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Yemen: The Stupidest War

“They hit everything, hospitals, orphanages, schools,” Hisham al-Omeisy told The Guardian newspaper six months ago. “You live in constant fear that your kids’ school could be the next target.”

No, he’s not talking about the wicked Russians bombing the eastern side of Aleppo in Syria, which is stirring up so much synthetic indignation in Washington and London these days. He was talking about the air force of Saudi Arabia, that great friend of the West, bombing his friends and neighbours in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

The Saudi Arabian bombing campaign in Yemen is now eighteen months old, and is responsible for the great majority of the estimated 5,000 civilian fatal casualties in that time. The Saudi authorities swear that it wasn’t them every time there is an especially high death toll – “(our) forces have clear instructions not to target populated areas and to avoid civilians” is the familiar refrain – but they are the only side in the conflict that has aircraft.

A case in point is last Sunday’s strike on the Great Hall in Sana’a, a very large and distinctive building of no military importance whatever. Last Sunday it was crowded with hundred of people attending the funeral of Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the current interior minister, Galal al-Rawishan.

The younger al-Rawishan is the interior minister in the government that sits in the capital, which is supported by “rebel” Houthi tribesmen from the north of Yemen and by the part of the army that still backs the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. His father’s funeral was therefore attended by many senior Houthi officials and supporters of the former president, as well as large numbers of other people.

By the sheerest coincidence, we are asked to believe, an air-strike accidentally hit the Great Hall at just the right time on just the right day to kill 150 people and wound 525, among whom there would probably have been a dozen or so “rebel” government officials.

Even the White House, which has loyally backed Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen, said that it is launching an immediate review of its policy. US National Security Council spokesman Ned Simon said it was part of a “troubling” pattern of Saudi air attacks on civilians, and warned that “US security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank cheque.” But it is, actually.

This war is really about Saudi Arabia’s ability to control Yemen’s government. The two neighbours have about the same population but Saudi Arabia is thirty times richer, so that should be easy.

Yemen’s long-ruling dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was hostile to Saudi Arabia, so the latter took advantage of popular protests against him in 2011-12 (part of the “Arab Spring”) to engineer his replacement by a Saudi puppet, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Saleh then made an alliance with his former enemies, the Houthi tribes of northern Yemen, and struck back. When the rebel forces seized Sana’a in late 2014 and eventually drove Hadi out of the country, Saudi Arabia put together a “coalition” of conservative Arab states and launched the current military intervention to put Hadi back in power.

However, none of the “coalition” members wants to risk the casualties and the consequent unpopularity at home that would come from fighting a major ground war in Yemen. The intervention therefore consists mostly of air strikes, which produce lots of civilian casualties – some deliberate, some not.

The other motive behind this foolish war is the Saudi belief (or at least claim) that Iran, its great rival in the Gulf, is the secret power behind the rebel forces in Yemen. No doubt Iran does sympathise with the Yemeni rebels, since they are mostly fellow Shias, but for all the talk of “Iran-allied Houthis”, faithfully repeated in Western media, there is no evidence that Iran has given them either military or financial aid.

So, then, three conclusions. First, the Saudi-led coalition will not get its way in Yemen if it remains unwilling to put large numbers of troops on the ground – and it might not win even if it did. Second, the relentless bombing of civilians is largely due to the coalition’s frustration at the failure of its political strategy (although the sheer lack of useful military targets also plays a part).

And third, this is the stupidest of all the wars now being fought across the Middle East. Who runs Yemen is not a matter of vital strategic importance to Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi obsession with the Iranian “threat” is absurd.

Yemen is of no imaginable strategic value to Iran, nor could the Iranians help the rebel government there in any concrete way even if they wanted to. And while Iranian influence has undoubtedly grown in the Gulf region in the past decade, that is entirely a result of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, not of some nefarious Iranian plot.

