The foreign policy community, united for a common error

A brief reflection on 14 years of continuous US misadventures in the Middle East North Africa region and the mainstream foreign policy community’s exclusion of alternative perspectives.

In its cross-partisan drive for a new style of foreign policy after the Cold War, the DC crowd seems to have converged upon the worst-of-all-possible-worlds solution to the world’s problems.

From the left, the military-internationalists without a balancing dose of any hardheaded, restraining realism. From the right, the neocons and literal “crusaders,” whose force-based adventurism is sure to end about as dismally as their medieval forerunners.

Both believe unlimited force applied everywhere can remake the world in their vision, yet the vision is as clouded by legacy alliances and enmities as any prior world power’s vision has been. They cannot even plausibly claim to have transcended the obvious immorality of the frequent pacts-with-devils made by Cold War realpolitik advocates.

Witness the negligible self-reflection on ill-conceived partnerships with Saudi Arabia’s regional wrecking-ball (or other similarly damaging alliances). Witness the beliefs in “good guys” and “bad guys” and meaningful change through isolation, bombardment, and speeches.

It is a foreign policy worldview as averse to compromises for the sake of reality as the members of Congress. Yet it already so pre-compromised and impure as to render the ideals behind it a hollow joke.

Egypt, Qatar, others add ground troops to Yemen mess

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

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The Economist – “A downward spiral”:

More troops have poured in since the [Sept. 4 2015] attack [on coalition troops]. Saudi Arabia dispatched more elite forces to join the 3,000-strong coalition force already on the ground, while Qatar, hitherto only participating in air operations, has sent 1,000 soldiers. Egypt, which has long warned of the folly of putting boots on the ground given its disastrous intervention in the 1960s, this week sent in 800 men. Sudanese troops are reportedly waiting to be shipped out of Khartoum. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa said his two sons will join the battle.
[…]
Quashing the Shia Houthis is nigh on impossible. Gulf officials and media talk bombastically of preparations to take back Sana’a from them and reinstall Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi as president (the Houthis drove him out of the country in March). But Yemen has long been treacherous territory for foreign invaders, and Gulf armies are relatively inexperienced.

Since committing ground troops in August, the coalition has taken control of Aden, the southern port city, and is advancing on Taiz. But it is struggling in Maarib, the gateway to Sana’a, where the extra troops, backed by armoured vehicles and missile launchers, are said to be massing. The fighting will only get harder since the Houthis’ remaining strongholds are in mountainous redoubts.

[…] a rising generation of young, ambitious Gulf royals appears unwilling to pare back their newfound military adventurism.

 
Related Reading: “Saudi Arabia and the US: More military misfires” — my August 13, 2015 op-ed with Stephan Richter for Al Jazeera English.

Yemen: Saudis “liberate” Aden; Qaeda waltzes in immediately

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Saudi Arabia liberates and stabilizes Yemen like this:

“Dozens of al Qaeda militants were patrolling the streets with their weapons in total freedom in a number of areas in Tawahi [port district, Aden]. At the same time, others raised the al Qaeda black flag above government buildings,” a resident told Reuters.

He said the flag was also flying over the administrative building of the port, although a port official later said that the flag was flying at the gate of the port’s complex.
[…]
Yemen’s Deputy Interior Minister Brigadier General Ali Nasser Lakhsha played down the threat posed by the gunmen in the Aden neighborhoods.
[…]
Residents say policemen and government army units are now largely absent from Aden, where services have lapsed and the ruins from earlier battles have gone unrepaired.

“All these guns and gunmen everywhere is a thing that Aden has never seen before…Fear is spreading that it will eventually give way to chaos, and more wars in the future” said Yemeni analyst Abdulqader Ba Ras.

 
That was on Saturday, August 23rd. They withdrew on Sunday after first trying to seize a military base. They still control the populous southern port city of Mukalla (see map above).
Read more

Op-Ed | “Saudi Arabia and the US: More military misfires”

A Royal Saudi Air Force F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft, May 1992, Operation Desert Shield. (Credit: U.S. Department of Defense / TECH. SGT. H. H. DEFFNER)

A Royal Saudi Air Force F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft, May 1992, Operation Desert Shield. (Credit: U.S. Department of Defense / TECH. SGT. H. H. DEFFNER)

Excerpts from “Saudi Arabia and the US: More military misfires” — my August 13, 2015 op-ed with Stephan Richter for Al Jazeera English.

The Saudi way of handling the crisis in Yemen shows they are following in the US’ footsteps far too closely:

No concept has proven to be as strategically short-sighted as the assumption of military superiority.

It leads powerful nations to give in to the temptation to bomb their way out of a problem – as if anyone could.

While in Washington this lesson is still sinking in, Saudi Arabia, the United States’ major ally in the Gulf region, seems to have learned nothing from the ill-fated US strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
[…]
The presumed wealth of advantage of the US and Saudi Arabia over Iraq and Yemen does not serve either country well.

This “abundance” tempted them to go for broke – all out attack mode – and continues to delude them into believing they have “won” the battle, while they ignore that the war is being lost.

The US at least had the excuse of being an outsider to the region, the Saudis, who live on the Arabian Peninsula with their Yemeni neighbours, can’t tap into that (weak) excuse.

Read the full piece.


Recently from AFD on this topic:

“Yemen War Update: Still an inhumane catastrophe”

August 12, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 138

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team.

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Topics: Key news stories from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran (and how it all relates to or affects U.S. policy in the region). People: Bill, Kelley, Nate. Produced: August 10th, 2015.

