Category Archives: Middle East

How Biden Lost Saudi Arabia

WSJ,  By The Editorial Board

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In case you missed it amid the war news, the Journal this week reported that Saudi Arabia is edging closer to accepting the yuan as payment for oil shipments to China. This is one more cost, and a potentially significant one, of the Biden Administration’s bungled handling of a strategically important ally.

Details of the potential new Saudi-Chinese oil-trading arrangements remain vague. The two sides have talked for years about pricing some oil sales in yuan, and it may not happen. Some 80% of global oil sales are priced in U.S. dollars, the yuan is not freely convertible as a reserve currency must be, and Saudi Arabia’s currency, the riyal, is pegged to the dollar.

Yet the two sides are said to be keen, and news of renewed discussions sends an alarming signal. Saudi Arabia committed in 1974 to conduct its oil trade only in dollars, in exchange for security guarantees from Washington. The Biden Administration has undermined that relationship at every turn, and by all accounts the Saudis are fed up.

One of the Administration’s first foreign-policy actions was to end U.S. support for the Saudi war against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. It also removed the terrorist designation from the Houthis. The White House then postponed a scheduled arms sale to Riyadh—a security slap-in-the-face that wasn’t reversed until late last year.

The Houthis have returned Mr. Biden’s gift by sending drones and missiles to attack the oil fields and cities of Saudi Arabia and its ally, the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, the Saudis watch, aghast, as Mr. Biden chases a new nuclear deal that will give Iran the resources to finance proxy wars against Saudi Arabia—until Tehran gets its own nuclear bomb.

Mr. Biden and his advisers say this is all about human rights. They rode into town on a high horse concerning the Riyadh-orchestrated 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cited humanitarian concerns when lifting the terrorist designation from the Houthis.

The Khashoggi murder was outrageous and Yemen’s plight is desperate, but Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made other moves toward domestic liberalization. More to the point, the U.S. needs every friend it can keep in a difficult part of the world. The high-minded internationalists populating the Biden Administration assume, wrongly, that a power such as America has the luxury of cooperating only with the morally pure.

The Saudis are recalculating their interests now that they fear they can’t rely on the U.S.—amid the Biden Administration’s hostility and the horrifying Afghanistan withdrawal. The Crown Prince has refused Mr. Biden’s entreaties to pump more oil, and he is reported even to have refused to take the President’s phone call.

Beijing is happy to step into the breach, and it could benefit if it can coax Riyadh into a yuan-for-oil arrangement. Doing so would help Beijing start building the scaffolding for a global yuan, including greater dispersion of the currency around the world. This in turn could open the door for China to offer the yuan as a trading currency to U.S. adversaries such as Russia and Iran. U.S. economic sanctions would be that much less effective.

There’s a lot of ruin in a reserve currency, and the greenback’s global pre-eminence endures for now. But Washington should push back on any budding challenges—especially from strategic rivals. This is an urgent job for Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, assuming she can pull herself away from campaigning for global taxes and climate regulation.

The Saudi bungle highlights the failure of Mr. Biden’s brand of righteous liberal internationalism. President Trump too often gave short shrift to American values, but Mr. Biden has swung too far in the opposite direction. He and his foreign-policy advisers seem to think grandstanding about human rights and the climate will win the day for U.S. interests. Successful Presidents, such as Ronald Reagan, have blended idealism with realism about the world’s bad actors and the need for friends.

In this new era of Great Power competition, the U.S. can’t afford to alienate allies that can help deter authoritarian aggressors bent on harming U.S. interests and values. The U.S. is paying the price in the Ukraine crisis for having lost the Saudis.


Hamas Tests Israel—and Biden

WSJ  5/11/2021

The jihadists of Hamas on Tuesday launched the biggest single-day rocket attack on the Jewish State in memory, with hundreds flying toward Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as well as the usual civilian targets in southern Israel. Israel struck back at 500 targets in Gaza, and this has the potential to become a larger conflict after a relatively long period of Mideast quiet.

The Hamas attacks come after days of Palestinian riots in Jerusalem, some prompted by long-running property disputes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Israeli courts ruled in favor of Jewish owners and against Palestinian leaseholders who claim rights to the property dating to Jordan’s occupation of East Jerusalem after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The case’s Supreme Court hearing was delayed.

Mahmoud Abbas, who runs the Palestinian West Bank region adjacent to Jerusalem, has been held up as a moderate negotiating partner for Israel. Yet his party fomented the Jerusalem violence, broadcasting that it “calls on everyone to raise the level of confrontation in the coming days and hours in the Palestinian lands,” according to Palestinian Media Watch.