Does the Washington foreign policy establishment finally understand all this? Only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Old habits die hard, and it’s all too easy to condemn Russian air strikes in Syria while condoning similar Saudi air strikes in Yemen.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7, 11 and 15. (“Even…actually”; “However…not”; and “Yemen…plot”)

Trump in Power

Let us suppose that it is July 2017. Let us suppose that Donald Trump, nominated as the Republican candidate for the US presidency exactly a year ago, won the November election – quite narrowly, perhaps, but the polls are certainly suggesting that such a thing is possible. So he was inaugurated six months ago, and has started to put his campaign promises into effect.

We may also assume that the Republican Party retains control of both houses of Congress. If it doesn’t, then Trump’s ability to execute his plans would be seriously circumscribed, but the surge of support that gives Trump victory would probably also give the Republicans a win in some close Senate races. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives, thanks to extensive gerrymandering, is practically fireproof.

Trump’s three most disruptive campaign promises were also the three that had the most appeal to his core voters, and he is implementing them fast. They are: a 40 percent tariff on all foreign imports, an end to free trade deals, and tight curbs on immigration – especially the famous “wall” on the Mexican border.

It won’t actually be a wall, of course. It will be the kind of high-tech barrier that countries build when they are really serious about closing a frontier. There will be a ditch about three metres deep and ten metres wide extending for 3,000 km along the US-Mexican border. It will have a three-metre-high razor-wire fence along the front edge of the ditch, facing Mexico, and another along the back edge.

The front fence has a high-voltage current running through it. The back fence carries the video and infra-red cameras and motion-sensors that detect attempts to cross the ditch, and the remotely controlled machine-guns that respond to those attempts. There are also land-mines down in the ditch. Why is it so lethal? Because long experience has shown that the only way to really close a border is to kill people who try to cross it.

The “wall” is not yet finished in July 2017, of course. It will take several years to complete, at a cost of $30-50 billion. Already, however, there are daily deaths among the tens of thousands of Mexican protesters who gather at the construction sites – and a few among Mexican-American protesters on the other side of the fence as well.

The Mexican government, faced with economic disaster as the millions of manufacturing jobs created in Mexico to export back to the United States evaporate, has broken diplomatic relations with Washington, as have several other Latin American nations. State Department experts are worried that a radical nationalist regime may come to power in Mexico, but “establishment experts” are not welcome in the new White House.

Negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and European Union have been broken off, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership will never be ratified by Congress. The legislation for a 40 percent tariff on foreign imports is still making its way through Congress, as is the bill to end the North American Free Trade Agreement (which is causing panic in Canada, 73 percent of whose exports go to the United States).

The new laws will go through in the end, and the most important casualty will be US-China trade (as Trump fully intends it to be). China is already in a thinly disguised recession, and the impact of the new trade measures will turn it into a political crisis that threatens the survival of the Communist regime.

Beijing will certainly respond by pushing forward with the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which would include sixteen nations of the Asia-Pacific region but exclude the United States. However, it may also manufacture a military confrontation with the United States to distract popular discontent at home with a foreign threat. The dispute over the South China Sea would do nicely.

Japan, which is starting a major military build-up after Prime Minister Abe finally removed the anti-war Article 9 from the constitution in March 2017, will be at America’s side in this confrontation, but its European allies may not. Trump’s pro-Putin posture has not gone down well in the EU, which worries about Russia’s intentions, and his demands that Europe’s NATO members pay more of the alliance’s costs have not helped either.

The European Union, still in shock after Britain’s Brexit vote in 2016, has been further shaken by the near-win of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right, anti-EU National Front, in the May run-off of the French presidential elections. The spectre of EU collapse comes nearer, and Europe has no time for America’s Asian quarrels.

In the United States, the economy is still chugging along despite the stock-market crash of November 2016. Trump’s big increase in the military budget, his huge expansion of infrastructure spending (with borrowed money) and the rise in the minimum wage have kept the machine turning over for the time being. The effect of declaring a trade war on the rest of the world is not yet being felt at home – but it will be.

