the Iraqi airport.
The US attack also killed some high-ranking Iraqi officials in the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Analysts have said this attack was an act of war, and the US rushing troops to the region shows that they are expecting retaliation.
Iran has confirmed they intend to retaliate, and has also issued formal complaints by way of the Swiss Embassy.The UN responded by saying they don’t believe the world can handle another war in the Middle East.
Details are continuing to emerge on the attack and killings, but indications are that Gen. Soleimani is dead, as is Iraq’s PMU media chief Mohammed Reda al-Jabri, along with his guards. Iraqi state media also reported Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of the PMU, to have been killed in the attack. Five PMU and two “guests” were reported killed. Soleimani is assumed to be a guest, and Lebanese Hezbollah figure Muhammad al-Kawtharani is also reported to have been slain.
The PMU has already issued a statement on social media reporting on the deaths, and blaming them on a “cowardly US attack.” Another PMU spokesman blamed the US and Israel jointly.
This is certainly an act of war not just on Iran, but also against Iraq, which is almost certain to be livid over a US attack against its largest civilian airport and assassination of two top figures of its PMU paramilitary force.
The Pentagon has issued a statement confirming the attack, trying to present it as purely defensive in nature, and claiming Soleimani was planning to kill US diplomats. The attack comes just hours after Defense Secretary Mark Esper threatened to attack Iran, and amid repeated warnings for Americans to get out of Iraq, especially the Baghdad area.
The US went into this past week with about 5,000 ground troops in Iraq, and with Pentagon officials suggesting that deployment is more or less permanent. It was meant to be one of those lazy, open-ended overseas deployments, nominally to bring stability.
Then on Friday an Iraqi base got hit with rockets, and on Sunday, US warplanes started attacking bases in Iraq and Syria belonging to a militia that is part of the Iraqi government. After multiple Iraq Wars since 2003, the US presence is looking complicated again.
On top of that, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is speaking with Iraq’s PM Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who actually resigned weeks ago in the wake of an Iranian consulate getting burned to the ground. At the time, the US was encouraging the protesters. Now, Abdul-Mahdi is facing the US Embassy in peril, and the US accusing Iran of being behind it.
Iraq isn’t the most stable place on earth at this point. Protests are common, they have no real premier, and have been struggling to avoid being the stage of a US-Iran proxy war. With Iraqi MPs talking of expelling the US, the deployments to Kuwait suggest the US intends to go back into Iraq, one way or another.
Passing the compromise spending has been a struggle for months, with officials constantly agreeing on continuing resolutions for more time to negotiate. Ultimately, they appear to have decided that they can get the votes by adding spending here and there, even if this means the deal is much larger than anticipated.
The first set of spending, including military spending, is at $860.3 billion. It is expected to move through the House Tuesday, and then the Senate shortly thereafter. The other bill would be considered after the first one.
The increased spending will avoid any substantial changes, but the sheer amount of spending will also put the deficit on track to pass $1 trillion for the first time since 2012.
That stance is one initially pushed by the Saudi government to justify the Yemen War, and the US was only too willing to mirror it. This was in spite of the Houthis having substantial ideological differences with Iran, little direct contact, and not being the same type of Shi’ites.
The US did not explain their change in stance, but it may reflect Saudi Arabia’s ongoing peace talks with the Houthis, as the US couldn’t possibly support a peace deal that involved an actual Iranian-linked faction.
That said, arguing that the Yemen War has something to do with Iran was the only real justification the US had offered to get involved in the conflict in the first place, and if the Saudis don’t manage to resolve the conflict diplomatically, it’ll be all the harder for the US to justify its continued involvement in the war.
The Trump Administration is bound and determined not to draw any conclusions about Saudi Air Force gunman Mohammed Alshamrani, who killed three people on Friday in Pensacola. There seems to be a palpable fear that anything terror-related would make the Saudis look bad.
This all puts the incident into a more Saudi context. Yet US officials are now saying they believe Alshamrani “acted alone,” despite having a camera man, and are insisting no one else was arrested, despite initial reports suggesting that multiple Saudis were held on the base.
Holding Saudi Arabia accountable has been something that US governments have long resisted, with evidence of Saudi officials’ complicity in 9/11 long a closely-guarded secret. Even after that went public, the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi fueled outrage, but the administration took the position that financial interests in selling the Saudis weapons outweighed this.
Given this, Pentagon officials were quick to make clear that having a Saudi Air Force officer killing people at a US base would in no way effect having Saudi troops on US bases in the future. Though that’s bound to lead to some questions going forward, officials are already fighting tooth and nail to downplay what happened, and have even suggested an alternative motivation that he may have been made becaus an instructor made fun of his mustache.
The mustache explanation doesn’t make much sense, and certainly wasn’t mentioned by the gunman in his tweet, but its likely to remain a topic of discussion, because if nothing else it wouldn’t be the Saudi kingdom’s fault.
Last week’s resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi didn’t take anyone by surprise in Iraq, least of all parliament. Officials say that talks on his replacement had already begun days before he resigned, and are now actively going on in earnest.
Which isn’t to say that finding a new premier is going to be easy. Agreeing on Abdul-Mahdi as a compromise candidate took awhile, and there are even more obstacles in the way of anyone being a long-term success now.
Large protests continue to rage, demanding wholesale reforms. The Shi’ite coalition that controls Iraq’s parliament will need to satisfy them with an appointment, but also satisfy the US and Iran, two nations that traditionally hold massive sway on Iraqi politics.
With the protesters demanding an end to foreign influence, it’s tough to imagine anyone that passes the requirements set by the US and Iran would still be palatable to the protest movement, and if he’s not, he’s probably going to have a very short tenure.
That might ultimately be what parliament has to do anyhow, with protesters seeking wholesale reforms of the political class and new elections, the path of least resistance may simply be agreeing on someone willing to oversee the reforms and leave. But just because that makes sense doesn’t mean anyone is going to want that job.
Trump hasn’t said he will send troops, saying that didn’t “want to say what I’m going to do” after the designation of the cartels. He refused to rule out the use of drone strikes in a recent interview, however.
Mexico’s foreign ministry was quick to reject that idea, saying that drone strikes would be a “violation of national sovereignty,” and have contacted the US to seek clarification about what they actually intend to do.
Former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda said US intervention in Mexico is “happening already,” and that he doubts anyone would treat it like an invasion if the US wanted to start sending troops or drones.
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