I feel like the broader arc of Trump’s Iran policy has been ignored recently. The incredibly flashy and violent gyrations of escalation have gotten a lot of coverage, but there isn’t enough emphasis on why we’re here. Sure, I suppose it’s fun to get bogged down on the question of whether or not assassinating the general of a country we are not at war with is a good idea, but we’re kind of missing the forest for the trees. No matter what you think of the Soleimani killing, we should be more focused on how we got here. And that’s what I try to do today with this video. I attempt to evaluate Trump’s “Maximum Pressure” policy against Iran, and I find it wanting.
Man, this video just gets more and more right with time. When I uploaded this one just over two months ago, it presented three reasons why Saudi Arabia should get the heck out of Yemen as soon as possible. Today I would add at least two more. First, the war is putting the safety and security of Saudi Arabia itself in more and more jeopardy by the day. Just a few weeks ago, the Yemenis pulled off history’s most devastating attack on Saudi oil infrastructure. This attack, and the indifference of world oil markets to it, both gravely undermine the Saudis. Over this past weekend, confused reports emerged that the Saudis may be losing large battles on or distressingly close to their own territory. Whether those reports are true or not, the fact that they can be believed should be terrifying to the Saudis.
There is an out from all of this. The Houthis are aware that their complete dominance of the battle space is actually a problem for them. If they push their advantage, and make real inroads in to Saudi territory, they could prompt a US response. They have proved their independence, and remain more interested in peace than the Saudis are. The Houthis have offered to cease attacks on Saudi territory, if the Saudis will agree to do the same. This is a real opportunity. So far, the Saudis have reacted by murdering a bunch of Yemeni families from the air. They should really start pursuing peace before it’s too late.
Occasionally I’ll embark on the 15-20 hour process of making a video, and then something happens that throws things in a new light. I still stand 100% behind today’s video, but if I’d known that Secretary of Defense James Mattis was going to weigh in, I probably would have incorporated a response. He’s a serious guy. I’ll have to respond here.
It’s easy for me to dismiss a lot of Mattis’s letter due to some pretty fundamental strategic and philosophical differences I have with him that regular viewers of this channel will be familiar with. Mattis believes that Saudi Arabia is a worthwhile partner in counter-terrorism. I do not believe that. Mattis believes that Iran is more of a threat to the US and the world than Saudi Arabia is. I do not believe that. Because Mattis believes these things I do not believe, he presents a narrative for the Yemeni war that strikes me as deeply flawed. If you’ve got a half hour or so, I set out a counter-narrative, that actually reckons with Yemeni history, unlike the standard Iran-Saudi proxy war fairy tale we’re told.
But there’s one concern that Mattis brings up that I can’t dismiss. He claims that ending US cooperation with Saudi Arabia in Yemen will make the humanitarian situation worse. I’m worried about this as well. Taking the US out of the equation is likely to degrade Saudi Arabia’s ability to continue the war long term, but I suspect it is also likely to make the Saudis more brutal. The 5,295 civilians that have been killed so far (Human Rights Watch), are probably the result of fairly targeted bombing. Saudi bombing is likely to have killed most of these civilians, but US expertise has probably put a bit of a cap on the body count. I’m no expert on warfare, but I was already worried about this. Having Mattis, one of the world’s greatest experts on warfare, express this opinion makes me more worried. But it does not give me pause.
More people may die by bombing, but Saudi Arabia’s ability to besiege the country will be seriously degraded. Millions are less likely to be at risk of starvation or cholera. And if Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen becomes more brutal it will also become less sustainable. A key point that I neglected to include in this video, and rarely gets included in the standard litany (“refueling, targeting, intelligence”) of goods the US provides to Saudi Arabia is diplomatic cover. It is a profoundly weird thing that Saudi Arabia is doing. Saudi Arabia is invading and destroying its neighbor. This sort of thing doesn’t happen much in the 21st century, or even in the second half of the 20th century. Most wars are civil. The few examples of cross-border invasion I can think of post Cold War are only possible because of US support. If the resolution passes in the Senate next week, and gets through the House, Saudi Arabia won’t just lose technical support, it will lose that diplomatic cover.
Without US support the war in Yemen will instantly become exponentially more cancerous for the Saudi re-branding effort than it already is. MBS and the Saudi government desperately need investors for their oil company’s years-delayed IPO, and that new tech city they announced last fall. Try doing that when US media and government are no longer covering up the war in Yemen.
I’m afraid that Mattis may be right about the immediate humanitarian costs of cutting off US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. But continuing on the way we have for another two years would be much, much worse.