And it’s only July 2017. Trump still has another three-and-a-half years in the White House.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“We may…fireproof”; and “The European…quarrels”)

Donald Trump and Groucho Marx

“These are my principles, and if you don’t like them…Well, I have others.”
Groucho Marx

The odds have lengthened against a Donald Trump presidency after his Wisconsin defeat, and they were probably already ten-to-one against. If he wins the Republican nomination, which is still very likely, he will almost certainly face Hillary Clinton in the November election, and lose badly.

Or at least that is the orthodox calculation, for Trump is far behind Clinton with key voter groups like women, Latinos, African-Americans, and young people who bother to vote. But she is an uninspiring campaigner, she is the ultimate Washington insider in a season where insiders are out, and there are a few skeletons that might come rattling out of her closet during the campaign. A big terrorist attack could also change the odds.

So President Donald Trump is still a small but real possibility. You wouldn’t be a fool to put a dollar down if somebody offered you twelve-to-one odds. That frightens a lot of people quite badly, especially when it comes to foreign policy, for he is the loosest of loose cannons – or so it seems.

There he goes, starting a trade war with China, pushing Japan and South Korea to get their own nuclear weapons, trashing NATO, building a wall to keep Mexicans out, and closing the US border to all Muslims. He’s even in favour of torturing suspected terrorists. But would he really be as rash and ignorant in the White House as he is while in campaign mode?

All of his present positions are calculated to appeal to the group whose support he must win to get the Republican nomination: “angry white men” who feel that they have been cheated of their right to a good job and a central role in American politics by unseen economic and demographic forces and clever, wicked foreigners. The internal politics of the Republican Party is now largely dominated by their concerns.

Trump is so focussed on getting their support that he even opposes the traditional Republican policies that have contributed to their marginalisation and impoverishment: free trade, low taxes for the rich, deep cuts in welfare programmes. And he gets away with it, although no other Republican candidate would.

Once Trump wins the nomination, however, he must appeal to a broader audience to win the election, and he is a past master at changing his tune. Five years ago his publicly declared principles would have qualified him to run for the Democratic presidential nomination – but, like Groucho Marx, he can come up with other principles in a flash when it serves his interests.

Take abortion rights: five years ago he defended women’s right to choose, last week he wanted to jail women if they chose abortion – and in the face of a public outcry, he rapidly retreated and said he just wanted to punish the doctors who did the abortions. Whatever the audience wants, it gets.

Once the Republican nomination is in the bag and the audience Trunp must address a broader audience to win the election, he will have to shift his ground, and he will do it. (The angry white men will just have to tag along, because they have nowhere else to go.) Then, if he should win the election, he might change his policies again. Who is the real Donald Trump?

The answer is that there is no real Donald Trump, in terms of policies and principles. He will do anything and say anything to get what he wants – but beyond being elected president, it isn’t clear that he wants anything in particular. If ideologues frighten you, then you needn’t worry about the Donald.

What does legitimately frighten people about Donald Trump is his ignorance (which is not just a show to appeal to his current audience) and his impulsiveness. On the other hand, he is actually quite intelligent, and as president he would have to rely on military officers and civil servants who really do not want to uproot and overturn everything. Moreover, they can generally block or sabotage truly stupid decisions, if that becomes necessary.

The result might be a presidency with a foreign policy like Richard Nixon’s: paranoid, unscrupulous, but not ideological at all and not given to needless provocations on the international scene. The trickiest bit would be Trump’s first few months in office, because he has definitely frightened the horses internationally and they are getting ready to bolt.

It is hard to overstate just how frightened other governments are about Trump in the White House. The word “fascist” gets used a lot in private even by national leaders, and of course it used publicly every day by the mass media in most other countries. Perhaps the biggest danger is that America’s allies and enemies would react preemptively to his rhetoric without waiting to see what he actually does in office.

So, on mature reflection, it really would be a very bad idea for Trump to become the president of the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“Trump…would”; and “Take…gets”)

Another Bush Damaged by Iraq

He just misheard the question. A basically friendly interviewer on Fox News asked Jeb Bush, now seeking the Republican nomination for the US presidency: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorised the invasion (of Iraq)?” And he replied: “I would have.” When the storm of protest, even from Republicans, swept over him, he explained that he thought the interviewer had said: “Knowing what we KNEW THEN.”