The 85-year-old Mr. Abbas, who has headed the Palestinian Authority since 2005 without standing for re-election, may want to turn up the temperature to compensate for falling public confidence in his rule. He’s in competition with Hamas and even more extreme groups, which he shut out of power in the West Bank last month by postponing elections yet again. Hamas, which promises the destruction of Israel, one-upped Mr. Abbas’s riots by reigniting its military confrontation.

Regional politics are at work too. Hamas is funded and supplied by Iran, whose Supreme Leader last week praised “the pure blood of Resistance martyrs” in Palestine. The Biden Administration’s courtship of Iran in renewed nuclear negotiations has been met by Houthi escalation against Saudi Arabia and now Hamas escalation against Israel. The regime may think that the more its proxies clash with U.S. allies, the more eager the U.S. Administration will be to make concessions.

The Biden Administration will also have to resist pressure from its left flank to distance the U.S. from a key ally engaging in self-defense. Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted Tuesday that “we are seeing how the irresponsible actions of government-allied right-wing extremists in Jerusalem can escalate quickly into devastating war.” He must think Israel is firing those rockets on its own civilians.

The White House has given the Democratic left virtually everything it could hope for since Inauguration Day, but if there’s one issue on which the Administration still sounds more like the old guard, it’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has not endorsed the left’s distorted interpretation of the conflict as a dichotomy of privilege and victimhood, with Israel responsible for every wrong.

That position will come under pressure if casualties mount and passions rise. Let’s hope Mr. Biden is prepared to affirm that America’s top regional alliance is more important than the dictates of social-justice ideology.


Make Iran Great Again!

Only one post for tonight. This one should be enough…

WSJ 1/4/2018

Iran erupted last Thursday. By Friday, the protests against the government, which began in Mashhad near the Afghan border, had spread to dozens of cities. So when we traveled on Saturday to a movie theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to see “Darkest Hour,” Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Winston Churchill, imagine the jarring dislocation when the theater’s previews included a trailer for an admiring documentary of Barack Obama’s foreign-policy making, “The Final Year.”

The preview screen filled with expressions of earnest intent from Mr. Obama, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes and the Iran nuclear deal’s handmaiden, John Kerry. About 100 minutes later, we were watching Churchill shout at his war cabinet that you cannot do deals with dictators. That would have been about the time this weekend that protesters in Iran were shouting “Death to Khamenei!” It’s nice to see the Iranian people have a sense of humor.

Producing the past week’s protests against the Iranian regime was not the goal of the six-party Iran nuclear deal. Back then, the Khamenei-Rouhani regime was represented as America’s partner in a good cause. Now the governments of the U.S., U.K., France and Germany (Russia is a Khamenei ally, and China only supports crackdowns) have to decide whether their Iranian partner is the people in the streets or the government that is shooting them.

In the preview of “The Final Year,” the Obama team members convey confidence in the rightness of everything they did. But as we learned in November 2016, there was one big thing the Obama people never understood: how a real economy works. By real economy, I mean the private economy, not the economy of public spending.

A central element of the nuclear deal was that it would “help” the Iranian people by lifting sanctions and injecting $100 billion of unfrozen assets into Iran’s economy. This was much the same economic theory behind the Obama administration’s 2009 injection of $832 billion into the U.S. economy. Both flopped because both made the real economy essentially a bystander to state guidance.

The Obama $832 billion went up the government’s fireplace flue. The Iranian $100 billion went into ballistic missile production and for Iran’s proxies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

The moment has arrived for invidious comparisons.

Donald Trump is president because the Obama-Clinton Democrats forgot about hardpressed voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. The Khamenei-Rouhani regime is under assault because working- class Iranians began this week’s revolt in cities beyond the capital.

Come to think of it, isn’t that disconnect between the people running governments and the people trying to make a living in the real economy the core reason behind the worldwide burst of populism?

It’s the reason France’s working-class voters and young, underemployed college graduates sent Emmanuel Macron and a heretofore nonexistent party into the French presidency. It’s the reason workingclass Brits lunged for Brexit. This new global reality—perform or get shoved aside—is the reason Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman imposed reforms. The Iranians shouting, “Leave Syria, think of us!” are the West Virginia coal miners shouting, “Make America Great Again.” That’s not yahooism. It is anxiety directed at incumbent elites who tell the public that reduced levels of economic growth are the new normal. The world’s populations will not accept that.

Iran—like North Korea— has taken its best and brightest and stuck them inside a mountain to build atomic bombs, leaving the economy in the hands of Brussels-grade technocrats.

Besides calling for higher taxes in its recent budget, even as prices have spiked for basic foodstuff, Hassan Rouhani’s government has pursued import- substitution policies by imposing high tariffs on many imported goods. Needless to say, Iranians can’t get the clothing, appliances and electronics they want.

To combat a massive cellphone- smuggling operation, Iran recently slapped a 5% duty on them atop the 9% valueadded tax and required registration with Iran’s telecom user database. Now, millions of smuggled phones will make it harder for the ayatollahs to kill texting among protesters. The bazaar may prove stronger than the theocracy.

