This week the Senate will vote on and likely pass a resolution of disapproval calling for the United States to cease activities related to the Yemen war. The resolution is essentially a call to cut off Saudi Arabia, which, in turn, would signal that the United States does not care if Iran, the other party in the conflict, were to emerge on top in Yemen—an outcome that carries direct consequences for the global economy. Some senators who supported moving the resolution forward have cited the killing of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi, which suggests, as one senator who opposes the resolution put it, that the Yemen issue is being tied to the broader issue of the relationship with Saudi Arabia. All of this is a display of strategic recklessness. In contrast, President Donald Trump’s statement two weeks ago titled “Standing with Saudi Arabia” was an example of strategic clarity. It bears revisiting for a closer read.
The president’s statement was followed by a torrent of criticism and outrage. What struck the sourest note for the president’s critics was his injection of colloquial language into a formal statement on foreign policy. For critics of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, the style of Trump’s statement amplified the repulsive crudeness of its substance. It offended their sense not just of what American foreign policy ought to be, but also about how it ought to be presented to the public.
Unsurprisingly, the criticism of D.C. foreign policy experts misses the point entirely. What they found crude and distasteful is precisely what made the president’s statement so powerful. The furious objections to both the content and the style of Trump’s statement point up the ways in which the foreign policy establishment has often used high-flown language about morality and ethics to cloak a series of failures in logical reasoning about the American interest, to say nothing of the negative impact of their preferences on the far-away places where they’re applied.
The opening two lines—“America First!”; “The world is a very dangerous place!”—establish the document as indubitably the president’s own. This stamp of Trumpness is critical to establish the statement’s credibility with its intended audiences, which may or may not include America’s Trump-hating foreign policy elite. While the president may enjoy sticking his thumb in his enemies’ eye, his key audiences here are Americans who share his America-centered approach to foreign policy, who can be found on both the right and the left these days, as well as foreign leaders, who must calculate whether they can rely on the United States as an ally and what being America’s enemy might cost.
To both groups, Trump’s opening language makes a clear point: What follows are the words and beliefs of the American president himself.
President Trump is selling his foreign policy directly to the American people, rather than talking over their heads. This is, to be sure, a different way of playing the foreign policy game, one that Harry Truman might recognize but more recent presidents, of both parties, might not. There is no hidden pitch, masked with supposedly sophisticated lingo or flowery rhetoric that can then be spun by an echo chamber of political and media operatives, who will use their highly credentialed expertise to assure Americans that the money we send to Iran actually belongs to Iran, so we aren’t actually sending them money, or that the Iranians have no intention of building nuclear weapons, which is why making a deal with them right now on Iran’s own terms is a matter of urgent national importance. Or, assuring Americans and the world that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and is planning to use them, which is why America needs to invade Iraq, where it will then use its occupation forces to attempt to turn the country into a democratic model for the entire Middle East.
Ordinary Americans and foreign leaders alike are unlikely to take issue with the proposition that American policy in the Middle East over the past two decades has been marked by an honesty deficit, as well as a strategic-thinking deficit, for which the American people have been asked repeatedly to foot the bill. With this document, Trump appears to be unapologetically forthright about the actual drivers of American policy in the Middle East.
Despite the colloquial, blunt language, and the excitable punctuation, there is no actual dumbing down on substance here, either. The statement successfully communicates the simple but fundamental tenet of a sound foreign policy anywhere on earth: A crystal-clear distinction between allies and enemies. The statement never wavers on strategic clarity and proceeds with a laserlike focus on the core U.S. interest in the region, and where Saudi Arabia and Iran each stand in that regard.
The lead paragraph of Trump’s statement identifies Iran’s destructive regional role, and correctly assigns to it, in the first line, responsibility for the extended war in Yemen. “The country of Iran,” the first paragraph begins, “is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.”
Right at the outset, the president sets a tone of strategic clarity. His opening paragraph ends with the proper identification of Iran as an adversary of the United States and of its allies in the region, which include not only Saudi Arabia but also Israel. “Iran states openly, and with great force, ‘Death to America!’ and ‘Death to Israel!’” the paragraph explains. “Iran is considered ‘the world’s leading sponsor of terror.’”
The next paragraph follows by underscoring the critical distinction between America’s regional adversary, Iran, and its ally, Saudi Arabia. Having led with Iran’s responsibility for the war in Yemen, this second paragraph accurately explains the Saudi campaign against the Iranian-backed forces as defensive in nature: “Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave.”
In contrast with ridiculous analogies being made on social media between the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and Saddam Hussein, who invaded both Iran and then the tiny principality of Kuwait, the war in Yemen was foisted on Saudi Arabia by Iran and its proxies. The history is not very hard to understand, nor is it controversial beyond circles of partisan operatives who understand the trick of making villains into victims as a good way to gin up more outrage among their followers.
At the start of 2015, the government of Yemen was toppled in a military takeover by an Iran-backed group known as Ansar Allah (or, more commonly, the Houthis), in alliance with the former president of Yemen, Abdullah Saleh, and his supporters. The Houthis took large parts of the country, including critical points on the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb straits and the port of Hodeidah. Saudi Arabia led a coalition of allies and intervened to restore the legitimate government and to deny the establishment next door of an Iranian-backed order, armed with Iranian missiles positioned on the Red Sea, with IRGC and Hezbollah operatives on the ground.