An easy mistake to make. “Know now” sounds an awful lot like “knew then”. Besides, Jeb Bush is on record as claiming that he is Hispanic (on a 2009 voter-registration application), so the poor man was struggling with his second language. If only she had asked the question in Spanish, he would have understood it perfectly.

Enough. When you listen to the entire interview, it’s clear that Bush didn’t want to say a flat “No” to her question, because that would be a condemnation of his brother’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. But as soon as he could, he switched to talking about the “intelligence failures” that misled his brother into invading the wrong country. Anybody can make a mistake. So nobody’s to blame.

Hillary Clinton, currently the favourite for the Democratic presidential nomination, uses exactly the same defence. In fact, every American politician who voted in favour of the invasion of Iraq at the time claims that the problem was faulty intelligence, and maybe some of them outside of the White House genuinely were misled.

But the intelligence wasn’t “faulty”; it was cooked to order. There was no plausible intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, so the US intelligence services were told to “find” some. There were no Islamist terrorists in Iraq either: Saddam Hussein hunted down and killed anybody suspected of being an Islamist activist, because the Islamists wanted to kill him.

The US Central Intelligence Agency agency tried very hard to create a link between al Qaeda, the organisation responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and Iraq. The only thing they came up with, however, was a rumour that a little-known Islamist from Jordan called Abu Musab al Zarqawi who knew Osama bin Laden had been in Baghdad receiving treatment for wounds received in Afghanistan in May-November 2002. (He was actually in Iran at that time.)

If you were on the White House staff in early 2003, you HAD to know that the “intelligence” you were using to justify the invasion of Iraq was false, because you were one of the people demanding that the spooks manufacture “evidence” for it. The decision itself had been taken even before Bush’s election in 2000 and the 9/11 attacks in 2001, for reasons that had nothing to do with terrorism.

The incoming Bush administration was full of people called “neo-conservatives”. They believed that the Clinton administration had failed to exploit the sole superpower status that the United States inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to put the world to
rights.

What was needed, therefore, was a display of US power that would make all the “bad guys” behave. So invade somewhere and take the local bad guy down. Iraq was the obvious choice, because it was very weak after a decade of arms embargo, and Saddam Hussein was a very bad guy.

We don’t yet know just how disastrous the invasion of Iraq was, because the damage is still accumulating. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the man who now rules “Islamic State”, the terrorist-ruled new country that occupies the easten half of Syria and the western third of Iraq, started fighting Americans as part of the Iraqi resistance in 2003.

By 2006 at the latest, he had joined the group then called Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was largely made up of jihadis from other Arab countries who had flocked to Iraq to fight the infidel invaders. And the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq was none other than Abu Musab al Zarqawi – who parlayed the reputation as a major jihadi leader that the US intelligence services gave him into a real leadership position in the resistance.

Through the years that followed, that organisation gained experience in guerilla war and terrorism, and through several changes of name and leadership (Zarqawi was killed in 2006) it ultimately morphed into Islamic State. Baghdadi was with it all the way, and now styles himself “Caliph Ibrahim”, demanding the loyalty and obedience of all Muslims everywhere.

So we owe a lot to the “neo-cons” in George Bush’s administration who pushed for the invasion of Iraq: people like Dick Cheney (Vice-president), Donald Rumsfeld (Secretary of Defense), and Paul Wolfowitz (Undersecretary of Defense). They just used the 9/11 attacks as a vehicle for their pre-existing Iraq invasion plans.

It was Wolfowitz, above all, who worked tirelessly to link Irak to terrorism. And guess who is the most prominent name on Jeb Bush’s current team of foreign policy advisers (apart from George W Bush himself). Why, it’s the very same Paul Wolfowitz. The problem with Jeb Bush is not the foolish answers he gives. It’s the company he keeps.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 9. (“Hillary…misled”; and “The incoming…guy”)