After the most inane opening of any official White House statement ever – “America First! The world is a very dangerous place!” – the most urgent thing Donald Trump had to say today about his relationship with Saudi Arabia is that the horrific Saudi-led war in Yemen is Iran’s fault.
Never mind that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been definitively identified by the CIA as the man who ordered the grotesque premeditated ambush assassination of U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
Instead, Trump gave a kindergarten-level intro to imaginary geopolitics in which the Saudis are the victims and the U.S. must stick by their side.
“The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen,” the statement indicated, adopting the Saudis’ specious excuse for continuing the U.S.-backed bombing of civilian targets that has already turned Yemen into a hellish landscape of carnage and famine.
Trump then adopted Saudi talking points that I suspect even the Saudis can no longer utter with straight faces.
“Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave,” Trump wrote. “They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance.”
The reality is that the Saudi-led coalition has taken sides in what is a complex and confusing civil war in Yemen, where Iran is mostly a bogeyman. Neither Trump nor Obama before him have ever set forth an intelligible reason for the U.S. to be providing military support for the bombings, which it has been doing in the form of aerial refueling and help with intelligence and targeting. In the words of Sen. Chris Murphy, that support has put “an American imprint on every single civilian death inside Yemen”.
As far as I can tell, the first time Trump even addressed U.S. support for the war in Yemen was on Sunday, on Fox News.
Asked his view on ending U.S. involvement, Trump didn’t exactly say: “Well I want to see Yemen in but it takes two to tango. Iran has to end it also,” he said. “And Iran is a different country than it was when I took over, it’s far weakened because of what I did with the Iran — so-called Iran deal, Iran nuclear deal, which was one of the great rip-offs of all time. But I want Saudi to stop but I want Iran to stop also.”
I’ve been writing recently about Trump’s use of language. What’s striking about his written statement today was how similar it was to his unscripted ramblings. The official Saudi statement was vapid, credulous, combative and childish in the extreme — featuring eight exclamation points! All of its assertions conveying Saudi views were definitive; all those reflecting the views of the U.S. intelligence community were hedged and caveated.
It will almost inevitably backfire, and further links the effort to end support for the Saudi bombing in Yemen to the Kashoggi murder, strengthening that case considerably.
As I wrote two months ago, when a Democratic House was only a theoretical possibility, members of Congress from both parties had already joined together in significant numbers to balk at the U.S. military’s complicity in the Saudi bombings. Now, definitive action in the House is inevitable, and possibly in the Senate as well.
The biggest question may be what the legislation says, specifically. Opponents of the Yemen war were rallying around House Congressional Resolution 138, authored by California congressman Ro Khanna. But the ACLU on Tuesday issued a strong call to abandon it — on account of multiple legalistic loopholes — and instead take up more ironclad legislation in January.
National security expert William Hartung had an important article on CNN today. He noted that the Trump administration recently called for a ceasefire and announced its decision to stop refueling Saudi aircraft involved in the conflict. But Hartung doubted the effect of either move.
Only Congress can make it stop, he wrote. “The sooner that happens, the better it will be, for the people of Yemen and the security of the United States and the region.”