The notion that it was Riyadh’s intervention that “pushed” the Houthis into Iran’s arms is ludicrous, as their relationship goes back years before the war. In 2012, Gerald Feierstein, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen under President Barack Obama, explained that Hezbollah was helping Iran extend its influence both in northern Yemen, with the Houthis, as well as in southern Yemen. Feierstein’s comments came after reports of increased arms smuggling by the Quds force to Yemen. In January 2013, other arms shipments were intercepted. Those shipments were found to be carrying a number of weapons systems from Iran, including surface-to-air missiles intended for the Houthis.
No sane government would accept a growing Iranian missile threat on its border: Just ask Israel. More importantly, it is distinctly in the American interest to prevent Iran and its proxy militias, including sanctioned terror groups like Hezbollah and its various tributaries, from positioning missiles, speedboats, and other weapons on a waterway that is critically important for the global economy. Ensuring safe transit for ships carrying oil through that waterway is a crucial part of America’s key role in the global security architecture that makes the functioning of Western economies possible.
After concisely laying out America’s regional interests, the president’s statement proceeds to elucidate the importance of America’s longstanding alliance with Saudi Arabia in concrete terms that explain its relevance to the American people. The U.S.-Saudi alliance is important not just for regional reasons or the support it offers for some abstract strategic rationale. Rather, the president explains, it’s important because it affects concrete things that directly affect the lives of the people he is talking to: jobs, the price of oil, investments in the U.S. economy, sales of military equipment and technology, and so on.
It is telling that the elite so ferociously mocked this particular aspect of the president’s presentation, as though it is unimaginably crude for the American president to explain in plain language how alliances are beneficial to the American people, whose tax money has been squandered on unbelievably wasteful, incoherently awful policies in the region for decades, and lay out honestly how regional clients pay tribute in return for America’s friendship and protection. Good alliances, the president explained, yield “additional wealth for the United States.”
At the same time, the president widened the aperture, and connected this regional angle to the international, strategic level, making more-removed arguments that are again directly relevant and accessible to the American people. If we forfeit what we have with this old ally, our rivals, China and Russia, will sweep in and take it away from us. “If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries—and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business,” Trump said.
A majority of the American people may not be deeply versed in the recondite language of arms treaties, but they certainly do understand what happens when you tell one of your best customers to go take a hike. “It would be a wonderful gift to [our rivals] directly from the United States!” With this identifiably Trumpian line, the president brought his domestic and foreign policies into clear alignment.
At this point, having explained in honest, unsentimental terms the value and purpose of the alliance, the president then acknowledged that a terrible crime was in fact committed against Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi. To be sure, those are the ways of that world. But that doesn’t make brutal acts any more palatable. “Indeed, we have taken strong action against those already known to have participated in the murder.”
Justice, or some form of justice, will be done. But let’s be clear, the president adds: Those pushing us to destabilize the kingdom or even compromise the alliance because of the murder of one of that kingdom’s own citizens are being reckless, or worse.
Here, the president again remains zeroed in on the U.S. strategic priority in the region: We are in the middle of a campaign against Iran, the lead state sponsor of terrorism. The Saudis “have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran.” The United States has just imposed sanctions on Iran. Those sanctions target Tehran’s oil exports. A stable Saudi Arabia is critical for maintaining (or even increasing) its output levels, thereby keeping oil prices down—something as important to the average American as it is to the global economy and the success of sanctions on Iran’s oil business. “Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world,” Trump explained. “They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels—so important for the world.”
Furthermore, he adds, making sure the Iranians don’t get to establish a base on the Red Sea is a critical interest not just to us, but also to our regional allies, namely Israel. “The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region,” he stated.
In other words, there is an American alliance system in the region. It includes Saudi Arabia and Israel. On the other side is Iran. Again, the first principle of a sound foreign policy: discerning friends from foes.
The question of whether America sides with Iran or with Saudi Arabia is not a beauty contest between two distasteful Middle Eastern theocracies, neither one of which is particularly attractive by Western standards. The question is not which is more or less palatable, the repressive Islamic Republic of Iran which hangs gay teenagers from cranes in the streets, or the austere House of Saud, where thieves get their hands cut off in the public square. This was the dishonest tactic that President Obama and his administration and surrogates used when trying to sell his decision not to intervene against Iran’s clients in Syria. “There are no good guys,” the mantra went. “We don’t take sides in a religious war between Shiites and Sunnis”—all the while making clear that for Obama and his party, Iran was the preferable partner.
President Trump does away with all that nonsense in this statement, by putting U.S. interests first: “As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm.”
In both its style and its substance, Trump’s declaration of first principles is an unusually clear-minded, straightforward, and potentially significant document in the annals of American foreign policy, and a much-needed corrective to two decades of dishonesty and obfuscation.
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Tony Badran is Tablet’s news editor and Levant analyst.