Discussion Points:

– Syria: The U.S. bombs fictional terror groups and Turkey bombs the Kurds.
– Iraq: On air conditioners and nation-building.
– Yemen: Saudi Arabia’s war and a horrific humanitarian crisis.
– Iran: Will the Iran Deal survive Congress? Will it change US-Israeli relations?

Episode 138 (56 min):
AFD 138

Related Links

AFD: Syria Archives
AFD: Iraq’s air conditioner uprising
AFD: Yemen War Archives
AFD: Iran Archives

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Yemen War Update: Still an inhumane catastrophe

After four months of nearly uninterrupted bombing by the Saudi air force and blockade by the Saudi navy, two articles (one big picture, one narrow but illustrative) sum up the horror that is the war in Yemen.

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Washington Post: “In Yemen’s grinding war, if the bombs don’t get you, the water shortages will”

The number of Yemenis who lack access to drinking water has almost doubled since the war began, according to the United Nations and aid agencies. Now, they say, more than 20 million people — about 80 percent of Yemen’s population — struggle to find enough water to quench their thirst and bathe.

Diseases such as malaria are spreading, killing hundreds of people, because so many residents are forced to use improperly stored and unsanitary water, health experts say. The crisis is compounding a humanitarian emergency that already has prompted U.N. officials and aid workers to warn of famine.
[…]
Diesel fuel for backup generators, which could be used to power the pumps, has become scarce because of the difficulties of transporting it through war zones. In addition, U.N. officials and aid workers say an air and naval blockade established by the Saudi-led coalition is severely restricting imports.
[…]
The United Nations says that 120,000 children could die if the lack of access to clean water, sufficient food and adequate health care persists. The fighting has forced many hospitals and medical clinics to close.

 
The fighting from the Saudis and their allies on one side and the Houthis on the other side has killed an estimated 3,500 people in direct attacks. That will pale in comparison to the eventual death rate from the disease and starvation it is causing. Still, it is definitely not helping things to have Saudi bombers indiscriminately annihilating civilian targets constantly.

Associated Press: “Yemeni officials, witnesses: Saudi-led coalition airstrikes kill more than 120 in port city”

Saudi-led coalition airstrikes killed more than 120 civilians and wounded more than 150 after shelling a residential area [of Mokha] in the Yemeni province of Taiz on Friday evening, security officials, medical officials and witnesses said.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters, said that most of the houses in the area were leveled and a fire broke out in the port city of Mokha. Most of the corpses, including children, women and elderly people, were charred by the flames, they said.

 
They were trying to remove injured survivors out of the site on animal carts toward hospitals in the provincial capital, but those were inaccessible because the war has closed or blocked most roads. Saudi targeting of places in the middle of nowhere isn’t helping matters when it comes to saving the wounded:

Security officials said this comes after Saudi-led coalition planes launched dozens of airstrikes on positions of Shiite Houthi rebels and their allies in Mokha. The closest Houthi outpost to Friday evening’s deadly strike is at least 5km away, officials and area residents said.

 
These are our “allies.” We gave them those bombs and jets. They haven’t improved from bombing schools and refugee camps in April. At what point do we cut ties with them?

Militarily, it has taken the full four months to turn back the Houthis even a little bit (from the city of Aden). Their overall territorial hold remains larger than when the bombing began in March. So, the war hasn’t been strategically particularly effective either.

They are not destroying a rebellion. They are destroying Yemen. A country whose population is half children and which was already one of the poorest in the world.

The armed drones free-for-all at the CIA

Buried in a December 2014 New York Times article was this passage that has been knocking around in my head ever since:

During the presidential campaign in 2008, Mr. Obama railed against the [Central Intelligence A]gency’s use of torture and secret prisons during the Bush administration, and shuttered the detention program during his first week in office. But he has empowered the agency in other ways — including allowing its director, not the White House, to make the final decisions about drone strikes in Pakistan.

 
In other words, an agency that has actively resisted Congressional oversight attempts (to the point of hacking Senate computers) now doesn’t even have Executive oversight — or oversight by any elected civilian — when blowing people away with missiles. The CIA drones program has the power the make literal life and death decisions day in and day out with nobody externally keeping track of it or authorizing individual strikes.

Worse, these strikes aren’t even targeting high-profile people most of the time. Or even any-profile people. The use of so-called “signature strikes” — where they bomb a physical or moving target that has the visual “signature” of something that might be terrorists — by the CIA has become commonplace. These strikes aren’t based on any actual intelligence suggesting someone worth targeting is there. The target just “fits a profile.” That’s how innocent wedding parties get bombed instead of terrorist convoys.

A recent op-ed in The Guardian looked at the general lawlessness and lack of rules surrounding the paramilitary use of drones by the CIA:

After the “rules” were announced in 2013, the Associated Press reported that the US was going to stop signature strikes everywhere, including in Pakistan. Then we found out, through the Wall Street Journal, that actually, no, the president issued a secret waiver for Pakistan and part of the rules didn’t apply there. Now just this week, we’ve learned from the Washington Post that Obama, at some point, issued another waiver on the “imminent” rule for Yemen, allowing the CIA to continue signature strikes there unabated. According to their report: “US officials insisted that there was never a comprehensive ban on the use of signature strikes in that country” to begin with.

In other words, a key part of the drone “rules” Obama laid out in public don’t apply in the two countries where the CIA conducts virtually all of its drone strikes. Oh, and the “imminent threat” rule doesn’t apply in Afghanistan either, the only other country where the US military is regularly conducting its strikes.

 
We should probably keep foreign intelligence collection and analysis in one agency and keep military activities in the military. Unaccountable paramilitaries are never a good development for any country — particularly not a democracy.

MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt via Wikimedia)

MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt via Wikimedia)