A theme now emerging in Western media is that if Europe’s leaders support President Trump’s “aggressive” posture toward Tehran, that will undermine both the sanctified Obama nuclear deal and support for “liberals” in the Rouhani government. This is where we came in, watching Winston Churchill convince a timid British establishment that an outward– moving dictatorship won’t stop at anyone’s border.

The moment has arrived to admit that Iran’s missiles, nuclear technology and armies won’t stay inside its borders until the people getting shot in the streets are recognized and supported by a too-timid world.


A Trump Alliance Strategy

Let’s keep our allies.
WSJ 4/20/2017 Henninger

After 59 Tomahawk missiles landed on a Syrian airfield, followed by the dropping of a 21,600-pound bomb on Islamic State’s hideouts in Afghanistan, the world has begun to ask: What is Donald Trump’s foreign policy? And so the search begins by pressing what Mr. Trump has done so far against various foreign-policy templates. Is he a neoconservative, a Scowcroftian realist or a babe in the woods?

We know this is a fool’s errand. There will be no Trump Doctrine anytime soon, and that’s fine. The Obama Doctrine, whatever it was, left his successor a steep climb in the Middle East and Asia. It is difficult to find doctrinal solutions for issues that everyone calls “a mess.” It is possible, though, to see the shape of an emerging strategy.

The place to look for that strategy is inside the minds of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

During his Senate confirmation hearings, Mr. Mattis said something that jumped out at the time. He called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “the most successful military alliance probably in modern history, maybe ever.”

This was in notable contradistinction to the view of his president that NATO was obsolete. Then last week, after meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, President Trump said of the alliance: “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”

Let’s set aside the obligatory sniggering over such a remark and try to see a president moving toward the outlines of a foreign policy that, for a president who likes to keep it simple, may be described with one word: allies.

NATO emerged as a formal alliance after World War II. Less formally, the U.S. struck alliances with other nations to base troops and ships, as in the Persian Gulf.

After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, foreign-policy thinkers began to debate the proper role of the U.S. as the world’s only superpower. Liberals argued that maintaining the U.S. at the apex of this alliance system was, well, obsolete. Instead the U.S. should act more like a co-equal partner with our allies, including international institutions such as the United Nations.

The idea of a flatter alliance structure, or leading from behind, came to life with the Obama presidency. It doesn’t work.

If indeed Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster are the architects of an emerging Trump foreign policy, their most formative experiences, in Iraq, may shape that policy.

After the Iraq War began in 2003, the U.S. tried to defeat the enemy essentially with brute force. Serving in different areas of Iraq—Gen. Mattis in Anbar province and then-Col. McMaster in the city of Tal Afar—the two men realized that force alone wasn’t winning. Instead, they sought, successfully, to gain buy-in from the local populations and tribal leaders. In return for that buy-in, U.S. forces provided security to their new allies.

The difficult and ultimately tragic question was, what happens after the U.S. leaves? In strategic terms: How does the U.S. stabilize a volatile world without becoming a permanent occupying force?

Last month, Gen. McMaster brought onto the NSA staff Nadia Schadlow, who has thought a lot about that question. Her assignment is to develop the National Security Strategy Report. The title of her just-released book, “War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success Into Political Victory,” summarizes its core idea: Unlike its pullout from Iraq, the U.S. has to remain involved— engaged—in the turbulent political space that always exists between conflict and peace, a space filled with competition for influence and power. What Gens. Mattis and McMaster learned in the wake of Iraq is that if you make allies, you should keep them.

Thus, Vice President Mike Pence stood at the DMZ across from North Korea reconfirming the U.S.’s alliance with South Korea. A day later, he did the same in Japan.

Mr. Trump met in recent weeks with King Abdullah of Jordan, President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi of Egypt and, most importantly, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Salman. This week, Mr. Trump called to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his referendum “victory.”

These are the Middle East’s “tribal leaders,” or allies, whose buy-in will be necessary if the U.S. is to consolidate gains from the military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan— possibly with the partition of Syria into three tribal sectors.

Russia has separated itself by choosing instead an alliance with Iran to create a Russo-Iranian Shiite crescent extending across the Middle East to the Mediterranean.

The Mattis-McMaster foreign policy taking shape looks like a flexible strategy born of military experience in fast, fluid circumstances—our world. It is based on both formal and mobile alliances with partners willing to use diplomatic, financial, political and, if necessary, military pressure to establish stable outcomes. The word “abandon” doesn’t fit here.

Some might say that sounds like the U.S. leading alongside. With one big difference: The U.S. is in fact leading.


Mattis and McMaster learned in Iraq that if you make allies, you should keep them.